A/N:Sorry for the three-year wait. I'm so far behind that at this rate the whole fic will be concluded by the end of the century. The COVID pandemic hasn't given me much to cheer about except that we're still alive last year, contrary to all the memes of an impending WW2 which covered all the bad highlights such as Australian wildfires, the rise of right-wing authoritarianism, escalating conflict in the Middle East, the above-mentioned pandemic and etc. The one thing I can say that I'm happy about was completing the Higurashi-Call of Duty crossover Dear You - Dedushka, a nine-year journey that left me spent but grateful. I'm hooked on some new inspirations such as the groundbreaking TV series Twin Peaks (which sadly I never got to watch on TV or anywhere with-length episodes for that matter) by David Lynch and Mark Frost, Kojima's first game after his departure from Konami, Death Stranding, and Doki Doki Literature Club; plus renewed love for works I've enjoyed, looking for good fics to add to my archive. Last month, I got a message from a formerly prolific Haruhi fan writer and someone I consider an inspiration, nothing particularly groundbreaking except a few words of apology for the long silence, what had kept him from coming back here, and encouragement. It's good to be able to talk, albeit briefly, it can make all the difference in this day and age. Problems in life can do a number on you, so sometimes you need something to do, yet problems can affect the way you enjoy them, creating a paradox of having a hobby to take the edge off but the edge getting the better of enjoying a hobby, none without an easy answer but often numerous remedies. That is the lot of all crafters of fictional content, that is to expected. This had the effect of wearing out writers, making them stop and move on. Sometimes users have suffered fatigue so badly that they gave up entirely, going so far as to remove themselves by wiping their profiles clean as if they were never there at all.

That being said, I don't blame them, especially if they've got a reason to quit so completely as blanks. There's no shame in that. But if anyone wants to continue sharing their fiction, then carpe diem - seize the day. If you want someone to share to personally, my ear is open.


Interval 4 - Finding Mikuru

"By design?"

"Yes, this was no random error," Nagato intoned. "This was deliberately planned and executed to pierce through the fabric of time and space."

"Is it actually possible?"

"It is," Yuki said. "A being of similar power to Haruhi Suzumiya can do that but only when they have awareness of the data coding governing time-space. Haruhi would simply have used brute force and only the universe she currently occupies will be affected if she remains ignorant of other dimensions."

"A third signal? An unknown third signal?" I asked her - them, actually.

"Yes," Nagato said. "Yet no known matches within the Overmind's database can be accessible at this time."

"The Data Integrated Thought Entity," Yuki added once again, "was placed by such a strain by severe fluctuations in the course of acquiring our data that it has rebooted and currently undergoing diagnostics."

"Diagnostics?" You and I know that the Data Overmind's is one huge, universal, ethereal computer all along - with different brains. Let's give ourselves a round of applause. No, seriously. I don't know if it's a good thing or a bad thing. Or, if from bad to worst.

Nagato and Yuki went forward towards me. This was the first time I was scared of Yuki - now there's both of them. A subtle dread came over me, realizing that things are likely different enough that the adult Nagato would act in ways unexpected. Yuki took my side, almost protectively, debunking half my dread while Nagato loomed over me, her expression set in the cold, bland face that I remember well from an older Yuki, the one before Christmas.

"The Data Integrated Thought Entity," Nagato explained, "detected errors in its processing and almost crashed trying to retrieve you, Kyon, and Yuki. It could no longer contact me and other Humanoid Interfaces in my world and elsewhere. I was not only empowered by it but also given a limited backup program in order to stave off a cosmic-scale anomaly as long as possible before my connection with it was interrupted."

It was a lot to take in, seeing I'm not as computer literate as anybody. "I see... But since you have this backup program, can you analyze this signal, especially with Yuki to help you?"

"Yes, but I cannot guarantee you any full, conclusive answer given the limits of our capabilities combined."

"Okay, then..."

They stood together in the room, silent and stiff. I know there's something going on-

Both of them shimmered brightly, making me shield my eyes. They turned amorphous and took a stride towards it each other, their amorphous forms merged, glowing brightly. The glow died down and I saw that there was one Yuki Nagato, a tall adult woman that seemed a slightly more athletic beneath the business suit. Her face was much more thoughtful, slightly warm compared to the previous adult Nagato.

"We have decided it is best that we merge ourselves in order to maximize our potential," she said, her voice soft and welcome as had been the previous adult Yuki, "and better resolve this anomaly that threatens the integrity of this world and possibly others."

I blinked my eyes in surprise and dread. How can the ending of this world threaten other worlds? "Is it like a nuclear chain reaction?"

"In a manner of speaking, yes. The data stream was responsible for the merging of the worlds by undermining the integrity of the forces that held together and order the multiverse, the space between worlds and the barriers that separate them. Comparable to the wormlike, shell-less clam, Teredo navalis, that burrow into the hulls of wooden ships, however, the actual damage would be far less, the metaphysical structure is far too robust to implode completely, preserving the existence of the other universes.

"But in order to effect the structural collapse intensive burrowing of barriers must be undertaken in an extensive period of time, which would take far too long. The other is the acquiring of high-level data processing potential."

"Like a reality bender? Like you and Haruhi?"

"Yes, but that is most unlikely. There is no way to gain such capability outside of Haruhi Suzumiya and myself, the former lacking any direct control of her abilities and being unable to directly receive input on their occurence."

"Data lifeforms?" That term came back to me, one that took me back to Yuki during our early days.

"Unlikely, as they have not achieved autoevolution as of date."

"But that data stream, it could be a first," I protested.

"The data stream is indeed capable but it is hard to classify as it combines the qualities of certain metaphysical forces and data lifeforms. Highly-resilient, highly-adaptable, clearly possessing a high degree of sentience but it is not autoevolution, it consumes data lifeforms yet it cannot grow beyond its current state, constantly losing mass as it travels, thus the need to consume data lifeforms to maintain its existence and level of activity. It leaves a trail of refuse which should be easy track had it not been for the violent fluctuations that erase it easily. However dangerous the current situation is, it should be handled with medium difficulty."

Medium difficulty? This isn't a game. My reality and this reality are making a tango of destruction!

"However, the forced reality mergers, the creation of rifts, and the resulting release of an immense amount of energy that is the cause of the ongoing destabilization of this reality and leaking out into the rifts, which would further energize the void."

"Jeeze, it's really that bad... But you can fix it, right?"

She seemed to have a slight frown. "With access to the Data Overmind, yes, it can be repaired. But my connection to it is getting weaker as time goes by, the Data Overmind cannot recover quickly enough to fully support me so the outcome is not certain. I might have a chance with the backup program but it's limited, no real guarantee for total success."

Depressing, just depressing but we've been through other tough spots before? How can this be anymore different?

Then it hit me. "Yuki, is Alma a creation of Haruhi Suzumiya?"

"No, she is not. Alma Wade is the constant of this world, a human female of great data manipulation potential approaching Haruhi's level but only limited to Fairport."

"Really, only to Fairport?" Itsuki told me about Alma and Armacham. Is there anything you know? "Why is she limited to Fairport?"

"She is a psionic singularity, long dormant until at the age of twelve. Without a formative period of maturation her knowledge of the world has stunted, thus confining her to the city of her birth, captivity, and death. Her isolation from induced coma amplified her capabilities until a second sychronization event."

That's the second time I've heard of the term.

She continued, "Alma established mental contact with her son Paxton Fettel. He was selected and experimented on as a powerful psychic commander, to lead psionically-enhanced clone infantry based on his genetic template."

"A regula Boba Fett." I actually like the prequel trilogy in spite of what Haruhi says of it, quite a long story for another time, if I survive.

"He is an in-house Armacham experiment, not an interstellar bounty hunter," she pointed out.

"Okay..." Well, she does get pop-culture slightly better.

"Nine months ago, Fettel led a mutiny against Armacham to rescue his mother out of a containment facility, using his battalion-strength contingent of clones. The United States government immediately responded to contain and control the situation using its assets including F.E.A.R. - First Encounter Assault Recon."

This was the second time of the day I've heard of F.E.A.R. Itsuki won't tell me what it is. "Itsuki mentioned First Encounter Assault Recon."

Yuki looked at my eyes with a hint of emotion - apprehension? "First Encounter Assault Recon is a United States special operations unit established to perform operations of paranormal or extranormal nature. In response to reports of Soviet research into the psychic and paranormal phenomena, some of it going back as far as 1953. Rosewll, New Mexico - the official beginning of the United States government's interest in UFO phenomena. The rise of reports prompted Washington to form Majestic-12, a joint political, military, and scientific committee designed to deal with it. Out of Majestic-12 arose Project Blue Book, the research into unidentified flying objects and precursors what would be known as the Stargate Project began as subsidiaries to Blue Book. Early reports of Soviet psionic research had began under its aegis. However, Blue Book and Majestic-12 were diestablished by Congress in 1969 following the Condon Committee's conclusion on UFO phenomena and shifting priority to Vietnam and NASA's manned moon mission. Further interest in reviving Blue Book was lost following the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the fallout of the Watergate scandal had scaled down support on extraterrestrial activity from the Department of Defense.

"But disquieting rumors of Soviet research into the psychic and paranormal and the disinformation campaign established to protect that research meant it could not be ignored, added new urgency for supporters of psychic research, now working under the auspices of the Central Intelligence Agency. Proposals for a unit similar to F.E.A.R. have been made such as the First Earth Battalion, psychic soldiery established and trained along New Age ethos. None of those proposals bore fruit as no substantial data appeared to justify appropriation. With the fall of the Soviet Union, it was proposed again, this time on more traditional military lines, to go after classified Soviet research material but defense cutbacks prevented it. Then the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001 and underground trafficking of Soviet-era paranormal technology and data finally got support for the proposal, establishing First Encounter Assault Recon. In spite of its initial successes FEAR's mission prerogatives meant it could not be taken seriously by the wider defense and intelligence communities. This is reflected on its organizational structure as it does away with formal military rank and rating, which also ties with its roots as a deniable asset."

Whoa, that's a lot to take in there, Yuki. Ghostbusters meets Rambo?

"Another one of FEAR's roles is its use as a testbed for advance technology with military applications, which allowed it continued support from the Pentagon. Among of those is Alma's first son, Paxton Fettel's brother."

"He wasn't disposed of by the company? How come she didn't make contact with him first?"

"His psychic potential was far less than what Armacham had expected but he performed exceptionally in his physical aptitude tests. Thus he was surgically-enhanced and trained as a super-soldier to recoup financial losses for his failure to fulfill his potential as psychic commander, serving in several conflicts in prior to his transfer to FEAR nine months ago. No name was given to prevent the formation of an identity by Armacham, only an identification in his closely-guarded file read by senior executives cleared for it. He participated in the suppression of Fettel's mutiny and the raiding of Armacham's headquarters over their top-secret programs that led to this current series of events."

"I bet it's messed up that he finds out Alma's his mom and Paxton's his brother."

"According to the data I was able to retrieve from this world's Data Integrated Thought Entity prior to disruption from severe data fluctuations, his brother shot Fettel and I presume that he's learned the truth of his relations and origins via his latent psychic connection. However, none is fully certain. There are gaps in the data that I must seek out by reestablishing my secure connection with the Overmind should it recover fully."

I nodded my head at where Nagato filled in some of the blanks that Itsuki left behind. "And now Armcham is after Haruhi... is this what she wanted?"

Yuki closed her eyes and shook her head. "Haruhi's subconscious desire for excitement and interest was not responsible for this universe, merely opening a portal to it, one that absorbed the prior reality. While Alma is powerful by herself, she's not alone in this." The TV in the room flicked on, showing multicolored test broadcast imagery. I almost flinch at the sight.

"I will try to restore the previous reality. You must do your best on your end."

"My best? In what?" I nearly raised my pitch at the question.

"Ensuring the survival of Haruhi Suzumiya."

My heart stopped right there. I knew it was going to boil down to this but I was looking for some way out, especially after I was intimated with the scale of this problem. But yes, Haruhi is our only ticket out of this mess. I need to hang on to her and somehow get her to return to the fun-filled eccentric reality she created.

"I must go, Kyon. I am losing my connectivity to the Overmind. I must repair the damage and contain Alma Wade's metasomatic activity."

I didn't want her to go. The burden of staving off an existential disaster is something neither of us should bear alone. I knew that now ever since that week and that Tanabata before Christmas in that alternative world with her - her as a human being, not an Interface. But I understood that, Yuki. "Also, one more thing, have you identified the data stream? What is it exactly?"

"There is no real certainty on its identity. It contains data characteristics consistent with a male of between late teens to early thirties, living in the twenty-first century. High intellectual attainment, introvert in psychological outlook. Any other information on the stream cannot be obtained due to tracking difficulties."

"Wait, what? That could be anybody here."

"It is indeed vague. Too broad to focus on, and I cannot examine his intent on the worlds and Haruhi Suzumiya."

"Whatever it is, it certainly doesn't bode well for us."

"Also, he emits strong emotional signals, highly-unstable. Be careful, Kyon. Please comeback." I saw Yuki shine brightly, enveloping herself with a soft glow. She was unrecognizable, ephemeral.

And she was gone. Now I'm left with the feeling of queasiness that comes with averting cosmic disaster. And that empty feeling I have watching her depart for her apartment, living alone as she always during the three years of her entire existence. Please comeback... the last words added a pang of pain in me.

It took me a while to ponder what Yuki just said. Male. Between late teens to early thirties in age. High intellectual attainment. That would make sense how he was able to find out about Haruhi, about reality warping - reality hacking. Strong emotional signals, highly-unstable, I recalled Yuki's words.

What is he? Some wunderkind? An over-achieving child genius? Is he some sort of savant slacker? I'm gonna have to shelve all of it for a while. I took a deep breath as I made may way to the door.

Staggering out, the same grey sky, same rush hour atmosphere as people around me scurried along the streets-

"Kyon! Desertion! Penalty!"

Dammit!


Haruhi does not take kindly a member's dereliction of their duties. Especially if it's me derelicting my duties. She intends to double my workload in club activities starting with caring for Mikuru.

I noticed that Yuki was tagging along. I expected her to be away after merging with her counterpart but here she is with us. Maybe now that she's now the sum of two different versions of herself, she can afford to go with us, make copies of herself that maintained a mind link with each other.

"Alright! SOS Brigade! We have finally arrived at Mikuru's apartment building!" Her enthusiasm hasn't waned in what was apparently a mundane task spurred by concern over a member's well-being. On the upside we'll see to that she's safe and sound. In fact, I was hoping on seeing her again.

We made our way up to her floor in silence, Haruhi leading the way. Now we stood at her door, had to look up to be sure it's the correct number, which puts it at the far end of the hall. She rang and called out, "Hey Mikuru! The SOS Brigade is here. We're here to see yah."

Two seconds in, no response. Four seconds in, nada. Twelve seconds in, the door didn't budge inward.

Haruhi pouted, this is slightly longer for her taste. She knocked on the door. "Mikuru, are you okay? It's us." She knocked again, much louder.

"Hey, what's going on here?" A voice down the hall got our attention. It was an old man walking with a hunch.

"Afternoon, sir," Haruhi said. "Are you the supervisor of this place?"

"That would be me, yes," he replied in a voice that tries to be gruff and comically failing because of his high pitch.

"Great!" she exclaimed. "Our friend lives here and she didn't show up at school. We're worried she might've caught a bug or something."

"Is that so, huh?" He cocked a doubtful eye at us. I think Haruhi's trick of being friends to whatever missing persons job we're doing is wearing thin. "Well, if you're really her friends, let me see some ID. This place has been a bad neighborhood lately."

This guy isn't taking chances, is he. Bad neighborhood, what the hell happened here?

"Don't worry, sir! I've got our official SOS Brigade group photo," Haruhi said with aplomb as she whipped out said photo of our previous escapade. Of course. The bonafide proof was poor, sweet Mikuru smiling bravely for the camera as she was held unwillingly by Haruhi's arm with the rest of us on the foreground, and I wasn't even trying fake a smile for the birdie. Yuki's expression remained neutral as always.

"I see." He furrowed his brow examining the photo. "I'll let you know in but I'm gonna keep an eye one all of ya." He briskly walked to the door and unlocked it with his master key. We all fell in.

Mikuru's apartment - allegedly as we're in the future, was furnished as I'd expect of Mikuru. As a matter of fact, I never knew what Mikuru's taste and furnishings are like until I saw it for the first time - and was disappointed.

"Huh? None of it is cutesy as I'd expect of her." Damn right, Haruhi. A lot of her possessions and furnishings are what a typical teenage girl would keep. And I'm also reminded that she's technically a senior as I noticed some of the items are to the taste of a single woman of college age would possess.

"Well, here's the room," declared the supervisor. "As you can see it's empty unless she's hiding in the closet."

"Really?" And Haruhi did just that, brushing past the super to check said closet.

"What the- Hey!"

Haruhi had just checked the closet. "Nah! She ain't here." She swooped for the bathroom.

"Hey! You can't just come in here!" The super was getting annoyed with Haruhi charging headlong. She looked into the small bathroom.

"Man, empty..." She crossed her arms, disappointed. Probably expecting Mikuru to curled up against the wall, helpless.

Or dead!

That random thought just flashed in my mind, and only for a millisecond. And no way I thought it up! It was barely a sharp whisper. It SOUNDED like a sharp croaking hiss. My eyes flitted across the room, looking for the source as Haruhi made an interesting day for the poor guy.

"Hey, watch it," the super warned. "She may be your friend but this my tenement building."

"Are there other places for her to hide?" she questioned.

"Unless she started carving a hidey hole above the ceiling, no, and I'd kick anyone out for it." He really meant serious business. "She hadn't come back for three days.

Haruhi turned an eye to me. "Hey Kyon, you said she called you last night. Do you know where she is?"

"Yes, she did. But how was I supposed to know she left here three days ago?" I refuted. "She was with us yesterday, right?"

"Miss Suzumiya is really concerned for Mikuru Asahina," Itsuki finally said. "We apologized for having barged in an inopportune moment."

The guy seemed to ease a little. "I see. What're friends for?"

"Hey, that's impossible, we were with her yesterday!" Haruhi blurted.

"I got it all on surveillance camera. Come to my office."

"A surveillance camera? You weren't perving on anybody, are you?" Haruhi asked in sly mischief.

Old man blinked his eyes. "You think I installed cameras in the rooms? You kids and your damned memes."


We arrived at the office in the ground floor and he booted the computer, going through a folder titled SECURITY FOOTAGE. That's about as subtle as Haruhi. Would you mind trying to relabel it in the odd chance that somebody would try to break-in your computer to delete evidence of home invasion and the like?

Selecting the video in question, the player popped up, buffered a bit and started playing. The camera had a a clear view point through the corridor with good peripheral vision of the landing and elevator, allowing it to observe from the farthest room to the stairs. It can also focus and rotate at will when needed.

He also clicked on the players of the stairs and front for good measure. All videos have footage of Mikuru.

We looked at the screen as the video played on the computer, dated to back to the three days that lapsed after her leaving here. "Yeah, this was taken at six in the evening on the night she left." Mikuru was seen with a bag of groceries walking through the corridor. She looks flustered but otherwise normal.

"That's a lot of groceries," Haruhi noted.

"Enough to feed a large family," the super noted, "nothing out of the ordinary in my book."

"She looks awfully tired," she added as she watch her reduced to a small sliver of a person and enter her room, side by side videos from the second floor camera and the other at the far end, which showed cloese up.

"That confirms it."

He fast-forwarded to eight in the evening, her face looked looked she walked out of a hurricane. Then her eyes were wide open and her face a whole lot paler with stringy locks of her once-brilliant red hair framing it. She was looking around the hallway as though someone was stalking her. Her movement was slow and hesitant, like she was ready to jump and sprint downstairs. Looking at her this was adult Mikuru, not the teenage girl I saw from six o'clock. The frightened girl was fidgeting her hands.

Then she looked up at the camera. Those frightened eyes got me, their stare seemed almost like I was watching this when it happened. Those eyes were locked with mine. Then I noticed a kind of revulsion in them, like she saw something unnatural. She staggered back a bit, her mouth open as if to scream. Then she darted furtively about, as if trying to see who was on her tail. She then went for the furthers, which the other players showed her hurrying down the stairs and out into the night.

"Whoa!" Haruhi exclaimed.

"Dear goodness..." Itsuki breathed. Don't mince words, please.

"Creepy as hell," muttered the super. "Didn't take the elevator."

"Where did she go?" she asked.

"She never came back since then. Where she is right now I got no idea. She just cut out and ran. I'm surprised to hear that she was with you at school yesterday." More like yesterday from seveteen years ago. Yuki's bubble is doing a great job of keeping Haruhi out of the loop. She thought she was still seeing high-school Mikuru and we are still in 2010.

Haruhi's interested got perked up. "Did she say when she'll come back?"

"God knows," he exclaimed, exasperated. "Her rent's due tomorrow, I supposed she went home to collect money for rent. I never knew anyone to be that worried about rent before." You saw her acting that weirdly and you're worried about rent!?

"She left suddenly and without explanation," she exclaimed, "doesn't that strike you as strange?" She turned to us. "Let's take her things and see why she ran off like that."

"Hey, if you're serious as what you say," the super said seriously, "I suggest you get the cops, file a missing persons report. Her stuff stays here unless it's cops, her, or next of kin gonna pick up it all up. It could all be nothing for all I now."

"Can I look at the videos?"

"Knock yourself off," Haruhi and the super said in unison. They seem to come an agreement on that instantly as an afferthought.

I checked the videos while they talked, Haruhi and her outlandish assertions rebuffed by the super. The computer had something like a facial recognition program to distinguish tenants registered in the tenement's occupancy. I dragged Mikuru's profile with her face on it to the blank square off the program and then came a list of videos with time stamps of her appearance. So much. I started scrolling the computer through various dates, at a week before Mikuru's last night here at the very least.

One by one I searched and there was nothing unusual about her behavior from these appearances. Sometimes she comes home fine and others tired. She seemed to be carrying a portfolio in some of the videos...

Portfolio?

I turned to Yuki, who stood by in a corner while Haruhi and Itsuki were talking and gestured her to come over. I pointed what I saw and asked her, "Can you get copy of the videos while I search Mikuru's room some more?"

"Yes, Kyon," she replied and a fine needle emerged from the tip of her finger. "I deployed a data jurisdiction to cover your absence. Please hurry, I cannot maintain it for long and the jurisdiction would be subject to interference." She then tapped the computer with the needle.

"I'll see what I can find." With that the world around me suddenly turn blue as I walked out off the room and upstairs. On my way up, I saw how the interior looked like it lost its luster from earlier but it still was acceptable to the eyes. That means I'm in 2027. I raced up the stairs, deciding the elevator wasn't worth it with Yuki's warning in mind.

The building seemed desolate, with my footfalls echoing with every step I took up the stairs and through the hall to Mikuru's room. Why the hell did it have to be in the far end? There was the same subtle drabness that seemed to creep through the veneer of the interior. I made to the door and turned the knob. Shit, it's locked.

I looked back and thought it would be pointless to run back to get a card key to the room. "Yuki, can you open the door for me?" It was said aloud enough to be heard but the echoing made it much louder. That sends a chill on my back. Data jurisdictions, similarly to closed spaces were never really that scary but they weren't entirely safe either. Case on point: Ryoko Asakura, who first introduced to me that.

I noticed that there was the moaning sound of the wind outside. It gradually grew louder, more hollow, more desolate. For a second or so I hesitated before turning the knob. It finally opened. It was the way it was when I saw it. I Having to work quickly and carefully without having to ransack the place, I looked around for the portfolio and anything of interest.

I noticed Mikuru's taste in music and literature were not what I'd seen earlier. Korean pop, Scandinavian ambient music, Haruki Murakami, some French, Dutch and Scandinavian noir novels. There were also textbooks and study notes. I took out my phone, turned on the lights to photograph...

What the hell! I decided to take all the stuff in. With this impending disaster coming, I don't think stealing potential evidence is the least of my problems. I took a bag from the closet and stuff what I think is important - the papers, books, music, anything that could be carried. I also used my smartphone to take close-up pictures of what I can't take with me. If you're asking how I'm supposed to sneak it away, I'll deal with it as I go along. I almost forget about the cameras, where they're positioned. I hope Yuki cut the feed within the closed space. I did not look forward to an angry super putting us in for robbery.

On my way out the howling noise had changed. It sounded more skeletal and the air around me took a dip in temperature. It was chilling me. The hallway seemed to be lit cold. The end to the stairs seemed very far away, each step I took seemed louder, like I was in a seemingly vast chamber.

There was some crackle of electricity but they weren't coming from the lights. It sounded in a series of those soft crackles, then buzzing, then droning. I had to keep going. I rushed on, fighting the urge to start running down back to the office. There was the smell of something burnt, the smell of ozone. I heard something on the side, the elevator! It was indicating someone was coming up.

Shit, Yuki's jurisdiction was failing it seems. I forced myself to continue but the elevator door opened. I dare not look back. A cliche in horror movies is often that running entices the monster to chase you and to look back is to get running. I need to get it together if-

"Kyon!"

That voice! It couldn't be... I couldn't believe my eyes! "Mikuru...?"

The beautiful redhead was in front of me. "Kyon, what are you doing here?"

I couldn't answer right away, seeing that is finally alive and well. "W-we w-were looking for you. Y-you're alive, thank God!" I couldn't contain my relief.

"Kyon, you can't be here!" she snapped.

I was taken aback. "What?"

To see her dishevelment that I saw in the footage was different from seeing it up front. Her skin had no glow, it was drained of any color, making her pasty-pale. Her stringy-red hair reminded me of dried, matted blood. Her eyes were wild, with deep rings around them. She looked both unhinged and pitiful.

"Kyon, you should not be here!" Her voice was hoarse and angry. "Your presence will interfere with the timeline..." The moment our eyes met, there was a pause. The pupils dilated, the crystal azure orbs shrank into the sea of white surrounded by red veins. "Do you even know what the hell are you doing?" It came out as a worried whisper.

This confuses me, worries me. "Mikuru, tell me what's wrong. We can help you."

She shook her head wildly, like she can't quite believe that I'm here. "There's no way you can help me!" She took a wary step back. She looked up to the surveillance cameras. She pointed her finger at me still facing it. "Who do you think that is there!? Is this what you want me to see!? HUH!?"

I just stood there, bewildered, and not understanding what or why. It's like she's accusing me. I forced myself a bit forward, extending my hand. "Mikuru, what's going on-"

"Don't touch me!" she screamed, before dashing back to the elevator. I followed after her.

"Mikuru, wait-"

"Kyon, get back to the office now." Yuki's voice echoed throughout the hallway. "The jurisdiction is in threat of collapse. Leave her."

But I didn't listen and went after Mikuru. She rounded the corner back inside. I was too late as the doors slid back together, denying me entry with her.

I would've stood there like an idiot but lights started flickering. The echoing outside turned to hollow howls and scraping shrieks. I started running, keeping my grip on the bag holding all the potential clues to our current predicament, and not looking back. It was all a blur because I was already down and halfway through the lobby, reaching the office. By then my hand was on the knob and I slipped back in.

And I was back. I took a breath. The clock on the wall told me that not a second had passed after I left. Everyone looked at me, the super had the most questioning gaze of all. "Where were you?"

"Uh, I was just at the toilet," I replied, keeping a stutter down my throat and quietly slipping the bag behind me out of sight.

"That's funny," he quipped, "I swore I saw you over the computer a minute ago."

"I really had to go, I couldn't hold it. Two sodas on the way wasn't a smart idea."

"How'd you get to the bathroom then?" The man was skeptical.

"I saw it on the way in," I replied.

"Where?"

"Under the stairs, next to the broom closest."

"Huh? You couldn't get here from there and back in under two minutes."

"I was in a hurry. I also wanted to get back to the videos as soon as possible, think I might have an idea about what happened."

"Really?" Haruhi butted in as usual. "What did you see?"

She butted in as always, inadvertently pushing aside the super muttering at side about modern youth's impoliteness. Now she was inches from my face, her eyes boring into mine, demanding what I have to say.

Being put on the spot like a deer in the headlights is always a tense, embarrassing moment as I try to come up with something. Placating her was gonna a bitch, no pun intended, and it had to be at least convincing without making her subconsciously make the situation even worse than it already is.

"I think Mikuru has indeed left to see family," I said.

Haruhi looked at me. "Is that all you've got? After watching all those videos and giving a look over at the evidence, that's lamest conclusion you can come up."

"Come on, Haruhi, hear me out, I can explain what I saw on the videos before she left all of a sudden."

"Smart kid," commented the super.

She pouted, arms crossed. "Fine, if that's what you wanna believe. Tell me, why'd she go off and left?"

Thinking on my feet, I thought. "When we were in her room, I spied a list of dates. I think it's her itinerary because with each date is a task she has to do. She lists a cousin among those."

"Really, why didn't you say so before, Kyon?"

"The super was us with and I didn't realize it at the time. I only thought checking the footage on the hunch-"

"Yeah, that they're dates, I get it," she said brusquely, figuring out the obvious next. "Tell me why she's so worried in those videos?"

"Best I can guess is that she may have been overwhelmed with her obligations and lost track of what she needs to be doing."

"Why didn't she just say so?" Haruhi looked surprised.

Do you even care that she has a life outside of your club, bitch? It happened again. This time I'm certain it wasn't me thinking of it, but not really hearing of it either.

I mentally shrugged the chills away and said, "Well, I don't think she wants to worry us too much. It's personal business after all." He nudged the pillow cases with my foot to put them out of sight.

"Giving us undue worry is the Brigade's business if she can't spell it out." She sighed. There was some concern that was masked by her annoyance. She turned to the super. "How about we take a look in her room again?"

He crossed his arms. "That would be no."

"What do you mean 'no'?"

"Because that's her property, not yours," he answered firmly, "and it's housed in this property which I'm charge in."

"But we're her friends," she protested.

"So? That changes nothing. I don't take chances with everything here and I already took that chance with you. Like I said, this place is in a bad neighborhood, and I'm not about lose my job because people claiming they're sent here to pick up some stuff. The next thing you know- Wham! Everything's gone when a tenant comes back and I get burned for it." Now how the hell do I get these out of here before they notice?

"We don't do that, we just want a peek," she explained back.

"And you're all bird watching," he bit back, "call it whatever you want, that stuff stays in her room until the rent is paid and she leaves. The only way anyone else is gonna see the inside with everything in it are bonafide family or cops."

"Fine, we'll get the cops then." Haruhi is bringing up the artillery already.

"You better wait a day before filing a missing person's report. She might be coming in tomorrow and you might all just be crying wolf over nothing."

"And if she doesn't?" You're not willing to give up the jugular, are you?

The super looked at her with wizened eyes. "Then you hope it wasn't for the worse. A lot of things had changed here in the past seventeen years. Not all of it good." He let the words hang in the air for them to sink in. I certainly caught that.

Itsuki cleared his throat, bringing attention back to the now. "Thank for helping us, sir. My apologies for any misunderstanding we may have caused."

"Don't mention it, I've had enough problems as it is."

"Miss Suzumiya, I think we must leave," he suggested, "best we wait and see."

Haruhi, sensing she has to concede defeat, nodded reluctantly. "Yeah, let's just go." We all left the room silently. I was the last to go out when I realized I forgot the clue loot. I cast apprehensive eyes at the office when Yuki tapped my arm.

"I have acquired your collected items," she said in her usual tone.

I sighed in relief. "Thanks, Yuki. Whatever is in there is the key to finding Mikuru." And hopefully saving her and everybody.


I can say we were at the apartment for roughly under forty minutes but it felt like two hours, possibly more, due to the approaching dusk. It was an eventual forty minutes for me, strictly discounting the time spent in the closed space created by Yuki to help me retrieve clues inside Mikuru's apartment.

"Hate it," Haruhi finally said.

"Hate what?" I asked.

"Doing nothing," she answered me, "it's like staring at brick wall knowing what's behind but having no way to climb or get through it."

Of course, Haruhi, you wouldn't just give up like that. "Haruhi, there's not much to go on with. He might be right, you know? Besides, he can't just let us in again. We really don't have much of a choice but to wait it out."

"But I just can't," she retorted, "there's something that stinks about this, I can feel it." She looked at me. "That's what guy instinct is all about, right?"

"That's true, but that's only good if you have fine-tune it with years of experience," I pointed out. "I'm fairly certain that she's okay."

"And why is that?" she retorted to me. "What makes you say she'll just turn up tomorrow?"

Stalling time, gotta quench the flames of her curiosity. "Because the mundane, statistically speaking, is the most likely explanation, it must be the first explanation in the absence of any other credible evidence." Dear God, I sound like a lawyer. "And when that falls flat, you dig deeper for something else, understand why it makes sense and why it can't, rinse and repeat until only things left at the bottom are the outlandish, the unlikely, and the extremely grave, these assumptions are the last things to consider as credible when nothing else can hold up. In short, you don't put all your eggs in one basket anything without a fair amount of certainty, especially one that's waterproof."

Haruhi looked annoyed, furious at the thought being hobbled down against any action. Then she turned away. "You're right. I just don't like the idea of sitting by and not knowing what's happening to her right now."

"Just jumping into the fire will only make it worse for everyone." We seem to be going nowhere in particular. "Say, why don't we stop the park for a while, just to cool off a bit."

Haruhi was looking upset at this point, at being denied any call to action. Her expression changed. "Yeah, that sounds like an idea. Let's go." With that we all followed her to that one big green space in the city, acting like it was still 2010, a silent procession in the hustle and bustle of this future Nishinomiya.

There were fewer people at the park but then it's a weekend. The whole place better attended, a lot less litter and much less overgrowth but then there was a lot less people, especially now that people are leaving the place. Haruhi sat on the grass facing the small pond, letting the anxious energy deprived of an outlet like a detective adventure leak off and dissipate into the surrounding air. I can see her face was pensive and longing. That's good for us so we left nature to cool her while we all gathered and discuss what's really going on.


"Pheasant, This is Hiram, we're in Point Maple, three clicks from Goal Post. We've got eyes on you, over."

"Copy that, Hiram, what's your status?"

"Secure above on high ground, good visibility, going on overwatch."

"Give me a sit-rep on the ground, over."

"Evening rush hour is slowly picking up but civilian presence within the perimeter remains negligible. No hostiles identified, no irregular wave activity detected. Subject Alpha remains at Condition Mauve."

"Affirmitive, Hiram, confirm Alpha remains at Condition Mauve, no particulate destabilization. What about ground elements?"

"I can see call-signs Cobbler, Thresher, Lathe in position, already sweeping the perimeter but no sign of Owl, Rake, and Shelby."

"Copy that. All elements, sound off, over."

"Pheasant reporting."

"Cobbler reporting."

"Lathe on-site and reporting."

"Thresher copy."

"Goal Post copy."

"Roger all. Goal Post, can you track callsigns Owl, Rake, and Shelby, how copy over?"

"Solid copy. Owl, Rake, and Shelby are being diverted to hotspots in the suburbs. Direct orders from Estate. Unknown on when all are available. Over."

*heavy sighing* "Estate, this is Hiram, over."

"Roger, Hiram. This is Estate."

"Interrogative: where is UAV patrol I requested. How copy, over?"

"Hiram, solid copy, affirmative on that, priority tasking UAV on Grid: 1112895. ETA 10 mikes, over."

"Roger that, Estate. Interrogative: will additional back up be available, how copy?"

"Solid copy, Aran. QRF is on standby at your call. So far general situation remains stable. Will advise as situation develops."

"Understood. Aran out."


A/N: I hope you read this, superstarultra. It's good to know you're safe and sound, especially in these trying times.

Something that's lamentable for me is the sorry state of FFN. The archive is left to seed by a neglectful admin staff who are more reactionary than proactive to issues and complaints on this site. Top it all off are the rampant trolls, spammers/spambots, and poser "critics" who prowl it, dropping electronic grafitti and publicly flay authors alive in their own fics for falling short to their interpretation of FFN regulation adherence respectively without the delicadeza or courage to even PM them for what they did wrong, my own experience can attest to that, especially how gratingly haughty and smug they are when being PM'd. Gatekeeping is becoming a fad, isn't it? Spammer/bots need no introduction except for their looking for quickies in hopes of someone going against their better judgement. Adding insult to injury is the rampant ads powered by Google being shoved into the reading experiences of users and visitors on this site. Once upon a time, FFN implemented a system that keeps anyone to copypaste a fic to avoid copyright disputes among writers within the site, adding a feature that allowed readers to purchase copies for the fic so the site and possibly writers can have revenue, now those features, for whatever reason, are removed entirely, which does not solve anything about settling user disputes concerning site regulation violations, trolling, copying other writers' content, or simple, uncomplicated copypasting for later reading. FFN probably does not get anything from the Google-powered ads or is given what probably amounts to an insultingly low pittance, my opinion on the matter.

Point is that it's not complaining about what happened to me or FFN. What mattered is the fire inside you keeps burning, keeps pushing to do what you enjoyed. In spite of all these problems, FFN still thrives. I can only hope with improved service and a new community spirit will there be a new golden age in fanfiction. It is a fanciful optimism but one must keep hope in the face of adversity, even if it's the only thing going here. Soon, we might just see those better times.