‘Very well, that should do it,’ Okabe told Daru. ‘Three, two, one and PULL!’
Freed from the stone, the plough started to rattle through the ground once more, churning it so that the fresh black soil was lying on the surface ready to be sown. Looking back, he saw the other two had stopped again, Yuki demonstrating how to cast a handful of seed so that it fell evenly and in the desired amount. Makise frowned and picked up another handful but a gust of wind took it straight out of her hand. The expression on her face set him to chuckling, yet schadenfreude proved to be Okabe’s undoing as Daru gave another heave on the plough and it tugged his foot out from under him. His yelp of surprise must have caught Daru’s attention because the plough stopped and he looked up to see his oldest friend giving him one of the biggest grins he’d ever seen.
‘Yes, yes, laugh it up,’ he muttered. ‘Since we’ve stopped, though, I was thinking this might be a good time to take a break.’ He gestured to the other two. ‘Let’s ease the new girl in gently, shall we?’
Daru considered this for a minute. ‘And this has nothing to do with the fact that it’s almost your turn to pull this thing?’
‘The mere articulation of that suspicion wounds me deeply, Daru,’ Okabe said, turning away to wave at the others. ‘Ladies, we’re winding down for now!’
‘Wait up a second,’ Makise said as they approached her. ‘I think I’m getting the hang of this.’ Brows knitted in concentration, she stood with her back to the breeze and threw out a hand to scatter the seeds… reasonably well, actually. The woman certainly learned fast.
‘Great! That’s much better, Makise!’ Yuki smiled. ‘Now let’s all get out of the sun before we shrivel up in this heat.’
‘You’re telling me,’ sighed Makise, wiping her face with her sleeve as she turned to face Daru and Okabe. ‘If there’s one thing I miss from before, it’s air-conditioning!’
Her face was pink from a mixture of exertion and impending sunburn, and Okabe couldn’t help but notice how the sheen of sweat made her skin glow. ‘Er…’
‘Perfectly understandable,’ chirped Yuki, with an altogether-too-knowing smile in his direction. ‘Some water’ll help.’
Okabe’s mind wandered off as they started back. The field and path were on the top of a hill and he could see for miles; it was one of the reasons this place made such a good base. Not too far away, he could see other fields just like theirs, complete with grey-clad figures toiling away under the unforgiving sun. It was almost idyllic.
But none of them had been given a choice in the matter. The constant labour to keep from starvation rather ruined the simple pleasure of growing and it kept people too busy to resent having it forced upon them. Let alone consider taking action against it. Even for his friends and the members of Operation Valkyrie, far too much time was spent on make-work like this. Okabe had a suspicion that was the Organisation’s real plan all along—not merely to stamp out rebellion but to make the very thought impossible. An invidious and long-lived form of tyranny.
Of course, there were still ways of stirring the people up. Which reminded him, it was time Makise met—
A hand rifling through his pocket disturbed his thoughts, and he came back to reality just in time to see Daru unlocking their front door with the key he’d just palmed.
‘S’up, Mayuri,’ Daru called out as he entered.
‘Daru!’ the woman in question yelped from inside, ‘You’re back already!’
‘Well, it’s about lunchtime, is it not?’ Yuki pointed out, entering behind her husband.
‘Y-Yuki!’ Mayuri seemed agitated for some reason, her voice unnaturally high. Even this harsh age hadn’t taught her to lie properly, Okabe thought fondly. Between the lip she was chewing and the way she was twisting her fingers together, his old friend’s body was one big tell. He noted with interest that Makise seemed to have picked up on the same cues despite only having known the smaller woman for half a day—she might be quiet around most people but she was watching them all carefully. It wasn’t hard to imagine where she’d obtained those instincts.
Obviously, the other two had known Mayuri long enough to see straight through her. ‘Suzuha escaped again, didn’t she?’ Daru sighed.
‘I barely looked away, promise! The sky was so pretty today, I looked up for a moment and poof! She vanished on me,’ Mayuri said despondently.
More than a moment, for Suzuha to get out of sight. Mayuri’s episodes were getting worse.
‘It could’ve been any of us,’ Daru reassured her. ‘Probably won’t see her again ‘till supper, but I’ll go out and scour the woods—maybe I’ll get lucky this time.’
‘I’ll check up by the fields,’ Yuki added, ‘in case she came looking for us. Rendezvous for lunch, ok?’ With that, she left the two of them alone.
‘Mayushii should probably go too. I lost her in the first place.’
‘Don’t be silly,’ Okabe stepped in before Mayuri could descend completely into self-recrimination. ‘Neither of them are going to find her and you know it. When it comes to running and hiding, little Suzuha is the undisputed master amongst us. Somewhat depressing, given my supposed expertise in the area. You just get … distracted … sometimes.’
‘I guess so. Hey, maybe Makise could look after Suzuha for a bit,’ Mayuri suggested, a little more cheerfully.
‘Mak— gah!’ Okabe whirled to look at the red-haired woman leaning against the wall, who raised a cool eyebrow.
‘Forgot about me?’
‘Damn right I did,’ he muttered to himself. ‘For someone who shouts at me so much, you’re very good at not being noticed,’ he added more loudly.
‘What can I say? You’re just so loud it blocks everything else out,’ Makise shot back.
Mayuri giggled at that, and Okabe fixed his opponent with his second-best glare (his best glare was saved for the people who really deserved it) and clapped his hand to his breast in faked anguish. ‘Impossible! To have turned even Mayuri against me! It’s a plot! Are you some spy of the Organisation?!’
The mood didn’t so much fall as plummet like a lead zeppelin with a hole in it. Makise’s expression darkened as his mouth snapped shut.
What had he been thinking? To say that line as though it was the old days, inventing conspiracy theories above Mr. Braun’s CRT shop? That time was long past, and this woman was a virtual stranger. How could he have forgotten that so quickly?
‘So… Are ya up for some quality babysitting time?’ Mayuri asked Makise, trying to rescue the conversation.
‘Um. I guess—’
‘—not.’ Okabe surfaced from the mental bog. ‘It’s vital we make progress in the lab as fast as possible and she simply won’t have the time. I’m sorry Mayuri, but you have to find a way to focus. At least when you’re with Suzuha.’
Mayuri’s brow gained the faintest crease, and Okabe perceived an aura of impending doom gathering around her. ‘My inventories are vital too, Okarin. Yuki making sure we don’t starve is vital. What you and Daru do is important, but I’m just asking for a little help as well. Right, Makise?’
‘S-sure,’ nodded the woman in question, gulping as the fearsome visage was turned on her.
‘Perfect!’ Mayuri gave her a squeeze of gratitude and swept out, leaving a stunned silence behind her.
It was finally broken by Makise. ‘Great form there, fearless leader.’ The words might have been acidic but her voice had lost its sharp edge, much to his relief.
‘You’re one to talk. If it weren’t for the sunburn you’d be white as a sheet! But enough of this tomfoolery—we have places to be, you and I, at least once you’re properly dressed.’
‘Dressed?’ Makise asked, picking at the collar of the faded school-girl outfit she wore as she seemed to see it for the first time. ‘I guess this does stand out a bit, huh?’
‘More than a bit. Why do you think Mayuri was so fascinated with that get-up of yours? Clothing is standardised these days. Obviously we haven’t been assigned anything in your size, so you’ll have to wear some of Yuki’s. You’re a little small—ow! Ow! Shorter. Shorter is what I meant to say.’
‘But Mayuri’ll be happy to fix up a couple for you when she can.’ More like ecstatic. No cloth sold, no dyes… the dressmaker’s hobby had gone the way of the dodo in the last few years. A petty but important reason for Okabe to keep on fighting. ‘For now you’ll just have grin and bear it.’
Iida wasn’t so much a town as it was an accommodation centre; a conglomeration of prefabs constructed a few years previously in the until-then isolated plains. When it had first appeared, the place had nearly spooked Okabe and the others into transferring the Future Gadget Laboratory elsewhere. They’d all breathed a sigh of relief when the place had grown no larger than a couple of thousand residents. The town itself was several miles away but their limited diesel rations were kept for more urgent matters, so the two had to walk.
Makise was looking left and right constantly as they passed the gate, her eyes darting from place to place and shadow to shadow. The sun was still well above the horizon and most of the inhabitants remained at work on the farms, but the few left seemed enough to make her uneasy.
Rightfully so, of course. You never could be sure what was lurking behind their eyes.
‘Okay, the whole Borg uniformity thing is creeping me out,’ she muttered. ‘When it was just you guys that was one thing, but—what?’
Okabe smiled and her cheeks pinked. ‘Unexpectedly good taste in television,’ he mused out loud and she blushed harder.
‘I only saw a couple of episodes,’ she protested and then sighed. ‘Not like I’ll ever see the rest, I suppose. Wish I’d watched the whole thing after all.’
‘You’ll get used to it,’ he told her. ‘All of us did. And the sooner the better, which is one of the reasons we’re here. Just keep walking and don’t stare, you look like a cornered rabbit. No, don’t do that either, not here,’ he warned as Makise started to puff up like an angry cat. ‘Look around. Subtly this time. What do you see?’
They kept walking for a minute as Makise observed her surroundings and Okabe observed her. ‘They’re scared,’ she said eventually. ‘Not … nervous like I am, more a keep-your-eyes-down-and-carry-on-moving kind of scared.’
‘So they are. And while we’re here, you need to imitate that to the best of your ability.’
He suited action to words, letting his shoulders slump as they entered the town proper but keeping them tense. Not too much—overdoing this was almost as bad as underdoing it—but enough to evoke the exhausted and wary attitude that surrounded many of the workers here. At least, the ones who hadn’t given up completely.
Their destination was on the other side of town, and the streets had been designed to make it almost impossible to get there without going through the central space that functioned as a town square. Despite that, the place was all but empty, as it always was. In the centre stood a large noticeboard—the only feature in the area—and the behaviour of those few who entered the square was quite remarkable. They would be drawn to that board one by one, walking as slowly as possible, as though their feet were dragging them forward to their doom. Once they’d reached the board, they would scan it and all but a few would scamper away like the proverbial fieldmouse with its stolen grain of wheat.
Not today, those lucky ones would think. They would lose nobody they loved today.
Now it was Okabe’s turn to heed the call.
‘Assistant, wait here a moment. There’s something I need to do,’ he said, and set off on his own pilgrimage before she could reply. Like those before him, he found his footsteps slowing, but came to his destination nonetheless.
In actual fact, most of the board’s contents consisted of petty administrative trivialities (although lately he’d gained a deeper respect for administrative trivialities, as well as those who dealt with them, like Mayuri). But in the middle there was a void, paperless save for one list tacked in the precise centre.
Daily Death Report for Japan, it was titled. The list of those who had defied the Organisation in word or deed and paid the ultimate price. As he had many times before, Okabe scanned the list for names he recognised amongst murderers and rumour-mongerers and the starving who’d stolen an extra slice of bread. It didn’t take long; the lists were short these days, consisting only of those mad or desperate enough to believe that they wouldn’t be found out—and had found a squad of Rounders on their doorstep before they even committed their crime.
Ekiken Jin. Did the name seem a little familiar? At that very moment, a squad of Rounders entered the square.
Okabe’s eyes sought out Makise where he had left her. Standing in a corner, almost out of sight. Good. Now, the soldiers. To be in a place this small, to head so surely in one particular direction… there could be only one reason they were here.
And Okabe couldn’t interfere. He was alone, unarmed. The odds of taking down the whole squad were slim. Reading Steiner hadn’t activated in the past few days, so the Organisation’s time machine would be fully operational. If even one man survived to report the incident, Okabe would suddenly find himself facing not a lightly-armed five man squad but a virtual army. Even if he could get all of them, it would draw attention to this place. Attention that the Future Gadget Lab couldn’t afford to have on its doorstep.
Okabe knew all this. The name Ekiken Jin was barely familiar to him; most likely overhead and long since forgotten. Certainly not a Valkyrie. But no matter if he’d never known the name at all, the core of him burned at the thought of standing by and letting the Organisation take one more life from this world.
But there was nothing he could do here. The man could not be saved. Okabe took the flames in his soul and tamped them down like the charcoal-burners of old, ready to ignite a larger blaze. From ash, the phoenix rises, and someday this man would be avenged. Hououin Kyouma, leader of Operation Valkyrie, swore it.
The wind carried the sound of a single shot.
A hundred miles away, a long-haired woman in a grey coverall was leaning over a map of Japan. Behind her hovered her latest assistant, a similarly dressed girl just crossing into adulthood.
‘Oh, it’s not hard,’ the woman said. ‘Just a matter of spotting the patterns. Look, incidents from the last five years are marked on here in red. What do you notice?’
The girl stood nervously, knowing that the slightest whim of the woman in front of her could result in her death. Or worse, invasion by the golden snakes glinting in the woman’s eyes. Her friends told stories about them; demons that had invaded the world, crawling inside people to steal their souls.
She looked at the map, trying desperately to spot the patterns her mistress saw.
‘Well?’ the woman prompted after a moment.
‘I-I can’t… There don’t seem to be any patterns. They’re spread all across Japan.’
‘Of course they are. The game wouldn’t be any fun if they played it so badly as that. What else?’
‘And there aren’t very many in the places with more people,’ the girl carried on, ‘because they’re scared to go there.’
‘Is that so?’ The woman’s voice was silky and lacked any hint of either approval or disappointment.
‘Yes. Look, there aren’t any here,’ her finger hovered over the area where Yokohama had once stood, before it had been razed in the war. ‘Or here.’ The ruins of Sapporo. ‘Or here… wait, no, there aren’t many people there.’ In an area a little way southeast of the TDZ lay about sixty squre miles of ordinary farmland, unusual only in that not a whisper of activity had been found there.
‘Very good. Do you see? They can play the game well enough to fool most people, but nobody plays as well as me.’ The woman smiled, her eyes glittering. It was a very accurate simulacrum of joy.
The girl bowed. ‘Of course not, mistress. Is there anything else?’
‘Hmm, yes, send up Captain Yoshinaga. Let’s see if we can’t dig some rats out of their holes.’
Bowing again, she excused herself. Her shoes clacked on the linoleum floor as she left as hastily as could still be considered seemly. Safe in the hallway, she let out a little sigh of relief; the mistress was kind to her but a demon could not help its nature. Operation Valkyrie would find that soon enough, she thought, feeling a little sorry for them. Her parents had approved of the rebels, of course. Most people did. But she was a practical girl, raised in a world that allowed nothing less. Her life here was much safer than throwing in her lot with fools.
Left alone in the empty room, the woman rested long-nailed fingers on the incriminating cartographic void. Lips turned downwards, an observer would have found her melancholy much more convincing than her joy.
‘After all,’ Feyris murmured. ‘Every game has its end.’