The Scientific Method

Dignity lumbered to a stop, her two Operators both staring flummoxed at the miniature street. "I...Phase, have you ever seen this before?" Vincent stammered, having wrestled his goggles on just in time to get a good look.

The virtual inhabitant was faring little better. "I think someone at the lab did a paper on compression in the Net? But that...Vincent, that was a Net history paper, where even are we?" She didn't dare take another step; in all likelihood, Dignity simply being unable to step across was their best-case outcome, and she didn't care to consider the alternatives. "So...what now?"

The Net itself seemed to answer her query, with a popup on Dignity's screenbanks. Rubbing his chin, Vincent took his Dignity-vision goggles off (leaving white smudges all over the casing), ran a couple searches and sighed overlong at the results. "Well, I'd give it a 95% chance that activating this isn't going to riddle Dignity with trojans. You want to make the call?" he hovered his finger over the enter key.

Phase sat back in her seat and sucked air through her teeth. "I dunno, is it really that important that we see what's in there? This might make a mess of Dignity's code, she's pretty delicate. Do you have backups of her saved?" At Vincent's nod, she closed her eyes, took a bracing breath, and gave a sharp nod. "We'll do it for Science!" she declared, and seconds later felt Dignity's engine rev anew. The vibrating rocked her clean off balance with a yelp of, "Oh jeez that's a lot of Science!!"

<(Install Press: YES)>
The program's installation seemed to go alright-- and this close to a compatible Compression Path, it activated automatically. Not only Divinity, but also Phase herself began to shrink, to shrink, to shriiiiiiiiink down. The whole world looked as though it was growing larger around them both, and Divinity only stopped shrinking once it was roughly half the size of a normal navi, and Phase, stuck inside, was about the size of a small doll. They would have no trouble crossing the path now.

...Despite the size shrink, it seems their battle capabilities are intact.

PRESS installed - 10 Navicust space used!
At the moment of activation, Phase found herself grateful for the straps of her seat harness - watching the world rise up around them was turning her legs to jelly. Caught up in the moment, she couldn't help the quiet, most un-Scientific, "Whoooa," that squeaked out.

Sitting in his kitchen, watching the laptop feed as he rolled a puffy ball of dough flat, Vincent had the opposite view. In the span of seconds, Dignity had shrunk from 'two-story cabin' to the size of a large dog. Hilariously, shrinking the engine pitched up her steamwhistle from its usual bassy glory to a delightful little 'meep-meep', as Phase demonstrated. He wiped his hands and clicked over to a diagnostic: everything was still lit up green. After reading a few he called out, "Looks like everything still functions as intended, looks like. How's it going in there?"

Once the shock had worn off, Phase gingerly tried the controls again. Aside from sounding like a steam-powered toy boat, the mech proceeded forward without incident. "It's funny, I could almost forget I'm not in the real world!" Phase giggled a little and opened the throttle a little, setting Dignity to a smooth stride towards the mountainous game store. She gestured out at the screenbanks at the faded signage, the crumbling pavestones. Rocking in her seat with the mech's wheeling gait, she mused to Vincent's window, "This part of the Net is so realistic, and I'm all weensy just like my hologram! I wonder if that was intentional? Maybe this was like an Earth-themed theme park for Navis, back when the first Links came out and holo-sprites were still new technology!"
Almost resembling a child at the mecha's current height, Dignity made its way to the game store as directed. Advetisements covered much of the front window, leaving the inside of the store dark and invisible from the outside, though there were signs that this place was far from uninhabited; there were no signs of network damage, but whenever Phase might have looked past the most obvious places, it was easy to see crumble-bits and other tiny fragments of junk data, the kind of stuff viruses tended to feed upon. They'd been hastily swept aside, like the kind of clean-job a child would do knowing their parent was coming...

As expected, Gambit Games does not have your typical door handle; instead there's a card slider attached. It's likely the card they possess is the one they need, but are Dignity and Phase prepared for what they might find inside?
Done with kneading, Vincent set to spooning out dollops of hot meat and onions across the flat pastry dough, watching the screen as he went. The teacher's eyes were sharp, sharp enough to catch the signs of activity. "Someone's been here, Phase, been here recently," he cautioned. He started cutting circles of dough out around each mince cluster, talking all the while, "Dignity's engine is good and primed, and I've got Battlechips ready just in case. Let's see what's going on in there, let's see."

Phase sent a thumbs-up through the screen as Vincent went back to his baking. Looked like pelmeni tonight; she could almost smell the garlic and horseradish blended into the mince. She tapped at the console until the card key zapped out of her hand and into Dignity's, pleased that the card's size had reverted to normal scale once outside the cockpit. Turning to the card slot, Phase...couldn't find it. Right, she thought with a grimace, Dignity would barely come up to a Navi's waist right now. Jerking the controls to try and get a better view, she heard a plasticky clatter of card-on-pavement. "Oh great," was all the cursing she allowed herself.

It turned out that somewhere along the way, Dignity's screens had ended up with a bit of a blind spot. It was an easy enough mistake to make; Vincent thought. After all, he'd certainly never imagined Phase would need to look up, but there they were. Dignity was standing as tall as her piston legs could stretch, torso bent back a solid 45 degrees so her pilot could see the card reader and maneuver the slim card in the mech's clumsy hand. From the cockpit, it was like watching a steampunk enthusiast's take on a crane game, gone horribly wrong. Vincent had Dignity's handwritten manual pulled up, eyes flicking from papers to laptop and back. "Now ease that lever there - yes, that one, feather it left. Good," he coached in his teacher-voice.

Sweat beaded Phase's brow; who knew operating heavy machinery could be so stressful? "Don't drop it don't drop it don't drop iiiit YES!" she crowed. Finally she brought her arm down, and Dignity swiped the card through to much fanfare and rejoicing.
The card reader beeped as Dignity swiped the card through. Thankfully, being virtual simulacra of real systems, the data was read perfectly despite the mech's clumsy handling.

The door to Gambit Games swung open, and somewhere in the door's subfiles a noisy, rusty 'creaaaaaaaaak' played out, emphasizing how old the building was. Within the game store were shelves and shelves, all of them either empty or worse, empty of anything useful. Old 'for display only' empty game boxes remained, classics from well before even Vincent's time alongside old entries of the few series that had survived to the modern age. Giga Man Fighting Network 3? They were up to 17 now! And that was before they'd rebooted it as Giga Man Sun Force!

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the entire building were several arcade machines at the far side of the store floor, still running. "Temple Trouble 4: Curse of the Boulder God", "Ninja Ninja: Now With More Ninjas", and the aptly-named "Navi Quest".

It was only while inspecting the arcade machines that Phase finally heard noise at the back of the store, coming from the employees-only area behind a closed door.
A lone piano fluttered into the cockpit from Vincent's end, one pondering chord at a time. The music added a dreamlike filter to the atmosphere, already soft with dust and nostalgia. While Phase took Dignity for a slow lap of the room, Vincent folded his dumplings, making only a few awed noises at the ancient box art. Both wore matching soft smiles.

Phase stopped a moment to peer up at the arcade boxes. "I think they used to make arcade games Navis and Ops could play together. Fancy a round of Ninja Ninja?" Vincent asked nonchalantly. Butter wouldn't melt in his mouth.

Dignity's mismatched arms were raised up to the mech's eye level. Phase made a show of twisting each wrist one way, then the other, highlighting how the right hand had the approximate dexterity of a forklift, and how the left 'hand' was, in fact, a cannon. "Eh, take a raincheck," Phase sniped back with the same sardonic tone. They stopped to share a snicker at each other's expense -and that was when they heard something through the wall.

The music, the laughter, everything stopped. Dumplings forgotten, Vincent held a Battlechip to the slot in Phase's PET - one crook of a finger, and Dignity would be armed. The two shared a nod, and Phase made to plant Dignity's cannon against the door. She leaned into the controls, and the mech's hand ventured up to see if it would open. A quick flick of the loudspeaker made her voice ring out from the brass chassis, a tinny call of, "Hello? Anybody home? Just a couple of harmless explorers, don't mind us!"
Bursting into the employee-only area, Phase found herself confronted with...
...More bunnies?

Yes, just like the horde she'd encountered before, the back room was packed with them, and they'd been here a while, by the look of it. The walls of the back room had been eaten through entirely, and the back rooms of several other, neighboring buildings had been linked up with it to form a kind of Bunny dorm. The entire dorm, a pack of 30 or so bunnies, went silent when Phase entered. Many of them were huddled up into corners, others frantically began to flee their way out through the gaps in boarded-up windows, or holes and breaks in the shelter.

Of the many, many bunnies gathered here, only five bothered to confront Phase, a TuffBunny leading them. "E-eep eep!" The Tuff cried out. It fired a ZapRing at Phase... only for the ring, abnormally thin, to curve and fly past Dignity's chassis. The TuffBunny began to huff and pant, but it and its compatriots refused to back down. Was it going to be a fight...?

TuffBunny A: 5 HP (Covered in battle damage)
Bunny A: 10 HP
Bunny B: 8 HP
Bunny C: 12 HP
Bunny D: 10 HP

--Huddled to the right--
Bunny E: 30 HP
Bunny F: 40 HP
Bunny G: 30 HP
Bunny H: 27 HP

--Huddled in the back--
Bunny I: 15 HP
Bunny J: 18 HP
Bunny K: 15 HP
Bunny L: 20 HP

--Huddled in the far back--
Bunny M: 10 HP (Protecting the other three)
Bunny N: 50 HP
Bunny O: 50 HP
Bunny P: 50 HP


100% Normal INDOORS
For the second time in a hand-span of minutes, Phase forgot how to breathe. Dignity's warning system promptly went ballistic upon sighting the shop's inhabitants, every virus highlighted with bright red squares on the viewscreen, the cockpit an echo chamber for the endless clanging of alarms. Vincent was yelling somewhere, "BoyBomb's loaded, toss it in and run, run, run!" And Phase -

Phase saw a tiny, beaten-down body, trapped in a dank hole of a room, nowhere to go to escape the looming, leering silhouette in the doorway. She didn't see Bunnies - she saw herself looking back, looking up, eyes pleading 'no, no, no' because her throat hurt too much to speak, couldn't move, she couldn't move-

"STOP!" someone screamed. It took Phase a second to realize it had been her. Part of her screenbank was obscured by the hand and cannon that had risen up to cup Dignity's head. Slowly, slowly, she lowered the controls, careful to keep the cannon pointed away from anything that moved. "I'm not gonna hurt you," she keyed the loudspeaker, the ragged little whisper amplified to the point where the whole room could hear her (whether they understood was neither here nor there).

"Phase? All right, dear?" Vincent, who had the benefit of being in another world and thus somewhat detached from the tension, pinched a bit of beef from the pan and kicked back to watch. If he was confused by the lack of explosions, he had it buried quite masterfully in his parental concern.

The idea went off in Phase's head like a firework, right along with the sudden awareness that Dignity's systems currently contained a bomb. "Wait wait wait cancel!" she threw herself out of her seat and slammed the override an instant before the BoyBomb deployed. A metallic 'blart' sounded off, but Dignity's palm remained mercifully empty. "Come on, where are you..." Phase's fingers dragged across the console - moments later, she found her key and punched it with a triumphant, 'there!"

At her normal size, Dignity could comfortably palm the mass of junk data she'd collected. Shrunk down as she was, summoning the junk from storage resulted in a small waterfall of pixellated garbage pouring from the mech's hand. Somewhere in the back of Phase's head was the knowledge that the Bunnies had dropped the stuff, and giving it back was probably the best peace offering she had on hand. A factory-standard Navi could have registered this mental background noise and factored it into their response in picoseconds; Phase was, at that moment, barely registering anything at all, running on a cocktail of adrenaline and make-it-stop panic.

"Phase?" Vincent tried again, this time sounding truly off-kilter. His screen opened into a little panel in the corner of Dignity's vision, from which he could see Phase's seat and a bit of the console. Hunched over the controls as she was, he couldn't make out her expression, just a lot of manic flailing. Dignity took several jerky steps back through the door, and from there Phase sort of stopped. She looked to be breathing hard. "Phase, are you okay?"

"I think we're about to find out!" Phase's voice was an octave too high. The knuckles of her left hand were white around the temperature crank. She didn't know why she hadn't just tossed the bomb into the room and been done with it, why she was inviting retaliation from a horde of desperate viruses. All she knew was that she couldn't be that wretched intruder that loomed on doorsteps and promised fear and hurt. A painful EJO would be easier.

-Turn Summary-
2. Produce Junk x20
3. Set Junk x20 in front of aggressing Bunnies
4. Retreat to back wall
*Masterwork: +22 HP to Casing
5. If reaction is violent, deploy Phase Engine: Solid [62 HP Casing; 1TCD], otherwise wait
6. If reaction is violent, retreat through store entrance, otherwise wait
The bunnies are extremely wary of Phase, even after Dignity has backed down. Indeed, several tense months of being modlocked moments pass before one of the smallest Bunny viruses comes forward, and it hesitantly takes the Junk off the floor. and retreats. The Bunny viruses split the Junk up among themselves, several of them eating it, others feeding it to the most-wounded among their number, and while several offer their "shares" to the TuffBunny, it does not accept.

Overall, the pesky little things look a lot better off after consuming the junk data. Is this how they've been living? If so, what's been damaging them like this?

The TuffBunny comes over, and it lightly pats Dignity's foot with its own. "Eep eep. Eep ee-eep."

You have no idea what it means. It retreats after that, and sits down amongst the other Bunny viruses, who visibly relax. Perhaps that's an acceptance...?

Aside from the Bunny viruses, there's a boarded-up exit out the back of the den. There's also a suspicious pile of trash data that it seems even the Bunny viruses won't eat. There is, of course, also the way back out to the storefront proper.