Small Steps

{EAX004}

[<<< From ACDC Town: Repetition for Emphasis <<<]

Eric stepped out of the subway station and into the bustling area that was the commercial district. Along with many popular outlets for those needing important supplies and gadgets, it was home to a number of vital shops for the building, maintenance, and demolition of all things digital. It was here that Eric needed to find his sister, and based on previous experiences with predicting her arrival time at home, she had about 2 hours left to her shift.

Eric managed to acquire a large latte from one of the small boutiques near the subway station, and began searching desperately through the crowd for his sister. He thought he would have spotted her almost immediately in her white and black jacket, but there were a lot of people roaming the streets wearing white jackets and black jackets; stick them all together, and the crowd became a blur of monochromatic tones. The occasional burst of colour distracted Eric from time to time, but after an hour of walking and gawking, he had not spotted his sister anywhere.

Eric came across an unoccupied park bench and sat down. His feet were sore, the coffee was cold, and his motivation had plummetted. He'd engaged three different people he'd thought to be Stacey, only to be disappointed once they turned around. Who would have thought that the same patterns the NetPolice used were considered trendy?

He placed the cup down on the bench next to him and leant forward, his hands moving to the back of his neck.

I tried.

I know. It's not your fault we couldn't find her.

I guess it's all over. Amity's gone.

It's not ALL over. We still have one thing to do before we go.

...Do we really have to? Isn't this enough of a breakthrough? I mean, I'm at Science Labs! That's closer than ever.

'No half measures', remember? Do it properly, or don't do it at all.


"Eric?" came a puzzled voice from the crowd.

Eric turned his head to see Stacey walking towards him. In a moment of excitement, he forgot he'd put the latte next to him, and the sweeping motion of removing his hands from his neck and sitting upright sent the cup of coffee flying to the ground, exploding into a large brown puddle.

Stacey stood next to the mess on the ground. "You don't drink coffee," she remarked.

"It wasn't for me. The lady at the station said you'd probably like a latte," he replied.

Stacey smiled. "You bought me a coffee? Aww, that's so sweet."

Eric was unhappy about his actions. "Sorry I dropped it. It would've been cold anyway."

"Don't worry about that!" Stacey reassured him, with concern in her voice. "What are you doing here?"

"I had to find you. Before it's too late," he confirmed. "Please tell me you didn't take Amity back."

Amy's PET was still firmly in her jacket's breast pocket, but she wasn't going to let him off that easy. "So what if I did?" she remarked. "You were fighting last night. Not to mention her damn awful attitude."

"SHE was fighting," Eric corrected, with an elevation in his voice that Stacey didn't expect. "I wasn't fighting at all. I tried to apologise and explain the misunderstanding, but she yelled at me and turned off in a huff. But tha-"

"EXCUSE ME?!" came a shrill reply from Stacey's chest. "I did nothing of the sort!" Eric's voice had somehow awakened the PET from sleep. Stacey hadn't allowed for this, but a wave of relief swept over Eric upon realising that Stacey still had the PET.

"Yes she did. She didn't believe me," he confirmed to Stacey.

"Okay, yes, technically THAT part is true, but I didn't turn off in a huff! I just turned off!" Amy argued.

"Yes, because THAT'S the part that was important in that statement," Stacey remarked sarcastically.

"You know what? I don't believe you had a part in that conversation, so what would you know?!" Amy was getting angry all over again.

"'You know what?'" said Stacey, throwing the navi's own words back at her. "I don't have the energy or patience for this! Yes, I was going to take her back! I'm not a referee, and I'm not a babysitter! You two are supposed to be mature adults, so either you sort this out in the next 5 minutes, or I'll do it for you!" With that, Stacey threw the PET at Eric, who caught it to his own surprise, and walked off. It was a lie, for sure, but they didn't know that. At least, Stacey hoped that Amy didn't know it; she'd been in standby mode the whole time.

The two were left alone again, this time in a public area. Eric sat back down again on the bench.

Precious seconds were being wasted. Eric was the first to speak. "If you don't want me as your operator, I understand. Other navis before you felt the same way. I know I'm the problem. But you didn't have the right to talk to me like that. You don't even know me."

Amy remained silent for a moment, and then replied. "You're right, I don't know you. But you made a deal, that we would be partners. Being partners means having each other's back. I needed you last night when I was done jumping through their silly hoops, and you let me down. Explain to me how that works. Explain to me why I'm supposed to believe you would make a good partner."

Eric was surprised by the sudden change in tone. He'd expected another rageful response, but in the blink of an eye she was now being reasonable. It was like her emotions could do a 180-degree turn in an instant. Eric altered his own voice to try and match her assertiveness but fell short. "I can't give you one. I've failed too many people and navis in the past. All I try to do now is not upset people and do the best I can with what I have. It's a stupid answer, I know, but... I don't have anyo- anyTHING else."

"It's not stupid," Amy responded. "I know what that feels like. To be considered a failure for being you. You do the best you can, but it's never enough. Unless you conform to the standards pushed upon you, in society's eyes you mean nothing."

"That's why I don't want a navi. Even though my sister keeps pushing one onto me. I don't have a choice."

There it was again. The comment he'd made to her in the cave; she hadn't misheard. "If you don't want a navi, then why keep this up? Why keep trying?" Amy had a feeling she already knew the answer, but giving it to him would be too easy. It needed to be voiced by him to be real.

"...I think Stacey is really concerned for me. She worries I'm becoming a shut-in, and that if anything happens to her, I'll... I'll..."

Eric couldn't finish that sentence. It was a thought that had haunted many a night's sleep. Stacey was the last thing separating him from the unknown. Sure, Matt would probably try to help where he could, but Matt had family problems of his own, and Eric didn't want to become another one of those problems, another reason for Matt and his father to harbour resentment toward one another.

It wasn't the answer Amy expected or wanted, and she was slightly disappointed as a result. "So where do I fit into all of this?" Amy asked.

Eric shook his head. "I don't know. I live a boring, steady life. I get up, I work, I eat, I go to sleep. I play video games and watch an unhealthy amount of TV."

Amy appreciated the honesty. "Well at least I know you're humble. That's a start."

Eric shook his head. "I'm not humble, I'm just ordinary."

"Hah; spoken like a humble person," Amy prodded. "Look, Eric, you have to understand that I have trust issues. Every single person I've interacted with in life so far has betrayed me at some point. And if we're being honest, I don't see that trend changing any time soon. But..." Amy let that word hang in the air for a moment. "I think you're a good person, you just have some issues to work through. Okay, you have a LOT of issues to work through..." When Eric turned away from the PET in shame, Amy changed tact. "But, but I do too! So we're perfect for each other; we're both perfect mistakes!"

Eric turned back to the screen. "'Perfect mistakes'?" he repeated, not sure what to make of that comment.

Amy shrugged. "It's all I could think of. You weren't exactly doing much better back there either."

"You did the same thing right after we met. You just speak your mind without any regard for what people think." That comment may have sounded like criticism, but Eric had mumbled it almost longingly. "I wish I could be like that again."

Once again, Eric's vulnerability shone through to Amy. He'd given her an answer earlier that she hadn't expected, but perhaps it wasn't the full truth. She may still be correct in her assessment of some of his behaviour towards her.

"So... is that the only reason you don't want a navi?" she prodded again.

It was still not a question that Eric wanted to answer. "You still want to be partners?"

"Only if you do too."

"Then please understand there are many things in my past I don't like to talk about. That... is one of them. It's nothing personal, and I'm not hiding anything bad, I just... I'm not ready to talk about it yet."

Amy understood this. She had a painful past too. "Well... maybe with my help, one day you will be ready."

"Maybe."

"Time's up." Eric looked up to see Stacey standing in front of him. He'd missed her approach, which made sense, given the fact that stealth was an officer's best asset whilst patrolling. "So, what's it going to be?"

Eric looked down again at the PET. "Okay, I'll give her another chance."

"Umm, perhaps you didn't understand me the first time," Stacey remarked, snatching the PET out of Eric's hands and taking a step back. Eric immediately sprung to his feet in response. "I'm not asking you to give her another chance. This is it. End of the line. Either she's yours forever, or she goes back now. I want a commitment from you Eric; right here, right now."

This was a lot of pressure. Eric hadn't realised the weight behind what Stacey had said earlier. "Go back? As in to be deleted?" he asked rather waveringly.

"WHAT?!" Amy yelped. That fact had not been communicated to her. "What do you MEAN, 'deleted'?! I thought I'd just go back to wherever you got me from! Clearly you didn't take me from the training academy; someone had to have looked after me before, right?!"

"I told you before, we are not navi testers. This is real life." Eric's eyes turned to the ground, ashamed to admit the truth to follow. "All the failed navis get deleted when they go back," Eric uttered in an undertone. "I was the only hope they had of finding a new home."

"And you were okay with this?!" Amy half questioned, half demanded.

Eric stared straight into Amy's eyes. "It wasn't my call to make. Only if we were compatible could I hope to save them."

"And that's why you hated the tests? Because when YOU failed, it was the navis that paid the price?"

For the third time in less than 24 hours, Eric found himself fighting back tears. Amy had broken through one of his many fake walls and hit the nail on the head.

Stacey was shocked. In less than a day, this unknown stranger had discovered something about her own brother she'd failed to realise in over a year. Something she should have picked up herself. Stacey too had to fight back tears; not tears of sorrow, but tears of regret.

Amy however was relieved. It was this line of thinking that she'd believed to be true, that Eric's hesitancy to take on a digital companion didn't come from his own selfishness, but a warped regard for others. Only now did she begin to properly piece together the fights between his sister, with Crony, and even with her. He wasn't spineless, he was just too accommodating to other's needs, putting others before himself.

Eric did his best to regain his composure. "It doesn't matter now, it's in the past; nothing I can do to change it." It was true that 23 navis had seen their end because he wasn't the operator they needed, but it was also true that those navis would still have been deleted had he not been there. Eric knew firsthand that bad things happen to good people for no reason whatsoever. It wasn't fate, it wasn't destiny, it was simply the work of many hands at a table with an almost infinite amount of moving parts; not everybody was going to be a winner.

But this particular game, right now, he could win. He knew what he wanted to say next was a cheesy line, but he was going to say it anyway. "Do you think... can you put up with my... odd ways?"

Amy did not miss the familiarity of those words. She chuckled and smiled as she realised where the conversation was going, and if he really was a selfless person, he was a project she could see herself working on. "You put up with my oddities, I'll put up with yours. Agreed?"

"Agreed."

Stacey tried to stifle a smile so wide she was afraid she was going to hurt herself. But far from allowing herself to be exposed as the softie she was, she let out a sarcastic groan. "Wow, you sound like you're getting married," she slyly remarked.

"You did just ask us to commit to each other forever," Amy pointed out. "'Til death do us part' and all that human nonsense."

This unexpected remark brought out a laugh from Eric. Stacey couldn't hide her amusement any longer and started laughing too. She may have been roasted as a result, but it was a fair call.

"So, are we going home now?" Stacey finally asked after the fit of laughter subsided. "I'll take you home in the squad car; I have to go past the precinct anyway to punch out."

"Finally; I don't know how much more of this soppy nonsense I can take," muttered Crony from down in his PET.

Eric paused; for the first time in forever, he had a feeling of warmth and calmness inside him. Like everything was going to be okay. He'd done it. Amy was safe and back in his possession. It was like there was nothing he couldn't do if he set his mind to it.

Well, maybe not anything.

No, he had to take advantage of this newfound burst of confidence while he still had it. Turning to Stacey, he shook his head. "No, there's something I need to do first..."

[>>> To Science Labs: Navi Shop: In the shop >>>]
{EAX006}

[<<< From Science Labs: Navi Shop: In the shop <<<]

As the vehicle travelled along the main highway, not a word had been spoken between either four occupants of the car after Eric had returned. The humans were in their own worlds of remembrance, Crony was focused on the task at hand as always, and Amy didn't know what to say to break the silence.

Thankfully, she didn't have to. "Officer Bauersox, come in," came a crackled voice over the car's ham radio.

Stacey picked up the two-way transmitter. "This is Bauersox, please proceed."

"Stacey, thank goodness you're still on the air. I know you've finished a triple, but we need you for a 10-37."

Stacey knew the voice, and knew if it was him asking, there really was nobody else. "Copy that, Officer Mills. Civilians currently on-board, will drop off at the closest safehouse and proceed to assignment. Oh, and Paul, you'd better have a cold one waiting for me when this is all done."

A crackled laughed came back through the radio. "Do this for me and I'll buy you a slab."

"Noted. 10-4," she replied as she placed the transmitter back into its holder. "I swear, this job will be the end of me," she remarked as she veered off the highway, navigated through some side roads and pulled into a driveway. "Sorry Eric, but I'll need to leave you here while I do this. It's only checking out a suspicious vehicle so it shouldn't take long. The front door is electronically locked so you'll need to enter a PIN to gain access. The PIN is 267533. I'll wait until you're inside before I leave, just make sure the door is closed."

Eric didn't remember half of what Stacey said, but now that he had a new partner he didn't have to. "Understood," Amy replied. "Out you go," she directed as she motioned to Eric to leave the vehicle.

Not used to having someone to assist, Eric was somewhat relieved to have someone else hear and remember instructions given to him. "This could actually work," he mumbled to himself, not realising he'd said it loud enough that Amy heard him.

As he approached the door, sure enough, an electronic lock was waiting for him. "The PIN was 267533," Amy whispered. Eric fumbled with the keys, having to start over twice before getting it right. Once he was inside he closed the door, wondering how he would know it was closed for sure. A satisfying 'beep' followed by a slight hissing sound was confirmation enough. Eric watched as the squad car backed out of the driveway and took off, lights and siren blaring.

"Okay; now THAT'S pretty cool," Amy admired.

Eric nodded in agreement. He then glanced around the small house he'd walked into. 'House' was probably not the correct term; it looked to be more like a decked-out hotel room with a bigger bathroom and kitchen. He walked over to one of the recliners that was positioned towards the television and collapsed into it. A sigh of satisfaction escaped his lips; this was definitely a few cuts above the loungechairs at home. He took out the upgrades they'd purchased from the Navi Shop and placed them in his lap. "Okay, I'll have to shut you down to install these."

"Have you ever installed upgrades into a PET before?" Amy asked.

Eric hesitated. He'd seen it done at school and been assured at the time that it was almost impossible to mess up, but now, having been asked the question, he was worried. "No, I haven't," he replied.

"Do you know how?"

"They taught us in middle school, I just didn't get to do it to a PET myself," he confirmed.

"Okay. Don't do anything rash then," she replied with a hint of worry in her voice.

"I won't. Promise."

After the screen switched into maintenance mode, Eric accessed the configuration screen and placed the upgrade program chips into the reader. The purchased upgrades were transferred into the PET and reconfigured Amy's core programming with the newly acquired data. A quick post-install self-test indicated no problems, so after the customary shutdown protocol had been completed, Eric pressed the POST-button and waited. A minute later, Amy was back on-screen.

"Everything check out?" he asked nervously.

Amy did a quick twirl on the spot. "Yep, everything seems a-OK! The gel manifestation systems seem to have been marginally repaired by the process too!" That made Amy happy, knowing that she could begin to rely on these a little more once again. Unbeknownst to Eric, Amy was still smuggling a second person inside her dress and under her hair, but she was beginning to get used to the marginal weight increase. Little Miss really didn't weigh a lot, much to Amy's initial surprise. It was almost like her back was suited to carrying things by default.

Eric placed the PET in his lap and sank into the back of the chair. After a few minutes, he looked at the coffee table sitting between himself and the television. Perhaps by coincidence, or maybe not, there was a pile of magazines on the counter, but the one on the top caught his eye. 'DENIZEN BUSTING, VOLUME 3' was the flashy title, with artwork of several viruses. One he immediately recognised; the Metools they'd fought yesterday. He reached over, pulled it off the top of the pile and opened it up. The information seemed geared towards those who already had basic knowledge of virus busting and covered intermediary and advanced battle tactics, most of which went over his head. One he partially recognise, however, was the forward aerial flip Amy had performed to kick the bomb in mid-air.

"Amity, did you learn this move from a magazine?" Eric asked, pointing to the magazine after lowering it to what he thought was the viewable area of the PET.

"No, I didn't," Amy replied. Upon hearing that name, the navi realised she hadn't verbalised her thoughts on that matter. She wasn't sure how Eric would react, but 'Amity' wasn't her real name; she'd already felt that from the moment she'd read it and heard Eric and Stacey using it. She still had no idea who that voice from yesterday was, or where it had even come from, but the way she'd said 'Amy', it brought on an emotion that she hadn't felt in a long time. It just felt right; it felt... normal.

"And it's Amy, by the way," she advised.

"Who's Amy? And where?" Eric asked, cautiously glancing around. That name was new to him, and in that context, he thought she was talking about someone else.

"I'm Amy. Not Amity. That's the name I was looking for earlier but couldn't remember. Amity might be the name that humans gave me, but my real name is Amy."

Eric smiled as he tried it out. "Amy." He liked it. "...I have to admit, it rolls off the tongue better too. Amy."

Amy smiled too. That was a lot easier than she thought. No resistance at all. She glanced away before Eric could see her blush, but in her movement she noticed something of interest.

"Hey, is that one of those black transmission boxes like what you have back at home?" Amy enquired.

Eric stared up on the wall. "Looks like it, yes."

Amy stared at Eric, and Eric stared right back.

"Do we have to?" Eric moaned, realising why she was interested in the first place. "I thought you don't like virus busting."

"You misunderstand me. I don't like virus busting if it ends in virus deletion. I made peace with virus EJOs some time ago, as any viruses needing an EJO shouldn't be interfering with humans anyway. But I was programmed to protect humans and their networks. How can I do that if I'm not trained? How can I protect you... if I can't even protect myself?"

Eric couldn't argue with that logic, although he certainly wanted to. "You sounded kinda like Stacey then," he commented in a non-aggressive manner.

"Okay, you take that back right now, I'm nothing like your sister," Amy scolded.

"...Sorry. I just meant that you both want to protect me, that's all..." Eric pointed out as he positioned the recliner footrest back into place. He checked his backpack, and was disappointed to find his battlechip case inside, as he didn't remember putting it back in after yesterday's testing. No battlechips meant he could have had a valid excuse not to allow it. "Our battlechips are here, so I guess we could... you'll have to help me though, my operating skills aren't the greatest."

"They were good enough yesterday, weren't they? And just think, if you get better at operating, Stacey won't be on your back as much either!" Amy replied as she prepared for network transmission.

"Well, I guess there's that..." he acknowledged as he aimed the PET towards the black box. Tapping [Transmit] on the screen, a beam of red light shot across the room.

[>>> To SciLab Net: Past Mistakes >>>]
{EAX008}

[<<< From SciLab Net: Past Mistakes <<<]

Amy arrived back in the PET as a dual LED combination of green and blue on the top-left corner of the PET screen indicated a safe return. Once inside she checked to make sure that Little Miss was still secured to her behind, and a small squirm resulting from her poking the girl's back indicated she was in fact still present and alive.

Eric closed the chip folder and returned it to his backpack. He'd been very apprehensive of the entire experience at first, but this was their second time operating as a pair, and the exercise had proven to be beneficial for both of them. There was still so much that he didn't understand about his new friend, but with enough time, mayb-

'Friend'.

Eric mentally doubled back as he processed that word again. 'Friend'. He hadn't put any effort into the thought, it had just occurred naturally. But could he really call her his friend? They'd only known each other for two days. Thoughout his whole life he'd only considered three people to be worthy of calling friends, and after middle school, only one of those remained by his side during the dark period. In fact, if it wasn't for Matt, Eric wouldn't have the accommodating job that he did.

That reminded him of the responsibility he'd been skirting for the last four days. With a hourly requirement that had to be met each week, he was now dangerously behind his minimum quota, and he didn't have any hours banked up to offset the deficit. He hadn't worked the first day of the week due to the fallout from meeting the last navi-partner potential, Cluster. Their personalities could not have been more different; Cluster had no time for Eric's withdrawn ways, and had decided on his opinion of Eric the moment Stacey placed the beaten-down PET in his hand. After an hour of verbal abuse, Eric had returned the PET to the table, fearing that somehow Cluster's particularly grating voice would attempt a further beatdown during the night. It was there that Stacey had found the PET, and after having listenened to part of the earlier harrassment through a closed door, Stacey had decided the two would not be suitable for each other. Eric didn't know this, but in an earlier life Cluster had been a prized fighter, so had it worked out, Eric's partner would have been a virus-busting veteran; such a skill set would have pleased Stacey greatly.

The second day was interrupted by the introduction of his new navi, 'Amity'. Their minor altercation led to the internal debate in his mind for most of the day, upon which he finally made a partial truce with her. Days three and four were filled with the drama that resulted from the drama following the first virus-busting run, leaving him only three and a half days to complete a five day quota.

However, as he looked at the PET and saw Amy fidgeting with the small child in tow, Eric was happy to have gone through the resulting trouble to finally have a partner who was possibly as mentally unbalanced as he was; to his advantage, she didn't seem to mind him either. Maybe he'd been lying to himself all these years; maybe he did want a navi after all. Not just any navi though; he'd wanted a good friend, someone to be with him at all times. Time and time again he'd been the victim of people judging him before they knew him; humans and navis alike. The only problem with first impressions is that they're usually wrong; even he had written off Amy as a 'prissy little navi' when they'd first met, a mistake he was more than happy to accept responsibility for.

No matter what, he'd find a way to make up the lost hours at work, no matter what. The short-term pain would be nothing compared to what he had gained.

Amy sensed she was being watched and turned back to the monitor. "So, what do we do now?" she asked.

Eric took another glance around the safehouse. "I guess we wait for Stacey and Crony to get back?" he decided, not seeing anything else of interest to occupy their time. He pulled the handle on the seat again to release the recliner once more, enjoying the comfort of the lounge chair. Even though you'd expect a place like this to have ordinary furniture, it was indeed satisfying for a temporary accomodation; more than their couches at home. So much so that within minutes, Eric had fallen asleep; Amy only noticed once he began to snore.

Another 15 minutes passed before a familiar beep could be heard coming from the door, followed by a brief hissing sound. The door opened and Stacey stepped through, being careful to close the door behind her. She walked up to Eric, recognising he was asleep once she was a few footsteps away from the chair.

"Huh. Looks like he fell asleep," she remarked.

"Yeah, he has weird sleeping patterns, that's for sure."

Stacey's attention turned to the PET sitting in his lap facedown. A look of amusement crossed Stacey's face as she picked it up and rotated the screen to see Amy's face. "So. Did he behave himself?" she asked.

Amy wasn't sure what to make of such a question. In the time she'd known Eric he hadn't done anything reckless, short of sending her a few battlechips that he didn't know the function of, but that didn't indicate he was a troublemaker. Was there some underlying motive to the question? In any event, her answer was obvious. "No, no trouble at all. In fact, we logged into the SciLab network and did some virus busting. We even got some new stuff too." She left out the part about Little Miss; no need for her to know about that. Or about Little Miss at all, really.

Stacey's brow quickly wrinkled as Amy communicated this to her, almost as if she was in disbelief of what she was hearing . "Really...? What did you threaten him with if he didn't?" she questioned.

"I didn't threaten anything. I simply made the suggestion and he agreed."

Stacey looked back to her brother. "I want to believe you, but that sounds like a lie," she countered with a lowered tone. "Bonding with a navi to call his own, then facing his fears, and finally, going virus busting without MY support? These days, he can't even take small steps without me around; going on the net with a navi, unassisted to boot, that's not small steps, that's giant leaps."

The noise from the two of them talking broke Eric out of his nap with a quick gasp for air. Waking to the sight of Stacey and Amy talking to each other, Eric's heart skipped a few beats in panic. "Oh no what happened?!" were the first words out of his mouth.

"Relax, you dummy," Stacey cheerfully replied, the disbelief eliminated from her voice. "The job is done so I'm here to take you back home."

Eric was happy to hear those words. Slotting the recliner footrest back into the chair as fast as he could, he stood up with a smile on his face. "Ready." He took three steps towards the door before remembering a key item. Turning back around, he quickly made his way back to the recliner and picked up the 'NetPendium'. "Do... do you think anybody would mind if I took this with me...?" he asked as he showed it to Stacey.

----------

KEY ITEM GET: NetPendium

[>>> To Science Labs: Navi Shop: In the shop >>>]