3746 Boykin Road, Lower ACDC

{EAX011}

{<<< From ACDC Town: NetPolice Precinct, ACDC Central <<<}

=== CHAPTER 3 - The More You Know ===

"I still can't believe you didn't know what the Hologen function was. You seriously never saw it on TV?"

"...I don't want those kinds of shows..."

"The kind that have PETs in them? They exist?"

"You know what I mean. I prefer crime shows. You know, 'who-did-it-and-why'. Oh, and spy shows. Navis rarely show up in those, and if they do it's usually a minor role. It'd take away from the mystery if they had a navi, they observe everything in detail with a near-perfect memory."

"Huh. I thought you still watched those eastern cartoons?"

"No, I haven't watched those in years. Matt still watches them though..."

"Matt! He would've used-" Stacey stopped mid-sentence, remembering that Matt didn't use a PET either. "What about at sc-" That thought also stopped her mid-sentence. After the incident, Matt was the only person that Eric conversed with, besides herself of course. If he didn't talk to anybody, it stood to reason that he wasn't paying any attention to what they were doing either.

Stacey raised the car's turn indicator as they pulled closer to their driveway. The garage door opened automatically, allowing entrance into the car bay with minimal effort. The small white car crept to a stop as the garage door moved back into place.

"I can't believe you. How can you spend so long on the TV with just those two genres?"

"There's a lot of old shows on the archives. But most don't have PETs either."

As Eric got out of the car he noticed that there was a large box on the front seat, but it had been covered completely by her officer's jacket. It couldn't have been important as Stacey left it in the car and headed into the house. Eric followed suit, passing through the internal garage door to enter the house. It connected to the hallway that led to the spare bedroom and combined lounge room, dining room and kitchen. Eric's and Stacey's bedrooms both connected to the dining room portion; Eric's from the west, and Stacey's from the east. Stacey had taken up residence in the master bedroom, so hers had access to an ensuite and walk-in robe, but quite often she would still use the main bathroom as it had a much larger shower and basin to prepare for the day.

Stacey had gone to the kitchen to begin preparing some food. "Eric, if you and Amy want to occupy yourselves for an hour or so, I'll cook up some steaks, potato and greens from the freezer. Do you have any preference on the gravy tonight?"

There it was again. 'Amy'. Not Amity. It wasn't a coincidence, she had done it intentionally both times.

"Eric?"

When Eric didn't respond, Stacey came back out to the dining room. "Are you okay?" she asked. He had an unusual look on his face, like he was trying to decide whether to speak or to run. That's because the two voices in his head were trying to sway his next words.

Don't do it. DO IT.

"Amy."

"...Yes, you and Amy." Stacey was now confused. "...Eric?"

"You called her Amy."

"That's her name, isn't it?"

"No, it's Amity. Who's Amy?"

Eric's heart was racing from an andrenaline rush. You idiot, what are you doing?! She's going to think you're attacking her! Ignore him! Remember what Amy said! 'You are stronger than you think'!

"Sorry, my mistake. You're right, her name is Amity. It's been a long day. Days, actually; that was another triple shift," she moaned while turning around and heading back into the kitchen. "At least we'll have something nice to show for it when my pay comes in."

No. You knew it was Amy, didn't you. What else are you hiding...? We don't know that she's hiding anything, you know. No? Well there's one way to find out, isn't there?

With gravy being the last thing on his mind, Eric ducked into his room and closed the door behind him. He removed the PET from his pocket and placed it beside himself as he sat down on his bed. "Do you believe her?" he whispered.

Amy was confused. "Believe her about what? No, wait, hold that thought..." she replied as she disappeared from the screen. Moments later, her image took shape on the bed, a glowing silouette in the otherwise dim room.

"Okay, I love this," she remarked. "I'm never using the 3D camera again unless I absolutely have to." As she looked up to her operator from the sheets, she noticed that he seemed dejected, like he'd been betrayed. Something was definitely wrong.

"Eric? What's the matter?"

Eric shook his head. "Stacey's always the one who says we shouldn't keep secrets from each other. I even felt bad about... well..." He let his words hang in the air, unable to speak the thought. Amy knew he was talking about the little girl clung to her side. She needed to do something about that; her waist couldn't become the child's permanent home.

"She knew your real name. How?"

Amy tried to come up with a reasonable explanation, but was unable to do so. How did she know to use Amy instead of Amity? The first time she'd used the name out loud was when she was leaving ACDC Net. It was highly unlikely that one use of the name in Crony's presence would lead Stacey to start using it over the name printed on her bio file, or the name she'd responded to during the entire testing run. From what she'd seen so far, Crony would have corrected her if she'd used the wrong name, being the kind that unashamedly sticks to law and order, but there was no resistance on his part either. Eric was definitely on to something: Stacey knew something they didn't.

A four-tap knock on the door was followed by Stacey entering the room. "You didn't tell me what gravy you wanted," she explained, like she needed an reason to enter.

Eric turned to face Stacey as he pointed to Amy's image. "Who is she? Really?"

Stacey sighed. "Look, I'm sorry I got the name wrong. I won't do it again, promise."

"Please." Eric gripped the sheet with his other hand as he maintained his focus; he couldn't afford to look weak right now. "I thought you said that family shouldn't keep secrets from each other."

"And what secrets am I keeping from you, Eric?" he questioned.

"How did you know her real name was Amy before I did?" It wasn't an accusation, just a request for an explanation.

Stacey bit her lip. The silence that followed was only brief, but it was long enough to destroy what was left of Eric's resolve.

"Can we talk about it after dinner?" she finally responded.

Eric's determination had run out, buckling under the sheer exhaustion of standing up to his sister. He knew that tone; he wasn't going to get anything out of her. His head sank into his legs as his hands covered the back of his neck. "Okay. Mushroom gravy," was all he could respond with. His external bravery may have lost out, but internally, that was a different story. Fine. I'll get my answer, with or without you.

As Stacey closed the door, Eric got to his feet and walked over to the PC. He pressed the power button and waited a few seconds for the terminal to reach the main screen.

"What are you doing?"

Eric was surprised by the sudden appearance of Amy on his desk. It was a little unsettling to have her so close to his arm; he wasn't used to this kind of company.

"If Stacey won't tell me who you are, maybe we can find out ourselves," he confirmed as he navigated to the worldweb search engine. "I don't know if we'll find anything though."

Amy hadn't seen this side of Eric; determination despite showing an appearance of defeat. Curiosity was getting the better of her as well; she too was keen to learn the missing information. "Okay then. What are you going to search for?"

That was a good question. "We could start with 'Amy', I guess."

The search took mere seconds, and the results were good. A little too good; over 830 million results.

"Yeah, we probably should have seen that coming."

"Alright then. How about... 'Amy navi'."

The result was smaller, but 14 million search results didn't seem like much progress was being made. The first hundred results only brought up links and images of a cartoon series; nothing that seemed to relate to what they wanted to know.

"This is the problem with too much information. We won't find what we're looking for unless we're incredibly specific, will we," Amy surmised.

"What would narrow the search? A lot of these Amys are blue, and wearing dresses as well." Eric wasn't confident this was the smartest way to go, just listing random attributes and hoping for a match.

"Heather Dougherty and Amy, Electopian Neo Dimension Battle Systems Gala. That specific enough?"

Both Eric and Amity spun around to find Stacey standing in the doorway, the door wide open again. That ability to stealthily slip in and out of anywhere really was handy. For Stacey, of course; not for them.

"Wh... what?" Eric stammered, fretting he was about to get a tongue-bashing from his sister.

"Heather Dougherty. Amy. Electopian Neo Dimension Battle Systems. Gala. Try it."

Eric obeyed and typed the words into the search engine, not knowing how a gala would hold the answer. Electopian Neo Dimension Battle Systems was a familiar name, but most people just called it ENDBS, the same letters that appeared on their oval-shaped logo.

The first result was nothing more than a news report about a somewhat recent gala to support a charity organisation. The second result was about the speech that this 'Heather Dougherty' gave on the night. But as they moved to the image results, a photo from the night was shown as a result. It was a large media print of a photo of this Heather lady. A lady of age, her body was dressed in a ballgown that looked to be made purely from jewels, magically held together by some invisible force; the white and yellow lights seemed to sparkle off every single edge and surface. She had a beaming ear-to-ear smile as she laughed and draped her arm around a much younger lady in a fancy lime green dress. A lime green dress with yellow frills. Four layers at each end. This lady too had a wide smile and matching laugh as she curled her arm around Heather in a reciprocating manner. The two ladies seemed to be intimately close with one another.

"Eric, install this onto Amy please," Stacey directed, holding out an upgrade chip.

"What is it?" he asked.

"It's a Graphic Model Override, or GMO for short. These files change the looks of a navi depending on their programming. This one is named 'Spring' and was designed for Amy specifically. Amy, once you've installed it, please activate it."

Amy was a little concerned about Stacey's sudden interest in her appearance, but as Eric installed the upgrade to her PET a new option appeared in the schematics menu titled 'Styles'. Two options were present; 'Standard', which was selected, and 'Spring'.

"So you want me to load 'Spring'?" she asked.

"Yes."

As she confirmed the action, a wind blew sharply from underneath her and began a rapid chain of events. Amy's hair was swept upward by this wind to meet at the back of her head as it twisted in a clockwise motion, tightening and tucking this new mess of hair in such a way so that it ended up as a large and neatly arranged bun. The blue flower that had sat atop her head changed into a ball of white light as it moved towards the new bun, stretching itself out to become a long tube that circled itself around the bun edge where it joined her head. The ring of light slowly faded as it took the form of a ring of numerous small yellow flowers.

Next, Amy's skin shifted in tone from her normal pale pinkish tan to a pigment typically seen in light-skinned Electopians. The dress itself changed from cyan to lime green while the fringes changed from white to yellow, and her hair faded from its vibrant violet colour to a golden blonde. Her eyes shrunk in size from their normal larger size to a natural human size, which accompanied the shift to a human skin tone nicely. The eyes themselves also changed colour; instead of being a deep blue pupil on a slightly lighter blue iris, her pupils shifted to pure black while both irises transformed into a bold green colour with only the slightest hints of hazel towards the edge of the pupil.

The emblem atop her chest was the next thing to change; it began to glow white as it split into two smaller versions that then moved into position over Amy’s ears. They could barely be seen as the new hairstyle obscured them mostly from view, but if you looked hard enough you could still make out the insignia. The colours had changed too; instead of being a white head with cyan petals on a violet background, they were now a yellow head with green petals on a light brown background, and the two stripes that signified her antenna had disappeared completely from the head. All in all, it would be easy to mistake them for parts of a set of headphones or earmuffs. The final visible cosmetic change was her shoes. Her normal violet boots were replaced with a most peculiar set of white shoes she'd never seen before, with her toes almost exposed to the environment around her.

As if all of that hadn't been enough, Amy could feel a slight twisting now inside her as well. She didn't know exactly what had happened, but her gel disruptors had briefly arced as if they were making changes of their own; hopefully those changes wouldn't impede her ability to battle. Her worries were allayed somewhat by a small puff of aegis gel that leapt off her dress like a final breath, but instead of being cyan in appearance, it was the same lime green shade as her clothes.

"Well THAT was weird," she commented. "Well, Eric, what do you thin-"

Eric's face had turned a number of shades whiter, his eyes about to pop out of his head. Amy didn't understand the expression; at first she thought that the hidden package may have fallen out, but no, despite all that had just happened, she was still latched to her midregion. That girl was the epitomy of obedience.

No, it wasn't until Amy turned towards the PC monitor again that the full weight of what she'd just done dawned on her. You see, the lady that was standing next to this... Heather Dougherty... had the same lime green dress. The same shoes. The same hair style. The same skin colour. The same eyes. And... the same fake headphones sitting under her hair, because they weren't headphones, they were emblems. Just like the ones on her head right now.

"Heather Dougherty... and Amy."
"H-h-h-h-h-h-how???"

Amy was speechless. There was no doubt in her mind; the lady in green was indeed her. But how should she possibly have been in the real world, at a party with a human?

"I don't know," Stacey admitted. "To be honest, I wasn't even the one who recognised you."

"I was the one who recognised you." A small holographic image of Crony appeared on Stacey's shoulder.

"Hey, you can do that too!" Eric marvelled at Crony's unexpected appearance. He got up from the chair and took a step forward to take a closer look. "How come he's never done that before?"

"Eric, sit down." Stacey's serious expression cut through his fascination. He'd allowed something new and shiny to distract him from the conversation at hand. He stepped back and retook his seat on the office chair as instructed.

"You need to understand that... I think what I'm about to do is a mistake." She gripped her right arm with her left hand as she looked to Crony. "We weren't going to tell you this... but I didn't expect you to do so well in the busting tests yesterday," she added, looking at Amy. "Or that you'd do it again without supervision."

"I'm still against this, for the record," Crony also noted.

She stepped out of the room without saying another word. After a few moments passed, Eric was about to stand up and find her when Stacey returned with a violet box that matched the colour of Amy's PET. It was a stylised rectangular box with a custom design, soft rounded edges and corners; it was three hand lengths long, half as wide and half as tall, with a diagonal slit on the top. A fancy corporate logo was at the centre of the angled scizzor lid joint, with the letters ENDBS.

It was impossible not to notice the similarities in design between Amy's PET and the box itself. So; the PET was made by ENDBS. That explained why the PET hadn't been damaged when he'd dropped it the other day; while he didn't know much about PETs themselves it was common knowledge that ENDBS, combined with five other corporations, were responsible for most of the PET hardware manufactured around the world. ENDBS only produced expensive technology. Not necessarily the best technology, but expensive and fancy technology nonetheless.

"So these are Amy's spare parts, right?" Eric asked.

"No, not exactly." Stacey tapped the ENDBS logo, which caused the lid to split open by itself and retract the flaps into the box once they'd raised to vertical positions. There was a lot of compartments, including chips, components and a large cube, most of which Eric didn't recognise. Something he did recognise was a slot containing chips similar to the one that Stacey had just handed him.

"Are they more geeamoes?" he asked.

"G-M-O," Stacey corrected. "And yes. There's another three in there, but two don't have the necessary GMO core file. I'm guessing they were stripped when SRD took out the parts they could."

"Oh," Eric responded dejectedly, a little disappointed. As he flipped through the GMO chips he noticed that they all had an unfamiliar custom logo printed on the front. The logo was made up of two pink letters 'H' and 'D' written in a fancy handwritten font that sat on a white circle. A number also accompanied the letters, positioned just below the H and D. The chips in the box were labelled 2, 3 and 5, whilst the one still in his hand, 'Spring', was labelled 1. He glanced across the box to see if the one numbered 4 had been placed somewhere else incorrectly, but no similar data chip was anywhere to be seen.

"Wait. You said two didn't have cores. If this is one of them, does that me-"

"Yes." She pulled out one of the three chips, the one labelled with a 3. "This one is called Autumn. I think they couldn't remove the GMO cores on those two due to repeated usage warping the data construct; separation would have broken the GMO core itself, so there was no point in trying. Which makes sense in the case of Spring, I guess; Spring was the one that Amy had on when she did her commercials."

"Commercials? What's a... commercial?"

Ignoring the question, Stacey pulled out another larger, unknown chip from a separate section. "Crony still has his reservations that you're ready for any of this, and I guess I do too. It may have been a mistake even letting you see this," she said as she tapped the edge of the box. "Why'd you do it, Eric?"

"Why did I do what?" Eric asked.

"Virus busting. Back at the safehouse. You could have done anything you wanted to while I was finishing my job."

Eric turned his attention to the navi that was standing on his desk. He didn't even know for sure himself why he'd let Amy talk him into doing it. If he didn't want to, he had had all the power to say no, and that would have been the end of the discussion. He could've enjoyed the peace and quiet, and nobody would have challenged him about his desire for rest, except possibly Amy herself. But instead, they'd gone onto the internet, and as a result he felt more connected to his new partner than before. Hopefully she felt the same way too, although he couldn't be sure.

Maybe that was the answer; because he wanted to get to know her better. She'd seemed confident she'd be okay, so letting her do something she wanted to do was a nice thing... right?

"Amy wanted to go virus busting to keep working on her abilities. She was confident she'd be okay, and I had my battechip folder with me, so there was no reason not to, I guess...?" He didn't look away from Amy as he answered Stacey's question. It might have only been half of the truth, but it was all he could admit to out loud.

"And how did it go?"

"We found some new chips, and we both saw some things we'd never seen before," he replied. Reaching over to his backpack, he pulled out the sizeable NetPendium. "I was able to use this in a way that helped Amy win her battles. If I keep studying it, maybe I can be a good partner..." The idea of being a reliable partner that could anticipate her needs in battle, the thought excited him a little as he thought of the possibilities. Net trading wouldn't be as scary any more, and maybe they could start doing remote call outs jobs at work...

His daydreaming was distrupted as a rustling noise brought his attention back to Stacey; she'd placed the two chips onto the bed and was now lifting the small purple unit out of the box. It was about twice the size of his PET from top to bottom, and cubic in shape with softly rounded edges and corners. Stacey took it to his bedside table and, after moving the clock and photo to one side, placed it firmly in the centre. It had a power cable attached to the back of the unit, which she threaded underneath the bed and into a power socket. After turning on the power at the wall, Stacey pushed a few buttons on the centre display on the top of the unit, which seemed to activate a variety of different lights and screens both on the top and the front of the cube itself. Convinced her actions were correct, Stacey returned to the bed and picked up the two chips she'd placed down earlier.

"I'll give you this..." as she handed him the second GMO, "and this..." as she handed him the unknown chip. "That one is actually a knowledge depository that contains one of your old friends, Amy. I don't think they will remember anything, since the protocol for SRD is to wipe all memories before deletion... you know, in case something goes missing." Stacey looked a little embarrassed as she made the comment regarding deletion. What reason would she have to be embarrassed though...?

"'Knowledge depository', huh?" Eric repeated. "So how do we activate it?"

"You can't. Not yet, anyway," Stacey added. "You'll need to obtain a Category 1 SP core to be able to activate it. SP cores can be a bit tricky to come by, which is why SRD stripped it out of that unit. SP cores can only be attached to netnavis that have demonstrated the neural ability to sideload a companion into their own core coding, but..." she trailled off as she handed Amy's PET back to Eric, "...theoretically... you're ready."

"Okay, so where do we go to buy one then?"

"If only it were that simple," Stacey sighed. "Most companies that have ones to spare won't just give them away or sell them. You'll probably need to do something for them to earn the core. Think of it as a freelance job."

"'Freelance'?" Eric replied, alarmed he'd be asked to do such work. That was a word he'd heard quite often while watching 'The Inner Circle'; he wasn't going to be doing spy work, was he...?

"Think of it as a one-time-only request for work. No strings attached; you do the job, you get the reward. You can post a request for that kind of work in the NetSquare."

Maybe not then. His excitement at getting something new was waning now that he was getting a better idea of the work involved in obtaining all the needed parts. "That sounds like a lot of effort..." he groaned as he fiddled with the chips. "Maybe we'll do it la-"

"Hey, we've got this!" Amy reassured him, walking across the desk to his arm and gently rocking it, like a child wanting something from its parent. "Come on, it can't be that bad, right? Besides, we'll be doing it together!"

That same reassurance, that everything would be alright, gave him a needed confidence boost. "...I guess we can give it a try..." he finally agreed.

An amused smile crossed Stacey's face as she watched the exchange, like she'd just discovered something new.

"How do we get to this... NetSquare?" Amy enquired.

"Through that," Stacey confirmed while pointing to the purple box. "Eric, that is now your new home network server. It can serve as a base of operations for Amy and anybody she meets." Eric knew what a homepage was; that part she didn't need to explain. Homepages caused at least a quarter of the problems he dealt with for work. Stacey then removed a large paper book from the box and dropped it on the desk in front of him. "Have a read of this, it'll explain all you need to know about how to connect it to the internet and how to point a connection to the NetSquare."

As she turned to walk out the room, she stopped at the doorway and glanced back a final time. "Oh, and two more things. First, if you do decide to go to the NetSquare, under no circumstances are you to go there in the Spring style. Amy, either go as your normal self or install that Autumn style I gave you and use it instead, you understand? I promise that you will only cause trouble for yourself if you use the Spring style anywhere there's people around." When she received no rebuttal, she continued. "And second..." she hesitated briefly before continuing, "...second... if you do manage to get an SP core and install it correctly, I'll tell you everything else I know about Amy." And with that, Stacey was gone, closing the door behind her.

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{EAX015}

It wasn't going away.

Not pulling your weight. Again.

Annoying your navi. Again.

Creating distractions. Again.


Although he'd been an observer the entire time, a constant flow of andrenaline had kept Eric on edge as he watched his partner move from one potential event to another, all while his mind amplified the actual risks to his navi into unrealistic disasters. Despite their differences, he'd tried to be useful even after being told to leave her alone, but her responses only reminded him of their relationship as operator and navi, not as friends.

The danger was now over but his mind was cooked, worn out from heightened stress. In its place, anticipation of danger was being overrun by critical judgment. Despite his earnest desires, sleep now evaded him. Instead, Eric continued to mull over the day's events, the accusations refusing to release its grip on his mind.

A light tapping of his shoulder alerted him to the fact he was not alone in the room, but he tried to ignore it. They'd gotten the SP core and earned the right to an explanation, but right now, he just wanted to be left alone. Stacey's stories could wait.

"Nnn."

He could hear a grunt, accompanied with a gentle budge. The grunt wasn't in the strained overbearing tone that Stacey used to order him out of bed, but it wasn't the higher pitch of Amy's voice either.

"Nnn." This time it was accompanied by a stronger push, but not with the force his sister was capable of dealing.

Eric's head peeked out of the cover and turned to face the source of his annoyance. His eyes found themselves staring directly into the eyes of a little girl. The sudden lack of distance surprised her, as she jerked away from the bedside and darted behind a neon red dress positioned upright behind the end of the bed.

The flowing red dress was certainly not in step with the room's surroundings, beckoning Eric to turn the light on and find out what exactly was going on. No lady in her right mind would be wearing such an elegant thing in this place, so maybe he had falled asleep after all.

That feeling of relief was short-lived when the light shon down on Amy grinning back at him.

"So? What do you think?" she asked as she did a sudo-curtsy at him.

The words 'stunning', 'beautiful', and 'mesmerising' entered his head, but dared not leave his mouth. The red dress, long brown ponytail and wide grin would certainly have power over many a man. If he hadn't known any better, he'd have believed he was looking at a successful business woman, and a rather rich one at that.

"It looks good," was all he muttered before turning away, breaking gaze with both females and seeking refuge under the blanket again.

"That's it...?" she questioned, unsatisfied with the answer.

Once again, her petitions were left unreciprocated. In response, her hand rested on the child's head as she used it to direct the girl to stand in front of her.

"Eric, get up," she ordered in the strongest voice she could muster.

A pause followed, but eventually the mass under the blankets began to morph as its occupant shifted from underneath their protection and into the open. Despite his own feelings, he still knew how to follow orders.

"Look at her."

Eric let out a small sigh of exasperation as he looked towards the child. It wasn't like he hadn't seen her before; what was Amy's point?

"She's alive because of you."

"...that's... that's not true."

"Who saved her from the Batworm?"

"...You."

"Who extracted her from the network?"

"...You."

"And did I do it with my powers alone? Were my gel blasters enough?"

"...I'm sure you would have found anot-"

"Yes or no?" Amy wasn't allowing diversions.

"...No."

"What else did I use, Eric?"

"...But anybody else could have do-"

"Was anybody else there, Eric?"

Silence.

Eric's eyes widened a little as Amy's point began to sink in.

Amy's hands gestured the girl towards him again. This time her steps were a little hesitant, but slowly she moved forward, stopping just outside of arm's reach. Her eyes were still nervously darting back between Eric and Amy, but when Amy again gestured towards Eric, two small words were uttered.

"...Th-... thank... you..."

Her fortitude depleted, she rushed back to Amy's side. His eyes naturally followed the movement, which eventually directed his focus back to Amy, still staring directly at him.

"I... I..." he stammered as he tried to find something to say.

"Please... stop beating yourself up about this stuff," she reaffirmed as she stole a glance behind herself. "Yeah, today wasn't perfect. Tomorrow might not be perfect either. But stop stressing, okay?"

Eric couldn't deny his problem, but just asking someone to change was bold. Amy had no idea what she was asking of him. Or, at least that's what Eric was thinking.

"Look, I'm sorry about today. But I don't hate you, okay?"

A pause. "I... I know you don't... he tried to reaffirm, but deep down, Eric still wasn't sure about that either. 'Hate' may not have been the right word, but surely she didn't like him either. Being saved from deletion wasn't necessary an instant bonding moment, like she was now committed to him for the rest of their lives.

"Look; if it helps, just leave everything that happens on the net to me, alright? That way, when things go wrong it's on me, not you."

"...'When'? Don't you mean 'if'?"

"No Eric, 'when'. Bad things happen. You can't avoid that, no matter how hard you try."

Amy couldn't avoid noticing tiny drops begin to form in the corners of his eyes.

Amy opened her mouth to speak, but the words appeared to be stuck in her throat. It wasn't until a few moments later that she continued. "...I... I know I was a brat today. I don't know why, but I know I said and did things that hurt you. I can't promise that won't happen again. But when it does happen, we can talk about it afterwards. I CAN promise that." A meditative pause followed. "On second thought, you may need to give me a few minutes to cool down before we talk anything out," she joked, a gentle smile resurfacing.

Eric just replied by means of a gentle smile of his own.

"The point I'm trying to make is that Little Miss is safe because of us. Not me, not you, but us. I'm not a hero. In fact, before I met you I was pretty sure I was a mistake. A navi that someone slapped together with random parts and thought 'hey, that works'. Because who makes a navi that can't delete viruses properly? But today, yesterday, even the day before that, it's all the same. When it's us, we've got this."

Eric stared at Amy as he processed her opinion, giving only a few slight nods as a sign of understanding.

"I... I just want to be useful," she concluded as the tone of her voice softened. "Everybody was always telling me I was a failure, that I wouldn't be of use to anybody. But now... I might be able to help someone." Her right hand left her side and pointed towards Eric, with a new playful sarcasm now in her voice. "Which means I need you, you neurotic wreck. If we go back to PARSE, I'm not going on my own."

Eric wiped away tears as he slid towards the bedhead end of his head after pushing the blanket back towards the foot of the bed. It turned the bed into a makeshift couch, and it didn't take long for Amy to take up the silent invitation. What surprised them both is that, instead of sitting away from Eric, or in Amy's lap, their younger friend decided to sit in-between the two of them.

...maybe just a little closer to Amy than Eric.

When Eric realised this, he let out a small chuckle. "I didn't think Little Miss would sit near me," he admitted.

"Little Miss is full of surprises," Amy concurred whilst stroking her brown hair. With Amy in her current GMO form, one would not be ridiculed for thinking they were related.

"Sakura."

That one word turned both Eric's and Amy's attention downward. No further context had been provided, just one word had been uttered.

The child's eyes first looked towards Amy, then to Eric, and then back to Amy. Both looked at each other, hoping to gain some context. Amy quickly looked to the poster on the back of Eric's bedroom door, but she couldn't make out any obvious sakura trees.

"Sakura."

This time, when the pair turned their attention back to Little Miss, one hand was raised and a lone finger pointed at her own face. Instantly they understood what was being said, but just for clarity, the girl sitting between them said it one more time.

"Sakura."

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{EAX017}

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"So if this icon lights up, it means the transmission was unsuccessful?"

"No. If that icon lights up, it means that transmission isn't possible."

"Why wouldn't transmission be possible?"

"Wait for a rogue transmission first, then I might be able to show you why."

Eric's attention returned to the screen, still tapping away at the keyboard.

"Does she do this often?"

The 'she' Amy was referring to was Stacey, who hadn't returned home after their successful adventure the day before. Amy had been disappointed that their victory hadn't borne fruit immediately, but Eric was happy to get a break from everything virus-busting. He'd used the prior evening to make a solid entry on his time card for work, much to Amy's surprise, and was now doing it again after a rather satisfying night's sleep.

'Sakura' was nowhere to be seen, and Amy had changed to her hologen form, her standard blue and violet silhouette standing on Eric's desk. She'd been watching Eric process one code after another, not because she had an interest in learning anything but because she was happy to see Eric doing something constructive. She too had had a good night's rest and had recovered from the mental assault of the aquarium visit, but after a dozen questions about the changes she was seeing on her operator's work terminal, Amy's interest in Eric's profession was beginning to wane.

"...So your job really is just to watch these transmissions? Hour after hour, day after day?"

"It's important that any irregularities are dealt with so the internet keeps working as it should."

"Sounds kinda boring to me."

Eric smiled upon hearing those words. "I think I said something similar when Matt offered me the job," he admitted. "I guess it kind of grew on me."

"How?"

"With this job, I rarely have to leave home."

That comment made Amy frown. "Don't you want to go outside and see your world?"

"But I can see plenty of the world from here." As proof, he booted up a web browser on the left monitor and navigated to an image of a garden filled with a wide variety of different flowers, trees, vines, hedges and shrubs. It was arranged in such a way that the gardens flowed almost like a rainbow as you moved from one side of the estate to the other. Despite this, the different varieties of flora seemed to compliment each other as you moved through the pathways, like an artist had grabbed a pallet of colours and painted the flowers into existence instead of growing them.

"Isn't this just another angle of that garden?" she prodded, pointing to the lone poster pasted onto the back of Eric's bedroom door. She hadn't noticed it in her first few days living with the Bauersox family, but upon leaving the PET and entering the room as herself, it was almost impossible to miss it.

"I guess."

"I bet it looks even better in person."

Eric didn't have a response to that. Instead, he closed the browser and turned his attention back to three red lines that had begun flashing white whilst small yellow orbs travelled down them.

"There. Those are rogue transmissions, or RTs for short."

"What makes them rogue?"

Eric responded whilst typing commands into a console line that ran across the bottom of the right monitor. "All transmissions are made up of organised data. For example, when I send you into the internet, your data is compressed into a 'digital package', or DP for short. All DPs have a source and a destination."

"...And?"

"RTs are DPs not heading towards their intended destination."

"...And that's bad?"

"Yes."

The constant barrage of questions was beginning to fluster Eric. "Most people don't really care about what I do, so I've never really been good at explaining my job."

"You've been doing fine until now. You don't need to explain all the technical bits, just the essential stuff."

Eric nodded as he executed two lines of code on the command line. "Alright then... so these red lines with black dots are temporary utility lines between government servers. When a line starts flashing white, that indicates that a subroutine is disrupting standard transmission functions, but not to a critical level. The subroute creating the issue could be a legitimate corrupted code or a pirated code. The yellow orbs indicate that DPs are being diverted from the path to an adjacent transmission line, like this red one with grey dots."

When he saw Amy's blank expression, Eric sighed. "I guess it's kind of like a giant obstacle suddenly popping up on a path, forcing people to take a detour they didn't want to take."

"See, THAT makes sense."

Eric sheepishly grinned. "Thank you."

"What, for understanding?"

"No. For... everything."

Amy didn't feel that trying to understand her operator's job deserved any special commendation. After all, if it was something she learned how to do, then she could assist in that regard as well. It sounded like a pretty pacifist job, which would be right up her alley anyway.

"Just trying to do my part," she shrugged. "The more you know, the more you can do."

The sound of keys entering and turning a nearby lock ended their conversation.

Eric furiously hammered three more lines of code into the console line before navigating to the 'Log Off' screen. His attention turned to the bed behind him where they'd been working a few hours prior. The SP chip had been reconstructed as per the instructions in both Amity's server/PET manual and the NetPendium, but...

"...Are you ready for this?"

"Hey, that's my line."

Eric froze. "Oh shoot."

"What?"

"I forgot to show you the icon for when transmission isn't possible."

Amy chuckled nervously. "Focus, Eric."

"...Right."

"I'm home," Stacey called out from the living room. "Eric?"

"...In here," he replied, nervously twitching his fingers together.

Stacey walked into the room to find Eric and Amy sitting on the bed. Amy had returned to Augment mode, holding the reconstructed SP chip in her hand. Crony appeared on Stacey's shoulder, making it a 2 v 2 situation.

"Sorry about that. My shift last night ended late, and it was just easier to sleep at one of safehouses in Kotobuki than come home, get 4 hours sleep and go back to work again. Grearson had better be sick, because if I find out he's skipping out on work to hang out with his new missus, so help me..."

Stacey huffed and whipped her head to the side to try and get a few stray hairs out of her face. When it didn't work, she tucked them forcibly behind her ear with her hand.

"So. How'd you go?"

"Primary directive complete, ma'am," she reported in a tone that could have been taken as serious or sarcastic; Eric couldn't tell which.

"If you were successful, why isn't it installed in you?" she questioned, crossing her arms in the process.

"It's your fault, I guess."

"'My fault'? How?"

Eric knew from experience a tired Stacey was an easily irritated Stacey. He'd hoped they'd talk about this calmly, but instead the conversation was quickly becoming heated. The two women were starting a war with their eyes, making Eric feel rather uncomfortable.

Eric felt the need to interject before things got out of control.

"UMM, what... what Amy means is..." he stammered, trying to control his fear.

"Yes?" Stacey's gaze broke from Amy and turned to her brother.

Eric gulped rather loudly, trying to steel himself against an already agitated sister. "What... what Amy means is that... you said earlier... it was an... old acquaintance."

"Yes. And?"

"If... if their memory has been erased like Amy... wouldn't that... wouldn't that make them strangers...?"

Stacey's scowl softened as Eric explained their situation. The tension between the two groups seemed to diminish, if only by a little.

"Their memories are deleted, but their personality will still be the same. You can't erase that from their base code. Besides, these 'friends' were built specifically for you, Amy."

"But I have no memory of them. Of any friends, I mean."

Stacey glanced at her watch. "Look, I told him if we're coming, we'd be there in an hour. I'd like to take a shower first and get something to eat, and after that we'll go."

"'We'll go'?" both Eric and Amy repeated in unison.

"Install the SP chip. Do your introductions. Then Eric, get dressed." Before Eric could ask why, Stacey had already left the bedroom.

"I guess I'll return to the PET then," Amy concluded as she disappeared from the room as well.

Eric removed the PET from atop the server and put it into standby, allowing access to the vital chip loading dock. However, his fingers hesitated briefly as he moved the SP chip close to one of the four open slots designed for such an addition.

Is this... a mistake?

I've only had Amy for a few days. Is it really smart to be adding to the number of people under my care?

Better question. What excuse are you going to give Amy and Stacey if you DON'T do it...?


Fear pushed aside his hesitancy and locked the chip in place. With a satisfying 'click', everything seemed in order. Confident he'd done well, Eric resealed the chip dock, placed the PET back atop the server and pressed the power button.
[SUBROUTINE INITIALIZING.....COMPLETE.]
[UNPACKING PHYSICAL BRIDGE.....COMPLETE.]
[INSTALLING PHYSICAL BRIDGE.....COMPLETE.]
[THOUGHT PROCESS MATRIX INITIALIZING.....COMPLETE.]
[EXTERNAL BINARIES MATRIX INITIALIZING.....COMPLETE.]
[INSERTING MATRICES.....COMPLETE.]
[STRESS TEST BASE LINE BIOS.....COMPLETE.]
[SEEKING RESPONSE PARAMETERS DATA.....FOUND.]
[LOADING RESPONSE PARAMETERS DATA.....COMPLETE.]
[SEEKING PERSONALITY SYNAPSES DATA.....FOUND.]
[LOADING PERSONALITY SYNAPSES DATA.....COMPLETE.]
[SEEKING MEMORY BANK DATA..........ERROR 07.]
[RUNNING FULL DATA BANK SCAN.....COMPLETE.]
[RESULT: NO ALTERNATIVE MEMORY DATA BANK FOUND.]
[EXECUTING MEMORY BANK DATA ERROR 07 SUBROUTINE PROTOCOL.]
[SKIPPING MEMORY BANK DATA LOAD...COMPLETE.]
[FINAL CORE SUBROUTINE ANALYSIS.......COMPLETE.]
[RESULT: STABLE RELEASE, BOOT OPTIONS ENABLED.]

[ACTIVATING SPCORE.DAT 'LILIANA.SP'..........COMPLETE.]

Uhh, hello?

...Wait, where am I? Forget that, where is here...? What IS this place...?

This... this is strange. I was in a warm place just a minute ago, but now... everything feels... different.

I suppose I should take stock of my immediate surroundings first before I worry about anything else.

I'm pinned. Pinned between something soft and smooth, and something soft and not so smooth. I can wiggle my body, but that's probably about it right now.

Huh. On top of that, the surface I'm standing on is sticky. Okay, maybe 'sticky' isn't the right word, but it feels like my feet and legs link together with this surface as if it's natural. I hope that doesn't mean I'm a prisoner.

It's definitely weird. It looks like a bluish-cyan liquid, but it certainly doesn't have the viscosity of liquid. It LOOKS like liquid, but it's definitely solid. Well, mostly solid, anyway. I don't know how to describe it; it's gentle to the touch, but when I put even a little force into it, it immediately resists any further pressure.

Something seems to be compressing my wings as well. I mean, they're currently in their minimised form, but still, if I wanted to fly right now I wouldn't be able to. I know my wings aren't at their full size, but would extending them here even do anything? I doubt the force of rapidly expanding my wings would break the captive wall, I may just damage myself instead.

I don't like this. I need an open space.

Gotta get out of here.

.....

Wait.

.....

Whatever this... place... is, there seems to be a gap right behind me. I can feel a change of temperature emanating from it.

.....

Shrink the wings first. If I close the wings back to their stub form, I might be able to position the stubs out the gap, and then grow them back to a much more beneficial size.

...Unless the outside is just as cramped as the inside.

No point worrying about that now.

.....

.....

.....yes! Success!

Alright wings, beat! With our combined force, I may be able to free myself!

.....

.....

Come ooooon.....

.....

Just a.....

....

littllllle.....

harrrrrder....

....nnnnnnnnnrrrrGGHHH!


A blue butterfly-shaped creature burst out of the back of Amy's dress and flew a few inches short of the wall, its semi-transparent wings allowing it to maneouvre a sharp turn to avoid a painful impact with the wall. It took a stationary hovering position close to the ceiling as it sized up the room it found itself in. As it hovered, its wings changed colour from a shade of cyan that complimented Amy's dress to a bright, neon sunflower yellow.

"Who are you?" it asked.

"I'm Amy, and this is Eric."

Its head darted between Amy and Eric, as if it was unsure how to proceed with this information.

"I'm told you are one of my friends, but to be honest, I've never met you before. Not that I can remember, anyway. I was told you were made for me, but again, no memories, so I can't prove that."

Its head glanced toward purple hair first. "Amy." It then fluttered toward the red hair. "Eric."

"That's right."

"I don't think you're a threat, but I reserve the right to change that opinion."

Amy chuckled. "Understood."

"Wait. I do know you."

The brief smile was suddenly replaced by shock as a prior memory came back to her. "You're right. I do too."

"Excuse me?"

Amy extended out a hand to the glowing creature, palm up. "Nice to meet you Lily."

The butterfly looked confused. "My name isn't Lily, it's Liliana. Close, but not quite."

"Eric, do you mind if we go back to the server for a minute?"

When Eric simply nodded his head, the two images vanished, leaving him to his own thoughts. As he waited, he pulled the server storage box back out from underneath the bed and examined the other two SP chips. I bet these are the other two, he comtemplated as he refreshed his memory on the contents of the box, taking out each component and doing his best to burn them into a mental catalogue. This ENDBS package still had a few secrets up its sleeve, of that he was certain. For now though, they had other priorities.

Eric had only momentarily finished sliding the box back under the bed when Amy and Lily returned.

"Lily. That's what I called myself."

"I guess. I mean, we only have the video to go by, but..."

"That's fine. Lily it is."

Amy looked a little anxious as she eyed her new acquaintance's wings. "So... do you suppose I can fly? With your help, of course."

"I don't see how. I mean, I saw the video. I reckon I could help you glide in an emergency, but these wings couldn't lift you off the ground," she explained as her pointed wings grew to a much larger size. "I think that there must have been something else helping me as well."

"You'll need a flight modification first, it's not part of the standard SP kit."

All three sets of eyes whirled around to Stacey in the doorway, munching on a salad roll.

"Eric, you're not properly dressed. Hurry up, or we'll be late."

Eric was dressed in his normal house wear; teal shirt, navy shorts, black socks. Fashion was not his strong suit, something his partner would need to teach him if that was to change.

"Wait, Stacey," Eric blurted before Stacey had a chance to take her leave.

"Yes?"

"Amy, show them to Stacey," he urged as he held out the PET in front of them. The purple packet took centre stage as Stacey's face turned into a look of confusion.

"Yeah....." she replied slowly, her voice filled with confusion. "Bugfrags. What about them?"

{>>> To ACDC Town: 77 Press Street, ACDC Heights >>>}
{EAX021}

{<<< From ACDC Town: 77 Press Street, ACDC Heights <<<}

The drive over to Huxley's house had taken long enough for Amy, but the return trip felt even longer. The same silence that had started outside Huxley's house had persisted all the way home, with both humans not even looking at each other. Stacey's focus remained glued to the road in front of her, and Eric found something to fidget with on his backpack that kept his eyes pointed downward.

Amy had hoped to talk about the new revelations surrounding her identity, but in this environment her enthusiam had petered out. Instead, her new partner requested a brief meeting in private, as Lily felt she had been witness to an issue that needed addressing. This was a distraction for both of the digital ladies that lasted until the car finally pulled into the Bauersox driveway.

Even after they had parked the car and returned into the house, that same atmosphere followed them inside. Stacey veered to the right towards her bedroom, while Eric moved past the dining table and to the left towards his bedroom. He closed the bedroom door behind himself and placed the PET down onto the server, after which he fell facefirst onto the bed, the pillow catching his head for much needed support.

What a day.

Agreed. But hey, look on the bright side. Amy's kinda famous.

I don't see how this helps us. Trying to avoid being noticed gets harder when someone shines a spotlight right next to you.

I think you're reading too much into this. As usual. From what Max told us, it sounds like there's a few navis out there pretending to be an Amy lookalike.

Emphasis on the 'few'. And they're not mimicking Amy's normal look, only her business outfits. We'll probably draw more attention with Amy looking like a cheap knockoff.

What *exactly* about Amy's normal look strikes you as 'knockoff'?


This back-and-forth continued in Eric's mind as his interpretations of the night's events continued to sort themselves out. The end result was a stalemate; he couldn't decide if this new information about Amy had ended up being a good thing or a bad thing.

Eric noticed a presence on his bed as the mattress sagged at his feet. Something had sat at the foot end of his bed. His mind wasn't ready for an assault from Stacey just yet; he knew that at one point or another they were going to talk about the events that led to her sucker punch, but he didn't have anything to add to that conversation that would either exonerate him from guilt or justify his actions, so the entire argument seemed unnecessary.

The seconds trailed into minutes as nothing happened. The anticipation of a verbal beating was moving Eric closer and closer to a panic attack, but as even more time passed Eric realised... nothing was happening. If Stacey had sat at the foot of his bed, she wouldn't have waited this long to begin the conversation.

His head turned out from the pillow to find Amy staring at him. No look of emotion was on her face, she was simply sitting and waiting, her hands resting on her lap. Lily was also present and had landed on his computer desk, but instead of staring at him the butterfly's eyes were closed and its wings were nowhere to be seen. In this state, Lily could have been confused for a stunted worm.

Amy noticed Eric's observation of her partner. "Don't worry, she's just resting. Didn't know when you were going to acknowledge us so she figured she'd use the time wisely." No sooner were the words out of Amy's mouth when Lily's wings flickered into existence, and a few flutters propelled their user onto the headrest of Eric's office chair.

"So, are we doing this?" it asked the pair.

Eric wasn't sure what 'this' was, but Amy's smile did help to allay the fear that had already begun rising.

"Eric? Can we talk about tonight?"

He should have known that Amy would want to talk, but with an audience...? Amy or Stacey, it didn't matter; Eric wasn't ready for another fight. "Umm... sure," he responded, proceeding to sit up.

"I know I've only just met you, but I wanted to talk about your sister," Lily began. "Does that happen often? The hitting, I mean."

Eric had prepared himself for multiple conversations regarding Amy's origin, the battle they'd just fought, or even about Huxley and his situation. His relationship with Stacey wasn't something he'd considered talking about, but the question was easy enough to answer in comparison to the other possibilities.

"I... guess...? I mean, it only happens when I do something stupid. And I do a lot of stupid things."

"Not acceptable."

"Lily." Amy hadn't realised her partner would take such a direct route to the issue, and looked visibly shocked.

The words hurt more than just Eric's ears. It was a reality he had grown used to, but hearing someone else acknowledge it didn't make it easier to deal with. "She's my guardian. She's been my guardian for 12 years now."

"But you agree that this kind of behaviour isn't acceptable?"

Eric winced at those words. "It's not like she does it to hurt me or to make herself feel better."

"That's not an answer to my question. Why are you trying to justify her behaviour?"

"She's my older sister."

"So? That doesn't make it acceptable."

"Sometimes I don't understand what's going on around me. I guess Stacey thinks that sometimes pain is a better teacher than talking."

"I can't believe what I'm hearing right no-"

"LILY, ENOUGH."

Lily's image disappeared from the room. Whether it was because she'd withdrawn on her own, or whether she'd been forced to do so, Eric didn't know and dared not ask. The abrupt ending of these questions was welcomed in either event, but left the man alone with his navi in the room.

"I'm sorry Eric. I'm sure Lily means well, but from my short time here I know there's more to your relationship with Stacey than what I've already seen. I do want to understand that girl better, but that's not what *I* wanted to talk to you about right now."

Amy lifted herself off the bed and withdrew the office chair from the desk, rotating it 180 degrees so that it faced her operator. Doing so allowed her to take a seated position directly facing Eric, instead of looking at him over her shoulder. Although Eric had not turned to face her directly, Amy didn't let that stop her from continuing on.

"On the way home I was trying to figure out what you were thinking about. If you were trying to avoid upsetting Stacey you would have been looking away from her, maybe out of the car at the things we were passing, but instead you were looking down. I'm not a psychologist, but I figured that meant you weren't avoiding Stacey... you were avoiding me. Am I right?"

A pause followed, but Eric finally nodded his head, not yet looking directly at his navi.

"I knew it. So I had to ask myself "What would Eric be trying to avoid talking about?" I mean, I've known you less than a week, but this time I had no clue. We didn't have any fights, I don't think you did anything that needed an apology, so... what? What's wrong?"

When Eric didn't reply, Amy's hands reached across the divide between them and took hold of Eric's head, forcing it to rise and stare directly into hers.

"Hey. We agreed to communicate. I'm trying to understand you. I'm not your sister, you can talk to me."

Eric's lips quivered and his voice trembled as the next words came out, his head once again sinking towards the ground. "Are... are you happy here...?"

A frown followed. "What do you mean?"

"I... I figured that together... I was saving you from deletion... but now..." A small sniff became audible as Eric tried to hold back worse. "It sounds like you had... a much better life before..."

His hands tried to wipe away a tear. Another breath to try to regain composure, but it didn't help. "...before me. Do you... do you want to go back...?"

A large sigh of relief came flowing out of Amy's mouth upon hearing those words. "Oh my. So that's what this is all about...?" she chuckled. "I thought you'd be happy to be free of me."

"No!" Eric's head snapped upwards to face Amy's as he uttered the words, surprising not only his navi but also himself at the eagerness to rebut her previous comment.

"Eric, grab the PET for me."

Eric obeyed, Amy's image disappearing from the room as he lifted it off the terminal. A flicker on the screen occurred as Amy redistributed herself into the mainframe, but her next action resulted in a voice reccording being repeated through the PET's speaker.

"I'll make you a deal. You put up with my oddities, I'll put up with yours. Agreed?"

"Agreed!"

"Umm, what? I didn't do that..."

"It's the closest thing I have to a physical hand! Shake it!"

"Why do I get the feeling I'll regret this later..."

"Nonsense! You and me, we have to be a team!"


The playback ended and as brief pause followed.

"Eric, I want to imagine something for me. Close your eyes."

Eric nodded as he did as instructed.

"How old are you?"

"25. 26 in a few months."

"Everything you've ever experienced. Everything you've ever seen. Every person you've met, place you've visited, food you've eaten, activity you've done. Think about it right now."

Although absurd to him at first, it didn't take long before Eric's mind went back to his earlier childhood, to a time when he was 11 years old. A simpler time, when he had been happy and joyous about the final years of his elementary school life, with parents that were still alive.

"Are you thinking about something good?"

Eric nodded, eyes still closed.

"It's a lie, Eric. All of it. Make-believe. Everything you're thinking about right now... never happened."

Eric's eyes opened, a look of disbelief as he tried to understand the point Amy was making. Those were not lies; they were the happiest times of his life.

"I don't understand."

"I was just told that everything I thought was true... was a lie. All these memories of training, taunting, mockery... accusations I told myself I had to prove wrong... none of it was real. The only thing that is real is the voice of an old lady I'll never get to meet." Amy shifted in place slightly, as if the statement had made her uncomfortable, but instead she shook her head and focused on Eric. "I've been acting like I have to prove myself to make up for all the people I've let down. Except... they never even existed. I don't know why someone did this to me, but I won't let these fake memories tell me who I am anymore. From now on, I'm listening to the voice in my head. The only person whose opinion I need to worry about... is yours, my operator."

A warm feeling ran through Eric's body as he realised what this meant. Amy wasn't going to leave him for a better operator, or when times got hard for them. He'd been expecting her to leave like so many had in his life, but for the first time in many years... could he really begin to rely on her...?

"I'm sorry. Maybe some of my behaviour before was because of that thinking, that I had to prove myself to you, to Stacey, to everybody." Her mouth quickly formed a frown as she quick revised that thought. "Well, everybody except Crony. I think he's just a jerk from top to bottom."

Eric's sudden burst of laughter caught Amy by surprise, and she couldn't help but join in. Their mutual dislike for his mannerisms was at least something they could bond over.

"Let me come back to the room please."

Eric took this as a sign to return the PET to the server, which seemed like the right course of action as Amy reappeared momentarily in her previous position. Except now, the violet-haired lady stood up from the seat and extended her materialised hand out to Eric.

"Sure, this may not be a lavish place, and there are probably much better people I'm suited for. But I don't remember anything about the life of this 'Amy Moore'. All of my memories are either of a training facility that doesn't exist, a woman whose voice prods me when I need the motivation, and... this place." She edged the outstretched hand out a little further. "I've said this before, but I need you, you neurotic wreck. You had a chance to be free of me and you said no. So take some responsibilty for your actions and make this team work." All this was said with a growing smile, one that gradually spread across Eric's face in unison. "I'll make a man out of you somehow," she winked.

Eric lifted his body from the bed. "My dad always said 'a gentleman never gives a handshake sitting down'," he advised as he took a hold of Amy's hand. "I just don't want to be a burden to you."

"Don't make me say it again," she grinned cheekily.

As her neck craned up to allow her eyes to meet his again, she realised something new. "You know, this might actually be the first time we've stood together." It was only now that Amy could fully appreciate the height difference between them. Her height of 165 centimetres was almost a ruler's length down from his standing height of 193. For the first time she felt a little intimidated by his presence. "I feel like I'm the one who needs protecting, not you."

A sheepish blush crossed his face. "That's why I have the longer bed. A standard-size bed wouldn't be enough for me." That thought brought Eric's mind to a new topic. "Lily. Where's she going to sleep?"

"Don't worry about that. I'm pretty sure the pods in The Stem were designed for her. After seeing her in that curled up state, I'm sure those pods were for someone of her size, just like Littl- I mean Sakura."

The mention of her little friend reminded her it had been a long night, and Sakura may have been lonely on her own. Not to mention that Sakura and Lily hadn't been introduced properly; they'd managed to avoid being detected during the watching of the hologram video at The Flower. Something inside herself told Amy that she didn't need to fear the girls meeting each other. In fact, it was possible that Sakura and Lily were having their first meeting now. At the very least, Sakura was safe in The Flower.

As Amy's mind wandered back to her original meeting with Sakura and the stark difference between then and now, her mind snapped back to a promise she'd made that had been delayed a few times due to the events of the last few days, but now they had no immediate goal that needed addressing. Now was the perfect time to ask as their hands parted.

"Actually, Eric... there's something else I need to talk to you about..."
Arriving back at home in the very early hours of the morning meant one thing to Eric; an obligatory sleep-in. Of course, Eric's erratic sleep pattern was slowly becoming second-nature to Amy, and as both had the power to now block out the natural waking nature of sunlight thanks to block-out curtains in Eric's room and a sleep-killswitch for Amy, both were able to get an unusually satisfying night's sleep. Perhaps the night's events had done wonders for the confidence of both of them.

Upon waking close to midday, Eric performed his customary skipping of normal cleansing habits and proceeded to begin work on Amy's request. It took Eric only a few minutes to open up a commslink on his work computer that would allow an external bridge to Amy's server, which was going to be ncessary for the next action.

"Amy, are you ready?"

Amy was sitting at the computer desk down in The Stem, with Sakura sitting on her lap and Lily standing on the chair back. Several lines of code were already inputted into the middle screen, while a blinking window on the right screen simply had the message 'Awaiting Input'.

"Ready on my end. Open the port."

Eric scrambled a few lines of code into his computer, which at first returned some odd red exclamation marks and some jarring error noises, but after half a minute the marks disappeared and a new window appeared with the message 'Connection Established'.

"I think I've done the necessary bridging. I hope this works."

"Me too." Amy felt the smallest drops of gamma gel roll down her arm and into her hand as she extended the pedicels on her head. It seemed odd to be recreating a specific tracking gel instead of a new signature, but the computer's scanning system didn't interface with her coding directly. This meant the only way she'd be able to have the computer upload and match a particular frequency was to have it scan a replica of the same gel. She rolled the gamma gel against the pedicel tip, but this time it was radiating the same signature she'd produced for Meep.

"Hey, I didn't know you had antennae," Lily quipped. "Are you part butterfly too?"

"No, but the pedicels give me amazing radar and sonar reception, along with a few other increases of senses. Unfortunately that sensitivity also makes them an easy target, so I don't normally keep them out. Sometimes they extend themselves instinctively, but I don't seem to have control of them at those moments."

"Kind of like a warning system."

"I guess you could say that." Amy then laughed. "When you're attached to me, then yes, I guess I'm part butterfly."

"So what exactly are you doing right now?"

The gel had been adequately irridated with energy so Amy's fingers moved under the computer scanner. "I'm trying to track down a friend. If they're still alive, we should be able to find them." To Amy's glee, the sensors were able to scan the gel and create an entity signature.

"I think it worked Eric. Uploading to you now."

Eric's window confirmed the package validity, and with a few clicks of his mouse the package was unpacked into his work software. "DJRM has accepted the signature. Testing it now..." A singular detection in the Stem brought a smile to Eric's face. "Looks like it worked: it's detecting you in there."

"Excellent!" came back a gleeful reply. "So can you scan ACDC for it?"

"Scanning... now," he replied as a few keystrokes initiated a remote search box on his screen and a circle began extending outward from the terminus location closest to the centre of ACDC Net.

Amy was nervous about the result. Hopefully Meep was still alive and okay.

After five minutes of waiting, Amy's patience was beginning to wear thin. "Eric, what's going on?"

"It's scanning the final reaches of ACDC now."

"And?"

"Nothing so far. If it doesn't return any results, I'll run another scan."

Amy hugged the girl in her lap for comfor as the minutes passed. Sakura certainly appreciated the attention, but even she could see that Amy wasn't doing well as the minutes passed. After another ten minutes, Eric's voice finally became audible again.

"Sorry Amy. Three searches and they all came back negative."

Amy's grip on Sakura tightened. Had she taken too long...?

"Is... is there any chance it didn't work properly?"

"For one scan, it's possible, but not three. Even if they were in a private network sector, each scan result compounds the earlier ones, making even remnants of erroneous code detectable. It should have been able to pick up a trail if it was still in the area in the last 24 hours, but the terminus nodes and active digimotes detected nothing in the ACDC area."

Meep was just a virus she'd met for a few minutes, but the guilt of abandoning a potential friend now ate away at her. "It's my fault then," she mumbled.

"Umm... it might be a long shot... but..."

Amy's eyes lit up at the potential for a remedy. "Yes, what?"

"Give me a moment," was all Eric said before going silent again.

Amy pondered over all the possible ways Meep could have succumbed to other viruses, or perhaps another navi. If they were like Crony, they'd have no hesitation in destroying a 'pathetic' Metool.

Please Eric... she whispered to herself as the minutes began to add up.

Finally, Eric had a reply. "Found him."

"Really?!"

"I think so, but he's no longer in ACDC Net. That's why we couldn't find him."

"Where is he?"

{>>> To Science Labs: Navi Shop: In the shop >>>}