THE OCEANIC 6 are scattered all over the island, all over Membata, if viewers are to believe this is the name of the place where Oceanic Flight 815 crashed 101 days ago. The very island Locke (Terry O'Quinn) thinks he wants to move. Can move.

Every member of the elusive group of "Lost" castaways, who we already know will leave the island, is in peril. Jack, Kate, Hurley, Sun, Sayid and baby Aaron are all fighting separately to live, struggling to escape. They are nowhere near the helicopter that can fly them to the freighter in the ocean, the vessel that could save them, if there wasn't a bomb on it.

But how do they leave? When will they separate from the rest of the survivors? What price will they pay?

When the "Lost" two-hour season finale airs Thursday, it will end not just another chapter in ABC's island saga. It also will close a season of ground-breaking storytelling that has carried viewers from present and past narratives, the signature of the show, to the future -- to be colored further with flashbacks of the flash forwards -- that is, glimpses of the future that predate other future events the audience has already seen. This season, the writers filled in the blanks by showing us another snippet of the future that occurred before that moment to let viewers know that "he" is Claire's baby, Aaron.

Using the flashback technique to develop character has become so popular across the TV landscape since "Lost" premiered in 2004 that it seems likely that flashing forward in increments to drive plot will follow suit. "Lost" producers have used this device to push the story forward and to answer some of the many island mysteries that fans both love and hate.

"It's an interesting development in the story that suddenly we deal with the post-island world, but it's imperfect," said Michael Emerson, who plays Ben Linus, the master-manipulator leader of the Others, whom viewers have seen off the island as well. "It's as imperfect as the island world and the only way it can be inhabited by the Oceanic 6 is by way of the big lie. So it's a compromised world.

"And the island may be more important to the survivors when they leave it than when they stood upon it," he continued. "The island of the mind, if you will. But it's a place that has a hold over them. The island never loses its power."

Looking forward

EVIDENTLY, that's also the case for "Lost" viewers. The flash-forward device has energized many fans who had become disenchanted during last year, as more characters and mysteries were introduced and favorite castaways were sidelined. Averaging 14.6 million viewers, "Lost" ranks ninth among all TV series in the desirable 18- to 49-year-old demographic and has been the top-rated show in both of its time slots all season, despite being on a new night.

Viewers have responded favorably to the show's hastened narrative pace, but some have griped that, at times, piecing the timeline has been challenging. "By doing the flash-forwards, we made the audience deeply suspicious and they don't know what to believe when you want them to believe something," executive producer Carlton Cuse said, aware of the Internet chatter among Losties.

With only two hours left, the producers have much ground to cover. In the future, fans have seen Jack (Matthew Fox) and Kate (Evangeline Lilly) as a couple raising Aaron without mention of what happened to Claire (Emilie de Ravin). Hurley (Jorge Garcia) winds up in a mental hospital again; Sayid (Naveen Andrews) is working as an assassin for Ben around the globe; and Sun (Yunjin Kim) gives birth and mourns the loss of her husband, Jin (Daniel Dae Kim), even though viewers have not witnessed his death.

What fans have yet to see is what happened after last season's time-busting revelation that Jack and Kate leave the island in the future but something makes Jack want to return. On Thursday, "Lost" will take viewers to that very moment of Jack's pained "We have to go back!" and move beyond it. It also will disclose "one of the island's greatest secrets," according to Emerson.

"The finale is about the culmination of this idea that a group of people who desperately wanted to get off the island find themselves in the position of defending the island that they've been trying to leave," Cuse said.

But producers won't disclose what fans are dying to know. Many viewers, as evidenced on message boards, are convinced that next season post-island life becomes the present and the past is life on the island.

"All we can say is that it's going to be very hard to get back to the island for those guys," co-creator and executive producer Damon Lindelof said. "But life will continue for the people who are not with them. How are we going to tell that story? We're not going to tell that." In fact, Lindelof vowed during an interview that after the finale airs he and Cuse "are going into radio silence until next season."

But Emerson, talking from the Hawaii set by telephone, has a theory. "Every season, in the telling of 'Lost,' the lens pulls back another notch so that the picture gets bigger, includes more stuff, more people, more places," he said. "So I'll be curious to see what is now included when the lens jumps back another step. I think it will be more fragmented. The geography of the show as we've known it will be upset. Everybody will be in a new place."

Kim, who said there "will be casualties," took it one step further: "The finale will change the way you watch the show. It will introduce new variables that would never even be considered previously."

When viewers last saw the Oceanic 6, Jack and Sawyer (Josh Holloway) dodged the helicopter that could have rescued them to try to protect Hurley.

Hurley was hiding from the freighter folks who want to kill Ben. The Others came down the mountain and captured Kate and Sayid. Sun, Jin and Aaron were onboard the bomb-carrying freighter.