In the Shadows of Utopia

Chapter 12

The calm of the wood was shattered as Kurisu’s yells echoed through the night.

‘Get off of me!’ she shouted as he yanked her arm out of the rucksack, keys still clutched in her hand. ‘What the hell do you—’

She was sprawled on the ground. Her ears rang and the lights flashing behind her eyes were so bright that she confused them for the sun. The right side of her face throbbed.

Before she could gather her wits, a black shadow loomed over her. Daru’s fist closed around her windpipe and she struggled weakly as he raised her to eye level. The only sound was a hoarse panting as the breath rasped in her throat.

‘… Da … ru …’

‘I knew it,’ he stated again. ‘Didn’t want to admit it, but I knew.’ The hand that wasn’t around her throat went to her wrist, pulling it forward and squeezing until she cried out. Keys pattered to the ground.

‘Okabe and Ruka scared you in Iida, didn’t they? He told me the whole story once I’d calmed down some. And sure, those two seem ruthless enough, but what you don’t get is that they’re still idealists on the inside. They want to believe that there are good people and bad people, and that you can tell your friends from your enemies by looking deep into their eyes. They don’t think about people like you.’

He gave her a shake. Kurisu gasped for air, kicking and punching wildly at his face and groin. Nothing connected, as the stout man slid away from the blows and slammed a fist into her stomach below her ribs.

‘I’ve know you a while now,’ he told the woman retching in his grasp. ‘You seem like a good enough kid. That’s what Okabe sees in you. That’s what Ruka saw in you. But when you become a parent, you realise that everyone has their price. Me, I’d anything for Suzuha. And whatever your weak point is, the Organisation must have found it long ago because you’ve been sabotaging us all this time, haven’t you! Haven’t you?!’

Kurisu stared into the big man’s eyes, bloodshot and twitching from lack of sleep. His size had always amused her. She’d known objectively that most of it was muscle, but teasing him about it was a long-running joke and she’d been happy to join in.

It wasn’t funny anymore.

‘You betrayed Ruka. You trapped us inside the cordon. You tricked Okabe into the stupid stunt that got us into this mess! He told me you wanted to stop the time travel, and you told us you were an expert but the machine is doing less than ever! You packed the supplies! You were watching Feyris when she nearly escaped yesterday and now you steal the keys and try to let her loose yourself! AND MY FRIEND IS DYING BECAUSE HE TRUSTED YOU WHEN HE WAS HURT! ALL OF THIS IS YOUR FAULT!! ALL OF IT!!!’

Little spots of saliva dried on her face as she struggled for air, clawing at the hand that had tightened convulsively on her windpipe. His grip loosened but only so he could hurl her to the ground, the impact almost knocking her out.

As her vision began to return she saw Daru, now breathing almost as heavily as her, scoop up the tranq gun and shove it into her face. Ready to deliver a lethal dose.

‘I don’t hold it against you,’ he panted, displaying a fake calm almost worse than the screaming rage. It was a pattern she recognised from her father. ‘But you really brought this on yourself. Now, I have to get out of here. Back to Suzuha. I can’t carry Okabe, and I can’t have a traitor like you following me. I said you were a good kid, didn’t I? I did. So I’m going to be nice. End it quickly. Bye, Kurisu. It … was a pleasure to know you.’

There was nothing in her air-starved lungs to argue with. And something important between her brain and her limbs seemed to have stopped working.

As she stared into the barrel, the only thing that sprang to mind was a line from an old videogame.

Hey, fellas, better luck next time!

Then something thick and wet and hot splattered over her face, as Daru screamed in agony.

Moonlight split and shone from a gleaming silver blade, illuminating the slender girl who held it. In the time it took for Kurisu to realise she was still alive, the figure darted forwards and slashed at Daru’s face, forcing him back and away from her. A little more crimson on the blade testified to her success. At bay, Daru’s cry expressed shock as much as pain, and Eiri sprang forward again, stabbing at his hand where it clutched the pistol-butt.

Blistered feet stumbled.

Daru roared like an enraged bear and swung the pistol as a club. The knife took him in the upper arm but his blow broke Eiri’s arm with an audible snap. She lost her footing and slammed into the tree behind her, collapsing to the ground with a whimper.

That tiny sound was enough to rouse Kurisu. Her fear, her pain, she pushed them away, into the furthest corners of her psyche, rising even as Daru’s gun-arm rose likewise.

Kurisu was faster.

Her fist slammed into Daru’s temple; a clumsy blow but enough. Darts whistled past Eiri, burying themselves into the vegetation while the shooter, who weighed half again as much as she did, staggered backwards. Shrouded in night, she still fancied she saw a bruise blossom.

A blow to the skull. Transmitting force through the cushioning meninges. The brain impacts the inside of the casing, squashing it. Blocked blood vessels produce the effect of disorientation.

It would last barely a moment… but a moment was all she needed to land another blow. And another. And another.

I was trying to save you all! Even your daughter! She wanted to shout at him, but all her breath was needed for the next punch. Maybe I’m weak, but I’m not the one who threw away his friend like garbage!

Kurisu misaimed, hitting him in the chest. Inches of muscle, thick as a steel wall, bowed in beneath her knuckles. The tiny, analytical, scientific core of her remembered that Feyris’ strength came from pushing her muscles beyond the body’s preset limits—controlling the natural phenomenon known as hysterical strength. Adrenalin pumping through every battered inch of her, she wondered if it felt anything like this.

Daru, blinded, dizzied and winded, was slammed to the ground in a flurry of fresh-fallen leaves. With a savage glee, she stamped on his wrist, breaking it. His fingers loosened, and she scooped up the fallen pistol.

It was over.

She stood there, the notion of pain writhing its way back into her psyche. Her arms ached right down to the bone and when she lifted her pistol hand she saw blood dripping from the cuts on every knuckle. Catching movement, Kurisu switched the gun over to her other hand and aimed it at Daru, who was struggling to his feet. His expression held nothing but a dazed, bestial fury.

‘That’s right,’ she told him coldly. ‘Get up.’

Only when he was upright, cradling his injured wrist with the other hand, did she notice how shaky he looked. A long, dark stain of drying blood was visible when she looked closer; it flowed from a long gash in his neck. Thinking back, that must have been the original wound that had forestalled her swift-coming demise—brushing a hand across her cheek, she could feel the results caking her skin. Her knowledge of anatomy told her that the knife had come dangerously close to Daru’s carotid artery. Had it hit, Daru would have been dead of blood loss in less than a minute. Where had Eiri learned to do that? Come to think of it, where was Eiri herself?

Well, she thought as Daru tensed for an entirely futile attack, that would have to wait for a moment. What on earth was she supposed to do now? Chaperoning one homicidal woman around had been bad enough; trying it with two people was patently absurd. The keys glittered on the ground and she stooped to pick them up.

Daru’s bloodshot eyes narrowed. She might have been armed but by now he was simply too desperate to give in. He lunged.

Of course she was armed, so the attack didn’t do him much good.

He took one more stop. Tottered. Toppled.

Without pausing, Kurisu swung around and shot at Feyris, who’d been lurking in the undergrowth and yelped as at least one dart struck home. The chip seemed to let her alter certain elements of her perception and nervous system; it couldn’t do anything about its owner’s tiny bodymass or the dose of sedatives that flooded her system. Feyris went out like a light.

Breathing a sigh, Kurisu watched her two most troublesome acquaintances hit the dirt. It was really quite cathartic. And she could do with some catharsis, she realised, because her legs were trembling.

She collapsed to her knees, shivering all over. That had been far, far, far, too close. Sure, people had tried to kill her before but… Being shot at was terrifying; having someone who you counted as a friend hoist you into the air and strangle you… Kurisu shuddered.

Slowly, she managed to crawl over to where she remembered Eiri falling. As she got close, the moonlight revealed a small figure, nestled between the roots of a tree. It must have been quite a bang on the head because she was still unconscious, stirring restlessly in the manner of someone clawing their way out of a bad dream. Brown eyes shot open, locking onto Kurisu as their owner tried to shove her away. The repercussions of doing so with a broken arm hit a moment later, and Eiri bent double with a stifled whimper.

‘It’s all right,’ Kurisu said as reassuringly as she could. A slight quaver in her voice rather ruined the effect. ‘We w-won. No one’s going to hurt you.’

Hard eyes set in a face white with pain regarded her as the girl struggled to her feet. ‘My knife, then.’

‘Only if you promise not to use it,’ Kurisu agreed after a moment’s thought.

‘I won’t hurt anyone if you don’t.’

The knife was duly found. A long, slim thing, the blade folded out from between the handles in a way that seemed sure to slice the fingers of an overconfident wielder. Certainly not something Kurisu had packed.

‘Eiri, where exactly did you find this?’

‘I stole it years ago,’ the fourteen-year-old said calmly. ‘To defend myself.’

And that wasn’t disturbing at all. Still, she could see how years of childhood spent with Feyris in the heart of the Organisation would make you paranoid. ‘Oookay then. I suppose I should be thanking you, anyway. If you hadn’t shown up when you did…’

‘Tonight was a breaking point. I expected something to happen.’ The girl looked Kurisu up and down, her expression unreadable. ‘Though I predicted the conflict would come from you.’

As the words sank in, one by one, Kurisu realised that Eiri was standing very close to her, still holding her knife.

‘What are you doing with those keys?’ Eiri asked, stepping closer before Kurisu could so much as raise her weapon.

‘Wait, wait, wait! What happened to not hurting anyone?’ Kurisu demanded, backing away even as the girl took another step forward.

‘I lied.’ Now Eiri was matching her movement for movement. It wasn’t actually that scary; one of the girl’s arms was broken and she was holding the knife in her off hand—Kurisu would have given herself much better than even odds. Frankly, though, she was exhausted and bruised in places she didn’t like to mention. Plus covered in blood and literally starving to death. Just staying upright was taking all the willpower she could muster—now was no time to be starting fights.

So she told the truth.

‘I was going to set her free.’ Eiri tensed, and Kurisu rushed to tell more of the truth before the girl tried to shank her. ‘You know we’re probably not going to survive this, right? A compass is all very well, but with the size of the target and the distance we’ve had to travel … it really isn’t that reliable. And with recent developments, we’re not exactly going to be able to spend days searching. Feyris promised that she’d protect the people I cared about—’

‘She wouldn’t protect me. And she can’t save herself,’ Eiri interrupted. ‘I won’t let you—’

Kurisu interrupted right back. ‘I said I was going to. But… I just… Oh, damn it!’ she snapped, forgoing actual profanity in deference to whatever was left of the poor child’s innocence. ‘I can’t, can I?’

Her throat tingled as the memory took her, phantom hands closing around it. She’d been saved, and then she’d saved herself. After finally finding the will to fight, Kurisu realised that same part of her wouldn’t countenance giving in again. Not to Daru. Not to Feyris. Not to the cruel whims of fate that had conspired to turn her into a mockery of herself.

The thought took root. Newfound determination burned in her chest, warming her. Kurisu’s vision might be wavering, her legs were quivering with exhaustion and she ached right down to her very bones, but it gave her courage and strength. The odds were too low to rationally contemplate, but she had to at least try.

‘Can you walk a little further?’ she asked Eiri, trying to share this strange new optimism with a comforting hand on her shoulder.

The girl shied away. ‘I have to.’

Kurisu nodded, handing her the gun with no more than a flicker of indecision before walking over to where Okabe slept. Bending down, she took him in her arms, gathered her flagging strength and lifted him to rest in her embrace. It was easier than she expected; fever and starvation had reduced him to a trembling wreck that weighed no more than a sack of feathers. Something in his coverall top dug into her arm and she shifted him until it was comfortable.

Daru’s mumbling filled the air, a low keening that signalled his imminent awakening. Another thing that having all that bodyweight was good for, apparently. In a neat reversal of previous events, he woke to find Eiri’s pistol in his face.

Watching him, Kurisu tried to focus on the recent … assault … rather than the nagging memories of something like friendship. ‘This is the last time I’ll ask. Get up. Or I really will take the compass and leave you here.’ The threat worked, barely. His eyes were hooded and mutinous, however, and she decided to sweeten the pot a little by toeing the compass over to him.

‘That’s so you know I’m not trying to trick you. Now here’s the deal, Itaru: you might have reasons to mistrust me. Fine. But we’re going to Kawanuma. We will make it. And you are going to behave every step of the way, because now is not the time to have this out. Are we clear?’

The nod was stiff, in the manner of one bending his head for the headsman’s axe. It would do.

‘Good. Pick Feyris up.’

He recoiled, sheer incredulity breaking through his self-imposed silence. ‘You want me to carry her?!’ He protested hoarsely.

‘Weren’t you so eager to save her before? No arguing. Eiri, sedate Feyris if it looks like she’s waking up, or Daru if he does something stupid. And the bags will only slow us down,’ she said after a moment’s thought. ‘Leave them and let’s go.’

Okabe was dead weight on her shoulders and she wanted nothing more than to collapse to the ground with him and never get up. Reaching down into herself, she gritted her teeth and dredged up whatever was left of her strength.

Step. Step.

Just keep going.

Step. Step.

The pain and fatigue receded as she concentrated on putting one foot ahead of the other. All that signified their continuing presence was a gray fog that hovered around the edge of her vision.

Step. Step.

Oh. Daylight. They must have been walking for…

Step. Step.

‘South,’ a resentful voice ordered from behind, dragging her out of a rather pleasant daydream about Okabe and a charming little ramen place she’d found long ago…

Step. Step.

The sun was a blood red. Her skin had been the same colour, Kurisu thought vaguely, although now it was more blotches of blue-black bruising that— The world tilted, and she only just recovered herself enough to avoid dropping her now-worryingly-still friend onto the forest floor. Oh. She shook her head muzzily. Maybe now wasn’t the time for thinking.

Step. Step.

So dark. When did it get so dark? Every breath scratched her throat like sand. Her eyes felt hot and itchy but she no longer blinked. The sweet taste in her mouth had faded as her metabolism finished consuming its stores; as a final resort her body would start eating itself. Light-headed, Kurisu watched herself stagger forwards and was reminded of nothing so much as a doll tugged forward on a string.

Step. Step.

How long had it been?

How long was it going to be?

Ah. Yes. They had to walk until they reached…

Wherever were they going?

Trip.

A woman lay on the forest floor, breathing in the smell of the dying foliage that formed her bed. A smile was on her lips—she’d managed to turn as she fell, cushioning the precious burden in her arms. Vaguely, she was aware that she ought to be walking. That’s right; she was taking this thing somewhere to get it mended. Slowly, like a bubble rising through thick syrup, another idea rose in her mind: she wanted to be found by someone. Anyone. One who could fix the one she carried. She should make a signal or something but, oh, how troublesome! she couldn’t seem to move. She’d taken too much out of the bank and eaten up all her overdraft. Oh, well. So it goes. A kick in her side was accompanied by a feminine yelp. A girl had tripped over her.

‘Huh,’ boomed a bass voice from the back the way she’d come. ‘I guess you couldn’t make it any further. But I won’t stop. Got things to do. Kid to see. Yes. Won’t ever stop. Never… ever… stop…’

The woman frowned, confused and conflicted, the voice stirring up a hazy memory. Bubbles again, they rose through the strata of her mind and—popped—as her expression regressed back into a sleepy daze and silence claimed the muttering giant who’d passed her.

She should make a signal. A fire? Yes… a fire.

She… would… build… a… fire…

As the last drop of her strength flowed away, Kurisu slept, only the slow susurration of her breath to show that she still dwelt among the living. Of course, nobody remained to hear it—even Okabe, whose head rested on her chest, drifted in a dreamless sleep. Had he been awake to listen, however, he would have heard those gentle sighs and one more sound: a feeble humming from his coat pocket as a useless and forgotten bamboo-copter sputtered through its swan song and fell silent.

It wasn’t much. But sometimes the scales of fate are moved by a single grain of sand.

The Valkyrie heard.


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