I have always admired Kamachi for his world-building and handle on diversity among characters. NT15 was a deciding moment for my interest in the series' plot as well. I'm glad to see that he's not afraid to put even characters that have been around from the start through new hardships.

This is an attempt at exploring one(?) possible(?) development from here on.

At the same time, it's an experiment. You'll find a narrative more similar to Kamachi's writing style than what I usually use. I wanted to give it a shot and see what I could do with it. Please tell me what you think!

(Unofrtunately, the formatting must abide FF's rules.)

XXX

Just This Once

XXX

Part 1

In District 7, there was a certain popular game arcade. It was popular because despite the somewhat above-average prices, it always held the newest games. Every month or so, a corner would be dedicated to some new title and it'd be swarmed by players. It was late June. Just last week a popular new ThunderWheels game was launched, a game famous for its revolutionary use of VR glasses combined with crazy power-ups and realistic feedback from the driver's seat and steering wheel. But even if the game was popular enough to reach top ten most played in just a single day, the game area was strangely unbalanced in population. In particular, one part of the game area looked to be actively avoided. That might be because being carelessly struck by wild lightning was only a fool's dream.

"Gooooooood daaaaaammiiiiiiiiiiiiiit!" A young girl with brown hair and the skirt and blazer of the prestigious Tokiwadai Middle School uniform sat in one of the booths there. She violently twisted the steering wheel as if it was the neck of a certain spiky-haired boy. The timer in the right hand corner of her dashboard showed she was still in the lead, but the flat sports car she was driving had just taken an unforeseen slide through a puddle and had cost her precious seconds. From within the car's driver seat, she saw a blue sports car zoom past.

"I won't let you wiiiiiiiiiiiin!" The girl let out blue crackles while furiously hitting the accelerator. The virtual car spurred its wheels and shot off down the track, shooting past digital spectators in a blur that actually made it feel like the hair on her neck stood on end. While the cars could be tweaked into gaining an insane top speed, the game wasn't just about getting the best time. The tracks were full of obstacles, often set in a natural environment like a forest road or city, and a major part of the game was based on forcefully pushing your opponent out of the track and into those obstacles. Bonus points were awarded if their car burst into flames. It was a game where esper powers held no meaning, and thus Level 5s and Level 0s stood on equal footing when playing. Mikoto's opponent could be an elementary school student that had just enrolled, or a teacher with a gaming hobby.

On this particular map, there was a certain shortcut only those who'd bothered looking up details on the forums would know about. Mikoto accelerated and accelerated until the map burst past at mind-blowing speeds. Her grin carried the air of a demon as she cut through that shortcut and onto the main track once more. The opponent's car had taken the long way around and as a result, they hit the same point of the track at the same time. There was a big difference however. The opponent drove one of the generic pre-customized cars that anyone could choose from at the start of the game. If one played for a while and gathered XP points, upgrades and customisations could be bought to personalize your style.

"Take this!" With a cry of victory, Mikoto activated her car's special ability. The sideview mirrors opened like cans of mackerel to reveal what looked like tiny tesla coils.

They shot a blasting beam at the other car. The other driver tried to avoid it, but Mikoto had spent enough points in that ability for it to never miss at this distance. The beam engulfed the other car and suddenly, it vanished.

It hadn't been erased off the track, but right now that other driver found themselves back at the previous checkpoint. It was called the Timesplitter. Basically, it used the principle of wormholes to send opponents several seconds backwards in time. That was the developer's explanation at least.

It was a powerful tool in itself, but it had counters in other abilities within the game. However, the timing was half of the tactic for this particular ability. As a result of being thrown back several seconds, the driver who had been prepared to make a sharp turn would instead find themselves at a different point ofthe track. For the inexperienced driver, that sudden change was enough of a surprise to enforce a mistake. Mikoto watched the other ThunderWheel veer and crash into the track's railing via her back mirror.

"Ahahahaha!" Laughing like a madman, Mikoto tore across the finish line to the cheers of virtual on-lookers. Golden letters burst out in front of her eyes. "I beat the highscore? Guess I can use the extra points for some upgrades on the seat comfort… it sure feels like a rollercoaster at times." She sighed and pulled the VR glasses off. They disconnected once removed, but all of her progress would be saved at the developer's dedicated servers until next time she logged in. Uuuuh… how long have I been at it today? I left the dorm at noon and now it feels like dinner time. Mikoto tiredly climbed out of the chair without noticing the other gamers nearby carefully keeping their distance. She picked up whatever arcade coins the game had awarded her for winning, and without even considering exchanging them for real money, she headed for the main entrance. Maybe I'll ask the others to come next time. Playing is more fun if there are more people. As it was, Uiharu and Kuroko were both busy with Judgment and Saten-san had other plans as well.

She sighed as the automatic doors slid open, and looked up at the sky. Her steps stopped like she'd suddenly ran out of batteries. The sky, or rather what should have been the sky, was just a black hole. It stretched on endlessly and swallowed the buildings in the horizon. What the hell? It had not only swallowed the sky, but also the city. Outside the sliding doors, there was nothing but pitch black darkness. If she took one more step, would she fall into a never-ending oblivion? Or was it a hallucination? She blinked and turned back to look inside, but there was no game arcade anymore. The same blackness had swallowed the place she'd just spent several hours, not a single beep or flash of light penetrating the dark.

"Eeeeh?"

Her heart beat faster.

Was this some sort of esper power? Where was the enemy she should attack? She turned her head, but there was nothing to see in any direction.

There was no target.

A painful stab pierced her chest. It felt like the darkness was pressing in on her from every side.

It was hard to breathe.

What was happening? She couldn't even see her own hands, as if the darkness slowly swallowed up her body too.

Then a hand shot out from the darkness like a grappling hook. It latched onto her arm and pulled her into the embrace of another person. Mikoto had no time to ask who it was or what their intention was before she had a sense of tilting over. There was no way for her to know whether that actually happened or not. Maybe it was just the dark fooling with her senses. There was a burst of light, then a noise like that of a starting jet engine. It grew and grew until her ear drums throbbed and then as suddenly as it came, it vanished.

She was looking at a miniature landscape. It was a city. Academy City? Normally, a person wouldn't be able to recognize a city just from seeing it upside down from the height of a passenger airplane. However, Mikoto had seen Academy City from this angle before. Which meant – I'm falling!

Rather than wonder how she'd ended up here, Mikoto began manipulating magnetism to prepare for landing. However, as the sparks flew from her bangs, someone's arms slipped around her torso.

"Let me, Onee-sama."

A familiar voice spoke, and then their surroundings shifted. Instead of falling through the sky, they appeared on a rooftop. The wind whipped past them and Mikoto shivered as she turned, "Thanks Kuroko. What the hell happened? I thought you were bus—!?"

She'd expected to see her roommate and junior. But the person in front of her who wore a suit like some special agent complete with a holstered gun was both taller and older than Kuroko. Wha-what is this? We were definitely teleporting, and she has pigtails, but it isn't Kuroko? There was only one other person that came to mind with a teleporting ability, but since when did that person call her something like 'Onee-sama'?

"Really though, Onee-sama. To find you in an arcade on a brilliant summer day, are you sure you're actually in second year of middle school?"

"It really is herrrrrrrrr!?"

"Wait, you are in second year, right?"

"…." Something strange was going on. It didn't take the Ace of Tokiwadai's level of grades or the mind of the #3 of Academy City to figure out that much. It was plainly obvious. Firstly, the person before her carried unmistakable characteristics shared by her roommate. There was only one problem. Just how old is this girl who is pretending to be my junior?

Yes. The person was definitely reminiscent of Shirai Kuroko. But she was also at least two years older. Mikoto based her guess on a few facts. One, her hair was longer, but still tied up in those curly pigtails. Second, she was as tall as Mikoto, if not even a little more so. Third, and most importantly, there were certain areas on her body that had undergone a development that normally didn't happen overnight. Basically... W-Why are those so big!?

Meanwhile, the girl watched Mikoto try to figure things out.

"Onee-sama, while I find the attention welcome, this is no time for you to stare at Kuroko's boobs."

"Pfwah!? I was NOT staring! Who'd be jealous of those semi-flat C-cup sized not-quite-melons anyway!"

For some reason, the girl who pretended to be Kuroko burst out laughing. Before Mikoto could snap at her, "Ooooooooi! Shirai-san, we saw you landing, are you okay!?"

Another voice reached them through the cold winds.

The roof they'd landed on was not just a flat roof on a skyscraper. It looked like a roof terrace, complete with a picnic table and flowers rustling in the wind. The edge was completely fenced in, and in the middle of the roof stood a box containing the pathway up from the level below. The door there was already open, and two more ghosts from the future stood in the opening.

"Wait is this supposed to be some sort of Back to the Future parody? There's no way those black-haired beauties are Saten-san and Uiharu-san!"

Mikoto was entering something like a shocked daze. Suddenly being ripped away from the arcade and deposited into somewhere insane like this must be taxing alone, but now there were something else adding to that stress.

"Misaka-san! It's really Misaka-san!? Woaaaah!" Saten Ruiko was as enthusiastic as a dog given its favorite treat.

"I-I didn't think it'd actually work…" Uiharu Kazari's eyes were as big as apples as they both approached quickly.

"S-Stay away with those unnatural things! What the hell is going on!?" Mikoto uselessly tried to resist. It was of no help against the hands that grabbed her and pulled her into a soft cushioned hug.

"That's amazing! She's the real thing! I'd forgotten all about her adorable blush!" Like kittens, the girls squealed over her while hugging her close. Too close! In fact, they are more like seals than felines, with all that excess fat on their chest! Mikoto was just about letting out bluish-white sparks in a thoughtless defensive reaction, when a harsh wind blew against them. It cut at their skin through the clothes like a frozen knife, and Mikoto who did not wear any protection for the cold shuddered violently. Uiharu's skirt fluttered up and she pushed it back down with a squeal (though she wore warm leggings beneath), while Saten-san used a hand to shadow her eyes and look out over the horizon. She seemed to be wearing a warm coat over her normal clothes.

"It's getting denser, isn't it?"

"Mm." Kuroko, who strangely stayed out of the hug assault, looked over as well. First then did Mikoto realize there was something covering the sky in that direction. In fact, no matter what direction she looked, it was the same. Huge, black clouds rolled across the sky. Only above them was the sky still blue. It was like they were stuck in the eye of a hurricane, but the occasional blast of wind would tear past and threaten to knock them off their feet. The wind on top of the building wasn't simply due to it being a high point.

"A storm?" Not that she'd been outside to see it, but hadn't today been a sunny summer day?

But it wasn't that simple. No matter where she looked, the clouds seemed to stretch on endlessly. At times they lit up from a distant lightning strike above them. It was like being in the middle of the ominous build-up of a disaster movie.

"Uiharu, how's it coming?"

"We need about two more hours. It's at 94% right now."

Sudden goosebumps ran down Mikoto's arms and it wasn't only due to the cold. Kuroko's heavy sigh made her even more puzzled.

"We may not have that long. The shield is already giving in and anymore casualties would mean trouble."

"Ahhh, we have enough trouble already…" Saten Ruiko did not wear her flowery hair decoration and her hair was long enough to touch her butt, but Uiharu Kazari still had that impressive hairband and was about as tall as Mikoto. Really, there was no doubt it was supposed to be her junior classmate and friends.

"We need to get going. Onee-sama, please come with us."

Mikoto blinked twice. "Ummmm…"

"Woah, she looks like she fell out of a pit!"

"That's basically what happened. I miscalculated and nearly lost her in the flow. Even with all those precautions, the summoning is still too unstable to secure properly."

"I guess that one-eyed lady didn't leave us with a proper manual."

"I have no possession of anymore past relics either. This was our last shot."

They were speaking of something far too complicated above her head. Mikoto's temple twitched.

"This reminds me of a certain idiot…"

The wind blasted past them again and threatened to pull Uiharu's hairband off. At the same time, Mikoto's teeth clattered as she put her arms around herself in a futile effort to keep warm.

"We shall explain once inside. For now, let's get out of here before we freeze into icicles."

"Oh, like you wouldn't like to lick a Railgun-cicle~"

"Pfwah!?" Mikoto nearly bit her tongue.

XXX

Part 2

Mikoto had thought the building they'd landed on was a normal office building or apartment complex. From the looks of it, they were in Academy City's District 7, and the city was surrounded by a powerful storm on all sides like a ship caught at sea. The building swayed from the wind rocking its very foundation and even while walking through the corridors, the ceiling and walls creaked around them. Mikoto felt like a giant wave might burst through and sweep them away any moment. She tried to rub her arms warm while asking her questions.

"So what happened? Really, this isn't just some crazy dream, is it? Did the VR equipment encounter a weird bug and create a life-like hallucination within the game? If that's the case, where are the race cars!?"

"Aaaah, I think Misaka-san is talking in riddles more than anyone…"

"It's cute though, isn't it? Just like it used to be." Saten-san grinned while Uiharu looked worried. They both walked in front, while Kuroko wandered behind. Mikoto glanced at her over her shoulder and saw that the strangely grown girl was looking at the floor. Is that really Kuroko? Still makes no sense at all…

It wasn't just that she looked older. Unlike Saten-san and Uiharu-san, Kuroko didn't seem to be entirely like herself. If this is a figment of my imagination, could it be she finally adopted a personality that somewhat resembles human? Mikoto, while suffering from cold shock, was hopelessly trying to explain the situation using conventional means. Then she realized. A hallucination or VR equipment would not be able to reproduce the feeling of cold.

"Unless it somehow affected my brain!?"

"Pfwahaha! Misaka-san, want me to pinch your cheeks? Actually, maybe I should pinch those tiny little boobs of yours instead~"

"What did you say!?" Zap, zap!

"Saten-san! M-Misaka-san!"

The tense situation didn't end before someone touched Mikoto's shoulder. It was Kuroko, wearing an expression like a special agent who just found his client murdered. "Watch the electricity, Onee-sama. We're on our last generator and even now we have to keep the output on a minimum to charge the umbrella."

Mikoto let the sparks from her temple die down. So that's why we're using the stairs.

"Charge an umbrella? What, does it have automatic drier built into it?"

"Hmm, it's easier to show you."

Mikoto suddenly dreaded they'd have to walk the stairs down for twenty whole floors, but luckily they stopped descending on the next one. They went through a door into a corridor that was only dimly lit by the yellowish light of the emergency exit signs. The air was dense with electronic signals from a computer-like device, which Mikoto normally wouldn't have been able to single out due to disturbances. That made her realize something. Electronically speaking, the city which prided itself on being the center of technological advance was basically dead. Something like that shouldn't be possible without shutting off every single electric apparatus within miles.

"(What's going on here…?)"

"Here we are, the heart of the Resistance's headquarters!" Uiharu proudly presented what sounded like a blatant ripoff of a famous science fiction series, but the door she opened looked just like the door to any normal apartment.

"What do you mean…?" Mikoto pondered as they walked inside. From the name, she'd expected a pub filled with hard cowboy-like gunslingers with scars from countless battles, but the inside of the apartment was nothing like that. Though, in no reasonable way could it be called an apartment at all. Where the kitchen had once been stood a command center with several monitors showing various angles of the apartment building and the city around it, including the rooftop they'd just left. It must be connected to several wireless cameras attached to the building in key locations, giving them a full 360 view of the surroundings. The living room with two large windows and a small veranda gave a view directly towards District 7's Windowless Building in the distance. It nearly vanished against the ominous clouds which glowed eerily behind it.

In front of those windows stood a single device. It looked like a giant beach parasol made of white cloth which had not been unfolded. The base looked as if it could rotate a full 360 degrees. Beside it stood a generator which hummed and coughed as it slowly burned through the fuel needed for it to work. It was not an impressive sight. Something like a giant rifle with a vacuum pack on it stood beside the generator. It seemed to be connected to it somehow. It all looked like a crude solution.

"I guess even a parallel universe can't perfectly replicate Academy City's technology…"

"What's that you're muttering about, Misaka-san?"

A new voice made her look over. This, at least, was someone who hadn't changed significantly. Konori Mii looked familiar, even if there were something more mature about her features. Mikoto was surprised to find that her chest hadn't changed enough to mention. Eh? Why am I suddenly feeling sad? Is it because there seems to be a natural limit after all? So what!? That doesn't mean I've hit mine!

Meanwhile, Konori-senpai smiled with a melancholic air. "You went and did it after all, Kuroko. I guess you're the same as always."

"It's the only way."

"Yet you don't really think it'll change anything, do you? At best, if Misaki-chan's theory is correct, we'll only be able to affect some other line."

Kuroko looked like she wanted to say that was better than nothing, but Mikoto couldn't know for sure. In the first place, the topic of conversation was difficult to catch onto. In fact, she still didn't know anything at all.

"Don't tell me that this Misaki-chan is—"

"My, it's Misaka-san! Glomp~"

"Gyaaaaaaaaah it is her! Why is she here!? And why is she the only one who's grown beyond the ridiculous!?" Mikoto yelled from within the confines of a soft prison, but no one came to her rescue. Just as she was about to let out sparks to free herself, Shokuhou Misaki pushed her away in order to look at her closely. Then she beamed her trademark smile.

"She's so tiny!"

"Don't speak as if I'm not here, you meat-monster! And don't pinch my cheek eitheeeeeeeer!"

There was a sudden rumble and everyone moved their attention to the window. Even Mikoto, who didn't understand at all what was going on, looked over. In the distance was the Windowless Building. Normally it just stood there silently and impenetrable, but now there were flashes of light in the sky above the building, like some kind of new missile was detonating in the air. The noise of a deep rumble followed each one.

"The attacks are back."

"Wonder how long the shield will last."

The room grew exceptionally gloomy. Mikoto scratched her head and sighed in resignation. I was too caught up in silly things.

Beep, beep, beep.

There was an alarm-like sound from the control panel.

"Oh no!" Uiharu must have noticed something on the screens. "The outpost is signaling trouble. It looks like they're being overrun!"

"The timing's terrible!" Kuroko turned towards Saten-san. "Saten, we have to go. Konori-senpai, keep an eye on the generator and the east wing! We don't have much time left! Misaki-chan—"

"Don't worry, I'm already on it~ They're safe and sound in the shelter."

Kuroko nodded while Saten-san disconnected the big gun from the generator and hoisted it up. It couldn't be as heavy as it looked, or Saten-san had gained some muscle.

"Wait, what's going on? I'll go with you!"

"Onee-sama, while your power would be invaluable, this enemy is far too dangerous and there is no time for explanations. I cannot allow you to come to harm after bringing you here like this. Please stay and assist in any way you can from here this time."

Normally, Mikoto would have protested that she was fully capable of taking care of herself, but Kuroko hadn't mentioned either Judgment duty or civilians, and her expression was unfamiliar. Before Mikoto could pinpoint what it was, she and Saten-san were gone.

Her first reaction was to go after them. But she had no idea where they'd gone, and without fully grasping the situation, she wouldn't know whether or not she'd be leaving Uiharu and the others in danger.

"…" She looked at Uiharu, who were adjusting some values on one of the screens and muttering to herself all the while.

"…" She looked at Konori-senpai, who worriedly hovered over the generator which seemed to be on its last breath while feeding the strange device known as an umbrella.

"You look like your comprehension ability is on its last breath."

That was Shokuhou-san, the only one who seemed strangely relaxed in this situation. She'd sat into the only furniture in the room that could have belonged in an apartment. It was a sofa, and in front of it stood a table, but even that was not a regular table. It was just a bunch of empty boxes stacked on top of each other.

"If I didn't know better, I'd assume that Timesplitter ability had gone rogue and affected the real world. Is this supposed to be some sort of parallel dimension?"

"That's your conclusion at this point?" The Level 5 Mental Out asked.

"Is that a trick question?" Mikoto sat down beside her, sighing. "There are a lot of possible explanations, and it's not like I have extensive personal experience with any of them. A dream or a hallucination seems the most reasonable ones. There is a chance all of the five senses can be replicated in either of those."

"True. Scientists are debating over certain aspects of the brain in that regard. So is that what you've decided to believe?"

"You make it sound like a major decision…"

Shokuhou rested her elbow on her knee and her chin on her hand. There was a smirk on her lips that Mikoto found annoying.

"Don't you find it odd?"

"What's odd?" Naturally, a lot of things were strange and unfamiliar. The question was too broad to answer.

"If you look at it from a logical perspective, this is no longer the Academy City you were in just a little while ago, right? But it is still Academy City. And the people you've met are people you already know, but not the same after all."

"…." Mikoto couldn't help but feel like this was a trap. "Are you trying to underline the fact that you've become an old hag since last time?"

"I'm not that old!"

"That's not what it looks like to anyone else! If the norm is to grow 2,5 centimeters a year throughout puberty then you have to be at least 80 years old!"

"Then what does that make you, a toddler?"

"What was thaaaat!?"

The two Level 5s glared at each other until Konori-senpai coughed. "You two. Is this really the time?"

"Hmph." Mikoto crossed her arms, while Misaki smiled foxily.

"We still didn't touch upon the main point though."

"Which is?" Mikoto snapped. If there was a point here, it was well hidden.

"If this is not a parallel dimension, and the only difference between your Academy City and this Academy City is the age of those who live in it and the state of the weather, there is only one conclusion, right?"

"Are you trying to make me say the ridiculous part of your speech? That this is the future or something?"

"Look it up on your phone, if it still works."

Still dubious, Mikoto fished out her Gekota phone from her pocket. As she did, the two seniors(!?) suddenly began chuckling.

"What!? Don't ask me to take out my phone and then laugh upon seeing it, you moron! This is a super rare limited edition!"

"S-Sorry, Misaka-san. It's just, seeing that here, at this time-!" Konori-senpai wiped her eyes. Realizing it was a losing battle, Mikoto huffed and flipped her phone open to look at the time.

..eh? Her eyes grew. Even with all the evidence, she hadn't really believed it. But now, there was nothing left to hang onto. Wait, did they mess with the satellites? Is this actually the case?

Today was two years beyond the actual today's date. In other words, where the date on her phone had previously been a certain year and a certain day, it now showed that same date plus two years. Mikoto's mind began spinning. H-How? Did Academy City's research into time and space actually come this far in just two years? Or were they already grasping at this technology back then? Wait, when is 'then'? There are so many conflicting theories surrounding this subject that I can't believe they've actually mastered a way of doing it!

"Wait, if that's the case, what happened to my high score!? Wait, why am I worried about that? Is this some kind of mental breakdown!?"

Misaki picked at an invisible spot on her skirt. It wasn't the Tokiwadai uniform, but Mikoto remembered it from some high school in District 7.

"Disregarding that, you can assume this isn't another reality, although it might just be called that after all. Amongst the numerous theories about time travel, only three stand out as somewhat comprehensible. Do you know the paradox of a dynamic timeline or the theory about multiverses?"

"I don't feel like this is a conversation I'm interested in having with you."

Shokuhou smiled wryly.

"I suppose it doesn't matter now. No matter how much you try to deny it, this is the future for Academy City. Yet doesn't it seem odd? There should be one more person here."

Mikoto blinked. Her thoughts immediately strayed to a certain spiky-haired idiot. Then again, that assumption made no sense. Just because he hadn't shown up in this room, to use that as basis to expect him to not exist at all was beyond the level of a stalker, wasn't it?

"Misaki-chan." Konori-senpai's stern tone cut in.

"Yes, yes, Konori-chaaaan~ Phew, what a tiresome ability, having everyone be reliant on you all the time." Misaki got up and went for the door, taking her giant breasts with her. Mikoto glared after her until the door closed, and then let out a breath.

"I feel like a headache is coming on… did I play too much ThunderWheels?"

"I don't know what that is, but apparently headaches are one possible side effect of traversing the timelines." Konori-senpai said something that normally wouldn't be brought up during a normal conversation.

"Timelines, huh? Are you referring to the theory about multiverses too?"

"You know it already?"

Mikoto sighed. "We read about it during our first year. The fixed timeline theory states there is no way of changing the future no matter what happens in the past. If you go back and kill a dictator he'll just have been replaced by someone equal when you come back. And the paradox of the dynamic timeline makes that one obsolete too. Even if you go back to kill your grandparents, you'll just be stuck in an infinite loop where you are never born, only for you to never kill your grandparents, which means you'll be born either way, just to go back and kill them after all."

"I see. And the multiverse theory is different because it states that changing the past will create a new timeline where that change impacts that new future." The generator began coughing and Konori-senpai turned to adjust a knob.

Meanwhile, Mikoto continued speaking. "So does this have something to do with the ability to teleport?"

"I hadn't expected you to know that much already. Never underestimate Tokiwadai's Ace, huh?" Konori-senpai continued turning the knob to reduce the coughing.

"It's nothing that grand. I simply read a research paper that anyone could get their hands on. It seemed far-fetched at the time, but I guess there is some truth to it."

Mikoto looked over at the beeping control panel where Uiharu were talking into what looked like some old-fashioned radio equipment. Something was happening on her screens, which seemed to have been focused on a single point. Several dots resembling humans ran across the screen like it was a traditional RPG.

"…it regarded the existence of several dimensions beyond the three or four normal humans can perceive. Teleportation makes use of the 11th dimension, but some scientists thinks it isn't impossible that the principle used for this type of ability can also be the basis for actual time travel. Though at the time of the article, they'd only managed to return a single atom's state to its previous state a few minutes ago. Making use of that to move people through space and time seems a far cry."

"Hmm. Yet here you are."

Mikoto sighed. "Seems so. I guess it isn't impossible with an external device helping out with the calculations, but even so, it'd require something to pinpoint the exact location of the time one wish to go to."

"Or the person one wants to call."

It was difficult to discuss something that should be impossible. Yet Mikoto wasn't labeled a genius for nothing.

"So by using an item that belonged to a person from a certain time period, it is possible to perform a complex level of teleportation through the time stream." Kuroko had stated something along those lines. It was their last shot. Indicating that she'd been trying several times, and that whatever item used would lose its value in the process. Perhaps it's one of those strange theories about objects having an AIM field of their own… As she thought that, her eyes wandered over the room and landed on the strange device currently being charged by the coughing generator.

"...No, it makes no sense."

"What?" Konori-senpai looked up at her.

"Given that there is such a complicated procedure to perform a time travel, it had to be done for a special kind of reason. I doubt you guys wanted to invite a guest merely for the fun of watching you struggle. It might be that you wanted someone from the future instead, but maybe that went wrong. Also, I can't believe we're having this discussion."

Konori-senpai shook her head. "No, Misaka-san. It was definitely you they wanted to call."

"…" Something about Konori-senpai's expression was oddly melancholic. Given the circumstances of the city here, she might have seen some things she'd rather not.

It was hard to comment on and it felt like she'd poke into something private. Mikoto turned her attention elsewhere.

"So what's up with the umbrella thing?"

"Oh!" That was Uiharu. She swivelled around with a beam so bright it could light up a room. "Actually, that's a really interesting thing to ask!"

Konori-senpai sighed. "The short version please, Uiharu-san. You still need to monitor the outpost."

"Alright! Basically, it's a device that uses a mixture of ultrasonic sound waves and a new technology based on the weather rituals of Australian storm hoarders. It can supposedly disperse storms the size of the biggest hurricanes recorded! This is no regular storm however. Merely dispersing it by summoning more winds or binding it in a bottle or knotted rope might not be enough."

"Errr…"

Booooom! The building shook again, but this time it was like a bomb had detonated right outside. The room shook like in an earthquake and sent loose items flying through the room. Mikoto ducked for cover, staying down while the sofa slid back and forth behind her. Uiharu shrieked over at her control station, where two of the computer screens had fallen down and crashed into the floor.

"They're here already!?" Konori-senpai yelled from her side.

"What's going on?" Mikoto yelled back over the continuous roar.

"It's a conundrum. Disturbances in the spatial – whatever, it's going to destroy the building!"

That was no pleasant message at all.

"An esper?" Mikoto wondered out loud.

"No, it's from – the storm outside."

"What the hell are those clouds!?"

Uiharu's voice came from across the room. "The storm has a wide range of EMP effect and all electrical devices become useless within it. The electricity in those clouds is so dense it actually harms the nervous system and even standing at a hundred meter distance from a lightning strike can char you black. K-kiiyaah oh no, the monitor!" There was a crashing noise.

"That's insane!"

Konori-senpai held onto the generator. "The conundrums are physical manifestations of the storm which search out electrical sources. We set up decoys around the city, but they must have sensed the generator after all. Whenever it slices through physical material there's an explosive force released. If we don't do something, the refugees will—!"

There was another booming noise which cut off her sentence. But Mikoto didn't need to hear anymore. Whatever that thing was, it seemed like it would search through the building until it found the generator. She had to do something.

She had to.

She unsteadily got to her feet. Using magnetism on the metal inside the walls and floor to stabilize her balance, she was able to reach the door. She could probably climb down the outside of the building by exiting a window, but if there was more than one enemy out there she'd rather not show them their exact location.

"Konori-senpai, Uiharu-san! Please get out as well!" She yelled before taking off down the hallway. The elevators were still offline and would probably be more dangerous to use than the staircase anyway. It was a basic rule in fire protection. But the shaking of the building told her she didn't have much time. Could she really take her time to run down ten flights of stairs?

"Jeez, fine!" The elevator doors were forced open with a burst of magnetism. There was no elevator inside. Yet Mikoto wasn't looking for the cabin itself. High voltage electricity snapped from her head and slowly cooked through the cable and wires which were used to lift or lower the cabin. It was like a piece of string thread held over the flame of a candle. Suddenly, they snapped and fell into the darkness. The whining noise that followed made Mikoto breathe out.

"Good, it was below. On the off-chance that anyone was inside, they won't fall far."

With such grim reassurance, Academy City's #3 jumped into the elevator shaft. Magnetism struck out and controlled her fall. Like a professional skier she slid down along the wall. Something metallic came into view. It was the elevator cabin. By applying a quick adjustment to the electricity, Mikoto made a smooth landing on top of the cabin. She would have used more magnetism to pull off the service hatch on top of the cabin if there was one, but since the cabin was no longer supported by its cables and wires, it had fallen into the very lowest level. Above her were the doors that would open to the first floor. They were already bent out of shape. I might not be able to simply slide them open at this rate. Oh well, then I'll do this! Electric coils curled out like snakes and enveloped the doors. With a grinding noise they bent inwards, until there was an opening between them large enough for someone of Mikoto's size to slip through. She used her magnetism to climb up, and squeezed through the hole while holding her breath.

"Damn that's a tight fit. Good thing I'm – wait!" She had just been about to admit something terrible. "There's nothing good about it! Gyaaaah this shitty situation is getting even shittier! Now I feel like blowing something up! Where is that monster!?"

While fuming like a coal train, Mikoto ran through the hallway looking up and down intersecting hallways as she passed. "Where are you!? Come out, you bastard, I'll smoke you like a fat turkey!"

As if answering, there was an incredible noise up ahead. Unlike the simple rumbling which came from a collapsing building, this was a high-pitched noise like that of a giant power plant. The hairs on Mikoto's arms stood on end and an uncomfortable sweat broke out on her body. What is this feeling?

The wall up ahead already sported a huge hole, but there was no debris to be seen. It was perfectly rounded at the edges, as if a giant drill had neatly cut through all of the materials. As she pondered that fact, the wall burst open again, this time down the corridor to the right. Mikoto turned on reflex and let out a lightning spear, but the electricity merely hit its target and twisted around until vanished. As it did so, another explosion rang out. Mikoto was thrown off her feet and shielded her face with her arms. The heat of the explosion washed over her. The debris from the first one was sucked in and created more explosions. The chain reaction of explosions threatened to tear the building down. What the hell is that thing!?

It was no human. She might have figured that much, given Konori-senpai's explanation. But even so, one would normally assume to see some sort of recognizable shape. Perhaps a lightning ball, or fire, or something remotely familiar.

This was nothing like it. The thing was about as big as a football, but sometimes appeared larger or smaller. Instead of having a shape, it seemed to float and shift through the air. If one looked closely, perhaps it was reminiscent of a round object, but that was not always the case. Also, it had no visible mass. Instead, it looked to be twisting the air around itself. Mikoto could see the hallway behind it, twisted and bent. If anything, it looked like gas. And yet, she felt it had a consciousness. It was looking at her.

It wasn't gas. In fact, it was nothing she could name even with her knowledge. The only thing she knew for sure was that the thing, whatever it was, ran on energy somehow reminiscent of electricity. Even so, she doubted she could take control of it.

"If you originate from a storm, are you some kind of crazy new ball lightning?" Electricity crackled from her fingers. Was her grin full of confidence or full of apprehension? It didn't matter. "I'll crush you right here before anyone gets hurt!"

She said that much, but… How do I even fight this thing!?

When she tried to use magnetism to crush the thing under pieces of the walls, nothing happened. It wasn't as if her power had ceased working. Instead, rather than affecting the walls like she wanted, the magnetic force seemed to be swallowed up into the being like the electricity had before it. It was something that would normally be considered impossible. Is it a black hole or what?

When she fired electric spears at it, the lightning met the same fate. As if the thing consciously decided when to cause an explosion and when to simply swallow energy like fuel, the electricity vanished into the midst of that thing. Then it would spit the electricity back out and cause more explosions. When she tried to grapple it for control on the basis that it ran on electricity at its core, she met such resistance that it nearly knocked her out with the backlash.

Each time, the thing rushed at her. It crashed into the walls and tore right through, leaving giant holes. Sometimes there was an explosion, sometimes not. Mikoto barely managed to stay at a safe distance by using her magnetism on the walls and ceiling. After just a few attempts at attacking the thing however, it became clear that she was getting nowhere. Rather, she was feeding it energy to continue its rampage. At this rate the building will collapse even quicker!

She had one option. The thing seemed to have set her sights on her rather on the building at large. In that case, she would bring it outside.

Mikoto headed for the exit. The thing followed like an obedient dog. Like a very slow homing missile it floated through the hallways and at times cut through a corner in order to choose the shortest route. That resulted in another explosion and rattled Mikoto's bones. It seems like it's attracted by electricity… or is it just responding to a threat? Mikoto pushed open the entrance doors as she wondered about the nature of her enemy. And… is it just my imagination that there's something distinctly familiar about it? It was a feeling that was hard to explain. She knew she had never seen the thing before, yet she felt like she knew what it was.

Conundrum was a fitting name.

Once outside on the road, she summoned black iron sand and vibrated it like a chainsaw. She did not try to cut the conundrum or wrap it up. Most likely, the iron sand would simply vanish or explode. However, the thing appeared to be chasing her on ground level. In other words, it couldn't fly. Perhaps it could only swallow or rip apart certain materials. In any case, it had to operate on some sort of logic or will, or else it would have eaten itself through the ground and into the earth's core.

"So if I do this—!" By Mikoto's will, the iron sand formed a tornado-like spin. With a flick of her hand it dug into the ground, surrounding the conundrum on all sides. That wasn't all. Merely trapping it like that would make no difference once it reached the iron sand 'wall'. Bluish-white sparks leapt from Mikoto's bangs. She collected power in her fingertips, and the ground which had been cut loose in a wide circle around the thing began to rise. There were enough pipes and iron buried beneath Academy City's roads to make such a feat possible for the #3 Level 5.

Using her control over electricity and magnetism, Mikoto made the piece of asphalt, rock and earth rise into the air and then tip sideways. The conundrum slipped off, so it seemed it could not govern magnetism to stay put on a surface. Mikoto planned to crush it with the ground once it fell into the hole that had been created due to the large mass of earth rising into the air. If her guess was right, it would not be able to 'eat' through the ground.

But as the conundrum fell, the shapeless thing shot out bursts of electric sparks.

"Woah!?" Mikoto jumped aside on reflex. But there was nothing malicious about the electricity. Rather than try and attack Mikoto, it acted like some sort of anchor for the conundrum. There were six tentacle-like electric anchors which all grappled onto the edge of the hole and slowed the thing's fall. That must be how it dropped from the sky in the first place. It was trying to avoid falling into the hole. Chances were, even if it did fall in, it would be able to climb back out using the same trick.

But that also meant it did not want to be trapped. Mikoto made the still-floating piece of rock and earth fall. It crashed onto the shapeless conundrum and pulled it down into the hole. The ground shook under her feet from the impact. If a human had been standing under that, they would have no doubt been crushed beyond recognition.

The high-pitched whine vanished as well. Mikoto breathed out and pulled a hand across her forehead.

"Did it finally… —!?" She had rested too early. As if someone shone a powerful flashlight from beneath the broken pile of road, a glowing light slipped up through the edges. At the same time, the entire block of road started to sink into the hole. "Is it eating the entire thing!?"

Perhaps it did not have a restriction on what kind of material it could consume. Perhaps it merely regulated what to eat using some sort of artificial intelligence or primal instincts. Like a gourmet, it might prefer some materials over others.

"Don't give it more fuel, dammit!"

A voice yelled. Mikoto turned her head. She was still in District 7, but in this situation she didn't have much time to figure out if she knew the area or not. There was a fast food restaurant at the corner of the crossing. It was the type that Mikoto usually avoided because there was such a rush of people there at all times. Now however, it was eerily empty. Where is everyone? As she thought that, Mikoto noticed something else. Someone , a person, was standing on the flat roof of that restaurant and pointing at the hole in the road.

"It's going to explode!"

"What!? Gaaaah dammit! After I went through all that trouble of trapping it!"

"It's not something you can trap that easily!"

The glowing light had grown and was about to erupt. It pushed onto the ground above it like a volcano. If it blew up now, it'd destroy the road, the buildings around and possibly kill both Mikoto and the girl on the roof. I can't let that happen! Sparks left her fringe. Mikoto called up the iron sand once more. Instead of a tornado, this time it gathered above the hole like a shield. It had a dome-like shape. The iron sand particles were vibrating so tightly it was impossible to see through it. Mikoto added more and more iron sand until the dome was so compact it couldn't even vibrate any longer.

Then it exploded. A sound like a container dropped from a few meters above rang out. Thanks to the domed shield, most of it was contained inside that prison. But it wasn't enough. The iron sand was forcefully blown away and due to the sheer power of the shockwave, Mikoto was knocked off her feet. Every window on every building around them shattered. Mikoto hit a fire hydrant and the air knocked from her lungs. The hairs on her arms stood on end with goosebumps. That power, it's… uncomfortable sweat ran down her face. She felt it even better now. That thing which had just exploded, it used some kind of power in order to create the explosion. And that power was extremely similar to Mikoto's. In fact, one could say it was the same, although mixed with something she did not know.

Mikoto wondered if Academy City had developed some new weapon that went out of control and reduced the city to this state. It would not be the first time that they used a Level 5 ability as basis for some new and terrifying weapon. If she could draw that conclusion and be satisfied, that would have been best.

But she couldn't.

Konori-senpai had said that thing came from the storm which right now surrounded Academy City on all sides. Apparently, some kind of shield was preventing the storm from entering, but that protection was cracking. Those cracks made it possible for things like this conundrum to slip through. How many more were there? If there were ten or twenty, or even ten thousand, it'd be difficult to battle them all.

And then there was the storm.

Why am I even here? No… what can I do? Mikoto got to her feet. The girl from the roof was gone. Had she survived too? Then, a new voice spoke.

"That was some boom!"

It was Saten-san. She was not alone. The girl from the roof was with her, and a few others. Some of them looked like students from Academy City and one like an Anti-Skill officer. Then there was one or two who didn't look like either. They were dressed in oddly specific clothes that seemed to have some sort of function. One was wearing a robe made of what looked like newspaper clippings and the other was the girl from the roof. She was wearing the kind of street clothes a gang member might wear, but it seemed to have been torn up to the point where it was no longer fashion.

"Misaka-san! Did you fight that thing just now?" Saten-san asked while carrying a monstrous stun gun that looked like it could shoot deadly amounts of electricity. It was so big she had to carry it with both hands. Earlier, it had been connected to the generator, so perhaps it needed to be charged at regular intervals.

"She fed it with enough fuel to cause that explosion just now," the girl from the roof said before Mikoto could answer. She had two earrings in each ear. "Lucky for us those things self-destruct when that happens, or we'd have a pain in the ass problem."

The newspaper-robe looked at Mikoto through round glasses (that did not have glass in them). "Who is she?"

"Some random interferer, I guess. More or less like that Godly Idiot whom we haven't seen in half a year."

"So are you saying that idiot died and reincarnated into this random girl?"

"You wish."

Mikoto's face had reddened when that idiot was mentioned. Wait, he is gone?

"Guys, guys, guys." Saten-san shook her head. "Misaka-san isn't just a random girl, remember?"

"Ah, that's right." The gangster-girl tossed her head up, making the earrings jingle. "She's the source behind all of this shit, right? Let's kill her."

It could have been a joke, but Mikoto sensed true malice from the girl in front of her. In response, Mikoto let bluish-white sparks from her bangs.

"Daaaah! I didn't say that for you two to kill each other! Misaka-san is our friend, so please don't make this into an awkward situation!" Saten-san seemed to have realized her introduction had gone badly.

Luckily the gangster girl hmph'ed and pulled back. "Whatever."

"We need to assess the damage to the building," said the newspaper-robe. "If it's too bad, we have to start moving the refugees from the basement."

Mikoto let the sparks die down as well. There were more important things than arguing.

"Thanks for helping us out there, Misaka-san," Saten-san said while the others began walking towards the penthouse. "I was worried we wouldn't make it when we heard the second one, but thanks to you it's all under control now." She grinned and slapped her shoulder.

"Who're they?" asked Mikoto, looking after the group of people as they walked past the hole in the ground.

"Hm? Oh, don't mind them. You could say the circumstances made all of us work together, I guess. Although originally it was all down to that guy."

Mikoto felt like she didn't want to know the answer. "Where… did that guy go?"

"Well, I don't know much about that. He vanished right before the storm showed up. Some people think he's fighting a battle somewhere, all alone, even now. Others think he was finally done in." She shrugged. "Either way, we're here and still breathing. Some of us, at least."

"What happened to Academy City to become so deserted?"

"Before the shields came up… well, a lot's happened the past few years. Enough so that even good ol' Saten-oneechan had to learn a few tricks!" She raised her gun proudly. "This thing can drain electricity and charge something like a generator – although it's dangerous as well, since those little nasties get attracted to the electric wavelengths and will literally eat their way to it. The only place that still has power is our penthouse and the Windowless Building, I'd wager. And we're almost out."

Mikoto was about to answer when there was a loud noise. It was another explosion like the ones she'd been facing up to now.

"Ah?"

"The penthouse—!"

"There were more of those things!?"

Mikoto felt a sense of unease. Fighting even one of those conundrums had been a challenge. If there were more, only trouble would arise. The penthouse was trembling ominously, as if the foundation of the building was being torn apart. There was one conundrum climbing the side of the building using lightning tentacles as footholds. Another one entered through a window on the second floor and disappeared inside.

"They're like spiders…"

Mikoto's muttering went unheard. Saten-san's group had already stopped in front of the penthouse. Most likely, they had their own methods to deal with the conundrums which had been plaguing them for so long. But there were simply too many.

"The penthouse's gonna come down at this rate!"

"Is anyone else still inside!?"

"What are we supposed to do, rush in there?"

They did not appear to know how to best handle the situation. Fighting them inside the building was too much of a risk. Mikoto clenched her fists. I can probably draw them out, but then what? If they just blow up again, I don't know if I can protect everyone.

"Is everyone all right?"

Suddenly, Kuroko was there.

"Shirai-san!" The others looked relieved upon seeing her. "How's the decoy?"

Kuroko's face was ashen. "Gone."

The gangster-girl clicked her tongue. "That was our last outpost. Are we going to just become sitting ducks?"

"We obviously have to make more."

"Again and again, until we all keel over from exhaustion, starvation, or both."

"Don't forget dehydration!"

"Saten-san, don't say that as if it's no big deal!"

Apparently, they had been fighting for a while using decoys at certain outposts to pull the conundrums away from the penthouse. From the sound of it, they'd just lost their last one.

Saten-san hoisted her weapon up while grinning wildly. "We just have to do what we always do. The impossible! If it's a group gathered by Kamijou-kun, there's nothing we can't do, right?"

"That kind of idealistic speech is just…"

"No, she's right." Surprisingly, Kuroko offered her support of Saten-san's bold claim. "We can only fight. Misaki-chan will move the refugees, we need to assist her. That many people will definitely draw their attention. I'll make sure nobody is left in the penthouse and help Uiharu move out as well. The penthouse won't hold much longer."

"I'll help assist the refugees."

Everyone grew quiet and looked at Mikoto. The gangster-girl sighed. "Yeah right, and you'll make sure to blow them all up too."

"That was a mistake. It seems like those things are attracted to electricity, so I can at least help draw them out. There must be another way to deal with them than blowing them up, right?"

"Ohohoho~" A strange laugh came from Saten-san. She proudly grinned as she raised her heavy-looking weapon. "Allow me to introduce: The suppressor! This thing is incredible. It sucks the power right out of any conundrum within range. It's like a super-advanced vacuum cleaner! Not only that, it can even function as a generator on its own, using the stored power, which makes it useful as bait as well! It's a multi-use weapon-tool!"

"I don't know why you sound like a door-to-door salesman, but I suddenly feel like I need this thing!?"

"At any rate," Kuroko cut in. Her eyebrows were near joining down the middle. "Onee-sama, you stay out of this."

"Eh?"

Maybe it was because of the circumstances, but this wasn't the usual 'you're a civilian!' argument tone she was used to. Instead of arguing, Kuroko stepped forward and grabbed her hand.

"You're coming with me."

"Waaaaaait—!?"

Mikoto's cry of protest vanished as Kuroko used her teleport ability.

XXX

Part 3

The building shook violently. Unlike before, Mikoto felt it up through the soles of her feet. Tiny vibrations from the building structure spread out.

Kuroko's teleportation brought them to the top floor of the building, where the main office was located. The door was still open, and despite Mikoto asking them to leave, both Uiharu-san and Konori-senpai were still in there. They'd even been joined by a few more people Mikoto didn't know. Konori-senpai was commanding them around.

"Once the generator has cooled down, disconnect it from the umbrella and carry both downstairs. You there, help Uiharu unplug the monitors. Everyone move, we don't have much time!"

It seemed like they were trying to salvage the equipment before saving their lives. Mikoto wanted to tell them to prioritize, but the equipment was probably important enough for them to risk bringing it.

"We're here to help, Konori."

"Ah, Kuroko! And Misaka-san too! Phew, I was worried when I heard that explosion. If you're here, we can move the equipment even faster."

It seemed asking about the source of the explosion held lower priority. Most likely it wasn't the first time it had happened. Mikoto watched as the members of the Resistance disassembled their office. Not knowing the procedure, she'd just get in the way if she tried to help. This world she'd suddenly been thrown into was so different from her own. She was not used to not understanding basic things.

Even so, they claim it's the future rather than another reality. She'd seen the date on her phone, but even if it was another reality, the date might be different. As she thought that, something else struck her. Why am I trying to explain this as something else? Whether I use this or that explanation, it's still as unlikely to happen! There was one simple explanation.

If this was the future, it meant someone had messed up.

Who this someone was, she didn't know.

Why nobody had stopped it, she didn't know.

It was uncomfortable trying to think about how this could happen. And as such, it was easier to call it off as a "different world" rather than "her own world as it might turn out".

Mikoto imagined there was a number of different nosy people, herself included, that wouldn't have let things progress this far. The conundrums were only part of it. They were like the raindrops falling from the storm outside. The storm must be holding a number of different terrible secrets.

If this was the future, where were those nosy people who'd never stay out of a problem? Why had things escalated this far? Apparently, that idiot is out there fighting somewhere. She had no idea with who, or for what reason. Or if he was even still alive. Perhaps, future Mikoto was with him.

But she felt that wasn't true. Not everyone here was happy to see her, and the possible reason made her feel a chill down her back.

"Generator's cooled down!"

"Good, disconnect it!"

The boy who'd reported to Konori-senpai nodded and grabbed the cable connecting the generator to the umbrella-like device. At the same time, Mikoto noticed something outside the window. A thin tendril of tentacle-like electricity slipped through the glass as if it wasn't even there.

"Watch it!" She yelled out, but it was too late. The instant the boy unplugged the generator, the tendril struck out. He opened his mouth in a scream, but nothing came out.

"Toya!" Konori-senpai screamed his name. Everyone stopped, but nobody knew what to do.

Mikoto leapt forward with bluish-white sparks from her bangs. She grabbed his arm and ripped the cable from his grip. As he was released from the current he simply collapsed, but the danger wasn't over. The generator was already making a strange noise. That doesn't sound good! Mikoto did not know what the conundrums did to electrical appliances, but she knew the sound of a malfunctioning one, or one that was victim to high voltage. The conundrum was right outside the window, seeking the source of the electricity it'd sensed. When there was no more electrical equipment, would it seek out humans instead?

"Damn you!" Mikoto let sparks out as two more tentacles slipped in through the window, disregarding the glass entirely. They latched onto the wall like suction cups, bringing the see-through body of the conundrum up to level with the window. Electric charges ran across the wall and scorched the interior. The humans inside tried to back away while taking the boy and their equipment with them. One of the tentacles lashed out against Uiharu.

"Shit!" Mikoto acted without thinking. Using her power to control electricity, she grappled the tentacle with her own electric attack and forced it back. It worked? For a second she was surprised. Then she decided. "All right, let's do this then!"

She ran for the window beside the conundrum.

"Onee-sama!"

"Kuroko, get everyone out of here!"

Mikoto pulled the window open and jumped outside. Blue crackles sparked from the soles of her feet and connected her to the side of the building. Using magnetism, she could walk vertically on a building or even in the ceiling like a spider. She attached onto the side of the building between two stories. She let out an excess amount of electricity in order to draw the conundrum's attention.

"Down here, you jerk!"

It worked. The conundrum pulled out of the office and focused its attention on her. Mikoto grinned. She used her power to latch onto its tentacles. Apparently, as long as it didn't touch the main body, her electric power wouldn't merely feed it. But Mikoto didn't plan on simply restraining the thing. With a roar of victory she gathered the tentacles into a bunch and pulled. The conundrum lost its footing. Mikoto swung it around once and then released, tossing the thing into the air away from the penthouse. The tentacles stretched out, but it was too far. It would fall to the ground and would have to climb up again.

But Mikoto wouldn't let it.

A coin rested on her thumb.

A massive blast tore out. The coin became an orange line. With a slight delay, the thunderous sound followed. The railgun tore through the conundrum and pushed it even further away from the penthouse. With such an amount of electric power, it was instantly overloaded. The conundrum exploded. Mikoto shielded her face as the shockwave slammed into her. Glass from shattered windows rained down from above. It felt like the entire penthouse swayed.

I hope I didn't cause more damage. Mikoto looked up. The sky was starting to grey over.

"…." With the storm mulling outside that defensive shield, she couldn't help but feel uneasy.

"Onee-sama!"

Someone appeared in the window sill just above her.

"Oh, Kuroko. Everything all right?"

"Everyone's outside already, but are you okay? You're bleeding!"

"Eh?" Mikoto blinked. She hadn't noticed, but some glass must have grazed her skin on the way down. There was a small cut on the side of her head. It wasn't enough to worry her, but Kuroko wouldn't keep quiet about it. Even after getting them down to ground level, she kept ranting.

"You can't go ahead like a hot-headed fool here, it's dangerous even for someone like you! We've spent so long getting this far in and it's not a situation that's easily explained to an outsider!"

"Hey, Kuroko." Mikoto's solemn tone made Kuroko end her rant. Their eyes met. "Why did you call me here? If it's not to help out, then why?"

Suddenly, Kuroko's cheeks filled the color of blooming flowers. She looked away and muttered something incomprehensible.

"Hah?"

"A-Anyway, we have to keep moving! We need to set up the umbrella at another high point, and then—" she grabbed Mikoto's hand and then her nose began bleeding.

"!"

A look of alarm entered the teleporting girl's face. She slapped a hand over her face and muttered something about late effects, but Mikoto didn't understand.

"Are you really okay?"

"I-I'm fine!"

"Is that why you look like you're having the headache of the century? You can't even teleport at this rate, can you?"

"!?"

Her baffled look made a small smile form on Mikoto's face. "Look, Kuroko, I may not be from this time or wherever it is, but you're still my junior after all. So show your Onee-sama some trust, okay? Even if it's only by being a brutish weapon, I can still help."

She reached a hand out, but rather than taking it, Kuroko's face scrunched up in a grimace. Bright drops formed in the corner of her eyes, but she turned around quickly and made exaggerated motions with her arms to wipe them away. Then, she pulled a deep breath and seemed to calm down.

"We need to help the others."

"Sure. Let's go."

XXX

Part 4

The refugees turned out to be students and teachers, researchers and every kind of person in-between. There were approximately 300. They had taken shelter in the emergency rooms in the basement of that giant penthouse, but now it was no longer safe.

Mikoto used her magnetism to keep the building from falling apart long enough for everyone to evacuate to a safe distance. This pulled the attention of the remaining conundrums, which were dealt with by Kuroko and her group. As long as Saten-san could get close enough over a period of time, the suppressor did most of the work. Mikoto thought it safer if the carrier of that weapon was someone who could quickly move out of the way, but it seemed Kuroko normally acted as a decoy and would step in to help Saten-san if any trouble arose. The conundrums were pretty slow despite their destructive power, so running away from them was not actually a problem.

Once the signal was given, Mikoto released her power and the penthouse went down in a majestic crash.

For some reason, Shokuhou Misaki was in charge of the refugees. Mikoto was disturbed upon seeing countless starry eyes marching silently through the streets.

"You control all of them?"

"It's easier to avoid a panic this way. Even if there is danger nearby, nobody will start running wildly. I can even move them perfectly in sync for greater defense ability~" As if to demonstrate, Misaki flicked a finger and every single refugee made a complete 360 degree turn on the spot.

"Eeeeeh. I feel like it'd be more effective if each and every one escapes in the manner that fits them best. Isn't there a difference in athleticism and age amongst them?"

"Would you have one clumsy kid trip up and require aid, putting even more lives at danger? With this strategy, the number of accidents is kept to a minimum, and people like Shirai-san can move in and help the ones in need if necessary, without risking being pulled down by the panic. There is no other method that has proven its effective ability like this one. But I suppose a brute like you wouldn't understand the finesse of my plan~"

"I don't really like your tone."

"I could also have the entire group of people rush at Misaka-san at once. I'm sure three hundred pairs of hands grappling for your body is an experience you have yet to encounter, right?"

The Level 5 nightmare left Mikoto with a weirded out look on her face, until Kuroko appeared beside her. Her nose bleed had stopped some time ago.

"Everything alright? I saw you talking to Misaki-chan."

"…..(since when did that monster earn that kind of endearing nickname?)"

"Huh?"

"Never mind." Some things must have happened that Mikoto had no knowledge of. "If they're attacked, will they even know what's going on?"

"The refugees? It's better if they don't."

There was no need to ask what she meant. If there was an attack like the one before, not being conscious could be considered a gift.

"…how is that boy?"

"He'll survive." Kuroko answered as if not disclosing the entire truth, but that wasn't necessary. Obviously, even if he did survive, what he'd experienced could result in permanent damage for a human body. Mikoto didn't ask how many had died from similar attacks. There were only 300 refugees. They were most likely normal people, or espers who stood no chance of defending themselves against the situation. The only reason they were still alive was likely because of this group's efforts.

"Where are you taking them now?"

"To district 4. I didn't want to bring the fight to our resource base, but it's the only place left now." Kuroko seemed to function as some sort of group leader along with Konori-senpai.

"There are more than you guys?"

"About twenty. There may be other groups… but we haven't seen them in a while."

There wasn't much time for chit-chat. With such a big group of people walking about, the conundrums were easily drawn in. Luckily, they were easy to lure away, and by cooperating with Saten-san and the others, Mikoto fought back the monstrous things during their trip through the city.

"That gun is really handy."

"Hahahaa of course it is! It's designed to be able to vacuum lightning strikes! Wanna try it out?"

Mikoto declined. She'd no doubt the thing worked.

To get to district 4, they took the shortest route through district 5. It was in a much worse state than the place they left. It looked like a meteor had crashed into the ground there and brought down every building with it as it slid across the district.

"Oh yeah. This is where the coconut landed." Saten-san told her.

"Coconut?"

"It was about six months ago. Right before all this started. Man, it's been crazy. You should have been here to see it, Misaka-san."

"I wasn't, huh?"

"You haven't been around for a long time. At times, I kept forgetting you were ever real. But Shirai-san never lost hope, haha. I guess she's pretty dedicated to you after all."

"…."

Saten-san didn't pick up on the change in mood.

"Anyway, suddenly there was this giant UFO! It landed in district 5 and spread its alien monsters out to invade us. Of course Academy City fought back and that's how this place became what it is."

"….."

"Before that it was the chemical bomb, and the zombie-like outbreak of a virus. I had some real weird cravings for weeks after that, haha. And now, it's this storm. Academy City has always been facing one catastrophe after the other, but I guess this is it, huh?"

"Apart from all of that sounding like the plot of every disaster movie ever…" Mikoto looked up at the greying sky. Was it her imagination, or did the clouds seem thicker now?

"Look at this, Misaka-san," Saten-san said, with the grin of a pervert about to open his coat. She swung the oppressor around and pointed it at Uiharu. "Maximum suction power!"

Something like a gust of wind appeared. It was sucked into the weapon and exhausted on the other side. Most likely, it was modified to be able to draw in electricity as well, and separate that energy from the air.

It still worked like a vacuum. That meant anything in its trajectory would react to being pulled.

Even Uiharu's skirt.

"Kiiiyyaaaaaaaaaaaah!"

XXX

Part 5

The question in Mikoto's mind wasn't "how could it have been avoided?"

The question in Mikoto's mind was, "if this future's Misaka Mikoto hadn't vanished, would the same events have happened in the same manner?"

Mikoto didn't think she alone had such an impact that none of it would have happened. Most likely, Academy City would still have headed in the same direction regardless. But Misaka Mikoto would have done something. She would have fought. That was Mikoto's belief, although right now she wondered if it'd make any difference after all. Chemical bombs, viruses, aliens and giant thunderstorms weren't the types of opponents she normally faced.

Apparently, that idiot was out there trying to do something. Maybe he was still fighting extraterrestrials, or maybe he was trying to do something about the storm. Was he alone? Or did he have allies?

A small part of Mikoto hoped that this future's Misaka Mikoto was with him. But each time she looked at the sky, she had her doubts. It was like a string of knowledge at the back of her mind that she refused to look at. Maybe because she had no explanation for that knowledge.

Then, what was she supposed to do here now? Well, there is only one thing I can do…

"Misaka-saaaaaaaaan!"

A cry of joy mixed with sobs reached her.

They had arrived at the food processing facility in district 4. The refugees had been taken to a nearby disaster shelter. It'd be easier to supply them from here, but it was also more dangerous for everyone to be stuck so closely together.

The food processing headquarters was a flat area filled with low houses with glass walls and ceiling. Inside, all sorts of vegetables, spices and fruits could be grown. Not everything thrived without power to regulate temperature and light, but basic food items still survived.

Mikoto hadn't gone inside the facility yet. She stood outside, watching the sky while trying to gather her thoughts. There was a plaster on her forehead, covering the cut from the falling glass.

The person who came running toward her was part of the group who worked on producing food and water for the survivors. She was a fashionable young woman with straight black hair like out of a commercial for shampoo. Her name was Kongou Mitsuko.

"Ah, Kongou-san."

"I can't beliiiiiiiieeeve it!" The girl cried in joy and jumped at Mikoto so suddenly that Mikoto barely managed to catch her. Kongou-san wrapped her arms around her neck and sobbed into her shoulder. "I can't believe it! After so long! Where did you go!?"

"Aaaah…." Mikoto tried to comfort her with a strained smile. Isn't she overly exaggerating?

"Awatsuki-san and Wannai-san would be thrilled to see you!"

"They're here too?"

Kongou-san pulled back enough to look at her face. Then her tear-filled face cracked in a smile. "You haven't changed a bit, Misaka-san."

"That might be because the last time you saw me I looked exactly the same…" Mikoto was suddenly struck by the dread that her body wouldn't change at all for the next two years.

"I was so shocked when you disappeared! After that everything went awry. Did you know parents started pulling their kids out of school in Academy City soon after? One catastrophe after the other and families got scared they'd never see them again. It's been such a harsh environment for a young girl to grow up in!"

Maybe she was referring to herself.

"What about you, Kongou-san? You stayed."

Kongou-san puffed her chest up like a proud hen. "My father suggested I leave as well after that outbreak. But I told him Kongou Mitsuko does not abandon her friends in need. It would shame the Kongou name otherwise! Naturally, Wannai-san and Awatsuki-san stayed as well. Although Awatsuki-san is already…" she shook her head, and Mikoto's stomach sank. Her mouth suddenly felt dry.

"I see…"

"Oh no, don't make such a gloomy face, Misaka-san! This is a great occasion! A celebration! To have you return is the best that could have happened!"

"Aaaah…" She doesn't realize I'm not from here, does she? Just like Kongou-san. "Aren't you scared of the conundrums out here? It doesn't look like you have a lot of defenses."

"Not at all! We do not require electric power for our operations, and help is always within teleporting distance."

Seemed Kuroko was making herself busy around here. Although, they might have more than one teleporter. Kongou-san seemed so comfortable with these arrangements. In fact, everyone seemed to have gotten used to it.

It was like one of those disaster movies Mikoto had watched last week. Scenarios like these in games and movies were actually quite popular, but it was different to see it actually happening. For one thing, there was a lot of strategy, planning, luck and skill involved in not only growing, but storing and distributing food when it was on a limited supply. Lack of nutrition and water for hygiene could lead to disease. But even with those worries in mind, they managed to enjoy themselves. Maybe those kind of basic problems were just nuisances compared to everything else.

They were all served a vegetable soup for dinner. Huge casseroles boiled over fires made of wooden debris, broken furniture and a pyrokinetic's control over flames. It was like a feast which lasted long into the night.

It would not last.

Mikoto woke to the sound of something cracking. She sat up with the quilt she'd been handed and looked up through the glass ceiling. She was used to not seeing stars in Academy City, so the fact that the sky was entirely black didn't surprise her.

But there were no lights here.

All of Academy City's power was gone. With no artificial light for miles, the stars should have been clearly visible.

A lightning strike struck across the boiling clouds. It gave Mikoto goosebumps.

Beside her lay Uiharu-san and Saten-san. Uiharu was sleeping with her mouth open, and the mat below her face was wet with drool. She may have been dreaming about ice cream, since she'd been talking a lot about how much she missed that during dinner and even asked Mikoto about the tastes they "used to have".

Saten-san lay sprawled all over her bed, snoring loudly.

Mikoto carefully stepped out of her sleeping spot and pulled on her uniform. It was already slightly torn and dirtied, but this world didn't carry something as handy as a wardrobe filled with spare Tokiwadai uniforms. She wondered briefly if her dorm room would be filled with her things if she went there, but knocked it away. There was no time for road trips, and if it really had been two years since this world's Misaka Mikoto spent time there, they'd surely have cleaned it out by now.

Mikoto snuck away from their sleeping spot and wove between other sleeping bags and quilts the survivors used. Nobody had their own room in a situation like this. It was like a big field trip. Some of them slept in the emergency shelter with the refugees, but things couldn't be much different there.

She exited the greenhouse and stood in the chill breeze of the night.

"Misaka-san?"

One of the night patrollers, a boy she didn't know, approached her. He held no light, but with no other lights in the city, their night vision was more enhanced. Mikoto could make out his features on a rough level, though things like whether or not he had freckles was hard to tell.

"Ah, hey there. I wasn't able to sleep well, so I thought I'd get some fresh air." Mikoto smiled.

"You shouldn't wander around too much," he said while trying to be more mature than he was. He looked to be about 12.

"I won't, don't worry. Has anything happened?"

He rubbed his nose. "Nothing much. But if you want to enjoy the fresh air, it's better to head over there. There's less smell from the greenhouses and it's still within our patrolling area."

"I see. Thanks."

He grinned and went on his way. Mikoto hadn't been particularly bothered by the smell, but she took him up on the offer anyway. The area he'd pointed to was at a corner of an intersection. There was a bench there, but Mikoto didn't sit down. Instead, she looked up at the dark sky. What was that sound? She'd woken because of a cracking noise. The night guard had said nothing had happened, but she'd definitely heard it. It didn't feel like the sound of thunder, though there were more flashes above now.

"….." She had an ominous feeling.

"Hey! No loitering around he—oh, Onee-sama!"

With a pop in the air, Kuroko suddenly arrived beside her.

"Hey, Kuroko. You on night patrol too?"

"Yes. I thought I saw someone leaving camp, so I came to check it out."

"Just wanted some fresh air."

Neither of them mentioned the gathering storm or a strange sound. Stating the obvious was unnecessary.

There was a brutal ripping noise.

Mikoto looked up in alarm. In the sky above them, something like a crack had appeared. It glowed a bright orange and quickly grew across the sky.

"Ah…"

The shield was giving in. Mikoto did not know its properties, but it seemed that was the only thing keeping the storm outside.

As if they were watching an everyday occurrence, the two girls continued to look at the sky and talk normally.

"What happened to the area outside Academy City?"

"We don't know. From our calculations, it seems the storm is covering a huge amount of land. Possibly the entire Tokyo region, and maybe more."

"So no rescuers have attempted to break through."

"At first people tried to evacuate. But when they saw what happened to those who left into the storm, they came back. The first few days we were drowning in violent winds of black sand that cut through skin. There were conundrums everywhere, sucking the city clean of electric power. Lightning strikes that took out entire blocks. Then the shield came up."

The orange crack ripped across the sky in a gentle bow-like shape until it vanished beyond the cityscape.

"At one point we considered trying to get into the Windowless Building for shelter, but it would be terribly inefficient with regards to supplies. Since there are no exits or entrances, only a teleporter can bring people or items inside. If no teleporters remained to do so, it'd be a death trap."

Mikoto thought that even bringing 300 people or more in there would take a while, unless they had assistance from that crazy teleporter with the Move Point ability. However, even during disasters some people simply couldn't work together. In a situation like this, there might be feuds over everything from the chain of command to the distribution of supplies. In that case, it was better to join different groups.

Mikoto did not know if there were other groups left.

Another flash of lightning split the sky.

The shield shattered. If one had been able to see it in slow motion, one would see that it started with the crack. Thousands, millions of smaller cracks spread out from the big one and raced across the sky until the shield simply gave in. There was no raining glass however. The shield might be made of something like a special energy or material that disintegrated once disconnected as a whole.

It didn't matter how it worked, since it was already broken.

"Onee-sama…" Kuroko's voice was low as the winds began picking up around them.

"Hm?"

"Please don't—"

She was unable to finish. A violent roar came at them from the down the street. Mikoto looked over, and paled. A black cloud came their way. It was a gust of wind, but it looked to be pulling something from the ground as it came at them.

"Iron sand wind!?"

Mikoto reacted on instinct. If it was iron sand, she could control it. She reached out with her ability and manipulated magnetism. However… something grappled with her. As if she'd interfered with and annoyed something, she felt her power clash with that something and forcibly bend away. She could not take control of the iron sand in that wind.

Something with a greater will controlled that thing right now.

"Get down!" Mikoto grabbed Kuroko and pulled her behind herself. Sparks let loose and the wind crashed into them. Mikoto concentrated on creating a shield. She could not forcefully take control of the iron sand and dissolve it, but she could bend it away from their bodies. It was similar to what she'd done to manipulate #4's Meltdowner. The roar of the wind made it hard to hear anything, but she yelled as loud as she could.

"Kuroko, get us to the greenhouse!"

She didn't hear an answer, but Kuroko's hand grabbed her wrist. Next second, they'd moved. Through the black sand surrounding them on all sides, Mikoto barely made out the glass wall of the greenhouse. There were gashes in the glass. With this sort of assault, it's only a question of time!

The night patrollers had already run for the entrance. Two boys stood inside, but one girl had collapsed nearby. Her arms were covered in bleeding lashes. If it kept up, the wind would eat at her skin until it was all carved away.

Kuroko acted without Mikoto's words. She teleported them over, and Mikoto's shield covered the girl as well.

"Come on, get up!" Kuroko pulled the girl to her feet. She was crying, but looked relieved.

"Shirai-san!"

"This is no time to lie down! As long as you have legs, keep running!"

They teleported to the entrance and Kuroko got the girl inside. Meanwhile, Mikoto stared into the storm and gritted her teeth. What the hell is this… The sparks grew in force. She made another attempt at interfering with the iron sand wind, wanting to wrestle control of the assault.

Suddenly, the wind surged upwards.

"Wha—?" Mikoto's eyes widened. The iron sand span upwards as the wind shifted direction. It created what looked like a giant snake, and reared above Mikoto. "The hell is this!?"

The snake moved as if to smash down on top of her and the greenhouse. But then, it started floating away. The wind died down into a normal gust.

An unpleasant sweat covered Mikoto's head while she watched the iron sand float to the ground. It's… like random weather patterns. The conundrums, iron sand winds… they move without a plan, just like the effects of a natural storm. Even so, for a second it had felt like someone wanted to crush her with that thing. And before, it had felt like the conundrum had a conscience that was observing her.

"Onee-sama!" Kuroko appeared beside her again. "We'll have to get everyone into the emergency shelter. If the storm is going to cover the city again, we'll—"

A bright light erupted. It was not the sun rising above the horizon or a rescue helicopter with a floodlight. It was a lightning strike, far bigger than any natural lightning. Mikoto's chest drummed upon seeing it. Her vision was stolen for several seconds. It felt like she had dived underwater, and the water created a lid over her ears to muffle all sound.

Even if it struck several blocks away, the lightning strike had the effect of a giant bomb. The world made a strange shift. As if it was ripped apart and turned upside down, Mikoto was suddenly weightless. Her feet no longer stood on the ground and the noise was so loud it became silent. Everything disappeared in whiteness.

Then it returned.

Mikoto blinked. She was on her back. She stared right up into a massive block of concrete where the sky should be.

Someone groaned lowly beside her.

"K-Kuroko! Ack—"

Mikoto tried to sit up, and a stab of pain made her wince. Her arm had a bleeding cut above the elbow. It looked like a superfluous wound. She focused on Kuroko, who lay beside her. The teleporter had grabbed Mikoto's hand and tried to get them to safety. She might have taken a blow to her head because she did not move.

"Aaah shit!" Mikoto fought to get up into a sitting position. They were surrounded by debris on all sides. She'd acted on instinct and used her magnetism, which had created a small pocket in the mass of materials that would have otherwise crushed them. They had not escaped without injury however.

What was that? Her entire body still trembled. It felt like my power. No, it was my power, but not entirely. What does it mean? Is this world's Misaka Mikoto really at the source of that storm? Why? What happened? She did not possess enough knowledge about this world to accurately guess what would give a result like that. Basically, she was clueless. Because at that point of time, this Misaka Mikoto had not experienced enough that would explain it.

So she grew angry.

"What the hell is going on? That kind of destruction is ridiculous! Get your ass down here and face me head on, I'll bust your brain in!"

There was a shift beside her. Kuroko's hand clenched onto Mikoto's skirt as the girl slowly sat up on her knees. Her face was sweaty, but she smiled faintly like an exhausted sprinter after winning his race.

"Onee-sama…"

"Kuroko, are you alright!? We need to get out of here—mmmgh!?"

Kuroko did not answer the question. Instead, she leaned in and kissed Mikoto.

"—!" It was not a simple peck on the cheek. Like the romance dramas on TV where lovers met after a long time apart, Kuroko planted her lips on Mikoto's directly. Her first reaction was to fry Kuroko's face off, but before she could do more than let a few sparks out, she noticed something. Numerous tears trailed down Kuroko's cheeks.

"…" When Kuroko pulled back, Mikoto's body tensed as if on guard. There was so much behind the gesture she couldn't read. Heat gathered in her cheeks and a stutter began forcing its way up from her dry throat.

"Heh." Kuroko suddenly laughed. It was short and without joy. "I always dreamt of doing that, but now that it finally happened, I don't know what to do about it."

"?"

"Please don't ever change, Onee-sama. I will help you! Even though I guess it might not have much worth, in the end…" Kuroko's voice cracked. More tears trailed down her cheeks and a grimace appeared on her face. "But I tried so many times! I never wanted for this to happen! If I had known, Kuroko would have… would have done something! But I sat and waited, like a fool. I thought you'd come back. No… maybe I thought he would bring you back. But nothing convenient like that happened, and now it's come to this and there's no way I'll be able to bring you back. I just wanted to make sure… that I did whatever I could do save you at least once. Even if the only thing I can do is pull you here to see this terrible future."

Kuroko spoke in a mix of sorrow and anger.

For a moment, Mikoto's lips thinned. Then she spoke. "Can you take me to this world's Misaka Mikoto?"

"….what?"

"Your ability. You can make items or persons travel through time and across the timelines, correct? It's not like I understand all of it, but if that is true, can you arrange for us to go where she is?"

"…." Kuroko looked like she deflated. "It's not that simple. I can only bring people here, and only under special circumstances. It's a complex method and it requires a personal item of the person I want to call. Even if we could go back to meet her and that changed something, that would only create another timeline. I tried…" Her lips trembled, and she muttered something. "….(200)…"

"What?"

"….200 times. Every single personal possession of Onee-sama I was able to recover… a single coin, a piece of clothing, a pen you used… 200 times we tried calling you."

"200!?"

"Yet each time… my aim was off, she got lost in the chasm between the lanes, or there was an accident upon the moment of arrival… and she died. In trying to bring you here, I've been responsible for your death so many times. I don't…" Kuroko used a hand to hide her crying eyes. "I don't think I have the right—!"

It was a shocking truth. In order to show Misaka Mikoto even once what would happen if she continued down a certain path, Kuroko had tried to do the only thing she could, even if it resulted in tragedy again and again.

"It didn't even change anything! And now you're finally here and there's just no time left! I can't go back in time myself – I'm not strong enough for something like that! I can't even perform the calling without a nosebleed, even after 200 tries! To Onee-sama, Kuroko is useless, even at the very end!"

"Don't say that."

Mikoto's voice grew stern. For some reason, she'd grown irritated.

"By whatever method, you called me here. I'm not going to let it end like this if I can do anything about it. That's why I'm here, right?"

For a while, they stared at each other. Kuroko's surprised expression slowly changed into a small smile.

"Indeed… that is just like Onee-sama to say."

It sounded like she didn't believe it. Mikoto was about to protest, but Kuroko continued.

"Not this time though, Onee-sama. Not even you can do anything about this regrettable outcome. We are already entering the last stages. Who knows what's happening above us at this very moment. So… now is the time for you to go back."

"What? I can't do that!"

"You have to. If you die here, then I will have failed 201 times. And I have no more tries left. Even if there is only one out of a billion timelines, I hope… I wish there will be one where things are different."

Mikoto suddenly realized what Kuroko's objective in bringing her here had been. Kuroko believed that Mikoto's disappearance had something to do with the situation they were in. There were already 200 timelines where Misaka Mikoto had died. In those lines, the world went on without her. Most likely, this tragedy would never happen in those lines.

But even if killing Misaka Mikoto would prevent the tragedy, that was not Kuroko's wish.

Mikoto had not been brought her to fight, but to learn.

Mikoto felt a cold hand creep down her spine. She had once been willing to use her life in order to save someone else. This was different. Even if she died here, would anyone be saved? Could she traverse the violent storm and find its source before everyone else perished? She did not think it possible for her to do that while protecting every person. That thing out there was her ability, but it was horribly twisted. Like a pool of water mixed in with oil and other substances in order to increase its volume, it was horribly muddied and unclear. Someone like #1 might be able to survive out there, but not a normal human being. In that sort of setting, even if she found the Misaka Mikoto at its origin, would she be able to do anything?

Furthermore, there was one more option.

What if the conscious human known as Misaka Mikoto no longer existed? Then it would really be impossible to find her. Mikoto was struck by a thought.

If it is supposed to happen even in my time, the reason must be…

Academy City was not without guilt. If that feeling had grown to a certain level where the only solution seemed to be total annihilation, no amount of pleading would be enough to spare the city.

Mikoto's hands trembled while curling into fists. Is that… it? If so, the feeling was already there. Maybe, if Kuroko had called in a Misaka Mikoto who knew nothing about the Level 6 Shift Project, it would have been possible. But the seed had already been planted. Could the outcome be changed even knowing this? Would she ultimately be able to take the right choices, assuming she would even be able to recognize them?

Kuroko doesn't know about the project, does she? I guess I never told her.

Meanwhile, Kuroko was speaking.

"Upon calling you here, I traded your place for the last of your possessions in my hands. Right now it acts as a loading point for you to return to. I don't know how long it will last, but it seems the item will vanish upon your return. It's a crude method, like forcing a zipper open when it's stuck. According to modern science, something like time travel should be impossible still. It's crazy that the ability to do so has existed outside our sphere all this time and that it is possible to use it, while on the other hand I can't even reach out to the one I considered my only partner."

Kuroko took Mikoto's hand. She gently held that fist with a melancholic smile while the storm rumbled outside their shelter.

"I'm glad I got to see you again, Onee-sama."

"Don't make it sound like this is it! We need to go out there and help the others! What about that umbrella thing you guys were charging? There has to be something!"

Suddenly, she was pulled into an embrace. Kuroko held her close while her body began trembling.

"We will use it. After you leave. Don't worry."

They were obviously lies. Mikoto could feel it outside the walls. A storm of static was blowing out there. The conundrums, the lightning strikes, the harsh winds of magnetized iron sand. It was not so simple.

Mikoto grabbed onto Kuroko's suit in fistfuls of fabric. Her eyes stung too.

"You are my best friend, Kuroko."

She didn't see it, but Kuroko's eyes watered over. The teleporter hugged her even tighter and said nothing.

XXX

Part 6

That pocket in the rubble would be where they said goodbye. Mikoto thought she could probably lift the rubble away with magnetism, but she was unsure what would meet them out there and putting Kuroko in danger didn't feel right.

Ironically, that was Kuroko's exact reason as well. She was circling around Mikoto on all fours with a chalk in her hand. She used the chalk to draw lines on the ground.

"Is this some sort of concentration method?"

"I suppose."

Mikoto would have suggested she use this ability to escape to another timeline with everyone, but Kuroko had already stated that she was not strong enough to even travel by herself. A teleporter did not reach Level 4 before they could teleport themselves. Perhaps the same logic applied here. Mikoto was barely restraining her growing frustration.

Is there really nothing to do?

She bit her lip until she tasted blood. If that idiot was here, I'm sure he'd have thrown himself right into it. But even if he was able to do something, he's not here. And I'm not…

"It's ready."

Kuroko sat on her knees in front of her. She put the chalk away and brushed off her hands.

"Now I just need to get you back. I think it's easier if you concentrate on the moment you left."

A thought struck Mikoto. "Have you done this before?"

"No. Maybe I'll fail spectacularly. But it's not like trying this is more dangerous for you than staying here. Besides, the entire reason for calling you here is void if you don't return to your own time."

Mikoto said nothing. She was thinking. She thought about the conundrums. The iron sand winds. The giant lightning strike. The state of Academy City. Lack of water. Lack of food. The shield.

The shield…

"….The Windowless Building."

A thought suddenly occurred.

"Hm?"

"That place! Someone set up that shield, right? There has to be someone there who knows something! If we can find them and make them talk, then—!" She was about to get up, when Kuroko grabbed her hand.

The teleporter was smiling sadly. "Not you, Onee-sama."

"But—!"

"You're right, we should go there. But my greatest wish right now is to get you back safely. Everything is wasted if you die. You have another world to protect."

"Even so, I can't just leave you!"

"Please!" Tears cascaded down Kuroko's cheeks. Mikoto froze. "Please listen! For once, don't go rushing out there by yourself! We'll bring the umbrella to the Windowless Building. We'll try to get it fully charged there and activate it. I have no idea if it'll work, but we'll at least try! But we'll do it without you. I can't keep relying on Onee-sama, waiting for Onee-sama, and fearing for Onee-sama's safety. You see where that took us! So please let me at least save you just this once."

She had to go back. Just like this future's Kuroko wanted to save at least one Misaka Mikoto, perhaps this Misaka Mikoto could save at least one Academy City.

That meant abandoning the girl in front of her right now.

That meant leaving everyone behind in this catastrophic environment.

Time travel is often complicated, but the effect of the multiverse theory is simple. This future was the end result of a predetermined path. It could not be changed. The moment someone did something in the past that would change the outcome of the future, that action would result in the world deviating down a different path. It would become another timeline.

No matter what Mikoto did in the past, it would not impact this timeline or this future.

Kuroko hadn't meant for anyone to save them. She merely wished for one timeline where this outcome was not the definite result. She thought that her own passiveness was a major component of this result and wanted to make up for it.

Mikoto understood all of that. Which is why her expression became dark.

"…Kuroko."

The girl was wiping her eyes, but sobs continued to wrack her body.

"…" Mikoto didn't find it in her to say it.

She couldn't say out loud that if Kuroko thought her own actions were the cause, she shouldn't have called Mikoto here. She should have called a past Kuroko instead. If she really thought that her past choices would make a difference, showing Kuroko this outcome of her choices and leaving her with a new viewpoint would have changed more.

Most likely, it had a simple explanation. Kuroko not only wanted to save a timeline. There was also a desperate need to see Mikoto again. It was like a mix of personal feelings and duty. The Kuroko that Mikoto knew, would always have chosen duty. But that was a different time.

I see… I have no place here after all. If she thought about it, she wanted to take responsibility for this Misaka Mikoto's choices, but that was wrong too. They were basically two different people.

But…

"If there is even the slightest chance that my own timeline ends up at the same place, it's better if I use everything I have to save this timeline. As long as I'm not around, this won't happen, right? So the other timeline will be safe."

As soon as she finished speaking, Mikoto was enveloped by Kuroko's arms. Kuroko dug her face into her shoulder and muttered.

"….om no rar."

There was a subtle effect. The chalk-drawn lines on the ground flared up in a gentle light. Mikoto reacted by pulling away, but Kuroko held her captive.

"Onee-sama… thank you."

"Hey!"

"Reload."

It took only a moment. Mikoto blinked, and the world vanished.

XXX

Part 7

In District 7, there was a popular arcade.

Outside its main entrance stood a middle school girl.

She was Misaka Mikoto, Ace of the prestigious school Tokiwadai.

There was an expression on her face that looked like confusion.

It was as if she'd just been lost in a day dream and then realized she had stopped moving.

I was… she drew up a blank. She could not remember what she had just been doing and why she had stopped. In effect, her body and mind had just been reloaded. That meant it had been returned to the state it had been in at that same point in time.

Mikoto didn't know this. She just felt like she'd been lost in thought for a while and could not recall what she'd been thinking about. She felt light-headed and thought it might be because of the excessive playing lately.

I feel like I forgot something. My wallet… is here. My phone too. The feeling gnawed at the back of her mind. She knew she had just been doing something important. Or at least, it felt like that was the case.

After a few puzzled minutes, a heavy raindrop fell in front of her face. She looked up at the greying sky. "Aaah… I didn't bring an umbrella."

The feeling of having forgotten something was pushed aside. If it truly was important, she'd probably remember later.

END