From the narrow back alley, only a small rectangle of the clear blue sky of winter was visible.
A short boy was sprawled out in a collection area piled high with garbage bags.
He only appeared to be about twelve. He had shoulder-length semi-long brown hair, a black hooded jacket, shorts, and boots. His socks and the innerwear visible within his jacket created a stark contrast. They left a strong impression with their bright sky-blue color and the lines drawn on with a highlighter.
His face could be described as childlike, so the bright swelling around his eyes and the blue bruises on his cheeks were all the more painful to see.
He let out a slow breath.
The boy recalled the conversation he had had not long before.
“You really shouldn’t get anywhere near there. It’s too reckless, even if you claim you need to rescue some missing friend called Frenda.”
He was certain his aching head was due to more than just being punched.
Those words had torn into his heart.
“I’m not trying to act tough and look down on you here. I really am trying to help because I feel sorry for you. You can tell the difference, can’t you?”
It had been a stereotypical city delinquent.
And not merely someone disguised as one; it truly had been one.
“I don’t know much about this city’s dark side and I’m not soaked in it either. That means I’m still on the honest side of the city. You can call it a gray zone, but I still just barely fit in that honest category. …But there are times when it’s more convenient to use people like that. Like now, for example.”
If someone from the underside of the city directly silenced someone, it would reveal that the underside was involved.
That was why that role fell to the “honest” people.
Of course, they made sure it was impossible to trace the job back to the dark side. Countless middlemen were used and the payment was made through some complex method.
“Listen, wherever the money gathers so does the dark side. They aren’t all your target, but a lot of them will grow to hate you even if all you do is try to search them out. That’s just how it works. You simply don’t have anywhere near enough power. Not only will you not even get close to your actual target, you’ll make five to ten times as many enemies in the process. …At this rate, you’ll get yourself killed. And I’m not saying that lightly like when a delinquent like me threatens to kill someone. I truly mean that you will end up dead. Do you get the difference?”
The boy sat up on the pile of trash.
He had been turned away at the gate. Ads played on TV for that massive complex, so anyone should have been able to freely enter and exit it. However, anyone entering with malicious intent would be searched out before they set foot on the premises and the interception team would head out.
Was there something there that required going that far?
Was there something hidden there that they could not let anyone see?
The boy wanted to know what had happened to his friend who had vanished into the dark side.
And he would make sure to rescue her, no matter how deep into the darkness he had to venture.
There was a secret worth crushing those desires. No, that required crushing them.
“But I’m sure you’ve heard about this.”
The delinquent had given a heavy sigh while speaking to the boy.
“If your level of rarity isn’t enough, then there’s a way of disguising yourself as some well-known person. For example, Academy City’s #6, Aihana Etsu. No one knows that Level 5’s age or sex. …Which means anyone disguise dress up as them and no one can tell the real from the fake, right? No one knows what the original’s like in the first place.”
The boy could not slip past security.
He could not access the data.
What if he was not himself? For example, an airport worker could slip past the gate without having his baggage checked and a police officer would not be stopped at a checkpoint. For the president, the White House was literally his home and an astronaut could take a nap in a space station no one else could hope to reach.
What if he did the same?
He had nothing and was turned away at the gate, but what if someone else would not be?
What if he had the title of Level 5, the greatest rarity of Academy City’s students?
“You want to know why the person stopping you would tell you that?”
The delinquent had given a shrug that did not suit him at all.
“Because your story is just too sad. Stopping you here is the right thing to do, but it’s human nature to want to tell you at least one little trick.”
The short boy rubbed his red cheek with the back of his hand.
He sucked in the chilly air and let out a warm breath.
He quietly gathered his resolve while sitting on the pile of trash.
He would do it.
It did not matter how he did it, but he would become Aihana Etsu, Academy City’s #6 Level 5.
Morning came early to Kamijou Touma’s dorm room of District 7.
After all, the pointy-haired boy was in high school and yet raised a pet cat and a girl. That prevented him from just throwing some food in the microwave or eating out because that was too much work. He had to cook for himself. Flavor could take the back seat because quantity was what mattered. He painstakingly worried over improving his cost performance and found himself saying things such as “Huh? Wouldn’t ramen work better if I dared to stretch out the noodles? Yes, I do dare! N-now I just have to figure out the bare minimum before the flavor reaches lethal levels!” or “The core of a cabbage? You can eat that! You just have to slice it up in a juicer, throw in some milk, honey, and apple peels, and then hit the switch again!” He was always struggling to improve in what seemed more like a practical joke than cooking.
However, this morning began far too soon.
Index was asleep on the bed and Kamijou Touma was sleeping inside the locked bathroom’s bathtub, looking like he was pretending to have entered cold sleep.
So the one who was up so early was the newcomer.
She was a fifteen centimeter Magic God.
The pale girl with long, wavy blond hair and an eye covered by an eyepatch was Othinus.
She was running as quickly as possible across the wooden floor as a hell beast approached from behind. The fluffy mewing creature was apparently a Japanese calico cat, but at Othinus’s size, it was no different from a relative of Cerberus or Orthrus.
Ever since Othinus had arrived, the cat seemed to have viewed her as emergency food or a cat toy, so she had already stopped counting how often she had been attacked.
He growled and dropped his front right paw, so she dodged and then rolled out of the way of the stomp from the approaching left paw. Othinus was making her way to the bathroom.
Unfortunately, her fifteen centimeter height prevented her from reaching the doorknob which was almost a meter high.
Fortunately, that was not her target.
As if making a head slide in baseball, she stretched her arms forward in a crawling pose and threw herself toward the floor. The bathroom door had a two or three centimeter gap at the bottom and she slipped below it to slide inside.
At the same time, she heard a bang on the door behind her.
The cat had pounced but lost sight of its target and slammed head-first into the door.
The girl gasped for breath but finally stood up. She heard surprisingly pitiful meowing from behind the door, so she held her hands together, stomped her feet in annoyance, glanced toward the door, and finally crouched down to check through the gap at the bottom.
At that exact moment, a paw guillotine dropped down from above.
“Tch! I knew I shouldn’t have worried about you!!”
She frantically pulled her head back in and wholeheartedly cursed the animal.
“Nnnnn… Othinus, what’s with this hell of panties? You’re getting lazy with these new worlds now, aren’t you? Zzz…”
The sound of grinding teeth and a ridiculous comment came from the bathtub. They relaxed the thread of tension and symbolized the absolute safety of this place.
Now that she had escaped to the bathroom, she would be safe. A mere cat could not hope to open a cultural convenience like a door. Triumph filled Othinus, but she froze when she heard a clattering from the door.
(It can’t be… It can’t be! Did he jump up to the doorknob and hang down by his front legs!?)
Unpleasant sweat poured from Othinus, but then she calmed. This was no mere door. It was the bathroom door. That meant it was locked from the inside. A cat was nothing but a cat, so he could not understand the concept of a lock. No matter how much he rattled the knob, it would never open.
(Your efforts are wasted! Ah hah hah!!)
Or so it should have been.
(Wait… That door is locked, isn’t it?)
Doubt gradually filled her head and fear soon followed.
She looked far up above.
A metal knob was placed over the cylindrical lock. It was oriented horizontally, but what did that mean? It could be horizontal or vertical, but which meant locked and which meant unlocked? She never opened the door when entering the bathroom, so she had no way of knowing.
(It’s locked, isn’t it!? If that kid was so sleepy he forgot to lock it, he’s in trouble!! Specifically, I’ll attack his Achilles tendon!!)
The door knob began to rattle so violently it felt like a murderer was breaking in.
Othinus stared up at the door while taking a few steps backwards. She knew prayer would not be enough, so she frantically turned toward the bathtub. A life-sized boy was contained inside, so she could escape this hell beast with his protection. However, she could not reach him. She was only fifteen centimeters tall, so the sixty to seventy centimeter bathtub was no different from a sheer cliff. And the smooth plastic material left no handholds for climbing.
Shouting was her only choice.
“Heeeeey!! Wake up!! Wake up!! A god’s life is literally on the line here, so can’t you be a little flexible!?”
“Mumble, mumble… Yes, Miss Dorm Manager…”
“You’re immersed in the worst kind of dream, aren’t you!? If I die, I’ll make sure to curse you!!”
Her shouts did not reach him.
He did not hear her pleas.
And behind her, she heard a very, very quiet and yet definite sound.
It was a creak.
“Hm? Othinus? You don’t usually get up this early. Is everyone in this dorm room too hungry to wait for breakfast? Yawn…”
He received no response.
The god was held in the pet cat’s mouth like a stolen fish and taken quietly away.
“This treatment isn’t right,” complained Othinus on the breakfast table.
Instead of sitting at the table, she literally sat on the table. Her small breakfast was placed on the upside-down cap to a plastic bottle.
“Now, I am aware my life here is meant as a special type of punishment. I am aware of that, but surely there has to be more than this!! Even in prison, people have a place to exercise and can receive items from visitors. At the very least, I think you should do something about managing that monster!”
Steam blew from Othinus’s head, but Index’s sleepy eyes suggested she was not paying much attention.
Cats had a habit of presenting captured bugs or mice to their owners, so the nun had yet again had an unwanted gift pressed against her face that morning.
Kamijou covered light brown toast with margarine and passed it to Index.
“You say that, but he’s just a playful kitten. Is it really worth getting that upset? You just have to put up with it until he wears himself out.”
“Multiply the size by four! For you, this would be like a three meter, two hundred kilogram Siberian tiger leaping at you! You are keeping that in mind when you speak, aren’t you!?”
Angry, Othinus started on the stir-fried vegetables in the plastic cap. She grabbed a toothpick with both hands, stabbed into the diced pieces of vegetable, and crammed them into her mouth.
“Then what am I supposed to do?” asked an exasperated Kamijou.
“Ensure my safety. Make sure I never, ever have to live in fear of that wild beast again!”
“How exactly do I do that?”
“I want you to make me a place to hide. A place just for me that the cat can’t break into.”
“But I already made you one out of cardboard yesterday.”
“That was torn to pieces in only five minutes! Not even the Three Little Pigs made a house out of paper, you fool!!”
“Hmm. But what else is there? Index, where’d those blocks go? Y’know, the colorful plastic ones you made that dinosaur out of.”
“They’re broken apart in a box in the closet.”
“You two have no intention of making me a house that won’t be destroyed, do you?”
At that point, the cheerful voice of a female announcer came from the TV they had left on.
“Today marks the beginning of December, which is when the Christmas sales war begins! This year’s theme is mini-luxury, so toys custom-made by artisans are gathering a lot of attention. These hand-made music boxes, dolls, and dollhouses all have classic and artistic value.”
“The most popular of them all is this dollhouse from a famous designer! Just look! Each of these pieces is the size of a caramel, but they are real bricks baked in a furnace and mortared together! Only a designer skilled in everything from art restoration to construction could have made this!”
“That’s it,” muttered Othinus. “The answer is right there!”
“Fine, fine. Later, I’ll make you something like that out of empty snack boxes and tape.”
“The answer is right in front of you, so stop trying to avoid it, you fool!! I’m telling you to buy me exactly that on the screen there!!”
“Eh? That thing...?”
Kamijou had a simple reason to be concerned.
The cheerful voice filled with Christmas spirit on the TV continued speaking.
“The dollhouse we introduced just now is available in the Dianoid complex of District 15, Academy City’s #1 shopping district! If you are interested, please stop by!!”
District 15 was the largest and greatest fashion location.
Not only that, but the Dianoid was a landmark for the rich and famous that contained an entire major TV station and housed entertainers on its apartment floors.
As its name suggested, every wall, pillar, window, door, light fixture, and piece of furniture inside the seventy-story building was supposedly made of diamond.
And on top of all that, the Christmas season would fill it with couples.
Altogether, it brought a weary thought to Kamijou Touma’s mind: If I set foot in there, I’ll die. My bad mood would kill me.
The scenery had changed like a switch had been thrown. Strings of LEDs were wrapped around the roadside trees, stuffed reindeer travelled here and there, and the ladies handing out tissues had transformed into miniskirt Santa Clauses.
Misaka Mikoto let out a white sigh as she walked through all that.
She wore a coat over her winter uniform, but the outfit did not look brand new since she had already taken trips to the freezing lands of Russia and Denmark.
(Things are still pretty quiet around here, but what are they like in the shopping districts?)
Not long before, the world had been reaching the boiling point over whether they should wage an all-out war against an international armed group (?) named Gremlin, but everyone was cheerful now that the danger had passed. It was possible the rebound from that fear would make the Christmas celebrations especially lively this year.
But at any rate…
(Christmas, huh? Not that it means anything to me.)
Mikoto attended Tokiwadai Middle School which was known for being a high-class girls’ school even in the field of powers development. It was not a mission school that would have a packed schedule on Christmas day, but they would certainly be banned from leaving in the name of forbidding any inappropriate relationships with the opposite sex. Just like the year before, the students would be locked up in their dorm with no choice but to wait for the storm to pass.
(I could probably get out with some help from Kuroko’s teleportation, but then she would be the greatest barrier standing in my way.)
As she made her preliminary plans, she suddenly frowned.
What exactly did she have set as her ultimate goal?
Why was she assuming Kuroko would get in her way?
There should not be an issue if she disobeyed the school rules, left the dorm, and met up with Kuroko, Uiharu, and Saten for some girl talk.
(Wait, wait, wait! Wait just a second here. I have a bad feeling about continuing on this line of thought, so stop. Just stop. Why am I picturing that idiot in my head!?)
She rubbed her temples with her fingertips like a weary office worker, but…
“Oh? If it isn’t Misaka-san.”
Mikoto froze in place, turned toward the source of the voice, and found a college-aged miniskirt Santa in glasses and with her black hair tied back. She was clearly being controlled, so Mikoto shook her head and quickly walked away.
“Misaka-san? Misaka-saaaan? Can you hear me?”
“I don’t need any tissues and I don’t want my palm read. I don’t need anything and you look like a fraud.”
“Oh, dear. Is your old lady ability so strong that you’re getting hard of hearing? I suppose you do have the aura of someone who’s been in middle school for about a decade.”
“What!? I could say the exact same thing about you and your suspicious breasts!!”
Only after shouting back did Mikoto realize she had fallen for the girl’s trap.
The miniskirt Santa brought her index finger to her chin and spoke.
“I really didn’t want to make this decision, but I’m here to discuss something with you.”
“Christmas is coming, right?”
Despite knowing she was playing right into the other girl’s hands, Mikoto stopped moving.
“I’m the #5 and you’re the #3, but neither of us can do anything when Tokiwadai bans us from leaving. To be blunt, the teachers’ defensive ability is too much.”
“Yeah, the dorm supervisors’ defense routine was even directly adopted by the maximum security juvenile hall. Fighting it is hopeless.”
With Level 3s at the bottom and two Level 5s at the top, Tokiwadai contained a total of around 180 espers, so the dorm supervisors needed the ability to manage them all. And those adults had to do so with technology and martial arts instead of esper powers. It made Mikoto shudder to calculate out how much of a monster her dorm supervisor had to be.
“But,” said the person controlling the miniskirt Santa. “I think we lost last year because the Level 5 ability was separated. The two of us are in different dorms, but that was probably intentionally set up by the adults.”
“So I think we could break through those solid defenses if we plan things out ahead of time and cover for each other’s weakness. The forecast says we’ll have a white Christmas this year, so wouldn’t it be too boring to spend a second year in a row stuck in our rooms?”
She had a point.
Whether it was direct or long-range support, their freedom of movement would increase dramatically with two Level 5s working together. It might give them the chance they needed to clear the walls of the impregnable high-class Alcatraz that were the Tokiwadai girls dorms.
“Why do you want to enjoy Christmas so much? You mentioned it pretty casually, but it sounded like you tried this last year and failed.”
“Ehhh? What does that matter? And since you brought it up, what is it that’s tilting the scales in your mind?”
“Bfh!! I-I wasn’t thinking about anything!!”
“Yeah, well I feel like working with you would be about the same as rescuing someone from a cell only to find out they’re some violent criminal.”
At any rate, no matter how much they disliked it, they had a common goal and joining forces for the time being seemed like a good idea.
And after thinking it through that far, both girls had the exact same thought at the exact same time.
(Yes, but I’d better betray her at the very, very end.)
With that, they poured all their strength into smiling and shook hands.
At the same time, something else happened.
A boy with spiky hair poked his head around the corner of the road.
Mikoto and the miniskirt Santa immediately let go of the other’s hand. Mikoto focused on the boy like normal, but for some reason, the Santa gently looked away and tried to vanish into their surroundings.
Mikoto was curious about that, but she faced Kamijou instead. There was no real reason to call out to him, but it bothered her how his shoulders drooped in contrast to the cheerful lighting. She knew he had an annoying habit of meddling in other people’s business while keeping his own problems entirely to himself.
“What’s the matter?”
“What!? Why do you look on the verge of tears!?”
What had happened?
When he had confronted Academy City’s #1 on his own, when he had not taken Mikoto’s hand despite knowing that would mean a fall from Russia’s skies, and when he had been surrounded by countless Five Overs and lost to the #3, he had not shown any tears, so the situation would have to be truly dire for him to be on the verge of giving up.
It was possible the moon would fall before Christmas arrived.
Mikoto gulped and hesitantly asked again.
“Wh-what has you feeling so cornered? Don’t worry. Your big sis Mikoto will help you. There’s got to be some way out of whatever it is.”
“You’ll listen, Misaka-san? You’ll really listen to what I have to say!?”
She had a feeling listening to him would send her straight into some kind of combat space in an alternate dimension, but she could not just ignore this.
She gave a small nod to urge him on and sorrow filled his face.
His tone of voice made it sound like the world had been destroyed once and he had gone back in time to try and fix it this time.
“I have to take two girls to the Dianoid, that fashionable date spot that stands at the top of District 15 which is already Academy City’s #1 shopping district. I could not be dreading this more than I am.”
Silence fell for a while.
Once Misaka Mikoto’s entirely blank mind recovered, she let out the very first word that came to her mind.
“Eek!? I know I’ll be completely out of place here, but I have no choice. I have to go there! District 15 is no place for me and the Christmas season only makes it worse. In all seriousness, I’ll be crushed!! The entire world is going to crush me from all sides!!!!”
“What is this? Are you the kind of person who says he’s afraid of steamed buns?”
“That’s not it! I really am scared!! The people in District 15 are from an entirely different world! I bet they all play guitars and ride motorcycles around! What even is a club and what do people do there!? I doubt I could understand a word they’re saying even though they’re speaking Japanese!!”
Kamijou trembled and, presumably due to the route he took to school, began walking down a different road from Mikoto.
At some point, the miniskirt Santa with a blank expression appeared next to her.
“Yes, I know more or less what you want to say.”
They both reached out their hands and exchanged a handshake with far more strength than necessary.
If their goal was Christmas Eve, they had twenty-three days until their escape from Alcatraz. Just like digging a tunnel with a spoon or pouring miso soup on the metal bars each day to induce rust, a long, long battle had begun.
Hamazura Shiage was in Academy City’s District 2.
That district was dyed in the colors of heavy industry, especially in vehicles and ammunition. The district’s borders were famous for the special soundproofing barrier created by emitting reverse phase sound waves and, due to its field of research, it was commonly talked about in relation to weapons development.
However, Hamazura was not involved in any of that.
He was on a racing circuit. As was common in District 2, it was packed in tight like the eighteen holes of a golf course.
No one was going to complain about the great din of the engine. Traffic laws did not apply on private roads, so a student could drive around without police motorcycles beginning pursuit.
A middle-aged man’s voice came from the radio built into the full-face helmet.
“The parameters have stabilized. I’d like for you to make another two laps so we can get some averages. Keep up your current pace.”
“Is it just me or has the fuel efficiency dropped? The sound gets all warped every once in a while!”
“It’s supposed to work that way. We aren’t building a sports racing machine. It’s meant to be used in dirty car chases. Recovery speed matters more than top speed.”
A smooth and solid black suit covered Hamazura’s entire body. What he rode was clearly no normal motorcycle since it had a jet engine installed.
It had no set name.
It was the successor of the prototype originally known as the Dragon Rider, but it was intentionally having its specs lowered to bring the cost down enough for mass production. Of course, if that affected its stability, it would all be for naught.
There was a simple reason for him to be riding that unannounced prototype.
“You’re the best at getting on its good side. It may have been unofficial, but you’re the only test driver who’s used the Dragon Rider in battle.”
“That was almost entirely thanks to the suit.”
“Even so. Aneri perceives the outside world through you. Just like with a word processor’s IME, it’s fastest to have the original user do it.”
Hamazura put the machine through all the requested work by travelling at just above the sound barrier and sliding around the curves more than turning.
Doing that for even two or three minutes meant a lot at those speeds.
It was a dense time that was more than enough to end someone’s life.
“Thanks for the hard work.”
After finishing the set number of laps, crossing the goal line, and slowly coming to a stop, a female voice reached him.
If he was remembering correctly, her name was Stephanie Gorgeouspalace. She had short blonde hair and wore white and gray snow camouflage in an extremely casual manner. She was apparently a former Anti-Skill member, but she was full of mysteries, including how she had ended up here in District 2.
Hamazura removed the full-face helmet with both hands and got down from the large motorcycle. He did not put down a kickstand, but the bike did not fall over. It automatically kept its balance using the two gyros on either side of the front wheel.
“I think that went well. The first week is enough to know whether someone will make a good test pilot and I’d say you’ve passed as far as that’s concerned.”
“I mentioned this before, but isn’t this just leaving everything to the suit? I think you would get the same results with anyone.”
“Ah ha ha. You don’t want some great fighter or veteran warrior as your test driver. Are you letting robot anime influence you too much? What you want are communication skills and the ability to adlib in case of unexpected trouble. More specifically, you want someone who can objectively explain anything that seems off to them. In other words, a talkative person who says whatever comes to mind is best.”
Hamazura nodded despite not really understanding.
He had a simple reason for doing this.
Mugino Shizuri, Kinuhata Saiai, and Takitsubo Rikou still belonged to Item, but he did not want them doing any jobs for the dark side. But could he provide a raison d'être…or rather, a foundation of income in their place? And could he do it without stealing cars or robbing ATMs?
He was not very smart, he was hopelessly stuck at Level 0, he had no “weapons” he could put down on a resume, and even his abilities with cars and lock picking were useless in the adult world without the proper “credentials”.
He had searched for something he could do despite all that and he had ended up here in District 2.
“Oh, right. Your phone has been vibrating for a while now, so if you take a break, you should probably check your email.”
“Thanks. I’ll do that as soon as I submit the report to-…”
He trailed off because he heard the quiet rumbling of an engine and then felt a heavy impact on his hip. He looked down and found the nameless prototype pressing up against his side.
The action was a lot like a cat throwing itself against the newspaper to keep its owner from reading it.
Stephanie burst out laughing.
“Ah ha ha. Aneri’s jealous.”
“It’s just driver assistance software, isn’t it? I doubt it can analyze things like that.”
Suddenly, Stephanie’s phone began to ring. She pressed the mobile to her ear, exchanged a few words, and glanced toward Hamazura.
(Hm? What was that for?)
“Yes, yes. Understood. Don’t worry, don’t worry. I can manage with just one truck. You don’t need a license to use a Power Lifter, so it’ll all work out as long as I grab someone who has nothing else to do. See ya.”
She hung up and announced the decision she had already made.
“Hamazura, are you interested in seeing District 15 during the Christmas season?”
“The big TV station inside the Dianoid has requested we carry something in for them. It has to go from District 2 to District 15, but to move the air freight container inside, you have to use the stairs or the elevator which rules out a forklift. We’ll have to use two Power Lifters instead.”
“Wait, wait. Power Lifters? I have no idea what one of those looks like, much less how to use it.”
“Don’t worry. It’s mostly just a unit you wear on the back with two huge steel arms attached. Add it to your body and it’s like having four arms.”
“Oh, okay. Well, if it’s as easy as using stilts…”
“You have until this evening. If you learn how to use it now, you won’t have to worry about tripping on top of someone and killing them.”
“That’s plenty to worry about!! You mean this could kill someone!?”
Even when lunchtime rolled around, Kamijou Touma was still in a gloomy mood.
Currently, he, Aogami Pierce, and Tsuchimikado Motoharu were surrounding a single desk and engaged in a three-way death match. However, they were not grappling with each other. Instead, they had made small paper fans from loose leaf paper and were attempting to throw them at a target sitting on the teacher’s desk.
One might wonder why this refined game had gained popularity here, but it had started with a comment from their history teacher. It had gone something like this:
“Fan throwing was enjoyed from the end of the Edo period to the Meiji period, but in modern times it’s only found at traditional restaurants in Gion or Akasaka.” (Teacher)
“What!? You mean it’s a geisha game!? I want to play it! I so want to play it! I want to play with a geisha! Or at least feel like I am!!” (Idiots)
“Nyah. When you first mentioned it before homeroom this morning, I thought you were crazy and wanted to pick you up and chuck you out the window, but now that I’ve had time to think about it, sneaking into District 15’s Dianoid would be scary as hell. Those fashionable areas caught up in Christmas sales wars are super scary! Even if nothing happens, it feels like some kind of field effect is wearing down your health!!”
“I just let it slide since it was Kamijou Touma’s doing, but what happened this morning seems worth ending up in the newspaper to me.”
They had already eaten their lunch, so they were now competing over who had to throw out the stinky classroom trash.
However, leaving the loose leaf paper fans lying around would make Komoe sad, so they would need to clean that up too. That’s why they would have to copy down their math and physics notes on crinkled paper.
“If you want to see miniskirt Santas, the glitzy District 15 really isn’t your best bet. District 12 with its theology and economics or District 14 and all of its foreign students are the places to go for that. But if you prefer slutty part-timer girls, I won’t stop you, Kami-yan! Just as Japan is the land of countless gods, it’s also the land of countless fetishes!!”
“You’re going to piss off some important religious person like that, Aogami. Anyway, I hear the entire Dianoid building is made of diamond. Are they messing with us or something?”
“Your information’s gotten twisted after an unintentional game of telephone there, nyah. It’s technically made of carbon materials like carbon fiber, carbon frames, and carbon nanotubes which have some artificial diamond inside, nyah. If it was all diamond, it would actually be really brittle and it’d break apart after a good gust of wind or an earthquake. And diamond burns when you set it on fire, nyah.”
“Eh? Eh? Why aren’t you two saying anything, nyah?”
“You keep saying how scared you are of the place, but you sure know a lot about it,” said Kamijou.
“Do you think he’s the type who tries to have his cake and eat it too by constantly calling himself an otaku but secretly being popular? I won’t allow it. I’ll never allow iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiitttttttttttttt!!”
Aogami Pierce stepped outside of tolerant society, threw a loose leaf paper fan like a shuriken, and just barely grazed the edge of the target (Tsuchimikado’s pencil case) on the teacher’s desk.
Actual fan throwing apparently had over fifty standards by which to judge a throw, but since these idiots had trouble enough even hitting the target, they simplified it as much as an old-folks cellphone and said whoever hit it first would win.
Tsuchimikado then made use of the kind of strength one gains in a crisis.
“What!? When have I ever claimed to be a full-blown otaku!? I’m a perfectly normal person who just so happens to love his step sister, nyah!!”
“Heh. I’m relieved, Tsuchimikado. From the moment you claim having a thing for your step sister is normal, you’ve proven yourself a proper Japanese otaku who can go anywhere without feeling shame. I’m relieved that you’ll never escape that label.”
“You son of a bitch. Are you insulting the world’s little sisters?”
“I never put one fetish over another. Even if she has the lower half of a snake or a spider, I say you gladly accept. What’s that? You were expecting a girl with cat ears but got a full realistic cat head? So what!?”
Kamijou Touma had been left out of the conversation for a while, but he was avoiding scattering fans like a submachine gun and instead carefully taking aim like a sniper.
And like an assassin hidden in the bushes, he stabbed his friends in the back.
“Y’know, you’ve dyed your hair blond and wear sunglasses in class while you’ve dyed your hair blue and pierced your ears. It looks to me like you two want to be popular more than anyone else.”
“D-don’t be ridiculous, Kami-yan. Can you stop changing the Akashic records!?”
“You keep calling yourself an otaku, but it feels like you’re trying to place yourself higher than others by thinking of yourself as better than those other otaku around you.”
“Wh-where’d this come from? What did we ever do to you, Kami-yan!? It’s not like you were wanted alive or dead and the entire class chased you around trying to kill you, so nothing calls for that kind of cruelty!!”
With his competitive spirit worked up, Demon King Kamijou Touma raised his right hand.
He held the fan up gently as if placing it on a current of air and he made a declaration.
“Whether as a wife or whatever else, it’s gotta be a lovely dorm managerrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!!”
The loose leaf paper fan flew like a knife, but unfortunately…
The pencil case fell over before the fan reached it.
It seemed to have lost to Kamijou’s lung capacity.
And the three idiots toppled over as well.
After school, Kamijou Touma returned to his dorm and then left again with Index and Othinus.
Their destination was District 15 and the giant Dianoid complex that was its primary landmark.
“Wow, it really is December. It’s only 5:30, but it’s already dark out.”
Kamijou was wearing his normal school uniform because he had decided any attempt at fashionable clothing would be trounced by the real deal.
Index was wearing her usual white nun’s habit and he did not really want anyone to see Othinus in the first place.
When they had left, Othinus had been in his coat pocket, but she had climbed out at some point. She was now sitting on his shoulder and inside the scarf around his neck.
“You can’t see any stars in the sky from here. Is this a part of science’s insistence on sterilizing everything?”
“Touma. I hear a flute over there. Is that the charumera I’ve heard so much about!?”
“Stop it, Index. If we take a detour here, I’ll definitely lose my nerve to visit the Dianoid! And if we eat ramen at a roadside stand, I can only imagine Othinus will end up falling right into the bowl when I lean over!!”
They used the subway to reach District 15. As always, Index had trouble with the automatic gate not opening even when she put in her ticket and Othinus’s small body was just about swallowed up by the machine along with her ticket, but they somehow managed to overcome their hardships.
The train’s hanging advertisements and flat-screen monitors were filled with the Christmas spirit.
They were on a direct line to the Dianoid, so there were a lot of advertisements for it.
“The diamond tower that towers above District 15 as a landmark. The Dianoid is filled with ultra high-class brand-name shops that have all passed our unique selection criteria, so you can find anything here. Whether you want time, space, freedom, or relaxation, you can find what your life is lacking.”
“This is a notification of public live broadcasts. TV Orbit’s Dianoid broadcast office is seeking audiences for its programs. The December programs are as follows: 12/1 – Hysterical Prize Quiz. 12/8 – Quiz Video King Finals. 12/13 – Craftsmen of the World. 12/19 – Afternoon Siesta. 12/24 – Music Stream Awards. 12/25 – Illumination Top Hundred. 12/30 – Christmas Backstage Secrets. 12/31 – Enter the New Year Roaring with Laughter.”
“The fifth public lot selection for the top floor’s apartment area begins soon. These nine room apartments have become known as hideouts for celebrities, so why not nab yourself a luxurious status symbol and join the elites?”
Each consecutive advertisement filled Kamijou further and further with despair.
He began wondering if this was a completely different world that was no place for someone who tried to make sure the ramen would last as long as possible to help with the food bill.
Meanwhile, Othinus spoke cheerfully from his scarf.
“It’s all so worldly. Not to mention that they’re presenting it all in a way to make it seem high-class instead of letting it naturally feel that way. What’s even the difference between ‘celebrity’ and ‘luxury’ in this one?”
“I just want to get the shopping done with so we can have more time to eat,” said Index.
“We’re here for my home, you fool. Use your perfect memory to memorize the scene of our meal and think about it later, energy-saving nun.”
Othinus’s hair bristled and she retreated inside the scarf. Once the calico cat attempted to dig her out, Kamijou felt the need to stop it.
Meanwhile, the train arrived at the District 15 station.
Kamijou followed the current of people out onto the platform. A lot of them were around his age, but few of them were the sparkling type who looked like they had stepped out of the TV. It was possible they would soon transform into that in a bathroom or karaoke box, though.
“This is District 15? Hmm, it doesn’t look that different,” said Index.
“That’s because we’re still underground.”
“You said the Dianoid is made of diamond, right!? Touma, can we go there now? The sooner we finish this errand, the longer we can eat!!”
“We’re already there, actually.”
His answer caused both Index and Othinus to tilt their heads.
The cat was the only carefree one as it mewed in the nun’s arms.
“The subway station is built into the Dianoid, so you’re automatically there once the train arrives.”
Index looked up at the ceiling that was not all that tall and not all that pretty.
“T-Touma, where’s the overwhelming feeling of being in a big building?”
That was not his problem.
He had always thought calling people “girly” was a little insulting to girls.
Regardless, he hated how much of a crybaby he was.
But no matter how much he hated it, his knees would start shaking whenever he was shoved a little or driven into the slightest predicament. The tears would start welling up in his eyes and, before he could even think about stopping them, his mind would go blank and he would find himself unable to think at all.
“In the end, it’s all about how you look at it.”
A blonde girl had once told him that while standing by his side.
“I mean, if you look at it the other way, it means you can shed tears for anyone’s tragedy, right? That’s nothing to be embarrassed about. In fact, I think you can be proud of it.”
That girl’s casual words had saved him.
But at the same time, she had spoken them from a sort of distance as if saying it was amazing because she could not do the same thing.
He did not know what kind of world she lived in.
They were together when walking down the streets, but it was like they belonged to two large circles that only overlapped ever so slightly on the edge. There was an extremely thin yet definite gap between them that gave him that impression.
She never mentioned it, so he assumed she did not want to talk about it. She did not reveal the truth, so he assumed she did not want him to know. He had decided to respect her decision. It did not matter what world that blonde girl lived in as long as she would come to visit him.
He was certain there was a place for him in her heart.
It may have been a tiny place driven far out of the spotlight, but that was enough for him.
Until the day she had suddenly vanished, that is.
The boy held his hand up toward the purple sky that was shifting from evening to night.
He held a small card in that hand.
Academy City’s #6 Level 5.
That would be his title from now on.
Student ID cards had dozens of anti-counterfeiting techniques worked in and not even the currency printed outside Academy City could compare, but he had managed to secure the name Aihana Etsu. The photograph, blood type, and a few other pieces of data had been altered, but the rest was identical to the real one.
Then again, the concept of real and fake may not have applied here.
“Aihana Etsu” was a mere student, so he of course did not have the means of producing a card that slipped through those anti-counterfeiting techniques. Even after his very best effort, he could only give it the mere appearance of the real one and any specialized reader would immediately identify it as fake.
However, he had torn the card he made into three pieces.
Currency for example had watermarks and holograms that could not be copied, but if they were torn apart so only those portions were missing, they were indistinguishable from a real one. And if two thirds of a bill were brought to a bank, it could be exchanged for a real one. With only the torn puzzle pieces, the clerk had no way of telling if it was real or fake.
“Aihana Etsu” had done the same thing.
He had intentionally destroyed his incomplete counterfeit card and omitted only the portions he had no way of faking himself. He had gathered the remaining puzzle pieces and boldly sent them to the real Aihana Etsu’s school with a document saying his school ID card had been destroyed and he needed a new one.
Fortunately, that process was automated.
If a live clerk had handled it and spoken to the real Aihana Etsu, the jig would have been up.
(Still, this isn’t going to fool them forever. At most, it’ll last a day or two after the card was sent out. This is my only chance to use the real one’s reputation. I need to make my attack on the Dianoid and find a clue to bringing her back in that time.)
This was based on something the blonde girl named Frenda Seivelun had said.
She apparently had a secret base in a high-class apartment on the upper levels of the Dianoid. She had said it was a truly free space that had no connection to the light or the dark.
She had not necessarily vanished there, but it was the one clue “Aihana Etsu” had. If that was a place where she could reveal her true self, then some information related to her disappearance could remain there. If she had gotten into some trouble in the “darkness” that he was unaware of, then he might be able to get a look into that darkness through the Dianoid.
Whatever he was going to do, that was his first step.
No matter what happened, he would bring Frenda back.
It did not matter how reckless people said he was being.
He clenched his small hands.
Something switched over within him and he shifted his gaze from the purple sky and to the area directly ahead.
Some dangerous people had already slipped into the scenery.
Before he had become “Aihana Etsu”, people much like these had dragged the boy into a back alley, given him more than ten “warning” blows, and then thrown him onto a pile of trash. He did not know who they had been hired by or why, but he knew they would wield violence against him.
His heart leaped into his throat.
Sweat poured down his face.
He squeezed a hand against his chest and tried to control himself.
The timing was the same as the other day. They were not the exact same people, but that may have been to not rouse suspicions when the same person was sent out again and again.
Whatever the case, he could not fool anyone if he did not fool the very first person.
If that happened, he would not be able to continue on.
He stared ahead.
He used all of his strength to restrain his true weak self that threatened to appear on his face. There were more than ten of them. They pretended to be unrelated passersby, but they were undoubtedly cruel people working together.
In that case, aiming for the weakest one would have the opposite effect.
To mentally overpower them all, he had to start with the strongest one.
He slowly walked toward a large man in a thick leather jacket who had barbed wire wrapped around his sleeves.
“Aihana Etsu” finally began his fight.
“Are you the one I was promised?”
“I’m Aihana Etsu. I take it you’re the commendable professional punching bag who’s willing to be my guinea pig for money?”
“Aihana Etsu” thrust forward the ID card and the guy stopped moving briefly.
He was understandably skeptical.
No one would be stupid enough to take “Aihana Etsu” at his word.
But that just meant the boy needed to change the direction of that doubt.
“Oh, c’mon. Don’t tell me you thought you were going to get ten thousand yen just for letting some neighborhood kid hit you. If so, you’re in for a rude awakening. Someone must have lied to you. Then again, you’ve already received the money for becoming a Level 5’s guinea pig and recovering in the hospital, so I don’t want to hear any complaints.”
His mind very nearly went black.
It would have had it not been for his opponent’s next comment.
“You’ve gotta be kidding me! Aihana Etsu!? So that’s why this seemed like such a good deal!!”
It never developed into an actual conversation.
That mass of muscles had seemed like an unpassable wall, but he turned right around as if the wind had blown him. He ran off as quickly as he could. He even ran into a group of illegally parked bicycles and tripped quite spectacularly. When the others saw their mental pillar gasping for breath and crawling away, the confusion and panic spread to them.
“Aihana Etsu” held the card between his right hand’s index and middle fingers and thrust it forward like a knife.
That was enough for the men gathered around a distant wind turbine to fall onto their butts. It was not that they were especially cowardly. He slowly moved the card from one target to the other, which was enough to send those grinning pawns to the ground where they backed away.
The next thing he knew, they were all gone.
He had eliminated the barrier.
His blanking mind, racing heart and trembling knees had all stopped.
“Aihana Etsu” had become Aihana Etsu.
Laughter escaped his lips.
With only a single card as a weapon, Aihana Etsu doubled over.
“Ah ha ha! Ah ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!!”
He used his index finger to wipe away the tears in his eyes and he thought as his cheeks flushed.
(To hell with Academy City. To hell with Level 5. To hell with the hierarchy! To hell with the pyramid structure!! I overcame it all. I’ve made it through the first gate! Now… Now no one can stop me. I’ll have you show me where you’ve hidden that girl!!)
He walked toward the Dianoid.
He walked toward that carbon labyrinth that contained the hint he needed to rescue his missing friend, Frenda Seivelun, from the deep, deep darkness.
“I’m Aihana Etsu.”
Half for practice and half to put himself in the role, he whispered that as he walked down the empty path.
“I’m Aihana Etsu.”
He was certain he would be saying that more often from now on. When he needed to rely on that, he would be under a great pressure that would threaten to peel back the disguise.
“I’m Aihana Etsu.”
Suddenly, a dumb-looking girl appeared around a corner.
She must not have expected him to be there because she stared at him in surprise.
They were within a meter of each other, so they could have easily collided had they been careless.
And they both spoke in unison.
“I’m Aihana Etsu!!”
“I’m Aihana Etsu!!”
Aihana Etsu was shocked.
As if aiming handguns or knives, their arms crossed each other and held out student ID cards that were identical save for the photo.
He doubted this girl was the real one and she most likely doubted he was.
Their minds were synchronized.
Their hearts skipped a beat and they both squeezed a hand against their chest.
(Oh, no. She’s the same as me!!!)
(Oh, no. He’s the same as me!!!)
The next thing they knew, the two Aihana Etsus had scattered in different directions.
Both identity thieves complained in their hearts that the distant Level 5 needed to guard his or her identity better.
The city was decorated with lights and the roads were filled with wine red or mustard yellow sports cars, but on that night, a large truck raced through District 15.
Stephanie Gorgeouspalace was driving and Hamazura Shiage sat in the passenger seat.
“Wow. Now that’s amazing.”
“You mean the Dianoid?”
“There is that, but also this truck! Isn’t this one of those decorated trucks you’d see on Truck Yarou or something!? And the sides are covered in a huge picture of some singer! It completely ruins the mood!! Do you have something against District 15!?”
“Heh heh heh. Well, I am the representative of single women everywhere. Ahh, it pisses me off how all these brats use their love lives to escape reality and forget all about being a student. I so want to blast a confiscated dirty song at full volume!!”
“Okay, how about you start by apologizing to single women everywhere. You can’t just pick yourself as their representative!!”
“Ehh? It doesn’t annoy you to see a place filled with so much consumption and couples? Doesn’t it make you want to shout, ‘Uraaah! We’re the ones who are stuck at work on the 24th!’ ”
“Actually, I have Christmas Eve off and I plan to spend it with my girlfriend.”
“Okay then. It looks like someone is about to have a full day…no, three full days of consecutive shifts for the 24th and for New Year’s.”
As he shouted at her, the out-of-place truck approached the Dianoid. It was carrying a two meter air freight container meant for transporting art as well as two special pieces of heavy machinery called Power Lifters.
“This kind of place really scares me. If I ever invited someone here, they’d just assume I was trying to get into their pants and give me a cold look.”
“Oh? You never came here looking for marks during your delinquent days? The amount in a wallet here would’ve been completely different.”
“If we targeted places like this, the back alleys would’ve been wiped clean in a heartbeat.”
The building was a giant hexagonal prism rising seventy stories high. Whether for decoration or reinforcement, several thick wires extended diagonally down from all sides. District 15 was packed full of high-rise buildings, but the wires slipped through the gaps between them all. The central building and the surrounding wires were brilliantly illuminated by the lights on the ground and its majesty stood out clearly in the dark night. To emphasize that this was a form of optical art and not just illumination, the coloration changed as time passed.
“It’s primarily divided into the upper level, the mid level, and the lower level. Our delivery spot is TV Orbit on the mid level. After using the delivery entrance, it’s a single elevator away, so there shouldn’t be any way to get lost.”
“We’re taking those on an elevator?”
Hamazura turned around even though he could not see them from there.
“The upper level contains a high-class hotel and apartments. They take in plenty of grand pianos and home theater systems, so the elevator is rumored to have a huge weight limit. But if it doesn’t work, we’ll be stuck using them to carry the container up the stairs.”
The Dianoid supposedly doubled as District 15’s subway station and the elevated highway and subway line were apparently laid out to cross each other like an intersection. There was a main entrance at all four cardinal directions, but the ridiculously decorated truck used a delivery entrance prepared in a more inconspicuous location.
While Stephanie rolled down the window at the gate and spoke with the worker there, Hamazura’s cellphone beeped. It was an email rather than a call. He checked it and Stephanie asked him about it while humming and turning the steering wheel.
“Who was that from?”
“Some friends. They’re waiting for me on the Dianoid’s mid level.”
“The mid level? Isn’t that entirely taken up by TV Orbit’s offices?”
“Part of it’s opened up to the public. There’s a viewing platform, a pool, a gym, and some other things there. It’s of course made so the normal people and the entertainers never cross paths, but they have to be there. I hear they like to go have some fun after finishing a day’s work.”
“Eh heh heh. I see you’re enjoying your youth. Maybe I can go there once Sunazara wakes up.”
The gate led to an indoor parking lot. It was surrounded by cold manmade walls, but not from the gray concrete normally found in parking decks or parking garages. The ground, the ceiling, and the thick columns positioned at set intervals all looked like they were made of wood.
As a whole…
“It looks like a misguided attempt at a medieval Japanese building in a Hollywood movie.”
“It may look like that, but it’s all made from carbon. I could ram the truck into it and it wouldn’t leave a dent. I really don’t get fashion.”
Stephanie parked the truck in a large guest space and they both got out. She spun a key ring around her index finger, but before she could circle behind the truck, Hamazura used two wires to open the lock on the container.
“Y’know, skills are really in how you use them. A sexy spy and a greasy stalker are really doing the same thing.”
Hamazura opened the double doors with a confused look on his face.
The first thing he saw was a silver die larger than he was.
It was actually the artwork container.
Beyond it were the Power Lifters. Several rubber belts stretched down from the ceiling to secure the large metal backpacks, giant arms extending from them, and smaller legs were added for stability control. The arms were so large they nearly reached the ground when dangling down.
There were two of them. One for Hamazura and one for Stephanie.
That was probably also meant to provide a spare in case something happened.
“How are you with a Power Lifter?”
“I worked my ass off studying those things for five hours! Do you have any idea how often I almost got my flesh caught in the front joint!?”
“Aneri’s assisting you, so you’ll be fine.”
Hamazura roared complaints as he stepped inside and removed the rubber belts.
Unlike a military powered suit, the Power Lifter did not cover its wearer in armor. Much like the difference between a tank and a power shovel, it was probably an issue of regulations for civilian products instead of a logical decision.
They were controlled by two joysticks connected by cables and by the foot pedals that attached one’s feet to the legs. It seemed outdated compared to the powered suits that detected the movements of one’s muscles and it felt more like a vehicle than a suit.
He climbed in, something like the safety bar on a roller coaster lowered to hold him in place, and dancing light assaulted his vision as soon as it powered on.
“Wait, wait, wait! That thing’s two tons, so please don’t flail your arms and stumble around.”
“Sorry, but I’m just not used to this.”
“Oh, the AUD?” asked Stephanie.
Hamazura massaged his temples with his fingers and shook his head because bluish-white light had appeared to form windows, bars, and warning messages. The images seemed to have appeared in empty air.
“The air is locally heated or cooled to create an abnormal refraction of light that displays the necessary information on top of the scene behind it. From what I hear, it’s kind of like a mirage, but not really.”
“I get the idea behind it, but that’s not the problem.”
Sight worked by the brain analyzing the information captured by the eyeballs. AR, 3D goggles, and head-mounted displays used the eyes in ways they were not made for, so they would confuse some people’s brains. For example, some people who watched intense action movies on a head-mounted display would get motion sickness in less than five minutes.
On top of that, a warm hairdryer-like wind and a cool wind were constantly changing the temperature of the air right in front of his face, so his eyes got all dried out. But if they were going to add any thick protective glass, they might as well go for a goggle display to begin with.
(I guess this is about what I would expect of an Academy City prototype.)
“No errors in the two primary power sources, the spare power source, the stability control, the processor, or the fly-by-light. Actuators 001 through 400 have completed their triple auto-test. The system is all green. Manually release the final safety.”
“Fortunately, the Dianoid is entirely made of solid carbon materials down to the last sliding door and lantern, so you won’t damage anything if you trip. Just take it easy.”
“Are you sure I should be doing this just because it doesn’t require a license?”
“It’ll be fine as long as you don’t kill anyone.”
“Please stop scaring me!!”
During their exchange, they completed their preparations in the truck.
Hamazura took his first nervous step and reached for the container more as something to support him than to get the job done. He slowly moved the giant steel arm over the edge of the die and finally used both arms to grab the handhold.
Stephanie moved with surprising grace as she slipped herself and the Power Lifter between the container and truck wall and circled to the other side. Finally, they lifted the container like two movers carrying a sofa.
Unlike with his actual fingers, Hamazura could not feel the strength of his grip and was worried he was holding it too tightly, but at the very least, the metal fingers did not break through the container.
(Is this…actually going to work?)
“Hamazura, let’s step out like this.”
“Can you do that backwards?”
“I have more experience than you.”
They slipped out of the truck as they chatted, but…
The Power Lifter was a three meter mass of steel. It was not a military device, but its reinforced arms could still easily lift up a small car. Afraid of having someone caught in its path, Hamazura was being overly attentive to his surroundings and that may have been why he noticed this.
A small form was sneaking between the cars. The person had semi-long brown hair, a hooded jacket, shorts, boots, a bright sky blue shirt, and similarly colored socks.
(Um… Is that a boy or a girl?)
“This isn’t directly related to our job, but let’s say a small child is hanging around near our work truck. If they look like they’re about to duck below a car, what should a good worker do?”
“Even if it isn’t directly related to our results, anything that could be a risk to our business needs to be eliminated. In other words, hey you!!”
“Wah! Don’t let go of the container!!”
Stephanie manipulated the three meter body to raise its steel hands.
A moment later, a shocked small form jumped up from behind a car. They tried to run away while almost falling over, but they messed up, collapsed into a sitting position, trembled on the ground, and held out what appeared to be a student ID card.
“I-I-I-I-I-I-I’m-I-I-I’m-I’m Academy City’s #6, Aihana Etsu!!”
Hamazura’s throat instantly dried up.
He felt a squeezing in his heart.
Uncontrollable warning signals filled his entire body. Thanks to his time wandering the back alleys as a Level 0, he knew firsthand just how frightening powerful espers were.
But Stephanie Gorgeouspalace cut the kid off with another yell.
“Yeah!? Well, I’m a teacher! You’d better not be underestimating athletic Miss Stephanie and her esper containment combat routines!!”
Hamazura finally caught on when he saw “Aihana Etsu” hold up his hands to protect himself from this grown adult’s full-volume shouting.
“Wait, teacher! They’re just a kid!”
“Now you’re pissing me off! You’re a kid too, so stop trying to act like an adult!!”
“I think you’re the one that needs to be contained right now!!”
As the two three meter machines finished grappling next to the container, the previous…boy?...girl?...was nowhere to be seen.
Assuming one of the steel arms had not scored a home run on the kid at some point, they must have run off.
Kamijou Touma, Index, and Othinus took an elevator from the subway station and to the shopping area of the lower level.
The shopping area covered the first to twentieth floors, but the center of those floors had been opened into an atrium. Looking up gave one the bizarre sensation of being sucked up into the heavens.
Most of the lighting was indirect and filled the building with soft flesh tones. The most notable characteristic was the interior. The structure itself was that of a high-rise building, but each individual part was much more similar to Japanese-style construction. The seemingly wooden flooring was polished to an amber color and the space was divided up by sliding doors and screens rather than Western doors. Even the aforementioned lighting came from square paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling.
The Christmas spirit seemed to have vanished the second they set foot inside.
Kamijou spoke his general impression aloud.
“I get the feeling Kanzaki would like this place.”
If she had heard that, she might have angrily shouted that all this was fake, but he could not help it since it had the same image.
The only other notable feature was the decorative flat-screen monitors installed here and there. Some were attached to the walls and columns and others hung from the ceiling on thin arms.
When Index saw the footage they displayed, she tilted her head.
“Touma, what TV is that? The newspaper didn’t list it.”
“I’m not sure whether I should be amazed you’ve memorized the TV guide or concerned that you have that much free time,” groaned Kamijou. “That’s a behind-the-scenes broadcast from TV Orbit. The mid level up above is a TV station, so an AD or someone goes around backstage with a small camera. It isn’t broadcast over the air, but some idol fans come to the Dianoid just to see it.”
“Oh, damn. I have to start my explanation there?”
The flat-screen monitors hanging from the ceiling were currently displaying footage of male idol Hitotsui Hajime asleep on his dressing room couch. The clear division between cheers and boos coming from the crowds was just plain cruel.
And instead of just one behind-the-scenes video, it switched to a new one every few minutes. Like a DJ choosing songs, the segues between footage seemed to form a single presentation.
“The viewing platform on the mid level is known as the Aqua Palace due to its focus on water art which includes the world’s largest indoor fountain.”
As Kamijou listened to that announcement, he heard Othinus speak from her position on his shoulder and inside his scarf.
“So where is the store selling the artisan-made dollhouse?”
“Wait, wait. I printed that out at the convenience store.”
He dug through his pocket, unfolded the map, and checked on the location.
“Okay, it’s on the fifth floor. Taking the escalator would probably be faster than the elevator.”
“Touma, Sphinx is getting really restless.”
“I wouldn’t if I were you, calico cat. I know you want to sharpen your claws, but everything here is made of carbon materials and I bet even the sliding doors would stop a bullet. Your claws can’t even scratch them.”
With that, they took the escalator to the fifth floor.
Because the center formed a giant atrium, only half the space was usable. Even so, 350 brand-name shops had been crammed inside. They were located across from the atrium (which meant on the “outside” edge) and they ranged from the size of a small convenience store to larger than a tennis court.
Once they arrived on the fifth floor, Othinus spoke from his shoulder.
Index also stared blankly ahead while holding the cat in both hands.
“It looks crowded.”
“Well, it was featured on the morning news, so other people must have decided to stop by just like us.”
“Wait a second. I don’t mind if it’s popular, but if we miss out on the dollhouse, what happens to my days of peace!?”
“Hmm,” groaned Kamijou while looking up at the ceiling. “I guess I could make a box out of cardboard and tape it together.”
“The cat would tear that apart almost immediately!!”
“If you don’t want it destroyed, then live in something smooth and without joints,” said Index. “You could put an upside down wash basin down over yourself.”
“Don’t you get that the cat is smart enough to lift up the wash basin!?”
Those two did not understand the threat.
Othinus realized she could not let things continue like this, so she pulled herself from Kamijou’s scarf.
She jumped down from his shoulder.
“…to accept this!!”
As soon as she landed on the wooden-looking floor, she took off running through the crowd’s feet and toward the shop.
This was a problem for Kamijou and Index.
“That girl!! How does she plan to buy it when she’s fifteen centimeters tall!? In fact, I could see her being mistaken for some new kind of doll and ripped apart to see how she works!!”
“This is an emergency, but don’t worry, Touma. Sphinx, go!!”
“Ahhh!! That’s just adding fuel to the fire!!”
By the time Kamijou cried out, it was already too late.
The cat gently landed on the floor and took off after Othinus like a hunting dog.
Crushed underfoot, torn apart, or caught by a feline hunter.
Kamijou grew quite blue as he imagined what could happen to Othinus in the near future.
“A-anyway, we have to find her! Listen, Index. Keep your eyes down. Do not! I repeat, do not step on her!!”
“I’m not kidding!! Don’t you step on Othinus!!”
Even here, Takitsubo Rikou was wearing a pink track suit.
The Dianoid’s mid level contained the TV Orbit office, but that included a viewing platform, indoor pool, gym, and other facilities that were set up so there was no overlap with the entertainers and production team. The lower level was filled by high-class brand-name shops where one bought products, but the mid level was filled with movie theaters, beauty salons, restaurants, and other services that were consumed on site. Unlike the lower level, the Japanese-style construction included a focus on water here. For example, narrow waterways made from wooden troughs ran along the side of the corridors like the canals of Kyoto.
But these girls were inside a café that took up the entire perimeter of the floor to provide a view of District 15’s dazzling night scenery.
It was built to provide a relaxing atmosphere, so the guests could set the aroma, music, light intensity, and light color in each individual partition. They could also rent massage chairs and footbaths. This was the type of café that made its money on the extra table fees instead of on their coffee.
Currently, Takitsubo spoke while her chair vibrated for a massaging effect.
“Hamazura says he’ll be here in another half hour.”
“Oh? That’s super fast for him,” replied Kinuhata Saiai, a girl with a brown bob cut who sat at the same table.
She would occasionally breathe in from a clear mask attached to an oxygen tank and tilt her head as if wondering how it was supposed to be relaxing.
However, she did not stop there. She went on to hesitantly turn around.
“The real problem is all the shopping bags we’ve super collected already.”
“What? Hamazura was the one who told us to kill time until he got here,” said Mugino Shizuri, the culprit, as she crossed her legs.
Kinuhata gave an annoyed sigh.
“He just meant to wander around for a while! Why did you start buying a super lot of stuff all of a sudden!?”
“Because I have a card.”
“I super can’t see how someone like her managed to work underground jobs!!”
“Mugino, Kinuhata, think about the other customers.”
However, the other two girls were not the type to listen to Takitsubo.
“And what is this!? You have pair after pair of super identical pumps!!”
“You can’t tell the difference between El Asine and White Snake? Are you my grandmother?”
“Shut up, Miss Celebrity! I’m the one that’s super mad right now!”
“No matter what Mugino buys, she always breaks the heels off so she can move better as soon as she gets into a fight.”
“That’s why the El Asine twin heels have a hinge. The heels fold down when you need to move.”
“Then you super don’t need the heels in the first place! Wear some flat sneakers already! …Honestly, if we weren’t paying attention, you’d super buy an apartment with that card.”
“Are you trying to say it’s all on me? It’s all my fault?”
“Mugino, don’t use Meltdowner here.”
“Yeah, it is your fault. And who’s going to carry that pile of bags? What a pain! This is why I super suggested we should go see a movie to kill some time.”
Takitsubo breathed out through her nose and let her eyes wander.
They had ordered a goldfish tank as an option and it calmed her heart to see the red things fluttering around.
Meanwhile, Mugino gave a mocking shrug.
“A movie? You mean that one where they strap you in your seat for twenty-four hours straight!? That is not some time! At a full day, that’s pretty much imprisonment!!”
“Hypnos is a super experimental visual experience that works in the visions you see when you’re woozy from sleep deprivation! This is the problem with people who super feel like talking about movies without doing any research.”
“Sounds like a D movie.”
“You super casual! That’s not even a real classification!!”
The situation quickly devolved into chaos.
They constantly called him their underling, but Hamazura had rapidly become the grease needed to keep Item running smoothly.
A great number of people moved throughout the Dianoid.
A girl must have wanted to knit because she was looking at the wool. A boy was visiting multiple stores to see if he could get the exact same product any cheaper. A wealthy man simply looked lonely. A high school girl had come here for the status but could not find anything to actually do.
Among them all, a group faced completely different directions yet communicated their thoughts as if whispering.
“St. Germain is about to move.”
One leaned against the wall.
“Even a conservative estimate puts it at more than ten centuries. After the long journey, St. Germain has finally found it.”
One passed by the other people in a wood grain corridor.
“St. Germain will gain it all before the other Magic Gods.”
Two remained back to back.
Like a gentle ripple, the power of a gentle thought propagated from person to person.
Finally, it gathered in one point of the Dianoid and urged on a certain action.
“So why not throw in a bit of harassment? Why not destroy his so-called plan?”
Kamijou Touma had gotten separated from the others in the crowd.
Palm-sized Othinus and the cat were one thing, but Index stood out like a sore thumb with her nun’s habit and yet there had been no sign of her since the wall of people had blocked the way.
“Heeeey! Index? Othinus?”
He called out for them while making a circuit of the atrium but found nothing. Wondering if they had moved to another floor, he turned toward the escalator.
That was when he noticed something.
Someone was leaning up against a column with a hand in the center of their flat chest. Were they a boy or a girl? Either way, the short person’s cheeks were red and they were gasping for breath. There were also large beads of sweat on their forehead, suggesting they had just completed some heavy exercise.
What was this?
“H-hey, are you okay? If it’s too stuffy in here with all the people, you should go rest on the benches over there.”
“Pant, pant… I-I’m…I’m Ai…”
“Calm down. This country has these wonderful things known as vending machines. I know it seems wrong to have to spend 140 yen on water, but why not get something to drink before trying to talk?”
Kamijou grabbed the person’s awfully warm hand and the person followed him with their head lowered.
The two of them left the area filled with brand-name shops and arrived in a vending machine corner. There, Kamijou held his phone up to the vending machine reader without thinking.
“What? Water’s more expensive than a sports drink? Has the market gone crazy? Well, I guess it doesn’t matter.”
He bought a bottle of mineral water that was known for how well the bottle decomposed, but he was pretty sure just drinking water from the tap would be more eco-friendly. Regardless, he handed the bottle to the…
(Boy? Girl? Which is it!?)
“If you’re too dazed to drink, you should probably just go to the infirmary. That means there’s a problem with your autonomic nerves, so it’s best not to have an amateur decide how to treat it.”
The boy took the clear bottle, removed the cap, and wrapped his hands around it. Gulping sounds soon followed.
He let out a gentle breath. Even after a few gulps, he did not cough anything back up, so Kamijou decided it was not too serious.