A/N: So, somewhere along the line I got the idea I was going to rewrite the To Aru storyline and universe from the ground up. Why? Mostly because of dissatisfaction with the way the author handled many of the characters and setting elements, especially early on. (Battle nuns. Yeah.) This story will be more in line with what I was hoping for from Index and Railgun, and hopefully you all will enjoy it as well.
Fair warning: When I say "from the ground up", I mean "from the ground up". I wanted this to be recognizable as Railgun/Index, so the setting is more-or-less similar on the broadest scale, many story elements and plot points are at least superficially similar, and the names on the cast list are the same, with a few exceptions. But character personalities, motivations and histories may or may not have been shifted drastically. Details of the setting may be mostly similar or entirely different. Basically, the idea I'm trying to get at is: Make no assumptions based on canon. So without further ado, here we go!
Touma/Daily Life, in a Thousand Parallel Worlds
Riddle me this. A handsome teenage boy and a pretty teenage girl are standing together on a bridge. They're more-or-less alone out there, with nothing but the lights of the city around them and the twinkling stars above. They're staring into each other's eyes, faces slightly flushed. What does the girl say to the boy? Is it:
A) "The stars are so beautiful tonight..."
B) "I love you...so much."
C) Trick question; she just starts making out with him.
D) "Say...Do you know what a railgun is?"
The answer, obviously, is D, for several reasons. Reason #1: the boy in question is yours truly, Kamijou Touma, and in spite of my awe-inspiring handsomeness, if a girl this pretty ever falls in love with me, you'd be well advised to watch out for airborne swine. Reason #2: The pretty girl in question is Misaka Goddamn Mikoto, and I am currently on her shit list. For those not particularly familiar with our glorious city and the Important People residing therein, Misaka Freaking Mikoto is number 4 on the list of Top Eight People In Academy City On Whose Shit List You Never, Ever Want To Be, otherwise known as the list of Level 5 espers.
The term 'esper', in spite of its English origins, has a long and storied history here in Japan; the important thing is that it roughly means 'person that can kill you with their brain'. Which makes it a rather shitty translation of the Japanese word I am actually using, which literally comes out as "ability user", but I'll be the first to say that 'esper' sounds a whole lot cooler. Which is probably why the labcoats and/or suits picked it in the first place, since they were part of that first turn-of the-century generation that realized the world needed to be More Awesome.
Actually, come to think of it, that burning desire to make the world More Awesome probably explains a lot about their decision to buy the western third of Tokyo, turn it into a city made entirely out of schools, and populate it almost entirely with people no older than 25. And then try to give them all superpowers.
Which brings me back to the reason why I am somewhat alarmed by the current proximity of a grinning brunette with big brown eyes in a Shidarezakura Private Academy uniform, who has just asked me if I know what a railgun is.
You see, I know perfectly well what a railgun is. I know this because I have done my homework: a railgun is a gun—or, more accurately, a cannon, more often than not a fuckoff huge one—that has no need to bother with silly things like gunpowder in order to propel its highly lethal contents. Instead, it hooks the shell up to two electrically conductive rails, one on each side, and runs a whole lot of electricity through the whole arrangement. By one of the properties of electromagnetism that I have no understanding of whatsoever, the shell is thereby accelerated to a sufficiently ridiculous velocity, and sent on its glorious mission of causing property damage and killing people.
Because I have done my homework, I also know that "The Railgun" is the nickname bestowed upon (or claimed by) Misaka Please Don't Kill Me Mikoto, because an approximation of the weapon's functionality is her preferred method of destroying large things that she feels needs to be destroyed. Her particular superpower is the ability to make any of the eleventy bajillion electrons in her general vicinity go wherever she wants them to go; typically, this manifests in the form of her shooting lightning at people and things in her way. However, if the people or things in her way are sufficiently large and/or offensive to her sensibilities, she will proceed to remove a stolen arcade token from her pocket. Holding it on top of her thumb, she will extend her arm out towards her unfortunate target. She will then flip the coin up in the air with her thumb, and simultaneously begin crackling with secondary electrical phenomena. (These phenomena, incidentally, serve as a signal to the automated self-sealing earplugs she wears at all times to buckle down and brace for sonic impact.) As the coin hits her outstretched thumb, there will be an (often literally) earsplitting crack as said coin suddenly and violently accelerates to over three times the speed of sound, followed by the sound of whatever was in its path being completely annihilated.
I know all this because I have done my homework, as anyone who has a power like my own and an ounce of intelligence would do. I also know this because Misaka ShitShitShitShitShit Mikoto has been explaining the first half, and is currently demonstrating the second half. The coin has just reached the peak of its arc, and is beginning to fall back down. It is entirely possible that I will be horrifically maimed and/or die within the next two seconds. My life naturally flashes before my eyes, giving the narrative a convenient excuse to explain how this situation came to pass.
The thug is approximately fifteen centimeters taller than me, and a good deal wider. His breath stinks of cheap liquor. He is looking upon me with an expression of disdain, which I know from nearly a decade of experience could turn into either amusement or rage at any second. Neither will bode well for me, and I therefore need to negotiate a way to escape this situation as quickly as possible.
The urgency of the situation is further exacerbated by the fact that the thug, and his similarly thuggish comrades, have not done their homework. If they had, there would have been an audible gulp when they recognized the face of the girl their boss was talking to, followed by all of them quickly remembering that they had urgent business elsewhere. Possibly at the laundromat, depending on exactly how much they knew about the self-assured girl with the slightly jagged haircut.
Thirty seconds ago, the thug had had no comrades. He had been standing over a booth in the cheap family restaurant I was currently occupying, blatantly attempting to chat up the lone girl sitting there. Since, against all common sense, the average Japanese male has not wised up to the concept of "sexual harassment" yet, I reluctantly abandoned my cardboard-like hamburger and stale french fries, attempting to intervene with a quick, shouted greeting, and thus avert the inevitable unpleasant conclusion of this situation.
The moment I saw the girl's face, of course, I realized that it was not the girl but the thug that required protection. However, though the situation had changed, the strategy for dealing with it did not need to—I just had to figure out how to remove the girl in question from the restaurant without things ending in a fight. As I prepared my first statement, however, the front door of the restaurant opened, and several more thugs poured in, locked on to their buddy, and started making their way toward us like a horde of hair-dyed, Hawaiian-shirted, overmuscled lemmings rushing towards their doom.
You may not have noticed by now, but I have approximately the worst luck in the world.
"Right, so, uh...we really need to get going! Let's leave these guys to their...uh...whatever they're doing."
Thus the statement above. The lack of names, which also neatly avoids the problem of honorifics, is carefully calculated to make it as easy as possible for Mikoto to play along. Depending on what she felt appropriate, or even what comes to mind for her first, I could be her boyfriend, older brother, or embarrassing childhood friend for the duration of the encounter. Hell, I'll even take "gay best friend" if it means a clean getaway.
"Who the hell are you?" she says, shattering all of my hopes and dreams in an instant. The thugs all stare at me, clearly just as interested in the answer.
Well, so much for Plan A. Too bad, really. I liked Plan A. Plan A involved nobody getting hurt at all.
Plan B, on the other hand...
My eyes widen suddenly, and focus on something beyond Thug Prime's shoulder. It is merely a stock photo of the Academy City skyline, but he does not need to know that. "Holy shit," I breathe, "it's the cops!"
"Yeah, like I'm going to fall for oof," Thug Prime responds. The "oof" is a rough approximation of the sound he makes as my fist exerts approximately 2.1 kilonewtons of force upon his chest because, as it turns out, you don't actually need to turn all the way around in order for someone to sucker-punch you. Even a split second's distraction will do the trick.
Now, 2.1 kN sounds like a whole lot of apples, but I have been informed by Wikip—uh—a reliable source that it's actually about average for martial artists, boxers, MMA fighters, and other such people who are trained in the art and science of hurting other people with their fists.
I am, arguably, one of these people, which is why I am capable of carefully targeting the punch to inflict only moderate pain, not to injure or disable. In fact, it would be entirely accurate to say that its primary purpose was to incite rage and a desire for retribution.
Yomikawa-sensei would be ashamed.
Yomikawa-sensei shouldn't be anywhere near here, thankfully. And, because running away is a critical element of this half-baked plan and getting beaten to a pulp is not, neither should I. Before the pain signals from Thug Prime's nerve endings finish making their way through the alcohol-induced traffic jam leading to his brain, I vault over a nearby table and take a relatively thug-free path to the restaurant's exit. Without even looking back, I slam two crumpled banknotes—one bearing the number 500 and the other twice that—onto the front counter concealing the cash register, mumble an indistinct apology to the dumbstruck waitress and the incoming customers I damn near ran over, and burst through the front door just as I hear the first "Get 'im!"
There follows a great deal of running. Running on sidewalks, running across streets, running through dingy alleyways, et cetera. Cars are dodged, pedestrians are shoved...you know the drill. The thug horde proves remarkably persistent in their chase; it's nearly a kilometer and a half before my occasional looks back reveal them to have given up the chase. By then I've made it to one of Academy City's numerous bridges across the Tama River, and I'm pretty damn far away from any part of town I'm familiar with. I slow to a stop, panting, my shirt soaked with sweat. I'm in damn good shape, but the human body has limits. I take a minute to catch my breath, to wait for the pain to subside.
Then I turn around to check again...
...and there he is. I size him up: About my age. Average height, unremarkable face. Black hair, spiked, which isn't something you see much anymore. High school summer uniform. Looks cheap—he's not at any of the really nice schools, so he's probably not a high-level esper. Which means he's got serious big brass ones, to take on eight guys at once like that. But that's just what's bugging me.
"Here's what I don't get," I say by way of greeting. "Any single one of your responses, taken in isolation, makes sense." I hold up my fist, and raise one finger. "Try to intervene peacefully for my sake? Okay, I'm not gonna hold a little white-knighting against you." Two fingers: "Punch the guy? Sure; violence usually does solve these kinds of problems." And three: "Run away with your tail between your legs? I could hardly blame you. But." I lower fingers and fist and do my best to look thoughtful. "The end goal implied by any one of those doesn't really gel with the other two. You did all three. And it's not like you suddenly lost your nerve, either; you didn't try the pretend-you-know-me thing or the punch until after you'd already seen the reinforcements."
"What happened to them?" His expression is neutral.
And just like that, it all clicks into place. "Oh my God." I grin and snap my fingers, intentionally letting them spark. He doesn't flinch or even look surprised; hypothesis rapidly gaining further support. "You weren't protecting me; you knew who I was, and you were protecting them. You actually were. That is—wow. You are something else." I shake my head. I have a feeling I know who this guy is now. Still needs experimental confirmation, though. I look him straight in the eye and run a hand through my hair, amplifying the natural static buildup until it crackles visibly. He stands his ground. "Say...Do you know what a railgun is?"
Time seems to slow to a halt, as the arcade token falls back towards my outstretched thumb. I see the guy begin to dive out of the way, the expression on his face making it clear that he knows it probably won't help much. I feel the hum of the electromagnetic fields around me as arcs of electricity crackle across my arm. The coin falls lower and lower...
Until I flip my hand over and catch it in my palm. Huh. Heads.
The guy, meanwhile, has just taken a pavement dive that looks no less painful for its intentionality, and is tightly plugging his ears with his fingers. Smart of him. He opens one eye, and gradually realizes that he hasn't suffered death by supersonic arcade token.
"Jeez, is my rep really that bad?" I ask him, idly flipping the coin a few more times as he pulls himself to his feet. "People think I just railgun random dudes who try to help me? I mean, I've never even actually killed anyone. The delinquents are fine, by the way. A little crispier than they used to be, but nothing worth freaking out about."
He's brushing himself off now. "You're a Level 5," he says with a shrug. "You're all some kind of batshit crazy."
"Aw, now that's just mean." I grin at him, but mentally tick off all the other Level 5's I've met or heard about. Accelerator...Shokuhou...Meltdown...freaking Sogiita...holy crap, he's right. "What makes you think I'm crazy?"
"Well, you did just kind of string me along into thinking you were about to casually murder me."
"Which you would only actually believe if you already thought I was psychologically unstable. So now we're back to square one."
"No, I...but...uh..." He buries his face in his hand. "I'm way too tired for this. Can I go home now?"
"Not just yet," I say, still grinning. "I want to confirm one last thing."
"I just wanna know what happens when I do this!"
"This" is a bolt of electricity aimed in his general direction. It's not a normal bolt; I'm manually guiding the electrons along a specific path instead of altering the relative electrical charges at source and target and letting physics do the rest of the work. The result is something that looks like a lightning bolt, but carries practically no energy and travels slightly slower than a Little League fastball.
And...yep, there we go.
The guy doesn't do the sensible thing and dodge this time. Instead, he raises his right hand, and holds it out in front of him, almost like he's telling the bolt to halt where it stands. At the last second, I tweak the path of the bolt, guiding it dead into the center of his palm.
And halt it does.
A fraction of a centimeter from the surface of the guy's skin, I suddenly lose control over the electron beam. Without much of an electric field to push them anywhere, the electrons go back to behaving like normal, harmless subatomic particles again. The end result is that when the light show's subsided, he's standing there unscathed. (Not that that weaksauce excuse for a lightning bolt would have done much more than stung his pride.) Hypothesis confirmed.
"So that's who you are," I say. "Never really believed it before. 'IPD fields don't work that way,' I thought; 'there's no way anyone could actually have that as a power!' Shows what I know, I guess." I roll my eyes self-deprecatingly. "So is it really just your hand, or—"
I blink. He's running away again.
...He's a really fast runner.
Yes, it's just my hand.
Well, technically, the effect extends up my right forearm, and ends roughly at my elbow joint. Starting at precisely 6.39 millimeters above the skin of that part of my arm, IPD fields quite simply do not form, and will dissipate within 85 microseconds of entering that space. The rest of my body has a much weaker version of the same effect; IPD fields won't form inside me, but they won't dissipate quite as quickly. I have no control over the size or strength of this anti-IPD field, with one exception: If I can touch another esper with my right hand, and maintain physical contact, their powers will stop working until I let go.
"IPD", by the way, stands for Involuntary Physical Distortion. Which is kind of a misnomer, as the existence of IPD fields is only relevant when they're very much voluntary. Supposedly, all human brains emit weak IPD fields naturally, as a simple byproduct of thinking so damn much. Espers, though, have control over the IPD fields they emit, which, through mechanisms that are as of yet poorly understood, allow them to make the laws of physics dance for them.
Except for me. I can't do anything but maintain normality. Now, granted, it's still enough to get me ranked as a Level 1 esper (Powers Too Weak To Be Useful Except Under Very Rare And Unusual Circumstances), but I have strong reason to believe they were seriously considering designating me as a Level 0 (No Powers Whatsoever Despite Undergoing the Kihara Process). It is fortunate for me that they didn't, as being a Level 1 means I'm ever-so-slightly more valuable as a potential research subject, and thus receive a slightly larger stipend for living here.
That increase helps offset the medical bills.
You see, one's social status in Academy City is largely determined by two major factors: one's powers, and the quality of one's school. Due to the aforementioned stipend system, the former tends to lead directly to the latter. As such, one's place in the overall pecking order can generally be estimated by one's Level, and—especially at the lower end of the power spectrum—trying to break out of that order can rapidly result in getting higher-Level powers violently applied to one's face.
But once in a while you get someone whose powers don't quite fit into the normal order of things. Someone who breaks the rules by their very existence. It's the kind of thing that draws a lot of attention: people hear that some Level 2 or 3 thug got the crap beaten out of him by a Level 1, and suddenly they're falling all over themselves to either praise that Level 1 as some kind of working-class hero, or try and prove that they're not weak enough to get taken down by some L1 weakling.
And when they find out that they are, in fact, weak enough (or, more accurately, unskilled and overconfident enough) to get taken down by that L1 weakling, well, the cycle begins anew.
You can probably see why someone in my position, with my luck, might want to learn as much about both esper powers and self-defense as he can.
I mentioned the thing about my luck, right? Because it bears repeating: I have approximately the worst luck in the world. The kind of luck that, on this of all nights, would lead me to turn a blind corner while walking to the bus stop and crash face-first into Yomikawa-sensei. Yes, the same Yomikawa-sensei who would be ashamed of the punch I threw earlier.
"Eh?" she inquires as I just about bounce off of her. "Oh! Hey! Touma-kun! Fanshy runnin' into you thish time o' night!" Being a full ten centimeters taller than me, she's normally the kind of person who can look imposing without even trying. The effect is almost ruined, however, by the fact that her cheeks are currently roughly the color of a ripe tomato, and her jet-black hair, normally kept in a perfectly-maintained ponytail, is now...well..."unkempt" would be putting it generously.
Almostruined. I begin looking for possible escape routes.
"What? Touma's here?" Another voice pipes up from beside her, and I look way down to see what appears to be a pink-haired teenage girl, leaning on Yomikawa-sensei's arm and obviously just as sloshed as her elder. "Hey, Touma-kun!"
"Uh, hi," I say back, trying to sound nonchalant. "Nice evening, isn't it?" Both Yomikawa Aiho and Tsukuyomi Komoe are teachers at my high school. Tsukuyomi-sensei teaches physics, while Yomikawa-sensei does P.E., as well as being our school's assigned ACPD officer. It's well-known that they're good friends, and that they have a fondness for imbibing gratuitous amounts of alcohol if they can get away with it.
Yomikawa-sensei, however, is also a self-defense instructor. My self-defense instructor. And she is already vaguely aware that I am perhaps not doing as great a job as I could be of following the first and most important rule of the Krav Maga variant that she teaches: Avoid Confrontation If Reasonably Possible. Combined with the fact that it's the middle of the night and I look pretty banged up, well, this could get really awkward. Well, drunk as she is right now, maybe she won't notice—
"Touma-kun." She frowns and squints down at me. "You don't look so good. Did you get in a fight again?" Her posture's straightened noticeably, and most of the slur's gone from her voice. Either she's far less drunk than she was acting, or she has the power to sober up at will; I wouldn't put either possibility past her.
"Uh...not really, no."
"Not really?" She raises an eyebrow. "Then where'd all those cuts and scrapes come from?"
"They're not from the fight—" Shit.
"Oh, so there was a fight."
"You shouldn't get in fightsh, Touma-kun," her companion pipes up. "It'sh...bad and stuff."
"It wasn't exactly a fight per se—"
"Were people punched or kicked?"
At no point does the possibility of lying even cross my mind. "...Yes."
Yomikawa-sensei sighs and pinches the bridge of her nose. "Tell me you didn't throw the first punch."
"I was helping someone!"
"Did they want your help?"
"Well...uh...they didn't know they needed it?"
The interrogation continues in that vein for a while, until she's extracted the very last detail out of me, informed me as to which of my actions were mistakes (all of them), and given me advice as to what I should have done. (Short version: I should have ignored it altogether, or if I felt really guilty, informed Thug Prime as to just who he was hitting on.) The whole experience makes me feel a bit like a preschooler being told why he's getting a time-out.
"...And since I have been training you for eight years and you still seem to be having trouble comprehending some of these basic concepts, you will be showing up for lessons tomorrow evening," she concludes, eyes narrowed. "Capisce?"
"Capisce," I say with a sigh.
"Excellent! See you tomorrow, Kamijou-kun," she says with a frankly rather terrifying grin. "Best get some sleep."
"Bye, Touma-kun!" Tsukuyomi-sensei adds cheerfully, as we part ways. I check my phone briefly—yep. Missed the bus. Just my luck.
Oh, by the way? Yes, "Tsukuyomi Komoe" was referring to Yomikawa-sensei's apparently teenaged drinking buddy. Yes, she is an actual teacher at my school, and yes, she is apparently of legal age. (And then some; her exact age is an eternal mystery, but she's got at least half a decade on Yomikawa.) Why did she apparently stop aging at 15? Who knows? Odds are, some kind of crazy anti-aging research was going on way back when. Hell, I'd be surprised if there wasn't. Superpowers, immortal kid teachers, quantum hypercomputers, cyborg cops, space-launch loops, and middle-schoolers with robot armies...I head home that night secure in my knowledge that this city can't possibly get any weirder.
Tomorrow morning, a girl named Index Librorum Prohibitorum will fall out of the sky onto my apartment balcony, tell me that magic is real, and proceed to eat all of my food.
See what I mean about my luck?