In the Shadows of Utopia

Chapter 17

The peach light of a new dawn shone down on a single farmhouse amongst hills of rolling corn. The house was blackened, scarred, and yet it looked just the same as when she’d first seen it. Her refuge.

‘Kurisu!’

Strong arms caught her as she half-dismounted and half-fell from the motorbike.

‘Whatever happened to you out there?’ Their owner said, pulling her inside. ‘You look dreadful!’

Battered, filthy and exhausted in both mind and body, Kurisu peered into Okabe’s face. ‘Never better,’ she muttered, before giving her head a quick shake to clear it. Trembling fingers reached into a pouch on her belt and slammed a hard drive down on the table.

‘Mission complete. I’ll take a look—ahhhhh…’ Her jaw cracked on the yawn, and her eyes fluttered shut.

‘Do whatever you please, just get some sleep first,’ Okabe huffed. She forced her eyes back open.

‘‘n this house of pervs? No telling what—’

‘you’d do if I let you,’ she mumbled, legs kicking, trying to propel herself upright. ‘Hey, at least pick me up off the floor, though. It’s all… soft and…’

Her eyes blinked, once.

‘He put me to bed. Does that count as chivalry or lechery?’

Her eyes opened wide.

‘He put me to bed naked. Okabe, I am going to murder you!’

It was her old room, she realised, the one she’d shared with Mayuri not four months ago. A dreamcatcher chimed from the draughty windows, one that she’d made of scrap metal and a set of tassels contributed by Mayuri, and Kurisu gulped down an intense wave of homesickness. Absence made the heart fonder, she supposed.

A set of clean overalls had been laid out over a chair. They were a little small for her but she pulled them on gratefully and headed downstairs, where their diminutive owner tackled her around the waist.

‘Kurisu! You’re okay!’

‘Mayuri?!’ Suspicions about her repose vanished like mist in the sun, and Kurisu clung to the woman like a small teddy bear. ‘Thank God you’re here! Did Feyris make it okay with the IBN?’

‘Yup! Couldn’t stay, though. Okarin and Daru are downstairs fiddling with it. Want a look?’

‘In a minute,’ Kurisu sighed. ‘Any chance of food first?’

‘Uh huh! And as a reward for your labours, I’ll be cooking you dinner. Or breakfast, I guess.’

Mayuri hummed while she worked, while Kurisu—still a little groggy—slumped down in her chair and listened to the gentle whistling of the propane heater until a delicious earthy scent wafted over her. Forest mushrooms were Kawanuma’s greatest delicacy; rare patches that were hoarded jealously by their discoverers and the individual treats traded for favours or shared with closest friends and comrades. Kurisu absolutely did not tear up, even a little.

‘Thanks, sweetie. Let me do the clean-up, though.’

But Mayuri fended her off. ‘Ah! Ah! Mine! All mine! You’ve got work downstairs.’

‘Assistant! Why the hell did you go off on your own!’

The shout echoed around the lab, ricocheting off every rock wall. As reunions went, Kurisu could imagine better.

‘Why? Worried about me?’ She teased, trying to fall back into the easier relationship they’d shared the last time they stood in this place.

Okabe folded his arms. ‘Not one bit.’

‘..oh. That’s good. I mean—’

‘I was too busy being apoplectic! You—in the middle of the most dangerous place known to man—left your team and went wandering around. When you were supposed to be protecting the IBN. Didn’t you think about what could happen to you?’

Kurisu’s jaw throbbed, and she relaxed her clenched teeth. Let him squall if he wanted to!

‘We needed that data, so I went to get it.’ Okabe drew himself up and she raised a hand. ‘I did what needed to be done. End of story.’

‘As though that changes—’

‘Let it go, Okabe,’ Itaru said quietly. ‘We’re closer to changing all this than we’ve ever been. Let’s get on with it.’

Kurisu blinked, but Itaru had already turned back to his work. ‘Is the IBN working?’ she asked.

‘Nearly. We just finished interfacing it with the chip and your original programming,’ Okabe said. ‘Long ago, we built an aerial into the house to intercept the Organisation’s communications; it’ll do for the hack.’

‘Right.’

Kurisu took a few minutes to check the wiring, making sure everything was set up properly, then ran the hacking simulation. As before, the chip stirred. A link was formed between her laptop and the chip, then to the aerial, then to the net of Organisation scanners that festooned Japan.

‘We have connection,’ she said. ‘Itaru, you’re up.’

‘On it.’ His fingers danced across the keyboard as their signal burrowed into the heart of the infection. ‘Surveillance, control signals—nothing useful there. We need to look deeper.’

Okabe leaned over his shoulders. ‘Control signals? Any chance we could affect those somehow?’

‘Nah, it’s read-only at the moment. If I can get us authorisation, though… Ah! Here! Their central database.’

Kurisu drew closer on the other side, bad blood forgotten in the heat of discovery. ‘We can access it now?’

‘Only one way to find out.’ Itaru tapped the USB cable, which connect the laptop to a bulky series of connectors and thus to the IBN. ‘Patch the code through here and we should be able to read it.’

‘I can read it,’ Okabe said flatly. ‘It says ”Please enter authorisation code”

‘You really thought it wouldn’t?’ Itaru leant back in his seat. ‘No matter what Feyris said about trust, nobody’s stupid enough not to at least slap a password on their confidential files. Plus I’ll bet they’ve got the best geeks in the world doing their security.’

‘And a gun to their head,’ Kurisu murmured.

‘No doubt.’ Okabe’s lips quirked. ‘Think you can beat them, Daru?’

‘Dude, you have no faith in me at all. Like I said, I was sure this’d happen, so I spent last night coding a way around it. Just have to load the program up, and it’ll get us valid account details.’

‘And the bad news?’ Kurisu asked suspiciously.

‘It’s gonna take some time. I won’t bore you with the details, but this bad boy’s essentially the world’s best stalker: it waits for the next person to access the database and gets a good set of Polaroids, if you know what I mean. Then it dresses up as ‘em and voila! We become a fully authorised user, plus we can set up our own backdoor for future access.’ Itaru turned to grin at her, their eyes meeting for the first time. The camaraderie in the room drained away as quickly as it had come.

‘So what you’re saying,’ Okabe interjected into the sudden silence, ‘is that we have to wait for the next user to log on.’

‘Right. Could be five minutes or five weeks. Anyway, I’ve been up all night so I’m going to catch some zees upstairs. Call me if something happens.’ Itaru rose stiffly from his chair and Okabe watched him go somewhat mournfully.

‘Guess it was too much to hope you’d made up.’

Kurisu sighed. ‘Sorry. Some wounds cut too deep to heal.’

‘Time heals all wounds.’ Okabe chuckled softly. ‘It was one thing to fight for it all these years, but actually being on the edge of making it happen is… exhilarating! I feel like a younger man already.’

He yawned widely. ‘Though I used to be better at overnighters. See you in the morning, Kurisu.’

Alone in the lab, Kurisu contemplated her next move. Looking through the time travel data was a priority, but the laptop was still humming away and she didn’t want to interrupt it. She could chat to Mayuri upstairs, but…

She could still feel the heat of burning petrol on her face, still smell the cordite in the air and see the calm acceptance on Moeka’s face. Mayuri shouldn’t have to be contaminated with that.

Kurisu felt weary and grim, and there were too many thoughts crowding her head. What better time to let them free?

The farmland was hilly in these parts, better for grazing animals than planting crops. Being able-bodied, the Future Gadget Lab had managed better than most, but… well, it didn’t matter any more. Those times were past.

For now, it was enough to lope onwards. Kurisu’s legs were still long and her stamina better than it had ever been, so it wasn’t difficult to persevere even when the slope seemed endless. She was barely breathing hard when her feet reached the top and she found herself looking over the ragged scar below.

The day that she’d slept through was already over, and the risen moon provided more than enough light to make the difference in the landscape obvious. A wide, flat space: obviously manufactured but now left empty. The colour marked it out, too, a layer of new grass barely covering the gravel underneath. Iida had become a ghost town. No more than an empty spirit, lingering in a forgotten field.

‘Time heals all wounds,’ Kurisu told it. ‘Your people will be safe soon, even if you’re forgotten.’

She scooped up a handful of rubble, pebbles no larger than her fingernail, and let them trickle through her fingers to be tossed away by the wind.

‘I watched them, you know. I saw the fear in their eyes. Everyone here was miserable. That’s why I need to do this. But… was nothing that happened here worthwhile? Wasn’t there one single person who was made happy by this world? Wasn’t there one moment of happiness that happened here?’

There was nobody left to reply. Naturally. They died. So Kurisu answered herself.

‘Even if there had been, it wouldn’t matter. Too many people suffered. Too many people were hurt by this world, by my world. That’s why it’s worth fighting to change it, even if we tread out a few precious memories. I’ll die… but the new me will be spared my sins. I’ll save everyone.’

Why was she saying this? It didn’t help. She felt no lighter—these were facts she already knew. Promises she’d already made.

Her fingernails dug into her flesh.

Her face throbbed.

The moon was blotted out, and Kurisu realised that she was crying.

She opened her mouth, and the words finally came.

‘Why! God damn it, why?! You faceless bastards, why did you build this? Every drop of blood, every tear! Moeka! Iida! My parents! WHAT WAS ANY OF THIS FOR?!’

Her legs gave way under her. Freezing dew soaked through ill-stitched leggings as quiet sobs bubbled out of her.

‘I don’t understand. Why did you do this to me?’ She whimpered, and heard no reply.

The moon was high in the sky when she pulled herself together. Muscle by muscle, joint by joint, she rose to her feet and began the long trudge back.

The house was silent. Okabe and Itaru were still asleep upstairs and with the nature of the hour Mayuri had surely joined them in slumber. Kurisu sneaked in like a thief.

She headed downstairs, to the cellar. Lying in the corner was the magnetic clamp she’d banged together so many months ago; with some effort she lifted the flagstone aside and descended into the cave below. Perhaps she could find some small task to keep her mind occupied down there.

Kurisu found more than that.

The laptop sat there, connected to a rumbling diesel generator. On its screen blinked four words:

INTRUSION SUCCESSFUL. DARU FTW!

‘No way…’ she murmured. ‘It worked?’

The sensible thing to do would be to call Okabe. Get the other lab members downstairs. Make sure nothing went wrong at this crucial stage. Have just a little patience, and everything would be hers.

Kurisu did none of these things.

She sat, her breathing feverish, and tapped enter with a quivering finger.

The message disappeared, replaced by rows of pixelated text straight out of the 80’s.

Personnel Records.

Reports on Subversive Elements.

Resources and Distribution.

Communications.

Hadron Archives.

Tap. Tap. Tap. She scrolled down to the Hadron Archives. If there were answers anywhere, they’d be here.

Kurisu pressed enter.

The list was replaced by another, formatted like an email client with two columns, one for the date sent and one for the subject. The dates were the first thing that caught her eye: they were displayed strangely. Where a normal date would be filed by date, month and year, these were ordered by the timeline that had recieved them. Kurisu scrolled downwards from the present, watching the dates change in ways that were chronological but not numerical, until she came to the very first.

She opened the Organisation’s first message.

It was short. Very short

She scanned it, leaning so close to the screen that her eyes watered. When she’d finished, she read it again.

‘No,’ she whispered. ‘That can’t be right.’

Escape closed it. Two more key presses opened the second, only a little longer. She read that, too.

‘No, no, no! That isn’t right, that can’t be right!’

She read the next. And the next. And the next and the next and the next.

‘Oh, God, that isn’t fair.’

Makise Kurisu scrolled through the endless Archives in a laboratory that was dark and empty. Nobody was there to hear as quietly, painfully, she began to laugh at the enormity of the monstrous joke that had been played on them.

‘You’re up early, Mayuri. Even for you.’

‘Of course I am! Is the program done?’ Mayuri asked from the door.

‘Sorry to dash your hopes, but I checked a few minutes ago and it’s still running. Looks like nobody in the Organisation tried to access the database last night.’

‘Aww, really?’ Mayuri pattered over. ‘All this waiting is pretty hard on the nerves… Wait, are you making breakfast?’ she asked warily.

‘Yup. Scrambled eggs, á la Makise.’

‘Ooh, that’s so sweet of you. I’ll just run back upstairs and get the boys up…’

‘Don’t worry, I was careful this time. No shells.’

Mayuri’s lips were moving silently, trying out excuses, so Kurisu ladled a batch of the eggs onto a plate and set it down on the table. The woman sidled closer, raking the plate with her eyes and taking a cautious sniff before sitting down.

The expectant chef leant close.

Mayuri’s spoon hovered next to her mouth… and in the blink of an eye it was back on the table, mostly empty. Her eyes widened.

‘Mmf! They’re…! Actually, they aren’t bad,’ she proclaimed, beaming.

Kurisu’s eyebrow rose.

‘I mean it!’

They stared at each other, and Mayuri broke first. ‘Kurisu, how long were you waiting down here?’

‘Twenty minutes? I didn’t have anything to keep them warm…’

‘Scrambled eggs get rubbery when they’re cold,’ Mayuri admitted sympathetically. ‘Don’t worry, though! They’re a big, big improvement on last time! Hey, how about I finish these and then I’ll help you make some for Okarin and Daru.’ She winked. ‘It’ll be our secret.’

‘I screwed up all the rest you brought from Kawanuma trying to get these right.’ Kurisu hugged her on impulse, smiling. ‘But it was kind of you to offer, sweetie.’

‘Ack! Too tight!’ Mayuri protested, wriggling free. ‘If you suffocate me now, I’ll never be able to teach you to cook! You’ll be making cold eggs forever!’

Kurisu felt her smile slip.

The other woman caught it, of course, and hugged her back. ‘I didn’t mean that! Mayushii promises she’ll turn you into the finest cook in the land!’

‘R-right,’ Kurisu replied, thankful that the shorter woman couldn’t see her face. ‘I’m looking forward to it.’

Running footsteps thudded across the ceiling a few seconds before something impacted the hall’s wooden floor.

‘Morning all!’ Okabe greeted them. ‘Any news of our little project?’

‘Walking down the stairs too slow for you now?’ Kurisu remarked. ‘It’s like watching a kid on Christmas morning.’

‘Yes, yes, naturally it is. This is far more important than festivities, Makise!’

‘Kurisu said there’s nothing yet, Okarin. How about you have some of these eggs? You can check right after.’

‘I can’t be expected to concentrate on something as mundane as breakfast today, Mayuri! Surely you understand—’

‘It’s okay,’ Kurisu interrupted. ‘I’ll give it another look. Have some eggs’

‘Oh, all right,’ Okabe grumbled, letting Mayuri force him into a chair.

Outside, Kurisu let her lips relax from their smile. Her face ached.

The lab was empty. There was nobody down there to see her cry.

‘Still nothing,’ Kurisu reported for the nth time. Without a word, Daru stood and headed down; doubtless he wanted to double-check.

‘The waiting game,’ Okabe remarked gloomily from where he lay on the sofa, eyes closed against the afternoon sun. ‘I hate it. You’re sure we can’t at least get to work on the time travel data you brought back?’

Kurisu lowered herself onto the grass beside him, sitting up straight. ‘Unless you have another laptop around her somewhere. Like I said before, I don’t think it’s a good idea to interrupt the program while it’s running.’

‘So, what? We all just sit here, growing older together? Doing nothing?!’ The silence had an angry edge to it, and it stretched on and on until Okabe finally took a deep breath. ‘Sorry. I know you’re just as antsy as I am… you’ve been stiff as a board all day.’ Another long breath hissed out through his teeth.

‘Have I?’

‘Kurisu, we’ve been keeping our distance but I know you. And you’ve checked that thing more times than the three of us combined.’

‘What you said,’ she said, ignoring him, ‘about you and me just… sitting here. Growing older. Wouldn’t it be nice?’

Okabe’s reply stuttered, cracking into syllables that fell from his mouth without meaning. His second try was a little better: ‘The idea has some merit.’

‘You think so too?’

‘I don’t think either of us would ever forgive ourselves,’ he said practically. ‘Ever since we reached Kawanuma you’ve been telling me that saving the world was worth sacrificing our own happiness. Now, I’m not sure that I agree, but I know that you couldn’t bear it if you gave up now.’

‘I guess you’re right,’ she said.

Okabe rolled over until he was staring at the grass. A beetle climbed a stalk toward his face before flopping off and beginning the climb again. ‘Moreover, there are so many others with a stake in this. They sacrificed so much—how could we fail them after that?’

The beetle fell again. His eyes widened in realisation.

‘That’s why you keep checking, isn’t it? You’re afraid of actually pulling this off.’ He stopped, and his voice became gentler. ‘I know… we’ll both cease to exist when the timeline changes. It bothers me too. But somehow I feel like we’ll still be us, you know? Like… I know that we’ll meet again.’

He chuckled, a little derisively.

‘Listen to me, I sound like such a sap. And a terrible scientist, too, building castles of thought with no foundations. Still. Maybe we’ll get our second chance.’

His eyes were closed, as though he was somehow watching the world of his dream. He couldn’t see the tears sliding down her face.

The sun was falling to the horizon.

Kurisu’s sobs broke the evening silence. ‘That’s not why I’m afraid,’ she said violently.

His eyes shot open.

‘Kurisu, you’re—’

‘I lied to you earlier. I’ve already read SERN’s files.’

‘SERN? The physics group? What do they have to do with—? I mean, how did you—? Kurisu, when did you find out about this?’

‘Last night,’ she admitted, her gut churning. ‘I’ve been resetting the program all day. So you wouldn’t see.’

Because once he did… he’d destroy everything.

His hand found her shoulders, gripping them hard enough to leave bruises. She could feel them trembling against her skin.

‘Kurisu,’ he said slowly. ‘You promised that you’d put the fate of the world above your feelings. Whatever I may feel about that decision, I need to know what you saw.’

Yes. He deserved to know.

There was a box in her head. A repository. She’d constructed it over thirteen years; to protect herself from the despair that threatened to take the last of who she was. Almost tangible after all this time, it swallowed her fear without trace.

‘January 2036,’ she began, in a voice scraped clean of emotion. ‘War has broken out…’

1__1__13.01.2036

THIS MESSAGE SHOULD APPEAR WITHIN YOUR OWN SYSTEM.

IT’S NOT A JOKE.

IT’S NOT A HACK.

PLEASE. YOU HAVE TO BELIEVE ME.

WAR HAS BROKEN OUT BETWEEN NATO AND RUSSO-CHINESE CONSORTIUM. ONLY A MATTER OF TIME UNTIL SOMEONE DROPS THE BOMB. I WISH I COULD BE MORE INFORMATIVE BUT NOTHING GETS THROUGH EASTERN EUROPE AND ANYTHING FROM WASHINGTON IS PROPAGANDA.

WE DISMISSED TIME TRAVEL AS IMPOSSIBLE, I KNOW. LOOK DEEPER. THE KEY IS TO COMBINE KERR BLACK HOLES WITH THE ANTIGRAVITY POTENTIAL OF A LIFTER. PLEASE, YOU MUST HAVE FAITH!

SAVE YOURSELVES. FIND A WAY.

GOD BE WITH YOU.

END MESSAGE

2__1__24.02.2036

DEAR PROFESSOR SOSULSKI.

IF YOU HAVE READ THE ABOVE, THE IMLICATIONS OF A SECOND MESSAGE ARE OBVIOUS.

YOU COULDN’T STOP THE WAR. YOU DIDN’T EVEN TRY.

I TURNED UP AT SERN IN 2029. FOLLOWED THE KERR HOAX ON A WHIM. IT WORKS. BUT CONTROLLING THE PHENOMENON TOOK SIX YEARS. JUST A LITTLE TOO LONG. MOSTLY BECAUSE WE WERE FORCED TO WORK ON MILITARY PROJECTS. IRONIC, RIGHT?

DON’T WORRY, THOUGH. I HAVEN’T WASTED THE TIME.

I’VE PUT TOGETHER THE BLUEPRINTS FOR THIS MACHINE. IT CAN’T TAKE MUCH DATA—I’M PUSHING IT JUST SENDING THESE PLANS—AND THE TARGETING IS ACCURATE TO A DECADE AT BEST. BUT IT’LL GIVE YOU A HEAD START. ESPECIALLY IF YOU CAN GET THE LARGE HADRON COLLIDER PROJECT OFF THE GROUND.

TALK TO MATEJ ON THE EUROPEAN RESEARCH COUNCIL. HE HAS CONTACTS IN IARPA, HE CAN GET THE AMERICANS TO TAKE ACTION. TELL HIM THAT THE PRIMARY MOVER BEHIND THIS THING IS KONSTANTIN SHARAPOVA. FUTURE PRESIDENT OF RUSSIA. UNPOPULAR BUT CLEVER—REALISED CHINESE COMMUNISM HAD SUCCEEDED WHERE THE USSR FAILED. MEETS WITH CHEN MINXIA 2025 AND NEXT THING YOU KNOW, RUSSO-CHINA COVERS HALF OF ASIA AND THE WORLD’S LARGEST ECONOMY IS PUMPING OUT A HUNDRED MILITARY VEHICLES EVERY MINUTE.

DR. NAKABACHI SHOWS UP A YEAR LATER. ONE MOMENT HE’S DUE TO PRESENT TIME TRAVEL AT A CONFERENCE, NEXT MOMENT HE’S A GUEST OF SHARAPOVA AND WAR PREPARATION EFFORTS ARE THROUGH THE ROOF. EVERYONE DISMISSED HIM AS A RUSSIAN PROPAGANDIST BUT YOU AND I KNOW BETTER, DON’T WE?

ASIA’S GONE. THEY’RE SWARMING THE ALPS ON OUR SIDE AND THE EAST COAST ON THE OTHER. WHAT DO YOU THINK’S GOING TO HAPPEN WHEN WE GET DESPERATE? OR WHEN THE RUSKIES GET THEIR MACHINE WORKING?

I’M AFRAID THAT’S ALL I HAVE FOR YOU.

AH, HELL. HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO TYPE IF MY HANDS KEEP SHAKING LIKE THIS? I KNOW I’M GOING TO DIE HERE.

JUST MAKE IT WORTH SOMETHING, OKAY?

JOHN TITOR, SIGNING OFF.

END MESSAGE

Makise kept on talking, trying not to listen to what she was saying. But she couldn’t avoid it any longer.

‘SERN was out of their depth. They were physicists, not soldiers. So they showed American Intelligence the message they’d been sent and it led them to Dr. Nakabachi, my dad. He was a physicist too and he was fascinated with the idea of time travel — he’d written twenty papers on different theories — but none of his ideas got funding. Eventually he convinced them that he had no idea what they were talking about. And with a little more searching they found me, and the paper I’d written to make Daddy happy.’

Her lips twisted scornfully.

‘I don’t know how they got me to cooperate. Maybe it was torture. Maybe it was money, patriotism, glory. Maybe I just wanted to see what would happen. But eventually the USA had its time machine. And they used it. Political trends, diplomatic secrets, military secrets; all sorts of things got sent back. Every message made the government’s position a little stronger, their power a little more absolute, their leaders a little more corrupt. It’s the oldest story of all. Eventually they had to develop the mind-control chips just to stop the rest of the world from trying to wipe them out. I worked on that project, too.’

‘Makise, what the hell are you trying to say?’

‘I’m saying that after twenty years of war, I must have finally looked out of my ivory tower and seen the world I’d made. A world forever on the brink of annihilation, consumed by hatred and greed, ruled by tyrants. And it disgusted me. So I betrayed my masters. I reset. I sent a message to SERN telling them what all of us should have known to start with: that to control time is to have absolute power; the kind of power that no human could ever use without becoming a monster, not even SERN themselves. And then I sent them the chips and told them how to save the world.’

Okabe stared at her in horror. ‘It was you? You made the Organisation?’

‘A thousand years of peace, the message said. Until we forgot war, until humans could be trusted to govern ourselves again.’ Kurisu chuckled unhappily. ‘Looks like future-me was overly optimistic.’

‘Doesn’t matter.’ Itaru cut in from behind her, nearly giving Kurisu whiplash as she turned. ‘Nothing’s changed. If we smash the Organisation, we go home.’

‘Home to what? World War Three? Cancerous wanderers picking through irradiated ash under the shadow of a thousand mushroom clouds? That’s the future you want for Suzuha? Or the military dictatorship of John Titor? Well, Itaru? What’s your choice?’

She found herself laughing, again and again. Maybe it was because Itaru’s stricken face was vengeance for the nightmares of spittle and rage and hands closing around her neck. Maybe it was because her life had been the same, loop after loop after loop, and no matter how far she ran she’d never be more than the instrument of tyranny. Makise Kurisu, Mother of the Time Machine! Or maybe because Feyris had given her the opportunity to save the world and she’d turned it down in the name of that same cause.

Itaru backed away, his shock replaced by revulsion.

‘You’re insane,’ he whispered.

Kurisu felt something warm around her stomach, and looked down to see a mop of black hair.

‘Stop it,’ Mayuri begged. ‘Kurisu, please stop making that face! We’ll make everything okay, I promise!’

Her vision was swimming. ‘I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. But don’t you see?’ She asked the blurs. ‘This is as good as it’s ever going to get.’ Her laugh became a keen, like the cackling of geese. ‘Welcome to Makise Kurisu’s Utopia!’

Okabe’s hand cracked against her cheek hard enough to knock her over. The pain was good. It helped her focus.

His eyes weren’t disgusted, like Itaru’s. Nor did they hold Mayuri’s compassion.

Steel.

She’d seen that look exactly once before.

‘Kurisu. What have you done?’

Sprawled at his feet, she smiled tearfully up at him. ‘Done? What could I possibly do? Without SERN, humanity will destroy itself. The only choice is between abandoning humanity to extinction or becoming monsters ourselves to save them.’

Steel.

‘You swore to protect humanity. At the cost of your happiness. At the cost of ours. Makise Kurisu. What. Have. You. Done?!’

She said nothing. But he knew her, and she knew him. And she saw the truth reflected in steel eyes.

‘Daru! Mayuri! Run! She’s told them–!’

He collapsed alongside her, clutching at his head as SERN began to rewrite his past and his future.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said.

‘OKARIN!!’

‘I’m so sorry, Okabe. But I promised to sav—’

‘Kurisu. What have you—!’

Okabe’s face twisted. Less than a second later his pistol was in his hands.

‘Daru! Mayuri! Escape plan Delta!’

Okabe sprinted for the house. It took precious seconds for them to understand his transformation, but they followed without question.

Kurisu lay where they had left her. It was too late, now. Too late to do anything but mourn the loss of her friendships.

One hand trembling against the grass, she gathered her strength and forced herself to stand. Though she’d betrayed her friends, she owed it to them to stay by their side in exile. However deep their hate for her, however crushing their rejection, it was her duty to bear it.

Makise Kurisu took a step, her legs trembling like a withered old lady, half out of this world.

The Rounders had arrived. Dimly, she heard shouting, but her normally keen hearing had turned in on itself: every heartbeat was thunderous, every breath sounded like the grinding of stone against stone. The last five minutes rewound and played themselves over in her head, distorting and expanding like a broken audiotape. Okabe’s face, contorted for an instant in misery and betrayal. The image seemed to be printed onto her retina, forcing itself on her no matter where she looked.

Something was lying on the grass, and she tripped on it. ‘Kurisu?’ it asked.

Kurisu blinked. Crawled over to get a better look.

‘Mayuri?’ she asked, before answering her own question. ‘I must be hallucinating.’

‘Um, no, it’s really me. Sorry.’

Kurisu forced her eyes to focus.

‘Mayuri?’ she gasped, her hand flying to the girl’s face. ‘Mayuri?!’

‘Still me,’ the girl gasped, catching her hand in a grip so light as to be non-existent.

‘But you’re hurt.’

‘Yeah.’

‘But you can’t be hurt. That wasn’t the deal. That wasn’t the deal, Mayuri!’ Kurisu’s grip on her friend’s hand must have been tight enough to hurt, but Mayuri didn’t show it.

She just smiled, her teeth tinged crimson, like her hand.

‘It’s okay. I mean it. It’s okay, Kurisu. Or—,’ Mayuri was interrupted by a coughing fit, but her chest muscles were too weak and she just twitched in Kurisu’s grip. ‘—or it will be okay. Listen.’

So Kurisu did. Teardrops washed the blood from Mayuri’s face, like spring rain.

‘Don’t be too hard on yourself. We can still go home… but you have to do the right things. Prom—ah-ack—promise me you’ll do those things.’

‘What things?’ she asked desperately. ‘Mayuri, tell me!’

‘Can you see it, Kurisu? The light?’

‘Please, Mayuri, just tell me what to do!’

Mayuri’s hand slipped from hers. ‘It’s so bright… so beautiful…’ Her voice was so low that Kurisu had to kneel, straining to hear. ‘Everyone’s waiting for us, Kurisu. Past the event horizon. Tell Okarin… you’ll see me there. I promise…’

With that, Mayuri was silent. Lying in the grass on a spring day, illuminated by the setting sun, her friend was still for the first time in her…

Kurisu couldn’t bring herself to finish the sentence.

Stumbling forward, she headed toward the farmhouse, her mind full of rage and sorrow and desperate justification. She hadn’t wanted this! It wasn’t necessary! Why had they…?!

She, too, had been betrayed.

Okabe stood outside the house; the centrepoint of a ring of guns and hostility. He held a battered black rectangle — his mobile phone — high, as if playing keepaway. One of the Rounders tried to edge closer and Okabe pinned him with a single look. Though tears shimmered on his cheeks, he possessed a dignity unmatched by any present.

‘If anyone comes any closer to me, we’ll all die,’ he said.

One man stepped forward. He was young, no older than twenty, and unarmed. Circuitry glittered in his eye, and Kurisu knew that despite his age he was somehow their leader.

‘A bomb?’ he said. ‘It won’t help. None of us care if we die.’

Kurisu stumbled forward until one of the soldiers noticed her and threw her sprawling into the circle.

‘Please don’t do this,’ she asked the young man quietly. ‘I gave you everything you wanted. There are other ways. Please…’

His voice was boyish, steady and unafraid. ‘There are. But the safety of the world is too important to risk for sentiment.’

‘Sentiment? Sentiment?!’ Okabe hissed. ‘You killed Mayuri!’

Okabe’s phone beeped and the world ended. Or it seemed to; the explosion blinded her and flung her away like a feather in a hurricane. Something hit her as she tumbled through the maelstrom, knocking the breath out of her, and when she landed she was cradling a corpse under a sky blackened by smoke.

Blood tinged her sight crimson as she rolled the body away, her eyes searching for Okabe. Was he still alive? Yes. There: singed and battered, but struggling to rise even as the surviving Rounders turned on him. Kurisu snatched the dead man’s gun and fired five shots in a single fluid motion—as if she’d been doing it all her life. Nine of the fallen still breathed and she eliminated those too, until only their leader still lived.

The young man had been too close to the explosion. Shrapnel had unseamed his cheek from his jaw, and his limbs were spread and twisted like the petals of a crushed flower. His pistol rose as if of its accord; she kicked his hand aside as it discharged and lifted her own weapon in response.

‘I can see you,’ she told him quietly. ‘Behind this poor boy’s eyes. Another Makise Kurisu, from another time, who made just the same choices that I did. You disgust me.’

The dying man looked up at her, calm and unafraid. ‘Even the most perfect of worlds must be cruel, because men are. It must be heartless, because men are. And so we remain, because we were never taught to do better. That was her message to us.’

Kurisu’s finger tightened on the trigger.

’She asked us to be caretakers, Makise Kurisu. Until mankind forgets its sins.’

She fired. Her gun expelled a bullet at just over the speed of sound, its own rotation holding it steady. But the young man’s words had got into her head, growing icy roots down her spine, twisting her about, and Kurisu watched in horror as her shot burrowed through flesh, bone and brain. All in a single heartbeat.

Okabe never felt a thing.

One wall of the Future Gadget Laboratory fell in, and the flames roared higher with the extra oxygen. Kurisu laid Okabe down, scorching her hair and burning her skin. She didn’t let herself feel the burning. Part of her wanted to remain here, to let her ashes mix with his, but she couldn’t do that either. Makise Kurisu still had work to do.

‘Is that really necessary?’ Japan’s latest Administrator asked her, still lying where he’d fallen.

‘When the kings of old died,’ she said, ‘they were lashed to the helm of their greatest warship and set to sail over the oceans, aflame, to whatever fate awaited them. A Valkyrie deserves no less.’

‘Sentiment. Refrain from it in future, please. An asset should be aware of its own value, Makise Kurisu, and not sacrifice itself needlessly.’

‘An asset. Is that all I ever was?’

‘Of course.’

‘You’re cruel,’ she told him.

‘You know I’m not.’ The copper in his iris twinkled, reflecting the flames. ‘We’re all assets, in the end.’

He was right, of course. Not a particle of her doubted him. And yet…

‘You left me with free will for thirteen years. I was scared, and lonely, and disgusted with what I was doing, and you could have made everything simple but you didn’t. I suffered. Why, if not cruelty?’

She didn’t feel grief, or pain, or anger. All of those had been locked in the box. Only their echoes remained, hollow and ghostly. On impulse she ran her fingers through her hair, feeling the raised scars hidden beneath it.

‘For the obvious reason. Conducting invasive surgery on the only mind known to have built a working time machine would have been terrible waste of resources,’ the shattered figure admitted. ‘After that, of course, we had more leeway but even then we couldn’t risk more than minimal adjustments. You were the only person guaranteed to get the interest of the Valkyrie’s leader and they catch every chipped spy we send them; nothing short of a genuine performance would do.’

True. Even as herself, Kurisu’d almost died three times before she could lead SERN to the Future Gadget Lab. If she’d been activated before being ‘rescued’, Ruka would certainly have cut her head off.

Her musing was interrupted by a sudden absence of sound as the young man finally stopped breathing. She would probably be asked to replace him when she got back to Tokyo, but with his phone locked and all the nearby settlements eliminated it would be days before she could communicate with the rest of the Organisation.

An unfortunate circumstance, since it meant that she wouldn’t be able to share the other thought that had been nagging her: why, when they were obviously surrounded, would Okabe and Itaru run to trap themselves within the farmhouse? It was idiotic. And Okabe was no idiot. The most likely answer, of course, was that the cave underneath the house was part of a larger system, kept secret from her. It was eminently possible that both Itaru and the Kyouma’s Nostalgia Drive had survived the explosion.

But even chipped, she couldn’t survive entering the inferno again. And like a sentimental fool, she’d wasted time with meaningless questions—now she couldn’t even warn the council. It would be a long time before she could organise any pursuit; he would be long gone. And if he had the sense to activate the Nostalgia Drive ~ Attractor Field Configuration then the events of this day would be completely irrevocable.

An observer might have seen Kurisu’s lips curl upward at that thought. But surely it was only a trick of the firelight.


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