In the Shadows of Utopia

Chapter 16

Kurisu rapped on the door as the rest of Team Two formed up. No response. She knocked again, harder, and again, until the frustration took over and she kicked it with the toe of her boot. The heavy steel didn’t even rattle in its frame.

Her tantrum was pointless, she knew: Ruka and Mayuri had described a Moeka of strict efficiency and unflinching, devoted loyalty. If such a woman wasn’t following her orders, it was because she couldn’t. But they had no ID card and even if they did they wouldn’t be able to fool the door’s retinal scanner. Without Moeka, they weren’t opening this door any time soon.

‘Okabe,’ Kurisu hissed into her earpiece, ‘Moeka didn’t make the rendezvous so I’m going to try and find another way in. Can you see any weak points on the sonar, or any hidden entrances?’

But something was wrong on Okabe’s end as well. He was on the mic, she could hear his breath in her ear, but it was slow and shallow and pained, just as it had been when he’d fallen unconscious on their exodus from Iida. Quickly, she tugged the equipment from her ear and palmed it, hunching over to muffle the noise with her body as she shouted into it as loudly as she dared. ‘Okabe!’

His breathing spiked and she heard him gasp like a drowning man who’d just broken the surface. At last, his voice spilled out of the earpiece.

‘Kurisu?! Are you alright?! What’s happening?’

‘We’ve lost Moeka,’ she said, hooking the headset back onto her ear. ‘And we don’t have time to find her, so we’ll have to break into this place by force. I need you on the camera. Tell me if you can see any odd echoes on the sonar, anywhere the wall might be thin or damaged.’

‘But Kurisu—’

‘Now, Okabe!’ She tuned out his sputtering protests and tilted her head up and down, left to right, systematically scanning the building’s closest face. She’d no idea why he’d insisted on giving her sonar and a thermal camera on a clear, moonlit night, but perhaps it would finally come in useful.

‘I can’t see anything. Just, please, listen to me for a moment! The sky is clear, Moeka’s vanished: time has been rewritten! You have to run, Kurisu. Now!’

The information percolated through her nervous tissue and spun Kurisu like a top: north east south west, taking in every street, searching for any sign of an ambush.

Far off the alarm was still wailing and a commotion was rising from the barracks, but she couldn’t see anyone nearby. The only place left for ambushers to hide was inside the building itself, but then why prevent Moeka letting them in? No, they were safe here, for the moment. Time enough to do this if they did it fast.

‘Uno, can we blast through the walls?’

‘No way,’ Uno replied tersely. ‘Even if we had the firepower, every soldier in the city’d come running if we made that much noise.’

‘Some of them already are,’ Ruka cut in. ‘I can hear footsteps heading this way.’

Kurisu swore as she too picked up the drumming of heavy boots against tarmac. Within the space of a second, Uno’d caught up as well and pointed to a shadowed doorway on the other side of the street, hidden from the moon’s rays.

As one, the Valkyrie drew together, clustering in the dark alcove. And not a moment too soon. Black-clad figures swarmed in from a side street, running straight past them toward the lab’s entrance. It was only a matter of time before one turned and spotted their hiding place.

Uno raised a fist, three fingers up.

Two fingers fell before Kurisu worked out the meaning; not enough time for morality or hesitation. Only a desperate sense of purpose, as her fingers closed around black plastic and she raised the pistol in her hands. These people were armed, and had come to kill her. The only way to survive, to fulfil her oath, was to fire. And so what happened next was only natural.

Six corpses tumbled to the ground.

Had she done that?

Her ears were ringing. Her finger pressed against the trigger so hard that a welt had already formed, quickly purpling into a bruise. But there was no way to know who among them had fired the fatal shots after the fact, and Kurisu had no time to agonise over it. Whatever had drawn them here, more would be coming.

The laboratory door remained impassable. No matter how much effort it had taken to reach this place, they were doing the Valkyrie no good here and so Kurisu made the only decision she could. ‘Priority goes to the IBN. We’re heading to the Administration building!’

True to her word, she started running again, forcing breath into her aching lungs. What little air she had left went into the microphone. ‘All right, Okabe, we’re running. Spot for me!’

‘You’re supposed to be running away from the TDZ, not further into it! What do you think you’re doing, Kurisu?!’

‘We’re not leaving without the IBN,’ she growled.

‘Imbecile! This is no time for heroics— Never mind, I see strong thermal signatures ahead! Look to the left and right.’

She did, and in the moonlight she could just about spot movement in both places. All the people who were already awake were swarming, and it wouldn’t be long before they were joined by a far greater multitude.

Ruka’s hand grabbed onto her elbow. ‘We can’t avoid Security once they’re out in force,’ he murmured, not even panting. ‘We have to blend in. Trust me, I did it for years.’

‘Your kit was designed to look like Rounder uniforms.’ Okabe added reluctantly. ‘It should work.’

Growling something unmentionable, Kurisu pulled off the obviously non-Rounder headset and chucked it away. Too noticeable. Slowing her panicked sprint to something approaching an urgent jog, she swung into the next street and found herself right on the tail of a ten-man Rounder squad.

The light was good enough for her to see the black weapons the soldiers held, intended to bring death to her and her companions. Don’t panic, she told herself… but it was rage that quickened her breath and clasped her hands around her own pistol. How dare they try to harm her friends! How dare they defend this miserable future!

This lot must have been the stragglers of the first wave, because nobody else fell in behind them. As the Valkyrie followed their enemies into the heart of Tokyo, Kurisu began hearing the chattering of automatics and the sharp retorts of slower, more accurate weapons. They were close.

She dropped the pace, falling back to the other Valkyrie. A grim nod from Uno on the right, an oddly merciless scowl from Ruka on the left. As they approached the end of the avenue and the open space that was the source of the gunfire, the Valkyrie halted and fell to their knees. As one, they raised their weapons at their enemies’ backs.

The pistol twitched in Kurisu’s grip. One, two, three times.

Then they were up and moving again. The Valkyrie disappeared into another alley, leaving behind the slumped forms of those who opposed them.

The Organisation’s takeover had been an invidious one, a decade in the making. Slowly they’d poisoned governments, co-opting their structures and chipping their employees; a slow rot invisible to those not already in the know. By the time they finally made their move, the world’s administrations already belonged to them. And they’d kept the offices.

The National Diet Building, monolithic marble seat of the Japanese government, was besieged. A hole in the wall showed that Feyris and Team One had already blasted their way in, but the Rounders’ quick response had trapped them there. Bullets spewed from the surrounding buildings while the Valkyrie fired back in a desperate attempt to keep their enemies from overrunning them, turning the verdant sward around the building into a nightmare of crossfire.

At a glance, it was obvious that following Team One’s path across the square would be suicide. Ruka’s alternative, however, fit the bill perfectly.

The Rounders thought that they were safe in their own city, he explained. Their friends were hurrying to watch their back and their enemies had been cornered. All that was left was for the Rounders to push forward and obliterate the presumptuous Valkyrie who’d thought they could invade this stronghold.

‘Surety breeds arrogance,’ the priest declared gravely, a sheen of blood still coating his blade. ‘And arrogance causes people to risk themselves. We can use that.’

Shooting people in the back felt horribly unfair to Kurisu, but it was far, far better than getting shot herself. And it was so much easier to kill people when she couldn’t see their faces.

The first building was easy. Ruka danced on silent feet, slashing heads from necks, cleaving bodies with a grace that belied the brutal savagery that Okabe’s student had taught himself. Not even those in the next room realised their comrades’ fate, deafened by the roar of their own guns. And when Ruka tired, the other Valkyrie cleared the last room with an inescapable fusillade. Their second target, a set of offices, was only a little harder.

But the Rounders weren’t stupid, and the third building had set a guard. Ruka’s yelp alerted Kurisu to the danger as the pair turned a corner and found themselves staring right down a pistol barrel. She twisted away even as the bullet whizzed past her; Ruka flung himself down and punched up between the man’s legs, grabbing the gun from his slackened grip and turning it on him. ‘Must have noticed the other buildings stop firing,’ he said.

This insight came too late for the woman who’d been following behind Kurisu and was hit in her place. Kurisu heard her gasp and turned just fast enough to watch her eyes close for the last time. And couldn’t even remember her name.

‘Just keep going,’ she ordered before Uno could, running forward. ‘They know we’re coming, now.’

The Rounders had begun to actively defend themselves and each of the buildings had to be cleared before Team Two could safely reach the others. Worse, reinforcements woken by the still-screaming alarm would be drawing closer every second.

Events took on a nightmarish routine. Find a window or door. Breach. Let Ruka run ahead to break their defence. Shoot anyone who stands their ground. Steal their weapons. Steal their ammunition. Steal their grenades. Use everything to kill the next group. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.. Make a mistake. Gun pointed at you. Chipped eyes.

Crack.

A lobby window shattered into fragments of glass that sliced across Kurisu’s face and arms. The pain was a stimulant, breaking through the fog behind her eyes. Slowly, the man in front of her toppled: bone and brain vanished to form a fist-sized hole through his head. It lined up perfectly with a window in the Diet Building.

‘Firing’s died down,’ said one of the Valkyrie, as they took a moment to catch their breath.

‘Yup. Time we make a break for it,’ Lt. Uno agreed, her hand on the front door, setting it ajar. ‘On my go, people… Three, two, one… Now!’

Kurisu’s beaten, battered body protested but didn’t miss a step until a bullet pinged off the cavalcade behind her. Her feet slipped on manicured grass and she pushed herself harder, letting her own weight pull her forward. It was Team One’s marksman! Damn it, she was still wearing the enemy’s uniform! Kurisu signalled frantically but finally tumbled, Uno grabbing her by the collar and hauling her back up as they ran.

After that, it grew quiet; sullen silence broken only by the pop of a far-off Rounder trying to get lucky and the crack of a sniper round in return. But in no time at all, infinity became zero, architecture gained definition and Kurisu stumbled through the breach and into the Administration.

‘Nice of you to drop in,’ said Feyris. A shiner of a bruise was spread across her cheek. ‘How was the trip?’

‘… little difficult … getting here,’ wheezed Kurisu, in no mood for banter. ‘We can’t stay; they’ll be swarming in minutes. Have you got the IBN?’

‘Couldn’t while they had us pinned down. Follow me,’ said Feyris, already halfway up the main stairs.

‘There’s someone left inside. We sent two Valkyrie and neither returned,’ explained Captain Masumune, following them. ‘We couldn’t spare more for fear we’d be overrun.’

Most of Team Two remained below to defend the breach, relieving the remnants of Team One. Eiri stayed with them, the fifteen year-old hefting the bolt-action rifle that she’d used to defend Kurisu. Much as it had rankled to allow a child in the middle of combat, Kurisu had to admit that she’d be dead otherwise, and the girl never would have let Feyris go to Tokyo alone. Only Kurisu, Ruka and the last three members of Team One followed Feyris and Masumune upstairs.

The worst thing about this building, Kurisu quickly decided, was the abundance of portraits. Apparently Japanese officials were as self-obsessed as any others, because an incredible number of photos, paintings and busts had accumulated over a mere hundred years; enough to surround her with faces and half-concealed figures. A statesman’s wave tossed a grenade or aimed a pistol, and eyes peered at her from every wall and crevice.

Kurisu’s fingers itched against her pistol-trigger.

BANG!

The gun jumped in her hands and she screamed through her teeth as a huge mirror splintered, shattering her reflection into a thousand shards. Every Valkyrie snapped toward the sound, and…

‘Wait, wait!’ Kurisu called out, trying to relax her fingers a little. ‘Sorry, I just got spooked.’ And how. She looked up at the priceless wreckage and winced.

That was the only reason she saw the other reflection move.

Kurisu screamed and threw herself onto her back. Ignoring the jarring impact, she thrust the pistol forward along the line of her body and focused desperately. Keep the arms steady, centre the target and fire!

A window shattered. A chair burst into splinters. Bullets cracked stone walls and ricocheted wildly… but the killer was too fast and pulled back behind the corner.

Kurisu glued her eyes to that spot, panting, afraid even to blink. Her chest had seized so tightly that she felt lightheaded, her lungs pummelled by the hammering of her heart.

‘Don’t follow!’ Ruka warned. ‘You’d be lead right into a trap.’

‘Fine. Then we keep going,’ Kurisu said.

Five of their six formed up. Yet Masumune’s eyes were still locked on the place where the assailant had vanished. His rifle was raised, his posture so stiff that he quivered. One of the soldiers tried to grab his arm but Feyris elbowed them aside and whispered something in his ear.

‘Remember what you’re fighting for,’ Kurisu heard. ‘This is the only way to save her!’

Those words must have pulled an ineffable weight from his shoulders, because his bow was graceful and his smile heartfelt.

‘Thank you. I shan’t forget.’

The National Diet’s final floor was a distillation of all that had come before. The same elegance and rich, honey-coloured panelling interspersed with neat portraits of forty prime ministers in golden frames, varnished with the heavy atmosphere that gathers around places of power. Kurisu was in no shape to appreciate it. The enemy could be anywhere; any step could be their last.

A silver panel was set next to a door that was otherwise identical to all the other ones along the corridor. Feyris set her palm to it and the lock clicked. One Valkyrie stood watch in the corridor while Kurisu and the others aimed over Feyris’ shoulder at the unlocked door.

Feyris kicked it open so hard that it slammed against the wall and rebounded.

No hidden assassins clinging to the ceiling or sequestered behind the door. Not even the Administrator’s secretary. The Organisation’s hand in Japan contained no more than two worn, leather-topped desks. The first was covered with paperwork; the second bore two computers. One was new, black and sleek.

The other was very, very old.

As one, Kurisu and Feyris rushed to it, their eyes darting over every inch of it, just to be sure. But they already knew. Above an antique keyboard lay a calculator-screen the width of two fingers, with three letters engraved to its right: IBN. Just seeing the thing was euphoric.

Only the tat-tat-tat of renewed firing from downstairs was enough to sour her joy. Through the window she could see shadowy movement from the buildings they’d previously cleared, and white sparks flew up where the Valkyries’ fire ricocheted off stone.

‘Reinforcements.’ Feyris swore. ‘Ruka, give us a hand with this!’

The swordsman complied, helping Feyris hoist the IBN up above the desk so that Kurisu, kneeling, could tie the last of Okabe’s zipline harnesses around it.

A pistol shot sounded from outside the door, and Kurisu turned just in time to see their sentry fall back through the portal, a neat hole in his forehead. It was so unexpected that nobody could react immediately; the silence went on and on, unbroken as everybody looked toward the door in horror, weapons in their hands, waiting for the shooter to appear.

But nobody came, and after that first long minute, Kurisu began to understand why. The door had become impassable: the weapons aimed at both sides would gun down anybody who tried to cross. The shooter couldn’t enter, and they couldn’t leave. For them, the clock was ticking.

One of the Valkyrie tensed in an instant and threw himself toward the door, trying to surprise their attacker. He never even reached it – his first step creaked against the wooden floorboards and before he could take a second a bullet erupted from the wooden wall panelling to knock him to the floor, where he lay still.

Slowly, Feyris raised her hands to her head and cupped her ears, before tapping her eyepatch. Oh, God. The person outside was chipped, and could hear them well enough to aim straight through a wall; she didn’t need to go through the door. Even a single movement: a footstep, a movement of weight, the schuff of one trouser leg against another might be enough to find one of them.

And the IBN in her arms was beginning to slip.

Kurisu gripped it harder, slowing its slide through suddenly-white fingers, and fought not to hiss through her teeth as her arms began to tremble. She’d only been lifting it for a second to slip the harness underneath and there was no way she could hold on much longer. If it hit the table and made a noise, Kurisu would die; if it smashed on the floor the whole operation would be doomed and everyone who fell tonight would do so pointlessly. Feyris’ and Ruka’s eyes were on it too and they were obviously thinking the same. Masumune wasn’t even watching: his eyes were fixed on the wall where the shooter hid.

The IBN slipped again, tilting until it was at 45 degrees. The perfect angle to slide straight off the table and smash on the floor. Kurisu gripped it tighter, clenching her teeth in a silent snarl, staring at the others. Think of something! she implored them.

And as though that one stray thought had been enough, that one mental resource directed away from holding on as hard as she possibly could, the IBN fell.

As one, Kurisu, Feyris and Ruka leapt forward, scrabbling at it, knowing even as they did so that they’d given away their position.

‘KAHO!’ Masumune shouted.

A shot showered them all with splinters and Kurisu flinched, nearly dropping the IBN again, as Masumune returned fire straight over their heads. Outside, someone cried out – Kurisu could hear her hit the floor. Masumune fired again, and again, twice more, his arm steady, and nobody fired back. He stared at the ruined wall, hearing like the rest of them the painful gasps that came from behind it, and ran out of the room before anyone could stop him.

A dark-clad woman lay in the corridor, collapsed amid shimmering fragments of flesh and wiring. Beside her knelt the Captain.

Gently, as tenderly as if she were still alive, he cupped her cheek and eyes. ‘I’m sorry, Kaho. It was all I could do. I found you too late.’

Kurisu watched, confused and curious and embarrassed, although she saw understanding on Feyris’ face.

The Captain laid her out carefully before turning to them. His face was naturally mournful, but his eyes were clear and without tears.

‘Is this the machine, Ma’am?’ he asked.

Feyris nodded, tearing her sleeve off to wrap around Ruka’s injured hand. ‘Yes. Can you lift it by yourself? I’ll cover you.’

‘By your command, Ma’am.’

‘Good. We need to get out of here as soon as possible. Ruka, can you walk?’

‘I’ll be all right. It’s just my hand.’

‘I’m staying,’ Kurisu said before Feyris could ask. ‘You don’t need me to get the IBN out, and I’ve still got my mission to complete.’

‘What?’ Ruka gasped. ‘But… why? Kurisu, that’s throwing your life away!’ ‘Don’t argue. There isn’t time. Don’t wait for me, either. Getting the IBN back to Okabe is all that matters.’

Feyris—the woman who was there when she was made, and knew her better than she knew herself—just looked at her. Analytical gray eyes searched her own for a single heartbeat.

‘Good luck then,’ she said.

The three left, and Kurisu headed to the computer and began looking back through Tokyo’s records of the last two weeks. She found what she was looking for in minutes, and her skin crawled as she read it.

Subject: Kiryuu Moeka.

Abnormal reaction to loyalty generation procedures.

Detained for study by order of Administrator Yoshinaga Kaho.”

The location given was directly below her, eight floors underground.

Combat boots touched muddy carpet almost soundlessly as Kurisu came to the lobby once more. The Valkyrie had left her, as Feyris had promised, but at least they’d draw the Rounders away from where Kurisu needed to go.

She hadn’t been able to find a map but she navigated the twisting corridors without difficulty, until she came to an unmarked door that was locked with a heavy bar. She lifted it out of the groove and inched the door open, revealing only darkness.

Someone inside whispered to her in a monotone she’d heard once before.

‘Ma… ki… se?’

She could hear liquid dripping, pattering on the floor.

’Mak… kise. Makise. Makise. MakiseMakiseMakiseMakiseMakiseMakise.’

Kurisu backed away, pulling the door open wider and revealing a gaunt figure whose wrist glistened in the half-light.

Kurisu raised her pistol with one hand, and clicked on the lamp switch with the other.

‘Makise Kurisu.’

Pat.

‘Makise Kurisu is my friend. I fight for the Valkyrie.’

Pat-pat.

‘Makise Kurisu is my enemy. The Valkyrie are my enemy.’

Pat. Pat. Drip.

‘I-It feels good to help you. That even someone like me…’

Drip.

‘She should die. Traitors should all … die.’

Moeka’s fingers closed convulsively on her forearm. Ripping. Tearing. She gasped, her lips drawn back from her teeth in agony. Drops of crimson liquid pattered against the carpet, slicking her bare feet with gore.

Kurisu’s breath was caught in her throat, but the iron tang still invaded her lungs. ‘Moeka… what have they done to—ggh!’

The grip was released in another second; Moeka’s fingers still quivered against her throat but exerted no pressure.

‘Which do you work for?’ Moeka hissed. ‘Which one?!’

‘Both!’

Moeka’s hand relaxed. Kurisu’s mouth sometimes ran faster than her brain. Usually that was a liability: mostly embarrassing, sometimes lethal. Now it might be the only hope of getting Moeka’s trust that she had left.

‘I’m someone who invents time machines, Moeka,’ she improvised cautiously. ‘I helped make one for the Organisation, remember? Everything they’ve done rests on that. But the Valkyrie want a time machine too. So when I work on time machines, I’m helping both of them, right?’

Those staring eyes lidded; Kurisu felt like she was telling bedtime stories to a child.

‘So you’re working for my friends? All of them?’

‘All of them.’

‘Does that mean I can… come with you?’

‘Yes. Tie this around your wrist and come with me.’

The bioscanner beeped and the door buzzed open onto a corridor of blue linoleum and white sterility. The place was labyrinthine—intentionally so—but Kurisu had had thirteen years to learn it, and she could have navigated it blindfolded; twisting and turning through the endless warren until she came to the laboratory where she’d worked for all those years. Another set of footsteps tap-tapped behind her all the way undoubting, as sure as her own even in a place totally unkown to their owner. Kiryuu Moeka’s trust was as ironclad as her loyalty, and as undeserved.

The last door hissed open.

A desk covered with old scraps of paper, never tidied away. An office chair; its seat ever so slightly worn from where Kurisu’s legs had brushed it day after day after day. Another chair for her executioner, just behind her own. Not close enough to distract, not far enough to forget.

Makise Kurisu had been defiled here. Her principles stripped from her. Her every hope crushed until even escaping became another chore, a flicker of resistance until they finally got round to ending her.

To the casual observer it would be the plainest room imaginable. To Makise Kurisu, it had been a crucible.

‘Welcome back, me,’ Kurisu murmured.

Atop the desk was her old computer. She’d hated using it—pen and paper were less restrictive, they left her mind free to explore an idea—but her captors had demanded it. Paper could be altered, or erased, but the computer could record her activity every minute of every day. They’d done it for every scientist under their command and according to the records they’d continued the practice even after she’d left.

Kurisu downloaded every byte of it to the hard drive in her pocket and laughed sourly as the irony struck her. She’d spent thirteen years giving the Organisation everything they wanted. Finally, she was strong enough to take it back.

‘What are you doing?’ Moeka asked, swaying. Her voice was sleepy, absent. Kurisu had used her sleeve as an improvised bandage but the woman had lost far too much blood already.

She looked around the room, knowing that this was the last time she’d ever see it.

‘What I have to do, Moeka. Don’t worry. We’ll meet again. For now … close your eyes.’

It was the only kindness she had left to give.

Kurisu sniffed the clear night air, listening to the gunfire that signalled the Organisation’s counterattack. A hundred well-rested, heavily armed Rounders against… what? Fifteen Valkyrie? If Feyris hadn’t got the IBN out by now, she wasn’t going to.

Kurisu didn’t hesitate.

The time travel data was expendable. Kurisu herself was expendable. Only the IBN mattered.

She’d known that from the beginning, of course, but for the first time she found herself accepting it. If it meant getting the IBN to Okabe safe, finishing this, she’d gladly give up her life. And, well, attacking from behind had worked last time, hadn’t it?

Searching through the moonlit city, she found the last of the Valkyrie cornered a block away from their escape route, trapped in the Department of Japanese Allocation. The Organisation’s own paranoia was the only thing keeping the survivors alive as its military struggled to break through the building’s armoured shell.

It couldn’t stop the Rounders. But it slowed them down.

Kurisu could only see five Valkyrie fighting back and she’d need to act fast to save even them. Stealth was out.

Her first grenade soared through a back window with a tinkle of broken glass, followed by a crystalline shriek as every pane on the floor blew out, billowing smoke and raining glitter. Not a moment later, a bullet chunked into the brick behind her and she dived for the cover of the building she’d attacked, her boots crunching on the broken glass. The street behind her already looked like the victim of a deranged jackhammer. She had the Rounders’ attention.

A swarm of bullets hummed around the door and the destroyed windows of her cover, searching for a weak point. She hit the marble at her feet, remaining unscathed even as plaster dust covered her in grit. The firing petered out: she’d trapped herself in her refuge and they were waiting for her to bolt. Even two soldiers would be enough to keep her pinned there until they were ready to finish her, and in the meantime all of her friends would die. What to do?

At that moment, the thrum of an engine came from the Valkyrie’s shelter. It sounded like a motorbike… But the IBN was too heavy to carry that way, so what—

Kurisu peeked out of the empty window panes and gaped as a motorbike roared past, riderless, upright only by virtue of its own momentum and trailing flame from a long rag stuffed into the petrol tank. She registered all this just in time to throw herself back onto the floor, hands over her ears.

The flash nearly blinded her even with her eyes shut but the walls of her refuge held, bowing inward as a wave of boiling air rushed over her. Rounders in other buildings screamed as glass windows shattered into silicon flechettes and scythed inwards, shredding everyone indoors.

Now! Run!

Out of the door. Into the road. Four black-clad figures were sprinting for the exit building, a black box slung between them, but Kurisu didn’t join them. Her brain pieced together her reason—the Rounders further away were already opening fire on the Valkyrie. Kurisu’s distraction was still needed.

So she charged instead.

Kurisu raised her pistol and fired it even as she ran. One, two, three Rounders fell and their fellows ducked back behind windows and riot shields. Precious seconds of peace bought for her friends. She switched targets, adrenaline firming her arms and crystallising the faces of her opponents until shooting them felt as easy, as natural, as reaching out and tapping them on the shoulder. Had she really struggled to hit a stationary target only weeks ago?

A man in her sights: she applied first pressure to the trigger, then second, and he dropped. Another followed him, and another, like cardboard cutouts. Her heart slowed and time extended…

…Until her pistol clicked empty. She’d been taught to reload quickly but there wasn’t time and so she hurled it aside to rid herself of its weight. The Rounders’ caution vanished as they saw her disarmed; a welcoming tide of bullets rushed toward and slid over her, caressing her skin and piercing the tarmac beneath her feet as she sprinted onwards. Not one of them hit.

Without breaking stride, her hand reached to her belt for her next weapon. Bulbous and metallic, she tore it off and bowled the grenade into a squad of Rounders. A fuselength later, the enemy geysered into red mist and mince.

And they faltered. Outnumbering the Valkyrie by a hundred to one, the Rounders wavered between their two enemies, wondering which was the greater threat. Only for a moment but it was long enough for the four figures to vanish into a skyscraper, heading for the zip line that would take their cargo to safety.

Long enough for Kurisu, further away, to turn and sprint back the way she’d come.

The Organisation’s forces split like a column of ants; most followed the Valkyrie in a vain attempt to keep them from escaping but the rest opened fire on Kurisu once more. Kurisu weaved through the burning ruin she’d hidden in and bolted straight for where the Valkyrie had originally been trapped. It was the slimmest of chances, but with lead showering her like hail, it was the only chance she had.

She stumbled on torn bitumen and a lucky shot nicked her shoulder, hurling her forward to smash into the side of her target and bounce off like a stumbling drunkard. If it hurt, she didn’t notice—because her gamble had just paid off.

Behind the building were two posts, waist-high. One was empty; the other retained a lean, silvery motorbike, of the type entrusted to only the fastest of couriers, and with a key left in the ignition. Kurisu grinned. Long ago, an American friend had let her ride with him; the old muscle memories came back as though she’d done it yesterday and her fingers curled around the throttle.

With a roar and the screech of abused rubber, she was off. The Rounders were advancing down the road; some dived out of the way and she weaved around those too chipped to run. In a heartbeat, they fell behind her, and she threw herself into a turn to evade their gaze, the road a hairsbreadth from her kneecap.

She gassed the engine straight out of the bend with a flick of the wrist, the bike righting itself underneath her as she accelerated. Even lying low, the cold wind tore at her and blurred her vision with streaming tears. Kurisu’s lips curled in exhilaration, and the slipstream pulled her hair into a fiery wake. This was no dream. She wasn’t the girl who had to be saved any more. She was escaping, and she was going to save the world.

It took barely five minutes to make it to the Zone’s gate, twisting and turning with increasing fluidity until the structure stood straight ahead of her. Grey-green concrete on either side, and a woven steel barrier so strong that not even a Komatsu could bull through it, surrounded by armed guards. The perfect defence.

Such a pity they’d put it three feet off the ground.

Kurisu opened the throttle as far as it would go, until she could feel the power of the engine vibrating in her very bones… and turned. Her foot came down on the back-wheel brake. Agonisingly slowly, she felt the bike tilt under her. The world twisted, her own weight pulling her toward the road until she could feel the tarmac burning against her knee. When the barrier passed overhead, it was so low she could have counted the rust spots.

Half-Remembered Procedure for Exiting Drift:

Release rear brake.

Accelerate.

Pray.

She let go of the brake, accelerated, screamed, and threw her weight to the other side. Then screamed again as the bike flipped up too fast and she almost toppled the other way. Someone shouted behind her, a few seconds late, and fired. It didn’t matter. She was already too far away.

Kurisu was free.


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