In the Shadows of Utopia

Chapter 5

‘It is not for you.’

‘Hmm?’ Okabe looked round for the source of the half-familiar voice, but saw nobody. With a sigh he relaxed back onto the bench, letting a stray sunbeam warm his face. To either side, water trickled merrily past, clear as the glass of a watch-face.

Arms slipped over his shoulders, winding around his neck to hold him close and he smiled lazily as soft lips pressed themselves to his ear.

‘It is not your path to walk,’ they whispered.

‘There’s only one path,’ he pointed out. ‘Where else am I going to go?’ Sure enough, two lines of water hemmed him in—a finger’s width, yet impassable as the sea. Beyond lay the desert wastes, all the world worn into fine black sand.

Slowly, regretfully, Okabe pulled himself away from the fond embrace. ‘Time I got going. It’s a long way back.’

‘You can’t go back.’

‘It’s the only way home,’ he told the empty air.

‘Move forward.’

A hand slipped into his and tugged him towards the end of the path, following between the two streams until they came to a vast sinkhole, almost too far across for the eye to see. All around the rim he could see a hundred thousand streams just like his, each separated by an endless desert, come to the rim and run into the abyss.

‘Look over the edge.’

Carefully, trusting in the hand that held his, Okabe leaned out. The water fell, glittering, a hundred thousand parallel streams converging into a single point. ‘I don’t see…’ The hand slipped from his. Another, the twin of the first, planted itself in the small of his back and pushed him over.

Okabe fell. And as he fell, he saw the last of the water run out, vanishing through the event horizon as if the streams had never been there at all. Then he too passed through. Silently, noiselessly, the hourglass turned over.

‘Kurisu?!’

Okabe bolted up, gasping for breath, hands out as if to catch himself from a fall. Slowly, the familiar scene percolated into his head, and he fell back onto his pillow with a sigh. Ever so slowly, his eyes closed again.

The dreams came every night. Or he called them dreams; the word wasn’t enough to describe the sheer realism of them. Oftentimes, they seemed more real than waking. Sometimes the visions were merely strange curiosities, but of late they consisted entirely of dire foreshadowing or cryptic warnings. He’d been frozen, burned, stabbed in the front by a dead-eyed Feyris and in the back by hands unknown. Once he’d been forced to watch his body slowly turned to green goo, his hands liquefying in front of his eyes. The hell was going on in his head…?

11:35. Ten minutes to go until their transport arrived. Ostensibly the truck was due to drop off a fresh supply of seed stock for the next season—unofficially it would be loaded with what little existed of the farm’s surplus, a few of the Future Gadget Lab’s latest tricks and Operation Valkyrie’s second-greatest and most secret weapon. Namely, Okabe himself.

But before he departed, the customs of the Future Gadget Lab had to be upheld. ‘Daru!’

‘Yes, fearless leader?’

Their gaze met, and he flicked his eyes towards Makise. Will you be all right with her?

Daru inclined his head in return. I have to be.

‘Take care of them, Daru. If anything goes wrong, remember Escape Plan Delta.’

‘Wait,’ Makise spoke up from her corner, ‘I thought you called it Escape Plan Mu?’

‘Ah, yours is. They all have to be different, you understand. In case of…’ He tapped the corner of his eye, and her own widened in understanding. ‘Don’t worry, I know where to find you if it comes to that.’

‘R-right,’ she said with a nod. ‘Anyway, don’t die. I still can’t figure out how that machine in the basement works, so I might need to ask you more questions when you get back.’

‘Noted. Moving on—’

‘Shouldn’t you ask him your questions now?’ Yuki interrupted. ‘At the very least it’ll save you time.’

‘Eh? Oh, no. No, we don’t have the time. The truck’ll be here any minute, right?’ Kurisu said.

‘He might never come back, Makise,’ Yuki said with an incongruous smile. ‘You should take your chances while you can.’

Makise pinked. ‘Shut up, of course he’s coming back!’ She fixed him with a glare. ‘You’d better come back. I really might need your help later—only an idiot could understand how a contraption that ridiculous works.’

‘Cough … Tsundere… cough,’ Daru muttered.

‘I am not! And stop saying cough!’

Yuki, apparently satisfied with her handiwork, was hiding her grin behind a ladylike hand and he smiled back at her for lowering the tension, before an errant hug from Mayuri rammed him amidships.

‘Okarin! Be polite to everyone when you get there. And I want a full copy of their records. And bathe, it’s my turn on the laundry rota when you get back.’ ‘Standard procedure, then.’

‘Okarin, I said polite. Now you be careful, ya hear me?’ Mayuri gave him a last hug and he ruffled her hair in return.

‘Loud and clear. Although you know full well that it is the Organisation who should be careful of me.’ They held close for a long moment, then broke apart as a truck rumbled up outside.

‘Ah, the time of our parting is here at last. I must take the next step on the path that leads me to Stein’s Gate. My friends, my family … my assistant … I say to thee: farewell!

It dawned on Okabe that he was addressing an empty room.

‘Hey, Okabe?’ came Daru’s voice from outside. ‘Nice exit speech and all, but would you mind helping us lug this stuff into the truck? I’m your right hand and all, but I draw the line at carrying your luggage for you.’

Hououin Kyouma sagged like an actor who’d just failed an audition, and went to help.

‘These are the supplies, sir?’

Seven hours and three covert changes of transportation later (or as covert as you can get when it takes two men fifteen minutes to transfer the cargo), Okabe arrived at the new Kawanuma base. It … wasn’t as impressive as the name made it sound. The area had once been empty woodland, but someone had managed to slip a shipment of prefabs through the Organisation’s bureaucracy and set them up as a temporary barracks and storage. It was as though the prefabricated town of Iida had been engulfed by forest. Yet the air seemed livelier in this version; humid and damp, but full of chattering voices and the sound of twigs breaking under careless footsteps.

‘So they are. Although the suitcase contains my personal belongings and is not to be meddled with under any circumstances. Not unless you think yourself capable of disarming the fiendish trap under the lid. Many before you have tried, of course, but mark me! never more than once.’ Okabe fixed the man with a glare. ‘Hououin Kyouma takes security very seriously.’

‘I shall bear that in mind, sir.’

What? No reaction at all? That said, Captain Masumune did seem born to play the straight man—his long, aquiline nose and deep brows lent his face a natural melancholy, while his chin was clean-shaven despite spending months in a cabin in the woods.

‘Right,’ Okabe said, a little disappointed. ‘And the new recruits? I seem to recall a few new members finding their way to our flock.’

‘Thirty five of them, sir.’ The man’s back straightened a little, and those deep-set eyes gained a fierce pride. ‘They’re inexperienced, but they’ll learn yet. I’d bet on any man or woman of them against the Organisation’s so-called ‘army’ of zombies and mercenaries!’

‘I’m glad to hear we have such heroes willing to fight on our side, captain. Their morale will hold for the mission tomorrow, I’m sure, but I’d like to address them all after the evening meal. Remind everyone what they’re fighting for.’

‘I will look forward to it, sir. But Colonel Shoda wanted to see you as well—may I recommend that you do so now? You may want some time to recuperate afterwards.’

‘Recuperate?’ he asked, slightly confused.

‘Yes, sir.’

He searched the man’s face a moment longer and gave up. ‘Never let it be said that Hououin Kyouma is not such a fool as to turn down good advice. I shall see him immediately.’

‘I’m sure of it, sir,’ Masumune murmured, as Okabe walked around a prefab and almost collided with a heavyset man coming the other way. He was only a little shorter than Okabe, and wore a lovingly-preserved JSDF uniform, complete with the two bars and three blossoms that marked him as once having held the rank of colonel.

‘Damn right you are,’ growled Colonel Shoda. ‘Masumune, live-fire drills are beginning in ten and I want you down there. You,’ he nodded to Okabe, ‘we can talk privately in my office.’

The best way to describe the Colonel’s office was as a state of organised chaos. There was a large table, littered with ordnance-grade maps that must have been in during the initial chaos after the Organisation’s coup. His desk was equally lacking in empty space, covered in reports; some Okabe recognised, having helped pen them himself from the information passed to him by Ruka and her intelligence network.

Shoda motioned for Okabe to sit, as the man himself planted his hands on his desk and glared down at him.

‘So. Hououin Kyouma, in the flesh.’

Okabe got as far as ‘Indeed so—’ before the colonel cut him off.

‘Brilliant. Look, we have one chance to get Kawanuma Base established here. One job, and yes, we need your help to make it work. But let’s get one thing straight.’ From outside, Okabe could hear the muffled cracks of gunfire as the soldiers began their drills. ‘There are good men and women out there—my men—who think you’re some kind of messiah, here to lead us all to victory. But I know different. I know about Kobe. I know about all the soldiers you threw away to save your own hide, and I’ll be damned if I let you do the same here.’

For a heartbeat—two—Okabe let his gaze linger on his hands, steepled in front of him, before forcing himself to meet the colonel’s gaze.

‘Do you think I enjoyed letting people die for me?’ he asked. ‘Do you think me such a coward that I would place my own life above so many others?’

It felt good. Just once, the passion in Hououin Kyouma’s voice was completely unfeigned.

‘The soldiers of Kobe died for me because they believed that I was the only man who could bring them victory. They gave their lives for that victory, and so I must ensure that their sacrifices were not in vain. That’s the price I pay. A man like you, fighting all this time… don’t tell me you don’t understand.’

The colonel’s jaw clenched. ‘Necessary sacrifice. I get it. But I won’t die on your whim, and I won’t see my men do it either. Is that clear?’

Okabe bowed his head in assent.

Apparently satisfied, the colonel reached into a drawer and pulled out a heavily annotated map. ‘Then listen up, because I’m not going over this twice. We’ve been forced to raid near Kitakata and Aizuwakamatsu to keep this place up, and word has it that the Organisation is sending Rounders up to deal with us. Along with enough weapons and ammunition to outfit ten times our number.’

Okabe shrugged. ‘I’ve heard something of the sort.’

The colonel shot him a look. ‘You know, I have a truly incredible amount of things to do. If I’m wasting my time briefing you then tell me now. No? Then shut up.’

Clearing some space by the simple measure of stacking half the piles on top of the other half, he spread the map across the table. ‘This whole area is surrounded by mountains. But they have to get the stuff through somewhere, so they use the Ban-etsu Expressway,’ a finger jabbed the map, ‘here. Works great, but there’s a stretch of road about three miles long running between two tunnels … here and here … without any other road access. That’s where we’ll hit ‘em.’

‘But the moment they find out, they’ll use the time machine to lay a trap for you,’ Okabe interrupted again, unable to help himself. ‘While you surround the convoy, they’ll surround you, so how—oh. Oh, that is good! You blow the tunnels. Turn their own trap against them, grab everything you can carry and take off down the hillside. Very cunning. And nicely dramatic, too.’

The colonel audibly ground his teeth. ‘I don’t need you to explain my own plan to me! You’re only here because it all hinges on knowing when the time machine gets used. Too early, we set off the charges and they’ll be forewarned of our entire plan; too late and we’re caught in their trap before we can block off access.

‘I can tell you when the timeline has been overwritten,’ Okabe confirmed, ‘but I will issue a word of warning—time travel is unpredictable by its very nature. The enemy may send back any message they please, to almost any time they please. While their behaviour is somewhat predictable, and they are wary of the changes that may result from sending back messages more than a few days, never assume that things will go to plan when time manipulation is involved.’

‘No plan survives contact with the enemy? Nope, never heard that one before,’ Shoda said flatly. ‘Just hold up your end of this and we’re good.’ He rolled up the map and began to resort the piles on his desk. ‘You’ve been briefed. Go away, I have a base to run.’

Okabe had to hand it to him, the man was competent. Abrasive, certainly, but Okabe could rest a little easier about the fate of Kawanuma base. No, the problem here would be his small-mindedness. Kawanuma might survive under the colonel’s hand, even thrive, but without direction it was doomed to become an irrelevance. Shoda was fighting the war he’d been trained for, defending his homeland against hostile aggressors. For a time he might succeed, but after ten years, or fourscore-and-ten, what then? For the next generation, the Organisation would be a fact of life, inevitable as clouds in winter. The Valkyrie would fall, one by one, and they would not be replaced. The Organisation merely had to be patient and their enemies would fade away; an example to any who cared to imitate them.

Well, he’d dealt with this before. He’d been the one to inspire the shattered rebel elements to stand again as Operation Valkyrie but despite that—or perhaps because of it—the old guard tended to be wary of him and the change he represented. So he would speak to the men directly. Draw the spell of Hououin Kyouma over them, even as he proved his worth to their commander. Soon enough, he would have both their trust and their loyalty; one more asset to place between the Organisation and the completion of the Future Gadget Lab’s own time machine. And if they had be sacrificed to ensure the ultimate victory of Operation Valkyrie, then so be it.

Okabe shuddered and left the Colonel to his work.

TANG!

TANG!

‘Hooohhh!’

TANG!

Kurisu gave the steel bolt another hard whack and sagged, dropping the hammer to massage her numb-yet-aching fingers. ‘Owww…’

‘Sure you don’t want any help?’ Itaru asked from where he sat against the cellar wall.

‘No help!’ Kurisu snapped back. ‘I just need a minute… to catch my breath.’ ‘Hey, your call. But I bet you wouldn’t feel the heat so bad if you stripped down a bit.’ He grinned. ‘Don’t worry, I won’t be embarrassed.’

Kurisu forced her shaking fingers to close around the hammer’s grip. ‘One more word, and you’ll be singing alto for the rest of your life. Shut up now, and I might not even tell your wife about this, pervert!’

‘Okay, one,’ Itaru raised a finger, ‘I’ll bet my manly bass you can’t lift that hammer again for a while. And two,’ another finger joined the first, ‘c’mon, this is Yuki we’re talking about. You think I’m bad, but she could leave you blushing cherry red with a single sentence. What are you actually doing with that stuff, anyway?’

After Okabe had left, the two had reached a mutual agreement, of sorts. Sniping at each other was awkward, but the verbal battle precluded the threat of a physical one. At least until she got back enough strength to swing that hammer.

‘I’m trying to make a way of getting the lab open without two people breaking their nails scrabbling at the slab on top. Look,’ she held up what looked like a piece of scrap iron, ‘here’s one magnet of the pair I made. I’m bolting it to the underside of the stone and when it’s done, I’ll attach the other one to a handle. Tada! Secret opening mechanism. Save everyone both time and effort.’

Fired up again, she struck the bolt another mighty blow—TANG!—that failed to make any difference whatsoever.

‘I see that,’ Daru deadpanned.

Kurisu was just about to come up with some cutting retort when she was interrupted by the pounding of feet descending the staircase.

‘GUYS!!!’ Mayuri shot through the cellar archway. ‘Rounders! They’re coming up the hill!’

‘What? How many?’ Itaru demanded, scrambling to his feet.

‘They found us,’ Kurisu murmured, aches and pains forgotten as she grasped the hammer tightly. Could they have followed her here? Already responsible for the end of the world, had she also caused the loss of the only chance to fix it?

And, she was startled to realise, the loss of friends as well.

‘I think there’d be more of them if they knew who we were,’ Mayuri said. ‘But you have to hide! If they find you here…’

‘You’ll have to stay in the lab,’ Daru agreed, ‘it’s the only safe place we’ve got.’

Kurisu’s eyes widened. ‘Have you forgotten the part where it doesn’t have air-holes?’

‘So it’s certain death versus un-certain death! Now get down there before they raid us!’

‘Sorry,’ Mayuri said, giving her hand a squeeze as Kurisu descended. ‘We’ll try to see them off quickly, okay? Just hold tight.’

The flagstone dropped, leaving her clinging to the ladder, alone in the darkness.

‘…like I have a choice,’ she sighed.

Kawanuma didn’t have a mess hall. Instead, one of the prefabs had been outfitted with a couple of gas stoves and functioned as a kitchen, while the food itself was eaten outside. The sky was a pale summer rose, devoid of clouds, and Okabe felt somewhat more at peace as he scooped rice and pieces of chicken out of the tin they had been served in. The smell of cooking also handily blocked out the reek of the long-unwashed soldiers who sat nearby, digging into their own meals with various levels of enthusiasm.

When he judged the mood to be right, the single moment where he would garner neither irritation for interrupting the meal nor resentment for calling finished diners back, Okabe stood. He said nothing, but one by one, the soldiers of Operation Valkyrie joined him.

‘Men. Women. Soldiers. Friends,’ he began. ‘A long time ago we saw the world we knew and loved die. Ground into ashes beneath the heels of a faceless tyranny. On that day, I vowed I would not let that be the end! I would see the world rise again in the light of a new dawn! I made my name that promise: Hououin Kyouma, the phoenix ascendant. You may have heard of me.’

A lie. He’d stolen the name from a cheesy cartoon rerun, surrounded by graves as he watched God’s own light reaching down for Mayuri. His own little soubriquet.

‘Every one of you is here because you made that same promise. All of you have fought for it, those of you who have seen battle and those of you yet to have the honour. By coming here, you struck a blow against the Organisation. Tomorrow, you shall strike them harder still! Beset them from the shadows, free the wretched zombies they bring to fight for them, confound their strongest prophecy and thieve from them that you may fight them back with their own weapons!’

Perhaps it was mere vanity, but the soldiers in the clearing seemed to stand a little taller than before. He meant what he said—in such an age, the simple act of standing up for what was right made them heroes, each and every one. The secret was to make them believe it too.

‘For you are Valkyrie! We fight for chaos. We fight for freedom, and our blood is spilled for the future of all humanity!’

There was no applause. It wasn’t that kind of speech. But the fuel of hope needs no more than a spark to light, and in their eyes he could see the fire. Rising.

Colonel Shoda’s displeasure made itself known soon after, as Okabe was bluntly informed that no accommodation had been assigned to him. So he sprawled against a log and tried to get some shut-eye. By now he’d been shot at enough to know that combat was best done well-rested.

The bushes rustled and Okabe’s eyes widened as sleep fled from him once again. He was out on the edge of the camp, well away from the accommodation block. Someone stretching their legs, or had the good Colonel decided to brave the time machine rather than risk his men’s loyalty? Dammit, there was a reason he usually brought Daru on these things!

He slipped his hand into his pocket, hand closing around the grip of a silenced pistol. At point-black range, muffled against its victim, a shot would sound no louder than a sneeze. Of course, that left him stranded in the middle of Organisation-controlled Japan without backup. But he’d hitch-hike across that bridge when he came to it.

‘Blanket, sir?’

Okabe whimpered, just about stifling the impulse to shoot wildly. ‘We… we’re in the middle of a wood, how the hell do you make so little noise?’

‘I had hoped not to wake you up, sir. But I fear the undergrowth got the better of me at one point. Would you like a blanket?’

‘Thank you kindly, Jeeves.’ The blanket was thin and wiry, presumably from some sort of survival kit, but the night air was chilly and he wrapped it around himself gratefully. ‘Strangely enough, my accommodation seems to have disappeared.’

‘The Colonel is a man I admire greatly, sir, but he has a dislike for theatricality. I fear your speech made a poor impression.’

‘No doubt,’ Okabe sighed. ‘And while we’re on the subject of personality flaws, do you have to call me ‘sir’ every sentence? I’m younger than you are.’

The moon was a mere sliver and it was too dark to see much, but Okabe could practically feel the heat as the other man turned red.

‘I’m sorry, sir, but I was under the impression that it was the correct appellation for a man of superior rank. Am I mistaken? I’m not a man of military stock.’

‘Neither am I.’ Okabe pointed out. ‘Knock it off.’

Masumune frowned, looking a little mulish. ‘Would I be correct in concluding that you know the appropriate protocol no better than I?’

‘Well, more or less…’

The other nodded firmly. ‘Then I shall continue to address you in the manner I find comfortable, sir. But it is time we were both resting. I’m sorry I can do no better than a blanket for tonight.’ His footsteps were as silent in leaving as they had been before.

For his part, Okabe merely sighed and laid his head against the log he was using for a pillow. It was whimsy more than anything when he asked the retreating man, ‘Tell me, Masumune, what’s a man like you doing in a place like this?’

The figure, a barely visible silhouette in the darkness, stopped. ‘Only a very noble or foolish man can fight for the sake of an entire world, sir. I merely fight for my own.’ The figure merged with the darkness and was gone.

As someone who appreciated the fine art of cryptic conversation, Okabe found himself inordinately annoyed at being on the receiving end. He shrugged to himself and settled down for another night of restless dreams. Tomorrow would be a long day.


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