Repetition for Emphasis

{EAX001}

{{{ ACT 1 - New Beginnings, Old Acquaintances}}}

=== PROLOGUE ===

A blonde haired woman approached the mesh fence with a concerned look on her face. It could have been read as fear, or maybe even concern.

"Ax, you back there?" she said with a lowered voice.

A troubled cough, followed by a creaking sound, and a large figure hobbled over to the other side of the fence. Struggling to breathe, it let out a low groan. "Let me guess. Another failure?"

The woman nodded slowly.

The older man groaned again. "I don't have time to be lookin' for suitable babysitters you kn-"

"Look," interrupted the woman. "I'm sorry, but this helps me as much as it helps you, the team, the whole department. The less time I'm back at home, the more time I can spend on cases. Cases that actually help people."

A brief silence. The woman put down a bright red PET on the counter underneath the wire fence. "This one had an attitude problem, apparently" she remarked.

The man's gaze went from the woman to the PET. With a slight hesitation he took it off the counter and dropped it in the box below.

"I don't know what to do. I... I just..." With that she put her hands into her long hair and collapsed alongside the counter.

Another brief silence, only to be interrupted by thudding noises she assumed to be the older man walking away. A short time later the thudding returned, and a PET landed in her lap.

"This one's a burner. It was gunna be destroyed."

She looked at the PET. It was several versions better than anything she'd been given before from the Secondment and Repurpose Division.

"This looks like it's almost brand new..." She looked back at the man and stood up again.

The look on his face hadn't changed, still the gruff leer from before. "Civilian. Rich. SRD only wanted its upgrades. Without an' 'heir apparent' they didn't want its knowledge bein' released for 'privacy reasons'" he sarcastically muttered, raising his hands awkwardly and flipping his fingers to the words 'privacy reasons', "so they ordered a Class 7 purge and destruction."

The woman took another look. It was in fact rather fancy, with a premium look and feel. She quickly opened up the network navigator's details and gasped when she saw the navi inside.

"You're kidding! They would just... delete her?" she whispered.

The older man shrugged. "Them's the orders. Couldn't bring myself to do it yet, such a beaut."

"But what would happen if they found out she hadn't been deleted?" she asked.

"Won't happen. Rich, but no friends. Shut-in for most of her life, accordin’ to the report. Doubt anyone would even care."

Another glance at the navi. "But a Class 7 purge doesn't always wipe their memories completely. Only a restoration from base backup does that. What if she starts remembering things from her old life...?"

The old man turned around and headed back towards his chair. "You assume your boy will even keep it that long. For her sake, he'd better. You've got seven days to let me know, otherwise it's the giant recyclin’ can in the sky for her."

"Thank you very much Ax, I owe you one!" she gleamed as he pocketed the PET.

"Officer Bauersox, come in," came a voice over the commslink attached to her belt.

She unclipped the link from her holster and raised it to her mouth. "Officer Bauersox, go ahead..."
=== CHAPTER 1 - Meeting the Family ===

She is going to KILL ME.

A frantic mess of orange-red hair continued to duck and weave between the different items scattered across the kitchen bench. It was obvious he was looking for something, but in the process of hurriedly looking into every nook and cranny of the countertop he was knocking over appliances, containers of coffee and sugar, and just making a large mess in general.

I left it on the counter, I'm sure. Or wait, maybe it fell behind the frother! That's what must have happened..........no, not there either. Maybe I didn't put it on the counter properly. Maybe in a tired daze... I did come in last night and have a glass of milk; maybe I knocked it off the counter... He looked to the floor. The options were endless. Behind the fridge? Behind the cupboard? Under the table? Yes, of course! The table! He pulled out a chair to get a better view of the space under the table, hoping for some kind of miracle. But alas, no such luck; the only thing to be found were sesame seeds from the burger he'd eaten the day before, lying there after being wiped off his shirt.

Oh come ON! It has to be here! Maybe the fridge then... In his deep though however, he'd failed to realise that he'd placed the chair between himself and the entrance to the kitchen. Not too late to realise his mistake, but not early enough to avoid the consequences.

Trip.

Stumble.

CRASH.

It was at this moment that the sound of a key entering the outside door lock could be heard, followed by a faint open and a hard shutting of said door.

"Eric, what are you doing?" came a voice in a rather puzzled but not-amused tone.

Oh boy. Here we go... he thought to himself as he picked himself up off the floor and turned to the source of the voice, a smaller woman with blonde hair.

What followed was a mess of words at high speed with awkward hand gestures and turning back and forth to match: "Look, I can explain. I know it's around here somewhere, I just don't know where. I promise I didn't throw this one away, I just needed space, he was getting-"

"Eric." The woman tried to interrupt but to no effect.

"-on my final nerve and I couldn't have him in my room. I put him outside just so I could get to sleep; I know it's a little paranoid as he can't say or do anything in standby mode but just feeling his presence-"

"ERIC."

"-made me feel like I was nothing so I had to get him away. I know you don't like me treating these navis as disposable creatures but I just can't-"

Enough was enough. "ERIC!" she shouted, grasping his shoulders with both hands in an attempt to calm him down. "ENOUGH!" It worked; he stopped talking, but the look of terror on his face hadn't gone away.

"What are you babbling on about? I've had a long day and it's not over yet. I need to grab some supplies for the graveyard shift tonight because Pendler's mum had a heart attack and we're short-staffed, and it's been raining all day which makes patrols SO much more enjoyable. What has you so bent out of shape that you're bordering a nervous breakdown?!" She stepped back and crossed her arms, waiting for an answer.

Eric tried to keep his composure, but one look at her irate face was too much. He hung his head, and in a low voice muttered, "I lost it, Stacey."

"Lost WHAT?!" she demanded.

"The PET you gave me."

A brief pause. Unbeknownst to Eric, the frown on Stacey's face was being replaced by the smallest of smiles, as she began to realise what had happened. "Eric, you didn't lose it."

A sudden snap of his head as he looked up to meet Stacey's gaze. "What do you mean?"

She sighed a breath of relief. "I took it with me to work. Clearly things weren't working out between you and Cluster so I took him back."

A wave of joy passed over Eric. He hadn't misplaced it, it had been taken. Everything was right with the world. For a short moment in time, nothing around Eric mattered. Life could go back to normal. He could do as he pleased aga-

Wait.

Oh no.

In Stacey's hand was another PET.

And Eric already knew who it was for.

"Is... is that..." he stammered.

"Yes, it's to replace Cluster. This one is very special, you understand?" she spoke with a tone of authority. "This isn't like the others. I expect you to at least try to find some common ground this time."

But I don't want a navi, he groaned to himself. There was no getting around it, and he knew Stacey wasn't going to take no for an answer. "Thank you sis," he replied slowly while taking it out of her hand.

He stared at the purple and white console. It was... different... to the ones she had given him previously. The others were clearly hand-me-downs, or second-, even third-hand goods. This... this was different. It felt... new.

"Did you... buy this for me?" he asked, confused. There was no way she could have been given this from the precinct... could she?

"Of course not!" came the reply from the kitchen. She brushed past him as she picked up the chair and pushed it back into place. "Dinner is pizza, I left you a full meatlovers in the freezer." A quick squeeze of his shoulder and Stacey made her way to the door.

"Wait, who is this? What's his story? Er, um, er, how... how is he, um-"

"It's a she, for starters. And I don't know anything about her." She opened the door, only stopping to turn around and give him the usual do-as-I-say stare. "I mean it. Try." And without waiting for a response, she closed the door.
So.

Another project. What was this, number 23? 24?

Stacey had been trying desperately to find Eric a navi to work with him. She knew his aversion to all things navi, but yet she and her own navi Crony had not given up trying to pair him with a companion of his own.

She knew why. Why he didn't need one. Or want one. Why did she keep trying?

No matter. This wouldn't be any different. This will be another temporary inconvenience, that's all. It'll have a defect, a problem, or it'll just hate me and request to go back, like all the others.

But something was already different. 'She.' A female. A girl. He'd not been given a female navi before. That in itself was new; and curiousity was already tugging at his mind like a little kid. What to do, what to do...

He picked up the PET once again. It was obvious the unit was many cuts above what he'd been given already; that became very clear when he pressed a white button on the bottom-right edge; two new segments ejected out of slots from both sides, catching him by surprise and causing him to drop the PET in alarm. Before the PET had even hit the ground, the arms had already retracted automatically.

He quickly picked it up again. Nonononono no no no please don't be broken, please don't be broken... he worried as he inspected the unit. But not a dent, scratch or even a slight mark could be seen. Definitely top quality.

What if the internal components have been damaged though? If I give it back to Stacey and it's not working... or if she asks me about it and I can't turn it on, I'll have to explain...

The answer was obvious. A system diagnostic would clearly state if anything internally was damaged.

One problem though; that test had to be initiated, completed, and analysed by the system's pilot. In other words, the navi inside. The one Eric was trying to avoid waking.

Fear eventually got the better of him. With a shaky hand he pressed the POST button on the PET underside, causing the screen to light up and run commands to begin generating.

He quickly put the PET back down and lowered himself out of eyesight. If he didn't even like the sound of its voice, he could quickly turn it back off.

The seconds turned into minutes. Agonising silence. I broke it, I knew it. Why? Why me?!

"Umm, hello?"

Paralysis. The feeling of complete dread had Eric locked up in his awkward kneeling position.

"Hello? Is... is anybody there?" came the voice again. It had an edge of sincereness, but mostly hidden by a layer of uncertainly. Eric remained in place.

"I... did... did I do something wrong?" the voice asked. "I can... try again... if you give me a chance?"

Something in the voice gnawed away at Eric. It sounded just as insecure about its position as he did. Like it was lost. Suddenly fear was being replaced with guilt. Guilt over putting someone in a position he himself was not enjoying; a lack of control.

He finally gathered the courage and strength to get up. "Hi." he feebly squeaked.

"Oh. Hi." Now that he had a view of the PET screen, he saw the source of the voice for the first time.

His first thought? Go figure. A prissy little figure for a prissy little PET. Thanks sis.

"I was the one who activated you. Can... can you please run an... inter... internals analysis test?" he asked as he choked on a few of the words.

The figure in the PET seemed relieved to have made contact. "Yes... yes, I can do that. Hold on!" she replied as another screen appeared and flashed many diagnostics across the display. After a few minutes the display disappeared and the purple-haired girl returned. "All systems 100% ready for action! Just say the word!" she chirped gleefully.

That enthusiasm was unexpected; all the navis provided to him in the past had been either sombre, realistic, or just overloaded with experiences in life. Once again, curiousity got the better of him. "So... you're my new navi, huh?"

The smile on the girl grew even wider. "Am I? Does that mean I've been given another chance? I promise I'll try harder."

Eric was confused. "Wait, 'another chance'? I don't know what you mean."

"I was told I can't be given to a real operator until I stopped trying to decompile everything and actually deleted my targets. But I can't do that! It's SOOOOO cruel and unjustified! I mean, they're life too, right? They have as much a right to exist as I do!"

That was a lot of information to take in. Eric pulled out a chair and sat down. "What are you trying to say? Do... do you think I'm some kind of quality tester?" He'd read about netnavi testing grounds to ensure that the programs functioned properly in the real world, but couldn't believe what he was hearing. A navi that doesn't bust viruses? How can THAT be?

"...um, I'm... I'm sorry if that came out harsh, but it's true. I... I didn't fail already, did I?" she asked with a hint of worry in her voice.

"Um... no. Absolutely not. No. I'm not testing you. You were given to me by my sister. She works for the NetPolice ACDC division. You... you're supposed to be my new navi."

"Your NEW navi? You mean you've had one before?"

"Yes. Well, no. I mean..." Eric sighed, before turning his head away. "It's... complicated. My sister has put a number of navis in front of me. But either they gave me up or I gave them up."

This time it was the navi's turn to be surprised. "You... gave them up? Why? Did they offend you? Or... do you not like our kind?"

Such a bold statement was too much for Eric. "I... I don't want to talk about it." He got up and went to leave the room, but was stopped.

"Wait, where are you going? You're not going to leave me here alone... are you?"

I can't deal with this. He reached for the PET and flipped it upside down.

"WAIT! I DIDN'T MEAN ANY OFFENSE! I WAS JUS-" The rest of her speech was cut short by the shutdown command.
How dare she question me about my past. I don't know her. She doesn't know me. What right does she have to make comments like that?

Several hours had passed. Eric had retired to his bedroom and was trying to sleep, but a rare spell of irritation had come across him, and he didn't know how to deal with it.

When Stacey gets back home it's going back. Not even five minutes and it's already making assumptions about my past, my present, probably even my future.

A second voice perked up in his head. You don't know her. She doesn't know you. That street goes both ways, you know. She even said 'no offense'.

That's shaky reasoning. Saying something rude and then saying 'no offense' doesn't make it okay.

Who are you to judge? You're the first one to say nobody understands you. What chance did you even give her? You at least normally give them an hour or two before you make up your mind, and you didn't even give her five minutes!

This arguing with himself went back and forth for hours, ridding him of any sleep. It was only in the very late hours of the night that he heard the front door open and shut, indicating his sister's return.

Satisfied he wasn't going to get any sleep any time soon, he threw off the bedsheet and got out of bed. She'd be heading to the kitchen, he'd intercept her there.

"I'm sorry, did I wake you up?" she asked upon sensing his presence in the dark.

He shook his head. "No, I couldn't sleep."

Stacey grabbed the milk frother with one hand and poured some milk from the container in the other. "So, how did it go?"

Instantly he realised his mistake, but it was too late. "It went okay," he lied. "She... um... she thought I was a quality tester."

"Really? That's odd," she commented, twisting a knob on the front before turning back to Eric. "So did you test her out?"

The moment of dread. You already lied once, do NOT do it again. But what can I say? She wouldn't have asked if she didn't already know somewhat how it would turn out. Or maybe SHE lied! Maybe she DID know the navi's background, and she's testing me to see-

"Umm, hello, Eric?" A hand was waved in front of his face, as he realised he'd taken way too long to answer. "Did you test her out?" she repeated.

A half-truth was definitely in order. "Umm, no. I... may have been taken by surprise by one of the features of the PET model, and dropped it. But don't worry, nothing's broken!" he quickly added. When he didn't get reprimanded, he continued. "The navi inside booted up, did a quick check of the systems, everything was okay, we talked for a little while and then I went to bed."

Stacey stared at her brother. "I want to believe you. I do. But it sounds like either you're lying, or leaving something out."

Intimidation. Eric's weakness. He couldn't deal with confrontation, and Stacey knew it.

"We both agreed to talk again tomorrow morning," he finally blurted out.

Stacey continued to stare, and Eric held his gaze, afraid of the consequences of breaking his fragile cover story.

Finally Stacey blinked. "You know, even if there is more to that story, I'm tired, hungry, and ready for bed. It can wait until tomorrow."

He looked down at the counter. "If you're tired, why are you making a coffee...?"

"It's on a timer. It will be ready for me in the morning, doofus," came back the stirring remark, followed by a quick jab of his side that caught him off-guard. "Now go back to bed".

----------

From the comfort of his bed, he grabbed the PET from his bedside table and once again pressed the POST button.

A minute later, the previous glow of purple and blue lit the screen. The navi inside was initially smiling but quickly stopped when she saw the face staring back.

An awkward silence stretched for what seemed like an eternity to both parties. Finally, someone spoke. "I'm sorry."

"Me too."

"You know, I never got your name before."

"Umm... I... I don't... don't know it?"

"What?" How can that be?

"I have a name. I know I do. But... I think... and the name that comes back... it... it doesn't seem right."

A navi that can't remember its own name. You must be joking. That is some supreme programming error right there. Upon tapping a few buttons, the navi diagnostics screen appeared, giving Eric an answer.

"Says here your name is Amity."

"I know that's what it says, but I don't feel that it's right. You understand, right? You ever had someone tell you something you know deep down is wrong, but you just can't prove it?"

That I need to have a navi to live? Yeah, sure. "I... I guess."

"What's your name?" Amity asked.

"My name's Eric."

"Eric. Seems like a decent human name. Nice to meet you Eric."

"A decent human name?" Without even a second's hesitation, he laughed out loud. "'A decent human name?' What's THAT supposed to mean?" he said with an unexpected smile on his face.

"I don't know! It's all I could think of!" she said defensively.

"So you just blurted out the only thing that came to your mind? That's a recipe for disaster," he quipped.

"Well, I did tell you, I failed my exam. I hope you can put up with my... odd ways."

Someone as weird as he was. Suddenly things were looking up. "I'll make you a deal. You put up with my oddities, I'll put up with yours. Agreed?"

"Agreed!" At that the right arm of the PET quickly ejected.

"Umm, what? I didn't do that..." he mumbled as he tried to reinsert it.

"It's the closest thing I have to a physical hand! Shake it!" she giggled as pointed to it from the screen.

"Why do I get the feeling I'll regret this later..." he groaned as he shook Amity's 'hand'.

"Nonsense! You and me, we have to be a team!" she replied. "Come on, let me show you!"

Too much enthusiasm, and not enough sleep. It was at this point that Eric was finally overcome with almost a day's worth of activity. "Umm, I need to sleep. Tomorrow maybe?"

"You mean today?" she quipped.

Great, she has an odd sense of humour too. "Yes, today then," he sighed. A pause. He knew what he wanted to say, but it seemed... weird. She wasn't a real person.

"Something wrong?"

"No no, everything's... fine."

He picked up the PET and placed it back on the bedside table.

"Goodnight Eric."

There. Those were the words he was looking for. Just. Say. It.

"Goodnight... Amity."
An unusual sound broke Eric from his sleep. A rather unusual chime that kept repeating itself in the highest key.

I didn't set any alarm...

"Good morning!"

Oh. Right.

Eric rotated in place to expose his right arm from beneath the blanket and reached across to the bedside table. From there he withdrew the purple PET and stared at the screen.

"Please don't set any alarms for me; I wake up when my body tells me to wake up," he stated in a flat but non-agressive manner.

"But we have things to do! Your sister said so!" came back the reply.

"My sister? How do you know my sister?" She said she didn't know Amity, and unless she came into his room overnight, there's no way an introduction could have happened without his knowledge.

"Apparently her navi Crony wants me to get you up and ready for testing in one hour!" she replied with a great deal of enthusiasm in her voice.

Great, 'testing'. Putting the PET back down, he rolled out of bed and left the room.

Amity wasn't sure what to make of this, until he returned half an hour later with a towel wrapped around his waist. "Okay, so I need to get dressed. Do I need to put you in another room so I don't have to feel weird about this?"

Amity was mortified. "How about NO?! What are you, five years old?! All navis know when to go into standby, my goodness..." and with that, the screen went blank.

Eric sighed, picked up the PET and turned it face-down into the mattress. Better safe than sorry.

----------

Eric entered the living room to find Stacey already waiting.

"So it's time. Did you talk to your 'friend' yet?"

"Her name is Amity," Eric responded, happy that she couldn't call him out about his previous fib any more. "And I guess we'll give being partners a chance."

"Good," came a voice from Stacey's PET. "If you plan on working together then we need to put that bond to the test."

"Thank you Crony, couldn't have said it better," Stacey replied before connecting her PET to the black box on the wall that bordered the dining room. With a beam of red light, her navi disappeared from the PET screen.

"Amity's turn," she said, pointing to the black box.

This was the part he always hated. Virus busting. The activity that seals the bond between operator and navi.

But how was that going to happen?

'I was told I can't be given to a real operator until I stopped trying to decompile everything and actually deleted my targets. But I can't do that!' Her words. Stacey and Crony won't tolerate that.

Directing the emitter to the black box, Eric launched the 'Send' command.

[>>> To ACDC Net: The Bond >>>]
{EAX003}

[<<< From ACDC Net: The Bond <<<]

Eric was exhausted. The only thing he did on a regular basis that required this much effort and attention was his job. It had been some time since he'd been forced to focus on netbattling so intensely and it had taken a toll on his emotions. Additionally, his face was still partially numb from the misunderstanding earlier. He looked to Stacey who was in the process of receiving Crony back into his PET and saw his window of opportunity. "The testing is done. Can I go?" he asked in the best neutral tone he could muster up.

Stacey didn't even turn around to acknowledge his request. "Fine. I have to go to work soon anyway, so go do whatever you do while I'm gone," in the same exasperated voice she'd used just moments ago to deal with his frustrated partner. "But don't think your training is done. 'Repetition for emphasis', remember?"

Dad's words; he'd recognise them anywhere. Eric didn't give her an opportunity to change her mind. With PET in hand, he leapt from the couch and moved straight to the bedroom, closing the door behind him. Breathing the first sigh of relief in hours, he walked over to his bed, placed the PET on the nightstand, and collapsed onto his bed face-first in a starfish formation. Today was done. He'd have to punch some hours for work later that day as he was falling behind this week, but that could wait. The test was over. They'd passed. Nothing could take this feeling of comfort away from him.

"Excuse me, we're not finished yet!" Amy's voice thundered from the stand. If a navi was capable of shooting steam out of its ears, this one certainly looked like it was about to do so.

Eric was wrong; the feeling of peace disappeared almost as quickly as it had arrived. Of course "we're not finished". Stretching his right arm out across the gap between bed and table, Eric picked up the PET, bringing it to his face which had rotated 90 degrees to face the PET, the only other part of his body that had moved since hitting the sheets. "What do you mean?" he replied, again being careful not to cause a fight.

"We had a deal!" Amy half retorted, half yelled. "I thought we were supposed to be partners! Why didn't you back me up?!"

Eric was confused. Had he done something wrong? Although he'd been silent during the altercation between Stacey, Crony and Amity, he didn't do anything that would be considered betrayal, did he? He'd been there at every turn, had he not? Maybe he was supposed to have guided her more throughout the battles? Or maybe she was still hung up about not being withdrawn from the network when she had requested so? Eric had never been part of such a successful run, so he wasn't sure why she was directing any anger his way. "I thought we did really well," was all he could come out with.

Judging from the ever-escalating look of rage on Amy's face, clearly that was not the correct response. "Oh, no, I get it! You humans have to stick together, right?! Make up some fake story about 'not testing me out', and then you put me through that nightmare with that straight-and-narrow witch and her by-the-book, stuck-up, arrogant lump of a navi?! You're just as bad as they are! You had me worried about nothing, and just when I thought that maybe it wasn't a test, you stick me in multiple life or death situations! I could have been deleted! And all you have to say is 'I thought we did really well'?!"

That was a lot of hostile and negative words for Eric to take in at once. First Stacey, and now her, but at least he knew that Stacey meant well. This navi, this outsider, had no clue what she was talking about. What he'd been through. A single tear slipped out his right eye before he could stop it, which Amy noticed straight away. It softened her anger, but only marginally.

Eric tried to muster up strength to say what he felt needed to be said. "I... I didn't think about... about the bonding test. And that's my fault, I'm sorry," he mumbled feebly. "But it... it wasn't a test for you... it was a test for me," he tried to assure her.

What Eric spoke was the truth, but Amy wasn't buying it. "If it was a test for you, then why did *I* do all the work?!" she growled sarcastically. Amy didn't wait for an answer. "You know what?! I don't even care! Keep your lies to yourself, we're done!" And with those words, the screen went blank. Eric was alone again.

Alone. That word pierced straight through his heart and mind. No matter how hard he tried to put the past behind him, it kept finding ways to open old wounds or create new ones. So much hate coursed through his body at that moment. Hatred for Amity, for making him feel like garbage even though he'd tried his best. Hatred for Stacey and Crony, for putting him in this situation in the first place. They must have known it was only going to end badly. Hatred for Matt for encouraging him to keep trying again and again, even though Matt knew that he didn't want any part of this. And hatred for his parents for not being there when he needed them most.

That last thought struck through all his anger and left him empty and confused. It wasn't his parent's fault they weren't there. It was his. In fact, had they NOT tried to be there when he needed it most, he might have still been able to feel their warm embrace. But thoughts of anger, hatred and revenge, similar to the thoughts he'd had moments ago, are what led to their departure those many years ago. They were gone. Nothing could change that now.

Once again, he was alone.

Eric knew what was coming next but was powerless to stop the chain of events he'd put into action; a victim to his own fractured imagination. He gripped his pillow in front of his chest and surrendered mentally to the place in his mind where words, thoughts and emotions could not hurt him. A peaceful place where anything and everything was possible, where his mind tricked him into believing his tears of sorrow were tears of joy. Because of this, he was oblivious to the PET lighting up again, with a navi that had pondered over the words he'd spoken in defense of his actions and wanted clarification. In light of everything he'd done thus far, Amy realised she may have made a critical assumption that was wrong, but needed to be sure. Unfortunately, due to Eric's catatonic state, nothing she said could reach through to him to get answers; all of her words echoed around the barren room. She could only watch the blubbering mess that was this young man before her, which only amplified her own guilt for the words spoken moments ago.

In her eyes, Eric looked to be weak at first. Sure, he was tall, but that height didn't come with any confidence or assertiveness. In fact, the word that kept coming back to her mind was spineless. But as she watched him remain in place, continuing to empty himself into a lonely room filled only with his bed, a nightstand, a clothes cupboard, a clothes drawer, a computer desk, a PC, and a single photo of four people enjoying a happy moment, she too was filled with a sense of loneliness. His room, almost devoid of character, matched his empty persona. It wasn't fake, and it wasn't an act. What had made him so empty, so silent, so... blank?

These were questions she would meditate on as she too retreated into her PET, and began to formulate what she would do when she had a chance to explain her actions and demand an answer for the way she had been treated. It was all she had to distract herself from pondering over the viruses she had terminated earlier, something that was would continue to nag at her for days. Thinking about the two deleted Metools reminded Amy of her new friend, the Metool now roaming the internet without any backup, and a prime candidate for deletion itself. At the very least she'd saved him, for now at least. And truthfully, all three of them may have been casualties in their game of 'kick-the-bomb' had she not intervened. That, at least, made her feel a little better about the situation.

She also remembered the nameless little girl that had clung to her and wouldn't let go. As she patted her back, to her surprise the little girl didn't move. At first Amity was a tiny bit alarmed, but the slightest snoring sound brought a smile to her face. It was a feat in itself to fall asleep in such an unusual position, but after going through such an ordeal... she must be utterly exhausted. Amity was no better; the dress had healed most of the gashes and scars from the last fight, but she'd need a whole lot more recovery to feel 100% again.

As she finalised her descent into standby recovery mode, her final thoughts turned to the mysterious yet familiar voice, the one who had reminded her of her true name, Amy...

Eric was also oblivious to the sister that had been outside his door moments after he had entered his room, needing to know the aftermath of today's battles. She too had tears rolling down her cheeks, with her back to the door as she leant against it in a seated position. Stacey didn't like to put her brother through this emotional rollercoaster, but she too had ulterior motives that needed to be addressed, objectives that would keep her doing this for the good of their fractured family. She looked down at her own PET and into Crony's eyes. "Did I push too hard this time?" she sobbed.

Crony had no visible change in stature. "No ma'am. You know as well as I do that we need someone who will compliment his erratic nature with a level of seriousness. I still don't believe this is the one that will do that, but the fact remains that they did pass the ultimate test, even if the methods used were contrary to common busting techniques. I am somewhat concerned however that those methods could cause issues at a later date."

Stacey wiped away some tears from her eyes. "You could've been nicer too," she commented. "It was her first time meeting the family, so to speak."

"Negative," he replied abruptly. "If she's going to be a part of this family and I'm expected to look out for her, she needs to meet my standards of conduct, not the other way around. I didn't treat you any differently when we met, did I?"

Stacey chuckled, a welcome relief from crying. "Yeah, but I thought you didn't like me."

"I didn't," Crony responded. "Not at first, anyway. You are a wonderful person with a pure heart, but that purity also makes you reckless at times and lets your anger get the better of you," he scolded, leaving a moment of silence for Stacey to reflect on her physical assault of Eric earlier. "But your determination and passion somehow won me over," Crony continued. "That, and Huxley wouldn't stop yammering on about how amazing you were, and I respect his character assessments."

Stacey chuckled again, with a smile now becoming visible. "Oh I hope we did the right thing. Ax seemed pretty upset at the idea of having to delete her if it didn't work out," she said while wiping away her remaining tears.

"About that..." Crony lowered the tone of his voice as he pondered over the day's events. "Did you notice what happened as she left the network?" When Stacey shook her head, he continued. "I think we have a significant problem on our hands."

Stacey was confused. "How so?" she asked with a raised eyebrow. "Wait, was this what you didn't want to talk about earlier?"

Crony explained. "After the third skirmish she did something that seemed vaguely familiar. I thought it was a mistake on her part, possibly stress damage from the battle. Something was bugging me about her... I knew I recognised her from somewhere, but I wasn't sure where at first. Then I realised." With that, Crony displayed a photo of two people standing side by side. Stacey looked confused, but after a few seconds her eyes widened as Crony continued. "She called herself 'Amy' just before returning to her PET. The childish teenage demeanour. The unexplained acrobatic tendencies. Even the little chant she used. You can erase a navi's memories, but you can't erase their soul."

"Wait. That can't be right. If that's who she previously belonged to..." Stacey trailled off, then shook her head. "No. Ax said that she had no heirs, no next of kin. And even if she didn't, there's no way that THAT navi would've ended up in SRD if that was true; she's too valuable, from a PR point of view alone."

Crony nodded. "He wasn't lying; technically her former operator doesn't have any next of kin. But look at this." With that he pulled up a report from the NetPolice orders manifest. "We don't know the full story, that's true, but I don't think it was an accident that she ended up in SRD."

Stacey propped herself back up to read the report. The more she read, the more she began to grit her teeth, her smile gone. "We don't have much time then. How long do you think it'll take for that order to reach Roberta's team?"

"Officer Enfield is a creature of habit, and doesn't follow correct protocol. I would assume she's already downloaded her manifest movement detail for today, so she won't see that report until tomorrow. It would be best not to assume that though; in fact, it would be prudent to get that PET back to the station as soon as possible."

Stacey was weighing up the options in her head. No other navi had passed their test. Even if they had gotten into some fights in the process, she dearly did not want to have to part the two so soon, hoping that maybe they could all reconcile. "I... I can't."

"And what happens if tomorrow, they can't stand the presence of each other? You'd still have to take it back, and Huxley will be chastised for nothing," Crony stated.

"I know, I know, you don't have to remind me..." she groaned as she straighened herself up. "And I don't want to do anything that puts Ax at risk of losing his job either, he's been the world to us! You both have."

Stacey knew what she had to do. Once again, it didn't matter what she wanted; she had to do what was good for everybody, not just herself. Opening the door ever so quietly, Stacey tiptoed into the room. Eric had fallen asleep, as he did when the emotional void had finished taking a hold of him, and the PET screen was black. As quickly and quietly as possible, she snatched the PET off the bedside table and retreated back to the safety of the lounge room, quietly closing the door behind her.
=== CHAPTER 2 - First Impressions ===

With Amy's PET firmly hidden in her jacket pocket, Stacey arrived at the station and proceeded to check in for her rostered shift. She had half an hour before her patrol began, so the SRD depot would be her first stop after signing on for the day.

"Oh, you are not going to be happy with me, sister," a larger lady sitting behind the main counter muttered as Stacey approached.

"Oh, please don't be the bearer of bad news, Greta..." Stacey whined.

"Hey, don't shoot the messenger, alright? But Grearson called in sick, and you're the only other officer not already working tonight, so there's a good chance you'll be asked to work a triple." The black haired woman that Stacey had called 'Greta' passed some assorted paperwork over the counter for Stacey to take with her. "Besides, from what you were saying last week, you could use the extra money."

"I definitely could, but it couldn't have come at a worse time..." she replied.

Greta gave her a one-eyebrow-raised look. "That brother of yours causing trouble again? You know, I can send Neil around and sort his trashy backside out."

Stacey glared at Greta, which only caused her to laugh as she moved her open hands into the air defensively in front of her. "Girl, I was just kidding. Offer's always on the table though," she smirked with a wink.

Stacey turned to her left and headed down the corridor that led to SRD. "If I believed that would work, I would've let you do it years ago!" she called back with a sarcastic but happy tone.

----------

"Ax, you back there?" she whispered over the counter.

A troubled cough, followed by a creaking sound, and the same large figure from before hobbled over to the other side of the fence. "Let me guess. Another failure?" he grumbled in the same manner.

Stacey checked her surroundings for anybody within earshot. With nobody else around, she spoke in a lowered voice. "Not exactly, but we don't have a choice. You have to take it back."

"If you think I'm gunna buy whatever 'scuse you're 'bout to unlo-" he began, but was cut off by Stacey showing him the same police report that Crony had shown her the night before.

"Still think I'm bluffing?" she said with a level of irritation in her voice.

Ax took the PET from her hands and stared intensely at the screen. It was obvious he needed glasses, but somehow he still managed to read the details onscreen. "I see," was all he responded with.

"So, it doesn't matter what we want; you have to take her back," Stacey confirmed with a hint of disappointment, which Ax picked up on immediately.

"I take it the test wasn't a complete failure then, huh," Ax replied while passing her PET back.

Stacey took her PET out of his hand and put it back into its holster. Unintentionally gripping her right arm with her left hand, she anxiously looked down at the ground. "She passed the bonding busting test with flying colours, albeit with some unusual tactics."

"So she's yours then. I don't see the problem here," Ax commented.

"Ax, you know as well as I do that if you don't have that package delivered with ALL of its contents, they'll launch an investigation into your whole operation. If they work out the scope of what you've been doing, you may even get fired," she stressed, making sure he was fully aware of what he was about to commit to.

"Do you think this is my first time fudgin' reports?" he retorted, amused that Stacey assumed he hadn't thought this through. "You think I left a papertrail this whole time I was givin' you testin' candidates? Of course not! This one's no different." He stopped for a second, turned to his right and walked away. Moments later, he returned with a purple box that looked somewhat heavy and matched the hue of Amy's PET.

"Okay, so it's not 'sactly the same as before. This one came with parts," he said, motioning to said box. "I can blur the delivery manifest and act like we never received it, but you need to make this box disappear."

Stacey looked at the box, immediately recognising the logo on top. "So. Crony was right. This is definitely hot property." Her attention returned to Ax. "You can't just give this to me. You won't get away with it; you know that, right?" she pressed further.

Ax looked confused. "What do you mean?"

Stacey stared at him. "That's not just a random box they stuck her parts in, you know."

Stacey once again took out her PET and loaded the photo she'd been shown by Crony the night before. Ax took longer than Stacey did to recognise the person of interest, but once he realised, his reaction was the same. "Damn girl, I.. I didn't know."

"NOW do you realise what you're risking? You're right, she had no heirs, but with that report coming through only days after arriving here, it means someone wants this kit. BAD. I don't know if it was an accident her arriving here or something else, but she's worth a lot of money to a lot of people, strictly from a PR point of view. Heck, if they find out she's been memory-wiped..." That though lingered in her mind as her face began to turn white. She hadn't even thought about the value of the memories. Her image was one thing; what if she'd been trusted with vital business knowledge...?

Ax didn't look as amused as he did before. "Just get it out of here. I'd happily take a month's suspension over having to deal with that, or finding you another suitable navi for that matter."

"But what about the delivery man? You're happy to just implicate him in something that wasn't his fault? They're going to tear him apart!" That didn't sit right with Stacey.

The smug look returned to Ax's face. "Hah! That jerk has legitimately lost a number of high-profile packages that we needed here in the last year alone, leaving me with a mile-high pile of paperwork to lodge for lost consignments. I'm more than happy to stick it back to him."

As he attempted to return the PET back to Stacey, the screen changed to show Crony's face. "Are you sure you know what you're doing, Huxley? You know that Amy is high-profile, so whoever's trying to get a hold of her won't stop looking. Eventually, they will find her, and when that happens, they'll follow a trail that leads back to you."

Ax hesitated for a moment to gather his thoughts. "Crony, you are one of the toughest navis that's ever graced the force here at the ACDC precinct. You were tasked first and foremost with protectin' and assistin' Blondie here with whatever she needs you to do to ensure her safety. That wasn't just at work; it was also in her personal life. SHE is your focus now. And that includes her brother; you know as well as I do that she's all that boy has now. Do you understand?"

Crony, as stoick as ever, nodded in reply. "Yes, sir."

"Good. Now stop worryin' about me, and start worryin' about all the hell you're going to put that poor navi through. Or has your 'tough love' motto changed? Did Blondie make you soft?"

Before Crony could reply, Stacey snatched the PET from Ax's hands with a slight blush across her face. "I thought you weren't going to call me Blondie any more," she muttered in an embarrased tone.

"Yep, but that was before you started callin' me Ax. Seems fair to me," he quickly jabbed, with a smirk once again on his face. "Now get this out of here before someone sees it!" he hissed. "Avoid the main corridors, they have cameras on them."

Throwing her jacket over the box to hide the unique box, and placing her paperwork on top, she turned around to leave, but stopped at the doorway. "I don't think I'm ever going to be able to thank you enough for everything you've done for me. For my family," she added earnestly.

"Good. Would kinda defeat the point, wouldn't it? Now stop dawdlin' and go!" he urged.
Eric awoke to a pitch black room. Several hours had passed and it was now night-time. He hadn't eaten all day, so naturally his stomach growled. Actually, he realised that he hadn't eaten last night either. He'd gone over a day without food, which for Eric was unusual as he normally had a handful of various types of snacking food at arm's length. The stress of losing Cluster's PET (or not losing it, really) had begun a chain of events that had overridden any need for nourishment.

Stacey had said there was a full pizza in the freezer. Eric headed into the kitchen and turned on the oven. It would take a few minutes to heat up, so he stood there for a moment, scratching his head. Wasn't there something he was forgetting? The last day had been a blur, and only bits and pieces were coming back to him, like wisps in the wind. A light on the oven blinked off, indicating it was at the correct temperature, so he unboxed the pizza, placed it on a tray, put it in the oven and set the timer. 15 minutes later, the smell of bacon, ham, cheese and barbecue sauce was making him ravenous.

After removing the pizza from the tray and placing it on a chopping block, Eric moved his hand towards the utensils drawer and pulled out a pizza cutter. He attempted the first cut, but his hand slipped off the edge of the board and onto the pizza, burning his hand in the process. Doing so caused him to recoil, resulting in the pizza cutter slipping out of his hand and narrowly missed his foot as it hit the floor. Eric quickly moved to the kitchen sink and turned on the cold water, dipping his hand under the cool stream of water that came forth to get relief for his burn.

It was only as he turned to the floor, worried he'd damaged the pizza cutter, that the full force of yesterday's events hit him, like the curtains being pulled back on a bright and sunny day. The pizza cutter wasn't damaged. Just like the PET he'd dropped. The one that contained Amity. The navi that surely hated him. The first person to call him out for something he'd been fighting for years.

An unusual and unexpected urge to grab the PET and give her a piece of his mind was quickly replaced by the burning sensation from his hand, as he'd removed it from the cold water in his moment of remembrance. This in turn returned his attention to the pizza. No, that can wait. I'm hungry. SHE'S certainly not going anywhere.

----------

After devouring the pizza with no wasted time whatsoever, Eric pondered his next move. I don't know if I even want to speak to her again. Judgemental witch.

There you go again. Always quick to take the easy path, never willing to resolve differences. You know, maybe you DO deserve to be alone. You don't have what it takes to establish a give-and-take relationship. You never have.

Okay, that's below the belt. It's everybody else that's got the issues. I have absolutely no problem with being alone. In fact, most of my problems would be resolved if people would just stay out of my life.

The reason you're even in this position in the first place is because you WON'T LET anybody meaningful into your life. To share your pain.


Eric was speechless. The thought had come out of nowhere and left him grasping for whatever shred of normality he could find, only to come up empty-handed. There's nowhere to hide when arguing with yourself.

You're wrong.

Prove it then. She's waiting.


A familiar feeling of dread and anxiety returned. Cowardice was a familiar reaction to Eric, but he'd just been called out for exactly that. Only one thing to do.

With a shaky hand he opened the bedroom door and walked up to the nightstand. Except... there was no PET.

Did he knock it over in his sleep? He checked underneath the table. Nope.

Did he use it while in bed and forget? He pulled back the blanket and sheets. Nope.

Under the bed? No. Under his desk? No. ON his desk? No.

Then panic really started to take hold. The last time he thought he'd lost the PET... Stacey had taken it with her.

No. She wouldn't have.

Couldn't have.

Not a chance.

Absolutely not.

Unless she had heard them arguing. Well, Amity was the one doing the arguing; he'd been calm.

Not anymore. Any chance at redemption, any chance at an explanation... gone. The thought made him shudder.

No. Not this time. He needed an apology. DESERVED an apology.

But it was already done. If Stacey was going to hand the PET back, she would have done it by now. The precinct was closed at this time of night, so if Stacey wasn't home yet, she was likely pulling a double in some random part of town; he'd have to wait until she got back at the crack of dawn. Only then could he potentially stop this travesty from happening.

He'd gotten more than enough sleep after the test, so staying awake was not a problem, but by the time the first rays of sunshine entered through the window, Eric was a mess, sprawled out across the lounge room couch. Stacey should've been home by now.

Maybe she's working another shift. She did seem pretty aggravated about being called in again.

But she would've come home first and gotten changed, had something to eat.

Unless she's been called out to a different location. Remember the phone call yesterday?


And he did. Something about 'not covering that sector'.

She's working remotely. Possibly doing a triple shift?

Agreed. Which means that you may still have a chance to catch her before she returns back to the station.

What's the use? She probably already handed it back in, so there's no point in trying.

Or, because you spent so much time yesterday testing she didn't get the chance and was planning to do so after work today.


And that was it. The seed was planted. A ray of hope.

With a most unusual burst of energy, Eric quickly launched himself off the couch and back into his room, stumbling as he moved and hitting his arm on the doorframe to his bedroom door as he passed through it. A few minutes later, he was dressed and ready to head out into the real world. A rare event indeed; normally the only times that Eric would step out of the house were to get food or visit the network exchanges monitored through his job, and this occasion was neither. With a renewed determination in his eyes, he grabbed his keys, headed outside, locked the front door to the house behind him, and entered the street.

----------

The bus dropped Eric off outside the NetPolice office for the ACDC district. There were many smaller cells that allowed faster dispatches of officers for the different zones that made up ACDC Town, but this was the central hub, and where Stacey worked the majority of her shifts from. Eric had only been here once before, 12 years ago, but much had changed since that visit.

He stepped into a very large revolving door system, a new addition over the double doors from last time, and found himself inside an open lobby, with a long counter protected by thick metal mesh, placed to protect the officers behind it, with only a small narrow slot at the bottom. There were three separate double-doors leaving the room; one to the left, one to the right, and one beside the counter itself on the left side. Each door looked to be linked to a security scanner, and a police officer confirmed this thought as he opened and entered the set of doors to the right after a quick tap of his badge on the scanning fob to the left of the door itself.

Eric approached the main counter underneath the area that read "Enquiries". As he approached the counter he saw a larger woman with black hair sitting behind it; the badge on the right side of her chest read 'Officer G. Wright'.

The lady detected his approach but didn't even look up. "ACDC main precinct, how can I help you?" she stated in a somewhat bored tone.

"Umm, I was wondering if... you could tell me where my sister is patrolling at the moment?" he stuttered, intimidated by the vibe this lady was exuding.

The lady sighed rather loudly, still focused on the monitor rather than Eric. "Oh boy... if you think I'm going to just 'give you' the details of one of our officers, whoo, are you in for a surprise," she remarked in a sassy tone. "Boy, who the heck do you think you are?"

Misinterpreting the sarcasm in her voice for a genuine question and not what it was meant to insinuate, Eric began to reply; "umm, my name is Eric Bauersox, and I just-"

"Honey, did you not hear what I just said?" she inserted, cutting him off. "I don't CARE who you are, I'm not going t-" she suddenly paused, as she registered the name mentally. She finally turned away from the monitor to face Eric. "Bauersox. YOU are Eric Bauersox?"

Eric was trapped now and didn't know what to do. "Umm, yes? I have ID if you need to-"

"THE Eric Bauersox? You ain't messin' around?" she pressed further.

Eric took out his wallet and passed his public ID underneath the metal mesh. The woman snatched it out of his hand and ran it through an ID scanning system. When the result returned, she let out a laugh. "Well smack me down and roll me sideways! You really ARE her kid brother!" she chuckled as she handed him back the ID. "Never thought I'd see you around these parts! The way Stacey talks about you, I always expected you to be some kind of dwarf that sits in front of his computer all day, but look at you! You tower over her!"

Eric was slightly amused by the half-compliment he'd just received, but was more interested in his original question than friendly banter. "So can you tell me where she is?" he asked again.

"Oh I'm so sorry darling, I thought you were just like every other crook that shows up looking for trouble," Greta apologised. With that she turned back to her monitor and began tapping furiously at her keyboard. After a minute she had the information she wanted. "Yep, she's working over at Science Labs right now. I reckon if you go to the commercial district, you'll find her pretty quickly, she's patrolling that area mostly."

A sick feeling consumed Eric. THAT'S why she'd left the room yesterday to take the phone call. He knew exactly where she'd be.

"Thank you," he mumbled before turning around to walk out of the station. As he approached the revolving door he narrowly avoided running into another lady entering the lobby, with a pile of paperwork in her left arm and a portable computer in the right. It was the green jewelled necklace around her neck that his eyes locked onto as he tried his best to avoid ploughing into her. The lady was nimble enough to dodge him by stepping to her right, but the look on her face was fierce enough to prove she was not impressed by his presence.

"Watch where you're going!" she huffed, not even pausing as she lectured him.

"Word of advice?" the woman behind the counter called out to him, trying hard to stifle a laugh. "Bring her a latte! And get something for yourself too!"

----------

Science Labs. More importantly, the Navi Shop. Never in a million years did he ever want to be anywhere NEAR that place. He'd told himself so countless times, secretly hoping for some kind of natural disaster or terrorist attack that would destroy that entire section of town.

So I was right. You really ARE a coward.

That's NOT FAIR!

You're right. I have to put up with your cowardice every time we raise this topic. It happened YEARS AGO. Let. It. Go.

...I... I can't.


Passersby stared at Eric as he sat on the bench outside the precinct. Tears had built up in the corner of his eyes, and even though he wasn't speaking out loud, he was sobbing to himself whilst speaking without sounds, drawing the attention of those around him.

You are locked onto that shop like it's the cause of all your problems. It's not. Deep down, I know that you know this. You just needed something to blame. SomeONE to blame.

..........I miss them.

I know you do. But do you think this unhealthy grudge is going to fix anything? Especially when it's not grounded in even an iota of fact?


Eric wiped away the tears from his eyes and looked up. Those who had been staring awkwardly at him glanced elsewhere, making him feel even more self-aware of his emotional reaction.

It's time to let go. Don't fight it. It's time you seperated the two in your head. One was not responsible for the other.

[i]...Or... or I could just wait here...[/u]

No. You know what you need to do. Stop worrying about the possibilites and focus on the task at hand. Now... get up.


Eric stood up from the bench and looked down the street. There was a subway entrance not too far away, and from there he could catch a ride to Science Labs. From there, he'd find Stacey. Hopefully he could avoid the other issue altogether.

[>>> To Science Labs: Small Steps >>>]