77 Press Street, ACDC Heights

{EAX018}

{<<< From ACDC Town: 3746 Boykin Road, Lower ACDC <<<}

=== CHAPTER 4 - From The Shadows ===

"I still can't believe you've never run into Bugfrags before. I know you send out those digi-mathingies to remotely check on network zones; surely you must have encountered them at one point or another."

Eric shook his head. The headlights of a passing car blinded his vision before he could verbalise a proper response, his face recoiling from the bright light.

"Idiots. We're in suburbia, it's illegal to have your high beams on." Her fingers were now tapping on the steering wheel in frustration.

All four of them were now in the family car, but at this point only Stacey and Crony knew where they were going. Eric had changed clothes as requested, but Stacey could still smell a slight musk coming from her home-loving sibling.

"Also, when I said get changed, that meant take a shower. You smell like you haven't had one in days."

Eric blushed, turning away from both Stacey and the holograms of Amy and Lily. It's not that he'd chosen to skip bathing, the concept simply hadn't passed through his mind. Unplanned outings weren't normally a common thing for Eric, and at home there was nobody around to care how he smelt.

Before Stacey could criticise Eric's cleanliness any further, Amy pressed on to a different topic. "So we did what you asked. You said you'd tell us everything you know."

Stacey sighed. "The truth is... I don't know a lot more than what I've already told you. Everything else is just what the public already knows." Amy's face portrayed a look of betrayal, but before she could raise her voice in protest Stacey continued. "However, I'm taking you to a person who can answer more questions than I can."

"And that is?"

"An old friend of mine. His name is Maximus Huxley."

"Maximus?" Eric repeated, earning him a scowl from his sister. He'd heard that name before from Stacey; wasn't that her old boss?

"That's 'Sir', 'Mister Huxley' or 'Officer Huxley'. Pick one. And you'd better show him some respect, especially after all he's done for you."

Eric didn't know what exactly this 'Officer Huxley' had done for him specifically to earn such respect, but that glaring scowl was enough to know he'd get a lot worse if he didn't follow the counsel.

"I have a question," Eric stated as he watched the downtown lights begin to be replaced by the fancier streetlights of the more prosperous ACDC Heights region. "If we're going to meet one of your police friends, why are we going this way? Isn't ACDC Central the other way?"

"You'll understand soon enough."

Eric and Amy let that comment slide for now. If answers were coming, they could wait a little longer.

After a few more minutes of driving the car turned into one of the streets that made up the outer fringes of ACDC Heights. The houses here were still fancy, but as this was one of the first suburbs to receive infrastructure the class of these buildings was outshon by the larger houses built a few more blocks north. You could view parts of the greater ACDC region from this road, but the more commanding views would only be possible from the top of the hill less than a kilometre to their north-west.

Stacey's car pulled off the road and into a driveway that led to a wide, lowset house made from a ceramic brick material designed to further insulate the house from outside temperature interference. Stacey knew better; it was also the perfect construction to properly fortify a house from external forces.

"Wow, this house is impressive," Eric marvelled.

"Funny; I was thinking it looks more like that safehouse," Amy countered.

"It looks expensive..." Lily's voice perked up from behind Amy.

"Officer Huxley was the former captain of the ACDC precinct. You don't run an operation like that without making a few enemies in the process."

Eric and Amy nodded in agreement.

I thought that name was familiar... Eric quipped to himself. He was right; this Huxley character was her former boss.

There was a decently spaced brick pathway that extended from the driveway into the front garden area, lined with small spruce trees to make a thoroughfair to the main door. Stacey led the way, with Eric a few steps behind.

Eric's attention was fixed on the trees and the flowers that lined the ground beneath them, and as such he was not paying attention when Stacey abruptly extended her arm out, blocking Eric's passageway as she stopped moving.

"Something's not right."

Eric froze. Stacey wasn't one to shy away from cheeky humour, but the tone of her voice indicated this wasn't one of those times. Eric orbited in place, in fear of an unknown attacker.

"Ma'am?"

Crony was now on her shoulder.

"Crony, you know this place better than I do. Does it look like Huxley's home?"

Crony looked up to the roof, and then to the right. "Air circulation systems are offline. No lights either."

"Any chance he might not be home yet?"

"Negative. If Huxley said he'd be here, he's here. Besides, after yesterday, he wouldn't be anywhere else."

What happened yesterday...?

Stacey cautiously moved towards the front door, left hand hovering over her belt. When she realised she wasn't wearing her officer's tools, her anxiety only increased.

"Ma'am, if something is wrong, I'll be able to find more information through the home server. I still have all the necessary access codes."

"Understood. Do it," she ordered, aiming the PET towards the transmission hole located next to the security camera located inside the front doorway arch.

"Protect yourself," he reminded her before crossing the space between PET and jack-in port.

Once Crony was through, Stacey switched over to a holographic screen. "What do you see?"

"Unknown. Look; something is wrong."

Eric and Amy remained a few paces away as Stacey and Crony discussed the situation at hand. Any desire to keep himself separate from the problem failed when Stacey turned to Eric.

"Eric, what am I looking at?"

Stacey's monitor was brought into focus, but the image presented to her added little to her understanding.

"We've never seen anything like that before. Eric, you're the network expert; what about you?"

"Make it quick," Crony commanded with added urgency.

Crony's bark was worse than Stacey's, without even a hint of care. Eric's eyes trained themselves towards the display. The sight of glitchy pixellated data and a large somewhat oval-shaped hole that exposed another network had him confused at first, but after consideration of the facts he realised he knew the answer. "That's a network splice."

"Explain."

"Someone has fused an external pathway into the server."

"Impossible. This firewall is state-of-the-art."

"It's not about the firewall. Think of it as breaking through the ceiling instead of through the door or through the walls. It doesn't happen often, but it's possible with the right circumstances. In fact, just yesterday I saw a network splice betwe-"

"Irrelevant," Crony interrupted, cutting Eric's story short. "Ma'am, we have a problem. Something has breached the security network. I can fix the security server and get us into the house, but I'll nee-SHOTGUN!"

In a blur, Stacey's hand flew from the PET to her chip folder, selected a chip and slammed it through the reader, all without looking. It certainly impressed Eric, who often fumbled with his chip insertion.

A virus turned to loose data as Crony fired the gun. "Ma'am, I can fix this, but I'm requesting you send THEM in for back-up. The network breach is a fair distance from the server, but the access gate is idle-protected. If I have to stop the patch to deal with viruses, the timer will reset my progress and I'll have to start again."

"Understood." Stacey stepped out of the way, directing Eric to the camera. "You heard him. Go on, jack in."

Eric couldn't believe what he'd just heard. Had Stacey and Crony actually asked for their help...?

{>>> To ACDC Net: Testing the Bond >>>}
{EAX020}

{<<< From ACDC Net: Testing the Bond <<<}

Two streaks of light came out of the door sensor as Amy and Lily found themselves back in their PET and Crony returned to Stacey's PET.

"Be ready ma'am. You could be walking into a trap," Crony warned, halting Stacey's hand.

"So help me if this is just Huxley playing another one of his 'trial by fire' games," Stacey growled, but not with the same level of anger Eric was used to.

"I don't believe he'd disrupt his own security network to test you. Especially when he knew the other two were coming."

Stacey didn't argue with that reasoning, but she still opened the door cautiously now that the digital lock had been disabled. It was wide-set door made of solid timber, with only a small peephole to see through. Although there were two cameras pointed towards the main entrance, this peephole looked more like a failsafe than a necessary feature.

The blonde-haired lady entered through the doorway ever so slowly, with her PET's utility LED now functioning as a torch to light the long hallway in front of them. From the entrance arch one could see five doorways; two large open arches no more than a few steps in front of them that led off to the left and to the right, another archway situated halfway down the hallway that led off to the right, and finally two small doors at the end of the hallway, one facing them and one that led off to the left.

Eric followed behind Stacey, whose torch was focused to the left. "Crony, lead the way," she whispered as they ventured forward.

The front door had an auto-closing mechanism installed which Stacey was aware of since she'd been there before, but everything in this house was new to Eric. This meant that when the mechanism loudly ratcheted back into place as part of the locking procedure, it caught Eric off-guard, a combination of nerves and adrenaline fuelling his muscles as his whole body whirled around to face the source of the unexpected disturance.

Stacey grimaced as the sound of a vase shattering filled the room. Any admiration she'd had for their previous virus busting was quickly disappearing.

"Ma'am, we've lost the element of surprise," the bulky navi advised with the same disappointment lacing his voice. "Perhaps you should turn a light on."

"Fine,", she exasperated as she reached for the light switch on the nearest wall. A single click led to the lounge room being illuminated with warm light. A large television sat on an entertainment unit directly in front of them, which helped to form a ring shape with two reclining chairs to the left and right, and a long three seat sofa in front of the TV, all fitted with tanned leather. An antique glass coffee table sat in the middle of the ring, rectangular in shape but with smooth rounded corners and rounded edges. Two bookshelves were placed to the left and right of the entertainment unit, the left one filled with books and the right one filled with something Eric didn't recognise; large rectangular containers that each seemed to house a singular black cartridge of some variety.

Crony reappeared on Stacey's shoulder. "Motion sensors are back online. Nothing's moving except us."

Stacey's attention was diverted elsewhere. "So he's not here then," she responded dejectedly as she passed through the lounge room and into the adjacent dining room.

Eric moved closer to the right bookshelf, trying to determine what was in the rectangular containers. Each of them had names on the spines, as if they were titles for something. His first instinct was that they were movie titles, but as he carefully took one out of the shelf (or, as carefully as Eric could do anything) he slid his thumb into the case and popped out two plastic teeth, opening the entire case.

By this point Amy had now begun projecting herself on Eric's shoulder, and was curious as to what he was trying to do.

"Amy, have you ever seen anything like this...?"

Amy looked at the black cartridge. It had three windows filling up the centre third of the cartridge, with the top and bottom thirds remaining black. The left and right thirds of the centre strip had a glass pane, but inside were two rotating spindles that had something bound around them. In the centre panel the word 'BAMBI' was written in big orange letters, but the remaining text was too faded to make out anything useful.

"Does 'BAMBI' mean anything to you?" Eric asked.

"I can do an internet search if you like?"

Amy's thought process had only just begun when a loud voice hollered from somewhere in the house.

"Eric, get in here quickly!"

Eric almost dropped the cartridge in surprise. He tried to close the lid, but it wasn't going back in the same way it opened, and panic was starting to set in. Stacey didn't sound angry, she sounded concerned.

Leaving the case unopened on the coffee table, Eric dashed back to the hallway, but realised he had no clue where his sister was. "Where are you?" he yelled out.

"Down the hallway, take a right and then last left!" his sister's voice bounced back.

Eric followed her directions as he dashed towards the hallway junction. The midway archway led to a hallway with four more doors, three on the left and one on the right. Eric ran to the last door on the left as instructed and entered a room that looked to be a study. More bookshelves, a computer desk, a study desk and a few more gadgets he didn't recognise at first glance. None of which were important while a larger man lay face down on the floor with his hands and feet bound tightly, all four limbs meeting at a central spot above his back.

"He's unconscious Eric. Help me get these zipties undone, we'll carry him to the lounge room." Stacey was already trying to undo the plastic strips but was struggling without a picking tool.

Eric was frozen in place. This couldn't be happening. This was like something from the movies he watched, the ones where the criminal was lying in wait for the protagonist to turn their back to the obvious bait, and then without warning the criminal would jump them from behind.

Eric's entire body began to shake in fear.

"Eric, you've got to help Stacey," Amy tried to urge him, but he couldn't hear his navi's words.

Mangled bodies on the ground, not moving.

No.

Not again.

"ERIC!" It was the combination of anger and desperation in Stacey's scream that broke through Eric's paralysis. "GET OVER HERE NOW AND HELP ME!"
It took some time, but against the backdrop of grunting, cursing and some knocks and bumps, the pair had been able to free the man's wrists and ankles from the shackles they'd been bound to and had carted Huxley's body into the living room. Huxley had awoken on his couch to a killer headache, which Stacey was doing her best to remedy with the resources on hand.

"Thanks Stacey." Huxley's hands firmly braced the warm cup of tea she'd brewed for him as she passed it to him, its aroma giving him some relief.

"I was mad at first, thinking it was some sort of test. I guess the joke was on me for making an assumption, right?" she tried to joke, but it fell flat without a single chuckle or laugh.

Stacey and Huxley were now sitting together on the long couch, with Eric occupying the recliner closest to the front of the house as it was the side closest to Stacey. He remembered hearing stories about Huxley in the past, but at some point Stacey had stopped talking about him at the dinner table. Eric thought that maybe they'd had a falling out, but having heard earlier that he was now her former boss, maybe that had something to do with it.

"So are we going to talk about this?"

"Straight to the point, I see." Huxley rubbed a point on the back of his head. "I tell ya, it 'urt when they whacked me."

"Who did this, Huxley?"

Huxley turned to Stacey with a look of both indignance and confusion. "What, you haven't put two and two together yet?"

Stacey paused for a second. "You think it has something to do with them?" she replied, pointing a finger in Eric's direction.

"Yep." No hesistation in his response. "In the 23 years I've lived 'ere this place has never been broken into. NEVER. A number of shady groups know my house is 'ere, but nobody's ever set foot inside these walls."

"Until now."

"A day after I was suspended for 'reasonable doubt in my abilities to manage highly sensitive information.' Which, for the record, was complete boulderdash 'cause I destroyed all the paperwork relatin' to that package, so it's my word against the deliveryman's."

"Obviously they believed the deliveryman," Stacey chuckled.

"You don't get it." Huxley put the cup down on the coffee table and turned back to Stacey, staring her directly in the eyes. "Even if they did, reports would be written, complaints filed, pays docked for a period and a warnin' written up. The usual misconduct dis'plinary garbage. Instead, I'm suspended from active duty and sent home with full pay for three weeks."

Stacey shook her head, her expression unchanged. "So what am I missing?"

Huxley grunted. "Do you see anything missing, Blondie? It's a lot of effort to break into someone's house and not take anything."

Stacey took a look around the room, believing only Huxley's computing slate on the coffee table to be something of actual value. "Looks to me like there's nothing worth stealing here anyway, except maybe that slate. Even the TV is old," she joked, but her body shook as Huxley took firm hold of her shoulders.

"I'm not joking, dammit," he asserted. "Three weeks paid suspension, and then someone bypasses and disables my state-of-the-art security system in order to lie in wait for me in the study, the most isolated part of the house."

Huxley released Stacey's body as he reached for the tea again. A few gulps appeared to take the edge of his current mindset as he turned back to Stacey.

"Blondie, nobody else comes 'ere. I live alone. The automated systems here are to replace a personal navi. There's backups installed in the event that the main system is taken offline, and those were disabled as well. If everythin' is taken offline and I'm left tied up without a means of escape... let's just say that three weeks is a long time."

Stacey's head twitched. "Because whoever did this knew nobody would come looking for you for at least three weeks. It would only take three days to die from dehydration."

"I could scream as loudly as I want and my neighbours would never hear a thing."

"I reckon you could've got out of the bonds yourself though, you know."

"Twenty years ago, maybe. Look at me now," he quipped, gesturing to his legs as he demonstrated their reduced mobility. "Whoever did this didn't consider me havin' contact with anybody outside the precinct. You both saved my life."

Huxley let that last statement hang in the air for a minute before his attention finally turned towards Eric.

"I bet you're wonderin' why I asked you to come 'ere today."

Eric just nodded. Most of what had just been said had gone over his head.

"Did Blondie tell you much about your new partner?"

Eric shook his head at first but then stopped. "Wait... Stacey said... she used to belong to someone famous."

"Not quite."

An image of Crony reappeared on Stacey's shoulder again, but the navi looked aggravated. "Automated systems are back online, but the surveillance drives are going to need repairs before they can be played," he retorted as he looked to Huxley, not Stacey. "As it stands, recording and playback is disabled."

"Perfect timing Crony. We'll deal with the cameras later." Huxley's vision remained on Eric as he gave his next order. "Ebnac, you online?"

"AFFIRMATIVE," came a monotone voice, although Eric couldn't work where the sound was coming from as his eyes searched the room.

"Relax, it's just the house's AI system," Huxley chuckled. "Open hidden directory 'Colossal' and output the contents of the database into my slate," he continued in a louder voice.

"SECURITY PROTOCOL BYPASS REQUIRED FOR SECURE FILE ACCESS."

"Maximus Huxley. Alpha-Mike-Tango-seven-five-six-three-seven."

"CYBER VALUE TO SOLVE FOR PASSKEY IS ONE-FIVE-NINE-FOUR-THREE."

A pause followed as Huxley meditated on his answer. "Passkey is four-zero-three-eight-five."

"VOICE KEY VALIDATED, CORRECT PASSKEY ACCEPTED. DOWNLOAD SUCCESSFUL."

As the slate lit up with new information, Huxley lifted it off the table and began to tap at certain icons as they appeared.

"Amity or Amy, which do you prefer?" he asked as a final page loaded on the screen.

"Amy," she responded, appearing as a hologram and standing on the coffee table in front of Huxley.

"Amy, let me start off by apologising."

"For what?"

"I was the one who completed a Class 7 memory wipe on you. Your memories file was separated from your personality matrix and purged, which is standard protocol for all navis being repurposed for duty within the NetPolice fields."

Amy's confused look complimented her next question. "...I don't understand. Why are you apologising if you did your job?"

"Because I didn't check your maintenance logs. It appears that somebody already ran a Class 7 purge on your memory file around 4 years ago." Huxley looked to Amy to see if she understood, but upon seeing the blank gaze his eyes returned to the report on his slate. "It's a known phenomenon... more a glitch, really... that when a navi undergoes a Class 7 memory purge, your BIOS anticipates a future reset and starts storing key memories in both your memory file and your personality matrix file."

"That sounds like a good thing... right?"

"Not if someone completes a second Class 7 purge. In a reset state, your BIOS doesn't know that some personality matrix files are memory backups, so when it boots up your old personality matrix it mistakenly inserts those memories into thought processes. Certain emotions may trigger memories instead of stored knowledge."

"You mean... like voices in my head?"

Huxley placed the slate in his lap, his face now filled with concern. "How recently?"

"The first day I went virus-busting with Eric."

"Is that all?"

Amy considered holding back her answer. The two ladies in her head had been a minor hindrance at first, but she hadn't thought their presence would lead to a larger problem.

"No. In particular, it seems like two ladies keep appearing in my mind."

"Two? Not one?"

"Definitely two voices. One older, one much younger. I think, anyway. I can't see their faces, all I can hear is their voices."

"I bet this is the older one," Huxley asserted as he tapped away at the slate, his final push bringing up a video that projected from the slate for all in the room to see.

In it, a single lady filled the view of the camera, standing behind a lectern with multiple microphones pointed towards her. Amy recognised her instantly; Heather Dougherty, the same lady she'd been standing next to in the picture that Stacey had shown them a few nights ago. She wasn't wearing as lavish a dress as last time, instead donning a muted fuschia blazer that overshadowed the darker shirt and business trousers it lay atop.

The video started with Heather looked fiercely into the camera, her pose indicating she was in the middle of a speech. "It goes without saying that these allegations were designed to implicate Gerald in a plot involving abuse of his powers as managing director. No proof of these charges have been brought forth by any party to confirm such misconduct, and therefore I view these allegations as a timely opportunity to strip the Dougherty name of their holding stock power in the ENDBS group, nothing more. Until such evidence can be brought forth and verified by the public authorities, I am calling this a witch hunt whose sole purpose is to prevent the new venture from going forward."

Heather's demeanor wavered slightly as she wobbled in front of the lectern. A second face came into view of the video briefly, but Heather gently shook her head and waved away the assistance, again standing under her own power. "I believe that Oliver Mustoena is the correct person to lead the ENDBS group after Gerald's passing, and Dougerty Holdings will continue to trust and put faith in the company's direction under his leadership, should he be elected."

Heather took a deep breath to regain her composure once again. "Any questions?" she enquired, but before another voice could be heard the video ended.

"Yep, that's the old lady," Amy confirmed.

Huxley groaned as his attention turned to Amy again. "I'm not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing."

"Why?"

"In most of the studies about navis surviving two Class 7 purges, the memory resurfaces didn't start until a few weeks after the second purge. You said it took only a day, yes?"

"Well, maybe less. I spent most of the first day in hibernation."

"Is that right...? Because I was told otherwise," Stacey piped up, sending a burning scowl in her brother's direction.

Huxley ignored the Bauersox siblings and continued. "Then you may find that a number of your key systems have been overwritten with memories instead of instructions. Think hard; is there particular moments where these memories seem to be most prominent?"

"You mean, when they pop up the most?"

"Yes."

Amy had to think about that. "Mostly when I'm afraid or angry. Or trying to sleep."

Huxley breathed a sigh of exasperation. "If that's true, you'll need to be careful you don't trigger an important memory during moments of fear or anger." His attention now turned to Eric and Stacey. "You two need to do your best not to trigger those emotions either. If Amy has a memory recall in the middle of a battle her mind will be torn between two realities and she may not be able to interact with the real world during that time."

"It happened already, I think," Eric commented. "Towards the end of our first busting run she kept talking to herself. At least, that's what I thought, anyway."

"He's right. But I need to rest, I can't avoid that one forever."

"I'll give Eric a subroutine you can install to help with that. It's kind of like an on/off switch."

Amy wasn't happy with the thought of giving Eric an on/off switch to her being, but the alternative wasn't much better. "Alright, I guess we can use that." Amy put aside her concern for that matter and moved on to the issue closest to her heart at present. "Sorry to change topics, and I know you've been through a lot today, but we still haven't addressed the reason for us coming here."

"You want to know who you are?"

"Wouldn't you?"
"Amy, you're a ghost."

Amy's expression matched Eric's in a show of confusion and misinterpretation.

"I'm a navi. I can be deleted and reinstalled from backups, but that doesn't make me a ghost."

"Not what I meant, but perhaps I should have been clearer," Huxley chuckled as he opened up another file on the slate that revealed a collection of news articles with an image of what looked to be Heather alongside Amy dressed in either her green dress or the red one. One picture had her in a royal blue dress; that one was new to her.

"People think you're a real person," Huxley continued. "In every one of these photos you're in one of your graphic model overrides, and seein' as how you look human, and are interactin' in the real world-"

"People think I'm a human. Weird."

"I don't fully understand how it's possible, now havin' met you, but that explains the rumours."

"Rumours?" Now Amy was intrigued. Eric too was now leaning forward. His partner was a celebrity...?

"You see, you only started appearin' in ENDBS meetings around three years ago. Since then, the only time anybody saw 'Amy' was durin' ENDBS board meetings, business presentations and, in the last two years particularly, a couple of ads for the new PET models released." Huxley brought up one such video, in which Amy's 'Autumn' override was shown as she demonstrated the features of one of the consumer PET models that ENDBS was selling for a hefty sum. "That fuelled two theories."

"What were the theories?" Stacey asked, beating Amy by only a fraction of a second.

Huxley smiled when he realised everybody was getting involved in the story. "The first theory was that she was a new hire that Heather had taken under her wing, particularly as her health declined. That theory had weight in the later years when Amy took a more prominent place in ENDBS as Heather withdrew. The flaw in that theory was that nobody could ever track down Amy after events. That might have been where the second theory came from."

"And what was that?"

"That you were actually a navi that had the ability to appear in the real world. That's why nobody could track you down; you only exist in the digital world."

"Makes sense then why people only treated it as a theory. From what I can tell, that kind of technology isn't common."

"Exactly. Although... now that I know it's not a theory, I must say I'd be curious to know how you did that." His gaze looked puzzlingly at Amy.

"I can show you another time if you like...?" she offered, with a smile on her face.

Huxley chuckled again. "When I first saw your image on the PET at headquarters I thought you were another one of them knockoffs I'd seen on the internet. You know, imitation GMOs. Your PET was stylish, so it wouldn't be too wild an idea. But what do you know, you were definitely the real deal."

Huxley proceeded to close the remaining files on the slate, returning it to a clean state as he placed it down on the coffee table beside Amy's hologram.

"After a few days of research, here's what I know, my purple-haired friend," his eyes locking onto Amy's. "Your digital identity may be Amity.EXE, but in the real world you went by the name of 'Amy Moore'. You were a high-ranking employee at ENDBS that reported directly to Heather Dougherty, actin' CEO in the wake of her son's passing but then returnin' to her position as director on the ENDBS board. You've worked at ENDBS for three years, at least on paper, and in particular you've helped various departments rangin' from research and development through to advertisin', all at Heather's command."

Amy's expression gave away her disbelief in what she'd just heard. "I think you've got the wrong navi," she nervously retorted.

Huxley continued, ignoring her quip. "When Heather passed away almost two weeks ago, there were some quick moments to seize some of her assets, given her stake in the company. She doesn't have any survivin' family to accept her estate, but there's an issue with her will preventing anybody from moving in on her finances. In any case, they managed to get some of the business property out of her ownership, citing that ENDBS owned it and not Heather. Heather obviously isn't alive to contest it, so the request was approved by the necessary authorities. Which is how you ended up in my possession."

"Wait, this doesn't make sense," Amy interrupted. "You said you wiped my memories of this former life, yet I clearly remember a life of borderline torture and endless ridicule at a training facility for problematic navis. I spent many nights crying to sleep because I thought I was a failure, because I was TOLD, again and again, that I WAS a failure. Now you're telling me I was an important employee at a lucrative company? Sorry, but you're wrong."

Huxley needed a moment to ponder on this new information. "Were those flashbacks as well?"

"No, I remember all the details quite vividly," she replied bitterly, a wave of sorrow accompanying the pain from those memories as they resurfaced.

Another pause. "Then it's possible you have planted memories as well."

"'Planted memories'?" Eric questioned from his seat.

"Just a theory. Planted memories are supposed to be outlawed, but I've seen a few navis in my time that had planted memories installed in spite of that law."

"What are 'planted memories'?"

A deep breath and a sigh followed. "Planted memories, or more accurately, pre-programmed memories, used to be installed in certain government navis to ensure their loyalty to their faction. A particular cybernetics group found that if a navi had a set of pre-programmed memories and responses installed into their BIOS along with their personality matrix and memory bank, without any additional data to decide what was real and what was not, the BIOS would pre-fill the navi's memory banks with that information and treat them as irrefutable memories."

"Why would anybody do that?"

"Control." Huxley replied. "If you can make a person believe something, even if it's a lie, then you can control them. Especially if it's done through guilt." He paused before leaning forward towards Amy again. "Tell me Amy, do you feel empowered by those memories? Or do they make you feel insignificant, submissive, weak? Like you already did your best, and it wasn't enough?"

"I think I already answered that question."

"Exactly. Memories of torture are supposed to make you believe that you should do as you're told. Amy, I promise you that your first memory should have been meeting Blondie's brother. Anything prior to that, unless it's a flashback, is a lie."

Amy didn't know how to take that information. Everything about the training facility... was a lie...? She became silent as the weight of that relevation hit her hard.

Huxley leaned back into the seat, groaning as he did so. Stacey began getting up, but a hand placed on her shoulder stopped her from leaving. Without a word, she sat back down.

"Anyway, what's got me intrigued is your package, Amy. It went through several movement orders between a few locations at various ENDBS sites and another civilian location before finally being routed to NetPolice. At the time, when I read your manifest I thought that you'd just been bounced back and forth between caretakers, like nobody wanted you. The paperwork definitely supported that theory at first glance. But now..." he let the thought trail off into silence.

"Somebody wanted her."

"She's not your typical navi. Somebody wants Amy back. And if she's got planted memories like those, I reckon that whoever did that may even be the one lookin' for her."

"Then... do we need to take her... back?" he replied, a sudden tightening in his throat forcing the words out raspily.

Stacey didn't seem too disturbed by the idea. "If one of her previous owners wants her back then I think it's best that w-"

"Negative, ma'am."

"Agreed. Think about it." Huxley's gaze focused on Amy. "Whoever is tryin' to get her back has resources. Not only were they able to get your parcel redirected to a place they thought they could retrieve it, but when they suspected me of stealin' it, they were able to pull strings to isolate me from others. Once that was done, they laid their trap and beat me in my own home. A fortress, no less," he added. "Besides, if we give her back now, we only prove that she was stolen by us. Do you think they'll just let us off with a warning? A slap on the wrist? Whoever they are, they think they're above the law."

Huxley paused for a moment to let that sink in. Stacey nodded slowly as she realised what was being implied, but Eric's expression hinted at rejection, possibly denial. Huxley noticed this as he turned to Eric, the next words burning themselves into the young male's mind.

"Son, whoever wants that PET is smart, has resources, connections in high places, and isn't afraid of killing anyone in their way."
It had already been late in the night when the pair arrived, but in between the drama of gaining access to the house, finding Huxley in a captive state, the revelations of Amy's true identity and the discussion of how to proceed going forward, the wall clock read a few minutes past midnight by the time that Huxley decided the Bauersox family needed to return home. Of course, despite the seriousness of the events that had played out, Stacey first wanted Eric to fix a problem he'd created before they left.

"I'm very sorry about the vase Mister Huxley," Eric apologised as he picked up the remaining pieces of the broken masonry. A faint dirt stain was all that remained on the carpet that had taken the brunt of the impact.

"Again, don't worry about it. If you and your sister hadn't come here, I wouldn't have been able to complain about it at all. Also, what's this 'Mister' rubbish?"

Eric hesitated in his response, worried that his answer might upset his sister. However, before the words even had a chance to leave his mouth his sister came into view from the dining room, carrying a filled garbage bag through the living room.

"That would be my doing. Would you prefer he call you 'Ax'?" she cheekily quizzed him, dodging the jab intended for her as she ducked inbetween the two men and moved towards the front door.

"'Ax' is not acceptable, you damn well know that. However, I'll settle with Max. 'Mister' is almost as bad as 'Ax'." The glare he threw at Stacey wasn't enough to wipe the smile off her face.

"You shouldn't have let O'Neill tell me the story then. Your fault, not mine." Her laughter continued as she disappeared out of the house.

"I tell you, it's amazing that girl is still single. You'd think the boys would be falling over that energetic attitude of hers."

"I think it's my fault," Eric admitted, but then his eyes widened as his face twisted into some strange form of remembrance. Stacey walked back into the house to find Eric's hand hovering over his own head.

"You had more hair... The comment was quickly responded to by Stacey with a jab of her own, catching Eric in his right side. The motion caught him unaware as he sunk to the ground, unable to catch his breath.

"Eric! Watch your mouth!" she yelled at her brother before she turned to Huxley. "I'm sorry Huxley, that was completely unaccep-"

Huxley's hand being raised in the air somehow managed to silence Stacey, and Huxley used the moment to kneel down and help Eric back up, his weight still focused on his stomach and his head hung down. Once Eric was back on his feet, Huxley's words cut through the silence.

"Explain yourself."

Huxley's stern words combined with crossed arms had Eric in a fearful state, until he looked up and realised the words uttered weren't aimed at him.

"You heard what he just said!" Stacey was now on the defensive, but Huxley's stance remained unchanged.

"I did. And if I didn't react, why did you?"

With Stacey searching for words, Huxley turned back to Eric. His cold expression had diminished, but the question was still visible in his eyes, as if to say Care to explain yourself?

"I... I remember you," Eric explained. "You... were the one who sat with me... in the waiting room... until Stacey arrived."

Any sign of hostility in Huxley's expression disappeared. "That was twelve years ago, son. Of course I had more hair back then."

Eric's head again drooped as the weight of what he'd said sunk in. "I'm sorry Mister Huxley," he apologised in an earnest voice.

"Max," he corrected. And it's fine. You just need to pick your words better," he advised whilst shooting a glance of judgment towards the lady now waiting at the door. "Anyway, you both best be goin'. I'll be alright here, I've got no reason to leave the house anymore so nobody will gettin' another chance to sabotage this place. It might be time for me to get another navi though; things may have been different with another set of eyes watchin' me."

"Agreed." Crony took his stance in front of Stacey, as if she needed a shield to hide her flushed cheeks.

"Now Crony, remember what we talked about. Whoever's lookin' for Amy isn't afraid of gettin' their hands dirty, and now they know she isn't here. Don't let these two down, you hear me?"

"Affirmitive."

With all the necessary pleasantries for farewell exchanged, Stacey and Eric left the makeshift fortress of a house and made their way back to the car, not a word being spoken between any of the five members present. Given the events of the night, Amy thought this may have been to avoid any potential altercations on the way back to the car, but when the same coldness persisted as the car pulled out of Huxley's driveway Amy knew something was amiss.

Eric's side was still a little numb, but he dared not rub it in case it sparked further discussion about his lack of delicacy in conversation. He was too distracted by that thought to notice the colour in Stacey's cheeks remained unchanged, but it wasn't lost on his partner. Several questions entered Amy's head that wanted answers, but it seemed that now may not have been the right time. At the very least, the navi took some solace in the fact that her operator's sister's behaviour wasn't beyond reproach.

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