77 Press Street, ACDC Heights


{<<< 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 large, two-story 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.


Crony was now on her shoulder.

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

Crony looked towards the upper floor, 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."


"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 >>>}

{<<< 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.


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.


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


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


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."


"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?"


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?"


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.

{>>> To ACDC Town: 3746 Boykin Road, Lower ACDC >>>}

{<<< From Kotobuki Town: Osanajimi Plaza <<<}

=== CHAPTER 6 - Every Family Has History ===

Satay of any variety was Eric's achilles heel. His mother was well-versed in oriental cuisine, and he had many fond memories of wolfing down hot plates of rice and satay beef growing up. The taste left in his mouth provided him with some fond memories while the feeling of contentment had almost erased all the concern built up from having to bear his sins to Matt.

Matt's Hayate 700 was Eric's favourite car to drive in. The custom moulded leather seats and perfumed air conditioning reminded him of a life that he would never have, one where money was just a tool, not a necessity. The engine itself was almost silent as their ride moved effortlessly down the highway, barely a vibration as they travelling at high speeds, music from their childhood blaring through the speakers as Matt attempted carpool karaoke... poorly. Eric enjoyed the company, even singing along to one or two of the more upbeat tunes, if only to stop Matt thrusting an invisible microphone in front of his face. This felt normal; this had been his life until the violet-haired girl came and turned his life upside-down.

Matt hadn't told him where they were going, the address having been sent by Stacey to Matt's PET and not his own. Stacey and Matt had never really seen eye-to-eye, Stacey's more meticulous attention to due process sometimes at odds with Matt's tendency to cut to the heart of an issue instead of stepping around it. Eric still had no idea how or why Matt had managed to involve himself in Eric's life what felt like an eternity ago, but whenever there was serious trouble, Matt always had an answer, even if Eric didn't like it.

The car turned into the ACDC Heights exit, and Amy had a feeling she knew where they were heading. Eric too began to guess their final destination as a familiar neighbourhood came into view, and minutes later the 700 was pulling into Huxley's driveway.

As they moved down the driveway the garage door opened up, revealing a space on the right side for them to move into. Eric could see two sets of legs which he immediately associated with his sister and Huxley. Matt waited until the door was sufficiently raised to begin moving forward, but unexpectedly hit the brakes, lurching the car to a sudden stop. Eric panicked and looked to Matt for an explanation, but his eyes wouldn't meet Eric's.

Eric turned towards the focus of Matt's stare and instantly understood the reaction.

Stacey's arms were fully extended, her hands pointed out in front of herself towards the garage entrance, but that wasn't the concern. What was distressing was the taser she had drawn, her finger gripping the activation button tightly. If that wasn't intimidating enough, Huxley stood beside her with a steel baton, his focus too on the entranceway. He must have noticed the hesitatation, as he used the hand not gripping the baton to gesture them into the garage, the timing of his motions indicating urgency.

"What the shards have I gotten myself into," Matt muttered as he drove in.

As soon as the car was fully in the open bay, Stacey moved to Eric's door. "Quick, out," she ordered loudly, tapping the window pane with the business end of the taser whilst her eyes still remainded locked on the garage entranceway.

Eric did as instructed, opened the car door and moved out of the passenger seat as fast as his body would allow. To his surprise, Stacey kept the door open, slid into the seat in his place and closed the door behind her. Inaudible words were uttered towards Matt, and Eric watched as the car began reversing out the driveway. As soon as the car started moving the garage door began to lower. Eric stood in place until the bay was clear, the door was down, and the red-haired boy was left with his older associate.

"I take it your sister didn't tell you what's happenin'?" Huxley inquired as his grip on the baton loosened, a look of amusement starting to appear.

Eric shook his head.

"No surprise there," Amy perked up from Eric's pocket. "She likes to keep us guessing," she added whilst trying to keep her anger under control. Something about that woman upset her in ways she couldn't express.

"I guess she felt she had no choice," Huxley concluded as he lowered the baton to his side and walked towards the hallway entrance. "Follow me."

Eric followed Huxley into the main hallway. It seemed larger than the last time he'd been in it, but perhaps that was because the lights were on, making the decor feel much warmer and inviting. Random photos on the walls of younger people, blue flowers on top of a console table, a runner that went from one end of the hall to the other; all of these were details Eric couldn't have noticed during his first visit when his mind was dealing with Huxley's unconscious body, but now... he realised this house had a history.

"Blondie decided I shouldn't be alone tonight," Huxley explained. "You know, in case whoever broke in the other night came back. She thinks two days would be enough for me to be in a desperate state but not dead. I told her whoever did this isn't comin' back, but the silly girl insisted. Apparently your friend changed her plans."

Turning right at the hallway junction and then left at the door a few steps ahead, Eric found himself in the kitchen. In the adjacent room, Huxley sat down at a table that had PET parts strewn across its surface. Manuals, cables, tools, and other parts Eric hadn't seen before.

"I don't 'spose you know how to repair PETs?" Huxley asked the boy, some frustration showing in his voice as he picked up one of the parts from the table and inspected it.

"No Mister Huxl-" he began, but when Huxley turned towards him with a pained look he chose his words more carefully. "No Max, I don't."

"That's unfortunate," he sighed as he placed the piece back down. "Bridgin' these two together is proving to be a right royal pain in the derrière."

"The what?" Eric asked a little too loudly.

"Butt, Eric. He means butt."


"Wait." Huxley's attention was drawn to Eric's PET. "Maybe I don't need to do this complicated hotwirin' after all."

Amy didn't like where the conversation was heading. "No way, you can't use my PET for parts."

Huxley let out a hearty laugh that caught the party off guard. Tears threatened to roll down his face when his amusement finally abated and his breathing returned to normal.

"Girl, you've got spunk. I love that. But no, I don't want your PET. I want you."

Amy wasn't reassured by this clarification. "For what?"

"I'm tryin' to retrofit this old PET to accept a connection to this more recent model." Huxley first pointed to a brightly coloured neon-green PET that looked like it belonged to a child, and then towards a larger, more utility-oriented PET that looked similar to Stacey's new PET. "There's a navi in this PET I want to extract, but the battery is fried and it won't boot on mains power. If I can connect this bridgin' cable directly to the old PET, it could power the BIOS directly and hopefully give the navi just enough time to transfer out on the emergency relay. Problem is, the damn PET is so old this newer model doesn't support its frequencies. I've tried all these dang cables but none of them have the right protocols."

"So... how can I help with that?"

"This cable." Huxley lifted one of the shorter cables off the table and held it out. "It's a BIOS leader cable with a configurable relay. Problem is, the particular relay I need isn't stored in it right now. I need to go to Electown to get the replacement software."

"So go. Why do you need us?"

"Think about it Amy," Lily interjected. "Do you think Stacey wants him in town after the incident? Or more to the point, would you want to leave your house again after it's just been invaded?"

Amy hadn't considered that point. "Oh. Right. Because if he leaves, if the other person did come back they'd have time to lay another trap."

"Exactly. Until my suspension is over, or until we figure out who broke into here, Stacey and I decided I shouldn't leave the house. But that means I can't go to Electown, and I don't have a navi that can go to Electown for me."

Amy finally made the obvious connection. "But now you do."


"I suppose we could help you out, but first..."

{>>> To Homepages: {Amlipeda} - Homepage of Amity.EXE >>>}

{<<< From Electown Net: Shopping for a Future <<<}

The duo's data reassembled itself into their PET, and seconds later Amy's projection appeared above the PET sitting in Eric's lap. "That was some pretty good timing Eric."

"Sorry for falling aslee......eep," he apologised as another yawn interrupted his thoughts. The wall on the clock now had a small hand halfway between the 12 and 1, so an apology wasn't necessary for a natural reaction to the late hour. "Are you both okay?"

"We're fine. Could've skipped the reunion with that cloaked moron from Kotobuki though." Lily separated herself from Amy's exterior as she took to the air. "I can't believe he thought we'd just go with him like that. A complete stranger whose first meeting resulted in him attacking us? Seriously, who would trust someone like that...?" The question wasn't inviting an answer but Amy felt the need to repute her partner's interpretation of said events.

"He seemed concerned. Almost... frightened." Amy turned back to Lily, seeking confirmation to her own assessment. "He was really nervous about being in the street at all. Remember?" Her tone didn't suggest she was upset, but rather that she was puzzled by its behaviour.

"Yeah yeah, something about people watching. Like we aren't already aware that people could be watching us," she quipped sarcastically. "Doesn't matt..."

Her speech trailed off into silence.

"What?" Had she missed something?

"How did he find us anyway?"

Amy had already been thinking about that question but didn't have a good answer. "Could it have been a coincidence?" she offered as a suggestion, immediately regretting it upon observing a disdainful look from Lily. Truthfully, even she didn't believe that answer.

"Can we talk about it tomorrow?" Eric asked, picking up the PET from his lap as he rocked his body backwards and forwards in order to propel himself out of the recliner. The motion sent Amy falling off the PET, but in an instant she disappeared mid-fall and reappeared on Eric's shoulder. Lily sailed through the air and reunited with Amy as Eric twisted his neck left and right, resting his weight on one leg and then the other as he loosened his muscles.

Lily was more than happy to drop the conversation. "Doesn't matter now, we're both home safe. If we meet him again we'll figure out what to do about him, right?" Lily took one final lap around Amy's front before settling on her shoulder. "Permission to enter stasis mode?"

Amy laughed. "Would you stay if I said no?"

"Probably not," Lily joked back as her silhouette disappeared from view.

"Didn't think so," the navi quipped whilst rolling her eyes. "So we get to see upstairs now?"

"I guess. Our bedroom is upstairs; left at the top of the stairs, second door on the right," he repeated in retrospect.

The lounge room they'd been sitting in was the same room he'd been in when Max had revealed Amy's past, which itself was connected to the adjacent dining room and the kitchen after that. These three rooms made for the left 'half' of the lower floor, the main hallway being a dividing line of sorts between them and the rest of the floor. 'Half' perhaps wasn't the right word; left third would be more accurate. These three rooms were connected to the main hallway by the lounge room's large archway towards the front of the house and by the kitchen's normal-sized doorway towards what was presumably the back of the house. It was hard to tell if a backyard was indeed beyond the doorway; the door's windowpane was dark and no obvious silhouettes or lights could be seen on the other side.

Eric stepped back into the main hallway through the lounge room doorway and passed through the matching arch on the other side of the passage, which led into a combined library and study room. Of particular importance was the staircase connected to the same wall that was shared by the main hallway. They'd had no reason to use it during their first visit, but Max had directed them to use the guest bedroom if they were to stay the night. Eric's frequent yawning, Amy's droopy eyes, and now Lily's departure all indicated a good night's sleep was sorely needed by all.

Amy's mind wandered as Eric climbed the stairs. "Are you going to have enough hours for work? You were saying yesterday you still needed at least 9 hours to finish off this week, didn't you...?"

"Please, don't remind me..." The thought brought Eric to a halt mid-climb. "The week period ends tomorrow. If I don't log those hours in time it will be another flag on my record."

"Is that a bad thing?"

"It wouldn't be if it was the only one."

"What happened?"

Eric didn't respond, but instead resumed climbing the stairs. It was dark, so Amy couldn't tell if the change in Eric's cheeks was a frown or a smile.

"Come on Eric, talk to me."

When they reached the top of the stairs they were greeted with another long hallway that started and ended with a built-in cupboard at each end. Another fancy carpet runner lined the hallway from end to end, but other than this, the only items of interest were various pictures hung at random points on the walls, and five normal-sized doors. Three doors were to their left, and two were on their right.

"'Turn right at the top of the stairs and then right again to use the bathroom. Blondie left some things in there for you to use.'" Eric didn't need to repeat Max's words, but his stall tactics weren't working anyway.

"Eric." A final request for some information, but this time the word wasn't a barked order or a direct command; its gentleness implied an honest desire to understand.

"Just... let me get ready for bed first," he petitioned before entering the large bathroom. Eric discovered quickly that this was no bathroom like the one at their house. An oversized bathtub, an extended shower area, THREE vanities; this bathroom was designed for a big family.

Sitting on said vanity was a small black bag Eric recognised; it was the same one he'd used when Stacey had taken him away for therapy sessions out of town. She would normally make him pack his own toiletries, but when he opened up the bag he was surprised to find all of his usual supplies packed neatly into the normal pockets. Knowing Stacey had at least given him the necessary things for his unexpected overnight stay showed she cared, or at least that's what he told himself as he brushed his teeth and cleaned his face.

After preparing himself for sleep, Eric returned to the hallway and headed towards their room, the right-most door at the end of the hallway. A loud rumbling noise that repeated itself with a constant rhythm could only be Max snoring, but Eric lost interest in this as they passed by the mid-way door on the right. It had a round oval design, with whitish letters childishly written in bold on an emerald green background. The name read 'Candice', a name that was new to the party.

"'Candice'?" Eric whispered out loud.

"A daughter, maybe?" Amy suggested. Such a question would have to wait until tomorrow. Today, really; the hallway clock now read a quarter to one.

Eric opened the furthermost right door to find a mostly empty bedroom. A large window stretched across the upper half of the wall opposite their entryway, and when Eric stared hard enough he could make out the faint outline of security mesh on the other side of the screen. A well-lacquered timber-framed bedframe with curved tips and edging on the bedhead and side beams housed a queen-size mattress, covered in a green and white nature-themed ensemble. Two similarly styled bedside tables sat on each side of the bed, each one having two drawers in the lower section and an open cavity in the top half. A small lamp with a white lightshade sat on each drawer.

A brown credenza sat to the left of the doorway, a flower vase sitting on each end to frame a modest-sized flat-panel television. Eric was confident at first that the plants must have been fake, but the longer he looked at them the less convinced he became; a touch of the leaves did not help resolve the conundrum either. On the remaining wall to their left a three-segment closet lined the entire wall, with floor-to-ceiling mirrors on each sliding panel.

The man's eyes eventually fell to the black tote that was sitting on the bed. A change of clothes was surely waiting for him in there.
"I had my own room once."

Eric had requested that his navi disappear while he changed clothes, and it was clear he hadn't expected to hear anybody's voice as his foot missed the leg of the trackpants he was putting on, stumbling forward but regaining control of his body just in time to avoid colliding with the wall. His head turned to the PET as his cheeks turned red, thinking Amy had returned, but the PET screen was off and her image was nowhere to be seen. Only her voice could be heard from the PET speaker.

"It wasn't very big. It had a small bed, just big enough for me to lie down on, and it had a small desk with a pretty ordinary-looking chair. The whole room was..." She paused in meditation. [color=#a4f]"I guess you could say it was about twice my height from front to back, and a little over three times my height from left to right.

That sounds more like a prison than a room.

"Every day, they'd come to collect me, take me away. A new course, a new simulation. At first I thought they were trying to train me up, but after a few weeks I noticed the looks on their faces at the end of each test. Those scowling looks of disappointment..."

Eric's second attempt at putting on pants was more successful than the first, and he sat down on the bed near where the PET lie. He remained silent as his navi's voice continued.

"Maybe a month passed by before the nature of the testing changed. Instead of being virus busting tests, it became tests of intelligence. I wasn't any better at those than I was virus-busting. After a month of that, they then put me into an assistance program. I was supposed to help others, but my healing systems weren't capable of keeping up with the other candidates, and again I was reprimanded for not even being good enough to 'stay on the bench'."

Eric knew how that felt.

"Everything changed after one night. Someone must have left my room unlocked. I don't know whether it was on purpose, or if it was accidental." Another pause followed, but when Amy continued the tone was much slower, an anguish lacing each word. "Another navi entered into my room that night. I... I don't know who it was. They would never tell me who it was, no matter how many times I asked. I didn't understand. At least, not at the time."

"...What...what happened...?"

"He wanted to see if 'I could be useful for something after all'."

Eric didn't ask what that meant, and Amy didn't offer any further clarity.

"Nothing happened. Whatever he was, he didn't appreciate a wall of frost being thrust into his face. It was enough to coat the entire room in snow as well. The glacial gel must have set off the alarm, because next thing I know sirens are blaring, lights are flashing and he's doing his best to wade through the snow to get back to the door. After that night I would always wedge the chair between the doorknob and the desk to prevent anybody coming in, but... I never slept well after that, and that only made my test results even worse."

"That... that must have been awful."

"In the last few weeks I... I would often go to bed crying. I was scared, Eric. Scared of not just the tests, but now the people around me. I couldn't trust anybody."

Again, Eric understood how that felt.

"One evening after a experiment that almost killed me, I got a message from the higher ups." The bitterness could be tasted in every word that followed. "'The testing committee has decided that you are not suitable for any of the functions a netnavi is designed for. A vote was cast by the body to end your tenure, and the final vote was 15 for, 0 against.' I didn't know what to do. It was proof that... that nobody... wanted me."

"The final part of the message read 'You will be sent to a processing facility for final testing. Based on their assessment, you will be repurposed as they see fit.' I entered into the transfer room, where all 15 of the senior committee members and all 7 of my lead instructors were present, watching, waiting. They stood there in silence as I was directed to the transfer portal, and my data was broken down into a data stream that led to... darkness."

Amy's image now appeared in front of Eric. Tears were still on her face as she looked up to him. "Suddenly, there was light. My next test. Do you know what I saw?"

Eric shook his head.

"I was in an enclosed space, with only a window to the outside world. All I could see was an empty room. Nobody was there. The ceiling looked unfamiliar to me, and I was afraid that maybe I'd already messed up, that maybe I was supposed to have done something to overcome the darkness sooner."

"...What happened next?"

An unexpected burst of laughter caught Eric by surprise.

"What do you think happened, you dummy?" The change of mood was welcomed as she wiped away some of the lingering tears from her face. "A red-headed male with a poor stature and no understanding of grooming habits suddenly appeared in front of me and struggled to say the word 'Hi'."

Eric's mind went back to earlier in the week. Until that point he'd only been considering her actions from his own point of view, but with this new information his mind now wound back to their first meeting. Their first busting run. Their first argument.

"I... I guess I understand now why you were so angry about the busting run..." he acknowledged.

"Would you believe me if I told you it was the best busting run I ever had?"

"...No, I guess...? You were very angry about it."

"At the time, yes, absolutely. But things are different now."

[/i]Different now?[/i] The words confused him. "How?"

"Eric, everything I just told you was a lie."

This did little to explain the situation, only confusing Eric earlier. "You... you lied to me...?"

"No, Eric, those memories are a lie. Every last one of them. Remember?"

"Yes, we've covered this already."

Amy felt her partner reanimate herself onto her back, but the wings did not take shape as expected.

"How much of that did you just hear...?"

"Enough. But again, we've covered this. Those memories were put in place to make you behave in a certain manner so that whoever picked you up after that could use your sense of worthlessness to mould and control your actions. Only problem is, Eric isn't the kind of person to do that, so instead of him moulding you, you're moulding him. Right?"

Eric didn't deny the statement, nodding gently in agreement. The last week had certainly been different to the rest of his life. To his surprise, although it had been unpleasant in more ways than one, he found himself half-anticipating what may follow, for better or for worse. The former Eric would have run as far away from this mess as possible.

"Your turn, Eric." Amy's eyes reflected the eagerness in her next request. "I didn't tell you that story for sympathy. I want you to understand who I am. And... maybe you can start to tell me about yourself too."

"I... I want to." Another yawn was followed by Eric scratching an itch on his nose and then his brow. "I guess... I didn't think anybody wanted to know about what's going on inside me. When I talk to Matt and Stacey, even the therapist, they're always analysing what I'm saying, trying to work out how to make me do what they WANT me to do." A sudden speed and terseness was building in his words, a tone Amy hadn't heard before from him. The sound of a huff filled the room as his brow lowered, his stare locked onto Amy and only Amy. "I wish they would just leave me alone, and stop telling me what to do. I just want to be me; I don't need to change. I'm happy the way I am."

Are you though...?

"Are you though?"

Amy was horrified, thinking the words had slipped out of her mouth in error, until she realised the words were not her own, that Lily had uttered them instead. The anxiousness immediately gave way to anger.


"It's a fair question. Don't act so shocked; I know you were thinking it too."

"We- well... maybe... but that's not the point!"

"Then what IS the point?" She wasn't angry, that much was clear, but the butterfly had its own agenda. "Are you just going to pretend you're happy the way things are? Both of you?" Cyan wings came into view once more as Lily separated herself from her partner's protection, the wings returning to their yellow pitch as she hovered nearby to a position that she could address both of them at once.

"I'm not going to listen to you both deny your true emotions. This game you're playing of dodging flags while trying to explain yourselves is getting old fast. Why not just say how you REALLY feel?"

Almost instinctively Eric's arms coiled around his stomach as he shrunk further into the bed. "I... I don't... it's not that ea-"

"I'm sorry Eric." Amy could see anguish on her operator's face as she addressed Lily directly. "I get what you're trying to do. And I appreciate that you care about us enough to say it. But there's a lot you don't understand yet."

A look of disappointment on Lily's face exposed her thoughts as she shook her head and closed her eyes. "Obviously I can't make either of you do anything, but... what you're doing right now, it's not healthy for either of you." With that thought he image shuttered before it disappeared completely.

Amy turned back to the red-headed boy to offer some form of comfort, but Eric's next comment interrupted her before she could speak her mind.

"It's okay. Really. But can we go to sleep now? It's been a long day."

Her hands tensed slightly as she fought the urge to argue her case. She'd just revealed a dark part of her past to find some common ground; was he really not going to reciprocate the gesture? Had Lily just undone the progress she'd made to create a safe space to talk, whilst simultaneously complaining about their lack of communication? It wasn't easy for her to talk about her past, even if they were just fabricated memories, but there was no reason for Amy to press harder now without sounding demanding. She resigned herself in defeat as her image disappeared from the bed. "Alright."

Eric tapped a few menu prompts on the PET screen to activate Amy's sleep assistance program from Max, after which he placed the PET on the bedside table and turned off the beside lamp, darkening the room in the process. Faint moonlight shone into the room from the bedroom window, but it wasn't enough to disturb his descent into slumber. The bed itself was comfortable enough, but Eric still longed for the comfort of his own mattress as he turned again and again, looking for the right spot to rest in.


No further context was given to the single word as his body finally stopped moving and his breathing slowed down. A smile reappeared on the girl's face before the sleep program took full effect and her own consciousness faded away as well.
Eric awoke to a dark room and the sensation that something was covering his mouth. His eyes quickly adjusted to see a lone figure standing over him. Panic set in as he tried to wrestle off the hand, but he realised that both of his arms were also pinned down onto the mattress. He was just about to scream through the hand when a familar voice whispered across the darkness.

"Enough. It's me. Calm down and I'll let you go."

Eric was already on edge, but at Max's request he tried his best to calm his heartrate.

"We've got company. Come with me; and BE QUIET." Those words took a stab at his confidence, but Eric attempted to do as instructed. His eyes had adjusted enough to the darkness to see Max move towards the bedroom door so he followed suit, picking up the PET as he left the bed.

"Put it on silent," Max hissed. Again, Eric's fingers obeyed as he pressed a few commands on the screen. Amy was still in suspended sleep mode, but there was no telling if that affected Lily too. That was a question he'd have to ask Max later.

Both men crept down the staircase and down to the library. Max moved towards the back of the room to a bookshelf that was near the corner. Next to it was a screen that looked like it belonged to some sort of monitoring system, a belief that was proven true when Max tapped its main body, bring it alive in a flash of light.

"Ebnac, commence Operation 'Keep The Change' and show me whichever monitor is closest to detected motions."

"OPERATION 'KEEP THE CHANGE' ENABLED," the autonomous voice confirmed, but in a tone even quieter than Max's voice that came from a speaker Eric hadn't noticed below the monitor. "MOTION DETECTED IN THE WEST SIDE ALLEYWAY."

"Stupid fool is tryin' to access the house the same way as last time." He continued tapping some side menu options, resulting in the screen changing to a video source Eric assumed must have been of the 'west side alleyway', whatever that was. A side of the house became visible on-screen, revealing a somewhat narrow walkway between it and the neighbouring fence. Nothing of interest was visible, except of course for the silhouette of a person moving nimbly through the walkway.

"Let's have some fun, shall we...?" he chuckled as more menus and options were engaged on the monitor. The figure in the video recoiled in surprise as a downlight turned on, exposing its silhouette to the world. It was dressed in black, complete from top to bottom with no skin being visible as the clothing itself appeared to reflect no light at all. It brought amusement to Eric as he observed the creature's twitching, wordlessless broadcasting its current dilhemma of choosing between stay or run.

Max leaned forward towards the monitor as he spoke. "You know, the door at the front is the better way to get in. Go around the side like that, anybody might think you're tryin' to break into this place."

Although no face was visible through the cliche ski-mask and goggles, the head eventually found the offending camera, walking up to the spot beneath it as it took out what looked to be a PET. It tapped away at the surface until a message appeared in holographic letters.


Max chuckled again. "I have my ways."

The figure didn't seem particular happy about that answer, as more tapping followed with new messages.



"You know, this camera has a microphone. You can talk like a normal person."


"Not what I said. Unless you mean face-to-face at the precinct?"

This question seemed to elicit a new response, as the figure moved closer to the house wall and out of sight of the camera. At least, momentarily; the edge of a PET became visible on the bottom of the screen along with the tips of fingers. What followed next was the appearance of a new figure, a navi that projected itself out of the offending PET.

Its build didn't seem to be too out of the ordinary, almost appearing human-like, but its posture revealed a hunchback-like stance. It was mostly covered in fur that was ash black in colour, the only parts not being covered in fur being its head, hands and feet, which were instead skin-like in texture but were jet-black in colour. The feet were perhaps twice the width of what would be normal for a human, but instead of toes it had digits that ended in stubby but very sharp claws. The hands were of a similar disposition; larger than normal human hands but visibly dangerous with razor-sharp claws. It was wearing a tattered pine-green shirt and equally tattered chocolate brown shorts. There was a bulge underneath the shirt that suggested the presence of an emblem, but it wasn't visible through the shirt.

"Ifff you wisssh to ssspea-k, ttthen I sssu-ppossse I can sss-pea-k on masss-ter'sss behalfff," a slow, slurring voice offered to them, each word filled with an unmissable pain.

The navi's face had a tiny nose sitting atop a muzzle-shaped chin that bulged out noticably. As it spoke its mouth revealed large canine-like teeth that looked like they had never been brushed, but the longer tongue that twisted in and out of its mouth as it spoke was more suited to a reptile than it was to this creature. A narrow eyeline contained pine-green eyes that had white irises instead of the normal black. Two large rabbit-like ears were folded backward over its head, leaving only a small clump of ash black hair in between the ears.

"Can I speak to a navi whose speech centre hasn't been stunted?"

"FFFunny. I'll remem-ber tttha-t when we are ne-xxx-t sss-tanding over your hel-plessss bo-dy."

Eric had taken amusement from the navi's odd way of speaking, but threats like that reminded him that the navi and likely its operator would make good on that threat if given the chance. His attention needed to be on the conversation taking place.

"What do you want?" he asked rather flippantly.

"You know wha-t we wan-t, Ma-xxximusss Hu-xxxley."

"You're part of THAT mob. Alright then. Let me tell you the same thing I told my supervisor, the delivery supervisor, the department head, even the stupid delivery company. If you can't keep track of a high-priority package that's your own damn problem. If you're looking for answers, look somewhere else."

"We will fffind her, Ma-xxximusss."

"And I'm happy for you. Truly. Whoever 'she' is, go find her. While you're at it, go find whoever framed me for this nonsense and kick 'em hard for me. I'll even give you a name; Roberta Enfield. She probably knows more about that package than I do. Go knock down her door and see what she has to say."

Its expression darkened. "Do you ttthin-k ttthisss isss a game, Ma-xxximusss?"

"You've been in my house. You had the chance to search every space in here. Did you find what you were lookin' for?"


"Then unless you want to stay there while I get my steel baton, I suggest you BACK OFF. I DON'T HAVE WHAT YOU'RE LOOKIN' FOR." Anger was dripping from his words as he gave the final warning. "YOU CAUGHT ME OFF-GUARD LAST TIME; IT WON'T HAPPEN AGAIN."

The older man's fingers quickly hammered more commands into the console. "Son, go to the front door. If you see the front porchlight turn on, open the door, wait three seconds and then slam it shut. Don't do anything else."

His feet were still a little wobbly from listening to the exchange, but he did as directed and moved towards the front door. The front light came on almost instantly, so as instructed he opened the door, counted off the three seconds that felt like an eternity in his mind and then slammed the door shut. The electronic lock engaged once again but Eric never heard the sound.

Eric waited in the foyer as his mind tried to comprehend what was happening around him. Until this week, his life had been quiet and relatively stress-free. What he'd said to Amy before wasn't a lie; he'd been resistant to the first few days of new experiences, but little by little it seemed like out-of-the-ordinary was slowly becoming normal to him.

"All done, son. It worked, they're gone."

Eric's resolve was now depleted as he allowed his legs to give way. Max's hands caught his body before it had a chance to hit the ground face-first.

"You're not a strong one, are you." Max expected a rebuttal, but when he heard the faint sound of snoring he realised his mistake. Pained facial expressions revealed the effort required to move the light but lanky body as Max slowly carried Eric up the set of stairs and back into the guest bedroom. As he placed the younger man onto the bed his hand slid over a bump caused by the PET in Eric's pocket. Max pulled the PET out and put it on the bedside table, shaking his head at the source of all his current problems before turning back to Eric. "You need to eat more kid, you're almost skin and bone," he marvelled as he slid the blanket out from underneath Eric's body and placed it back over him. "To be honest though, that would've been impossible if you were a healthy weight..."

With a sigh and a grunt, the figure hobbled to the bedroom door and left the room, closed the door behind him.
Eric didn't remember setting an alarm, but his hand instinctively swung to the right to hit the snooze button. When his arm hit nothing but more mattress the shock cut through his dreamy stupor and woke him up.

"Ah, that worked."

Eric turned to his left, tracking the source of the voice. Amy was projecting herself onto the bedside table, her legs danging over the edge in a playful manner.

"Did you sleep well?"

Strangely enough, he had. The clock on the wall read 9:30, so they'd had a few hours sleep at least. Eric grunted as he leveraged himself out of bed. "We need to get home soon," he advised whilst scratching the back of his head.

"I remember. 9 hours of DJ work, right?"

Eric chuckled. "'DJ work'? I don't work in a club, you know."

The comment brought an awkward laugh out of both of them; the idea of Eric working in a club was absurd.

"You never know; maybe one day you might."

"I don't think that's possible."

A smell filled Eric's nostrils, eliciting a large grumble from his stomach. Few in this world could resist the smell of bacon in the morning, and Eric found himself gravitating towards the door before Amy's words broke through his hunger trance.

"Hey! We're not at home! Change, freshen up, then go downstairs!"


Eggs, bacon, tomato, mushroom, hash browns, spinach and toast. Eric felt like he'd been taken out to a fancy cafe for breakfast.

"Don't look at it, it's goin' cold. Eat it," Max joked whilst setting into a matching plate.

"Thank you very much!" he earnestly replied before setting into the eggs and toast first.

"So, did you get all the parts?" Max enquired.

Amy appeared on the table beside Eric's plate. "We got them all... we think." When Max gave her a puzzled look Amy started becoming nervous. "Are the PRX stage-4 self repair kits and PRX intel class 3 upgrades for a Prog?"


"I thought we were getting parts for your PET navi transfer."

"You did. Those parts were for you."

Eric stopped eating when he heard those words. "For us...?"

"Payment for gettin' them for me. You said you recovered a Prog that needed repairin', right? One part fixes it, the other part upgrades it. Should be a good companion for you."

"A good companion for Sa...a good friend of ours," Lily replied, briefly triggering panic from both Eric and Amy at the mention of Sakura's name.

"That's good then." Max again gestured to Eric's plate with the fork in his hand. "Don't stop, keep goin'! The spinach is probably cold!"


After clearing the table of the plates of breakfast and unpacking the PETs again, the table strangely resembled the same sight the party had seen when they first arrived last night. Max had downloaded the parts from Amy's PET and used it to reconfigure the relay. The first and second attempts were met with failure, triggering an unpleasant word from the older man, but the third attempt resulted in a green light of success. The biometrics screen flashed four times as different panels first confirmed transmission of the subject in question and then performed some fancy protocol transitions even Amy didn't understand. Another four green lights appeared in the top column before the screen went dark.

"Looks like everythin' worked," Max remarked, but his voice lacked the confidence Eric had become accustomed to.

Amy noticed the change as well. "Is everything okay?"

Max had been staring at the PET throughout the entire transfer process, and even now as they were talking his focus was still squared on the utility PET. "To be honest... no. I don't know how this PET is goin' to react to the current situation."

"You mean us?" Amy had moved back to Eric's shoulder to avoid getting in Max's way, and any thought of returning to the table and been deadened by Max's hesitation to activate the PET in question.

"No." His head shook slightly as his eyes closed and a deep groan rumbled from his throat. "I thought this was a smart idea... but now I'm not so sure."

"If anything goes wrong, we can help you out." Max had already done so much for them; it was the least they could do.

"You don't understand. But you will." His hand lifted from his side and hovered over the PET. The finger remainded raised over an 'Activate' protocol button for minutes before it finally came down onto the screen. Various launch commands appeared and disappeared before a younger female voice came out of the speakers.

"Man, was THAT a good rest! I know it's supposed to be a punishment, but nights are SOOO much better when I'm not playing babysitter."

"Leigh, can you see a Hologen option?"

"Dad...? What are you doing home this time of day?"

"Please, Leigh. Can you see it?"

"One sec... yep, right there."

"Activate it."


Eric was getting used to being introduced to one new navi after another, and the value of such an experience was beginning to become lost on him. The younger navi that appeared this time had a noticably lean build with a long straight dress that only extended outward at the hem, just like the roots of a large tree. The dress itself was mottled in appearance, alternating between an almost pure white and varying degrees of light gray. Her hair was layered numerous times, each layer looking like emerald-green leaves that had been stacked on top of one another as the hair flowed down, like the leaves of a tree. A trunk, roots and leaves; Eric realised it wasn't just his own opinion, the navi purposefully looked like a humanoid acacia tree.

"There. Done. New feature, huh?" She flapped the dress twice to get it to sit right and looked up to Max. "So is Candy out of time-out now?"



Candice. Operator and navi alike had the same reaction to the comments of this new navi as the dots began to join in their minds.

"Leigh, check the PET date."

"I saw that already. Obviously this is a new PET, I get that, but did she break another one?"

"Leigh, the date."

"Is wrong. I fixed it already. 31 years out; sure, whatever. Look at me, I'm a time traveller!" she joked rather amusedly.

"Change it back."

"Why? It's not funny, you know."

"It's not a mistake. I haven't seen you in 31 years."

"Whatever, dad. I know your disguise makeup is good, but I'm seen that act before. Look, if Candy's punishment is over then let me play with her."

"I can't do that, Leigh."

"Fine then, I'll talk to mum. You're always too hard on my girl."

Max's expression darkened as his brow lowered further. "I forgot just how free-spirited you were. Stop muckin' around and list-"

"That's because mum's the navi designer you'll never be. Now where is she?"

A deep breath followed. Eric's party could hear the anger rising in Max's voice as this new navi continued to ignore his commands. "I have no idea where Michelle is."

"What, did you lose your own wife?" she jested whilst crossing her arms.

Max's patience was wearing thin. "I lost track of her over 30 years ago, alright?" he growled at the navi in front of him.

"What, did she get sick of you as well?"

"She left this house. She left this town. Let behind anythin' that reminded her of Candice."

"Oh rubbish. As long as Candy's around, mum's the happiest woman in the world."


"What's THAT supposed to mean?"

"Candice is gone, Leigh."

"Right. Okay then, I'll play your little game." The navi's voice was laced with sarcasm as she pretended to understand the situation. "So. 31 years have passed. Uh-huh. Sure. If she's... 37 now, she's gotta be living out of home, right? Wait a minute; you mean to say you kept me in storage while my girl grew up?" Her own rising anger, whilst likely fake, caused the air itself to crackle. "I don't believe this! You've stolen all her best years away from me! Who the shards do you think you are?!"

"SHE'S DEAD, LEIGH!" Max yelled as a clenched fist was slammed against the table. Eric almost fell out of his chair in surprise, not anticipating the action. "I DIDN'T TAKE NOTHIN' FROM YOU! UNTIL 24 HOURS AGO, I DIDN'T EVEN KNOW YOU WERE STILL HERE! DON'T PRETEND *I'M* THE BAD GUY, BLAME *HER*!" A furious Max pushed himself away from the table and exited out of the area through the kitchen door, leaving Eric and Amy to deal with a dumbstruck navi.

Her words kept stumbling over each other as she tried to comprehend that statement. "D..... d..... d... de... dea... dea- no. No. No. No. Not possible. Not possible! NOT POSSIBLE!" Her breathing was now erratic as her eyes scanned the area, looking for... something, but nothing appeared to bring her comfort. In fact, each glance brought a darker expression to her face as this new reality seemed to take effect. Her eyes flickered as a new screen appeared in front of her, a websearch to verify the date.

"Max was telling the truth," Eric confirmed, repeating the date before it appeared on her screen.

The webpage was dismissed from in front of Leigh as her head rocked back and forth, her hands brushing through her hair again and again, faster and faster as if it was the only thing bringing her even an iota of confort and stability. Eventually she started wailing, repeatedly screaming disbelief into the room as it returned the words in a cold echo. Her dress became a mess as a continuous stream of tears flowed out of her. She finally collapsed onto her PET, unable to deal with the situation at hand.

Amy appeared on the table and ran over to lady in white, but her hand hesitated a short distance from the woman's body as she continued to weep hysterically. The purple-haired navi had no experience in matters like this, and had acted out of instinct. "Eric, what do I d..." Amy's voice trailed off into silence as she looked to her operator and bit her lip when she saw that same whitewashed look from the bedroom, from the study, from the interview room, and now, here. Eric wasn't going to be of any use to her now.

Death. That HAS to be the link. Whatever triggers Eric's seizures, it has something to do with death.

That thought did litle to help her now as her attention returned to the mess in front of her.

"Somebody, please help!" she called out in vain. Who else was around that could even hear her? Max had left in anger; he wasn't coming back any time soon. It was a move of desperation, anything to rid herself of this feeling of uselessness.

"There's nothing you can do. Not yet."

Amy never heard any door open, but Stacey's figure walked in front of her and took Max's seat at the table. Her plea hadn't been in vain, and whilst there were definitely better options than Eric's sister, Amy was just happy to have someone be physically present.

"So this is what he was up to," she deduced while looking at the PETs. How she could walk past her brother while her was in this state astounded the navi as she looked to her operator again.

"Stacey, what about Eri-"

"He'll be fine, it'll wear off eventually."

That statement did little to help Amy feel better. Does she even care about him?

I'm getting sick of this.

Answers. Answers had better be coming soon.

But for the meantime, Amy had to wait as Crony appeared beside her, both navis standing in silence as a navi mourned her operator.
He always felt a surreal feeling as his mind wandered back towards tangible thoughts, his memories giving way to the reality in front of him, but Eric awakened to find a combination of Stacey, Amy, Lily and Crony surrounding the newest navi, who was still in a kneeling position on the PET but her hysterical crying had now turned to the occassional sob.

"Nice of you to rejoin us," Stacey remarked without taking her eyes off the green-haired navi.

Amy and Lily turned toward Eric with a look of relief on both their faces. Amy took a step away from the group and towards her operator. "Are you okay?"

"I... I think so." His head nodded in the direction of the sobbing navi. "What... what about her...?"

"I guess we'll find out shortly..."

Crony took a step towards Leigh and knelt down to put his hands around her right shoulder. With a careful pull, he assisted her in rising back to her feet. "It will be alright Pearl. You'll get through this."

"'Pearl'? Her name is Leigh." Amy's correction only earned her a dismissive stare from the hulkish navi before his focus returned to the girl he towered over by comparison.

"'Pearl'. I haven't heard that name in years. That's what... that's what mum called me before I met Candy." Her voice was still weak and erratic, but she accepted the help and stood to face Crony. "How did you know that?"

"You don't remember me?" His demeanour dropped for a moment, but then his stoick expression returned. "It's been 31 years. I've gone through many upgrades since then."

The green eyes stared up and down his frame, trying to find something of familiarity. "Nope, I never knew any giant cops," she admitted in defeat.

"I wasn't always an giant. A long time ago I was just a chump destined to be married to a girl that wanted to run her own cyber nursery."

Leigh's head twitched at the suggestion. Her eyes began searching him up and down again in earnest before their eyes intertwined, her piercing gaze matching his own. Her face began to brighten, and a smile broke through the otherwise-tear-stained face.



The girl's arms weren't large enough to meet at Crony's back, but that didn't stop her from rushing forward and attempting to hug the giant with her small frame. To Amy's surprise Crony reciprocated the action, kneeling to the ground to afford her a more comfortable position to do so. They sat entwined in each other's embrace for the longest time before Stacey felt the need to interject.

"This... this is 'the' Pearl...?"

"Yes ma'am."

"I suppose that's why Ax was okay with us being here last night. He knew this would be a reunion."

The mention of his name reminded Eric of his absence. The reunion was making him feel awkward, and he reached for Amy's PET. Amy and Lily noticed this, as did Stacey as Eric pushed the chair away from the table.

"Where are you going?" Her tone wasn't argumentative, but it was clear she wasn't happy about his intention.

"I... need to use the toilet."

"And you need your PET for tha- you know what? Whatever." Her hand dismissed him with a few flicks of her fingers as she watched the two navis continue their hug.

Amy and Lily both disappeared from the table, returning to the PET. Their suspicions were confirmed when Eric started climbing the staircase; there was a toilet downstairs he could have used, but instead he chose to use the upstairs one...?


After washing his hands Eric returned to the hallway, but instead of taking the stairs back down to the bottom floor he passed by the stairwell and onto the next door on the left. He knocked on the door gently with two fingers, hoping that Max wouldn't ignore his request.


Eric opened the door to find another room designed in a similar fashion to the guest bedroom, only instead of three sliding doors for a wall closet the wall had two doorways, one of which led to a walk-in closet and the other led to an ensuite of sorts. All of these things were irrelevant as Max sat at the edge of the bed, his head turned towards Eric in a quizzical manner.


Eric walked across to the bed and sat in a similar manner on the bed next to Max. "I think Crony calmed her down."

"Crony...?" A quiet huff as Max realised what had happened. "Blondie said she'd be here as soon as she could. I guess her shift didn't get extended like she thought it would." A hand came down on Eric's right shoulder, an unexpected gesture as Eric turned toward Max.

"Thank you for bein' here last night. I guess Blondie was right, they did come back after all. I guess everythin' worked out okay in the end; I'll just have to let Leigh adjust to the situation."

"On that note," Amy interrupted whilst appearing in front of both men on Eric's knee. "Are you able to tell us what happened? 31 years? What's that about...?"

Max let out an extended sign. "I guess you could say it's all my fault. It's a long story." When neither person objected, Max began. "Michelle and I attended a navi-design class, seeing as how she was just startin' to get serious with her horticulture business now that Candice was goin' to prep school, and I was startin' to get promoted through the ranks at the precinct. Michelle made a team-style navi that was themed around acacias, her favourite kind of tree, and I created a navi that was supposed to be a guts-style navi to help us in our investigation work, seeing as how we'd often get drawn into bustin' situations. By the end of the course, Pearl and Crony were born."

"Crony quickly adapted to the police work and became an extension of my skills. Without him I doubt I would have made it to captain. Pearl, on the other hand, quickly bonded with Candice, treatin' her as her own daughter. It wasn't long before Pearl would prefer to spend time with Candice over Michelle, much to her disgust. I think that Michelle knew if Pearl was takin' care of Candice that she didn't need to worry so much and could continue to focus on the nursery, but I also think it hurt Michelle a little that her navi chose her child over herself." A grin appeared as he recounted the details.

"Why did you call her Leigh then...?"

"Candice had a lisp. When we first introduced them to each other, Candice must have recognised Pearl's inspiration after seeing all the acacia farms we'd visited on holidays. She pointed at Pearl and cried out 'LEEE! LEEE!'. Pearl didn't find it amusing but we did, and so we just decided to call her Leigh going forward."

"I get it. That's why she called you dad then, because Candice did."

"Exactly." The smile faded away as he continued. "One night I was called to do a stakeout on a suspected member of 'The Family'." Eric had heard of 'The Family', but didn't interrupt for a deeper explanation. "Because of that, Michelle had to take Candice to a friend's house. That night a fierce snowstorm passed through the region. I called Michelle to stay where she was, that it wasn't safe to drive home, but she didn't listen. That brazen attitude that Leigh has, it's a perfect reflection of Michelle."

"Michelle's a good driver, but it wasn't her fault. The truck driver was caught by a gale that crested over the hill and pushed the truck into her car. The two fused together as they were both pushed off the road and into the side of the mountain. The truck driver and Michelle survived with minor injuries, but Candice..."

"Candice was crushed by the truck. She didn't survive."

Stacey walked into the bedroom with both PETs in hand, Crony's figure standing above one and Leigh's figure standing over the other.

"What... what happened after that...?"
"Michelle was a mess. So was I at first, but Michelle took it much harder. She held herself responsible. 'What if I hadn't been goin' the speed limit? What if I'd taken the longer route around the mountain? Should I have just waited out the storm like you told me to?' She'd ask these questions while I tried to comfort her, but nothin' seemed to work. A week after Candice's funeral she closed down the nursery. She told me every time she was waterin' a succulent or rootin' a new plant, a memory of Candice would appear. Candice spent a lot of time in the nursery as a baby, and as soon as she could walk her hands would always be covered in dirt."

"As soon as she could open the back door on her own she'd always be trying to escape to the nursery out the back. I told her again and again 'mum won't be happy with you' but she always said 'I'm helping!' Mum said I should always help!"

"I remember that."

Stacey sat down behind Max and passed Leigh's PET to him. The navi still appeared to be in shock but at least she'd stopped crying.

"Lookin' back now, I never realised that you weren't there. I wasn't payin' enough attention to you or to Michelle. I ended up burying myself in work to try and forget the pain, but Michelle just wanted to run away and start over. The house was a reminder of the future she lost, the family we'd planned to have together. We started arguin' every night or so about leavin' the house we'd built, leavin' the town, leavin' Electopia. I told her I understood she felt upset, but movin' wasn't goin' to change anythin'."

"A month later, two days after the nursery sale went through I came home expectin' to find Michelle ready to start some new venture with the money she made. I was goin' to let her do anythin' if it meant she would stop thinkin' about Candice. Instead I came home to an empty house and a single letter on the dinin' table." His eyes wandered the room as he recalled the words burned to memory. "'Dearest Max. Please forgive me for what I've done. I'll try to come back one day once the pain is gone. Until then, please continue to be the rock I know you are. Love always, Mich.'"

"We never saw her again after that," Crony admitted. "Max tried to find her once we reached the rank of captain and had access to those kinds of records, but Michelle must have gone somewhere very remote. No mention of her in the internet, none of their shared bank accounts had funds missing. Not that she would need it with all the money we expect she made from the nursery sale. We filed a missing persons report, but the case is still open. She's gone, and she doesn't want to be found."

"I thought Michelle had taken you with her. After all, you are her navi." Max again looked down to Leigh. "I suppose Crony will fill you in on the current situation I'm facing later, but long story short, I need a new navi."

"Why aren't you using Crony?"

"Crony will explain that too. Crony is Blondie's navi now."

"Ma'am's name is Stacey Bauersox," Crony quickly added. "Blondie is a name that Huxley has given to her."

"Yes, we don't need another person calling me that, thankyouverymuch," Stacey agreed in a curt manner.

"'Huxley'. That's what you call dad?"

"It might seem rude to say so right now, but you don't need to call him 'dad' any more."

"When did YOU start caring about what other people think about you?" Amy's cheeks had already started turning a rosy red as five sets of eyes looked toward her, but she wasn't backing down now, especially when she had an audience to voice her criticism. "Ever since we met, you've been nothing but rude, demanding and forceful to me. Don't pretend otherwise."

"There was a reason for that too."

"Oh, I got it; need to make sure that the navi given to your brother is tough, because they'll need to be tough for him too, right?" Amy wasn't trying to become emotional, but it was unavoidable as her face began to glare at the pair that had caused her the most pain since entering Eric's life. "Well guess what; I think I've earned my place in your little family now, so drop the antagonism and treat us as equals. We're not going anywhere," she argued whilst gesturing to Lily, "so it's about time you started talking WITH us, not DOWN to us."

Eric expected Stacey to explode in anger; she hadn't handled Amy's brash attitude well in the past. To his surprise his sister broke her gaze with the cyan dress, instead looking down to her own navi in retreat.

"We can continue this conversation later... okay...?"

Max took the opportunity to continue with his story as he attempted to regain control of the room. "I was lookin' for a wipe to clean the PET chip reader. I haven't used a PET in quite some time, and I had the bright idea of checkin' Candice's room. I don't know what I was thinkin'; yes there were wipes, but they'd dried out after 30 years of sittin' there doing nothin'."

"You... didn't clean up her room...?"

"That room has remained the same as it was the day she died. It will stay that way until I leave this place, however that happens."


"...And when I realised the wipes were cactus I figured I should check the cupboard in case anythin' else had expired. I moved aside the wipes, a chip folder case and... there you were. At first I thought maybe it was a spare, since Candice had broken PETs before, but then I realised that spare PETs would never have been stored where they could have been broken by Candice's adventurous hands. The only person who would have done that..."

"...was mum. I mean... Michelle. Which means... she never intended to boot me up again after the accident..." A sniff could be heard as her eyes began to water again. "Did... did I do something wrong...?"

"Michelle was never the same after the accident; I couldn't explain her logic then, I can't explain it now." Max sighed before continuing. "Your battery was cactus, and technology has changed a lot over those 31 years. I needed some pretty old parts to get the transfer to work, and that's where these three came in handy," he explained, pointing a hand at both Eric and Amy. "I sent them to Electown to get some parts and codes to upgrade your core and the transfer relay, and... it worked. You should thank them for helping you come back to life."

Leigh turned towards the trio. "And you are...?"

"I'm Amity, and..." The navi paused for a moment before starting again. "I'm Amy, this is Lily," she confirmed whilst gesturing to her busting partner before then pointing to her operator, "and this is Eric. Eric is Stacey's younger brother."

"YOUNGER brother...?"

"Hey. That hurts, you know."

"I just assumed-"

"-because he's taller he's the older one?"

Leigh turned back towards Max. "She's a fighter. I like her."

Max again sighed. "You course you do. If you were human you'd probably be best friends. I can see it now, you both stickin' your noses where they don't belong. Actually, that's not a bad idea; Blondie, you give me back Crony and you can take Leigh."

It was clear from his expression that it was a joke, but Stacey quickly pulled her PET out from Max's reach. Her panicked look brought a laugh out of Max, which in turn spread to the remainder of those in the room as the mood lightened considerably.

When the laughter died off Leigh made her request. "Can... can I see it...?"

Max turned away and looked to Stacey.

"It's about time we got going anyway. I'll drop Eric off back home, but I'll be back tonight."

"That won't be necessary. I don't think they'll be coming back, not after last night."

"What?" Her eyes moved between Eric and Max, demanding an explanation.

"Your brother can explain on the way home. Either way, I think I'm safe for now." With Leigh's PET in his hand, Max slid off the bed end and groaned as his legs took his weight again. "I tell you, getting old isn't fun."

"I'll bet. What are you, 60-something now?"

"Hey, show some respect to your elders, young lady," Max demanded as they both proceeded to leave the room.

Stacey laughed at the jest and then turned to Eric. "Grab your bags, I'll meet you in the car."

{>>> To ACDC Town: 3746 Boykin Road, Lower ACDC >>>}