There isn't a moment to lose. As I get up off the bench and start walking in what I'm pretty sure is the general direction of City Hall, I dig my phone out of my pocket and dial in a number.
Unsurprisingly, the girl on the other end picks up almost immediately. "Onee-sama?"
"Onee-sama! You're all right! We've been searching for you for hours, we—"
"Hold that thought. Kiyama. Kiyama Harumi. Do you know where she is?"
"Ah." Her voice becomes hesitant all of a sudden. "Er, well, Onee-sama, I'm not sure…"
Beep. I hang up before she can finish the sentence. I've halfway finished entering Uiharu's number before she calls me herself.
I smile a little; she must have seen Kuroko's reaction to me hanging up. I pick up immediately. "Mikoto here."
"Misaka-san?" Uiharu's voice comes through quickly. "Are you all right?"
"Yeah. Yeah, I'm fine. Long story. First things first—where's Kiyama?"
There's a brief pause on the other end before Uiharu speaks up again. "She popped up on CCTV about twenty minutes ago, north of Chandrasekhar Avenue." I hear faint, indignant yelling in the background. Probably Kuroko. "Ah, we're not sure where she's heading. She's just...walking. Anti-Skill has an intercept team en route, but with the stuff about her getting powers from the LP victims they're going to try avoiding engagement as long as possible. Wait, how'd you know? Did you run into her or something?"
"You could say that, yeah. I know where she's going."
"City Hall. She's got a bone to pick with the Minister of Science." So do I, to be honest, but I'm pretty damn sure my way involves a lot less collateral damage.
"Kihara?" Uiharu sounds confused. "Why?"
"Long story. Tell you later, after all this is over. In the meantime, though, where is she now?"
"...Misaka-san. As much as I hate to sound like Miss Stick-Up-Her—" More indignant yelling. "—Anti-Skill's trying to keep this clean for a reason. We don't actually know what she's capable of, either powers-wise, or, you know, mentally."
"I know. Trust me. I just have a few more questions for her."
"Right. Long as you know that. She was last sighted at...lemme see…" She reads off an intersection, and I confirm the location on my phone's GPS. It's a ways from here.
"Gotcha. Thanks for your help, Uiharu."
"It's my pleasu—hey!" There's a quick pop of static, and I once again hear Kuroko's voice on the other end.
"Onee-sama, I beg of you, do not attempt to engage Kiyama alone! It's far too much of a risk, both to yourself, and to...well, everything around you."
"Hey, don't worry," I say, eyeing a nearby telephone pole. Might take a bit of work to get myself up to there, but it looks like I can stay on the line most of the way into downtown. "I got this."
I hang up before she can respond. I dig through my pockets for Maika's earplugs and put them in. Then I hop up on the hood of a nearby car, focus for a moment, and with a tiny spark of power boost myself into the air, landing neatly on the telephone wires above.
Here we go.
It's late out now. The night shines with the lights of downtown Academy City, the streetlights and billboards and traffic blurring into a riot of color as I surf the electrical current towards my destination. People are probably gawking, snapping photos as I rush past, but I don't really have time to think about that now. I have to get to Kiyama, have to...I don't know, talk her down? I don't want it to come to a fight if I can avoid it, but on the other hand I'm not sure she can be talked down at this point. And what the hell am I going to say, anyway? "Oh, hi, look, I got your freaky telepathic memory beam, and I'm really sorry about the kids and everything but I really think you should let Kihara go free"? I mean, I've got half a mind to join her and ruin Kihara's shit personally!
With all this on my mind, it takes a moment before I notice the tiny figure following not far behind me, appearing briefly on top of a streetlight before vanishing to another streetlight, then a parked car, then a walkway over the street. I grin and slow to a stop as I reach that walkway, hopping off the telephone line and landing on the walkway. Soon enough, Kuroko appears out of thin air in front of me, holding her palm against her forehead as if trying to fend off a headache. "Well," she says, "at the very least, Onee-sama, you are far from difficult to find."
"Hey, Kuroko. Come to stop me?"
She shakes her head. "It's obviously far past the point where you'll listen to reason. The very least I can do, then, is to keep you pointed in the right direction, and perhaps prevent you from doing anything too foolish."
I laugh a little at that, and she tilts her head, confused. "What? What's so funny?"
"Oh, it's—it's nothing. You're just so damn straight-laced, all the time, even when you're technically breaking the rules." I grin at her. "It's actually kind of adorable."
That gets a reaction. "R-really?" She blushes fire-engine red. "Y-you think I'm, I'm adorable, Onee-sama? I, I, er—No!" She shakes her head wildly for a moment. "No, that can wait for later. For now, we need a plan. We need to think about how to approach this."
"Well, if we're going to do that, the first thing we've got to do is call off Anti-Skill."
"Two reasons. First, I know what she's doing, where she's going, and why. AS is going to shoot to kill if they get the opportunity, but I think I might be able to talk her down. Maybe. And second, what Uiharu said about Kiyama having all of the Level Plus powers? It's probably true; she hit me with some kind of telepathic mind-whammy when I ran into her. If AS tries to take her out without all the backup they can muster, they're gonna get wrecked."
"I...see." Kuroko scrunches her eyes shut for a moment, then shakes her head. "I shall call it in. One moment, Onee-sama." She taps her headset and mumbles something in hushed tones. She listens for a moment, then sighs. "They are not going to call them off. They're found a relatively deserted construction site, near and they're already setting up an ambush. They said they are keeping heavier assets on alert if necessary, which I suppose is something."
"Well, then. I guess we need to go rescue them."
"I suppose so." She teleports off to another streetlight, leaving me to find my way back up to the telephone wires and rush off again.
We've almost reached the construction site by the time the first crack of gunfire splits the night. More soon join it as I leap off the telephone wire and run towards the source of the noise. The gunfire doesn't last long, however, before it's replaced by a variety of other noises. Crashes. Shouts. Fire. Wind. Screams.
I find a shortcut, sprinting through an alley, and see the construction site in front of me.
Well, it used to be the construction site, anyway. Now? Now it's a battlefield.
The half-finished skeleton of a ten-story high-rise looms above, but a chunk has been torn out of the bottom of the structure, as if some kaiju wandered through and decided it looked tasty. The edges of the hole are glowing, red-hot. Two cranes have been knocked over, one leaning into the new building, the other fallen across the street. Trucks are overturned, and meter-wide gouges have been torn out of the earth all around. Dozens of steel I-beams are scattered across the construction site, like a kid got bored with her Lego project and just left the bricks where they were.
I look at the closest I-beam, and—
—there's a person there, in Anti-Skill riot gear—
—it's, it's going through them—
"K-Kuroko," I hear myself say. "Call an ambulance." I close my eyes, try to will away what I'd just seen. I, I need to focus. Focus—
She's standing in the center of this chaos, looking away from me. She's hunched over, greying brown hair blowing in the wind, still wearing that damn lab coat.
I hear a voice somewhere behind me: "Ah...oh. Ah, Onee-sama, perhaps you should, ah—" I ignore it. Focus on Kiyama.
"KIYAMA HARUMI!" I bellow, walking towards her, keeping my eyes locked on her, ignoring the—ignoring everything else. She lifts her head, turns. Faces me. Her eyes are so bloodshot now that they look red, demonic.
"So," she says. She sounds more tired than ever. "You c-came. D-did it work? Did you see?"
"Yeah," I respond. "I saw. I saw all of it. And it's all true? The IUE, Kihara, the kids, everything?"
"So what's the plan, then? You're just gonna go kill Kihara? And bam, problem solved, just like that?"
She laughs at that. "N-no. Plan was bigger. More c-complicated than that. Expose Kihara, reveal everything to the world. D-destroy the rotten heart of t-this city forever. But now?" She taps a finger to her forehead, smiling ruefully. "Memory not w-working too well. Don't...r-remember the plan. Wrote it down, but...heh. Can't r-read too well any more, either. So yes. Kill Kihara. Avenge the kids. That's...that's it."
"And what about them?" I point at one of the fallen Anti-Skill officers, trying very hard not to look too close at them. "They're in your way, so you just...mow them down like that?"
She narrows her eyes. "They shot first."
"What? N-no," Kuroko says from somewhere behind me. "They wouldn't. They were going to try and talk you down, only open fire if you were hostile—"
"THEY SHOT FIRST!" she screams, and a burst of telekinetic force nearly knocks me over. "They don't want me to...to give up, they w-want to silence me! That's why I showed you those memories, Mikoto! Nobody will miss me, but they can't just d-dispose of you!"
That...that makes sense. Too much sense.
"She's lying, she must be lying," Kuroko says, sounding like she's trying to convince herself as much as me. "You're powerful, she wants you on her side—Onee-sama, you mustn't let her confuse you!"
This is getting to be too much. Okay. How to do this? How can I talk her down? "Okay. Kiyama. Doctor Kiyama. Talk to me, here. Look, all I want is for this to end without anyone else having to die. Isn't that what they'd want? Isn't that what—" I search my memories. "—what Kyousuke would want?"
"Yes. Yes, it's what they'd all want." Her reply is strangely calm, as if she'd been expecting that question. "Too innocent. Too pure for t-this nightmare of a city. You are too. You think this will end with me alive, you h-haven't seen half of what I have. But you can. They can't erase you, can't make you disappear—however this ends, today, you have to keep looking, have to find the truth! RADIO NOISE! Only you can make it r-right!"
There they are. Those words again. "I don't understand! What is RADIO NOISE?"
"It's...it's too much. Not here. Not now. Let me through, let me deal with Anti-Skill and Kihara. Maybe then there will be time."
"No." I look her straight in the eye. "This ends, here and now."
"F-fine." She glares straight back, reddened eyes meeting mine, and suddenly there's a pressure in my head somehow. I stumble forward, can't seem to think straight—
"Onee-sama!" Kuroko rushes forward to catch me, then pinches me, hard, on the shoulder.
"Ow!—hey, what was—" Suddenly I can think clearly again. "Hey, that worked, whatever you did."
"First rule of dealing with telepaths," she replies. "A little bit of sudden pain can almost always break their hold. The feedback breaks their concentration."
"Thanks. Gotta remember that." I look back at Kiyama, grinning. "What else ya got?"
By way of reply, Kiyama flicks a finger, and a cement truck lifts itself off the ground and hurls itself directly at me.
I have a split second to think what the hell how is she that powerful, before a skinny pair of arms grabs me around the waist. The world suddenly seems to disappear around me, twisting and bending, almost like space itself has turned to liquid, and I think I see stars for a minute before it returns to normal. I look around; we're hidden behind a wall in what's left of the under-construction building, out of Kiyama's line of sight.
"Phew. You are just saving my ass over and over again today, Kuroko," I say.
"It's my honor to do so. But I believe you should probably have a plan before you rush back in there."
"Plan, nothing. She got the jump on me, that's all."
Kuroko frowns. "You challenged her."
"Details. Anyway, now I'm ready." I snap my fingers, intentionally letting a spark pop. "She's tough, but I can take her. I do have an idea, though…"
"Anytime you are."
"All right…" Kuroko grabs me again, and the world goes all twisty again. When it's returned to normal, I'm once again treated to a view of the blazing hellscape the construction site has become.
From eight stories up.
As I feel Kuroko let go, I charge up a decent-size lightning bolt—not the biggest I can manage, not by a long shot, but enough to stop just about anything, living or otherwise, in its tracks.
In the instant before I let it fly, I see Kiyama head jerk upwards, and she stretches her hand towards the sky as if trying to catch me.
When I release the lightning bolt, letting the massive electrical charge flow freely down towards its target, Kiyama grins at me, and catches the bolt in her hand. For a split second I see it arc across her chest and down her other arm, from which it flows harmlessly into the ground.
Before I have time to think about it, and indeed before I have time to realize I'm in free-fall, plummeting towards the ground, I feel Kuroko grab me again and teleport me back to the relative safety of the building.
"Did—did—did you just see that—" I sputter out the words, barely coherent.
"I did, Onee-sama." Kuroko looks as freaked out by that display as I feel. "How did she do that?"
"Hell if I know. Wait. No. Saten-san. She got electricity powers, didn't she? Kiyama's...channeling that too, somehow, same as she is everything else." I sigh. "Damn it. Only one other option, then…" I pull an arcade token out of my pocket and flip it.
I stare at the coin for a while. If it even works—which is definitely still up in the air right now—this thing isn't going to just stun her, like I was hoping to do with the lightning. If I hit her with a railgun, she's down a limb, minimum. More likely it'll kill her.
Can I do that? Just...kill her? Anti-Skill is out of their league here, that much is obvious. And she's...I don't want to think about it, but she's already killed today; there's no way that anyone could survive what she did to some of those Anti-Skill officers.
There's a noise from outside all of a sudden, interrupting my ethical contemplations—a helicopter, sounds like. And speaking of Anti-Skill… Another sound quickly accompanies it—the rat-tat-tat of a very large machine gun firing. "Backup?" I ask Kuroko.
"Most likely. For all the good it will do." Immediately after she says that, I feel something pass through the air, some kind of electrical effect, and the noise from the helicopter suddenly becomes erratic, unstable. Keeping my head down, I crawl out from behind the concrete wall we're using as cover and peek out into the night.
The first thing I notice is how dark it is—the lights of the city seem to be out across a good three or four blocks. An EMP? Is that what she did? I can't see Kiyama, but I'm pretty sure she can't see me, either.
The second thing I notice is that a large dark shape in the sky seems to be moving downward. Moving downward rapidly, in fact, and it's heading straight for the nearby overpass.
I realize what it must be a split second before impact; far too late to make a difference. I wince as the Anti-Skill helicopter hits dead center in the middle of the highway, right on top of several stalled-out cars. A plume of fire erupts into the air as it hits.
And it's at that exact moment that I realize what I need to do.
Kiyama was trying to take that helicopter out, and based on what I've seen she was more than powerful enough to decide exactly where it landed. There were probably innocent people in those cars, people who had nothing to do with any of this, not even trying to cheat the system with Level Plus or anything. And she didn't care. She let it fall there. She's become so obsessed with her revenge that she's letting innocent people be hurt, just like Class 5-B was hurt.
She needs to be stopped, now, no matter what it takes.
"Kuroko," I say. "Can you get over to the highway, see if there's anyone who needs help?"
"Y-yes. Yes, I can, Onee-sama, but—you aren't—"
"Yes, I am. You go help out. I'm going to take care of Kiyama."
She hesitates, but nods after a second. "Very well. I will be back as soon as I can. But—Onee-sama—" Her breath hitches, and she stumbles over a few half-formed words before she finally says "Just...don't do anything stupid, all right?"
I grin. "Who, me? I'll be fine."
As I finish climbing down the building's half-finished staircases, I notice that Kiyama's started walking again. Slowly, though; she's favoring her left leg, and she's holding her hand to her head as if in pain.
"KIYAMA!" I shout once more.
She shudders as I yell, and turns to face me again. She doesn't say anything this time; at least, not to me. It's tough to see in the flickering firelight, but it looks like her mouth is moving; is she mumbling something to herself?
Doesn't matter. "This is it," I say. I raise my arm and point at her, then curl my hand into a fist. "I'm giving you one last chance. One last chance to surrender." Very deliberately, I reach into my pocket with my other hand and grab an arcade token, placing it on top of my fist. At the same time, I begin charging up, letting my whole body crackle with blue-white sparks of energy. "Maybe they'll just shoot you, maybe not, but either way, this ends now."
She pauses, seems to consider that. Then she starts laughing. It's not a happy laugh. It's insane, desperate, even anguished. It's the laugh of someone who's just realized that the world was laughing at her, and that all things considered it's pretty damn funny, in a sick, twisted kind of way.
"Surrender, Kiyama! Please!" I must look like a walking thunderstorm by now. Maika's earplugs seal themselves up, preparing for what's about to happen. "Don't make me do this!"
I can't hear her response, not with the earplugs in and the crackle of electricity surrounding me. I don't need to. The slow shake of her head says it all.
So I fire.
The magnetic field generated by two hundred megawatts of electrical power accelerates the tiny arcade token to four times the speed of sound in under a hundredth of a second. A sonic boom roars around me, loud as a jet engine even with the earplugs. A spear of white-hot light traces itself out from my finger—
—and stops, just before it hits Kiyama.
The coin, now a lump of glowing red metal, hangs in the air a few centimeters from her face. Still holding a hand to her forehead, she stares at it impassively, then lets it drop to the ground.
She stopped it. She stopped the railgun. Nobody's ever managed to do that before. Just how much power is Level Plus giving her? I mean, the railgun doesn't really use all the power I can generate—if I turned it up much higher, the coin would disintegrate before it got to the target—but that's easily on the high end of Level 4 right there; maybe even Level 5.
Doesn't matter, though. She's not trying to hit back yet, and so I dig more coins out of my pocket. I don't bother with the coin flip this time, I just hold them in my outstretched hand, magnetically grab them, and fire them off one by one, the sonic booms rattling my teeth with each shot. She still catches them perfectly, with telekinesis or magnetics or whatever it is she's using, but after the first two or three she starts stumbling back with each hit. She can't keep this up for much longer.
After the eighth shot she collapses to her knees. She still isn't fighting back, still just staring at me, eyes unfocused, muttering something I can't hear.
I let my hand fall back to my side, and feel the earplugs disengage. I walk up to her, slowly, and she doesn't seem to respond at all. But I can finally hear what she's saying.
"—hurts why does it hurt overuse of power damage hemorrhage but the brain can't hurt, stroke doesn't hurt, why does it hurt—"
There's a whoosh of air behind me, and I turn to see Kuroko standing there.
"Onee-sama! Are you all right? Did…" She catches sight of Kiyama, collapsed in front of us. "Did she give up?"
"I don't know," I say. "She stopped the railgun but she isn't fighting back or anything. I...I think she's in pain."
"Is she, now." Kuroko's expression hardens, and she digs her taser out of a skirt pocket. "Then I think we should take advantage of this while we can." Taser at the ready, she slowly starts walking up towards Kiyama—
And then Kiyama screams.
It's not just with her mouth, the scream is in my head, too, drowning out everything, making it impossible to think or concentrate, and right after it a wave of force digs out a tiny crater underneath Kiyama. As I stagger to my feet, Kiyama closes her mouth and collapses onto her back, but the scream keeps going. Another EMP rushes by us, and then a burst of heat as trails of fire snake their way out from Kiyama in a crazy, random pattern.
Then her whole body erupts into blinding white light, and I don't see anything else for a while.
When the psychic scream finally subsides and the spots finally clear from my vision, there's something…floating over Kiyama's collapsed body. A golden, glowing sphere, with something pink floating inside it. I can't immediately tell what it is; it looks like some kind of grotesque tadpole-fish thing. Except...it's changing, as I watch, growing larger, its head becoming more defined, tiny limbs starting to appear, and something about it stirs up a half-forgotten memory of studying for a biology test—
Kuroko, dusting herself off, realizes it first. "Is that...a baby?"
"I...I think it is." Which leads to the obvious question: "...Why is a glowing baby hovering over Kiyama's body?"
Kuroko shrugs and gives me a 'hell if I know' look. We both watch the...baby-thing continue to develop, months of pre-natal development contracted into a span of minutes. It looks human, now, with noticeable eyes, mouth, fingers and toes.
"Should we...do something?" I ask. "I mean, I don't think either of us are qualified to handle...whatever the hell this is."
"Frankly, Onee-sama, I'm not sure anyone is qualified—eh?"
She's interrupted by the baby-thing starting to move. It kicks a few times, causing the floating sphere to wobble back and forth. And then, suddenly, its eyes open.
And the screaming starts again.