Note: This is a companion piece to After the Calm, but you don't have to read that to understand this one.
Disclaimer: The passage Nagato quotes is from page 330 of Hyperion by Dan Simmons, published in the USA by Bantam in 1990.
Before the Storm
Nagato was so absorbed in what she was doing that at first she didn't notice the knock on the door.
She used to notice everything. She used to be so good at recognising detail. Reliving the same two weeks fifteen thousand, five hundred and thirty-two times had dulled her perception, though. She had become perfectly attuned to differences – different outfits, different songs that Suzumiya chose at karaoke, the minute variations in each reiteration of those two weeks of summer.
This morning, though, the first of September, it had all turned out wrong. It started when she realised that she had run out of rice. It didn't compute. She had never run out of rice. It didn't run out. It was always there. Finally, she cast her mind back to the dim reaches of history and recalled that this did happen sometimes. Sometimes rice got used up. Sometimes she had to buy more.
That was when she realised that it was over.
Nagato eventually managed to go out to the shop and buy some more rice, but she came straight back home. It was overwhelming. Instead of minute variations on the same routine, everything was different. She couldn't comprehend so much change any more, and she retreated back to the familiar, unchanging surroundings of her apartment. But even that wasn't enough of a comfort any more.
"Nagato!" It was the voice that suddenly interrupted her concentration, and then she realised the sound at the door. Nobody had come to visit her in such a very long time. She stared at it for several minutes, wondering if the knocking would stop. For a moment she thought it was over, but then the voice called out again.
"Nagato, are you okay? Is something wrong?"
With the realisation that it wasn't going to stop, Nagato finally got up and opened the door.
"Oh, hi there, Nagato!" Kyon was standing there with one hand in the air and a smile on his face. "I started to think that you weren't here…"
Nagato had already turned away and gone back to what she was doing, ignoring his one-sided conversation.
"I just wondered what happened to you. You and Asahina didn't turn up to school today, so Haruhi was worried and said that Koizumi and I had to go an check on you."
He fell silent for a moment and Nagato knew that he was wishing that he had been assigned to the task of checking on Asahina and not Koizumi.
That's right, she was supposed to be at school today. Maybe she should have gone. There were different books at school. But she'd forgotten about it. It had been hard to face, with the shock of the change after so long.
And when she looked around her apartment, looked at what it had become, and what it hadn't, and what she hadn't, school didn't seem important any more.
"Nagato, what are you doing?"
The change in Kyon's tone made her stop ignoring him for a moment, and she looked up to meet his eyes. He looked worried. She went back to putting all her books into a garbage bag.
Kyon dropped to his knees beside her and took the neck of the bag from her. "But you love books, Nagato! They're your favourite thing! Why do you want to throw them all away?"
"I read all the books."
"But don't you like just having them around? And what if you want to read them again some day?"
He didn't understand. Nagato just stared at his hand, holding the neck of her garbage bag, waiting for him to give it back.
"Or I might want to read those books some day. Like that book you lent me when we first met, that was really good."
"Hyperion. Dan Simmons. 1989." She paused for a moment, then plucked the book out of the bag. "Usually AIs do business with humans and human machines via the datasphere. They can manufacture an interactive holo if they need to – I remember during the Maui-Covenant incorporation, the Technocore ambassador at the treaty signing looked suspiciously like the old holo star Tyrone Braithwaite. Cybrids are a whole different matter. Tailored from human genetic stock, they are far more human in appearance and outward behaviour than androids are allowed to be. Agreements between the TechnoCore and the Hegemony allow only a handful of cybrids to be in existence. I looked at Johnny. From an AI's perspective, the beautiful body and intriguing personality sitting across the desk from me must be merely another appendage, a remote, somewhat more complex but otherwise no more important than any one of ten thousand such sensors, manipulators, autonomous units, or other remotes that create no more concern in an AI than clipping a fingernail would bother me."
She stopped and looked into Kyon's shocked face. "Page 330."
She hadn't opened the book.
Kyon took it from her, gently, and stared at the cover. "Do you remember everything you read like that?"
He still didn't understand. "I remember everything that I read many times. I read all the books."
She wished he would go away now so that she could finish this.
"I should take you to the library again. It's still open, we can get you some different books."
She stared into his eyes, as seriously as she could manage. "I read all the books."
He blinked, and she watched the change in his face as the realisation dawned. Yes, you dull human, it makes sense now, doesn't it? She picked up the neck of the garbage bag from where Kyon had dropped and placed Hyperion carefully inside. She just wanted to get this done. She wanted the books out of her house.
Because what was the point of them, any more?
"Look, Nagato," Kyon had recovered the power of speech. He still hadn't gone away. "I understand if you want to get rid of the books. But it's such a waste to throw them away. Why don't I help you pack them up, and then on the weekend we can take them to the library, or a bookshop? That way it's not just a waste. Other people can read them, too."
Nagato was uncertain. It seemed sensible. But she wanted these books gone, out of her apartment, as soon as she could, and she wanted Kyon to leave her alone.
"Besides, no matter how much you want to get rid of them right now, if you just throw them in the bin you might regret it later."
She blinked at him.
"Er… regret? You know, when you do something and then later you wish you hadn't?"
Or you don't do something, and then later you wish you had.
Nagato knew what 'regret' meant. She didn't like that word.
Despite how much she wanted Kyon to go away, she nodded, and he set about helping her put the books away. He persisted in talking the whole time.
"Books aren't everything, you know. They seem to be all you're ever interested in, but there are so many other stories. I mean, there are more books coming out every year so you can still read those, but there are heaps of other things, too. There's TV – I suppose you can never watch all of that because it never stops running! And then there are video games, you'd be good at those I think, and there are so many movies out there." He paused and chuckled to himself. "Have you ever seen Groundhog Day?"
He went on after a moment when he realised that Nagato didn't even look up. "I guess you wouldn't have since you don't watch movies except when Haruhi makes us. Well, it's an American movie about a man who gets stuck going through the same day over and over again. At first he hates it, but later he gets to know everyone in the town, and sometimes he just does silly or crazy things that he would never do normally, because he's the only person who remembers everything. But it helps him learn to enjoy life more and…"
He trailed off, suddenly, when he noticed Nagato staring at him.
"Maybe that's not the best movie for you to watch right now."
She didn't stop staring. Eventually he broke away from her gaze and went back to packing those books.
With two people working together, it didn't take as long to bag up all the books in Nagato's apartment. She was closing up her last bag when she saw Kyon reaching for a book that was set apart from the others, lying under the table. Kyon flinched in surprise when he realised that Nagato was suddenly standing over him, swiftly took the book from his hands and placed it back on top of the table.
"You're keeping that one?"
She nodded, as he looked at the cover, not quite daring to touch it. "Waiting for Godot. Weird title. That's the only one you want to keep?"
She'd only read it once.
"You must like it a lot. Is it good?"
"Yes." She paused. "I hate it."
Kyon didn't know how to respond to that. He had probably expected her to say something like 'unique' again. He'd never heard her use the word 'hate' before.
"Well, I suppose we're done here," Kyon said, at last, standing up and brushing down his pants, even though Nagato's apartment was spotless. "Say, Nagato, you know how you're the only one who remembers every reiteration of the loop we were stuck in?"
Why does he ask questions when he already knows the answers?
"I was just wondering… did you ever do anything different? In any of the loops?"
"You know, something that you wouldn't normally be allowed to do, but you could get away with, because nobody would remember. Like in Groundhog Day. Like acting differently. Dancing like crazy at karaoke. Use your powers to make something weird happen. Tell someone a secret that you're not allowed to tell. Kiss somebody."
She stared at him. If he understood anything at all he'd realise that she couldn't do any of those things. She wasn't to know which of the fifteen thousand, five hundred and thirty two loops would be the last. She couldn't take such a risk.
It had never occurred to her, either.
"My role is to observe."
"Oh. Of course. Sorry, Nagato." He looked disappointed. What else did he expect? Nagato wasn't here to entertain him. She was here to do her job.
And she had done it, for five hundred and ninety seven years of boredom that made her want to scream and cry and punch Haruhi in the face every time she sat behind her on Kyon's bicycle while they rode to the swimming pool. She had done what she was supposed to. She had observed, she had waited, she had not interfered. And after all that time, what she had been waiting for had finally come. It was over. Today was a new day. It was a brand new day, one that she had never seen before. It was the beginning of the rest of her life.
It wasn't enough.
Nagato opened the front door and Kyon slipped his shoes back on and walked through it, obediently. She waited for him to leave, but he hesitated. Kyon always did that. He could never do anything quickly.
"Nagato, I know this must hurt you right now. You waited such a long time for today, longer than I can imagine, and now that it's here you're lost and you don't know what to do, and it seems like nothing will ever be right again. But the SOS Brigade are still here, and Haruhi will still be making the world a crazier place every day. It's not all over." He tried to look serious, but in the end, he smiled. "It doesn't matter if you've read all the books. There are still so many incredible things that we haven't done together. I promise that we'll do so many amazing things with the SOS Brigade that you'll never feel like there's nothing left to live for."
They were beautiful words. They were wrong, all wrong, but they were still beautiful. Nagato wished she could reply with words as beautiful as that. She could, in a way. She could reply with some of the beautiful words that she'd read over and over again in all those books. But it wouldn't be right, because they wouldn't be hers. Kyon's words came from his heart; she could only conjure hers from her memory.
So Nagato simply nodded, and closed the door in his face.