Kurisu’s laptop was almost the last of its kind. When she’d first been presented with it, she’d clutched it to her chest like a newborn child. And now, after three months spent solely in its company, she was ready to smash it against a wall.
Was it any wonder she felt stir-crazy in here? Her new home was a container so small that she could lie on her cot with her head against the back wall, place her hands against the walls on either side, and still touch the door with her toes. To work, she had to fold the bed up and pull out a flat panel to use as a makeshift desk. There was only just enough space to hold both her laptop and the strange ball of wiring that was the primary source of her frustration.
A masterpiece of delicate copper filigree, the ball was formed of twisted branching lines almost too thin to see, hung around with drops of leaden solder like the dew on a spider’s web. In the middle squatted the chip she’d removed from Feyris, extruding its own lattice of probes that Kurisu had woven into her design.
Producing all this had taken her the better part of a week.
The next three months had been spent trying to figure out how to use it.
Since the chip didn’t produce a signal of its own accord, the only option was to provoke it, giving it erroneous inputs until it requested an update from the Organisation’s central network. But the chip was wily: it knew a hack when it saw it. No, it was designed to interface with a brain and a brain it must have—or at least the best facsimile that Kurisu could assemble.
Caught up in the task at hand, it took her a moment to notice that someone was tapping on the door in a jaunty melody. Tap-Tata-tap… tap… The knocks became suddenly uncertain, and silence fell for a few moments before the knocker summoned up the courage for a businesslike Rat-tat-tat.
‘Come in!’ she called.
Okabe’s figure was no longer that of a starvation victim: the Valkyrie’s diet was poor but his cheeks had filled out and his limbs bore less resemblance to twigs than they once had. And yet he seemed somehow frail: all the energy that had once defined him was vanished and he haunted the base like a wandering spectre.
That thought settled heavily in Kurisu’s stomach, and she pushed her observations to the back of her mind.
‘Hello, Okabe!’ she said warmly. ‘Here for an update?’
‘Yes. Yes, that’s it precisely. Makise, tell me you have something for me.’
‘I have a list of ways that I can’t interact with the chip,’ she sighed. ‘Hopefully that means I’m closing in on a viable methodology. I just need to refine it.’
He nodded curtly. ‘You won’t have long: another Valkyrie base has gone dark. There was nothing that could lead them directly to us, but… it’s only a matter of time, Makise.’
No wonder he looked so insubstantial. Foxes huddling in a hole, hearing the hounds bay outside. She found herself wanting to reach out to him and bit her lip hard to force those thoughts out of her head. ‘Are you forgetting that I’m a genius? I’ll get it done. And how’s the Nostalgia Drive getting on?’
A shrug. ‘Ask me tomorrow. Daru’s planning an all-nighter, so either he’s hit a wall or he thinks he’s made a breakthrough.’ Okabe turned to leave, but hesitated in the doorway. ‘You know, once you’re done with this, you and Daru are going to have to work together on the Nostalgia Drive. Please, I know it’s a lot to ask, but I need both of you with me.’
The laptop case creaked under her fingertips and she smiled sweetly. ‘I told you before that I’d put the mission ahead of my personal feelings, remember? There won’t be any trouble.’
‘That’s… something, at least. Look, is there any chance—’
Okabe sighed. ‘Is it so much to ask? I’d just like my friends not to hate each other.’
‘I know,’ she said more gently. ‘I really do. But Daru and I burned our bridges that night. I’ll be civil, but please don’t expect more than that. See you around, Okabe.’
As the door closed and Okabe’s footsteps rustled away over fallen leaves, Kurisu turned her attention back onto her electronic adversary. ‘All right, fine,’ she muttered. ‘You and me, in this room, until we get it done.’
In a soundproofed lab, nobody can hear you scream.
Two weeks later:
‘An aerial,’ Colonel Shoda harrumphed, taking the blueprints from her and flicking through them. ‘Next thing you’ll be asking me to build is a ‘We Are Here’ sign, just in case the message isn’t obvious enough. Make me understand why this is necessary.’
‘Sure.’ Kurisu gestured for the sheets. ‘May I?’
Finding the one she wanted, she pointed to a gray smudge pencilled in with charcoal at the bottom of the aerial design, surrounded by faded lettering from previous notes that had been rubbed out to draw these plans. The Organisation didn’t like paper—writing led to communication, and collaboration, and thence to conspiracies—so the Valkyrie’s supply was scarce at best. Most of it ended up forming piles on Colonel Shoda’s desk.
‘This is the chip that I retrieved from Feyris,’ she explained. ‘I’ve figured out how to interact with it but the signal it produces is far too weak to communicate with the central network from out here in the woods. If I connect the chip to an aerial, I can boost the signal enough to make contact. Probably.’
The Colonel glowered at her.
‘I mean, I can’t possibly guarantee it’ll work until I’ve properly field-tested it, but…’
Seeing that her request had navigated the rapids of techno-confusion and was heading swiftly toward the waterfall of rejection, Kurisu corrected herself swiftly.
‘Glad to hear it,’ he said, steepling his hands on the desk. ‘Talk to Lieutenant Uno—she’ll get it done—and make sure to tell me when you start testing it. I want the base to be on alert in case the thing backfires on us.’
‘Hey, my work doesn’t backfire!’ she said, stung.
‘Call it an old soldier’s intuition.’
A drawer scraped open as she left, and she heard the chink of glass behind her.
‘It has to be how tall?’
‘Sorry. I need to keep interference from the trees to a minimum,’ Kurisu explained. ‘Is that going to be a problem?’
Not saying it is, but…’ Uno grinned, ‘it’s lucky you’re the one who’s asking.’
Kurisu folded her arms. ‘Fine, I’ll take the bait. Why am I lucky?’
The lieutenant gestured at Kurisu’s diagram. ‘Because this sucker is gonna need a couple of prefab’s worth of material if you want to make it stable. Since it’s Makise Kurisu asking, that’s a noble sacrifice rather than gutless theft from a politico. The boys and girls who’ll be sleeping on the ground get to make an important contribution to the cause and I don’t have to stay up all night stopping them from fragging your ass. Copy?’
Kurisu’s eyes widened.
‘Oh, it’s an old military practice. When you have an incompetent commander—’
‘I know what it means!’
‘Chill, you and yours have got that whole ‘Our Last Hope’ cred going for you. And with everyone knowing that you saved Hououin Kyouma’s life, your popularity’s well high enough for you to take a few knocks and still come out looking good.’
‘That’s as may be, but…’ her voice trailed off as she noticed something. The corner of a gray piece of fabric in the pocket of Uno’s coveralls, almost indistinguishable from the material of the clothes themselves, but stitched with characters in the darker felt used for lining them.
Following her gaze, the lieutenant turned a little pink and hastily tucked the omamori out of sight.
‘There’s a new shrine in town?’ Kurisu asked idly.
‘Indeed so, ma’am,’ came a voice from just behind her left ear, ‘although I believe it follows a number of practices that… deviate somewhat from orthodox worship.’
Kurisu yelped and spun around, lowering her centre of gravity in the stance that Feyris had taught her, only for her gaze to meet solemn, deep-set eyes.
‘Well. It’s hardly my place to judge what a shrine maiden does with her time. Or her—.’
‘His time.’ Kurisu and Uno corrected him simultaneously. And his…
An eyebrow was raised. ‘Is that so? I suppose it’s possible; those robes are fairly concealing.’
Twin blushes, for entirely different reasons. ‘Like you haven’t been to the shrine too!’ Uno burst out defiantly.
‘Like you haven’t been, sir. And I am taken, alas.’ His tone seemed even graver for a moment, the faint tinge of irony now entirely absent before he turned back to Kurisu. ‘Now if you’ll excuse me, ma’am, I must borrow back my lieutenant.’
‘Sorry, Mr. Boss Sir, but I’ve been commandeered so you’ll have to manage without me for a bit! Bye!’
Red-faced, Uno dashed off.
‘Hmm… I fear I’ve struck a nerve. My apologies for disrupting your conversation, ma’am. If I may ask… please try not to delay my second in command too long? Or her rivals in love may forge ahead of her. In any case, farewell.’
As Uno returned, dragging a quantity of struts and a bunch of impromptu construction workers, Kurisu could only wonder why it was that everyone she met seemed to be so… strange. She was sure people were saner thirteen years ago.
‘So how’s this whole thing work?’ Mayuri asked absently, staring up at the rickety aerial and the blue sky beyond. The whole base had been put on high alert, with most of the future gadget lab gathering around to watch—and to be ready in case of mishaps. Even Feyris, who’d finally become Captain Rumiho after the last month of probation, had freed up her schedule enough to be present.
Only Itaru was absent, still working furiously on the Nostalgia Drive.
‘Well, the chips themselves only generate a weak signal, so my theory is that there’s a distributed network of hubs responsible for picking those up and connecting them to the central network for updates and any other necessary procedures,’ Kurisu explained, connecting the chip and its bizarre parasite to the battered old laptop. ‘The aerial is just to amplify the signal so we can connect to the network from here and… oh, hell.’
The laptop expired with a whine like a kicked dog. Kurisu made a similar noise in the back of her throat and bent over it.
‘Not now, not now… Okabe, pick up those solar generators and move them over there, I think the sunlight’s brighter. See? Your coat got whiter.’
Okabe’s original labcoat had been sacrificed to become Hououin Kyouma’s cape, much to his displeasure, and the first thing he’d done once mobile was take a spare coverall and bleach it. It wasn’t white so much as an off-gray, although an unspoken agreement was in place never to mention this fact to its wearer. The man could pout like a thirteen year old.
‘But the genius of it is this,’ the man in question followed on from her. ‘The chips slave their bearers to the ultimate will of the Organisation, the true Organisation, and the entire hierarchy of the Administration reflects this fact. The higher you get, the more likely you are to be chipped. At the top level it’s a certainty! Everyone’s controlled by somebody who’s chipped! So what, you ask? So the system which controls all these people must go back to whoever’s really in charge: the people who control the Organisation itself! Probably the ones who created it to begin with.’
By the end, Okabe was beaming for the first time in months. It had not come easily, this. The three of them who’d come through the forest with Feyris and the chip had sacrificed their friendships, their principles and very nearly their lives on the way… and she knew that Okabe hadn’t forgotten how many others, at her request and his command, had been betrayed. Had suffered, died, to make this possible. But for the first time, they would know the face of their enemy. How and where to fight back. It all began here.
She said as much to Colonel Shoda, who merely grunted and said, not unkindly, ‘How about you save patting yourselves on the backs until after it works? More importantly, what’s to stop the buggers from radioing right back at us, once we’re connected?’
‘Hardly a problem,’ Okabe said breezily. ‘I’d vouch for Daru against anyone the Organisation can put to work.’
The Colonel’s face darkened before Feyris interjected. ‘It won’t be spotted, sir. The chipped are incapable of disloyalty, utterly above mistrust. Nobody even considered the possibility that we could try to access the network maliciously or that we might be de-chipped, certainly not without the Organisation’s medical facilities. I’d have been the first to plug the security leak, otherwise.’
‘Well, then,’ Kurisu said, trying to keep the nerves out of her voice. ‘Let’s get this show on the road.’
‘Right. I’ll fetch Daru,’ Okabe offered before running off.
Now that the laptop was booted up, Kurisu checked that the chip and interface were connected properly, before turning her attention to the aerial and running a quick diagnostic. It was nothing fancy—just a straight wire supported by an awful lot of metal panelling. It ought to hum ominously, to highlight the seriousness of the occasion, but even without such auspicious signs the computer’s aging wireless had picked up a good strong signal. The Colonel glared at it suspiciously. ‘Is it working?’
‘So far. Ready to connect.’
The next step was easy enough; she’d perfected the brain simulation that would produce an error and tested it to an inch of its life. All she had to do was set it going.
Her fingers trembled above the keyboard.
No going back.
$ mpirun -np 8 -machinefile ~/mpi_hosts python chip_error.py
That’s when it started. Eiri, in a slightly less guarded moment, had referred to the chips as ‘demons’ and the comparison seemed suddenly apt. It was as though the chip had come alive: pouring streams of data into her simulated ‘brain’. Diagnosing it. Pacifying it. Controlling it.
The door was open. Swiftly, Kurisu shunted away most of the controlling data tendrils; like a real brain, the simulation was modular and highly interconnected, so she shut parts of it down one by one until the thread command sequence was isolated.
The next part was harder. Over half an hour (where was Itaru, for God’s sake?) she performed a feat truly fitting of a scientific prodigy, resolving the commands as they appeared to her interface into the program code as they appeared to the chip itself and writing them across the screen as…
Doubledutch. Nonsense. Garbage.
‘What the hell is this?’ she murmured. ‘I’ve never seen anything like it.’
‘I have,’ Feyris said quietly, and everyone turned to look. The cadence of her voice had shifted slightly, gaining a hint of the cold regality that had marked her days as the Administrator. ‘My former secretary possessed an antique computer that she kept in her office—a memento of her father, she told me when I inquired. The one time I saw her use it, the screen was covered in code very similar to this. If we assume she was observing me on behalf of my masters, that machine might have been how she contacted them.’
Feyris blinked, as if mental gears had clashed. Her posture shifted subtly; catlike grace transforming into the military poise that Kurisu had watched her develop over the last few months.
‘You said anyone with a chip was above suspicion,’ Kurisu pointed out. ‘Why would they be spying on you?’
Feyris looked uncomfortable. ‘I said that nobody with a chip could ever be disloyal to the Organisation. But it’s like I told you that night. Loyalty… it means different things to different people. Given the fiasco that my ‘loyalty’ would eventually develop into, it’s no wonder they kept an eye on me.’
‘I guess. They must be using those machines as some sort of encrypter, like Enigma wheels,’ Kurisu mused. ‘When you say the computer was antique, how old are we talking?’
‘The details escape me, I’m afraid. But I do remember that it was one of those old IBNs, from back when computers were big beige boxes.’ Feyris sighed. ‘My dad could have told you more, but he never had anything like that in his collection.’
‘Hey!’ Colonel Shoda barked, yanking them out of their conversation. ‘Clock’s ticking, people. Can you decipher it or not?’
Kurisu tapped her fingers against her cheekbone in irritation. ‘Not without months of work and ciphered material, and that’s being optimistic. Itaru might be able to, but he still hasn’t shown up! I’d have left that ogre of a man in the woods if I knew how useless he was going to be!’
She quickly sneaked a look over her shoulder, expecting Itaru to appear at the worst possible time. Again. Finding nothing, she carried on speaking. ’Either way, the risk of discovery gets worse the longer we keep that connection open. Even if it’s technically possible, we just don’t have the time.’ A deep breath. ‘We need to retrieve that machine.’
‘Not a chance in hell,’ the Colonel said simply. ‘You are not, repeat not, risking my men on a crazy stunt like that.’
The members of the Future Gadget Lab shifted under his gaze, uneasy but silent, until Kurisu sighed and walked off a little way, motioning for the Colonel to follow.
It actually came as something of a surprise when he did, but she forced down any nervousness and stepped close to him, lowering her voice.
‘You’ve heard the rumours that are going around, right? Time machines… It’s a bit difficult to believe, isn’t it? Even after all this time. Heck, sometimes I find the idea crazy, and I designed them. Or helped, at least.’
The Colonel’s eyebrows drew together dangerously, the muscles of his face tautening the texture of his skin into granite. Kurisu continued on blithely. Let other people face her demons, for once.
‘But time travel’s real, and we need it. Look, don’t get me wrong, it’s amazing what you’ve done here,’ she said sincerely, ‘but Operation Valkyrie can only ever be our rear guard. Okabe’s always known that. I learned it after Iida was destroyed. And you have to come to terms with it now.
‘Every day, more of us die and every day, more children are born who can’t imagine anything other than this world, who can’t even comprehend freedom! We have to fight the Organisation in the past because we have already lost here. And to do that, we have to know what it is and where it came from.’
She looked him in the eyes without wavering.
‘The work of the Future Gadget Lab is not a stunt. It’s the only thing we have.’
When the Colonel spoke, his voice was almost unrecognisable. Gone was the abrasive tone, the surety of command; replaced with the softness of a man gazing into the far distance. With a stab of guilt, Kurisu realised that the Colonel was only a Colonel. He had no more expected to decide the fate of humanity that she had.
‘You know, I remember the night you got here,’ he mused. ‘When they dragged you out of the woods. You had him in your arms. Wouldn’t let go. Not for anything.’
He fell silent, but just when she was beginning to think that was it, he spoke again.
‘I don’t like heroes. People like Kyouma, they have a Cause. Blinds them to everything else, makes everything they see fuel to feed that flame. It’s people like you and me who face the consequences. So if someone like you is telling me this is worth it, well, I might just believe you.’
Kurisu restrained the urge to deny his words. The scenario he described bore only a passing resemblance to the truth—it had been her idea to rescue Ruka and damn the consequences, not Okabe’s. She didn’t deserve this kind of trust.
But she needed it. This moment was too important to ruin with the truth. So she nodded.
A breath of air hissed out of the Colonel’s nose. ‘Fine. Let’s get this bloody trainwreck on the rails, then.’
The two of them wore equally grim expressions as they marched back to the aerial.
‘Captain Rumiho, Urushibara Ruka, pull Captain Masumune off alert. Shiina Mayuri, Makise Kurisu, you’re with me. And where the hell have ‘Hououin Kyouma’ and his gorilla vanished off to—!’
He was interrupted by a laugh. And not just any laugh. The monstrous crossbreed of a witch’s cackle and a madman’s gibber… Without having ever heard it before, everyone present found themselves unaccountably certain of its progenitor.
‘Ladies and Gentlemen, I bear fateful news!’ cried Okabe. ‘The Nostalgia Drive approaches completion! Our ace in the hole emerges from its slumber! HuhuhuhahahaahaaaHAAAAAA—!’
‘No way,’ Kurisu whispered under her breath. ‘They got it working?’
‘—AAAAaaaaaaaaa. Oh, what’s got all of you so glum? We can celebrate two triumphs in a single day!’
Deciding to just let him bask while she could, Kurisu forwent any mention of the chip or the putative raid on Tokyo in favour of asking bluntly, ‘You got the time machine functional?’
‘Functional, no,’ Okabe said, spinning in her direction. ‘But it’s running, Kurisu!’
‘Okay, get down off that sugar high and explain,’ Kurisu said, crossing her arms. ‘What exactly is it that you’ve done?’
Okabe didn’t exactly wilt under her glare, but the manic grin lost a few degrees of curve.
‘You said once it felt like there was something missing from the Nostalgia Drive, correct? Some vital component?’
‘We couldn’t replicate it. But Daru figured that it might just be a focuser, or an amplifier, and if we completely dissembled the machine and routed round it—’
‘You routed around it?! Anything could have happened!’
‘We have electrical discharge, mass alteration, the works! It even bent light within the machine. Certainly, I couldn’t get a message into the past but now it’s just a matter of finding out what function the machine isn’t performing and finding a way to replicate it.’
Enough basking. Time to ground him.
‘Okabe, we’re screwed,’ she cut in. ‘The Organisation’s network is encrypted. The only decrypter is smack in the middle of the Tokyo Depopulated Zone and we have to go on a near-suicidal mission to get it back. Since the Iida trick isn’t going to work again and this is definitely something they won’t ignore, the Organisation is going to twist the fabric of space and time into a Mobius strip until they actually see our broken, bleeding bodies on the ground. Still feel like laughing?’
His eyes widened. So did his smile.
With one Colonel, one Captain, five Future Gadget Lab members and Feyris, who occupied two out of the previous three categories, the office was pretty crowded. They stood around Colonel Shoda’s desk, seeing wood for the first time as the piles of paper had finally migrated to one corner. Okabe was using them as a makeshift throne.
‘Okay. Since we’re doing this, we’re doing it smart,’ the Colonel grumbled. ‘First, reconnaissance. Captain Rumiho. Urushibara Ruka.’
The miko stepped forward to the table, covering it up with paper once again as he laid a blank sheet down. ‘There’s not much I can say,’ he apologised. ‘We’ve held off on infiltrating anything but the lower levels of Tokyo rather than risk having our agents chipped… I can give you some idea of the structure, though.’
‘Here is Tokyo city as we understand it.’ Ruka arced an elegant white hand across the paper to delineate a distorted circle. ‘These areas—’ a swathe of city was cut away, ‘—fell into neglect after the city was abandoned and became essentially devoid of people. The true Depopulated Zone is here. A square mile of administrative and research facilities boxed in with heavy fortifications.’
‘Modelled on the Berlin Wall,’ Feyris interjected. ‘Reinforced concrete a metre thick. One hundred metres of cleared no-man’s land in every direction, seeded with barbed wire, tank traps and mines. Watchtowers every eighty metres—each able to make visual contact with those on either side. The only way in or out is via two gates—again, within sighting distance of each other—and anything going through is thoroughly searched by chipped personnel.’ She sighed. ‘Competent ones, too. I made sure of it.’
‘The sewers,’ Kurisu pointed out. ‘I know they’re dangerous, but they run through the whole city. There’s no way to block all of them, is there?’
Feyris clicked her tongue. ‘Yes, that’s true. But we could do it for a square mile. Most are “blocked by falling debris” and serve to funnel infiltrators. The ones that seem clear are filled with canisters of sleeping gas.’
Okabe spoke for the first time. ‘How about the air?’
‘Oh, well that solves everything,’ Colonel Shoda grumbled. ‘Got an aeroplane I don’t know about, Kyouma?’
‘A hot air balloon would be more feasible,’ Masumune said, folding his hands. ‘If we could hide the light of the burner, we could float it over the Zone and deploy Valkyrie from a line.’
‘Nope.’ The Colonel said flatly, though Okabe actually looked a little intrigued. ‘No way in hell you’re getting that low down without being seen by everyone and their dog for miles around. And I must have missed the big ol’ pile of fuel canisters you got lying around for the burner. A pity, since the last I checked we were running out.’
‘Um, we don’t have enough cloth either,’ Mayuri pointed out. ‘Sorry.’
Masumune nodded equitably and settled back against the wall, somehow simultaneously maintaining both a dignified bearing and the strong suggestion of a pout.
‘I was trying, in fact, to suggest something a little different,’ Okabe stated. ‘Rather than climbing down a line, I propose we climb along…’
‘Like a zip-line?’ Kurisu asked. ‘Hate to mention it, but Feyris just said that there’s a hundred metres of no-go area between the wall and the nearest building. There’s nowhere to zip from!’
The man shrugged. ‘So it’ll have to be a long wire.’
‘Yeah, and a freaking ballista to propel it!’
‘Sir, I must confess, I do not think myself quite up to the task of climbing one hundred metres.’
‘Careful, Kyouma. Your crazy’s showing.’
Okabe clicked his fingers with a sound like cracking bone. ‘SILENCE, please. I am, I’ll have you remember, the founder of the Future Gadget Lab and making ridiculous things out of junk happens to be my speciality. I won’t disappoint you.’
Silence reigned as the gathered members of the Valkyrie glanced at each other and away. Finally, Mayuri spoke up, her lips curving in a small smile. ‘Can’t argue with that. Everybody in favour, say aye!’
‘Not actually a democracy,’ the head of Kawanuma base growled before anyone could raise a hand. ‘Kyouma. Show me the equipment and I’ll consider it.’
The founder and nominative leader of Operation Valkyrie ripped off a salute as impeccable as any soldier yet utterly mocking at the same time. ‘Yessah!’
For all that sparks flew off the pair whenever they so much as occupied the same room, Kurisu couldn’t help feeling that the two commanders complimented each other almost perfectly. Just as she and Okabe had — albeit with less flirting and more genuine dislike. But she’d made her choice, and that pushed her to say the words that had been lurking in the back of her mind ever since this raid was proposed.
‘I’m going with them. To Tokyo.’
Colonel Shoda and Captain Masumune didn’t blink an eye; the other lab members shared an uneasy look but—’
‘Absolutely not. As the head of the Future Gadget Lab and your immediate superior, I forbid it.’
Okabe’s voice was like iron — shedding the rusty flakes of his self-doubt to reveal pure undiluted will. For the first time in months, Okabe Rintaro stood tall.
She ignored him.
‘I was the core of the program to develop the Organisation’s time machine’, she said, ‘for those of you who didn’t know this already. I was retired and escaped from the laboratory in Tokyo six months ago. Everything bar the actual construction of the machine was done there—and everything the Organisation knows about time travel will be kept there. If we want to get our time machine working… that’s the place we look.’
‘Kurisu, this isn’t a jaunt to the public library.’ Okabe shoved his hands in his pockets, breathing hard. ‘You are asking to go on a full military operation in one of the most secure locations known to man. Do you have any idea how much danger you’d be in?’
‘It’s more than worth the risk. And these days I can take care of myself.’
Okabe’s coat creased as his hands clenched into hidden fists. ‘Oh, is that so? The men and women who’ll die because you put them at risk might disagree.’
Despite herself, her chest tightened at the sheer hypocrisy on display. The fact that it was intended to protect her only made it the more grating.
‘I didn’t plan Iida,’ she hissed, and Okabe flinched as if struck before coming straight back at her.
‘You suggested it in the first place!’
‘What happened was in no way what I suggested! Those people… No. You aren’t dragging me off the topic. We can’t afford to pass up this information and you know it—so stop being an overprotective jerk!’
‘Nobody’s denying you can’t take care of yourself,’ Feyris offered quietly. ‘But it’s true that we can’t afford—’ The normally unflappable woman paled as Kurisu glared at her but she swallowed and continued anyway. ‘Just hitting one building is enough of a risk with the time we have and the numbers we can get into the TDZ. We, we can’t afford to be running errands while a battalion of Rounders bear down on us.’
It took a lot of strength not to scream at her. Why couldn’t anyone else see how important this was? With a sinking stomach, Kurisu realised that even Shoda and Masumune were looking uncertain. ‘If time’s a problem, then we’ll simply have to sabotage their security. You have the access to do that, right?’ ‘Me? I—yes, but—’
‘Well, that’s sorted, then. Onto the next part of the plan.’
‘Kurisu…’ She glared at Feyris again. ‘M-Makise, I might still have the access, but that doesn’t mean I know how to use it! I barely even know where the security offices are, let alone—’
Kurisu’d really hoped it wouldn’t come to this. ‘Then we have to send in Moeka.’ The words were said so quietly that nobody could her them; Kurisu had to force herself to repeat them.
‘But she won’t last a week!’ The latest voice was Ruka’s. ‘I can get her in there as part of the next intake—she’s clever and diligent, and the right people owe me favours—but they’ll chip her as soon as a surgeon is available. She’s done so much for us already… please, just think about what you’re asking.’
A curious illness had taken hold of Kurisu jaw. It took the form of a stiffness, almost like a cramp; remembering the whispered conversation between Ruka and Moeka in the woods was enough to make Kurisu want to choke back the words that were coming out of her mouth.
‘I have. I really have. This is it, Ruka. What we’re going to do is nothing like the Valkyrie have ever done before, and the Organisation isn’t going to take it lying down. I’d love to think we could just sit here and puzzle everything out ourselves but we can’t afford that kind of arrogance. We… we can’t hold back any more.’
‘Easy for you to say,’ Feyris whispered, low enough that Kurisu knew she wasn’t supposed to hear. ‘You’ve never been chipped.’
Kurisu answered her anyway. ‘Feyris, Ruka, we’re closer to fixing this than we’ve ever been. This world and everyone in it is going to be erased by our own hand, so how can we let dying frighten us?’
The room really did fall silent then. Not a word was spoken, nor a sound made. The only conversation was in Okabe’s wide, guilty eyes and the slow reddening of Colonel Shoda’s skin.
Eventually, when he could hold it in no more, the Colonel spoke.
‘Seems to me we had a chat about consequences just recently. You impressed me, then. Kind of wondering, now, if you understood anything I said at all. You’re certainly not the person I thought you were.’
Dammit, was not one person in this room on her side?
‘Makise is right.’ Okabe’s voice was quiet, melancholy, but all heads turned to face him. ‘We can’t afford to hold back this time. Every piece we have: every friend, every ally, every trump card… we have to put them all on the line if this plan is going to succeed.’
After a long, dangerous silence, Masumune spoke up. ‘I do not like this operation. Yet if we are going to bind our fates to this gambit, it seems prudent to maximise our gains. I appreciate that this is not a democracy,’ he said a little wryly, glancing to the Colonel on the left and to Okabe on the right, ‘but I suggest that Makise Kurisu be allowed to perform her mission.’
Ruka nodded. ‘I’ll put the arrangements for Moeka’s transfer in place.’ His eyes were dry, his soft lips curled into a gentle and meaningless smile. What the spymaster felt as he turned to go, if anything at all, Kurisu couldn’t begin to guess.
‘Wait, everyone. Aren’t ya forgetting something?’
It was Mayuri who stopped her. Throughout the war council she’d been almost silent, regarding them with a soft resignation. Knowing, as Kurisu did, that their path was already set. Water placed on a hill will always run downwards.
‘No reason the Organisation can’t still turn back time on us.’ Mayuri folded her arms. ‘Now, I know Okarin has a plan because he’s been trying not to smirk for half the meeting. How’s about you let us in on it too?’
The Colonel’s lips twitched a little. Okabe’s own grin gave a reluctant encore. ‘Fair enough. Why don’t I show you?’
The first thing that Kurisu noticed was the mess. It was even worse than her dim memory of the Future Gadget Lab’s subcellar—wiring and circuit boards scattered over the floor and tangling with strategically placed solar batteries. As someone who couldn’t organise her thoughts properly without a tidy desk, Kurisu felt like rolling a sanity check just for being in the room, until her gaze fell upon a small space in the middle where the surrounding debris had been cleared away.
There she beheld the Nostalgia Drive.
Or its remains. Itaru had delved deeper in his investigations than she, ripping asunder her careful assembly in order to examine its trembling guts. Whatever he’d done, the results were spectacular. A sudden headache struck her, her eyes twitching as she stared into the machine’s depths. It was like looking into a heat haze: even inactive, the machine warped and twisted light within itself. Components that had behaved perfectly normally on her desk seemed to have acquired extra mass, as if they’d grown huge and only looked the same by virtue of receding into the far distance. Her vision swam as a circuit board acquired five right angles. No way in hell Okabe and Itaru built this.
Perhaps it had built itself. Adrift in time, existing by virtue of existing, floating through four- or five-dimensional space…
Kurisu bit her tongue. Hard. And smacked herself upside the head for good measure, until the buzzing faded into the sound of Itaru’s voice explaining to the others.
‘…must be some kind of output device. Without that, this baby’ll go but that won’t take it anywhere, if you get my drift.’
‘No. Explain again, better,’ Colonel Shoda demanded.
‘It can warp time and space; rip a gate from now to then,’ Kurisu translated, her thoughts lost in contemplation of the marvel before her. ‘But we can’t control when, and we can’t send information through.’
‘Assume I understood everything you just said. How is that useful to us here and now?’
‘It isn’t ready yet,’ Mayuri murmured, gazing into the machine’s innards with the same distant wonder Kurisu had seen in her before, like she was staring into the sun. ‘It’s waiting to be finished. But it can still help, a little.’
‘Quite right, my dear,’ Okabe said. ‘I admit it isn’t capable of time travel but that’s hardly the only application for such a machine as this. Accordingly, I have devoted some thought to the problem, and in particular to the ramifications of attuning the machine to the single spacetime coordinate we can be sure will work—that of the machine itself.’
He began to pace, warming to his theme. ‘Imagine, if you will, a pond on a windless day. Untouched. A surface as smooth as diamond.’
‘Time is a pond?’ Mayuri submitted doubtfully.
‘Not a bit.’
‘But you said…’
‘Imagine time is like a pond,’ Okabe stated grandly. ‘I proceed to drop a rock in it. There will be ripples, correct? Spreading out from the point of disturbance across the water, changing that pond in ways both perceptible and imperceptible as they pass. Everything becomes altered, the previous state overwritten by the new.’
‘That’s time travel,’ Itaru put in helpfully.
‘Now strain yourselves, if you please, and imagine the opposite. I do something that draws the ripples in, like a film reversing. Throw in as many rocks as you want and the effects vanish into that singularity. The pond remains unchanged, no matter what!’
Kurisu’s mouth was dry. ‘You think you can prevent time travel. Make a section of time immutable, or at least resist alteration.’
Okabe’s eyes sparkled.
‘I dub it… Hououin Kyouma’s Attractor Field!’