In the Shadows of Utopia

Chapter 7

‘Day Five,’ Kurisu enunciated clearly. ‘Third start-up attempt this morning with the new addition.’

Not that she actually had a recorder, but some things just had to be done right. Bent over the newest configuration of the ‘Nostalgia Drive’ that she’d carefully pieced together, Kurisu connected one of the charged solar storage units. Sparks crackled between the spliced wires and she took a few cautious steps back as the machine began to hum.

Hit a random sequence of characters into one of the two phones that lay on the table. Slot the other into the socket. Electrical discharge, increase in mass; those indicate progress.

But if the message goes through…

Salvation. For the world, and for herself.

SEND

Ghostly streamers played around the table, caressing it with the light of another world. Was it working? Could this be…

Fsst. They sputtered out as abruptly as they’d appeared, and they only sound was the fizzing of the power cables. Kurisu sighed and let the tension in her shoulders drain away, before stepping forwards to disconnect the damn thing.

It was no use. Some integral part was missing and she was no closer to figuring out what it was.

‘Tutturuu!’

The unexpected interruption was enough to send Kurisu half a foot into the air, her finger brushing against one of the jerry-rigged contacts with a snap of earthing charge. By the time she could see straight, Mayuri was hovering over her, her wide eyes somewhere between alarm and dismay.

‘Oh no! Are you okay?’ Receiving no reply, Mayuri grabbed her by the shoulders and started shaking her back and forth.

‘Been better,’ Kurisu grumbled, wriggling free and dusting herself off.

Screwing the toe of her shoe into the floor, the grown woman gave the strong impression of a little girl who’d just smashed the family china. ‘Yeah, you, um, kinda got zapped. Sorry.’

And like the parents of said little girl, Kurisu couldn’t help but give her a hug. ‘It’s not your fault. I blame Okabe for asking me to work with this, this junk! Sure, my last employers kidnapped me and threatened me when I didn’t make progress fast enough, but… okay, fine, this isn’t that bad.’

‘So ungrateful!’ Mayuri gasped in faux indignation. ‘You are getting the best stuff we’ve got, you know.’

Kurisu help up a warning finger that, incidentally, smelled rather like burnt toast. ‘Don’t even try. My magnamity has limits.’

Mayuri folded her arms and pouted. ‘Fine. Be that way. Hey, Kurisu, can I cut your hair?’

There were no mirrors down in the future gadget lab, so she couldn’t be sure, but Kurisu hoped that both her face and body adequately conveyed the only possible response.

‘What? No! Why would you ask that? Don’t change subjects so easily!’

‘Please? Mayushii will make it look so much better, promise!’ The folded arms were now clasped under Mayuri’s chin, shining eyes beaming up at her.

‘No.’

Folded again. ‘It looks like someone went at it with a machete.’

Essentially true, but Kurisu still clutched her hands to her head protectively. ‘It’s fine as it is!’

‘It’s a mane!’ Mayuri shouted, trying to grab the floating strands even while Kurisu tried to fend her off.

A soft giggle came from the entrance, and both heads snapped round to see Yuki leaning against the entrance. ‘My. Is this a private party, or can anyone join?’

Kurisu flushed. Mayuri, her opponent distracted, grabbed a hunk of hair and dragged it round to Kurisu’s front. ‘See! It’s all ragged! Also, it kinda comes down to your butt—which, fine if that’s what you’re going for, but at least do it well!’

‘And while aesthetically pleasing, it stands out a little for a member of a secret terrorist organisation,’ Yuki interjected.

‘I’ll only do it anyway while you’re asleep,’ Mayuri promised with an angelic smile.

Kurisu whimpered.

‘See, that wasn’t so bad, now was it?’ Yuki chided.

‘But… sharp objects! Crazy people! Head!’

‘Pretty,’ Mayuri said firmly.

By dint of not struggling too much, she’d escaped with most of her hair intact. The evil scissor-enthusiasts had divided it into two long, silky tails that almost defied gravity as they arched out to either side of her hips. Kurisu ran a hand through one, flipping it back self-consciously rather than meet her eyes in the mirror. At least she’d talked Mayuri out of the pink ribbon she’d wanted to tie in it—hadn’t the idea been to make her less conspicuous? The only mercy was that the whole business had finally got her mind off the long string of experimental failures.

Riiiight up until now.

Yuki and Mayuri jumped as her head thunked against the table.

‘What? You don’t like it?’ Mayuri keened.

Yuki clicked her tongue. ‘Honestly, such a fuss you’re making…’ The witch was laughing at her pain, she knew it.

‘No, it’s… it’s very nice, Mayuri,’ she reassured her impromptu hairdresser. ‘I’m just a little frustrated today. Trying to fix that machine is… god, it’s like being a video-player technician and seeing a DVD player for the first time. Except the stupid thing’s broken, there are holes where components were ripped out and the manual was written by someone who didn’t understand it any better than you do. In Spanish.’

‘That bad, huh?’ Mayuri patted her on the back sympathetically.

‘You need a distraction,’ Yuki pronounced. Kurisu’s forehead was still pressed to the cool, comforting table, but she could practically see a guileless smile spread across her face. ‘And I have just the thing.’

‘Wheee! Faster, faster!’

Suzuha orbited her father, squealing with joy as her braids fluttered in the slipstream. But physics makes the same demands of every orbiter and she began to slow, spiralling inwards until she was deposited with infinite tenderness onto the sun-dappled grass.

Kurisu felt a cold, dark stirring of envy in her heart as she watched father and daughter laugh together. A primal want, clutching at her like knotweed. With a deep breath, she locked the feeling in a little box, and hid that unsightly thing away in a deep hole where nobody, let alone herself, would have to encounter it. It was a skill she’d learned long ago.

The problem dealt with, she looked back to see Yuki smile and give her husband a kiss on the cheek. ‘Hallo, dear. I brought reinforcements.’

‘S’okay,’ the big man said, crumpling onto the ground as his legs gave way, ‘I c’n keep going.’ One trembling arm was raised into the air, lasting only a moment before flopping back down. ‘Just gimme me a minute.’

Disturbingly, little Suzuha didn’t even seem to be winded. Having apparently confirmed that her father was in no shape to carry on, the girl wasted no time in making a break for the wilderness, only to be brought down by a flying tackle from Mayuri.

‘Gotcha!’

With husband and wife engrossed in each other, and Mayuri and Suzuha acting as mutual distractions, Kurisu started to tiptoe away. The time machine might be frustrating but unlike small children it was in essence comprehensible (she hoped). Alas, no sooner had she began her retreat than a pointed yet ladylike cough informed her that the jig was up, and an imperious finger directed her back to child-minding.

For a moment, Kurisu considered just running away, then contemplated Yuki’s resulting punishment and shuddered. Her eye next caught Daru’s, which performed the ocular equivalent of drawing a finger across his throat. The message was clear: anything happens to my daughter and you can consider the truce history. Plus yourself.

Caught once more between a rock and a hard place, she hummed a funeral dirge under her breath and went to face her doom.

‘Hallo, lady,’ Suzuha greeted her, those piercing golden eyes still on her parents as they retreated inside the house, before turning to stare at her when the door shut. Nonplussed, Kurisu stared back, until the little girl gave a decisive nod and set off back to the house.

‘Hey, where are you going?’ Kurisu asked curiously, following after her.

‘Spying.’

‘Ookay… why are we spying on your parents?’

‘Cause they don’t tell me important things,’ Suzuha replied bluntly. ‘Uncle Rintaro said he wanted to talk to them and we’re gunna listen as well. Secretly.’

Kurisu sighed. The Future Gadget Lab was an emotional iceberg, true. And the thought of finding out a little more than Okabe had told her was certainly appealing, if only so she wasn’t blindsided as she had been with Ruka. But she didn’t think Daru would take kindly to her letting his daughter eavesdrop on talk of death and destruction.

‘Right. Sweetie, I think it’s better if we let them talk in private, don’t you? Come with me and we can—’

‘No! I wanna hear what they’re saying.’ Suzuha shot her a sly look. ‘Or I’ll run away and daddy will be mad at you.’

Kurisu opened her mouth. Shut her mouth. ‘You… really are your mother’s daughter, aren’t you?’

Suzuha heaved a theatrical sigh. ‘Yes. That’s because she’s my mommy.’

The bonafide genius fumed a little. ‘Hey, Mayuri, can’t you back me up? Mayuri?’

Turning back, she saw the woman standing stock-still a little way back, staring up at the sky. ‘…Mayuri?’

‘Hmm? Oh, Kurisu it’s you. I was thinking… it’s so beautiful today. So bright…’ Mayuri’s voice was faint, as though she were talking to Kurisu over an incredible distance, from somewhere unimaginably far away. She raised a hand toward the sun, reaching out into the sky.

‘Hey, stop spacing out!’ Kurisu complained. ’You got me stuck with her, the least you could do is help!’

‘That never works,’ Suzuha said, eschewing such verbal methods in favour of stamping on Mayuri’s foot, hard. The still figure yelped, her eyes abruptly regaining focus.

‘Ahh, I nearly had it that time!’ She winced. ‘Also, owie! Suza, did you kick me again?’

The little girl hugged the slightly-less little woman around the legs in apology. ‘Can we go spy now?’ she demanded of the pair, her eyes narrowing in deserved suspicion when Kurisu leaned over to whisper in Mayuri’s ear.

‘I’ll distract her. You sneak up and grab her, okay?’

But Mayuri just smiled gently. ‘You know, Suza, it’s hot again today. How about we give the window trick another go?’

Suzuha nodded solemnly. ‘That is acceptable, yes.’

As the kid ran off, Kurisu rounded on her fellow minder. ‘What are you thinking? We have to get her out of here before she hears something traumatic!’

She thought a bit. ‘For her or for me,’ she added grimly.

‘Oh, don’t be such a stick-in-the-mud,’ Mayuri said airily. ‘She’s only six years old; snooping around makes her happy but she’s not going to understand anything she hears.’ A shadow crossed her face, momentarily transforming it from that of a cheery ingénue to an older and wiser woman. ‘But some day she might need to, and maybe she’ll remember then. It’s not like we’ll be with her forever, you know.’

‘You mean—’

‘I mean that just because a child outlives their parents doesn’t mean that they’re ready to be left behind,’ Mayuri said sharply.

‘Hey, slowpokes, hurry up!’ shouted a diminutive figure from further ahead. ‘C’mon, let’s go, let’s go!’

And like a bubble popping, the bitter shadow vanished. Mayuri winked. ‘Race you!’

She ran, and Kurisu, seized by a sudden wild playfulness, chased after her with a yell. Feet pounded against sun-warmed grass, her heart pounding as long legs competed against thirteen years of regular exercise. The sky was a hazy azure and there was a sweet breeze in her face, bringing the scent of pollen and the more traditional fertilisers. Had Kurisu been in a philosophical mood, she might have contemplated how complex her new life had become, how much danger she might still be in should the full truth about the original time machine come to light, how little she still knew about the men and women (and bratty little kids) she’d come to surround herself with. And she might have decided that this single moment of innocent happiness justified all that came before, and all that might come afterward.

But for now… there was warm wind on her face and burning in her thighs.

Sucking in a deep breath, Kurisu put on a burst of speed and overtook her short competitor, who yelled with outrage and threw herself at her legs. The two rolled over and over, giggling uncontrollably, until they wound up at the feet of a very, very unimpressed six year old. Suzuha glared at both of them and put a finger over her lips, pointing at the farmhouse that was now visible not far away. Getting the message, and trying hard not to think too hard about what would happen if they got found out, Kurisu returned the gesture.

Suzuha led them around the side of the house, sticking close to the walls; it wasn’t long before Kurisu could hear the faint sound of voices coming from one of the windows ahead. Her charge dropped to the ground and began to crawl forwards. She made surprisingly little noise, though Kurisu and Mayuri were less skilful and couldn’t help swishing slightly against the uncut grass. Fortunately, the voices continued their conversation unabated.

Eventually all three were settled beneath a low-set window, left open in the hot day so that the illicit discussion inside could be clearly heard. ‘—what I want to know is: how the hell did they find us?’

‘Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It might be a mere coincidence,’ Okabe said.

‘Thirty square miles, almost centred on us? That’s quite a coincidence,’ Yuki pointed out.

‘I know, I know, forgive me for trying to retain a little optimism. As it happens, I do have one theory…’ He trailed off.

‘And?’

‘…do you remember when we all decided to discourage the Valkyrie from operating in our immediate vicinity? In order to avoid drawing attention to us, and our little project down below? I fear we may have achieved rather the opposite effect.’

There was a pregnant silence before she head Daru groan loudly. ‘We are idiots. How the hell did we not see this coming?’

From the look on her face, Mayuri was thinking something rather similar. Which prompted another question: why wasn’t she in on this? Kurisu herself was apparently still persona non grata around here but it seemed odd to exclude one of the real Future Gadget Lab members.

‘Oh, hush,’ Yuki told her husband. ‘Don’t you remember what it was like before they disbanded most of the army? They’d have come down on us like a ton of bricks. We took a risk we had to take, dear, and it’s kept us safe here for years.’

‘Sure, but we should have at least been ready for this to happen. Now we’re stuck here until they find us or get bored of looking! And if you think the second one is gonna happen any time soon, I have some nice landmarks I can sell you.’

‘That’s not exactly true. The Nostalgia Drive is stuck here, to be sure, but we proved last night that limited ingress and egress from the cordon is possible—until they get the holes patched up, at least.’ Oddly, Okabe sounded uncertain, quite in contrast to the self-assurance he usually displayed in both his madness and his pragmatism. ‘I think our best chance lies in… taking out the head of the local snake.’

Lying in front of her, Mayuri visibly flinched. The rustle of it was swallowed up in a heavy silence that seemed to spill out of the open window. Finally, it was broken by Daru. ‘You want us to go after Feyris. You want us to kill Feyris.’

‘Dammit, of course I don’t want to. But if we have to, we have to!’

‘What, because you think she’s the one who figured it out?’

Okabe gave a bitter chuckle. ‘She always could beat me at RaiNet.’

‘Everyone could beat you at RaiNet!’

‘—And that’s not the point. The Organisation is hierarchical and the Administrator has near-absolute command; if we take her out then there’s a good chance the search will be forgotten by her successor. At worst, the uproar will mask a transfer of the Nostalgia Drive to another base.’

When he next spoke, there was a note of hopeless defeat in Daru’s voice. ‘I just can’t get over… it’s Feyris. Twisted, sure, but underneath the wires she’s still the cat-eared maid of Akihabara who never gave me the time of day. If she’s… if she’s still in there somewhere, the last thing she sees will be one of us killing her. How can we do that?’

‘Because it has to be done,’ Yuki said firmly. ‘Because we, personally, have too much at stake to roll over and die. Because the last thing she’ll see is you saving her.’

There was a soft footfall and a rustle of cloth, as if of an embrace. Her ears peeled, Kurisu heard her whisper ever-so-softly, ‘I’d want you to, if it were me.’

What? What kind of shameless person said that sort of thing in company? Kurisu felt her cheeks flame even as Okabe cleared his throat in convergent embarrassment. ‘Can I take it that we are agreed?’

‘Yeah,’ Daru grumbled. ‘Not like we have a choice, really. But Mayuri worked with Feyris every day, she deserves a say in this.’

‘And Kurisu. She may not have known Feyris, but her fate is twined with ours now. Hasn’t the poor girl been deprived of choice for long enough?’ Yuki seemed sincere, for once, and Kurisu found herself torn between the desire to hug her and to slap her for talking about her like some poor orphan waif.

‘I was rather hoping not to involve either of them in this,’ Okabe sighed. ‘Makise is dealing with quite enough already and Mayuri… would never forgive herself.’

‘Oh? Our Phoenix is quite the mother hen, it seems. Harken, is that the sound of clucking I hear?’ Yuki chuckled. It seemed to break the atmosphere, even as the air darkened outside. Mayuri looked absolutely livid, her lips drawn back from her teeth and was she actually growling?

‘Rrrrr… OOOOKAAAARIIIIN!!!’

The young woman drew herself up with all the gravity of a mighty oak pushing itself out of the ground. A quick look around established that little Suzuha had vanished without trace sometime during the conversation, and Kurisu hastily followed her example. Crawling arm-over-arm as fast as she could, she reached the end of the house and bolted. Behind her, angry voices rose in harmonic crescendo.

Much, much later, after sundown, Kurisu sneaked back into the house. Having seen neither hide nor hair of Suzuha since the impromptu surveillance mission, running into either parent would likely prove detrimental to her health. In any case, Kurisu was after bigger game this evening. Jumping at every shadow and creak, she made her way down into the cellar.

As expected, the lab entrance was open, her handmade electromagnet lying beside the dark square of the lab entrance. Getting down the ladder was easier than the first time—though she didn’t have the level of sheer crazy required to slide down—and she poked her head round the corner to behold Okabe fussing over the pieces of the Nostalgia Drive. With Daru confirmed absent, Kurisu abandoned stealth and walked up behind him.

‘Hello, Okabe.’

To her secret displeasure Okabe didn’t startle like she had, but his back stiffened.

‘Assistant. Shouldn’t you be working right now?’ he asked irritably.

‘I have been,’ she replied, keeping a deliberately light tone, ‘although Yuki roped me in for childminding at one point.’

‘Well, don’t do it again. I’ll tell the others not to bother you—the Nostalgia Drive takes priority over everything else.’

‘You sure seem impatient today.’ Her tone and smile were near saccharine. ‘Anything I should know about?’

His lips framed the word no before he read her eyes and slumped. ‘They say it isn’t paranoia if everyone really is spying on you. For what it’s worth, Mayuri stood up for you quite vociferously. It seems I’ve been “a stupid untrusting overprotective jerk” and I apologise. Is that enough for you?’

Kurisu glared at him. ‘Depends. Will you stop lying to me?’

‘I make no promises,’ he said, lips twitching in what might have been a smile. ‘Now, please can we get back to work? Given the events of today, everyone could really use some good news.’

‘Actually… I was hoping to talk to you about that,’ she said. ‘Look, we both have things we want to make disappear. I get it, more than anyone. But don’t you think you’re putting all our eggs in one basket with this?’

Her stomach clenched at the look he gave her, but she carried on.

‘You have to face the facts! Neither you nor Daru could fix this stupid thing and frankly, I’m drawing a blank here. What if we can’t do this? What if it never works?’

‘It’ll work.’

‘What. If. It. Doesn’t?’

‘IT HAS TO!!!’ Okabe yelled, wild-eyed, before a bout of coughing hit and he doubled over, spluttering.

Having reflexively retreated to a safe distance, Kurisu watched him warily. ‘Are you all right?’

‘Fine. Dusty in here. Stupid lab.’

The manic fury was gone from Okabe’s voice. Now he just sounded weary and hoarse. Kurisu let her body relax a little but labelled the subject of failure as something very much best left untouched. Would the other Future Gadget Lab members react the same way?

‘I’m sorry, he said quietly. ‘Properly this time. Hououin Kyouma has had a really shitty day.’

‘Your friend.’

‘Feyris, yes. There was period of several years when the two of us were… really quite close. The woman was crazy, of course, never took things seriously for a moment. Not even I could keep up with her; god knows poor Daru couldn’t, for all that he tried. But she was beautiful in her way, and those few friends I had were very precious to me.’

‘You loved her.’

Okabe chuckled ruefully. ‘A swing and a miss, I’m afraid. But I enjoyed her company. And then, one day, she just… vanished. Daru was beside himself, but I just assumed she’d gone to the Highlands for real this time. After all, the ways of Feyris were ineffable to any mortal man such as myself. I should have known better.’

Lost in reverie, he barely seemed to notice she was still there. ‘I’d read the messages from the Nostalgia Drive. I knew things weren’t right with the world. But like a fool, I assumed it wouldn’t touch me or mine; how could such an absurd fantasy really hurt anyone? That’s not how the stories go, not the ones I wanted to hear. And then there was fire in the sky and we were running for our lives. The next time I saw Feyris was on the broadcast of a public execution, and she was the one giving the orders.’ He shrugged. ‘And here we are. Can’t stick my head in the sand, this time.’

‘I’m sorry.’ Useless, but it was the only thing that could be said.

‘Not your fault,’ Okabe responded politely.

They both considered that for a moment. The lie—for lie it was—hung between them; a wall of thorns, wrought of treachery and old pain. Kurisu could only be grateful he didn’t know how deep the roots of that lie extended. ‘But you didn’t come here to listen to my life story,’ he said abruptly.

‘It doesn’t matter.’ Experience with her father had taught her never to repeat an argument. It would change nothing, and the reaction would be all the worse a second time.

‘A lab leader has a responsibility to his subordinates,’ Okabe said, striking a grand pose. ‘Speak, assistant, and you will be heard.’

Well, perhaps once more. ‘Feyris is the Administrator, right?’

He nodded gloomily. ‘She always had a way with people. At a guess, the Organisation decided to put it to work for them.’

‘Right, so she’ll probably be in the middle of Tokyo, under heavy guard. Getting to her there would be nearly impossible. So I was thinking you’ll need a distraction—something to draw the Rounders away. Me.’

‘No.’

‘But—’ she started, and he talked straight over her.

‘I said no. We can’t risk you, Makise, don’t you see? Other tyrannies can collapse, or be overthrown. But the Organisation controls everything, every government and every army on Earth, and it will never, ever stop! The only thing we can do is destroy it before it’s born. We need the Nostalgia Drive, and we need you.’

‘Okabe, what if it doesn’t work?’ she asked a third time, her voice tight.

Okabe shrugged in the Gallic fashion, palms up. ‘Then it doesn’t. If you have IQ points to waste on doubt, genius girl, you aren’t thinking hard enough.’

‘All we can do is move forward,’ Kurisu sighed. It made sense. She just wished the goal was a little less frustrating.

‘…Exactly,’ Okabe agreed after a moment, a queer tone in his voice. ‘You do your job and I’ll do mine.’

His eyes seemed entirely too focused on her. Suddenly self-conscious, she looked away, eyes roving the scattered piles of junk until they alighted on an innocuous box she’d seen once before.

‘Hey, Okabe?’ she asked thoughtfully. ‘Why do you have a box of surgical instruments in here?’

‘Those things? Most Valkyrie bases have some, in case of any injuries we can’t take to the hospital.’

‘Like bullet wounds?’

‘Or electrical burns, in our case. Why the sudden curiosity?’

‘Before all the time-travel stuff, I majored in neuroscience,’ she said, thinking out loud. ‘I don’t know if you remember, but that article you recognised me from was on goal-orienting behaviour in rats. There was a lot of photon microscopy and electrophysiological measurements involved, so I had to take courses in basic neurosurgery. If you can get your friend back here, there’s a chance … Maybe I could save her.’

‘You think you could get the chip out?’ he asked, sounding more than a little dubious. ‘We assumed that was impossible.’

‘It might be,’ she admitted. ‘At best, it’s a long shot. But I could try.’ At least it was something concrete she could do to help, rather than fuming at an incomprehensible machine with the weight of the world on her shoulders.

Okabe let it sink in for a moment and then sighed. ‘Assassination is one thing, but kidnapping an Administrator and bringing them to the one place we absolutely cannot afford for them to find… You do make things complicated, Makise.’

With that, he turned and left. Kurisu, looking after him, had the distinct impression she hadn’t helped at all.

God, if he existed at all, was deeply unkind. Kurisu had come to this conclusion for many reasons, but chief among them right now was the existence of dawn.

‘Mmmf. G’way,’ she mumbled, retreating deeper under the covers. Mayuri was already gone, marked only by lingering warmth on the mattress, so there was enough room to curl up in a ball away from the sun’s dread glare.

Drowsy with sleep, her mind slowly assembled a thought. But if Mayuri’s up, then—

‘Rise and SHINE!’

The blanked was yanked off, revealing to bleary eyes the beaming smile of the devil herself.

‘Mine,’ Kurisu growled, yanking it back.

The two engaged in a brief contest of wills that was only broken when Mayuri planted her feet against the edge of the mattress and tugged backwards, dragging Kurisu upright and prompting her—in a fit of vindictive ill humour—to let go of the blanket. Her tormentor toppled backwards with a shriek and a clonk, leaving Kurisu with no choice but to get up and see if she had done any permanent damage.

‘Kurisuuu, that was mean,’ the girl on the floor groused.

‘Yes,’ Kurisu said with some satisfaction. ‘Yes, it was.’

Leaving her fallen foe gingerly checking her head for bumps, Kurisu changed in the bathroom and headed down. The hens had laid (they were pretty easy to keep, though sweeping out the coop was tiresome), so there were fresh eggs out; she selected one, boiled it, and settled down at the table with the others.

‘Mr’nin,’ Okabe mumbled through a mouthful of omelette. ‘Whr’s Mayuri?’

‘She’ll be done in a minute,’ Kurisu replied, smiling in a way that made everyone else on the table inch back a little. She bit down on her egg with a happy crunch of splintering eggshell.

For a moment, the room was completely silent.

‘Right. I’ll just go and check she’s still breathing,’ Okabe muttered, making for the stairs. The table was momentarily silent as Itaru and Yuki exchanged spousal messages, all eyebrows and lip movements and frantic jerks of the head.

Distract her, you lummox!

What? Why am I stuck with her? You have food left! You think I want to eat now?!

Yuki rose gracefully. ‘You know, Kurisu dear, I’ve just remembered—hey, get back here!’

Itaru’s chair collided with the wall as husband and wife fought their way into the kitchen, leaving only little Suzuha, her eyes wide with fascinated horror.

‘Gosh,’ she said.

Eventually, the rest of the household sheepishly filed back into the room, but it was only once Kurisu had finished eating that she realised what a subdued affair it really was. The events of yesterday were no closer to being solved, and it was obvious they weighed on everyone present. Okabe’s eyelids were fluttering from lack of sleep, while Itaru and Yuki were deliberately being more them than usual in an effort to compensate. Only Suzuha was happily oblivious, and she was in the kitchen spitting out shell fragments.

Finally Okabe sighed, opened his mouth—and was interrupted by a banging on the front door. It was hesitant; the knock of one who isn’t sure if he wants to be heard. For a moment, everyone froze. Then Kurisu bolted into an adjacent room and Itaru tugged the door open.

‘Good morning. Did you want something?’

‘Have you heard?’ The voice was male, and tense.

‘Heard … what, exactly?’

‘Oh God. I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.’

‘About what, pray?’ Yuki asked sharply.

‘The Administrator’s… I mean, it’s about Mist—Miss Urushibara… I mean…’

‘Perhaps you could begin again,’ Okabe suggested lightly, though she could hear steel under the silk. ‘Start with Ruka.’

‘I’m sorry. Um, Ruka’s gone. They took him. The Rounders, they took him away with lots of other people. And the Administrator, she’s made an announcement in Iida. It’s a message to the Valkyrie—if, if they don’t come forward then she’ll personally shoot all of the people the Rounders took. For hiding terrorists. I’m sorry, but … Ruka’s gone.’

‘She might not be!’ Mayuri protested. ‘What if the Valkyrie do come forward?’

‘Like that’s ever going to happen,’ the man said. His voice had grown dull over the conversation, bereft even of fear, leaving only the certainty of loss. ‘You think they’ll risk themselves for us? Well, they won’t. They never do. All they care about is convincing themselves they haven’t been beaten.’

Hidden from sight, Kurisu winced.

‘Anyway. Ruka and I, we were… close. He gave me a letter once; said if anything ever happened to him I was to give it to you. It’s funny—I think that was the most intimate moment we ever had.’

‘When will it happen?’ Mayuri asked, her voice tremulous and thick with unshed tears.

‘Tomorrow. Six. In the square.’

‘Thank you for giving us his letter,’ Yuki said. ‘I’m sure Ruka would be very happy if he knew.’

The door creaked shut, and Kurisu edged out from behind the dividing wall.

Itaru tried to say something, choked, and tried again. His fists were trembling. ‘We can’t do anything, Okabe, you know that. The stakes are too high.’

Mayuri looked up at him in mute protest, while the cracks in Yuki’s mask showed her to be unsurprised, if sorrowful. Okabe himself looked … blank.

‘I’m well aware,’ he said, unfolding a sheet of paper that must have been Ruka’s message. ‘Hmm. A list of his contacts. How thoughtful of him.’

‘Th-that’s it?’ Mayuri said, losing the fight for self-control. ‘All these years … everything we did together … everything he suffered to help us! We just have to leave him?’

‘What choice is there?’ Okabe said. ‘If we surrender, we die. If we try and rescue him—this isn’t like a raid, Mayuri. It would be on their terms, and the moment Feyris sees my face she’ll never let us go. Even if we do it, even if we escape, she has enough pull to have the day rewound over and over until she has us back. There’s nothing we can do.’

Mayuri nodded, and burst into tears.

Kurisu felt like an obscene voyeur, watching them grieve when all she could think was that she would happily let the snake die if it would ensure the safety of these people she’d come to care about. To love. Wasn’t Okabe right? Couldn’t all of this be rewritten?’

But then, she’d said only yesterday that there could be no certainty of that. More importantly, she’d learned from long experience that there were many ways a person could die while their heart still beat in their chest. If she really loved them, then…

‘Okabe. All of you. What are you doing, saying something like that?’

‘I told you,’ Okabe said calmly. ‘Saving Ruka is impossible. The only way not to be caught in this trap is not to be in it at all.’

‘Impossible? Impossible?! You’re the Future Gadget Lab. You made a time machine out of a microwave! What the hell does impossible matter to you? If it’s impossible now, you have until six tomorrow evening to make it possible! Or have you got so used to losing things, you don’t even try to save them?’ She lifted her hand, ready to smack him back to his senses if she had to. Then she thought better of it, and laid it on his shoulder.

‘Don’t you think it’s time to stop making sacrifices?’

‘Kurisu…’ He was trembling, she could feel it under her palm. Mind and body about to fly apart. She squeezed tighter. ‘What else can I do?’ he begged her.

‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘But you can’t do nothing, you won’t survive it. Think. How can you beat a time machine?’

‘You can’t, that’s what—’

‘Yes, you can. You have before. How?’

‘By tricking them so they don’t notice anything happened in the first place, or by … not being worth it,’ he gritted it out like a confession.

‘Meaning what?’

‘It’s like in a video game,’ he said. ‘Do you reload every time you lose a point of health? No. Stupid. Not worth it. You might do worse next time. It’s the only reason we still exist. But it won’t work now, they have us caught too neatly and they can’t lose face when everyone’s watching…’

For the first time, his face showed a spark of life.

‘They can’t lose face…’ he muttered. ‘Feyris is overreaching herself. Yes. The Organisation has to seem fair; do what they say and you’ll be alright. Keeps people docile. But Feyris is threatening innocent people to get at us. She’s still loyal but she’s losing perspective. Her masters could fix that issue, but it makes her less valuable and everyone will be watching, so…’

Everyone. Watching. The words percolated through Kurisu’s mind, striking warning bells every step of the way. Her eyes slid from side to side. Yuki, Itaru and Mayuri were staring, and she was suddenly aware of just how closely the two of them were standing. With a strangled gasp Kurisu threw herself backwards, bouncing off the table.

‘Great! Good. You think. I’m just going to, um, stand over here. By myself,’ she burbled, her face inexplicably warm.

The next five minutes were silent and very uncomfortable until Okabe snapped his fingers. ‘I have a plan. Daru, you get Future Gadget #12 out of the lab and go to Iida. This,’ he brandished Ruka’s letter, ‘has details of the dead-drop Ruka used to contact Moeka; set it up with the FG12 and a message from me. Yuki, take Suzuha and follow your escape route.’

Neither of the two moved.

‘Okabe,’ Daru said quietly, ‘I can’t let you do this. Whatever your plan is, it’s too close to home. It’s too close to Suzuha, and it’s too close to the time machine. I’m sorry, I really am, but I have her future to think about. You’re my best friend … but I can’t follow you this time.’

Okabe seemed unfazed. ‘I’d never expect any less from you, old friend. But consider this: protecting and fixing the time machine is only half the problem—if we want to prevent this present from occurring, we have to know what lead to it. Normal chips receive updates from the local Administration, but Feyris is connected directly to our lords and masters: it’s a line directly into their system. Now, I can get her and Ruka back and the operators of the time machine will not lift a finger to stop it. But only if you help me.

‘You trusted me enough to come here, you trusted me with your wife and daughter and the time machine and I have never let you down. Trust me one more time, Daru.’

Itaru and Yuki exchanged a look.

‘Give me that,’ Itaru sighed, taking Ruka’s letter as Yuki left the room. ‘Seriously, though, mess this up and I will personally invent another time machine just to come back and kill you myself. Clear?’

‘As crystal,’ Okabe replied. The moment Itaru was out of the room he gave a sigh of relief and slumped into his chair.

‘Are you okay?’ Kurisu asked him quietly.

‘Oh, yes,’ he murmured, giving her a ghastly smile. ‘Just very, very glad he never actually asked what the plan was. But he’s not the person this plan really depends on.’

Her eyes narrowed. ‘I can help you with the chip, but I don’t see how that’s going to rescue anyone.’

‘While I have absolute faith in your abilities, Makise, I wasn’t actually referring to you either.’ He smiled wider than she’d ever seen, a mad grin that provoked fear and awe in equal measure. The sort of smile that would get anyone to do anything, just to see what was going to happen next.

‘Mayuri. How are your sewing skills?’


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