It soon became apparent that her problems had compounded in the night. Rising groggy with the sunrise, she found Okabe still sleeping. His breath was laboured, while the wound in his leg had grown swollen and inflamed. Resting his forehead against her own, she found him feverish.
At that moment, his eyes opened. They were inches from her own, and she had to fight down the impulse to leap backwards (or shove him away, despite his wounded state). ‘Good morning,’ she greeted him instead, without moving.
‘G-good morning, Kurisu,’ Okabe stuttered. ‘Um, is this a new thing, o-or…’ ‘You have a temperature,’ she told him plainly, finding that if she ignored the blush that was steadily conquering her features it was rather pleasant to have him flustered over her, for once. And her instincts whispered that if Feyris did let slip her secret, his affection might be all that stood between her and… Kurisu shivered, despite the warmth of the day, removing herself before Okabe could feel it.
‘I must have got the treatment wrong,’ she muttered. ‘Sorry.’
‘Oh, pish posh. If it weren’t for you, I’d not even be able to stand. A little fever is fair recompense.’
He hauled himself up and wobbled alarmingly. Seeing Kurisu tense, he quickly added, ‘I’m fine. A little woozy, but I’m sure some food will help.’
‘All right,’ she agreed, quietly resolving to keep an eye on him. ‘That girl, Eiri, is up already and I can take of Itaru.’
Suiting actions to words, she snapped a handy stick from a tree. Finding Itaru sprawled out in the moss, she jabbed him in the ribs until he grunted and smacked it away.
‘It’s morning. Breakfast’s being handed out; get there soon or your portion might just vanish mysteriously.’
‘Hey, you can’t do that!’
‘Having more biomass, you should be able to withstand starvation for significantly longer periods than the rest of us. Up.’ The back-and-forth between them was almost as easy as with Okabe but conversations with Itaru had always been a little more acerbic. Tainted by blame on one side and fear on the other.
Leaving his protests behind, she headed back to the clearing. Everyone was awake now, gnawing on chunks of bread that were—she discovered as she took her own—becoming increasingly stale, enough that she had to wash them down with a gulp of water from one of the flasks.
‘How much is left?’ she asked Okabe surreptitiously.
‘Two meals, maybe three if we can stretch it, and then we’re fending for ourselves,’ he murmured back. ‘I wasn’t expecting this level of physical activity, and having another mouth to feed doesn’t help.’
Great. Another problem.
Her brooding was interrupted by a flick to the centre of her furrowed brow. ‘There’s no call to look so glum,’ Okabe teased. ‘We’re all in good enough condition to take a couple of days without food if we absolutely have to. And there’s always the possibility of hunting and foraging to consider. Just because I’m a scientist at heart doesn’t mean I can’t caveman with the best of them.’
‘Now that, I’d like to see,’ she laughed. He gave her a relieved grin and started attacking his lump of bread again. Kurisu smiled for a moment, until she caught Feyris’ eyes watching her from across the clearing and found her happiness suddenly drained away at the ultimatum that had presented to her.
A single day was all she had to find her answer. To betray her friends by killing or freeing Feyris, or be betrayed to them in turn. If only she had more time! Kurisu mulled it over as she chewed on her lump of bread, and found her gaze drifting to the new girl.
Yes, that might work.
Itaru was busy packing up and Okabe was busy keeping an eye on Feyris. Taking advantage of their distraction, she drew Eiri aside.
‘Hello. Did you want something?’ the girl asked.
‘Eh?’ Kurisu said, thrown a little by her blunt manner. ‘Actually, I was going to thank you for earlier.’
‘It was no trouble.’
‘Aaand I was going to ask if you might be up for watching over her for the next few days. She … scares me a little,’ Kurisu admitted. ‘But you seem to be a lot more comfortable with her.’
Eiri frowned. ‘She scares me too. Maybe more, because I know her better. I suppose I’m just used to it.’
Something in Kurisu clenched at the way the girl spoke; her bland acceptance of whatever fear and suffering she had experienced under the Organisation. It was all the worse because Kurisu knew for herself how it happened. The fear was still there, but she learned to function despite it. The thought of the girl—the child—in front of her having to experience that make her stomach turn.
But Eiri would certainly suffer consequences if Feyris managed to escape. That helped ease Kurisu’s guilt at using her, a little. ‘You’re struggling with the cross-country, right? I’ll take your turn carrying a pack in the day if you’ll take my watch at night.’
Eiri thought it over, then shrugged. ‘All right.’
The relief that ensued from those two words only drew attention to the creeping anxiety that had come before: her shoulders loosened, her breath eased and her posture was a little less poised to flee. Now she might be able to escape from where she was stuck between the two sides of this war.
She gave Eiri a quick nod of gratitude and fled the girl’s presence with a speed that verged on the impolite.
Late in the afternoon, they came upon a way to replenish their supplies. Navigating by the sun, the five of them had spent the last half-hour trudging along the edge of the forest until they could find some cover that headed in the appropriate direction. Not only was this easier going, with less of the twisting and malevolent undergrowth that seemed to grow solely for the purpose of entangling exhausted explorers, but it gave them an exceptional view down from the wooded ridge. And so they were in a perfect position to spot the isolated farmstead, sheltered as it was in the lee of the valley.
As with so many things, this was both a blessing and a curse. The wide, open fields that made the place so visible also made it impossible to approach without being seen from miles away. They’d heard the pulses of helicopter rotors pass overhead several times already, and only been saved from detection by the thick canopy above them.
Strange, how unimportant that dilemma seemed when faced with the prospect of marching on an empty stomach.
‘Wait till twilight and approach from the west, use the sun as cover and stay in the shadow of the hills,’ Itaru summed up. ‘S’pose it’s worth a shot.’
‘If Okabe can make it that far,’ Kurisu retorted, folding her arms. The invincible leader of the Future Gadget Lab had been deteriorating all day; what was once a mild temperature had progressed to a full-on fever and his limp had worsened to the point where they’d been forced to stop and find a tree-limb thick enough to use as a crutch. ‘I still don’t see why you can’t just go on your own.’
‘Sure, and get belted on the back of the head. I need him to charm the locals.’
‘The goal is to steal food from them! How could he possibly ‘charm’ them into not caring about that? You’re, what, six-foot-something? You’ll be fine.’
‘Fortunately, I am still in control of my faculties and thus able to decide for myself,’ Okabe cut in, sounding horribly weak to her ears. ‘Kurisu … I appreciate the thought, but I’ve been walking for most of a day. I can manage a little stroll.’
And to think, only two days ago she’d been encouraging him to do more stupid things…
‘Fine,’ she huffed. ‘But I’m coming too. That’s the condition. Take it or leave it.’
‘Actually, I was hoping you’d take care of Feyris and Eiri…’
Alone with those two? So not going to happen.
‘Okabe, I’m coming with you whether you like it or not. If that means dragging her along, so be it.’
His mouth opened, and she lifted a finger in warning. ‘Ah!’
‘Ah!’ She deployed the other hand against Itaru, who had spoken up second. ‘After all someone has to watch out for you idiots.’
And that, as they say, was that.
Accordingly, dusk found her creeping through a field of wilted maize like some Wild West bandit (which really wasn’t so far from the truth, now was it?). The task was made more difficult by the low height of the crop in question, which forced her to all but crawl in order to stay hidden. Feyris and Eiri were small enough to remain almost invisible even when standing, while Okabe suffered right alongside her and Itaru… well, his problems had less to do with height and more to do with the width of the wake he left behind.
By the time they reached the house, it was obvious that there was no one watching. The sunlight was fading fast yet the windows remained dark, not a hint of candlelight to be seen. A rusting hoe protruded from the courtyard. The walls were steadily being overgrown and vegetation had begun to creep across the doorway.
Itaru stepped forward to the portal. Thin wood offered no resistance, splintering under his fist. He stumbled back as the door shattered, hacking as though trying to force something from his lungs. A moment later, it hit the rest of them. A putrid stench, issuing forth as if from a wound. The house itself seemed to be rotten.
‘Hello!’ Itaru possessed the loudest voice of them, though this time his bellow received no reply. ‘Anyone there?’
‘Daru…’ Okabe hobbled up, laying a calming hand on his shoulder.
‘Yeah, I know. Had to try.’
One by one, they entered. Kurisu pressed her muddy sleeve to her mouth, muffling the odour of decay with the gritty taste of earth. At least with nobody home they wouldn’t have to worry about leaving witnesses, although their chances of finding supplies had just dropped from certain to nearly nothing. As Okabe prodded Feyris into one of the front rooms, with Eiri trailing after them, she decided to investigate the back of the house.
Carefully, she slid aside an old-fashioned partition. Inside all was dark, with the remnants of the rusty sunset spilling over the floor—not enough to pierce the gloom but enough to turn the atmosphere surreal and dreamlike.
Squinting, she made out the vague form of a long table, surrounded by what must be chairs. Trying to make some sense out of the indistinct shapes, she stepped forward into the room. As the angle of her view changed, several things became clear.
Two points of bloody light reflecting from bilious white orbs.
More light, glittering off teeth framed by withered lips.
The shape of a head.
Slowly, horribly, her gaze was drawn down to the emaciated form of the house’s former owner.
Kurisu Makise screamed.
A crash echoed from upstairs; she barely heard it as the stink of rot closed a fist around her trachea. Literally rooted to the spot, she stared into the face of a grinning corpse as her very guts contracted.
With a start, she tore herself free, her lungs gasping in a breath and releasing it as a shriek. She ran. Out of the door, slamming into Okabe as her ran to her and clawing past him to fall into the yard and retch in mindless horror.
Ill-fed as she was, nothing came up. She could only mewl and claw at the ground, uselessly trying to purge herself. Dimly, she heard Okabe’s voice calling to her. ‘Kurisu! Are you all right?’ His hand grabbed her by the shoulder; a warm and indubitably living weight. Bit by bit, she began to pull herself together.
‘I’m fine,’ she said once she had her voice under control. ‘Just … caught off guard for a moment.’
‘But what happened?!’
Itaru poked his head out of the door and coughed. ‘Looks like she found the master of the house. Don’t know how long he’s been there, but the time has not been kind to him.’
Okabe sighed and stood. ‘I’ll take a look. Stay out here a bit, would you?’
‘I don’t need a babysitter,’ Kurisu protested, drawing the tattered remnants of her dignity around her.
‘No worries, I got her.’ Itaru waved him off.
‘I told you, I don’t need—’ Indignation helped to block out the memory of that agonised visage ~clenched teeth held together by rotting muscle~ but her stomach still felt like she’d been punched and her legs were too weak to hold her.
‘For God’s sake, I’m not some sheltered little girl!’ she spat, perhaps at Itaru or perhaps at herself.
‘Not exactly the maturest of women either,’ Daru snickered. ‘‘Sides, I’ve seen guys and girls a lot older than you chucking their guts up, it’s pretty standard. Ever seen a dead body before?’
‘…No,’ she admitted slowly. Death was something she considered herself accustomed to. She had been threatened with it, haunted by more than anyone in human history. She had, in her very darkest hours, wished it for herself. But she was nonplussed to realise that she had never once experienced it in person.
‘Well then. Bound to happen. Shows you have human feelings is all. Just think of it like a learning experience; better to freak out now than when it’s actually important, right?’
‘Itaru…’ she said, still bent over a little puddle of sputum, ‘I appreciate the thought but can you just … not say anything for a bit?’ ‘Gotcha.’
They stayed like that for a little while, her struggling to rise while he looked on in silence.
‘Hey, Makise, there’s something bugging me.’ She ignored him, understandably preoccupied trying to deal with the last five minutes, but he continued anyway. ‘Didn’t I once tell you to call me Daru?’
‘Once, yes,’ she replied, having no other choice.
‘My friends call me Daru.’
She knew. Why did he think she’d stopped after their little tête-à-tête in the laboratory?
An object entered her field of view; a hand, broader than Okabe’s and callused from hard labour. Hesitantly, Kurisu gave it hers and was hauled up in a second, her arm aching from the force.
‘Oh. Um. Thanks… Daru?’ she said quietly, and waited for him to grin and look away before grabbing the hoe that still stood up from the earth—at that moment she couldn’t stand on her own two feet if the world depended on it. But the weakness sprang from a different memory now…
‘You haven’t told them, have you?’
The creak of the door opening startled her from her reverie as Feyris exited, shadowed by the armed Eiri and with Okabe limping in the rear. His eyes darted to hers and she smiled weakly as Daru asked, ‘So what did you find in there?’
‘As a conservative estimate, I’d judge that he’s been dead for a week now, maybe two. Unfortunately, he’s pretty thin; the cause of death was likely starvation. Look at the state of those crops.’
‘Poor bastard… Not going to be stacking on supplies here, then,’ Daru said gloomily.
‘Afraid not,’ Feyris spoke up, her eyes hooded. ‘Though I dare say your bulk is enough to sustain you for some time yet; the rest of us too if anyone’s open to cannibalism. You’ll be burying the man next to his daughter, I assume?’
Kurisu didn’t want to ask, but Feyris must have seen the question in her eyes because she replied anyway. ‘A photo upstairs. And most people don’t leave good farm implements stuck in the ground. That,’ she said, pointing at the hoe Kurisu was still resting on, ‘is a grave marker. You’re standing on her.’
The words took a moment to sink in, and when they did she yelped and leapt back as though the ground had grown scalding beneath her feet. A look showed her that Daru had also reacted badly, seeming to expand a little as every muscle in his body tensed. Even Eiri’s lips thinned.
‘That keen to dig the knife in, Feyris?’ Okabe asked tightly. ‘I didn’t expect remorse, given your condition, but I never knew such petty malice dwelt in my friend’s heart.’
The woman’s brows drew together as she turned back to look at the rotting derelict. ‘If he’d had the sense to contact us, he would have been saved. Moved, no doubt—this place is far too isolated to be run efficiently—but a collective farm would have been able to feed him and his daughter. Yet out of sentiment, he chose to stay here and paid the price for that decision. Considering your current situation, I’d say it makes a rather nice cautionary tale, wouldn’t you agree?’ She turned piercing eyes on them. Correction: on her, and on Daru. ‘Hardly petty.’
Okabe glared at her. ‘We aren’t dead yet. Come on, everyone, there’s nothing here for us.’
‘What?’ Daru asked. ‘We’re burying him first, right?’
‘No. The Organisation will search this place sooner or later and I don’t want to leave an obvious sign we were here.’
‘We’re burying him next to his daughter if I have to dig the grave with my own bare hands,’ Daru growled and though it was clear he wanted to, Okabe didn’t argue.
A shovel was found, a hole dug. Kurisu forced herself to watch as Daru entered the house and carried out the chair with its grisly occupant; his improvised bier borne to the grave and tipped to send all that was left of the nameless man to his final resting place. Dirt tumbled into the hole, covering him, and was patted down to cover the scar in the land. At the foot of the grave, in the lee of the wind, they placed the photograph.
Daru returned the shovel to wherever he had found it, leaving both graves together under a single marker, and set off back the way they’d come, for the hills. ‘I won’t be like you,’ he muttered to the smiling man in the photograph.
Okabe’s lips moved silently and though she could not read them she knew the promise he was making to that man’s round-faced, blushing daughter as she squirmed out of her father’s arms.
‘I’m sorry.’ Witnessing all that was left of two lives, the weight of those two words struck Kurisu for the first time. And if the end of a single life was so far beyond her understanding, how could she hope to comprehend the death of millions? How could they mean anything to her? Had her remorse been a sham all along? Kurisu had no answers, and followed the other two quietly.
Only Feyris and Eiri remained. They said nothing at all, and a long minute passed before they turned and walked away into the withered fields. Behind them, the house vanished into the growing dark.
Kurisu slept poorly that night, dreaming that she ran through Tokyo again in her desperate flight. But now the dead of that necropolis remained, rotting, emaciated creatures that groped for her with bilious blind eyes and pallid hands. For the first time, she fought them, knocking them aside and treading their remains into the ground as she battled towards the place where she knew her friends waited for her.
Perhaps she escaped, perhaps she didn’t; either way Kurisu awoke tired and irritable, with an empty hole in her stomach that gnawed at her insides. Moreover, Okabe had worsened again overnight—his wound was red and swollen, inflamed flesh puckering around the thread that bound the wound together and gleaming with dewdrops of clear pus. The man himself twisted and turned, mumbling something distressed and incoherent as she took hold of his shoulder and shook him awake.
‘Kurisu!’ he yelled, half-dreaming eyes twisted by a look of terrible betrayal and suspicion—enough to make her jerk back in fright. ‘Kurisu…’ he muttered again, before shaking his head and seeming to become a little more lucid. ‘Sorry. Fever dreams, I think. Not pleasant.’
‘You aren’t the only one,’ she said. ‘I think that anyone who could sleep easy with everything that’s going on would scare me a lot more than you yelling at me in my sleep, you know?’
Okabe chuckled weakly. ‘Hah. Maybe. I know I always thought having hallucinations would be a lot more fun than this. Is there any food left?’
‘There was a bit, remember? Enough for breakfast, at least.’ She winced, looking with distress at the results of her improvised surgery. ‘How about you sit here. I’ll bring you some.’
Okabe flushed, and not with fever. ‘Th-that’s very thoughtful of you, assistant, but we still have a long way to go and I need to be able to walk. Just … give me a hand up.’
Rifling through her bag, Kurisu discovered the last of their rations: enough bread to hold in her closed hand and half a flask of water. They split a fragment of the bread equally between them, but she took only a single gulp of the water before passing it to Okabe, who regarded it doubtfully.
‘Don’t make those eyes, idiot, this isn’t some noble gesture. You have a fever, so you’ll dehydrate faster than me. Drink, or you’ll just slow us down later.’
‘True,’ he admitted, draining most of it, ‘but the same is going to be true of all of us before long. If we don’t find water soon, I don’t know if we’ll reach Kawanuma… and time spent looking will be wasted if we fail.’
‘We’ll keep an eye out,’ she promised him, before a loud yawn interrupted the conversation.
Daru emerged from the forest. ‘Yo, any food left?’
‘Precious little, I’m afraid.’
‘Brilliant,’ he grouched, tossing the morsel of bread down his throat and following it up with all but the dregs of the water bottle. ‘So what do we do now? Just keep walking and hope we don’t collapse on the way?’ ‘That, and find more water,’ Kurisu said, not rising to the acidic tone.
‘Water’s great and all, but we need to find food, Makise! And enough joking about my size; we can’t keep trudging through the woods all day on an empty stomach and you know it! Hell, we don’t really know how much further it is. For all we know, Kawanuma’s another week away … or we could get off-course and walk straight past it.’
‘We push on,’ Okabe said, and tired as he was… injured, as he was… he stood tall. ‘You’re exhausted and you’re hungry; we all are. But we aren’t lost and we are going to make it to Kawanuma. You’ll see Yuki and Suzuha soon, I promise you.’
‘Your promises got us into this mess,’ Daru muttered as he started packing the bags, though he sounded somewhat mollified.
Kurisu tried, she really did, but couldn’t help muttering, ‘Or perhaps it was accepting rides from pretty girls.’
‘Hear that, Eiri?’ said a familiar voice, playful in the manner of a cat with a cornered mouse, while Daru glared. ‘Your enchantments have claimed another victim.’
Kurisu stiffened, forcing herself not to look but unable to keep her eyes from sliding to the right. As before, Eiri was holding a large tranquiliser pistol—their impromptu leash on Feyris—but seemed to fade into the background nonetheless, hanging her head just enough to make her expression all but unreadable.
The girl raised her weapon meaningfully, to the relief of all, and the food was promptly—but not equally—distributed.
‘Okabe,’ Feyris enquired, geniality now entirely discarded, ‘I have not tried to escape, I have not tried to injure any of you and I have restricted any attempts at psychological warfare to mere factual statements rather than, say, threatening to have you dismantled piece by screaming piece. Given the circumstances, I truly have been a model prisoner. So pray tell me, why is it I’m being denied food?’
Okabe shrugged. ‘You can influence elements of your brainstem well enough to control pain, so I see no reason why you can’t ignore hunger as well. Unlike us, or Eiri.’ The reasoning was actually Kurisu’s—likely true, and a secret acknowledgement of the debt she owed the girl for keeping Feyris away from her throat—but she hadn’t been up for saying it to the woman’s face.
‘That’s as may be, but just because I don’t have to feel hungry doesn’t mean I’m not. Whatever you might think, this body,’ she gestured to herself, ‘is still all too human. As am I.’
‘We’ve not forgotten who you are,’ Okabe said, his eyes locked on hers and the chip that glimmered in their depths. ‘Not for one single moment. But as much as we care for you, Feyris, our priority has to be getting out of here alive. So we have to allocate food. And if you do attempt any of those things you spoke of…’ His knuckles were white, the fingers digging into his palms. ‘Understand that at the end of the day, we came to Iida prepared to kill you. That hasn’t changed.’
‘Noted,’ Feyris said coolly. ‘Though if your plan is simply to march us all toward whatever fate awaits, we may as well make an early start. Puppet I may be, but I refuse to wind down like a discarded toy. Kurisu, hoist your esteemed leader. It’s time to go.’
As Feyris marched off with her ‘captors’ hurrying behind, Kurisu and Okabe shot each other a conspiratorial glance.
‘Pfft. Shows what she knows,’ Kurisu smiled through her worry. ‘I mean, what kind of man couldn’t walk for miles on an infected leg without leaning on some girl’s shoulder, huh?’
Okabe chuckled softly. ‘Loath as I am to acknowledge anything Feyris has ever said as truth, I think I might prevail on my assistant just this once.’
‘Just once? You mean, other than making me carry your baggage for miles to meet you? Or dumping the fate of humanity on my head when you couldn’t figure out time travel? Or—’
‘Must you always quibble? Other than that, yes.’
‘Well, if it’s just this once…’ She pulled his arm over her shoulder, mirth fading as she felt almost all his weight resting on her. ‘How bad is it? Truthfully?’
‘Suffice it to say that without my assistant, this perambulation would be somewhat short lived,’ he said, the clipped syllables betraying the effort it took to hobble after the others. ‘And the pain is of a quality hitherto unknown to me—though a few pills with breakfast should keep me motile a little longer. I suspect the wound is gangrenous, or soon to become so.’
Nausea roiled in her belly. ‘We really do need to hurry, then.’
His lips trembled as he smiled, but the devil-may-care light still burned in Okabe’s eyes.
‘We really do.’