In the end, Kurisu didn’t manage to ask any of her questions. It had been a long and strenuous day, and the short period of time she’d spent unconscious didn’t really count as restful. Not five minutes after she’d settled down in the soft and scratchy hay, lulled by the gentle rocking of the trailer, Kurisu was fast asleep.
Rusty evening light was filtering in around the shutter when she groaned and stirred, her eyes blinking open. The noise, little though it was, must have woken her companion too, because she heard the hay rustling as he sat up. ‘Mmph. Evening,’ he mumbled. From what she could make out in the gloom, his eyes were lidded and he looked on the edge of dropping off again; the man might act like some action-hero but apparently he still liked to sleep in. The thought made her smile to herself before a more urgent matter made itself known.
‘Hey, Okabe?’ she asked urgently, ‘do you know how long this journey’s going to be?’
‘If it’s sundown, we should be fairly close. Perhaps an hour.’ he replied after a moment’s thought. ‘Why, is the genius girl bored of my company already? I should hope not, that would bode terribly ill for our working relationship wouldn’t it, my assistant?’
‘…’ Her lack of reply only seemed to encourage him.
‘Oh, so that’s it. Huhuhu…’ he began to chuckle. ‘My dashing heroism and the sheer power of my presence has rendered you speechless from awe! Naturally, you require time to compose yourself. I understand.’
Okabe coughed. ‘Claustrophobia, then?’
An exhausted sigh escaped Kurisu’s lips. Only five minutes awake and talking to this man was already making her head hurt. ‘Sure, let’s go with that.’ And hope we get wherever we’re going before I pee my pants, she added in the privacy of her own head. ‘Then since we’re here for a while, can you tell me anything about what happened in the last thirteen years? By the time I managed to escape for the first time, Tokyo was deserted.’
Okabe frowned in thought. ‘That’s a long story you’re asking for. Grab a bale and I’ll see what I can do.’
Settled down in the soft hay, she watched him ponder.
‘Where to start… officially, Tokyo is now designated the Tokyo Depopulated Zone or the TDZ. Nobody home but Rounders and high-ranked employees of the Organisation in Japan.’
‘Tokyo was the largest city in the world,’ she pointed out. ‘How could anyone make all those people just leave?’ It would be a ridiculous undertaking even with the time machine, and she certainly didn’t want to admit to any knowledge of that. Somehow she didn’t think that anyone from this desolate world would take kindly to her having effectively handed their enemies the ultimate trump card.
‘Ordinarily, it wouldn’t be,’ Okabe replied grimly. ‘Do you remember when I checked you out before the driver reached us? Wait, no, bad turn of phrase, forget that. The point is that I was making sure you weren’t chipped.’
‘Like a tracker?’
Okabe shook his head. ‘Worse. Infinitely worse. You see, people started behaving oddly about eleven years ago. Just a little out of character: a politician resigns despite having an electoral advantage, a newspaper editor changes their sympathies, a military general is disgraced after being found in bed with a prostitute. Tiny things. You’d never notice unless you were looking but they all added up.’ He chuckled without humour. ‘Actually, for a while things were really getting better. Wars petered out one after another, the banks started lending again; everyone thought that everyone else was finally getting a bit more sensible and nobody wanted to jinx it by asking why. Except yours truly, of course.’
‘So, what, these chips were altering people’s thoughts somehow? Making them do things they wouldn’t normally do?’ Kurisu sniffed. ‘That’s absurd. Think about it! Granted, the optic nerve affects a decent chunk of the brain but to actually twist someone’s thoughts like that you’d need to wire up most of the frontal and parietal lobes.’
‘Oh, they do. The chip in the eye is a relay so the signals don’t have to through a centimetre of bone. Makes it easier to update the programming. But once it’s done… doesn’t matter if they’re your father, your sister, your oldest friend, they’d happily cut your throat for the Organisation.’
His tone was clinical, overly so, like the postdoc who guided her through her first vivisection. Idly, Kurisu wondered if she would find a scar on Okabe’s neck, should she look for it.
‘I’m sorry I interrupted,’ she said carefully. ‘Please will you go on with the story?’
‘As you wish. Well, Daru calls what happened next ‘Judgement Day’. About eight years ago, every single country with nuclear capacity launched their entire arsenal into the sky. They detonated at an altitude of about 450km, creating an electromagnetic pulse that covered the entire earth and shorted out every power supply and electrical circuit that wasn’t specially shielded. The whole world went dark in a single day. And with the lights out forever, the Organisation stepped in. Most people were happy to follow anyone who seemed to know what they were doing and as for those that weren’t… the Organisation had brainwashed most of the military and the rest had been laid off. There was very little they could do.’
Kurisu sat and let the words wash over her. This … this was too much. To hear about the end of the world from this stranger. The desolate wastes where her father had once lived, before she’d been kidnapped on the way to his conference so long ago. Had he survived? Was he out there somewhere, cursing her memory or mourning her loss? Her mother was in America and Kurisu would never see her again.
To distract herself, and out of sheer morbid curiosity, she told him to go on.
‘Some people fight back anyway. Mostly former soldiers and a few new recruits who were still clean of the Organisation’s taint. A few of them still do—a pinprick spark in the abyss. But it turned out brainwashing wasn’t the only trick the Organisation had up its tyrannical sleeves.’
And here it came. The fruit of her enforced treachery.
‘They had a damn time machine! Every time the rebels attacked they were surrounded and ambushed by the Organisation’s forces. Every. Single. Time. Perfect foreknowledge. There’s no way to win against something like that without overwhelming force, but an awful lot of people died trying. These days there are hardly any left.’
‘You’re a rebel,’ she made the obvious conclusion.
‘So I am, as are you. The death-rattle of humanity, Operation Valkyrie, welcomes you.’
‘Operation … valkyrie?’
‘Capitalised, if you please. I’d tell you more but if I’m not mistaken,’ he said as the truck began to slow down, ‘you’re about to see for yourself.’
Brakes hissed and squealed as the truck stopped altogether before footsteps tapped around to the trailer door. A blaze of evening sunlight illuminated the hay and its two human occupants, who found that they had ended up uncomfortably close in the gloom.
‘Thank you kindly. Your services on behalf of the cause will not be forgotten,’ Okabe told the driver, who nodded once and hauled herself back into her cabin. As the truck drove off, Kurisu got her first look at their destination. It was a farmhouse, built in the traditional style, with a double-roofed main building and two wings that surrounded a central courtyard. In contrast to the overgrown buildings of Tokyo, it seemed like a bastion of the past against the creeping ruin of the future.
‘This old place belonged to a relative of mine,’ Okabe said, stepping up beside her. ‘We’re lucky to have it—the people who were forcibly reallocated mostly ended up in prefabs.’ He cocked his head, apparently hearing something she didn’t. ‘Ah. Assume brace position.’
‘Eh?’ A pattering of feet sounded from inside the house before the doors burst open and a small projectile flung itself at Okabe’s waist.
‘Okariiiiin! You’re back!’ a small, dark-haired woman cried as she latched on.
The man in question stumbled under the blow but held his footing and squeezed her back. ‘Mayuri, what have I told you about that name? And when we have a guest, too!’
‘Hmm? Ooh!’ The newly-christened Mayuri bounced over to her and threw herself forward into a bow. ‘I’m Mayuri. Nice to meet ya!’
‘Hi. I’m Ku-Kurisu Makise,’ she stammered as she found her personal space being abruptly invaded. ‘Um, what are you doing?!’
‘So pretty…’ Mayuri murmured, her hands roaming over Kurisu’s clothing—unheeding of the woman they contained. ‘It’s been so long since Mayushii’s seen pretty clothes.’
Now that Kurisu thought about it, the woman was wearing exactly the same dark-grey jumpsuit as Okabe and the driver who’d brought them here. For her own part, she was still wearing the modified school uniform she’d come to Japan in thirteen years ago. An indulgence from her captors, she’d been wearing it for so long she’d almost forgotten about it, and with the exception of a few patches it fit her just as well as it had when she was seventeen. She was a little miffed about that.
‘Mayuri,’ Okabe interjected from where he was smirking on the sidelines, ‘You shouldn’t get so close to that one. She bites.’
‘I do not … okay, I did but you deserved it! Both times!’ Kurisu protested, fully aware that she was only digging herself deeper. Luckily, Mayuri was still preoccupied with her outfit and didn’t seem to have heard a word from either of them.
‘The first step is admitting you have a problem,’ Okabe said airily. ‘Come inside and we’ll see if any of the tea rations are left.’
‘I would, but…’ her admirer was practically wrapped around her at that point and didn’t seem inclined to let up.
‘Just drag her!’ Okabe’s voice floated back from inside the house. ‘She’s quite light!’
Kurisu was seriously considering it when Mayuri heaved a wistful sigh and stepped away. ‘No, it’s okay. Mayushii shall admire them from afar.’ Then a thought seemed to strike her. ‘Wait, Okarin! The last two bags are Daru’s!’ she shouted as she ran back into the house, leaving Kurisu to stare after her. For a rebel and a terrorist, she sure seemed childish.
But Kurisu felt more alive today than she’d felt in thirteen years. Honestly, she felt more alive than she had in much longer than that.
The mother of the time machine in the dens of rebels, she was the proverbial lamb surrounded by lions. A precarious position indeed, she thought, but if you’re destined to fall, you might as well enjoy the view from the top.
After taking a moment to relieve herself of the strain of travelling, she followed the sweet aroma of green tea back to its source.
‘Honestly, Okarin,’ Mayuri scolded. ‘Do you see me stealing other people’s drinks left and right?’
‘You always loathed my drinks,’ Okabe pointed out. ‘Just as well too. The thought of you with a Dr. Pepper’s worth of sugar and caffeine in your veins scarcely bears thinking about.’ He gulped the entire cup down and sighed blissfully, exhaling a cloud of steam.
‘Even if you did have taste, I wouldn’t have stolen your drinks because it’s wrong!’
‘What goes around comes around, Mayuri. Case in point,’ he said, turning to offer Kurisu the other cup, ‘have some tea.’ The other woman gave her a smile and a shrug, as though to say no sense letting it get cold, so she accepted it gratefully and let it warm her hands.
‘So when are the other two getting in?’ Okabe asked.
‘Right about now,’ said a voice from the door. The man was tall, with shaggy brown hair and a beard that ran along his jaw like the frame at the bottom of a portrait; he stepped forward and grabbed Okabe in a bear-hug. ‘Although, Yuki went upstairs already. Glad to see you made it back in one piece, but really, dude, you stole my tea again?’
‘That’s one way of look—’ Okabe got out before this … Daru’s … arms tightened around him and the rest of his sentence trailed off in a gurgle.
‘Did you say something?’ the big man asked innocently. Okabe, who was rapidly turning purple, wheezed something and flailed his arms. The man actually looked like he was about to suffocate, and Kurisu considered stepping in before she noticed the fond smile Mayuri was concealing beneath a disapproving frown as she watched the pair interact.
‘Ah hell, you know one of ‘em was for you,’ Daru said eventually, releasing the captive Okabe—who gasped in air like a man rescued from drowning.
‘Haaa … could you perhaps … allow me to retain a little dignity in front of our newest lab member?’ Okabe forced out between heaving deep breaths.
‘Oh, I didn’t see you there,’ Daru said, turning to Kurisu. ‘Kinda got caught up the moment. A new lab member huh? Been a while since we had one’a those. The name’s Itaru Hashida, but Daru’ll do. It’s a pleasure.’
‘Likewise,’ she replied, accepting the proffered hand. It was as large as its owner, dwarfing hers; god, the man really was huge. Not fat, exactly, but stout like a barrel. And looking her over with eyes that were a little more cautious than his jovial manner let on.
‘Woman of few words, aren’t you?’ he said.
Perhaps not, though Kurisu would say that she’d simply been forced to learn the value of discretion.
‘Until provoked,’ Okabe chimes in. ‘Mad Dog Makise, they call her. But you’re probably safe unless she starts frothing at the mouth.’
Kurisu fought down the steadily growing urge to throttle the man and almost had the bloodlust conquered when he holds up his index finger. ‘You want to know how I got these scars, Daru?’
‘Soooo, didja get any of the components you wanted?’ Mayuri interrupted just in time to stop Kurisu from committing grievous bodily harm.
‘Sadly not. It flared up just as I made it into Akihabara, and not a moment later Mad Dog here goes running past. Fortuitous indeed, wouldn’t you say? Components, pah! We can get those any day, but a good assistant is one of a kind,’ Okabe said, slinging an arm round her shoulders.
‘I guess it worked out for the best,’ Daru said and, preoccupied as she was trying to wriggle away, Kurisu still noticed that he didn’t sound all that happy about it. ‘Just be grateful they wasted the time-shift like that or you would have been surrounded. We’ll have to plan another raid, though.’
‘That can come later,’ Okabe said. ‘For now, Daru must have some rations left to steal. Let us away to the kitchen!’
‘I will break your spine on my knee, Okarin!’ Daru howled at his retreating back before pursuing. For some reason, Kurisu found her lips twitching.
‘Shall we? The last person in the room asked her.
Kurisu shrugged diffidently. ‘I can cook, a little,’ she offered. The world had changed so much so fast and she had no illusions about how she’d have fared without these people’s help. Some recompense was owed.
Mayuri smiled graciously. ‘I’m sure that’d be lovely. Oh, Yuki!’
A light tread sounded on the staircase and Kurisu turned to see a woman with long waves of honey-blond hair and matching amber eyes descending, along with a little girl.
‘Yuki, this is Kurisu Makise. Makise, Yuki Hashida.’
‘Very nice to meet you,’ Yuki smiled warmly. ‘And this is my daughter, Suzuha. Say hello to the nice lady, Suzuha.’
The girl had golden eyes, the same as her mother’s, and for all that she was just a child they held a strange adult intensity as Kurisu knelt to greet her.
‘Hello lady,’ the child replied, apparently reserving judgement on the matter of Kurisu’s niceness for the time being in favour of more pressing matters. ‘Mama, is it nearly suppertime?’
‘Oh? Hungry already?’ her mother teased.
The little girl shrugged. ‘Not really. I ate some worms earlier because Uncle Rintaro says they’re new-tricious.’
‘Does he now?’ Yuki murmured. ‘For telling my innocent daughter that, perhaps later I shall help him test it. Put his mouth where his mouth is…’
Dinner was excellent but unimaginative—Kurisu had been forcibly removed from the hob for trying to spice things up a bit—with hot food and more laughter than she’d heard in a very long time.
Of course all good things end must find their end, and the Hashidas, who’d apparently been working in the fields all day doing … whatever it was people did on a farm, had proposed that everyone get some sleep. ‘After all,’ Yuki had told her ominously, ‘you’ll be up bright and early tomorrow!’
This led to one small problem. See, the house was already at capacity (the Organisation required it, she was told, given the overcrowding problem) and all the futons had been commandeered long ago. ‘So…’ the woman had explained, entirely too cheerfully.
Kurisu’s train of thought was derailed as Mayuri snuggled closer and made a noise like a small wood-chipper, the memory of Yuki’s grin a fortunate casualty.
Tomorrow was a mystery. These people didn’t know who she was, or what she’d done, and who knew if she could keep it that way? She would never be completely safe, even here.
But for tonight…
‘Welcome home, me,’ Kurisu murmured, and went to sleep.