Project Interrupted

As usual, ACDC park was serving as a hangout spot for just about everyone. On one bench, a couple of friends and avid netbattlers were engaged in a fierce busting competition. On another, a young boy was trying to explain some newfangled concept to his grandfather, all while shooting distracted glances toward a couple more kids playing near the squirrel stature. In a far corner of the park, a middle-aged woman was attempting to read and operate a navi simultaneously, with mixed results. And in another, not quite as far corner, two college students had met up to work on a presentation.

"I'll go ahead and start on a reference slide while I'm waiting on Ganglion to get back. With how many we've got it's best to go ahead and keep them organized," Ross Marshall said, bringing up a rough reference list next to the presentation file on his laptop. He added three new slides to the presentation and started copying over references, while his partner watched over his shoulder.

"You know we only needed ten references, right? Even the professor's going to think this is overkill," he said. "Saying nothing for how this is going to make me look."

"It never hurts to be thorough, Chris," Ross answered. "Besides, have you ever heard of anyone getting in trouble for too much source material? As long as we're not plagiarizing, of course."

"We're going to go well over the time limit at this rate," Chris said. "That might get us in trouble."

Ross simply shrugged. He entered a few more references, then glanced over at his PET to see how his navi was doing. Just a few minor customizations away from being a NormalNavi, Ganglion had nonetheless been an invaluable partner throughout his college career. Certainly much more reliable than any group project partners he had ended up with. But that would soon no longer be an issue. Once the semester was over he'd be starting med school, and anyone else there he ended up working with would be just as motivated as him, if not more so.

Now however, the navi looked like something outside of the PET's viewscreen was distracting him. "Something the matter?" he asked, holding up the PET to get a better look.

"There's a firefight just over the hill here. Right where I need to go," Ganglion said. "I was waiting for it to settle down." The PET's viewscreen panned over toward the source of the commotion, showing a rather active exchange of gun and bomb chips just barely visible over a large hill. Meanwhile atop it, a single navi was watching through a telescope, occasionally sending beams of light through the telescope onto the battlefield. Ross momentarily wondered if the sniper was interfering with the battle or simply had the good fortune to get to a good lookout point before the fight began, then put it aside.

"They're probably just some kids virus busting. Keep out of their line of fire and you should still be able to go around them," he said. Ganglion nodded, then began making his way toward the sound and sight of gunfire.

"Hey, Ross," Chris said. "You got into med school, right?"

Ross nodded. "Already been accepted and everything. Just gotta finish this semester and graduate."

"Couldn't you just take it easy at this point and still be top of the class almost? You're still pushing yourself like your future depends on it, but at this point you're already set. Nobody's going to care anymore."

"If you're a professor and you see a student with a perfect GPA right up until their last semester, what do you think," Ross asked, setting back to working on the reference list.

"I think they know they've got it made and are taking it easy," Chris said, carrying a tone that clearly suggested 'nothing wrong with that'.

"Exactly. It gives the impression of someone who puts forth their best effort to reach a goal, but once they've reached it thinks they no longer have to do anything. That is hardly a good impression to give."

"Okay, okay. Sheesh," Chris said, sighing. "You are no fun, you know that?"

"I do know that. You remind me almost every day," Ross said, cracking a smile.

"Got me there."

At that moment, the dull explosions that had been filtering through the PET's speakers suddenly got much louder. Ross's attention snapped to the PET to see that the distant battlefield from before was now not distant at all, and his Navi was running from what looked like a spreading wall of flames.

"Ganglion I told you to go around the fight, not run straight through it."

"You did tell him to go ahead and push forward rather than waiting for it to end," Chris offered.

"Shut up," Ross snapped.

"I tried to," his navi replied frantically. "It found me anyway. These guys are-ah DAMMIT!" An explosion threw the navi to the ground, while a navi with silver cybernetic armor and visored helmet was launched out of the flames to land nearby. As Ross watched, a female navi in similar armor with some form of fuel cell on her back rushed to the fallen navi's side. Ganglion, meanwhile, struggled to his feet and turned back toward the source of the explosion. As Ross watched, something very large and definitely not humanoid loomed out of the fire and smoke, slowly advancing toward the two cyborg navis. "What the hell is that thing?"

"I don't want to fight out. Get out of there. I'll worry about that data package later," Ross said.

"What about these two?" Ganglion gestured at the fallen navis.

"You're not equipped to deal with them, Ganglion. Get the hell out of there."

Before his navi could respond, Ross watched another explosion rock the netscape. The last thing he saw was the two cyborg navis being jacked out before smoke filled his PET screen. Then, static. The sounds of the battle, his navi, and everything else on the net faded away into unchanging noise. "Damn it!" Ross said, punching the bench and just barely missing his laptop. He reached for his PET and hit the jack-out button, then sighed with relief as it responded and the navi on the other end was recalled to his PET.

Leaning back on the bench, Ross took several deep breaths, trying to calm himself down. Ganglion was okay, he told himself. Whatever had happened on the net, he had managed to get his navi out before anything irreversible had happened. Whatever that rampaging monster of a virus -- he just had to assume it was a virus because who would design a navi that big -- was, it couldn't get to Ganglion now. He just had to put in a mission request for it to be dealt with and everything would work itself out. Then he could go back in, get the data he was looking for, and finish their project. No problem.

Then, an unfamiliar voice came from the PET, and Ross looked down to see no sign of Ganglion, but a female navi in a silver dress staring back up at him.

"Hey...can I use your e-mail?"
"Okay, I'm sorry, what? How did you get in my PET and where's my navi?"

"What's a PET?" the female navi asked innocently.

Ross stared for a moment in silence. "'re a navi, and you don't know what a PET is?"


"That's..." an unoperated navi, then. Probably an orphan who had her memory files erased after being abandoned. There were enough navis like that on the net that shelters had been designed for them, and charity events had been organized over the past two years to help support them. With...battlechips, oddly enough. Well, whatever the people behind them were thinking, Ross could send this girl along to one of them once he had gotten his own navi back. Assuming that that was even possible at this point. He shuddered to think why the jack-out function had recalled this stray instead of his navi.

He took a deep breath. From the beginning, then. "Okay, do you know what I am, at least?"

"You're a human!" the navi answered excitedly. "I don't usually see humans. I've only seen two before. And...oh, there's two of you here, too!"

"Sup," Chris chimed in from next to Ross. "How'd you end up in there anyway?"

"Chris, let me handle this," Ross said. He turned his attention back to the orphan navi. "You're right. We're humans. Most humans have a navi partner they interact and work with through a Personal Terminal. Or PET. That's what you're in now. Only my navi's supposed to be in there too. Or instead. Is he there?"

The female navi did a quick look around. "I don't see anyone. Just a bunch of cluttered files. How do you find anything in this?"

Ross sighed. "They're actually very well organized. But that's not the point-"

"No really," the navi disappeared out of the PET window, then returned with several shards of data in hand. "Everything's buried in this stuff, how do you tell what you need from all of this?"

"Ross, you should probably defrag that thing-" Chris added.

"Later," Ross said. "Right now Ganglion is more important. You, whoever you are, before you showed up in my PET, did you happen to see any other navis around you?"

"Five of them," the female navi stated, smiling.

"Right, I knew that..." Ross sighed. Obvious answer, really. He had seen at least four himself between the time Ganglion had first mentioned a fight and when everything had went to hell. "My navi's an older model. N72, but with green eyes, a headjack, and grapple launchers on his arms. Name's Ganglion."

"N72? They still make those?"

"...not anymore. But they did when I got him." True, most people went for custom navis, and while the standard NormalNavi design was still relatively popular it had gotten enough upgrades that Ganglion's model was outdated. But damn if he was going to give up his old partner just for something newer and shinier. "Wait a minute, how do you know what I'm talking about but you don't know what a PET is?"

The navi shrugged. "I think I saw someone like that though...right around when Preon got hit...after that I was more worried for my own life though. That bear nearly deleted all of us!"

Bear? That gigantic...thing in the flames was a bear?! Ross stared blankly at the orphan navi in front of her for several more seconds before she spoke again. "What? They were caught off guard and I wasn't supposed to be there, but it was still huge! And scary! And it spat cannon rounds!"

That...didn't sound like any virus Ross had heard of. And while he had heard stories from his fellow students about strange mutant viruses, a bear shooting a cannon from its mouth didn't sound like any of them either. Just what had his navi walked in on? "What do you mean you weren't supposed to be there?" he asked. More importantly than what the monstrous bear that gave five navis so much trouble was, knowing why the orphan navi was on the scene might help determine why she was now in his PET, and why Ganglion wasn't.

"I just wanted to watch the fight! But then we had to cut the connection to the Star Field to keep it from getting in and I was stuck outside. I jumped on the first connection I could access, thinking it would take me back. But I ended up here instead..." The navi sighed. "I had no idea it was someone's private terminal thingy, I promise."

"Star field?" Ross asked.

"Oops." The navi put a hand to her mouth. "I'm not supposed to talk about that."

"Sounds like you stumbled into something big," Chris said. "Not sure how an orphan navi fits in, but you might not want to dig around too much. Bad shit happens when you poke around in places you don't belong."

"I know," Ross said. "I'm just trying to get Ganglion back here."

"Excuse me!" the navi suddenly snapped. "I have a mother. I am not an 'orphan'."


"Navis can have mothers?"

"Well..." The navi calmed down almost immediately. "I have someone who created me, based on her design. That's close enough, right?"

"I guess." Chris looked over at Ross, and shrugged. "S'not what I meant by that anyway. Just that you were unoperated. And...possibly abandoned."

"Well I'm not," the navi said. "I've never needed an operator for my work. So I've never had one."

"I'm gonna have words with Holly next time she pulls one of those charity events, then," Chris muttered.

"That...probably won't be necessary," Ross said. "'s your name?"

"Radiance," the navi answered. Her dress and necklace glimmered as she said her name, revealing an intricate pattern in the fabric that Ross hadn't been able to see before.

"Right. Radiance. I'll tell you what. Do you remember where you were before you were jacked out?"

Radiance put a finger to her chin and thought. "I couldn't say how to get there, but I know that hill was Stargazer's lookout."

Stargazer's lookout? "Okay. Hoping that...bear...has been defeated or moved on, if you can go back there and look for any sign of Ganglion, I'll let you use my e-mail and get in touch with whoever you need to. Just...don't get me in trouble with them." The last thing he could afford at this point was to be on the hit list of a secret navi organization on top of everything else that had just happened.

"I'll try not to," Radiance said. "Lumi's pretty understanding though, so that probably won't happen." She paused, then asked "What do I have to do?"

"Nothing until I jack you in. Then you'll just have to retrace Ganglion's steps and...hopefully not get attacked."

Radiance gulped. "I've...uhh...never fought before."

"Relax. If anything happens, just do as I tell you and you should be fine," Ross said, hitting the button to send Radiance into the net. "Don't worry, I have done this before."

Not that anything else had gone right so far today.

((To ACDC Net))