Pelagius Aquatic Research and Study Eco-centre

As Amy observed her new surroundings and tried to formulate a plan, the shark woman continued her narrow patrol route back and forth in front of the main entryway. For a moment, she paused and perked up, uttering a sound that came across as something almost like a curious growl or a bark, and looked about with sharp, twitchy motions, but it seemed like something else must have caught her senses, because she never looked in Amy's direction, and eventually settled back into her patrol loop.

Unwilling to approach more directly, for now, Amy and Eric opted to do some more scouting first, and the navi began to pick her way through the brightly coloured array of strange corals that surrounded to complex. At another time it would have been a fascinating and beautiful aquatic exploration; the net was able to offer the best of such environments without nay of the degradation or damage that Eric's world still faced, but now wasn't really the time for sight-seeing. Tiny reef fish darted in and out of the formations as Amy made her way around the complex to find a better angle.

As she progressed, she could certainly seem more of the facility, in small glimpses. Some of the domes or raised bulbs seemed to have the look of science labs, or archives... but others looked strangely out of place; one that caught her eye, in a higher spherical bulb near the top of the complex, looked like some kind of lavish master bedroom, though it was hard to see much from the outside, and down low.

By the time Amy had moved a full semi-circle around the complex, a decent amount of time had passed – maybe another fifteen minutes of creeping and peeking, but eventually she could get a good glimpse of what looked more clearly like the 'back' of the facility. A large grounded dome was situated here as well, with two smaller domes built to overlap the outer edges of it. The main way had a broad, tall airlock structure that looked like it was probably made for vehicles, while the smaller two had airlocked doors as well. All around the back entrance, the domes were encrusted with coral that came right up to the domes; close to the glass, however, they were predominately giant clams, muscles and other shell creatures. A particularly large one with a multi-hued and rippled shell was positioned prominently to the side of the loading bay air lock, between it and one of the person-sized doorways. The shell opened as Amy watched, almost like a creature yawning, and within it she saw a sleepy pair of eyes gazing outward, and also something smaller that glinted in the refracting light.
Eric was relieved that they hadn't been engaged yet. Either they'd been spotted some time ago and their unknown watchers were just waiting for the right moment to make themselves known, or they'd managed to get around the complex undetected thus far. Not that it mattered; as Amy had slowly made her way around the facility’s borders to what could arguably be called its 'back', nothing she was able to describe was really of much benefit to him, nothing of a 'eureka' moment or an epiphany on how to proceed next.

As she crossed the halfway mark, the multi-domed entrance seemed to fit the 'back' description that CrypticMan had alluded to; not much was happening in the area to indicate it was being protected like the front (assuming of course that the facility was being protected at all, which the sign at the front would indicate otherwise) but that only reinforced Eric's original advice.

"'The front door is guarded, the back door is watched.' So far he's been... wait," Eric stopped, paused mid-sentence. "Do we agree that CrypticMan is a 'he', Amy? I assumed it was a he, but these days, I just don-"

"I'm 99% certain it was a man," Amy reassured him.

"How can you be so sure?"

"Call it a woman's intuition," she advised as she noticed a large clam moving, its somewhat-iridescent shell refracting light and drawing her attention in awe as it opened its shell. Amy's attention immediately locked onto the shimmer inside; it was only brief, but Amy knew it didn't belong.

"Eric, would it be crazy to stick a camera inside a clam?" she asked her operator.

"I think it'd be perfect," he confirmed. "It wouldn't work on everybody, but still..."

Amy took another look at the back entrance. Eric was right about CrypticMan's assessment; so far, everything they'd been able to understand had been proven correct. But if that was the case...

"Eric, I'm going to continue finishing a lap of this place," he advised as she continued to weave through the gaps in the coral that had afforded her a veil of invisibility thus far. "He said there might be another way in, and honestly, if we don't like what we see, at least we know what our options are."

"Okay," Eric answered uneasily. "Please, be careful. You may not be as lucky on the other side."

Amy gave him an understanding nod and the quietest of grunts as she made her way through the other half of the coral wall, still keeping an eye out for the ominously-absent 'dog-fish' as she continued gathering as much intelligence on their target as possible. As she made her way forward, during a moment of total cover she decided to consult the book, removing it from the back seam, just in case its advice had changed. If not, she could continue to make her way towards the front of the complex again.
For now, the sleepy-eyed clam and the loading dock didn't seem to entice Amy or Eric sufficiently to reveal themselves, and so the navi and her operator continued cautiously around the perimeter of the compound, staying to the vibrant reef cover as they slowly progressed.

The far side, looking inward, provided much the same view as the first half of Amy's lap had shown them, but when she was about halfway back around, there was a very slight – almost imperceptible – change in the temperature of the water. Amy's natural attunement to such things were enough for her to realise that the shift was likely coming from a difference int he motion and direction of the water currents nearby. The reef looked mostly unchanged, though here the colour scheme trended more towards purples and blues, than elsewhere. The same array of tiny native wildlife continued to go about its business all around her, with some watching the navi as a strange curiosity, and others darting quickly away.

It was only about a minute after she noticed the change in the water that Amy felt the more tangible shift, along with a quiet thrum of a pressure change. A short way off, above the reef, a small silt cloud lifted up then settled again. The reef fish didn't seem perturbed by this; by all accounts it was nothing out of the ordinary to them.

If Amy sought out the source of the sound and the change, however, she would eventually be able to pick her way through the reef barrier to what opened up as a small clearing where no corals grew; it was about half way back around, maybe a little further, and far enough into the coral maze that seeing the facility from the clearing was almost impossible. What she could see, however, was two large vents set into the sandy sea floor. They were both about a metre across, side by side. One was currently covered by a clear dome of greenish energy while the other seemed to be venting water upward and outward. The outflow looked like clean, fresh sea water, no different from the ocean around her, and the upward current it created wasn't strong; Amy could easily swim against it if she wanted to, and even she small reef fish crossed over the space regularly enough without any issue.

As she watched, the outflow paused and a second green dome sealed over the vent, then the first dome dissipated and there was a second thrumming sound of currents changing, just like she'd heard before. The newly opened vent seemed to be intake instead, and was drawing fresh sea water inward. Once again, the current wasn't strong – it wasn't really a danger of sucking in anything that didn't want to be sucked in, even the small reef fish.

Safely out of sight of the complex, Amy consulted the blue book again quickly; below the first line, a second now appeared, in the same soft font:

“In and out, in and out. Even aquariums need a breath of fresh air. Different paths but part of a single cycle; the same places, but a different order.”

For whatever she made of that, at the very least this seemed like it might be another option for getting in unnoticed, maybe.
"Water goes in, water goes out. Of course."

Amy chuckled as her operator stated the obvious. The expended water seemed to contain something that irritated her sensitive pedicels, so she retracted her antennae back into her hair as the duo watched the water cycle repeat itself; water going in one way, water going out the other.

"Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" Amy chuckled.

"We have no way of knowing that these pipes are linked to the facility," Eric commented, more a statement than a rebuttal.

Amy rolled her eyes and sighed. "Eric, do you see any other structures in this area?" she remarked as she gestured to the open area around them, the wall of coral being the only object of interest. "Tell me, do you know of any viruses that stick themselves into the ground and constantly recycle water?"

"...well...no...but I don't know ever-"

"Eric, I could be wrong, but I'm pretty sure the two are linked. Now, you're the one who wanted options."

"...but what if it's a trap?" he stressed.

"Then fine, let's go back to the front of the facility and talk to the sharklady."

"But she might be hostile and alert the-"

"-then let's try our luck with the back entrance instead."

"But if it's being watched then we're walking into a tr-"

"Eric, stop!"

The purple-haired navi had not meant to be as blunt or kurt, but her patience was wearing thin. It had been on her mind for a while now, and this was the final straw.

"Eric, do you know what your problem is?" she demanded of her operator.

When Eric didn't respond, Amy continued. "You think too much. You think of all the possibilities. All the risks. And then the worst possible outcomes of those risks. Then the results of those outcomes. You do this over and over again. And meanwhile, you haven't taken a single step forward, only a dozen steps backward. You did it back when we first met, when we did some virus busting in ACDC Net, and again at that police shelter, but it wasn't nearly as bad as right now," she finished, a subtle anger in her tone that didn't go unnoticed by Eric.

"Eric, do you think we can complete this mission without making mistakes?"

".....no," he finally answered.

"Then why do you act like we can do this without taking risks?"

Amy's question hung in the air for a moment as Amy watched the water displacements while waiting for a reply. Of the four options presented, this seemed like the one with the least risks. Unless, of course, there was some kind of plate or barrier further up the pipes that prevented her from progressing further. Great, now I'm thinking like him.

"...I don't want it to be my fault," Eric mumbled.

"What?"

"If you get hurt, or deleted, because of something I told you to do..."

"Eric, nobody is making me do anything. I make these decisions of my own free will. You gave me that ability when you stood up to your sister and made me your navi. Understand?"

Eric simply nodded.

"'You are stronger than you think', remember? But I'm not looking for someone to be my guardian; if I was, you DEFINITELY wouldn't be my first choice, I ASSURE you."

There was just enough sarcasm in her last comment to make Eric chuckle, bringing a small smile to his face.

"I don't need a guardian, I need a partner. A second set of eyes, an extra opinion, a source of extra power; not someone to blame when it all goes bad. I would've thought you'd learned that last time," she remarked as her mind went back to the argument that followed their first busting run. "I don't want to sound selfish, but I need this mission to be successful. So stop thinking about all the ways this mission could fail, and start thinking about all the ways it could succeed. Got it?"

Again, Eric simply nodded.

"Good. Now, pipes?" she asked as she pointed towards the aquatic vents.

Eric paused for a moment as he reprocessed all of his previous thoughts with the attitude his partner was demanding. So many variables in play, so many ways it could go horribly wrong. But with all the possibilities considered, Eric came back to the same one Amy did. "Who puts security on water pipes? If something gets stuck, they'd have to send someone down to fix it or clear it out."

"Exactly."

"But what if you go down the vent and end up in some form of viewing platform? You'd be spotted immediately."

Amy was about to unleash a wave of furious remarks when Eric quickly reconsidered his thoughts. "But... but if you go down the exhaust vent, you'd be less likely to enter something that was being viewed, right? Because who watches a toilet being flushed?"

Amy's anger was replaced by disgust as the mental image of herself swimming against a wave of sewerage was further tempered by the unusual reaction her feelers took to the expelled water. As another wave of water left the exhaust tube, a distinct lack of discolouration and particles in the water helped quell her fear, if only partially. The shield reactivated itself once again, allowing a further stream of water to be ingested; likely done in a 1-2-1-2 pattern to avoid taking in the same water it had just evacuated.

Amy calmed her nerves as she looked down the exhaust vent, its temporary shield preventing a wave of spent water being thrown into her face. It was true, she'd agreed to go down the path of least resistance (metaphorically, not literally), and each path had its own dangers, but this one also carried the danger of closed quarters. As a small consolation, if she swam upstream and needed to reverse course quickly, she could ride out the current using her makeshift parachuting technique, but that would rely on the vent being in a state of ejecting water, not like its current state. No flow, no go.

You wanted this, Amy. Time to put your money where your mouth is, she assured herself as the book returned to her back seam. The next time the shield lowered, she'd begin her journey against the current to whatever awaited her.
The back and forth between navi and operator continued as they watched the vents cycle in a uniform and predictable rhythm. The dangers of over-thinking threatened the pair with decision paralysis for a short while, before Amy helped them get to a resolution. It was easy enough to time her entry into one of the pipes, and as they'd hoped, the actual outflow current wasn't strong enough to impede her swimming. Only a short way into the tunnel, it curved towards the facility and the light faded, leaving May swimming through a gloom that approached full darkness. The sensation of being underground in the narrow tube was hard to ignore, and there was no immediate light of any far end in sight, but the navi had little choice beyond pushing onward.

The pipe continued for a distance that was hard to gauge without any other outside measures; it turned downward and deeper again, the twisted left, and then forward again. In the gloom, she found it easy to settle into a swimming rhythm against the gentle push of the water, so it came as a mildly jolting feeling when the flow suddenly stopped and settled into stillness. The vent must have closed again. Eventually, Amy began to see a gradual increase in the ambient light; a pale green light was filtering down the tunnel from somewhere ahead.

It curved upwards again, and Amy got her first glance, finally, at something beyond the claustrophobic out-pipe It looked like the ceiling of a large chamber, but as she swam upwards, another field of energy blocked her progress. Right at the edge of the pipe, cusping on a long, deep tank of water, a force field like the ones at the start sealed her out.

The tank was filling up, currently; out of the edges of what she could see, Amy could gather that this tank was fed by many other smaller pipes, and she could get a glimpse of tall, bulky machinery that stood alongside the water catchment. It wasn't really possible to see much else from where she had fetched up, but after almost another minute, and the tank had reached a line that was marked about three quarters up its height, the force field shut off and water began to flow out of the vent again. It pushed Amy back for a moment, as it started, but soon levelled out to the same gentle outflow current from before.

Able to swim out into the catchment tank properly, Amy could get a slightly better look at the area, although the tank was rapidly emptying its water level, leaving her to look at what were mostly blank steel walls, three of them with numerous small tubes and vents all now covered by tiny force barriers of their own. the fourth wall had a ladder affixed to it, presumably to allow maintenance personnel to climb out when the tank was empty; it looked like it was the side facing the rest of the room, judging by what Amy could see of the ceiling above her.

Before she had much chance to pull herself out of the water tank, or really make up her mind about doing so, a flicker of movement above her was enough to catch the exploring navi's attention. A figure swung up onto the edge of the tank, sitting at one corner with a knee folded across the edge and another hand supporting his pose.

He looked to be a male, human-form navigator, of a fairly average build, as far as Amy could see from where she was. He was wearing dark colours; a concealing vest and trousers made of a thin, light-looking fabric, and a long dark cloak; it had a hood, but the cowl was thrown back currently to reveal tanned skin with short, sandy brown hair, a warm smile and eyes that seemed all the greener for the soft light of the chamber. Overall, his features were not terribly striking, but nevertheless bore an appealing comeliness to them, if one was so inclined.

“Shall I fetch a towel?” He raised an eyebrow as he grinned down towards Amy, his voice friendly and amused.
Busted. So much for the stealth tactic.

It could've been worse though. This could still work to their advantage; this navi seemed friendly enough...

Amy instinctively turned off her operator's speaker, expecting some sort of uncontrolled overreaction, and wasn't surprised by the burst of mild hysteria that followed. Our female protagonist had more important issues to deal with, so ignoring his reaction and muting him completely, her attention turned to the navi that stood above her. The text-only message she sent to the PET was brief and to the point; [BE QUIET, NEED TO THINK.]

Judging by the navi's relaxed composure and (somewhat) gentle questioning, Amy thought she might have a chance at establishing some common ground. No longer in need of a tail fin, her dress separated itself so she could resume movement as a biped creature. Grabbing two points on the dress and shaking off some of the excess moisture, she tried a little self-depreciating humour to break the ice. "That's okay, I'm used to having liquids thrown at me," she laughed as she attempted batting away some of the lingering water from the seams that had formed once again. Drying her hair wouldn't be a problem as the strands too were solidified gel, not only able to remain firm and tight if needed, but could also become slippery and grip-resistant on demand. She'd used that feature to escape Crony's clutches on their first meeting, and used it again to release any water hiding in its folds. The sight of these changes usually drew glances of awe or disgust; in this situation Amy didn't care, provided it bought her a brief moment to gather her thoughts.

Okay, let's get our priorities straight, she reminded herself whilst using those precious seconds to her advantage. No lying; stretch the truth if you have to, but no lies. No sarcasm. Play the innocence card if you need to; it's not a lie that you didn't mean to come here, and you don't have an agenda of your own, technically. And don't use the book while I have eyes watching. Amy was already having trouble resisting the urge to pull out the book, despite wanting to know the next pearl of advice it had to offer. Its wealth of wisdom was afforded her by CrypticMan and he'd told them not to use it in the presence of others, so she needed to assume there was a reason for that too.

"What a day! Here I am swimming around and suddenly I find these two weird pipes; one was sucking in water, and the other one was ejecting it," she tried to explain as she began to climb the ladder. "My head told me it was a bad idea since I didn't know where it went, but I've always been a sucker for trying out new things so I figured I'd go in and see where it went." She glanced back at the multiple tubes entering the pit as she ascended. "I didn't expect to end up in a giant sewerage tank, although, to be honest I'm not sure what I expected to end up in; the fun in the mystery, the name of the game, I guess."

As she reached the reached the top, rather than step onto the top platform, she decided to leave half her weight on the ladder, just in case she needed to jump back down. She tried to not make it look obvious, but her stance did little to hide her scepticism of the situation as she glanced around the giant tank again for effect and finishing on the male in front of her.

"Sooo... where am I, exactly?"
The navi watching Amy seemed more than happy to offer her a hand out of the water tank, if she took it, but didn't press the matter if she was more intent on climbing the ladder and pulling herself over the lip on her own. A short series of steps led down to the ground on the far side, and Amy could get her first proper look at the rest of the chamber. Truth be told there wasn't too much to look at here, once she was out; It was along room, lit in a soft green light. The tank she had just climbed from occupied the majority of one half of the chamber, almost two thirds of the way to the ceiling and surrounded by an assortment of monitoring equipment. On the opposite side of the room, a large desk ad workspace was neatly ordered, with several sheaves of documents in different piles, a variety of compact lab equipment behind the writing area, and surrounded by half a dozen screens each showing continuing read-outs of scientific data.

The navi watched her feign drying off and shaking out with a wry expression, before jumping down from the edge of the tank and walking down the stairs again with light, graceful steps. His cloak seemed to have a penchant for drama all on its own, and flowed behind him just a little bit – but still a little bit more than the complete lack of breeze would suggest. Amy was able to catch a glimpse of a plain, slim dagger hooked onto one side of his belt, while the other held something that looked more like a short-sword, but with a series of deep slotted groves up and down the length of the blade – a sword-breaker, if anyone with a taste for older defence-oriented weaponry were to notice. He bowed to her, one hand sweeping across his mid section, though it was only a brief, slight gesture; polite without being overblown. He glanced up at her first remark and grinned again, flashing white teeth.

“Strange... that's usually my line...” There was an amused spark in his eye as he watched her explain her presence as an incidentally adventurous explorer. there was a roguish tilt to his comment – perhaps he had endured a more than one glass of water splashed his way in the past? When he straightened, he reached out a hand to her instead.

“Well, I certainly can't fault an adventurous spirit now, can I? Although, perhaps you'd be please to know that's not sewage, or waste at all. It's all actually perfectly clean and well balanced sea water, perfect for sustaining the aquatic creatures in the region. They're very careful, you know. As for where you are, you are presently in the company of a fellow visitor to the Pelagius Aquatic Research and Study Eco-centre... you can call me Hoodwink.” If Amy accepted the invitation and shook his hand, she'd find it a warm, firm grip, which swiftly curled around her own hand to become a traditional courtly finger kiss. He winked at her as he glanced up again. “And who might I say I've found myself washed up with today?”

One on hand, the navi didn't seem to object to the fact that she'd just effectively infiltrated the facility via unwitting stealth. At the same time, he'd identified himself as a visitor, and this certainly didn't look like a visitor's area. Amy could see two exits from the chamber, if she decided to flee the scene - one at either end of the long room. Each was more an archway that led into broad rounded tunnels, without any sign of actual doors yet, but there wasn't a great deal to distinguish one from the other, save that, if her mental geography was sure enough, one exit was towards the back of the facility, and one was towards the front.
Great, another sword-loving navi, Amy grumbled as her eyes quickly glanced to the two swords on this new acquaintance as he closed the distance between them. I don't necessarily believe you about the water though; call me a skeptic, but something set my feelers off...

As the navi introducing himself as 'Hoodwink' took her hand, Amy felt an unusual sensation beginning to creep through her body. It was a feeling she'd never experienced before, one that seemed to be triggering warmth from inside her core and branching out towards the rest of her extremities. At first she ignored it, but as Hoodwink's grip tightened in a non-agressive manner, she found that the sensation worsened.

I don't know what game you're playing, gel disruptors, but you'd better not be failing me at a crucial moment, she threatened herself as the cloaked navi asked for her name. After all, in her mind there could be no other explanation for the current sequence of events.

"Am...amty," she stuttered before clearing her throat and trying again in a stronger voice. "Amity. My name is Amity." As she looked at her new companion, her eyes drifted past his face and towards the other end of the room. There appeared to be a door on both the left and the right, but as to where they led to, it was impossible to tell. At this stage it wasn't important to explore, as Amy felt that ignoring this potential guide would only lead to trouble, but knowing where all the potential exits were was definitly useful knowledge. It may just be in her best interest to play along and see where this turn of events led her. After all, CrypticMan wanted to know a secret that existed in every dome. If that was true, then she had a job to do here before she had to worry about any other location. Assuming this was a dome, of course; from her position, Amy couldn't tell.

Amy's thoughts were briefly interrupted by a small notification in her monitor. Eric had replied to her message in a similar text-only format, but Amy wasn't going to waste processing clocks communicating with him when she had more important issues to deal with first. She simply dismissed the prompt and decided on her next course of action.

Hoodwink's introduction certainly bought Amity a lead-in to the conversation. "Wait, you're just a visitor too...?" Her head turned back to the tank. "Something tells me you didn't come in that way," she joked as her head nodded in the direction of the tube she entered from. "Although... if you did, that would explain why you weren't surprised about me suddenly appearing, would it..." she surmised as she turned back towards Hoodwink. "If this isn't your home, then where did you come from?" she asked as she gestured towards the equipment on the other side of the room. "Does it have something to do with all that equipment?"
Upon introducing herself, the man's striking green eyes held hers for a moment longer before he nodded to her and stepped back again, out of her direct personal space – it had been easy not to notice how close he'd drawn during the genial greetings and hand-kissing.

“Amity then. My pleasure,” As he straightened again, Hoodwink seemed to take note of the less than enthusiastic glance she cast at his worn weapons and he flourished his cloak slightly, waving the corner of it across his waist just enough to obscure both the dagger and the sword-breaker. when the cloak fell, both weapons had vanished. “I do apologise. Force of habit. There's no real danger here, I shouldn't think.”

Amy's glance about the room brought her to more questions and the man opposite her listened as he began to wander a slow circle about the otherwise quite plain chamber. He glanced back over his shoulder as he leaned in to peer at some of the readings on the screens.

“This stuff? No, not my interest, really. But where from, well... I'm from everywhere. We are navigators, after all... I never need to eat or rest or sleep, I don't grow weary from travel... So what better use to make of such an existence than to pursue anything and everything that one's heart really desires, wherever it should lead? The net is vast and infinite, Amy... you don't mind if I call you Amy, do you? Amity just sounds so formal, and I prefer to be friendly with friendly people...” He winked at her, just a small flicker of one eye along with a cheeky grin that curled one corner of his mouth, before he continued. “Our world offers so much, and yet most navigators go their entire existence without ever thinking outside of the small boxes that their original designs gave them as purpose. Life, for us, can be so much more.” There was an excitement and a passion to his words as he spoke, briefly spreading his arms out and turning in a small circle as though to emphasise just how much the net world had to offer. He turned back to her, a twinkle in his eyes.

“Take this place, for example...” He wandered across to the work station and let his fingertips trail along the busy surface without disturbing anything. “It's a little sea-lab, tucked away at the bottom of beach net, funded by a human, yes, but run by navigators now, and its sole purpose for even being is to study a portion of our net world, and how its evolving and changing outside of human hands or the oversight of its original creators, whoever they once were. It's fascinating don't you think?” He paused and looked at Amity with a somewhat more shrewd gaze.

“But you're right... 'just visitors' don't end up in places like this, do they...? So... you're here, and you've got some free time on your hands... I'm here, because there's something I want.” He turned back to her properly now and crossed the room to stand before her again, watching with a friendly, if measuring smile... he wasn't so much calling her on her own story, as casually admitting that his own was more motivated than just a tour. “So, Amity... what do you want, I wonder? Run an errand for me, while you're here... nothing dangerous, I promise... and I'm sure I can hook you up with something that suites the task in return. Interested?”

If Amy took a look at the various machines and screens herself while they chatted, she'd find that they were mostly recording and monitoring equipment, and seemed to be tracking the water flow and usage through out the facility. Different screens listed the water that was being taken in, the analysis of it, the pats of the facility it was going to be filtered through, what parts of the facility were having their water cycled out, and finally what precautions were being taken to the ejecting water to bring its statistics and composition back into line with the water they were taking in. The screens seemed to indicate, if Amy extrapolated little bit, that the facility was keeping a selection of corals, algae and small marine life in naturalised environments for study, and that they needed to make sure that the water they were suing matched the water outside in the 'natural' environment.

There were a number of data pads on the work station for hand-taken notes and records, though they all looked to have been made by the same navigator – 'Antipatharia'. The different documents seemed to have annotations and margin texts from the navigator made after the initial reports, but Amy would need to take time to properly peruse them to learn anything more.
Hoodwink's answer to Amy's question, although technically correct, wasn't exactly what Amy had in mind. It was true that navis were not bound to physical locations and 'birthplaces' like humans were, but in her mind, every creature, every being, physical or not, had a place to call their home. It was because of this desire that Amy had looked for such a place herself, despite her seemingly-neverending trials. Although she hadn't had much say in the course of her life events so far, Hoodwink's analysis of what it meant to be an adventurous navi swung the girl's mind back to her operator, the man assigned to her to be her partner. Sure, he definitely had some personality flaws to work on, but it seemed he was already beginning to make changes in her presence if she gave him the right opportunities and motivations.

To Eric's credit, under his supervision, Amy had already seen more of the digital world than she'd seen in the seventeen training facilities that made up her former 'home'. She certainly didn't miss the tiny box they called 'her sleeping quarters', and she was already beginning to become attached to 'The Stem', a quiet, secluded place that she may actually be able to call her own. Combined with the existence of the Augment ability, she didn't have to be alone anymore.

That thought reminded her of the notifications she'd been steadily ignoring, the message counter about to hit double digits. Amy did her best to listen to Hoodwinked's explanation of the room while she read the messages. As expected, all of Eric's messages were either nervous questions or unsure speculation, so she again dismissed the messages monitor after sending [RELAX, I'VE GOT THIS FOR NOW. JUST BE READY IN CASE THINGS TURN VIOLENT.] She still wasn't sure she trusted the person in her immediate vicinity.

Amy nodded as he related his opinion regarding the history and purpose of the facility around her. It did seem like a human thing to do, to research the unknown; humans had this weird instinct of needing answers to the mysteries of the world around them. Most intelligent digital life simply existed and conducted themselves within the constructs of their programming, but for the growing number that seemed to disobey this programmed instinct, as it were, they were welcomed to a world much like that of the humans, where more questions existed than answers. In all, it seemed like an honourable mission to be researching the area's marine life, one that Amy could certainly appreciate as she nodded in agreement to Hoodwink's question.

The idea of someone choosing to call her 'Amy' instead of Amity on their own volition confused the girl, causing that unknown disturbance to only grow more persistent inside her. It was becoming a larger distraction, so when Hoodwink finally asked Amy if she'd be willing to volunteer to help with an errand, she had more than one reason to accept. To further explore the facility, to gain further information, to try and dispel this unknown sensation; at that point, the mission had temporarily taken a backseat to Amy's own sense of adventure.

"If you need a hand with something, I don't know if I'll be able to help, but I can do my best," she commented as her eyes glanced across the documents on the desk. The underwater project itself seemed to be twenty thousand leagues out of her comprehension, but one name did seem to pop up on all the documents on the table, now that her eyes were close enough to skim their pages: 'Antipatharia'. The name meant nothing to her yet, but it certainly sounded important. I bet she uses a nickname as well, she joked as her attention turned back to Hoodwink.

"So, what exactly would you need my help for?"
With a roguish smirk, Hoodwink stepped around to the side so that he could rest one arm lightly over Amy's shoulders; he wasn't gripping or holding her to him, particularly – it was more of a loose, comradely action that came along with a small chuckle.

“I think you'll do just fine...” He reached out with his other hand to pick up one of the document tablets that was annotated in its margin all the way down one side of the page. His eyes skimmed it as he spoke. “Right now, we're down at the very bottom. But climb up, and eventually you'll make your way to the highest room, in the tallest tower. You'll find a bedroom; It's very fancy. Not at all to my taste, but look a little closer and you'll find a room within that room. Look closer and you'll find a box that stands out. it's plain, uninteresting, unremarkable... You'll know it when you see it. In that box, you'll find many things, but one of them will be a small grey stone marble. That, Amy, my new friend... that is what I want.” He grinned and gave her shoulder a light squeeze, then stood back and away, letting the data pad rest back on the table. There was a lightness to his steps, somewhere between gliding and dancing.

“I can promise you that it's not valuable, and it's not even sentimental to anyone. It's not important to this facility, or anyone in it; in fact, it is entirely unimportant, only there by happenstance of being carried along... what matters, is that I want it.” He wandered the room as he chatted now, but eventually came to a halt near the archway that led towards the front of the facility. With a mischievous grin, he beckoned to Amy.

“Look this way... Just down the hall here, past a lab and another tunnel, and you'll find yourself back in the public visitor areas of the place. Only a few domes are off limits to visitors, but back her, and up at the top are two of them. It's easy enough to get around though, only four navis run this place. Two really, and two guards... and only really one guard, at that, and she's a push over.” He laughed to himself again. “You'll get why, if you meet her. It's... amusing.” He shrugged and stretched his arms.

“Anyway...” He bowed properly Amy, one hand sweeping across his waist while the other was held out to the side, one foot ahead of the other, before rising. “It has been a pleasure to meet you, Amity. If you'd rather not, there's no hard feelings... but if you should happen to retrieve what I'm after, come and find me again on the beach side; just look and you'll find me... and then perhaps I can buy you a drink to share in the sun... and you can tell me what you'd like as my thanks. Until then...” He winked at her, his grin showing a flash of white teeth on one side, before taking a step backwards. It seemed like her was stepping into a shadow cast by something in the room, but there weren't enough for that, and a moment later his form had faded from sight entirely.
Amy was left to her own thoughts as the navi named Hoodwink disappeared into the unknown, through some mysterious corridor that seemed to absorb him as much has it masked his exit. The girl was now alone in a room that he'd just identified as 'off-limits' to visitors. If that was true though, what was he doing here? Didn't he just say he was a visitor himself...?

"Maybe he did come into the facility through the pipes," she mulled to herself. Too many questions were beginning to pile up, but unlike her calculate-the-odds partner, the two most important questions on her mind were these; if Hoodwink was in fact a visitor, how did he have such in-depth knowledge of forbidden areas? And if he was able to phase out of the area at will, couldn't he just phase into the highest room of the tallest tower himself?

It seemed like an odd mission to give her, but if she had to scope out the facility anyway for the sake of CrypticMan's request, it couldn't hurt to try and do both at the same time if she had to proceed there anyway. Just what was so interesting about this place that everybody she met seemed to want something from it...?

[WHAT DO YOU THINK? SHOULD WE TRY AND GET THE STONE MARBLE? WE HAVE TO EXPLORE THE WHOLE FACILITY ANYWAY.]

It took a moment before Eric's response came back; sending text messages did have an element of delay, but her senses needed to be mindful of the environment. Now armed with the knowledge she was in a forbidden area, with unseen eyes possibly watching her, she felt vulnerable again. She'd mentally prepared herself for another dose of Eric's hesitancy and scepticism when all that arrived was a single word response.

[OKAY.]

...For real? Amy was stunned it took so long to respond if he had nothing to say, but that somehow seemed to work to her advantage. She was calling the shots, as she should be.

Hoodwink had given her much information to work with as she made her way towards the hallway entrance leading to a lab he'd mentioned. However, even if there were eyes watching her from a distance, it seemed now was as good a time as any to take a quick peek at that book again, to see if it had any further wisdom to provide. She might not get another chance to do so once she entered the hallway; who knew what really waited for her on the other side; this too could be a trap. As long as she was as discreet and quiet as possible, hopefully she could at least survey the next room (or rooms) without being engaged.
Left alone after the unexpected interloper vanished, Amy didn't take long to reach a decision about her next goal, but not before taking a quick peek at her guide book before she did. The blue-bound volume practically jumped open in her hands as she pulled it out, and the text was already scrawling across the blank pages be the time she was able to look at it properly.

“Look, real talk, just ignore Hoodwink. He's always meddling in my stuff, and it's never enough to actually cause any problems or really throw it all off, but just once, just once, one time, I'd love to see someone shut down that smirking casanova charmer right from the get-go... He has got far too much ego for his own good.” The text paused, and Amy could practically feel the tired sigh that filled the gap, even if nothing was written.

“Never mind. Whatever he's after you for, it's almost certain that it won't upset the fish-cart, just as long as you don't forget where your real mission is, okay? Now... where were we... Ahem...” There was a clear line break, before the text started up a third time.

“Aunty keeps a record; she watches how it goes.
If something goes amiss here then surely Aunty knows.
There's research done in order, filed neatly on the shelf,
But why scribble in the margins of reports you made yourself?”

“Forward meets the family, backward's clammed up tight;
Should only be supplies there; inventory once a night.
There's nothing wrong with tour guide, but careful what you say;
See all they have to show you and then swiftly slip away.”

The book seemed... content with itself after that series of lines, leaving Amy with her own thoughts again and those of her operator, potentially. With this update in mind, Amy took a careful look down the forward corridor. It was bathed in the same pervasive green light, but the glass from the cylindrical passage looked out all around to the ocean outside. It ran along the sea floor for a short distance, before reaching a large, round, steel door that had the lab's logo on it. A panel on one side seemed to have a simple access control – mostly it just looked like a button to open the door, rather than anything more serious.

While Amy couldn't' see through the door itself, it was easy enough to see into parts of the next dome anyway – both the tunnel she was in, and the dome beyond were glass. It looked a lot like she might expect any large scale science lab to look like; detail was hard to make out, but Amy could get the impression of rows of equipment, large observation tanks, and other complicated-seeming things within. From the tunnel, it looked like this lab had some kind of staircase or elevator up to another sphere, connected directly above it, while, still at ground level, it looked like it might also lead forward back towards the front entrance of the facility. Unfortunately, as far as subtle scouting went, Amy would need to open the door and get inside, if she wanted a better look.
Another riddle is what awaited Amity's eyes after the book first aired its grievances towards her prior associate, and then related further exposition about the mission without providing much in the way of context.

Having already been the victim of CrypticMan's unusual mannerism of concealed knowledge, she made sure to pay attention to what was explained to her, rather than try to translate it in real-time. She was happy she did as she replayed the poem in her head, one part already seeming to make sense (or at least, she hoped made sense.) Her mind turned back to the desk, to the various documents that had been anotated rather vigorously by an unknown somebody. That name that she'd joked about earlier, Antipatharia; it couldn't be a coincidence.

What's the bet that Antipatharia and Aunty are the same person... she convinced herself as the smallest of grins crossed her face. Nickname. Called it.

Amy wasn't completely convinced of her interpretation of the rest of the riddle, however it did seem like the way forward was to meet this 'guide', be shown the facility, be careful about her speech, and take her leave at the right moment. I take it this 'swiftly slip away' moment will make itself obvious? she sneered, knowing full well that such a possibility was unlikely.

"Alright Eric, enough of the silent treatment; do you have anything to say to this?" she asked whilst unmuting the PET's comms.

"Umm... not really," Eric replied.

"Well then, I guess it's time to take another risk then, isn't it? The last one worked out well, didn't it?" she confirmed as she walked through the glass tunnel, returning the book to its temporary home. The view wasn't particularly as exciting from her current position, and thankfully so, as the lass didn't need a reason to be distracted.

"...What are you going to do?"

The hesitation in his voice brought Amy to a stop in front of the next dome's door. She'd noticed the access panel and had been about to reach for it when Eric had spoken.

"The book seems intent on 'meeting the family', 'nothing wrong with tour guide'. Hoodwink seems intent on getting into the upper areas. CrypticMan seems intent on knowing the facility's workings. I think it's time we stopped tiptoeing around the edges of this place and actually start trying to get into its core."

"What if you run into trouble?" Eric asked again. "We still don-"

"-'t have a clue what the risks are, but I'm fairly certain we're going to have to make ourselves known eventually," Amy interjected. "We can't walk around this place in the shadows forever, right?"

Amy waited for a response. She was determined to break through that wall of insecurity, one brick at a time if necessary. She didn't know why, but something inside her was determined to see a change in his withdrawn attitude, a feat that the girl was certain could be achieved. However, as her words hung on emptiness with no response, her attitude got the advantage over her patience.

"Eric, I'm waiting for an answer," she probed again.

Finally, a response. "Okay."

That was the same response he'd given when she'd asked for his opinion earlier, a single-word answer. It wasn't what she wanted to hear, so she tried again. "'Okay'...what?"

"Umm..." Eric trailed off in confusion. "...huh?" he added, as if it clarified his position.

"What exactly are you 'okay'ing, Eric?"

"Umm-"

"Stop saying 'umm'."

Eric blinked as he flinched from the dry command, as if her voice had reached out into the real world and spat in his face. The feeling was uncomfortably familiar; this was the attitude he'd come to expect from the previous navis, the ones that Stacey had attempted to partner with him. As a wave of memories flooded his mind, Eric didn't notice the repeated question, demanding an answer.

Fed up with the matter, Amy muted the PET comms again and ended the conversation with a bitter message. [WHATEVER. I'M USED TO DOING THINGS ON MY OWN.] Her hand made contact with the door terminal, as she prepared herself for whatever was to follow.
Without noticing how badly she was alienating her operator, Amy pushed forward and opened the door to the lab beyond. Her hand on the plate gave a small, muted chime and the circular door opened with a quiet hydraulic hiss.

Beyond, the dome was broad and expansive, but laid out with clear pathways between the benches and stations scattered through it. The lighting in here was clearer; an omnipresent white light that was likely ideal for studying things. In amongst the dozen or so long tables and benches that housed scientific apparatus and innumerate small drawers, jars, bottle sand boxes, several larger tanks were also present in the room, standing out as landmarks; one seemed to contain a number of small, colourful fish, supported by plant and coral structures to make the enclosure as much like their homes outside as possible. Another looked to hold mostly rocks, but subtle slow movements at the base suggested some kind of mollusc presence.

The lab looked empty of intelligent life for now, but as Amy moved through the space, she could notice that most of the benches and work-spaces seemed to have some kind of growth on them – thin trains and feelers of a strange substance. It looked at first like creeping seaweed, but also a bit like a coral structure, and it was hard to tell at a glance. The core of it was pure black, like veins creeping across the entire lab, but from it sprang a multitude of softer-looking, almost feathery feelers that were a bright orange colour. Some of the them were wrapped around scientific equipment or ensconced in documents on the desks, and it seemed to riddle the entire lab.

One observation tank seemed to hold the same coral structure in it, not too far from the centre of the lab space; a coral with a black core and orange feelers almost filled the tank it was in, and the top was open, leaving obvious the signs that it had spread out to its current coverage of the space – it didn't seem affected by being out of the water.

At the very centre of the lab, a clear space existed in a broad circle, ringed by desks and benches. In the very centre of the clear area, a spiral staircase climbed upwards towards the ceiling of the dome, and Amy could just make out creeping tendrils of the adventurous coral winding its way up the handholds as well.