Jules sat back and watched Aelita talk with Merrick. Both of them were full of questions, and it seemed as if they were ready to spend hours just asking each other all sorts of things. Aelita wanted to know what Merrick's home was like, so he took her on a little tour.
"Well, this is the garden," he said, waving his hands around the space where he was at the moment. "I decided a European garden would be nice today."
Aelita looked confused. "You mean you can change it? Change what it actually is?"
"Of course," Merrick said, smiling. "There's a menu I can pick from. It has things like, oh, a water garden, a Japanese rock garden, a desert garden, and lots of others."
Aelita blinked. "Oh."
"Would you like to see the classroom?" he asked, looking hopeful.
"You go to school?"
"Sort of," he admitted. "Here, I'll go through a gate and show you."
A gate must be like a tower, Aelita thought as the scene on the monitor changed. It was a room now with two tables, chairs, bookshelves full of books, what looked like a science corner, and a chalkboard. There was a mobile of the planets hanging from the ceiling, a map of the world on the wall, and an entire wall of nothing but windows. It showed the garden.
"This is where I study," Merrick said, standing at the front of the room. "Uncle Jules said that it's like the classrooms on Earth."
Aelita had to admit that it did look like some of the classrooms at Kadic. "What do you study?"
"Oh, anything. Sometimes Uncle Jules will give me a list of things to learn about. Just now, I'm learning about shopping—you know, using money—and about what the Earth is like," Merrick said, showing her his latest project. It was a 3-D map of France, and it was quite good.
"What do you do when you're not studying?"
Merrick smiled. "Oh, anything. I sit in my room, or I go to the interface and have fun."
Aelita blinked. "Interface?"
"It's like...oh, a big canvas where I can draw or make things," he said, going through another gate. "Also, there are lots of programs I can run in there. I can go swimming at a lake or beach, I can walk through a forest, or I can walk around a village square. There's lots to do. Sometimes I make a new program and try that out, but I don't always get all the details right."
The interface wasa large, empty room with dark walls that were criss-crossed in white gridlines. A window appeared in front of Merrick, and he slid his finger down it, scrolling through possible options. When he found one he liked, he tapped it with a finger. Before Aelita's eyes, the room transformed into a peaceful lakefront, and she could hear birds singing.
"This one is my favorite," Merrick said. "It's so nice and quiet. Uncle Jules made it for me as a surprise."
"It's pretty," Aelita said, admiring it. "Are there any other regions?"
Merrick looked thoughtful. "Regions?"
"Well, when I was on my Lyoko, there were four regions I could visit," she said, explaining. "There was a forest, a desert, an arctic region, and a mountain region. Is there anything like that for you?"
Merrick shook his head. "This is really all I'm able to visit," he said, sounding a little surprised at Aelita's description. "There's still my room. Would you like to see it?"
Jules smiled at Merrick's enthusiasm. He'd never had someone of his age to talk to before, and he was eager for Aelita to like him. He hovered in the back of the room, watching Merrick show Aelita everything about his bedroom. Merrick did not sleep, but he did like to lie down and pretend after hearing about sleeping, so Jules had formatted a bedroom for him. In the room was a bed, dresser, table and chairs, and a mirror that Merrick loved using. Aelita laughed at the faces Merrick pulled in front of it, and she laughed even harder when Merrick stood on his head.
"It's even more fun when you're in front of the mirror itself," Merrick said, getting back to his feet. "Would you like to visit me here, Aelita? I'm sure Uncle Jules could make it happen!"
That caught Aelita by surprise. She liked Merrick, and this odd type of Lyoko interested her, but did she want to go there? There were other worries, too: her friends (they had to be frantic by now!) and school,and if she went to see Merrick, would she be able to return? And what about XANA? It was all so complicated!
"I'm sure that it'll be possible, Merrick," Uncle Jules said, stepping forward and putting a hand on Aelita's shoulder. "I just have to make an analog."
Aelita looked up at him. "I can't go right now," she said, sounding very uncertain.
"Well, it will take time," Jules said, giving her a wink. "There's no hurry."
Merrick whooped and jumped about, too happy for words. Aelita gave him a smile and said that she felt as if she should have some fresh air. Jules agreed, and after telling Merrick they'd see him later, they headed out onto the verandah for a while. Even though Aelita was busy wandering the verandah and the front garden, she was thinking very hard.
Everyone was surprised at how well their plan was going. The tickets were easy to buy (with Odd having the greatest allowance, he paid for everyone) and the train was ready and waiting for them. No one looked twice at a group of kids.
"Well," Odd said, leaning back in the cushioned seat of the train, "I have to say that I like traveling."
"Let's hope we live long enough after this trip to take another," Ulrich said, looking out the window. "We're going to get killed, I just know it."
Odd grinned. "Why worry about it, buddy? I mean, I'm sure the grown-ups will be way too happy to see Aelita safe and sound to be too mad at us."
"Odd's right," Jeremie said, looking at his laptop screen. "They can't be mad at us forever, and if Aelita's all right, then they'll be happy."
Yumi nodded. "I don't think that even my parents would be too mad, since I was helping a friend," she said.
"I suppose," Ulrich said, watching Odd feed bits of a ham sandwich to Kiwi, who was in Odd's knapsack.
"All right, let's talk about what we're going to do when we get there," Jeremie said, closing his laptop. "Do you think we should take a taxi, or what?"
"I say taxi," Odd said. "I mean, if we took bicycles, and the guy noticed Aelita was missing, he might catch us before we got back to the train station."
"Good point," Jeremie said. "But can we trust a strange adult?"
"If only we were able to rent a car and drive it on our own!" Yumi said, frustrated. "That way, we'd be sure to get Aelita away, and we'd be able to keep everything quiet without adults."
"No place will rent a car to us without a driver's license, which none of us have," Ulrich pointed out.
"Sad but true," Odd said, looking very thoughtful. "What if we go to the police in Ancienville? You know, I'm sure they're sure to have heard about a girl being kidnapped, and if we tell them that we're her friends, and she managed to get a message to us, we'd have a ride there and back, and we'd have protection."
"That's leaving a lot to chance, Odd," Jeremie said, not sounding happy. "And I thought we wanted to keep this quiet from the adults? I mean what if it's actually XANA? How are we going to explain that?"
"Oh. Never mind."
Everyone else stayed silent until the train stopped in Ancienville. At the station, Ulrich looked up possible transportation opportunities in the station directory, and he came back smiling.
"There's a bicycle rental place here in the main part of town, just a few blocks away. Groups of four or more get a discount today of twenty percent off. Also, I managed to find out that there are paved bicycle trails that go out to Route 22. We'll be able to get Aelita without having to use the main roads. If we time it right, we can be back to catch the 21:30 train."
"Oh, that's perfect!" Yumi said, smiling while Jeremie gave his mark of approval. "Let's get out there as soon as we can!"
"First off, though, we have to take Kiwi for a walk," Odd said. "While I'm doing that, you guys go and get some provisions somewhere, we're all hungry, I can tell." So saying, he handed his wallet to Ulrich. "Go shopping and pay for the bikes, okay?"
"We appreciate this, Odd," Jeremie said, giving Odd a clap on the shoulder.
Odd shrugged, holding his knapsack. "Hey, no problem. What else am I going to spend it on, hot chocolate? I'll meet you back here once I'm done with Kiwi."
Ulrich, Jeremie, and Yumi rented three single bikes and one tri-rider for Jeremie. It was the type with a large basket in the back, and Aelita would be able to ride in it on the way back to town. Arranging to pick them up after they were done shopping, they headed to a little sundry store and bought sandwiches, chips, and juice drinks. When the lady behind the counter asked them if they were going for a picnic, they assured her that they were since it was a school holiday. They bought enough food for them all, even given Odd's rapacious appetite.
They met up with Odd, got the bikes, and headed for the bike trails. Hopefully, they would be able to get Aelita out of there without too much trouble.
Some feeling of caution kept Aelita outside all that day. Campbell stayed with her, since Uncle Jules had work to do, he said, and they didn't want Aelita to get lonely. She wasn't fooled: it was because they were afraid she would run off if left on her own. She played find-her-shadow among the bushes of flowers in the garden and periodically let herself be seenby Campbell so he wouldn't worry. She was so used to being on her own in this strange house that she received a shock when she heard something.
They found the house with no trouble, and all of them were left staring at it in awe from the bike path.
"It's...huge," Odd said, gaping at it.
"How are we going to find Aelita in that huge place?" Jeremie groaned. "She could be anywhere!"
"Let's not panic before we even get a closer look," Yumi said, hopping off her bike and heading up towards the fence.
All of them followed, and all of them gasped when they spotted Aelita. They almost didn't recognize her in the outfit she was wearing: white cardigan sweater set, pink pleated skirt, white knee socks, and brown loafers. It was so different from her jumper dress that they were surprised.
"Wow," Jeremie said, staring at her. "She looks...gorgeous."
"Focus, Einstein," Odd said. "How are we going to get her to come over here?"
"Uh, we're not," Ulrich said, looking towards Aelita. "She's headed this way."
Taking a deep breath, Jeremie called to her in a soft voice. "Psst! Aelita!"
Aelita felt as if she had just been struck by lightning. Slowly, she meandered towards where she had heard Jeremie's voice, and, peeping through the ivy that covered the fence, she spotted her friends.
"Oh, it's so good to see you!" she whispered, dropping to sit on the grass. All of them noticed tears in her eyes.
"Is anyone watching you?" Jeremie whispered back.
"Then pretend to pick flowers, so he won't get suspicious. Are you all right, Aelita?"
"Yes, I'm all right, just very glad to see you," she said, plucking a few daisies. "You won't believe this place. A man who claims to be my uncle had those men kidnap me in order to keep me safe from government agents who were supposed to be after me and Franz Hopper! What's more, he's created a Lyoko here! It's very different, I saw it over the computer monitor. Also, there's someone who lives on this Lyoko, just like I did!"
All of them stared at her.
"It's not another XANA, is it?" Odd wanted to know.
"No, it's a boy named Merrick, and he's our age. Jules--that's supposed to be my uncle--wants my help in materializing him."
Everyone stared at her. Jeremie was the first to speak.
"Are you serious? Has he actually managed to create another Lyoko? How is that possible?"
"I don't know," Aelita admitted. "But I've seen it. It exists, and a boy named Merrick lives there."
"Well, now what do we do?" Ulrich asked. "We came to get you out of here, Aelita, but it sounds as if you want to stay."
Aelita stareted to pick petals off a daisy. "This new Lyoko, and this boy who lives there...I feel sorry for him, and I want to help him live here in the real world, just like you helped me, Jeremie, but I don't want to stay here with this man who says he's my uncle. I don't trust him. I keep getting the feeling that he isn't telling me everything. What should I do?"
None of them had a ready answer.
"Aelita, do you think you could explain to Merrick how to reach my laptop? We'd be able to talk with him after we leave, and we'd be able to maybe help him materialize. Would that be all right with you?"
She nodded. "That would be fine. I'll go explain it right now, and then I'll come back out here to you so we can go."
Jeremie smiled. "All right. We'll be waiting, and be careful."
Aelita gave her friends a last smile and headed back to the house. Campbell, who had been reading a newspaper and so had not noticed Aelita talking to the ivy covering the fence, looked up as she reached the front door.
"Going inside, Princess?" he asked, winking at her.
She nodded. "Yes, I thought of something I want to tell to Merrick."
"All righty, then," Campbell said, going back to his newspaper. "Have fun, and tell Merrick I say hi."
"I will," she promised, going inside. She headed down to the basement, where the monitor was still on, but Jules was nowhere to be seen. On the screen, she could see Merrick running back and forth on the screen, chasing butterflies. It reminded Aelita of a screensaver she'd seen once, and she smiled.
"Hi, Aelita," Merrick said, stopping the Great Butterfly Chase. "What's up?"
"I came to see how you were, and to tell you that Mr. Campbell says hi," she said, smiling. "Also, there's something else I need to tell you, but you can't tell Uncle Jules. It's a surprise."
"What is it?" he asked, interested.
Quickly, Aelita explained.
"You mean, I'll be able to talk to you through this program your friend made?" he asked, surprised. "All I need to enter in the interfaceis this code, and it will be like picking up a telephone and talking? Oh, this is wonderful!"
Aelita smiled and nodded. "That's right. We'll be able to work on your materialization wherever we are."
Merrick gave her a thumbs-up. "I get it. But why don't you want me to tell Uncle Jules?"
Aelita looked sorry. "Well, I wanted to tell you all this before I left."
"You're leaving? Why?" Merrick asked, looking very unhappy.
"I can't stay here," Aelita explained. "He wants me to stay, and I can't. I don't want you to tell Uncle Jules because he would try to find me again and bring me back. I can actually work on your materialization better at home, and if he brings me back, we'll have to start all over again. I'll send him a letter later, explaining, but until then, you can't say a word, all right?"
"All right," Merrick answered, but he didn't look happy. "You won't take too long to contact me, will you?"
"I won't," Aelita said. "I promise. Talk to you soon."
With that, Aelita left and made her way back outside. She wandered about the yard, noticing that Campbell was engrossed in his newspaper yet again. She went to where she had seen her friends before and whispered for them.
"You told him?" Jeremie asked, smiling. "Great. Do you think you can get through the bars of the fence?"
Aelita examined the fence. It was old black iron bars, and she was certain that she could squeeze through. Wiggling, sliding, and sucking in her stomach got her through, and she hugged each of her friends before they handed her a helmet.
"We're taking bikes?" she asked, strapping on the helmet.
"Yep, it was the easiest way," Jeremie said, getting onto his bike. "You get to ride with me, Aelita."
Aelita smiled and clambered into the basket, and they were off.