Heyo. My apologies for the long wait for this chapter. I finished it ages ago. In explanation, I've been waiting until I had completed updates for ALL of my stories before posting it and them in one go.

Anyway, here (at long last!) is:



By Doctor-T


Upon being told of his errant daughter's exceedingly unauthorized stowaway time travel trip, Keitaro's stress level - quite high enough already after finding out from Su about the new, heretofore totally unplanned and unsuspected natural child that he had somehow managed to father without his conscious knowledge or his consent – instantly went rocketing to stratospheric heights. Ten seconds after receiving the bad news, the shocked father had made it down from the balcony to the living quarters, setting a new speed record in the process. Once there, he then lost no time in stammering out to Nyamo and Su what had happened to their missing girl.

Once the grim tale had been relayed on to his wife and best friend, pandemonium ensued. Su, tears streaming down her cheeks, immediately raced for the launch hanger to check inside her time machine for any evidence of Little Motoko's earlier presence there. Simultaneously, Keitaro sent Sarah, Masayuki and the twins off with Tama-chan and a plenitude of torches to check on the far distant aforementioned cave, just in case Motoko-chan had changed her mind about stowing away and gone around the lake to her isolated training base after all.

Even as he got things moving, Keitaro prayed to every god he had ever heard of that she had indeed done just that. But knowing Little Motoko's predilection for carrying out her plans, no matter what the obstacles were barring its path to fruition, he really didn't hold out much hope of there being that happy an ending to this desperate situation.

Naru and Mutsumi, having heard the sudden commotion, came running towards the spacious lounge along the hallway that led to their new rooms. The concerned pair arrived on the frenetic scene just in time to see and somehow dodge the stampede of kids who were precipitatiously leaving the room via the same doorway they were about to use.

"Guys, I heard shouting," Naru worriedly inquired, turning back to face her hosts after first giving the retreating backs of the children a confused stare. Coming to a halt, her startled eyes flickered back and forth between Keitaro and Nyamo's pale, distraught faces. "What's going on? And was that the real Sarah McDougal that I just saw, then, Keitaro? Su told me earlier about her recreating a lifelike copy of Sarah, but no robot could possibly be that real looking – could it?"

"Yes, it can," Keitaro responded, his voice sounding tight and strained to the ears of the new arrivals. "That was Sarah-A, Su's – oh, look, Naru, I'll fill you in on her later! Right now we've got a situation on our hands!"

As she heard that foreboding announcement from her host, the worried expression returned to Naru's face. "A situation?" she urgently prompted him. "Keitaro, what exactly is going on?"

"And are you all right, Kei-kun?" Mutsumi asked with concern, not failing to notice the haunted look in his eyes. Not to mention the tears flowing from Nyamo's ones, as well.

"No, no, I'm not, Mutsumi," Keitaro replied, slumping down on the couch next to his weeping wife and taking her into his arms to try to give her some much needed comfort. "This is what's happened-"

After getting the rundown on the dire situation from the more-than-visibly upset head of the household, both newcomers also flopped down onto a seat next to each other, concern etched onto their own faces at this totally unforeseen bad news.

"Oh, crap! Oh, crap!" Naru gasped out. "Are you absolutely sure that's what happened to her, Keitaro?"

"Pretty much," he answered, handing over the note that young Masayuki had given him, for Naru and Mutsumi to read. "I've just now sent our oldest kids off to check the cave on the far side of the lake where Little Motoko sometimes trains at, but after seeing this…?" He shrugged his shoulders helplessly. "Well, things certainly don't look good."

"Ohmygod!" Naru exclaimed, her eyes widening, the note that she was reading having just jogged her memory. During her last minute rescue from certain doom in 2002, she recalled having caught a momentary glimpse through the thick, swirling smoke in Su's room, of a third and much smaller figure exiting the time machine just after Keitaro and Su had done so. And now Keitaro's anguished words had just confirmed it to her – the tiny figure she had seen must have been their missing girl.

"Keitaro, Nyamo, I think that I saw a girl back in Su's jungle room at the Hinata Apartments just before you – ah – put me to sleep, Keitaro," the teen then slowly admitted, a guilty look appearing on her face at not having brought the subject up before. "She came out of the flying thing you rescued me in, and then vanished into the smoke. I never saw her again after that, so I thought that I might have been imagining things…"

"What? You saw Motoko-chan, Naru?" Keitaro yelled in surprise, his head jerking upwards again, Nyamo's doing the same. "In Su's old room at the Hinata Apartments?"

"Yes, I…I think so. Well, the girl who I saw must have been her." Then the hazel brunette's expression changed to one of anguish as she realized what Keitaro and Su's rescue of her had cost them. "Oh, god, no? Keitaro, Nyamo, I'm so sorry! You lost a child while saving me!"

The ashen-faced Naru buried her face in her hands, feeling like total crap once more. As she noticed her friend's distress, Mutsumi slid over on the seat and slipped her arms tightly around the guilt-laden girl once again.

"No, no, Naru-san, you mustn't think like that," the turtle lady solemnly declared, cradling Naru's tearful face on her near shoulder as if she were a child. "It's not your fault! Who would have thought that anything like this would even happen to us? And when it did, you had no idea that you were even going to be rescued, let alone that a child would stow away on Kei-kun and Su-san's transport, and then get left behind!"

Seeing Naru's distress, Nyamo Urashima, despite her own misery, immediately got up from her seat next to her husband and hurried over to Naru's couch to help Mutsumi comfort her conscience-stricken friend.

"Don't cry, Naru," the Pararakelse beauty gently consoled the crying teen, hugging her cheek-to-cheek as well, their trickling tears intermingling in shared sorrow. "Keitaro and I agree that you are in no way to blame for Motoko-chan's plight. And I'm sure that Su agrees with us, too."

"Th-thanks, guys," Naru choked, looking across at her concerned hostess, her reddened, moisture-filled eyes meeting Nyamo's kindly but no-less-upset ones with difficulty. "But…I still can't help feeling a little guilty about it. You came back through time to save us, to save me, and you lost one of your children in the process. Was I – am I really worth that much of a sacrifice to you?"

Tactfully, neither Nyamo nor Keitaro answered that sobering question with a straight yes or no answer.

"Like I just said, Naru, it's not your fault," Nyamo merely repeated. "Little Motoko chose to do this of her own free will, without our knowledge or consent. As we had no idea at all she was going to stow away for the trip, there's nothing that we – and especially you - could have possibly done to prevent her from being left behind."

"Oh…okay, Nyamo…" Naru sniffled. "Thank you…for saying that."

"Did…Little Motoko-chan, wasn't it?…know what was going to happen to the Hinata Apartments just after you and Su-san arrived on the scene from the future to rescue us, Kei-kun?" Mutsumi abruptly asked, a thoughtful expression appearing on her face.

"Yes, she did," Keitaro responded, clearly puzzled as to why their conversation had suddenly taken this particular turn. "All of our kids know the story of how the Hinata Apartments were destroyed and why Su and I have to live hidden away here at the oasis. So, what exactly are you getting at here, Mutsumi?"

"Er, what exactly am I saying here? Um – oh, yes! My point is your little girl, Motoko-chan, knew in advance that the atomic explosion was imminent, Kei-kun," the turtle girl pointed out to her despondent audience. "So don't you think she would have previously thought up some alternative escape plan to get far enough away from the apartments before it happened, should she be unlucky enough to get left behind when you departed again?"

"Well, maybe," Keitaro dubiously conceded. "But how in the heck does an elementary school age girl hope to outrun an atomic blast in less than two minutes? It's impossible!"

"Well, what about those flying escape thingies that Su-san told me about earlier?" Mutsumi pressed him. "Do you think that maybe Motoko-chan could have got on board one of them in time to save herself?"

After hearing their watermelon-loving friend's optimistic 'what if' scenario, Keitaro and Nyamo exchanged speculative, wide-eyed glances. If only that was true…?

"I have to admit that it's a possibility, Mutsumi," Keitaro finally stated, his heart hammering with not entirely unfounded new hope for a happy ending to this fiasco, after all. "Su did design the rescue pods to save anyone they could find in the immediate vicinity of the apartments and then make a run for it to the safety zone behind the hills." The ex-ronin then clutched at his tousled hair with both hands, his voice raised in a desperate plea. "Oh, God! If Motoko really did stow away back to 2002 with Su and I, I hope that she had the common sense to let herself be spotted by a pod? And if a pod did grab her, it managed to get far enough away from the apartments to stand a chance of surviving the blast?"

"If your little girl really did travel back with you to rescue us, there's still a chance that she's still alive back in 2002, Kei-kun," Mutsumi prompted him, certainty in her eyes and voice. "And there's only one way that you're going to find out for sure."

"You're right, Mutsumi." Keitaro then turned his head to face Nyamo, looking down into her tear streaked, dark blue eyes.

"Sweetie, if it turns out that Naru was right and she really did see Little Motoko in Su's old room, there's no way I can just sit here and do nothing about it," he declared in a determined tone, trying hard to project an optimistic face, and not doing all that good a job of it, unfortunately. "I'm definitely going to go back to 2002 with Su in the time machine to look for her. We'll do out very best to save her, but…um...?" He clutched at his wife's dainty brown hands, and steeled his voice. "Well, we also may have to prepare ourselves for the for the fact that Motoko-chan may not have - oh, never mind! I'm going, regardless of the odds of success, just as soon as Su gets back and we can fire up the time machine again!"

That's just like you, Keitaro, the morose Naru mused silently as her anxiety-stricken hosts hugged each other tight. Always ready and willing to go the extra mile for others, no matter what the risk to your own self. And now that you've fully matured into a real man, somehow I can't help thinking that there's nothing that you can't accomplish any more…

Damn, damn, damn, damn! Why couldn't I have just said those four little words to make you mine, back when I had the chance?

I love you, Keitaro…!


Ten minutes later, the still visibly upset Molmol woman arrived back in the spacious sitting room in the center of their living quarters, her woebegone demeanor showing that the news she was bearing had to be bad.

"It's true, Kei-Baby, Nyamo," Su confirmed to the unspoken question of her friends and family, tears still trickling down her smooth cheeks at what she had discovered. "I hate to say this, but Motoko-chan really was on board our time machine when we made the jump back to 2002. I've just checked out the time machine, and I found where she was hiding out in the underfloor tool locker." Su held up a small, cylindrical object for all to see. "Lookies! She left this behind on the floor."

At that final confirmation of the bad news, Nyamo immediately burst out into tears again, and Keitaro had never felt more like turning on his own waterworks than at that moment, also.

"Oh, Kaolla, I'm so sorry!" the Pararakelse woman cried out as she and Su hugged each other tightly. "Our poor little girl!"

But Keitaro had to be strong for his wife and Su's sakes, so instead of giving way to despair, he fought back his own tears and raised his head up from his hands to stare at the used anti-radiation injection in the Molmol woman's outstretched right hand.

"Well, at least Motoko-chan had the sense to give herself an anti-radiation shot. So, if she somehow managed to survive the nuclear explosion, she shouldn't die of radiation poisoning from it, at any rate," he stated with forced cheer, trying hard to find some reason – any reason - to still remain optimistic about their six-year-old kendoist's admittedly slim chances of survival. "And it's not over yet – not by a long shot! We do have a working time machine, remember? We can and will save her, if I have to spend the rest of my life making jumps back there, trying!"

As she listened to the grim determination in the older Keitaro's voice, Naru once again felt a surge of pride at the strength and maturity he had developed over the intervening years. But then, the unwelcome knowledge that she had lost him to another girl intruded into Naru's mind, abruptly reducing her to regretful despondency once more.

"Oh, my? That's the spirit, Kei-kun," the equally impressed Mutsumi enthused, clapping her hands in approval. "You and Su can save her, I know that you can! After all, you've already saved me, and Naru-san, too, haven't you?"

Keitaro nodded, then looked down at his Pararakelse wife as she moved forward to his side, to clutch tightly her husband's near arm.

"I'll…I'll be really worried about you both if you and Su do risk another time travel trip, but if there's any chance – any chance at all - that Motoko-chan has survived, you both have my blessing to go," Nyamo hesitantly told him and Su. "Please, please save her, Keitaro?" Her gaze then moved from her husband's face to meet the Molmol woman's sea-green eyes in appeal. "And please bring them both safely back to me, Su."

"Don't worry, Sweetie, we will," Keitaro promised his wife, Kaolla nodding concurrence to his words as well. "I swear, if Little Motoko's still alive, we'll bring her safely back home."

"Scout's honor," Su promised, flashing the sign.

I hope…? They both added under their breath.

Even at this late stage in the proceedings, Keitaro kept forcing himself not to think the unthinkable – that Little Motoko had been caught up in the nuclear funeral pyre, after all, and she was now nothing more than a scattering of random radioactive atoms, spread far and wide across the blasted landscape of their youth.

"Thank you both." And then a subtle warning tone entered into Nyamo's voice. "Keitaro, Kaolla, while you're gone, try not to take any unnecessary risks, okay?"

"Hey, Nyamo, it's me, remember?" Su replied, giving the still worried looking wife a brave smile and a thumbs-up. "We'll make it – all three of us!"

"Well, then, now that it's decided, what are we waiting for," Keitaro prompted Su; hurriedly pecking Nyamo goodbye on her lips and then jumping back up to his feet, ready and eager to get their new rescue mission underway without further ado. "Let's fire up your time machine right now, and we'll go back to 2002 and start searching for Little Miss Imp!"

"I'm with you, Kei-Baby, but there's just one problem - we can't leave straight away," Su pointed out to them, a frustrated expression appearing on her face as she thought of all of the vitally necessary preparations that had to be done first. "It'll take me almost a week to check for damage from the mission that we just got back from, work through the maintenance list, run diagnostics on the computer flight, navigation and sensor systems, and refuel," she then quickly elaborated, jerking her right thumb back in the general direction of the hanger complex. "It's far too dangerous not to take all of these precautions, first. Unless you're planning on leading us on a one-way suicide mission, of course?"

"What? A week, you say?" the fidgety father blurted out, waving his arms with agitation at the unexpected and most unwelcome delay to their rescue of their daughter. "Why that long?"

"Like I said before, plotting a time jump isn't like catching a bus into town," Su explained, her demeanor showing that she, too, was none too happy at being unable to take instant action to rectify the tragic situation. "Sure, I did leave the other end of my captive wormhole back in 2002, it's entrance shrunk down to microscopic size until we need it again, so under normal circumstances the trip back to then shouldn't be a problem. But for safety's sake, I have to give the time machine a good going over first. Or do you really want to take the risk of something shorting out while we're back in 2002, leaving us all stranded there? And if that were to happen, you know as well as I do what the cops will do to us if they catch us! Japan still has the death penalty even in this day and age, you know!"

Keitaro shifted uneasily in his seat. "Okay, I understand that we're still on their most wanted list," he conceded, a cold chill tingling up his spine at the frightening thought of being executed as a nuclear terrorist by the Justice System of his much missed country of birth. "But it's Motoko-chan's life that is at stake here! Can't you speed up the maintenance, or something, Su?"

"Maybe. But even if I can't, I wouldn't worry too much about our departure being delayed, Kei-Baby," Su told him, forcing her worried mind to logically think their situation through. "The good news is that since we have a working time machine, it doesn't really matter what day we leave here to go back to 2002. That's because - provided that my new calculations for our return journey are correct, of course - we'll still arrive at the exact time and place we need to be to rescue Motoko-chan."

"How…just how do you figure that, Su?" Nyamo asked, her brow furrowing with puzzlement. "In that case, surely a whole week would have gone by in 2002, as well as here in 2027?"

"Nup! Just because a week may go by for us in the future, doesn't mean that we have to let a whole week also go by after the explosion in the past," Su elucidated, putting on her lecturers hat. "And here's why, Nyamo-Sweetie. Since Kei-Baby and I made it safely home in one piece from our last mission, I now possess proven space-time co-ordinates to the exact location of the Hinata Apartments back in 2002. Which means that, after doing a bit of extra math with those true co-ordinates, I should be able to plot a course back the few extra days that we'll have to travel into the past, no trouble. So, even if we do have to wait an extra week until the servicing and repairs to my time machine are completed, we'll still arrive on location in time to rescue Motoko-chan – although on this trip it would be a very good idea for us not to reappear directly above where Hinata Hot Springs used to be. As distressing as this sounds, 'radioactive hell' is the term I would use to describe ground zero just after the detonation, you see. My time machine is fully shielded from atomic radiation, so we'll be safe enough searching for Motoko-chan from inside it. However, even with the injections and radiation suits we've got, I wouldn't recommend us attempting to do any poking around in the ruins for her on foot."

"All right, we'll play it your way," the now somewhat mollified father conceded, looking a mite deflated at the unavoidable delay to their mercy mission, but realizing that Su was absolutely correct with what she had just said. Safety did come first. "Do what you need to do, and don't take any shortcuts doing it. And Su, if there's anything that I can do to help speed things up for you, don't hesitate to ask me right away, okay?"

"No worries, Kei-Baby. I'm onto it as of now!"

Turning, Su ran from the room, heading back towards the underground hanger. After finding out about this particularly cruel twist of fate, an all-nighter running diagnostics on board her esoteric craft in the cavernous launch bay was definitely on the cards.


It wasn't until lunchtime the next day that Keitaro saw Su again, and that was only because he had volunteered to take the hard working Molmol woman her well-earned lunch. Quite apart from wondering why she hadn't made an appearance at breakfast this morning – an unheard of occurrence - the anxious father also had an ulterior motive for his altruistic action. He was busting for a report on Su's progress so far through the formidable maintenance schedule that had to be completed before they could risk another trip back into the past.

Upon entering the spacious hanger, the lunchbox-toting Keitaro wasn't at all surprised to espy through his sleep-deprived eyes, that a certain small, blonde pre-teen was also present. Sarah was standing upon the uppermost curved antenna of the time machine, which was currently fully extended on its telescoping rod, her slender shape silhouetted against the luminous glow from a bank of roof lights.

Upon arriving back from their expedition around the lake last night with his other kids, upon finding out where her mother had gone, Sarah had immediately departed for the launch bay to help Su out, without even taking time to eat her dinner first. Since Sarah had skipped breakfast this morning too, Keitaro and Nyamo had suspected that he would discover Kaolla's oldest daughter still hard at work on the time machine. So the ever-thoughtful Nyamo had packed a spare meal for her, also.

Their assumption had been correct. And by the looks of things, the blonde girl had remained on the job for the entire night and all morning, as well.

Sarah spotted Keitaro at the same time as he noticed her, and raised up her wrench-filled right hand in a weary though cheery greeting.

"Hi, dork – er, I mean, Dad." Then the artificial girl caught sight of just what her father figure was carrying with him, and she unconsciously licked her lips in a totally human manner. "Hey! Is that our lunch you brought with you, Keitaro?"

"Yup," Keitaro confirmed, grimacing at the annoying nickname, his mind as per usual not even registering that Sarah-A wasn't the original, human girl he had known in his youth. "And don't worry, we figured that you'd still be in here, so Nyamo made sure that I brought enough food for both your mother and you."

"Yay! Thanks, I'm starving!" Sarah whooped. Then an expression of anxious concern abruptly appeared on her petite face at the mention of her third parent. "Oh, by the way, dor-Dad, how's Nyamo-mama bearing up?"

"She's pretty tired, but apart from that, Nyamo's as well as can be expected, Sarah," Keitaro called up to her in reply, his own eyes gritty from their shared lack of sleep through worry last night. "It's being unable to do anything to contribute to saving Motoko-chan that's the main problem with her, and myself, too, I think. At least Su can keep herself busy with the preparations for our rescue mission, while all that Nyamo and I can really do is sit here twiddling our thumbs and worrying ourselves sick for the next week or so."

"Oh…I see. Hey, after lunch, does she need me to go back to the house to help out with any chores or anything else that needs doing?" Sarah offered, looking suitably concerned. "I've just about finished up here."

"No, Naru and Mutsumi and the rest of my brat pack are all helping her out with the routine stuff, so you might as well carry on with what you're doing in here for Su. She needs all the help she can get to speed up the time of departure of our rescue mission." Keitaro then opened the king-sized bento and lifted out a large, bulky food heater bag. "Here. You'd best have your lunch now, while it's still hot."

"You bet! I'm coming down right now!"


After leaving Sarah munching happily away on the extra-large western style burger with fries that Nyamo had packed for her, Keitaro went to look for Su. As expected, he found her ensconced in climate controlled comfort in the cockpit of the disk shaped time machine, sitting in the pilot's seat and busily tapping away on the very complex keyboard built into the curved control panel. Above Kaolla's blonde, ponytailed head, on the main data screen, was displayed an obviously incomplete mathematical formula of such length and complexity that Keitaro felt his brain begin to liquidify just through the simple act of looking at the dozen or so lines of esoteric symbols.

"Oh, hi, Kei-Baby," Su greeted him with a warm smile, looking around from her calculations, which she had been engrossed in, non-stop, for the last four hours. Then Kaolla's green eyes sparkled as she noticed what Keitaro was toting, and like Sarah had done, she licked her lips with enthusiastic anticipation of the feast to come. "Yum! Chowtime, methinks? My hero!"

"Um, thanks, I guess. Well, Nyamo and I couldn't help noticing that both you and Sarah skipped breakfast this morning, and morning tea as well, so Nyamo made sure that I brought a double helping of lunch over to you and Sarah," Keitaro informed his radiant ex, setting the still heavy bento down onto the nearest flat surface. "Hey, have you had any sleep at all since the night before last?"

"Nope. Don't need any, either – well, not just yet, anyway. But I do need food, and plenty of it, if I hope to keep this pace up," Su hinted.

"Well, maybe you'd best take a meal break right now," Keitaro suggested with a grin, handing his best friend the remaining hot food bag out of the box. Then his smile morphed into a loud yawn.

"Whew! Excuse me. I didn't get much sleep myself last night, for obvious reasons."

"Thankies," Su enthused, grabbing the lunch bag and giving it a deep, appreciative sniff, savoring the aroma wafting out from within. After removing an electronic notepad and several abstruse looking micro tools from the seat next to her with her free hand, Su patted its comfortable surface in warm invitation.

"Here, Keitaro, take a load off. You look like you could fall over at any second, and I could do with some company while I eat. Oh, yeah. And I've got a couple of things that I best run past you right now, while I've got the chance."

"Oh? Okay, why not," Keitaro agreed, taking the Molmol woman up on her more than welcome offer of company. He slid down onto the well-padded co-pilot's seat he had used on their first trip back into the past, letting out a relaxed sigh as he lounged back in the luxurious comfort of the recliner.

"Ahhhh. That's better. I needed that. I've been on the go all morning around the house, what with Naru and Mutsumi and the other kids to sort out."

"I figured you would be," Su chuckled, unzipping the temperature-regulating heater bag. "Let's just see what Nyamo packed me – ooh, a super-sized chicken, cheese and banana-burger and fries! Yum!"

"So, what did you need to tell me? I'm all ears," Keitaro prompted his drooling friend, having first treated himself to another impromptu yawn and overhead arm stretch, his arms and fingers fully extended in tension-relieving bliss.

"Hold on, Kei-Baby," Su answered semi-inarticulately back to him through a large mouthful of hot burger. "Mmmmm! I'd best eat up first, before this lovely grub goes cold…"

Keitaro grinned and settled back into his seat again, watching the crumbs fly as Kaolla chomped through her mountainous lunch. To the wistfully daydreaming dad, Su's table manners still brought back fond memories of her past behavior at the meals they had shared together in their youth, back when she was but a hyperactive teenager at the long gone Hinata Apartments. And judging by his current observation of her meal manners, it was more than obvious that the passing of the years hadn't dampened Su's appetite either, that was for sure.

"Right! First off, I'd best make this point clear to you," Su finally began, once the very last French fry had met the same fate as it's gulped down companions. "'Buuurp!' Oh - excuse me."

"I hope that wasn't the point you needed to make," Keitaro smirked, shifting his hands from behind his ruffled hair to fan at the air in front of his face.

"Heh. No, that was just for emphasis. Listen, Kei-Baby, 'cause this is really important," Su then warned him, her facial expression and tone changing from mirth to deadly seriousness for once. "I've been doing some thinking, and I've come up with a potential problem with regards to our coming rescue mission. It's something that we both somehow overlooked before, but unless we're really careful, it has the potential to royally screw up our lives here in the future."

"Oh? And just what might that be, Su?" Keitaro asked, alarm appearing on his face as he paid the grim looking beauty his full attention.

"If we do succeed in rescuing any of our missing friends, it is imperative that we bring them back here to Pararakelse Island in the year 2027, to live with us from this time period onwards. We can't, under any circumstances, leave any of them with our younger selves back in 2002 as we had considered doing."

Keitaro frowned. "Why do you say that, Su," he then asked, assuming an air of puzzlement. "Wouldn't you have liked to have had Motoko and Shinobu and Kitsune and Kanako living with us here at the oasis right from the very start? I sure would've liked that to have happened!"

"Yes, actually I would have liked that, just as much as you. But just think about what them living at the oasis for the last twenty-five years would have meant with regards to our own lives here, Kei-Baby," the Molmol woman prompted him, her expression suggesting that the answer to his question should be blatantly obvious. "Maybe I'd best explain it to ya, just so there's no misunderstandings?"

"Yes, maybe you'd better," the perplexed Keitaro agreed, his brow still wrinkled with a querulous frown.

The reason behind Keitaro's confused demeanor was simple. During their upcoming new rescue mission to find Little Motoko, if he and Su did manage to rescue any of the other Hinata girls and then decide to drop the survivors off at Pararakelse Island back in 2002 instead of bringing them back to 2027, what could the problem with doing that possibly be? He sure couldn't think of any downside to having had a few more of their long-lost friends living with their younger selves and Tama-chan during their long years of exile-to-be.

Su took a deep breath. "Okies, here goes. As is already blatantly obvious to all concerned, you and I and Tama-chan, we've lived for most of our lives totally alone here at our oasis. Well, except for Nyamo and Gidget, of course, who discovered us totally by accident, over a decade after we had first arrived here. Oh, and after I rebuilt her, Robo-Sarah and then Sarah-A has been living with us here, too, as well. 'Ahem!' Anyway, twelve years ago you ended up marrying Nyamo and having a family with her. As for me, I spent years studying, experimenting, and then finally building and testing my time machine. Do you agree with my summation so far?"

"Yes," Keitaro cautiously affirmed. "That's the past twenty-five years of our lives here in a nutshell, I guess?"

"Well, now, imagine what might have happened if even so much as one of the other residents had managed to make it here to the oasis at any time during our already happened past. As an example, let's say that Shinobu somehow made it across the Pacific Ocean to Pararakelse Island, and that she joined us here at the oasis before Nyamo arrived."

"Go on…" Keitaro tentatively requested, not yet getting her point.

"Let's say that you fell in love with Shinobu, and married her instead of Nyamo. Now, how do you think you doing that would have changed our future, Kei-Baby? Would you still have the kids that you do now? Would you even have any kids at all? What I'm trying to say is this - are you willing to take the chance of altering, possibly for the worse, the happy life with your loving family that you are lucky enough to have right now?"

That last comment of Su's did the trick. Keitaro's face paled as he began to mentally speculate on the unknown and potentially tragic consequences of them unintentionally changing their past in a way that could adversly affect their existence in the here-and-now.

"We know from our past history that not one of our friends managed to make it to our oasis since we've been here, except for Nyamo and Gidget," Su continued. "Well, up until yesterday, that is, when we deliberately brought Naru, Mutsumi and Kuro back here from twenty-five years ago. Us saving them and then bringing them back to 2027 in our time machine, thereby jumping the intervening years entirely, ensured that there was absolutely no chance of us having changed what we have already lived through on this island over the last quarter of a century. For if any of our friends were to arrive here even so late as the day before yesterday, it would change our past history. And doing that has to be a no-no – for the sake of your marriage to Nyamo, especially. So to preserve the continuity of our past life here, I strongly suggest that we keep it that way," Su emphasized, finality in her voice.

"Oh – crap. You're right, of course, Su," Keitaro hurriedly agreed, mentally kicking himself for not picking up on this potentially life-altering point of hers right at the start. "I get it, now. We can't risk bringing any of our friends to the oasis back in 2002, or at any other time right up until our first rescue trip yesterday, because if we do, it really could change everything! And, believe me, there's no way that I'm gonna risk losing Nyamo or anyone else in my family by doing anything that could jeopardize my meeting and marrying her!"

"Bingo, Kei-Baby. And here's yet another sobering fact for you to chew on. As you already know, I've been wondering for the past quarter of a century now just how we managed to survive that atomic blast in the first place," Su informed Keitaro, her tone quiet and thoughtful and the light of new understanding shining in her green eyes. "And now I know why."

"Well, Su, I've always put our fluky escape down to your piloting and engineering skills, and to sheer dumb luck," Keitaro responded, the grim look reappearing on his face as he unwillingly recalled the agonizing pain of the burns he had received. During their desperate flight from nuclear annihilation back in 2002, the expanding heat pulse from the exploding reactor had nearly cooked both of them alive before they had managed to outrun it.

"And it was, to a certain extent," Su agreed. "We were lucky. But now I've deduced the key reason why we survived certain death back then, Kei-Baby. Listen, I've known ever since we first escaped from the Hinata Apartments twenty-five years ago, that my mecha-tamago and the two of us should have been vaporized well before we could get far enough away from the nuclear detonation to stand any hope of survival. There just hadn't been enough time for us to reach a safe distance from its epicentre, even with the mecha-tamago's booster rockets on overdrive. But by some miracle we did manage to get just far enough away to survive. Just the fact that you and I are here talking right now is irrefutable confirmation that the impossible somehow happened."

"Well, don't keep the reason a secret," Keitaro pressed the tanned beauty. "Spill the beans!"

"Okies. Here's how it come about. We weren't killed because before my reactor blew up, we had already returned to the Hinata Apartments from the future in my time machine and changed the time that the explosion happened. Remember how I used the onboard zero-time field to slow the atomic pile meltdown to supercritical mass, and buy us a minute's extra time on site? Well, that vital extra minute that I managed to gain us for our rescue attempt also gave our earlier selves on my mecha-tamago one minute more to get away, enabling them to fly just far enough away from ground zero to preserve their – no, our lives. This in turn, enabled us to escape to a place of safety, and then develop the time travel technology that we needed to return to 2002 to save our younger versions lives in the first place. Oh, yeah - and Naru and Mutsumi and Kuro this time, as well."

"So you're saying that if you hadn't managed to figure out a way for us to travel in time, both you and I would have also died in the blast twenty-five years ago, just like all of the others, bar Shinobu, did? At least, until we rescued them, that is?" Keitaro asked in slack-jawed astonishment, his brain feeling as if it might melt as he struggled to grasp that mind-bending concept.

"Yup. You got it."

"But…but that's a huge paradox," he protested. "You're telling me that the only way we survived the atomic explosion in the first place was because of our rescue mission from the future, during which you managed to delay your nuclear reactor from blowing up for an extra minute? But we would have had to somehow survive the blast at its original time of detonation, anyway, for us to escape to Pararakelse Island, to then mount the rescue mission from 2027, which gave us that extra minute! That doesn't make any sense!"

"That's why they call it a paradox," Su brightly stated. "I can't explain the mechanics behind it, either. But it happened. Like I said just before, you and I being here right now is proof positive that my theory is right."

"Yeah," Keitaro conceded, trying hard to prevent himself developing the headache he could just that moment feel coming on. "So…what you're saying is, by some strange universal twist of fate or decree, we both were always meant to survive your nuclear reactor blowing up, then? That's…wild!"

"Yup. Sure looks like it to me, Kei-Baby," Su agreed, an awestruck look on her own face. "To paraphrase another quote, 'the universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.'"

"That I know all too well, Su," Keitaro seconded, real feeling in his voice, a chill running up his spine at the inherent truth of her statement. "After what I've been though in my life, I'm just about ready to believe that anything is possible."

"Ditto. So, just to sum up what I've deduced, if we are foolish enough to bring any of our friends back to the oasis to live with our younger selves in 2002, there's a good chance that their presence will interfere with my successfully developing working time travel technology, or even prevent me from starting my research into time travel in the first place," Su expounded. "And, as you now know, for the sake of our own younger selves survival back in 2002 and the new lives we have since then created for ourselves here at the hidden oasis, nothing must be allowed to interfere with or put a stop to the time travel rescue mission we went on yesterday. Because if I don't build a working time machine, then jump back to 2002 and slow down the speed of my nuclear reactor going supercritical, our younger selves and Tama-chan will die in the reactor explosion, twenty-five years ago! If that happens, all of the other residents of the Hinata Apartments except Shinobu will also die permanently with us back in 2002, and our entire future life we have experienced here at the hidden oasis would never even have happened at all."

"Oh, shit?" Keitaro gasped, his face as white as a sheet at the thought of everything that they had accomplished being erased from existence, leaving nothing behind, not even a memory.

"But wait, there's more! Here's one final unpleasant little fact to scare you, Kei-Baby. We did ourselves a real favor during yesterday's rescue mission, first by successfully managing to delay the reactor explosion, and then making it safely home to 2027. And not just for the obvious reasons we've just been discussing, either."

"Huh? W-what are you talking about now, Su?" Keitaro wanted to know. "I'm freaking out about this quite enough right now, thank you very much."

"We dodged a real nasty temporal trap by managing to escape from ground zero in 2002 back into the future, is what I mean. Check this out – if, after successfully delaying the reactor explosion for long enough to let our younger versions get away, you and I and Tama-chan had still gotten ourselves killed in 2002, the three of us would have then been permanently trapped in a quarter-century-wide, closed time loop! We would've been doomed to automatically keep reliving what we have already experienced up until yesterday - first escaping from Hinata Hot Springs to live for twenty-five years on Pararakelse Island, and then travelling through time back to 2002, where we'll die once again, but only after the younger you and I have successfully escaped the nuclear blast to start the endlessly repeating cycle once more. And this exact same scenario will keep happening to us over and over and over again, forever."

At that very moment, before the speechless, goose-bump covered father could even attempt to tell Kaolla of his relief at having avoided that particularly terrifying fate; a loud beeping sound snapped him back to reality. Glancing across at the control panel, Keitaro noticed that a green LED light was now pulsing on and off in an urgent, eye-catching rhythm, providing visual confirmation that something of import had just occurred.

"Ah, my search engine has had a positive hit," Su enthused, her eyes gleefully lighting up at having early success with the second project she had set in motion earlier on that morning. "Check this out for yet another stroke of luck for us, Kei-Baby. Lookies, I've already managed to track down some info on Shinobu!"

"Shinobu?" Keitaro exclaimed in turn, his weary eyes expanding with astonishment at this quite unanticipated minor miracle. His previous angst now totally forgotten, Keitaro sat bolt upright on his seat, leaned forward eagerly, and asked, "How on earth did you manage to achieve that so fast, Su? I mean, get a lead on Shinobu after all of this elapsed time?"

"Easy, Kei-Baby. Since, thanks to Mutsumi, we know now that Shinobu managed to survive and was in Yokohama at the time Hinata Hot Springs was destroyed, I decided to see if I could find any further information on what became of her after the disaster. So during a break from my calculations, I set up an automatic search for her using the time machine's onboard computer. I set the search engine to scan public information databases, such as news archives, government records and other media in Japan from 2002 onwards, using Shinobu's full name, age and date of birth as keywords. Okies, let's just see what came up!"

Sure enough, Su's Internet search had scored a bull's-eye on the long lost and much missed young bluenette. However, nothing could have prepared the expectant pair for the shocking news concerning Shinobu's fate, detailed in the article now being displayed on the huge main screen in front of them.

The piece in question was an archived newspaper article from twenty-five years ago – in fact, it had been posted not long after the nuclear explosion that had so radically altered their former lives.

As Keitaro and Su read in rapidly dawning horror the online obituary – for that was what it was - their previously increasingly light-hearted state of mind crashed and burned into the depths of despair once again.

'The body of a Miss Shinobu Maehara was discovered yesterday afternoon, hanging from a rope inside a closet in her bedroom at her Mother's house. The cause of death is strongly suspected to be suicide. Understandably, her mother and her estranged father are both too distraught to comment at this time.'

'Miss Shinobu Maehara was a fourteen year old High School student, who used to attend Kanagawa Prefectural High School in Hinata City, before the city was almost completely destroyed by-''

"Oh, shit-!" Keitaro whispered, the tears of uncontainable grief welling up in his eyes abruptly blurring the following words on the screen into unreadable streaks. "Not her…not like this? Oh, Shinobu!"

Su's empty food bag hit the floor with a soft thud. Then, as her own tears burst forth, the distraught Molmol woman rose up out of her seat, took one unsteady step forward, and then collapsed down into Keitaro's arms, burrowing her face tightly into his stiff right shoulder in her desperate need for his comfort and support. Instinctively, Keitaro wrapped his trembling arms securely around Su, cradling her tightly against his rigid chest.

"Shinobu's dead," Su sobbed in a broken tone, the twin streams of her hot, salty tears soaking down into the front of Keitaro's shirt in an expanding pool of liquid warmth. "But I don't understand! Why…why did she do it, Kei-Baby? Why?"

"I…guess Shinobu must have thought that everyone else living at the apartments, including you and I, had died in the explosion, Su," Keitaro managed to answer, forcing his shocked and numbed mind to try to think coherently despite the suffocating black blanket of desolation, brought on by this latest bit of singularly bad news, that had engulfed them both. "And with us all gone, her grief and loneliness must have been too much for her to bear. Maybe…maybe Shinobu got it into her head that she had nothing to live for any more…?"

"Oh, no, no, no! Poor Shinobu!"

"Um…Su? Su…I think, well, we can't tell any of the others about Sh-Shinobu's…fate…just yet, especially Nyamo. On top of Little Motoko being missing, having to deal with this as well would devastate her," Keitaro then stated, his voice strained and choked up with raw emotion. "Nyamo and Shinobu were best friends way back then, remember? And quite apart from that, we both know that if Naru were to find out about what happened to Shinobu, she'd insist on accompanying us back to 2002 to try to help us save her." He set his jaw resolutely. "You and I, we have to go back to try to save Little Motoko and Shinobu, but I'm not prepared to risk the lives of anyone else on our coming rescue mission, Su. And that is non-negotiable."

The distressed Molmol woman turned her sorrowful eyes up to meet the pain-filled ones of her ex, and she nodded in tearful concurrence to his compassionate suggestion. It would be best for them to keep the tragic news of the demise of the cute little cook under wraps, for the time being, anyway. Besides, if they did succeed in reaching Shinobu back in 2002 before she could take the ultimate, irrevocable step to alleviate her loneliness and grief at the supposed death of all of her dear friends whom had been residing at the Hinata Apartments, her self-inflicted death could easily be prevented.

Their success would mean that no one else in 2027 would ever need to know about the tragedy they had so auspiciously averted, because it would never have even happened in the first place.

"You're…you're right, Kei-Baby. 'Sniff!' For the sake of the others, this has to be our little secret. But I swear to you right now that I'm gonna do everything in my power to save poor Shinobu, as well as Motoko-chan!"

Keitaro adjusted his hold on Su so he could take her trembling hands in his own no-less unsteady ones, giving them a reassuring squeeze.

"And I'm with you on this too, Su," he solemnly vowed through the lump half-blocking his throat, his voice strained, but full of strength of purpose. "One hundred percent, all of the way!"


Author's Note:

I'm not too sure when I'll be updating this story next, so sorry about the cliffhanger ending. I have a lot of other stories to complete and post. But I will write more chapters when I can find the time to do a proper job on it.