In the Shadows of Utopia

Chapter 4

Kurisu watched from the shadows as the soldiers marched across the square. They didn’t seem to be looking for her, but she still let out a sigh of relief when they passed out of sight. When Okabe finally returned, he had a face like an old, worn statue, set in careful stoicism and with frown-lines that looked like they’d been etched in.

‘Are we safe?’ she demanded.

‘Not a blip on the radar,’ he confirmed, looked even more dejected.

‘So why the long face? If you were a cartoon character I’d be looking for the raincloud.’

He sighed and shook his head. ‘I’ll explain later. When you’re ready for the advanced course.’

‘I can handle it,’ she said firmly. ‘Everything’s still … strange and confusing, but I can’t make sense of what I don’t know.’

Okabe scrutinised her for a long moment.

‘It’s just a rota,’ he said, shrugging it off. It didn’t have the sound of a lie, but that was a whole lot of nothing.

‘Guess as a wanted fugitive, rotas are one thing I don’t have to worry about.’

‘Not yet,’ he said, and that was obviously the end of the matter.

Deathly silence lingered as the two picked their way across the ghost town. Perhaps it was an unfair moniker, but the squat gray dwellings that rose to either side reminded Kurisu of nothing more than grave-markers, bedecked with tattered relicts of the fallen in a failed attempt to look homely.

Their destination bore no distinguishing marks. Just another gray door, set in a gray wall, but the furrow worn in the dirt road marked the passage of many feet. Okabe leaned nonchalantly against the door and tapped it seven times.

Tap, tap-tap tap-tap … tap tap.

Kurisu frowned as she recognised the pattern. ‘Shave and a haircut? Even I know that one. Isn’t a secret knock supposed to be, well, secret?’ she asked, looking around nervously.

‘Indeed, that’s what everyone expects,’ he pointed out. ‘So the secretest of knocks is the one that everyone knows because nobody would ever use it.’

‘That makes no sense!’

‘Exactly. That’s why it works,’ he told her with a wink, before the doorknob twisted under his hand and he tumbled inside with a yell. There was a feminine shriek and a long, awkward pause.

‘…hello, Ruka dear’, Okabe said, lying where he fell. ‘Sorry to drop in on you like this.’

‘…nice … to see you again,’ gasped the head sticking out from under his torso.

Watching, Kurisu felt a treacherous giggle bubbling up her throat and turned it into a cough; which became a coughing fit until she couldn’t hold it in anymore.

‘ahh…aha…ahahahaha!’ At least she’d had the foresight to shut the door. Bent double with a kind of desperate hysteria, it seemed like nothing in her entire life had been as funny as that one moment. Then again—she wiped the tears from her eyes enough to get a good look at the pair and it set her off all over again—nothing had.

The objects of her hilarity helped each other up and waited patiently for her to wind down.

Okabe coughed. ‘Well, now that the ice has been broken, I’ll be counting on you to keep the lovely Ruka here company while I run some errands.’

Errands? He’d said before that getting her acclimated was only one of the reasons they were there. If Kurisu had anything left to bet, she would have bet that these ‘errands’ were nothing of the sort. But she didn’t quite dare push the tentative trust they had by asking.

‘Oh. Sure.’

‘Wonderful. Back in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.’ With that he was gone, and she found herself alone with a perfect stranger who she’d spent the last five minutes laughing at. Awkward.

And … oh lord … perfect really was the word, she thought as she stared at her involuntary host.

‘Hello. I’m Ruka Urushibara,’ the woman smiled graciously and Kurisu’s eyes were drawn to the movement of soft lips and the light shining off white teeth. ‘And you would be Kurisu Makise, am I right?’

‘Yes…’ Kurisu sighed dreamily. ‘Wait—no! No!’ Idiot, she berated herself.

‘Hmm?’ The woman cocked her head. ‘Is that a yes, or a no?’

Kurisu surreptitiously pinched her upper arm. ‘Yes, that’s my name.’ No, I will not turn into a blushing fool.

Swear to God.

Ruka laughed and invited her in. The house essentially consisted of one room, like the student bedsits she’d been looking at before everything went to hell. It was spartanly furnished and contained neither a shower nor a kitchen space, but gave the feeling of being lived in nonetheless. Looking back for a moment, she saw a red and a white ribbon pinned to the inside of the front door.

Flopping down on the bed, Ruka patted the space next to her invitingly. ‘Sorry about the lack of chairs. I might like to entertain now and again but that’s not going to persuade the Administrator to give us extra furniture. You can take the floor if you like, but it’ll give you frostbite.’

Kurisu took the floor. It was too hot in here anyway.

‘Administrator?’ she asked tentatively. This woman was a friend of Okabe’s so she must be vaguely trustworthy, but Kurisu still didn’t feel comfortable revealing too much about her circumstances to a stranger.

‘You don’t know?’ Ruka frowned in thought. ‘It’s basically what the name implies—look, Okabe told me you were new to all this. How much do you know about the Organisation right now? I’m not sure where to start.’

‘You talked to Okabe? When’d that happen?’

‘We had time for a little chat. While someone was amusing herself at our expense,’ Ruka remonstrated, though with a little smile to soften it. ‘So what do you know already?’

‘Not much,’ Kurisu admitted. ‘I’ve seen a little of what they’ve done to the world. I know that they’re my enemy. And I know that you’re fighting back.’

Ruka’s eyes crinkled a little when she laughed. ‘That’s us! Throwing off the dead hand of tyranny, Okabe calls it. Well, the Administrator is the one ultimately responsible for everything in this prefecture and the ones surrounding it. Supplies, labour, transport … discipline … even furniture. If you were in the TDZ you probably met them, or someone associated with them.’

Kurisu shivered. The cold floor suddenly felt a lot colder.

‘I didn’t really meet anyone there. At all.’

To her great relief, Ruka didn’t seem to pick up on her unease. Casting around for a quick change of topic, Kurisu’s eyes lighted on the two ribbons pinned to the door.

‘Say, what are those?’ she asked, getting up to study them better.

‘You really are out of touch, aren’t you?’ Ruka said impishly, slipping past her to carefully unpin the ribbons. Kurisu noted the way her fingers moved, delicate and very gentle, like a mother with a sleeping child. Of the few things left in this place, they were most definitely the most precious to this woman. ‘Here, let me give you a hint.’

With that, Ruka reached up and slipped them into her hair, knotting them into bows with a deftness that spoke of long habit. Done, she turned back to Kurisu and posed.

Kurisu’s brain spun up, dredging through old memories until it found one from her early childhood, the idyllic times before her mother fled Japan and took Kurisu with her. Of a young lady garbed all in red and white.

‘You were a … miko, right?’

‘Still am. The Organisation would have me shot for saying it, of course—they’re not overly fond of organised religion, or organised anything really. So I keep the ribbons safe and wait for the day I can wear them in the light of day. My own little rebellion.’ She winked. ‘Not all of us are genius enough to do science with Okabe, after all.’

‘I guess,’ Kurisu shrugged awkwardly, caught somewhere between flattery and crimson-faced embarrassment. ‘He hasn’t actually told me what I’m supposed to be doing.’

‘Oh? I wouldn’t know myself, but what’s your subject?’

‘I majored in Neuroscience, way back when. And my dad…’ She closed her eyes, caught in the past. ‘…he taught me physics. We used to debate, even though I was just a little girl.’ Then the debates turned into disputes, which turned into an argument that left her crying for a week. At least when she was sure that no-one could see her. And that could have been the end of it, if she hadn’t tried for one last chance…

So strange, that one paper could doom an entire world. Sometimes, in her very darkest moments, she wondered what that said of its writer.

‘Then I’m stumped, I’m afraid.’ Ruka spread her hands, palms up. ‘Neither of those things are really in his area of interest. Maybe something you were doing in the TDZ?’

‘It doesn’t seem likely,’ Kurisu dissembled, wanting to catch the conversation before it fell into treacherous waters. ‘All they were interested in was particle physics and I never found anything of more than esoteric interest.’

‘Oh, now you’re just holding out on me,’ Ruka complained good-naturedly. ‘Okabe never cared about esoteric interest in his life! Can’t I hear the real story?’

Her tone was playful. Her eyes… weren’t, Kurisu realised. They hadn’t been for some time now.

‘That’s it, I’m afraid. Science often isn’t all that interesting unless you make a breakthrough.’

‘Tell me something, do! Nobody in Iida talks about anything but farming and Okabe’s never around long enough to chat. You’re the first intelligent conversation I’ve had in months, and I’m not letting you go that easily!’

Ruka slipped down onto the floor opposite Kurisu, close enough that their knees were touching. Wherever Kurisu looked, she could see her face.

’I don’t want to talk about it, all right? It wasn’t fun,’ Kurisu said tightly. ‘It wasn’t interesting, it was–’

Ruka’s hand was on Kurisu’s thigh. When had it got there?

Kurisu leapt up off the bed like a startled cat. A few steps and her back thumped against the wall.

‘I-is something wrong?’ Ruka asked, apparently shocked. ‘I’m sorry! I came on too strong, didn’t I? I guess I just got caught up in the moment—people round here don’t have very interesting stories to tell. A-and then Okabe brings you in and he talks to you like an old friend and I couldn’t help being curious. Forgive me?’ The woman’s eyes were wide and pleading, almost enough for Kurisu simply to write it off as her captivity-induced paranoia acting up. Almost.

‘Curious?!’ Kurisu hissed. No, no, no, no, no, this is– You’re interrogating me!’

‘Needs must when the devil drives, they say.’ Okabe stood in the door. In his hand was a pistol, aimed at her chest. ‘And these days the devil’s in the front seat.’

‘Great.’ Kurisu spat out. ‘I thought I’d finally escaped. Thought I’d finally caught a break. You just reeled me in, didn’t you? Giving me a home, calling me your assistant, all to keep me happy until I spilled the beans. Most pathetic thing is I actually fell for it. Hell, did I even escape? Or are you just the Organisation, letting your rat run the maze to get its blood pumping?’

‘We’re not the Organisation, no.’ Okabe said. ‘Ruka?’

‘She’s hiding something,’ said the woman on the bed, crocodile tears run dry. ‘But for her own reasons. If she is a spy, they’ve upped their game since the last one. It doesn’t seem likely.’

Green eyes bored into hers, set atop a pistol sight.

They blinked.

‘First good news I‘ve had all day,’ said Okabe, lowering the pistol.

Only the awareness that it could be raised again stopped her from breaking the bastard’s nose. Or rearranging that snake’s beautiful, deceptive face.

‘That’s it? Play with my feelings, point a gun at me, have me interrogated—’ With effort, Kurisu forced her voice down from a shriek. ‘Let me out.’

‘No.’

‘I’m sorry, maybe you didn’t hear me. Get away from that door—I’m leaving. Rather take my chances with them. Better the devils you know, right?’

‘I won’t stop you. But you have to compose yourself or we risk calling attention to Ruka,’ Okabe said evenly. ‘If you really want to leave, you can. Just hear me out first.

‘I’m not just another insurgent, Makise, I’m the head of the Future Gadget Lab. One slip and I could lead the Organisation to every man and woman in our ranks! That a known genius somehow escapes just when I’m in Tokyo, even running straight past me… it was far too convenient. I couldn’t afford to trust you. We couldn’t afford to trust you.’

Kurisu stood there, unable to move and barely able to think. Fear, anger, she’d felt her share of both but betrayal was a new experience altogether. ‘You were going to shoot me,’ she murmured. Yesterday you saved me and today you would have shot me dead on the word of someone I’ve never even met.’

‘For what it’s worth, Ruka said, ‘I am sorry. This is the part of my job I hate most of all… but in the end it’s the only way I have to protect the people I care for. If it’s any consolation, I’m very good at it.’ Her smile was a little bitter, and Kurisu didn’t trust it for a moment.

Deep breaths, until her body no longer trembled and her head was clear. ‘I get it,’ she said evenly, ‘That’s just the way this world is, right?’

‘For now,’ Okabe said.

‘You think you can win? Fix all this?’

‘Yes.’

‘Fine. I’ll help you. On one condition: stop trying to ferret out my past. Stuff happened. That’s all you need to know. Deal?’

She extended a hand. Okabe gripped it and gave it a firm shake.

A shrill whistle came from the corner of the room. ‘Ah!’ said Ruka, jumping up. ‘Can I offer you both some tea?’

‘Please,’ Okabe nodded, and watched her go with a fond smile. ‘He’s always so domestic. At least some things never change.’

Kurisu turned to stare at him. ‘…he? What do you mean, he?’

Okabe laughed.

That evening, after a solid talking-to from Mayuri for staying out too late, Okabe tapped her on the shoulder.

‘Come with me, assistant. High time you see what you’ll be working on.’

‘This secret project of yours? I guess it is,’ she said coolly. Just because she was working with him now didn’t mean she had to like the guy.

The pair headed downstairs into the cellar. Its contents were standard enough: brown hessian sacks that she assumed contained wheat, rice or perhaps a stock of seed ready for planting, kept dry by the granite flags underneath. Okabe knocked on one of these stones, indistinguishable in appearance from the rest, and beckoned her over.

‘See that crack?’ he said. ‘Get your fingernails into it and be ready to pull when I say. On the count of three: one, two, and three! GNH!!’

The mass might have wobbled. Maybe. It was to tell.

‘Pull, dammit!’ he huffed.

‘I. Am. Pulling!!’

‘Then pull harder!!!’

The slab was damnably heavy, but when they levered it up the cellar’s light revealed a ladder that descended into a deep, dark, hole carved out by some primordial stream.

‘Whew,’ he panted, wiping his brow. ‘Shall I go first, or do you want the honour?’

Kurisu looked him up and down before her eyes swept the cellar. ‘Did you even bring a torch?’ she asked, finding no evidence of one.

‘Nope.’

‘Then you’re going in first, aren’t you?’

‘Fair enough,’ Okabe said and lowered himself into the sinkhole, holding the ladder around the edge like a fireman. ‘Allons-y!’ With that, he plummeted, leaving Kurisu to stare after him. The cold-eyed pragmatist and the childish eccentric—how did those mesh? How could one man play two such disparate roles? And which, if either, was the lie?

A sigh, and she dismissed the question: the abyss beckoned.

Her descent was made easier when a light from below clicked on halfway down, giving just enough light to see where she was putting her hands. Still, the ladder was slick with moisture—she had to take the rungs slowly and carefully until one foot hit solid rock rather than air. Where the cellar had been paved with cut stone, this was a natural limestone cave, wide enough for two to pass but littered with fallen boulders. The light came from a little way farther on, its source hidden around a bend.

She turned the corner and—‘Wow.’

Plates of scrap metal were lined up against the walls of an open space about ten metres square. Trays full of circuit-board kits and a rainbow-coloured pile of partially stripped wires filled one corner, a cache of medical supplies another (including a box of surgical instruments). A diesel generator with a manual winder and an old oscilloscope. Bricks of white clay. A toy lightsaber. And in the centre, standing in pride of place…

…was a battered microwave.

Kurisu snickered despite herself. ‘I thought you were taking me to your lab, not your scrapheap.’

‘Do you have any idea how hard it is to find parts these days?’ Okabe asked rhetorically. ‘Let alone state-of-the-art equipment. Right now, the Future Gadget Lab is the world leader in every discipline, excepting those so-called ‘institutions’ cruelly shackled by the Organisation.’

‘If you say so,’ she shrugged. ‘All I see is a microwave.’

‘Appearances are deceptive. That, my assistant, is no microwave.’

‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe.’

‘It’s actually a time machine.’

Kurisu froze. Did they know? Was this another test? ‘It’s a microwave with a cell phone strapped to it!’ she snapped. ‘What game are you playing now?’

‘It was. Now it’s Future Gadget: Numero 8, a modified microwave and the only reason any of us are alive to have this conversation.’

‘But—’

‘When the Nostalgia Drive is active,’ he continued, ignoring her completely, ‘any text message sent through that phone will be sent backwards in time by an amount of time corresponding to the timer. One second is equal to one hour. Only problem is, it doesn’t work.’

‘Of course it doesn’t work!’ she burst out. ‘You’d need an entire particle accelerator just to produce a Kerr black hole, along with a source of high energy electrons and a five-dimensional shroud to stop it interfering temporally with itself. Sorry, but using your microwave isn’t going to cut it.’

Oh. He was staring. Oops.

‘…you seem very well informed,’ he got out after a moment.

She sighed. ‘Time travel was my dad’s big dream, ok?’ she said. ‘I’ve given the matter some thought over the years.’

‘Then you know the theory?’ Despite the topic of conversation, Okabe sounded almost absent.

‘Okabe, I might be a genius but I’m also a realist. That machine is never going to work again. It never worked, period!’

‘It worked six years ago,’ he said. ‘You see, I was playing around with this thing,’ a pat for the decrepit microwave, ‘when I started getting messages from my own number. They were fragmented, misspelled, obviously written in a hurry, and they told me to get everyone I could to this place before next year.

‘I thought it was a prank, but they kept coming, one after another. Secrets only I would know. Chips. EMP shielding. The gist of it was: I couldn’t stop what was coming. Trying would only bring the Organisation and its stooges down on my head. Instead I was to vanish, and prepare to fight back.’

The story was ridiculous, delusional, but Kurisu couldn’t help asking. ‘What happened after that?’

‘The messages cut off. Three guesses why. Eventually I figured out how to work the Nostalgia Drive myself, but what could I do? I didn’t know what was going to happen, or why, or how. I didn’t know anything!’ he gritted out.

‘Then there was nothing you could do,’ she told him. ‘Sometimes that’s just how things are. Take it from somehow who knows.’

‘But we still have a time machine,’ he said. ‘We’re going to fix this. We have to.’

‘You told me yourself that it doesn’t work anymore.’

‘It stopped working when we left the Future Gadget Lab. I think there was another part to it that we didn’t know about, something other than the Phonewave here. Sneaked back into the Tokyo Depopulated Zone to look for it, but I couldn’t find anything.’

‘So if we can figure out the missing piece, and find out how all this got started in the first place…’ she said, realisation dawning.

‘We can still save the world,’ he finished.

‘That’s a couple of big if’s.’

‘Makise… No. Kurisu,’ he said, looking into her eyes, catching them with his. ‘I would have killed you today.’

‘What?’ She felt ill suddenly, thrust back into that moment of betrayal, her emotions clashing like ill-fitting gears.

‘The Organisation have sent dozens of spies to us over the years, one way or another. Sometimes Ruka and I have to deal with them personally, sometimes they get caught by other parts of Operation Valkyrie. And we have to kill them, just like we would have killed you. Spies, soldiers… innocents in the wrong place at the wrong time. I’ve been at war for eight years, Kurisu, and I have killed thousands for no other sin than having the Organisation squatting in the back of their head.’

His eyes were blank mirrors, open but showing nothing of what the man was feeling inside.

‘I can find it in myself to do these things because I know that someday, I’ll be able to make it right. This is the true purpose of Operation Valkyrie. Please, Kurisu. Help me save them.’

The silence lingered for a long, long time.

‘…just move over so I can get a proper look,’ she huffed. The first thing she noticed was that the microwave was just a gutted shell; even the turntable had been removed. ‘Where are the parts you stripped out of this?’

‘On that table,’ Okabe replied, beginning to sound more animated. ‘I’ll get Daru, he did a lot of the electronics work in the original Phonewave, so he can probably answer some questions better than I can.’

‘Right. Hey, Okabe?’

He stopped just as he was turning to leave. ‘Yes?’

‘I’ve done this before,’ Kurisu blurted out. ‘I’ve worked on… time machines. Before. In Tokyo.’ Her traitorous mouth snapped shut. A few seconds too late. God, what was she thinking, taking this sort of risk? A secret for a secret, perhaps.

She risked a look at his face. He didn’t look as shocked as she’d expected; not murderous either, though certainly not happy. In fact, he didn’t seem to be looking at her at all.

‘Well, there’s a surprise,’ Daru said from the chamber entrance behind her.

Kurisu resisted the urge to cry out. Sometimes it felt like every single event in her entire life had teamed up to spite her. Dad, the Organisation, this… She turned to face him, slowly. Daru, it seemed, had not figured this one out ahead of time and ‘not happy’ was a gross understatement of his feelings. ‘Apoplectic’ was considerably closer to the truth.

She wished she could swap scientific genius for the smarts to keep her mouth shut. Or at least talk her way out of this.

‘So,’ Daru said. ‘I wanna make sure I’ve got this straight. We lose good Valkyrie every time we go outside, people are being executed every day for so-called ‘crimes’ they haven’t even committed yet and my own daughter is going to grow up in the apocalypse because you, Makise Kurisu, screwed us over. That about right?’

The man was breathing hard, and tendons stood out hard in his arm.

‘I checked other people’s work,’ Kurisu lied, her mouth dry. ‘Looked for design inconsistencies, inaccuracies. That’s all!’

‘Sure. The genius did nothing but proofreading. Why don’t I believe that?’

‘Daru,’ Okabe said warningly.

No. To hell with his help. She would defend herself, thanks.

‘I was kidnapped off the side of the road, Itaru! Do you really think I could have refused? I’m not brave enough to die under torture and I’m not stupid enough to suffer trying.’

Against her better judgement, Kurisu took a step towards Itaru, not breaking eye contact.

‘People like to think they’re in control of their lives, Itaru. They say: there’s always a choice. Well I was given a choice and I made it, so think what you like about me, but ask yourself… when your day comes… what will you choose?’

Itaru didn’t blink. ‘I’m a father. I know what I’ll choose. Until then, remember this: a lot of people have been killed because of you. A lot of people are suffering right now, because of the machine you helped build!’

He grabbed her shoulders, leaning close.

’So fix it. Make it so my daughter doesn’t have to grow up in this world. You got that?’

‘Idiot,’ she said, and pushed his hand off her shoulder. ‘I was going to do that anyway.’

‘Well,’ Okabe clapped his hands together. ‘Quite a day we’re all having. Now if I’m not mistaken, you both have work to do. Daru, is everything packed for tomorrow?’

‘Almost,’ the big man said, finally stepping out of her personal space. ‘I actually came down to do some last tweaks on the bamboo-copters we finished last week. Signal range and strength are great, but when you actually send them up to do a recon flight it drains the battery like whoa. Had a couple of ideas I wanted to test, so…’

‘Like drones? Why do you need them for tomorrow?’ Kurisu asked.

‘Another group of Valkyrie have requested the aid of Hououin Kyouma,’ Okabe said. ‘Unfortunately that means I’ll be away for a few days so if there’s anything you need to ask me about the Nostalgia Drive, do so tonight.’

‘One question. Can I change the name?’

‘No.’ ‘Yes.’ The two men answered at exactly the same time.

Okabe raised an admonitory finger. ‘Assistant, you have work to do! No slacking.’

‘Yeah, yeah,’ she mumbled, bending back to the ridiculously named device. One thought nagged at her. During her little… spat with Daru, Okabe had stood by and watched with barely a word, even as Kurisu had been genuinely afraid for her life. Did he know his friend well enough to know that he’d stop? What was going on behind those eyes?

Something hit her on the back of the head: a bundle of clean, white fabric. ‘What’s…?’ She shook it out, and despite everything, began to laugh.

‘It’s a labcoat! I’m working in someone’s basement fixing a time machine made out of a microwave! For terrorists! Y-you can’t even get wiring without sneaking past enemy lines but you have a stash of labcoats! Oh…’

‘Welcome, Lab Member Zero-Zero-Four … to the Future Gadget Lab!’ said Okabe. ‘We do things differently here.’

Understatement of the freaking century.


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