This is a story about a world wracked by peace. Slipping into resting state. A long dream from which there will be no awakening.
This is a story about tyrants and the fools who fought them, and it is not a happy story, because that would be a lie.
This is a story about Operation Valkyrie. About brave men and women who fought against the inevitable and never once gave in. So… perhaps… it might not be a sad story either.
Makise Kurisu fled through the crumbling streets of Tokyo. Her pursuers were still a little way back, which was good, and her stamina was holding out, which was better. She wasn’t naïve enough to imagine she could actually escape, but at least she’d die fighting. Every minute spent free was a spit in the eye to those who hunted her, a little longer with cold wind on her face and the burning in her thighs. This was nearly the farthest she’d ever got.
Previously, of course, she’d been too valuable to shoot down. The crack of gunfire split the air as one of her erstwhile captors came within sight of her and she yelped as a bullet ricocheted off old tarmac, driving her sideways into an alley filled with derelict electronics stalls.
A flash of metal caught her eye and she snatched it from the component trays without slowing down. Chips and wire-ends scraped and cut her hand but the prize she came away with was worth it: a rusty yet wickedly sharp pair of wire-cutters. They wouldn’t be much use unless she could get the drop on someone but she felt better having something.
Reaching the end of the alley, Kurisu turned right and bolted for the next. Doubling back might give her a chance of losing them and maybe, just maybe, she could get to the edge of the city without being spotted.
Only a hacking cough from ahead warned her of the ambush just in time and she skidded to a stop halfway down the alley.
‘Stop that, you moron!’ a voice growled. ‘Target’s due any second.’
Kurisu stood there, panting, her fists clenched in impotent fury. Of course the Organisation would know where she’d run. How could they not?
After all, she’d built them a time machine.
When it happened, it was without warning. A strong hand clamped over her mouth from behind, pinched her nose shut as the unseen attacker pinned her arms to her sides. Kurisu screamed soundlessly, struggled as blood rang in her ears and her vision faded into nothingness.
She blacked out.
Kurisu woke up. Not something that she expected. Neither did she expect to find herself draped across someone’s shoulder in a fireman’s carry. Her chest ached; every step jolted her stomach against her assailant’s collarbone and she bit her lip to keep from crying out. If they didn’t think she was conscious, perhaps they’d get careless. She might still escape this with her life.
She opened her eyes, just a crack, too small for anyone to notice, then opened them wider and blinked furiously. She couldn’t see anything. Just pitch-black emptiness, full of cold, moist air that lay clammy and stagnant against her face. Was this a passage, or one of the old sewers? Why weren’t they taking her through the streets?
Perhaps they were taking her back to prison, or to her grave. It didn’t matter. All that mattered was this: she had a chance, one last chance, and she had to take it before her captor realised their error.
In the space of a single second, Kurisu changed from limp corpse to writhing, clawing animal. Her fist slammed into the person’s kidneys, forcing the air out of their lungs and loosening their grip on her legs. She slipped, rolled from their shoulder and hit the ground hard. Blind, confused and bleeding, she hurled herself forward and rebounded off cold concrete. Turned. Fled again, this time colliding with warm flesh and falling along with her captor. She scratched and spat, even as her wrist was wrenched behind her back, snarling as her mouth was covered again.
None of it helped. Flight had sapped the strength from her limbs and her head was agony; even her yells were muffled squeaks. Bound, helpless, she felt her energy draining away.
‘Be quiet!’ a male voice hissed into her ear. ‘Be quiet, please! These tunnels are bugged!’
She said nothing back. Not out of obedience but instead because certain aspects of recent events, no longer smothered by the fog of adrenaline, were beginning to nag at her. The attackers up above had shot at her rather than run her down. They didn’t seem interested in taking her alive, and the ambush she’d walked into would have had the same orders. The only way she could still be breathing was if—
‘—I’m on your side!’ he said. ‘Are you rabid or simply psychotic?’
Sure, you nearly strangled me so obviously you’re on my side. How on earth could I misjudge such noble actions? she thought venomously, and bit her lip to keep it in. She hadn’t had the chance to vent in more than a decade; yelling at the dead-eyed zombies and blank-faced executives she’d been permitted to interact with was nothing more than a waste of breath. But if this was an ally, and the tunnels really were bugged… well, she could hold it in. For a while.
‘Sorry,’ she muttered. ‘Makise Kurisu. Nice to meet you.’
‘Okabe Rintarou, and it’s my pleasure. Tread lightly and whatever you do, stay quiet from here on,’ he warned her. ‘It’s quite a way to the edge of the city.’
‘Fine, just give me your hand. I don’t know where I’m going.’
It was warm and rough; calluses on the tips of his fingers scraped over her skin. After thirteen years of forced isolation, even such a simple thing was fascinating to her… She forced herself to hold his hand more loosely, remember how that same hand had pinned and choked her not five minutes before. This stranger was barely safer than those she’d been running from. She couldn’t afford to take him lightly, any more than she could afford to let him leave… but for the first time in thirteen years, at least that choice was hers to make.
In the dark abyss beneath Tokyo, Kurisu took her first steps into a brave new world and the pair began their long trek out of the city.
Kurisu judged, without any real accuracy, that they’d been walking for most of a day now and she wasn’t exactly sold on the new world. It was very dark. And very quiet. And very, very boring. Escaping prison shouldn’t be so much like being back in it.
The steady pressure of Okabe’s hand in hers was the only thing that seemed real down here; without that lifeline she might have believed that the darkness went on forever, and she was doomed to wander its labyrinth for all eternity. Mired in such morbid imaginings, she failed to notice when her companion stopped and her tired feet, walking of their own accord, carried her straight into him.
‘Oof!’ he grunted. ‘Must you constantly assault me?’
‘We can talk safely now,’ he said. ‘There are far too many exits this far out for the Rounders to bug them all.’
Kurisu considered this, and took a deep breath. Let it out, slowly.
‘I did not assault you,’ she said slowly and clearly, ‘until after you assaulted me. Just because I’m provisionally crediting you with good intentions doesn’t mean you aren’t treading on very, very thin ice, mister. Now, please tell me we’re near the exit.’
For a long moment, he failed to reply and Kurisu began to wish she could see his face. She’d been calm. Reasonable. Hadn’t she? Or had even a small show of self-expression been enough to jeopardise this fragile partnership? Ugh. Free, she was finding herself as dependent on the whims of others as she’d ever been.
But today she must have made the right choice, because the man began to chuckle.
‘Aha! Indeed we are—so close that we stand in the very presence of our egress. Now hide your eyes, troglodyte, lest the naked light of day sear them from their sockets!’
‘Not a chance.’ She wanted this first glimpse of freedom engraved on her retinas for the rest of her life. The grinding of a mechanical lock released the latch with a clunk and before she could prepare herself, Okabe had swung the door open.
For a moment she was indeed blinded, reeling as her eyes were flooded with stimulus. Blinking furiously, Kurisu observed white-out slowly invaded by hue and tone, giving way to sapphire skies and emerald fields, shadowed by the vigilant gaze of dark-forested mountains. The off-white concrete beneath her feet was the same as Tokyo proper, but littered with rubble—whitewashed brickwork and plaster from the crumbling derelicts that were the last remnant of the city’s sprawling outskirts. Isolated, abandoned… fading away into pastels on the horizon. Kurisu stood and gaped at the view, noting with fascination how the vibrant colours were starting to shimmer and swim together.
‘I warned you, didn’t I?’ Okabe spoke up after a period of tactful silence. ‘And now you have eyeball fluids running down your face. Such is the fate of those who ignore my wisdom.’
‘S-shut up,’ she sniffled, scrubbing furiously at her face until she could see properly again. That desolate landscape… her heart seemed to weigh heavier in her chest as she looked at it. It wasn’t so much the destruction that bothered her—what she’d seen of Tokyo had prepared her for that, and this wasn’t even her home country, for all that she’d spent far too long here—but the utter emptiness that awaited her.
What was to become of her now?
Even a gilded cage had been somewhere for her to belong, a bastion to define herself against. And her thoughts were becoming entirely too pathetic, so she took a deep, settling breath and turned to her companion.
‘Hey, Okabe. What will you do now?’ The man was looking out along the road that was, she realised, the only work of humanity in the area that looked properly maintained.
Whatever he saw, he nodded and twisted to grab her face in both hands and draw her nose-to-nose with him.
Before she could protest, his thumbs were under her chin and pulling down her lower eyelids. His calloused hands gripped like falcon’s claws, baring her to unblinking eyes. She swallowed and felt the pressure of his thumbs against her jaw; a little lower and they’d be at her windpipe…
She bit down until she tasted iron. Okabe’s grip loosened and Kurisu wrenched her head free, stumbling away.
‘What was that for?’ he snapped, now cradling one hand with the other. ‘My finger’s bleeding!’
She glared right back. ‘I told you not to—!’ A faint rumbling distracted her, and her eyes followed the sound to its source: a faint dot on the road where Okabe had been looking just a moment ago. Now that she thought about it, it sounded like… an engine?
She sprang up, ready to bolt for the sewer entrance. However much she hated those dank tunnels, anything was better than going back to being someone’s genius-on-a-leash.
‘That’s our ride,’ Okabe said, leaning back against a crumbling wall. ‘You didn’t think we were going to walk all the way home, did you?’
By now, the approaching vehicle was readily visible: a large truck, of the kind with a detachable cab. With an air of affected nonchalance, Okabe stuck out a thumb as it drew close and the truck ground to a stop, hissing as the pneumatic brakes let off pressure.
A woman exited. Brown-haired and slightly chubby from too many days spent at the wheel, she wore a dark gray jumpsuit — the same as Okabe’s — and her posture was similar as well. Like foxes, glad to meet, yet aware the other might spring at any moment. Without saying a word, the two stepped close as lovers, staring into each other’s eyes just as Okabe had with her.
A long moment passed, and the two separated. Okabe followed the driver round to the back of the truck and heaved the shutter up with a clatter.
‘Makise,’ he called. ‘Come see! This’ll get us back to the lab in the very epitome of luxury!’
The lab. Images flashed behind her eyes, of the bare room with a single table, a calculator and a pad of paper where she’d spent every day of the last thirteen years working desperately to turn a peace offering to her father into a weapon that could topple civilisations. The cold-faced man who stood behind her chair as a constant reminder of the price she’d pay should her masters for one moment believe she was holding back.
‘The lab?’ she asked. Her voice didn’t waver in the slightest.
‘Mmm. I thought you looked familiar, and together with your name I got it in the end. Kurisu Makise. The published Kurisu Makise, who wrote an article in Nature: Neuroscience at the age of sixteen. From your attire, and the fact that I found you in the Tokyo Depopulated Zone, I’d say the Organisation caught up with you a while ago… and that they did not endear themselves to you. Am I getting warm, perchance?’
Kurisu kept a straight face and glared at him frostily.
‘The Organisation’s control might appear military, Makise, but it’s really intellectual, don’t you see? Their monopoly on science and on the tools that it provides is absolute. How are the rest of us to resist such a modern opponent when we’ve been forced back into the living standards of the eighteenth century?’
The truck’s engine revved, and Okabe began to speak faster. ‘Look. I run a laboratory, Makise, full of clever, like-minded folk who are trying to find a way to break the Organisation’s monopoly. But to do that, the lab needs members, and I need all the help I can get.’ He winked and held up his bleeding finger ruefully. ‘A true intellectual should be willing to risk a couple of fingers for the pursuit of knowledge, after all. Will you join us?’
Kurisu watched as Okabe clambered up into the truck, her heart pounding in her chest and her hands shaking where they were clasped behind her back. He was distracted and the driver had returned to her cabin; she could run right now and neither of them would be able to catch her. The laboratories, the fear, she could finally escape and leave them all behind for good.
Or she could follow this man, who had somehow extricated her from a ruined city filled with soldiers. She’d been a research assistant before and it was a life infinitely preferable to that of the carefully cultivated ‘asset’ she’d been only this morning.
Fear and hope warred inside her, threatening to tear her apart through indecision. But in the end, the soul of Makise Kurisu was grown on a foundation of curiosity and she was looking at the only person who might give her answers about this new world.
There had been a time when she enjoyed working in a lab. That naive child had passed away long ago and was not mourned, but perhaps a fragment of her could still be saved.
Before she could change her mind, Kurisu broke into a run and leapt up into the trailer.
And Okabe Rintarou caught her.