In the Shadows of Utopia

Chapter 8

Crowds began to gather in Iida’s central square as the sun sank down low over the horizon. Some would be friends and family of the condemned, come to bear witness. The rest? Well, the girl standing in the window thought gloomily, humans were drawn to danger as much as they were repelled from it. Perhaps watching the death of others helped them affirm their own wellbeing.

She had no say in her own attendance, of course, but she chose to see the task as a penance. For standing by while others suffered, she would have to taste the bitter draught herself.

‘It’s almost time, Eiri. Do you think they’ll come?’

‘I couldn’t say, mistress.’

‘You could say that it’s the wrong question to ask,’ the demon smiled. ‘The answer is, after all, irrelevant. Whether they show or not, the eventual outcome will be their failure. Why is that?’

Such questions had become distressingly common recently. Perhaps it was the demon’s way of showing affection, or simply that she was bored and wished to show off. Of the two, the latter seemed the more likely; fortunately, the girl learned fast and well.

‘Because if they come, they will fail. And if they do not come, they will lose most of their support among the populace. This is fatal to a guerrilla army, and will also cause them to fail,’ the girl replied, her tone giving no indication of her own feelings on the matter.

‘Very good. But guaranteed success is no excuse for sloppiness.’ Somebody knocked on the door, a brisk rat-tat. ‘Come! Ah, Captain Yoshinaga. Are your forces in place?’

‘Yes, ma’am.’ Yoshinaga was a tall, stout woman whose efficiency and ruthlessness had propelled her to the leadership of Japan’s Rounders. A chip glinted in her eye, contrasting with the black Kevlar bodysuit she wore at all times.

‘Good. And don’t forget to keep them out of sight—we want the Valkyrie to look appropriately cowardly, after all. If the task is too obviously hopeless, even that mob might see reason. Though I doubt it,’ the demon sniffed.

‘Of course, ma’am. Was there anything else?’

The demon paced over to the window, brushing past the girl who hastily stepped out of her way. ‘Apparently not. Does it look like six o’clock to you, Eiri?’

Now, the girl possessed an antique wrist-watch that was once her father’s, given to her on the last day she ever saw him. He had smiled and claimed that it held a little of his heart; that so long as she kept it close to her, it would never run down. A lie, of course. But the watch kept good time. The time it kept was five minutes to six.

‘Ten to six, mistress.’

‘Oh. Well, close enough,’ the demon sighed. ‘I thought they’d play better than this, I really did. What pleasure can I take from an opponent who forfeits?’

‘With respect, ma’am, pleasure is not required to fulfil our duties.’ Yoshinaga didn’t flinch, even as the demon turned a cold glare on her. Of course, she no longer possessed the capacity for fear. Eiri had no such disability and carefully slipped out of sight.

‘I know far better than you what is required, Commander. Or have you forgotten how the orders flow between us? My judgement is trusted far more than yours and loyalty is not synonymous with my boredom!’ ‘Of course, ma’am.’

‘Not that it matters, I suppose,’ the demon said, taking another look outside. ‘Clearly they aren’t coming. Have the captives brought out into the square. And pass me your sidearm, dear, I know you have another one somewhere.’

‘Yes, ma’am.’

Standing behind her mistress, Eiri watched Yoshinaga exit and closed her mouth again slowly. The demon turned, regarding her, but nodded after a moment with seeming satisfaction. There was something that could almost have been pity in that corrupted eye. ‘You may stay here,’ she said abruptly, and followed the Commander out.

The girl turned to look back at the square anyway. A line of ragged men and women were being stood one by one against a wall, their faces to the crowd—their executioner would have no pangs of conscience. This is who she really is, she reminded herself, touching her father’s watch. Never forget.

Another knock on the door, no doubt someone else looking for her mistress and thus not her problem. When nearly a minute had passed and whoever it was had failed to leave, Eiri shrugged and opened it. ‘The Administrator isn’t here.’

The lanky, bespectacled woman outside stared blankly. ‘…oh.’

‘Sorry.’

‘I finished setting up the equipment outside. I was supposed to tell her,’ The woman mumbled. Sure enough, her gray jumpsuit marked her as non-military; she must be one of the logistical staff.

Eiri sighed inwardly, and walked back to her window. Sure enough, someone had found a functional screen, camera and sound system with which to convey the event to the parts of the crowd too far back to see properly. ‘She’ll see,’ she said.

‘…right.’

‘You can go now.’

‘Sorry to disturb you,’ the woman mumbled, bowed, and withdrew. Something about the motion nagged at Eiri, and she frowned, the answer coming to her after a moment’s thought. Her eyes. The woman’s demeanour had been quiet, beaten down as so many people were, but her eyes had been alert and watchful.

Down below, movement on the stage marked her mistress’s arrival, driving the oddity from her head as Feyris began her speech. Even with the speakers, the girl couldn’t make out the words and didn’t care to. Accusations. Justifications. As though any of it mattered. The crowd was more affected, stirring restlessly, helpless rage shifting like a tide between their tormentor and those who had caused this calamity to be brought down upon them.

Her words ran out.

The pistol was raised.

Eiri heard a terrible, deafening scream. No, an electronic squeal as something pushed the speakers beyond their capacity.

‘LATE? HARDLY.’

Displayed on the screen was an outlandish figure. He wore a tight suit of royal purple and golden trim. A cape, with two tails of cloth that twined around his legs. And a long helm that concealed the wearer’s face.

For a moment, even the girl was affected. Her heart raced. Had the Valkyrie come?

‘YOU DARE CALL ME COWARD?’ The voice boomed. ‘YOU DARE CALL ME RESPONSIBLE FOR THIS? YOU, WHO HOLDS THE GUN TO THEIR HEADS AND REQUIRES THAT HER VICTIMS’ HANDS BE TIED?’

Eiri huffed in disappointment. Just posturing, then. A futile gesture. The pistol was still raised and she of all people understood that a demon could not be made to act against its nature. Least of all by a voice on a screen.

Feyris said something inaudible.

‘YES. ALL I HAVE ARE WORDS. I AM BUT ONE MAN AND MY FOLLOWERS ARE FEW. BUT IN THIS SQUARE ARE A THOUSAND WHO DESPISE YOU.

‘HEAR ME, BRAVE SOULS! THEY TAUGHT YOU THAT YOU WERE WEAK. THEY TAUGHT YOU THAT YOU WERE HELPLESS! BUT YOU WEAR NO CHAINS! YOU NEED NO SALVATION FROM OTHERS IF YOU WILL BUT FIGHT FOR YOUSELVES! AND IN PROOF OF THIS I—HOUOUIN KYOUMA—SHALL SET THE BALL ROLLING.

‘HEY, FEYRIS? THINK FAST.’

An object arced up from the crowd and landed on the stage. It exploded there, chaos erupting as it gushed smoke. More went off in quick succession, blanketing the square as the crowd, pushed beyond their limits, surged toward the dais. She saw one of the captives tackle a guard and then their brawl vanished into the mist.

The girl watched it happen with empty eyes. Yoshinaga’s Rounders occupied half the buildings of the square, and the crowd was unarmed. All of this would accomplish nothing save unnecessary deaths.

At that moment, a military communicator left by the door began to wail. It was almost too low to hear but the sound was repulsive to her. Overwhelmed with an unnatural sorrow, her surroundings blurred and before she realised it she was on the floor, gasping for breath.

If this was the effect from across the room, a rational remnant of her mind noted, then the Rounders actually wearing one must be completely incapacitated. The thought would have given her some small satisfaction if she hadn’t already been seen in the company of Feyris and Yoshinaga. If the rioters succeeded, if they found her here, now… Groaning, Eiri began to pull herself toward the door, as well as toward the source of that eldritch frequency. Her vision swam. A sick horror clung to her, growing with every movement.

Her heart lurched in her chest like she was having a heart attack, her ears rang. Not even her survival instincts could keep her going; she dropped to the floor before she could fall and curled into a quivering ball, her hands over her ears. Faces leered at her in the darkness behind her eyes.

A shot rang out and the communicator shattered into pieces. The hallucinations slowly faded, leaving only the panting form of a pink-haired woman. Feyris had saved her again. No, she told herself. This was a demon. One who’d just arranged a public execution. One ultimately responsible for thousands of deaths.

One who’d come back for her.

Behind Feyris, a man stepped into the doorway.

Her thoughts in turmoil, Eiri’s warning caught in her throat. The man fired three times and Feyris staggered, twisting round.

‘Kyouma,’ she whispered, eyes wide … and shot him in the leg.

‘Next time, get me in the head. And you were doing so well, too,’ she tutted as the lanky form collapsed with a moan of agony. A trembling hand reached for his pistol and she kicked it away. ‘What are these, tranquilisers? That’s adorable.’ Ripping her shirt off, Feyris began wrapping it around his leg as a crude bandage, revealing the black Kevlar vest she’d worn beneath it.

From the square, there came a fusillade of shots and screams from the crowd. Some of the Rounders must have managed to disable their communicators. ‘You know,’ she said, ‘I really am glad to see you. The council never wastes good resources; I’m sure that once you’ve told us everything about your little group they’ll let me keep you on here. The two of us together, it’ll be just like old times.’

‘N-no. I won’t. I’ll never…’ the man babbled, trying to pull his leg out of her grip.

Feyris rolled her eyes.

‘As if you have any choice in the matter. Getting a cape doesn’t make you an action hero, cutie. What happened to that, anyway?’ she asked, looking him over. ‘Never mind. Eiri, dear, help him to a chair. I have a minor riot to help finish off.’

Under that steely glare, the girl had no choice but to do as she was told. The man thrashed, trying to get away. ‘Feyris! You can’t do this!’

Before the demon could leave, he cried out again. ‘Then kill me!’ She stopped, turned back. ‘If this is how it ends, please, just make it stop. I don’t… I don’t want to see what happens next.’

‘I couldn’t if I wanted to,’ she snapped. ‘You’re much too useful. What’s with this? Acting so pathetically, it’s almost like you’re—’

‘Stalling,’ he finished, his eyes on the man who’d just entered. ‘Daru! Aim for her neck!’

Feyris spun to look at the door, and in her moment of distraction, he lunged for her wrist.

With a screech of protest, Feyris managed to twist, pulling her opponent into the path of the dart. The next hit her vest and then she was onto the shooter. A jab grazed her shoulder but she moved with it, pivoting to drive a narrow hand beneath his ribcage. Even as the man bent, gasping in agony, she slid behind him. The demon’s movements were fluid, almost boneless.

‘You’ve filled out!’ she laughed. ‘Mmm, shame you didn’t look like this way back when. Who knows what could have happened!’

The man, Daru, threw another punch. Rather than dodge again, her hand snaked up and grabbed his wrist, stopping it in its tracks. His eyes went wide and he yanked at it, trying to pull her off balance, but she just smiled and grabbed the other. Muscles bulged in his arms, sliding against each other as he fought her grip without success. Slowly, his wrists were forced together and pulled down, putting the two face-to-face. The demon smiled, sweet and cold, before pressing her lips to his.

‘Welcome back,’ she whispered.

The girl watched, fascinated, as Daru’s eyes widened and then closed. His head came forward—not in a kiss but a clumsy slam. It made a sound like two rocks banging together… but he was the one who reeled.

‘There’s no point to that, either,’ the demon sighed. ‘Only one of us can feel pain.’

‘Shut up!’ he yelled. Slam. ‘I can’t…’ Slam. ‘Lose here…’ Slam.

By this point, he was barely conscious. But the demon’s nose was broken, and she tried to stumble back. He grabbed her arms, swaying.

‘Because I have to save Feyris!’

His skull collided with hers. She crumpled.

Eiri froze as Daru’s bloodshot eyes turned towards her. Standing between her and the door, there was no way past him. The window was an option, being only two floors above the ground; even with gunfire still coming from the square she might have to risk it.

‘Okabe,’ he asked, eyes still locked on her, ‘are you all right?’

The man on the floor, Okabe, rose shakily to his feet—foot—leaning on the wall for support. ‘I exaggerated a little for Feyris. She didn’t hit the bone, but I’m not going to be running for a while.’

‘Well I have to carry her,’ Daru said, jerking a thumb towards the unconscious woman, ‘so—’

Though she should be grateful for anything that took their attention off her, some foolish part of the girl couldn’t help asking, ‘Are you going to hurt her?’ As though she could do anything either way. As though the demon deserved her concern.

‘That’s not our intention,’ Okabe told her gravely. ‘Feyris was a very old and dear friend of ours before she was turned. It is our hope that she can be returned to her former state… and it is my belief that she would rather have died than be responsible for what is happening in that square.’

In all her life, the girl had never made a true decision for herself. Not when she was a child. Not when her father had died and the world had ended. Not when she’d gone to the orphanage, and not when a pink-haired woman had showed up and taken her into her care for reasons unknown. So it came as something of a shock when she heard her voice saying, ‘We drove here in a car. It was kept at the back of the building.’

Almost as much of a shock as pulling Okabe’s arm over her shoulders. It wasn’t worth much as support—she was at least a foot shorter than him—but the sounds of gunfire were getting louder. Not enough of the soldiers had been found before they managed to break or power off their communicators; most of the crowd had likely fled already. Daru heaved Feyris face-up over his shoulder in a reverse fireman’s carry, and the four of them were off.

The sounds of shouting rose up from below, and she tugged Okabe towards the back stairs. They were only a few steps down when they heard pounding feet from below. One of the Rounders turned the corner only to get Daru’s knee in his stomach; the other recoiled as a gurgle as a dart flew into his windpipe.

‘Don’t worry,’ Okabe hissed into her ear, ‘they’re only tranquilisers.’

She didn’t bother replying. As of now, everyone in the building was her enemy (why had she done this again?), and while mass-executions had upset her she no qualms about defending herself. What really had her worried was that Commander Yoshinaga was certain to be in the building and would gun both her and them down without blinking. Accordingly she pulled Okabe forward as fast as he could go without losing his footing.

The bottom floor was chaos. The soldier had been overrun by rioters and both sides were locked in a vicious brawl. On one side, a man was slamming a Rounder’s head into the wall again and again, staining it with red. On the other, a black figure and a gray writhed together on the floor, hand at each others’ throats. Okabe fired at the black-uniformed Rounder but missed as they rolled over and out of sight.

A figure lay on the floor, fallen, clad all in purple. Whoever Hououin Kyouma had been, his life had been claimed by his own revolution. Eiri’s eyes lingered for a moment before she forced herself to remember her priorities.

‘This way,’ she said, guiding them down the corridor behind the stairwell and toward the back exit. A shot rang out behind them, then another and another—executions. They sped up, Okabe hissing through his teeth as his leg buckled and nearly dragged them both to the ground. Looking back over his shoulder, Eiri saw a black-clad woman with close-cropped hair and yelped. Yoshinaga! Fear leant her manic strength, enough to physically lift Okabe and yank him around the corner. Now towing him, she burst through the back doors right behind Daru and dumped Okabe against one of the waiting jeeps.

One of the vehicles was parked next to the door; perhaps if she threw all her weight against it she could push it across the exit. Gritting her teeth, Eiri dug her heels in and heaved. But the dirt was shifting under her feet and the jeep wouldn’t budge.

‘Never mind that now!’ she told Daru, who’d started going through Feyris’ pockets. ‘Help me with this, please.’

With two of them, the jeep finally began to roll forward. Not a moment too soon—the doors juddered as the Commander slammed into them. A dozen bullets pierced them a moment later, ricocheting off the vehicles and throwing up fountains of dirt wherever they hit the ground. Quickly, the two ran for one of the jeeps, where Okabe had already found Feyris’ key, started the engine and ensconced himself and their captive in the back seats. Forestalling any objection to her presence, Eiri motioned to the egress, where Yoshinaga had given up on shooting through the doors and settled for ripping the weakened wood apart with her bare hands.

‘Daru, just drive,’ Okabe moaned.

With that, they were off, the Commander’s last salvo pinging off the hardened windows. Roaring through empty streets and away from the town, the foursome were at last safe.

Mostly.

‘Daru, she isn’t going to be unconscious much longer and I am,’ Okabe warned. He sounded groggy; likely only the pain had kept him awake this long.

‘You don’t know, like, a nerve pinch or something?’

‘Alas, no. I suppose I could improvise a choke hold, but since she overpowered you I don’t think it has much chance of working!’ ‘You said you had all this planned out!’

‘We’re alive. So is Feyris. Ruka got out and is going to lay low with Yuki and Mayuri until this all blows over. Don’t you dare complain about my planning, Daru.’

‘Fine,’ Daru grumbled. ‘Take these.’

He fished something out of his jacket and tossed them into the back with a clink.

There was silence for a moment, then a sharp, metallic clack.

‘Daru…’

‘Yes?’

‘Why … why do you own handcuffs? Lined with velvet, I notice.’

‘Weeell, that’s a question with a lot of answers. Makise might help you figure it out if you ask nicely.’

The girl tuned out their byplay, finally able to reflect on what a stupid thing she had just done. She’d known Okabe and Daru wouldn’t harm her, and neither would the Rounders. So why had she effectively consigned herself to an almost-certainly short, brutal and unpleasant life? Her gaze drifted back to the demo… her mistre… Feyris, just in time to see her eyelids flicker, giving Eiri a flash of gunmetal-grey eyes.

Feyris focused on her for a moment, then began inspecting the rest of the car. Her body stayed motionless and her eyes were open only the tiniest amount; if Eiri hadn’t been watching so closely she would have sworn Feyris was still fast asleep. Seeing Okabe unconscious and Daru focused on driving, she looked back at Eiri and flicked her eyes twice in Daru’s direction.

The signal was obvious. ‘I can’t do that, mistress. Sorry,’ Eiri told her quietly. ‘She’s awake?’ Daru asked, tension obvious in his voice.

‘Yes.’

‘So that’s how it’s to be, then?’ The chain of Feyris’ cuffs jingled, and Eiri could see her arms trembling as they exerted more force than should be humanly possible. ‘Well, I hate to spoil the air of celebration, but you might want to consider surrendering now. Who knows, I might consider keeping you alive.’

‘That’s not going to happen. We’ve won this round,’ Daru said.

‘Won?’ Feyris laughed. ‘How is that, exactly? We know you now. Your faces, your methods, your plans. You fought in a place of our choosing, surrounded by our soldiers. Oh, the trick you played on those poor townsfolk was clever enough, but it can simply be rewritten. How can you possibly call it winning when you’ve handed yourselves to us on a silver platter?’

Similar thoughts had occurred to Eiri. But she was sure that if they could be caught so easily, these two men would never have survived this long after the end of the world.

‘Yeah, that’s all completely true. We put our heads on the chopping block for you and Ruka, Feyris. Call it sentiment. So tell me, why’ve we still got them? It’s been nearly half an hour since we started the attack. Why are we still here? Why have you still lost?’

‘Misplaced confidence is a turn-off, Daru. For your information, the machine takes some little time to charge.’

‘This long?’ She was still watching Feyris so she didn’t see Daru’s expression, but his voice held absolute confidence. The woman’s face held nothing so uncontrolled as fear or anxiety, but Eiri seemed to feel a slight crack where invincible confidence should reign supreme.

‘On occasion. But unless you have truly lost your minds in the past six years, you must have some reason for this foolishness. Enlighten me.’

‘Can’t, sorry. This one’s all on Okabe. But he did tell me one thing. They don’t want you back, Feyris. You pushed too far. You got too into it. You started playing a game and you forgot why. Okabe does the same thing, some days. And even evil overlords want to look good for the masses. ’

‘Perhaps so,’ Feyris shrugged with her arms still cuffed behind her back. ‘I’ll admit that my overseers can be fickle, certainly. But they still won’t let you get away. And you, Eiri? Those two have knowledge and skills the council might find useful but you don’t have any such protection. I employed you on a whim, and frankly it’s a decision I’m currently reconsidering.’ The woman smiled. ‘So far, that act of charity has returned nothing for me, or for the world. I can erase it—and you—without any ill consequences whatsoever. Just a thought.’

Her parting sting delivered, Feyris closed her eyes again, seemingly asleep once more.

To be left alone in the orphanage for five more years… Even weighted against the fearful tightrope act of the life she’d lived with Feyris, the thought made something tighten in her stomach.

Taking a breath, Eiri considered her situation logically. Feyris’ actions and her words didn’t make sense when correlated against each other. The threat to, essentially, erase her from her own history was almost certainly plausible. But why would Feyris resort to threats when, by her own logic, her escape (and their own failure) were guaranteed? If the events of the past half-hour could be overwritten, why not simply wait? Why bother convincing them to surrender?

As Feyris herself had taught her, there were only two answers to such a problem: either Eiri herself was missing information or Feyris was lying to them and the time machine was taking longer than she had expected. Whatever the other two had done, it seemed there would be no pursuit after all. There was still a chance for them to escape. A chance to save Feyris. Just once, Eiri could look into her eyes and see human warmth looking back. Her lips twisted in an unfamiliar, wry smile. Who would have thought that she, of all people, would be so motivated by loyalty?

With a sigh, she let the thought go, laying her head against her arm and watching the golden fields roll by. After years spent amid the crumbling ruins of the Old World and the utilitarian blocks she and her mistress had inhabited, the sight was oddly soothing. A hill rose under them, and past it she could see many others; endless undulations under an azure sky. As she watched, the landscape slowed until Eiri could see individual stalks of corn. Frowning, she looked forward to find the reason they’d stopped: a tall red-haired woman who sat on a bulging rucksack by the side of the road, leaning against another two propped up behind her.

The jeep rolled to a halt and Daru opened the door, so that a whistling breeze carried in the sound of faint snores.

‘Oi, Makise!’ he yelled.

The snores cut off. The woman blinked at them, unfolding stiff limbs as she rose and made her way over.

‘You brought everything?’ Daru asked.

‘Yes, yes. You know, when Okabe asked me to join the glorious revolution I never pictured camping trips being involved. Where on earth did you get the jeep?’ Makise asked, giving the metal a rap with her knuckles.

‘A little freeloader gave us a vehicle in exchange for getting her the hell out of there. So it’s your lucky day—instead of hiding out in the woods we can drive straight to Kawanuma Base and stay there until this all blows over. You can do the surgery there, right?’

She shrugged. ‘If it can be done here, it can be done anywhere. You said they all have the same medical equipment, didn’t you, Okabe?’ She looked into the back and Eiri watched the blood drain from her face. ‘Okabe!’

Daru grabbed her before she tried to physically climb over Feyris to reach him. ‘Hey! It’s fine! He took a bullet through the fleshy part of his leg. Trust me, most of us have had worse over the years.’

‘I brought a first aid kit, it’s in one of the bags! Get Okabe out and I can treat him!’

‘He has a bandage, so it’s not like he’s going to bleed out and this isn’t a safe place to be at the moment. You two can play Nurse Makise later, but for now we have to move. Got it?’

She struggled out of his arms. ‘Fine. Get the bags and let’s go. Use those big muscles you’re always bragging about.’

‘On it. Watch out for Feyris,’ Daru warned as she opened the back door. ‘She’s stronger than she looks.’

‘R-right.’ Makise nodded and grabbed Feyris by the cuffed shoulders, pulling her over so she was in the rightmost seat with her face planted in the material and using the extra space to slide in next to Okabe.

‘Buckle up, ladies and gentlemen,’ Daru said cheerfully, ‘it’s going to be a long ride.

Even as he started up the engine and the jeep roared and rattled into motion, the newcomer’s gaze never left her lover’s face. Eiri thought Daru might have noticed too, for a small, satisfied smile was touching his lips.

The Valkyrie seemed so perceptive, finding the words that would goad the weary and resigned into action and correctly choosing to trust in her help despite the circumstances. But it was Eiri who’d known Feyris (or the demon that possessed her) for the last five years, who’d watched her with the mingled fear and adoration of a moth circling a flame, knowing that the wind must change and the warming fire send her fluttering into oblivion.

And so it was Eiri, and only Eiri, who had noticed the gleam of triumph in those lidded eyes when Feyris heard the name of Makise.


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