In the Shadows of Utopia

Chapter 9

‘Somehow,’ Kurisu said, giving the motionless vehicle a kick, ‘this doesn’t surprise me one bit.’

‘Is that so?’ Okabe said. ‘My dear assistant, it seems you’re a cynic after all.’

‘Nope. Just a pessimist. I knew this was going too well,’ she seethed. ‘We rescued Ruka, got Feyris and you all came back more or less okay. Of course the universe was going to find some way to screw us over!’

‘Basically okay? Makise, I was shot! Heroically injured on the field of battle! It wouldn’t kill you to be sympathetic.’ Okabe pouted in distinctly unheroic fashion.

A thump signified Itaru removing the last of the luggage from their—now useless—conveyance. ‘You’d be surprised, dude. While you were unconscious, she was all “Okabe! Okabe! Oh God, he’s dying! Daru, stop the car so I can heal him from this tiny, tiny scratch!” Then you woke up and suddenly she didn’t care if you live or die. Funny, that.’

Kurisu’s face felt hot. ‘I never said I didn’t care, I just—’

‘I say you should just kiss it better, myself,’ Itaru said, puckering up.

Restraining the urge to attack the bulky man, she said coolly, ‘Well, perhaps if you’d been less distracted by perverted fantasies you might have looked at the fuel gauge before you decided to drive us all the way out here. Now we’re stuck in the middle of nowhere with those two!’

“Those two” referred to the cuffed woman sitting to one side and the cold-eyed young teenager who’d come with her. Frankly, both of them gave her the creeps.

‘It’s not that bad,’ Okabe sighed. ‘Kawanuma is only three days or so away. We’ll be safe there.’

‘Fine,’ she said, giving in. ‘But you’re not walking any marathons with that leg, Okabe. I can try and fix it up enough to walk on, but … it might not heal right if I do.’

Okabe shrugged. ‘Needs must. Daru, see if you can’t hide the jeep while Makise does … whatever it is she’s going to do.’

Daru set to it, grunting as he started to roll the vehicle off the road, while Kurisu rummaged around in the bags for the medical kit she’d thrown together.

‘This might sting a bit,’ she warned, pulling out a bottle of alcohol and soaking it into cotton wool.

‘Makise, I have a bullet wound in my leg. Analgesics aside, a bit of stinging is the last of my worriEEEES!!!—’

‘Told you,’ she said, dabbing at his wound. The task was made rather more difficult by the need for Okabe to be able to keep his tranquiliser pistol trained on Feyris at all times, forcing Kurisu to practically lie in his lap in order to work.

‘You said it would sting, not bloody burn like… Kurisu, what are you doing with that!’ he shouted as she took out a bottle of superglue she’d found in the lab and started squeezing it into the gory hole in his leg.

‘Oh, it’s a trick my mother taught me.’ Where her father had enjoyed debate (if only until she became too closely his equal), her mother had loved to tell her stories: tales of childhood, of romance and even the tragedies of war. Perhaps that was why the two of them had been so much closer despite having so much less in common.

This didn’t seem to comfort Okabe. ‘When I agreed to let you fix my leg up, I didn’t realise you were going by old wives’ tales!’ he protested, before shrinking back under her glare.

‘For your information, it works perfectly well. Soldiers used to do it in Vietnam.’

Finished, she screwed the cap back on and chucked it back into the bag.

‘See? Now all I have to do is sew it up and it’ll be… well, not as good as new, but you won’t tear it apart by walking on it.’

The needle was blunter than was ideal and even with the painkillers he’d taken, Okabe was visibly wincing as she began to stitch the wound back together. ‘As if I were not perforated enough already. And must it be this damnable shade?’

She smiled, feeling a little impish, and patted him on the thigh. ‘What? The legendary Hououin Kyouma can’t pull off pink?’

‘O-Of course I can.’ The affronted look on his face set her almost to giggling, which made it worse. ‘I can!’ She just laughed harder, enjoying the moment while she could. Goodness knew how quickly they could pass.

Okabe pulled a twisted, battered black oblong from his pocket and whispered urgently into it. ‘Code Red! They’re trying a new tactic—an agent sent to ruin my heroic reputation! Send back-up before she destroys me comp—hey!’

Kurisu inspected the pilfered phone in fascination. The screen was dead, of course, and there was no sound from it. ‘Wow, this is a relic. I don’t suppose it still works?’

‘Surprisingly enough, my contract doesn’t cover the apocalypse. I shielded it from the EM pulses, but the networks are down for good. Makes coordinating rebellion a nightmare, I’ll tell you that. We were considering messenger pigeons, but…’ He shook himself and raised the gun (which had started to droop) back at Feyris. ‘Well. Another time.’

‘Okabe?’ Kurisu asked, unable to help herself. ‘You do know I’m not an agent, right? I mean… That is to say… Lots of things have happened in the past few weeks. I guess I want to know if you trust me.’

He considered her for a moment. ‘I—’

‘Oookay, the jeep is down the hill and I covered it over with branches and stuff, so nobody’s gonna find it any time soon.’ Daru strolled across the road, dusting his hands. ‘Hup, hup, grap the bags and let’s go before they started searching this far out! New girl, you get the lightest pack. You two—Okabe’s all fixed up, so lovey-dovey on your own time. Feyris, try anything and I will tranq you before you take a single step, hear me?’

Feyris stood without a word, still smiling faintly as though at a private joke. Kurisu shuddered. She couldn’t ever catch the woman looking at her, but her skin crawled horribly whenever she turned her back to her. Shaking it off, she gave Okabe a hand up. ‘You okay?’ she asked.

‘Yeah… It hurts like hell but I can walk. Thanks, I guess.’

Kurisu watched Daru shoo their two ‘captives’ into a march, hefting her own bag with a grimace. ‘Thank me by never, ever, making me do this again. Shall we?’

The light fell quickly as the little band trudged through the wilderness of Japan. Once, it had probably been tended fields, but with so much farm machinery destroyed by the Organisation (either from ‘Judgement Day’ or simply the loss of most of the manufacturing industry) the area was no longer tenable and the plots had rapidly been reclaimed by rapacious greenery. Now they were overgrown with knotweed and tangled undergrowth, so much so that Daru had to go in the lead and trample a path for them while she helped Okabe limp his way through. Feyris was guarded in the middle and the girl who accompanied her hung back at the rear of the group. Letting Nature take its course did have some upsides, however, as here and there meadow flowers could be spotted amongst the brush; little splashes of colour against the greens and the browns.

The moon was still thin, but the milky light of thousands of stars lit their path well enough to continue through the night while the Pole Star glittered overhead to guide them over field after field. Looking upward, Kurisu couldn’t help but remember the skies of her childhood, illuminated only by the sickly glow of millions of lights below. At least her work had done one good thing for this world. Distracted, her foot slipped in a hollow and she nearly toppled, saved only by Okabe’s grip around her shoulders.

‘Sorry!’ she hissed as he gasped from the pain of putting weight on his injured leg.

‘Can you … hah … keep going?’

‘I’m fine. Promise,’ she whispered back, and they carried on in silence.

But as time wore on and the moon traversed the heavens, her feet began to feel leaden in their shoes. Not that she was the worst off: though Itaru seemed indefatigable, Okabe’s breathing was laboured in her ear and the other two were even worse, not having the benefit of hours of enforced manual labour every day to keep up their stamina. The girl was visibly struggling when Kurisu looked back at her, though she hadn’t let it slow her down in the slightest. As for Feyris…

‘Yes, I think that’s quite enough for today.’ Having delivered her verdict, Feyris suited words to actions by sitting down with a thump. Caught by surprise, Kurisu and Okabe took a few more steps before the action registered and they staggered to a halt.

‘Feyris, I will tranquilise you again if I have to,’ Okabe said quietly.

‘And I’ll drag you,’ Itaru promised.

Feyris smiled. ‘Go ahead. Having you do all the work sounds wonderfully convenient. Oh, and in case you were wondering, I still don’t feel pain. So good luck trying to make me do anything else tonight. Eiri, we’re stopping now.’

The girl seemed to consider that for a moment, before she too lowered herself to the ground.

Okabe’s grip on her shoulders tightened dangerously, but before he could say anything Kurisu whispered into his ear, ‘Okabe, you idiot, you’ve been shot. I know we need to move fast, but if you don’t rest now you won’t even be able to move tomorrow. It’s a miracle we made it this far and you know it.’

He seemed about to argue, but finally said, ‘Right. Everyone settle down, then. Makise, did you bring the food?’

‘Yes, yes.’ She rummaged in her back and brought out two loaves of bread. ‘Here.’

‘That’s it? Makise, how far’s that going to go with five people?’

‘Well, maybe if you’d spent more time helping in the fields and less in the labor—’ she caught herself, glancing at the silent figure of the chipped Feyris, ‘—downstairs, we’d have more to spare! But you didn’t, so this is all we’ve got. And why, exactly, do we have five people anyway? Since when was the plan to bring random people along with you?’

‘I told you before,’ Itaru interrupted, ‘she made it a condition of getting us the jeep.’

‘Because that worked out so well.’

He glared at her in the near-darkness. ‘Okay, it turned out pretty inconvenient, but she followed through on her end and here we are.’

‘Hmph. And it had nothing to do with her being a pretty girl at all,’ Kurisu sniffed.

‘I’m married! Also, Feyris tried the whole seduction routine and couldn’t pull it off, so no way a scrawny girl who’s only about eight years older than my actual daughter is going to—’

‘Why, Daru, I’m flattered,’ Feyris purred. ‘Now, while thoughts of me are floating around in your head, why not consider exactly how I’m supposed to eat with my hands cuffed behind my back?’

‘Sure. With difficulty.’

‘Or you could un-cuff me and I’ll give my word of honour not to try anything. Plus, Okabe still has a gun pointed at my back, does he not?’

‘Of course I do,’ Okabe said stonily. ‘The chipped don’t have honour. Just directives.’

Before anything else could be said, the girl rendered the point moot by breaking a piece off her loaf and offering it to Feyris with the cautious air of a zookeeper tending an injured beast.

‘Okay, that’s just creepy,’ Kurisu said, watching the two, only to recoil at the look the girl sent her way. It wasn’t anger, just a strange apathy that studied her and filed her away before the girl turned back to her self-appointed task. ‘…I owe her,’ she said, almost too low to hear.

Okabe clapped his hands. ‘Well, eat and then get some sleep, all of you. We need to get a lot further tomorrow.’

‘Yeah, including you,’ Itaru pointed out. ‘I’ll take first watch. Makise can take second.’

Kurisu fumed. ‘Don’t go volunteering me for things! I mean, obviously I’ll do it—I’m the only other one here who’s trustworthy and not dead on my feet, but still!’

‘Volunteer?’ Itaru crossed his arms. ‘They call it conscription where we come from. Sleep while you can.’

Muttering to herself, Kurisu dragged herself a little way from the others and settled down, until the snap of twig brought her jerking back up again.

‘Mind if I join you?’ The voice was Okabe’s, roughened by badly-hidden pain and fatigue.

‘It’s a free forest,’ she said lightly. ‘Grab a trunk.’

The shadowy figure rustled out of her line of sight, sitting on the other side of the same tree. She leant back on the trunk that separated them and waited for him to settle. ‘If I ask you how we really escaped the time machine, will you tell me?’

There was a long silence, which she bore patiently, before he spoke.

‘Yes, I think so. Though for what it’s worth, I suggest you don’t.’

‘Maybe. Still, I want to know.’

A long exhalation. The sound of catharsis. ‘Ahhh, Makise… I’ve done a very selfish thing today. And telling you, burdening you with this, that’s almost as bad.’ He chuckled. ‘You know, being a hero, being Hououin Kyouma, was pretty easy. I decided what needed to be done, and I did it. And it hurt. But I carried on, because it was the right thing to do. The only thing to do… You’re making me be selfish again, Makise, and it’s tearing me apart. Myself or the world; a man can’t serve two masters.’

‘Okabe,’ she said gently, ‘you’re trying to distract me.’

He carried on, ignoring her. ‘Really, this is much your fault as it is mine. After all, none of it could—would—have happened without you … so maybe it’s all right to tell you.’

‘Okabe.’

‘I gave the Organisation a show. Had Moeka tap their systems, then dressed up in that ridiculous outfit I had Mayuri make. All of those people … I used them as a distraction, Makise. There were too many soldiers for me to get through, so I used the crowd as a shield. They’d just been betrayed by the only constant they had left; it wasn’t difficult to turn their anger against the Organisation. Unarmed men and women, fighting against the best forces the Organisation can offer … I don’t suppose many of them survived, even with my little tricks.’

His tone was cynical, mocking. The voice of a man without illusions, who looked in the mirror and hated what he saw.

‘Of course, the costume went on one of the corpses. When the Organisation looks into it, they’ll find it, they’ll know exactly who was responsible, and they’ll know he’s dead. For losing a flunky who embarrassed them, they gain the head of Hououin Kyouma himself. Why would they interfere with that?’

Kurisu turned to the side, letting the living bark press against her skin. Her eyelids closed. ‘There’s more.’

No. I told you I wouldn’t deceive you anymore.’

‘Then you lied.’

‘Kurisu, what else do you want me to say?! That’s what happened. That’s the truth.’

His anger was false. A deflection. She continued.

‘Even if you stirred them up, their decisions and their actions were their own. But there’s so much guilt in your voice. I can hear it. What did you do to sound like that, Okabe?’

When it came, his voice was quiet and sorrowful. She wished she could see his expression.

‘I betrayed the Valkyrie. It was the only way to make them believe the body was actually me. So I took the spare phone we were using to test the Nostalgia Drive and I made it look like a PDA I’d been using, full of the details of our operations. Then I left it in the costume’s pocket.’

For the first time, it was Kurisu who was struck speechless. This wasn’t what she wanted. She’d begged him to stop making sacrifices, just the once, to save everyone and be happy! To do the impossible! Not this. Never this.

‘How many?’ she heard herself ask.

‘About half.’

More lives to add to her tally. Strange… she’d never even fired a gun yet hundreds died for every word she spoke.

‘…then you were right. This is my fault.’

‘Please don’t mistake spite for truth, Makise… You were right—I couldn’t have taken any more. If I’d lost Ruka and Feyris, well, I think that would have been the end of it, for me. Settle down, maybe, become a farmer and desperately hope not to lose anyone else. So thanks, Kurisu. Whatever the consequences, you did save me.’

The words nested in her chest, warming her. ‘That’s the second time you’ve called me that name.’

‘I know,’ he said with a semblance of good cheer. ‘Maybe I’ll make a habit of it.’

‘Maybe you should.’ A moment later, her own words ran through her head and she blushed so hard that, had they possessed infrared scanners, the Organisation could have located them on the spot.

Okabe yawned. ‘…I’m glad we rescued you.’

‘I guess putting up with you was better than being shot,’ she grumbled, closing her eyes. ‘If only just.’

If a reply ever came, she was too deep in sleep to hear it.

Kurisu was running through Tokyo again. Struggling against her own fatigue, a makeshift weapon clutched tightly in one hand. Ahead of her, she knew the soldiers waited, but something drove her to keep running. Her nails scrabbled at the brick, trying to slow her, but she continued the headlong rush to her own destruction.

A hand clamped around her arm.

She bolted upright, only to find the grip was real. Itaru was faintly visible above her, having just shaken her awake.

‘Your turn on duty,’ he whispered, handing her a pistol, presumably filled with tranquilisers. ‘Feyris is asleep, but don’t let her get too close if she wakes up. Don’t listen to anything she says, either. She’ll get into your head if you let her.’ With his face so close to hers, Kurisu could see the frown that had entrenched itself across Itaru’s forehead. The man looked far more careworn than he had at their impromptu meal—whatever he had heard, it had not been to his liking. ‘Anyway, just go before she wakes up.’

‘Man, I’m knackered,’ she heard him mutter as he settled down in the leaf litter.

Feyris was sleeping in the clearing, planted against one of the trees with her forehead set on her knees. It was a tense posture, hardly conducive to sleep, but one that reminded Kurisu of a cat coiling to spring rather than the fearful huddle of a kidnap victim.

Settling down into a vaguely comfortable position, Kurisu checked over the pistol Itaru had given her. Okabe and Itaru had been reluctant to instruct her or allow her to use their improvised firing range (through their motives were very different) but this didn’t seem to be a complicated mechanism. The safety was off, and the butt of the pistol was textured and easy to grip; holding it with two hands, as she’d read so long ago, she sighted at the prisoner…

… meeting a pair of steel-gray eyes. A gaze that seemed to pierce her, hook her with cruel barbs and draw her in. No wonder the Organisation had sought this woman out—she radiated a terrible charisma. Even abducted and with her hands restrained behind her back, the woman remained absolutely in command.

‘Well, if it isn’t Makise Kurisu,’ Feyris smiled. ‘So I was right—you did have help escaping Tokyo.’

Kurisu held her face as blank as she could. This was the woman responsible for Okabe’s wound, and the bruises on Itaru. With a shudder, she remembered the livid marks she’d seen on his arms, the neat patterns produced by five fingers gripping hard enough to burst blood vessels beneath the skin. If she lowered her guard, even for a second…

‘Although I’m a little disappointed in you. From one of the foremost scientists we had on record, to a grubby little vigilante struggling against … what? Order? Peace? Hardly. You showed you aren’t the type to fight for your beliefs right back at the beginning, didn’t you? No, I think you just want to fuck—’

A dart slammed into the wood behind Feyris. One inch to the left and it would have been her eye.

‘Shut up,’ Kurisu hissed. ‘You don’t know anything, anything, about me.’

‘Don’t I? You were in our labs for thirteen years, Kurisu. Every face you saw, every meal you ate, every single stimulus you experienced in all that time was under our control. We don’t just know you, Kurisu, we made you.’

She tried to ignore the voice, concentrating on stilling the tremble of her hands. Feyris could just sleep the rest of her shift away.

‘Don’t even think about it, Kurisu,’ Feyris snapped. ‘You don’t have enough friends to make an enemy of me.’

‘I’m already your enemy,’ Kurisu said, but she didn’t fire.

‘You’re a tool that fell on the ground. Useful, but not worth the effort of reclaiming. But with the company you keep, well, you’re steadily working your way up to being a problem. And problems have to be dealt with.’

‘You can’t hurt me.’ Technically untrue. But if Feyris so much as blinked, Kurisu would fire.

‘I don’t have to.’ The other woman smiled again, which is to say that white teeth could be glimpsed between her lips.

Her finger tightened on the trigger. ‘Meaning what?’

‘Oh, Kurisu. Dear, sweet Kurisu. You haven’t told them, have you? I can see it in your eyes. What do you think they’ll do when I tell them who you really are?’

So that was it. Everything that Kurisu had hoped to bury had finally come back to bite her. The world span, and she gripped the pistol like an anchor. Tranquilisers were strange things, a part of her mused. A single dart was all it took to force someone from the waking world into dreamless sleep. But a few more… and they’d never wake up.

Okabe would be sad, a memory reminded her. Mayuri, Yuki, Itaru. They’d lose their friend a second time. Was protecting herself worth the pain of those she cared about?

The answer she found sickened her.

But if she killed Feyris, she’d have to explain why. Maybe she could convince them that the woman had attacked her. Maybe not. Life or death; either way she risked losing everything.

‘Now,’ Feyris said, observing her struggle with a strange, detached interest. ‘There’s no need for that. I can give you everything you want… and all you have to do is take off these cuffs. Tell them I caught you off guard. I can escape, Regress a message and the me of the past will capture all of you in Iida.’

‘What are you, c-crazy? H-how is any of that what I want?!’

‘All of you will be sentenced to ‘punishment’ labour in a fertile area. I won’t chip you. I won’t even interrogate you. You’ll live out the rest of your lives together in peace, free of war and free of pain. A long and pleasant dream, which is all we really want for humanity in the end. And the best part is, you won’t ever have to remember this conversation. A happy ending, with no guilt at all.’

‘You’re lying,’ she said, clutching the pistol like a lifeline. ‘The chip forces you to be loyal to the Organisation; you can’t betray them like that even to save yourself!’

‘Do you still not understand,’ Feyris asked gently, ‘how little you matter to us? We’ve won, Kurisu. We won a long time ago. My masters won’t suffer from this. And sometimes it suits us to keep our promises.’

It was tempting. More tempting than it should have been. She was a scientist, not a warrior; she’d known that since she made her first bargain with the devil, thirteen years ago. Except that one doubt remained. Feyris was wrong—she would never have an ending free of guilt, not when this whole world was a monument to her sin. The sin of creating a time machine, the sin of giving in, the sin of the young woman she’d helped twist into this monster that now whispered in her ear. Sin that demanded atonement. But still…

Her lips trembled, struggling to form an answer. What, even she didn’t know. But Feyris’ eyes, dark with triumph, suddenly slid aside. Forgotten and unnoticed until now, the girl Eiri was waking. With barely a mumble, her eyes slid open to regard them both with sombre deliberation.

‘I can watch her now, if you like,’ she offered after a second of this. ‘I don’t sleep much.’

Kurisu’s heart was pounding in her chest, almost as if to tug her away from the scene, and Kurisu handed her the tranquiliser gun as though it were burning her fingers before practically sprinting out of the clearing.

Above, the first fingers of dawn’s light were threading themselves through the gloom. Her respite would be short indeed.


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