Harry investigates the Cognivores in the DoM, the littlest Granger-Weasley-Potters celebrate a birthday and we meet one of Hermione's neighbors.
Chapter 6 - Cogs
Harry stood before a large circular glass tank in the Department of Mysteries. He tried to remember why Ron had thought "Accio Brains" sounded like such a good idea all those years ago when they were fighting for their lives against Voldemort's inner circle.
The disembodies brains resembled jellyfish Harry had seen in the London Zoo's Aquarium, especially in the way they would wave their ribbon-like tendrils as they swam purposefully about the tank.
As he walked around the tank, one cognivore seemed to follow his progress - an eerie feeling as the floating brains had no eyes that he could discern. He felt the barest touch of legilimency, and slammed his occlumency shields into place so forcefully the intelligence in question visibly flinched.
"The cogs need constant input, Mister Potter, or they begin to atrophy. Anyone who walks into this room provides sight, sound, taste, touch and smell for at least one of them - sometimes more than one."
Harry shook his head and turned away from the tank. The room was operating-theater clean. The tendrilled brains floated in a saline and nutrient solution not unlike cerebral fluid. The cogs were in the care of a tall, thin, middle aged researcher named Nicholas Farkas, Nick to his friends.
"Tell me about Karkaroff and the cogs."
Nick sighed, and began his obviously oft-practiced lecture. Harry wondered if the researcher wouldn't rather be asked about any recent developments.
"Sasha Karkaroff was commissioned by the Bulgarian Mage Ruling Party to harvest brains from convicted criminals - men and women who had committed capitol crimes. Those marked for death were given the opportunity to live, after a fashion, as disembodied brains. The idea was sound - there is no better storage medium for information than the human brain. The convicts were never told that their own memories would be completely wiped so that the resulting cognivore would become a blank slate, as it were.
"Karkaroff's real accomplishment was his ability to retrieve the information through selective legilimency."
"Whatever happened to Sasha Karkaroff?"
This brightened Nick's day, a new and different question.
"Are you familiar with the story of Dr. Joseph-Ignance Guillotin?"
"Isn't he the guy who invented the Guillotine?"
"Actually he didn't invent it, but he was instrumental in getting the French to use it in the late Eighteenth Century as a 'humane' form of execution."
"Wasn't he executed on the Guillotine?"
"No, that's a commonly held belief, though. Therein is the irony."
"How so?" Harry asked.
Nick lowered his voice and said, "This doesn't leave the Department, right?"
Harry nodded, and Farkas continued, "Sasha Karkaroff wasn't content to use convicted criminals for his experiments - he branched out.
"He was convicted of illegally "coring" non-criminals, people who were mentally ill or just unlucky enough to cross his path when he needed a new brain."
"The irony is that he was sentenced to undergo the procedure - forced to become one of his own creations. Knowing full well that his memories and life experiences would be erased."
"Do the brains communicate with one another?" Harry asked.
"After a fashion - when one is used for memory storage a partial replica of that memory is placed in each of the others so that if, God forbid, one cog dies, the data can be retrieved, albeit fragmented, from the other brains. Each cognivore is a "Global Cognitive Server" for all of its fellow cogs."
"Do you communicate with the brains?"
"I access information stored in the cognivores. I'm not sure "communicate" is the right word. These are not people, they're memory stores. One could just as easily say that the pulling of a file from a drawer is communicating with its cabinet."
"How long can a brain remain outside of the tank?"
Nick looked puzzled by the question, "No one really knows. We used to have one cog that would levitate itself out of the tank and float around the room like a helium balloon. Sometime it would do that for hours before returning to the tank."
"What happened to it?"
"It was one of the cogs caught in the crossfire when you and your friends tore through here twelve years ago."
Eight weeks had passed and Harry was no closer to discovering who had attacked Ron and through him, Hermione. Meanwhile, Rose and Albus were rapidly approaching their second birthday, both would be two within a week of each other, and Harry was determined to give them a proper birthday party. With some trepidation he invited his and Hermione's in-laws, Arthur and Molly and all the Weasleys, as well as Hermione's parents, to Godrick's Hollow for the celebration. George was there with Alicia, Percy and Penelope, Bill and Fleur and Victoir. Andromeda Tonks brought Teddy. Charlie couldn't make it but he sent along two beautiful stuffed dragons charmed to walk and flap their soft wings and hiccough wisps of fragrant smoke. Rose squealed and dubbed hers "Bunny."
No surprise there, all Rose's stuffed toys were named "Bunny."
Albie happily dragged his "Draggers" by its tail. Draggers didn't mind - he just blew contented smoke rings in their wake.
When Arthur and Molly arrived Harry was shocked. He'd seen them aggrieved - they'd lost Fred in the war, after all. But now they looked wretched. All used up.
It was as if the loss of Ginny and Ron had sucked the life out of them.
Molly's patented bone-crushing hugs were a thing of the past and Arthur's handshake was like handful of wet pasta.
Hermione was in the nursery with the three Granger-Weasley-Potters. "Gramama and Grampy Weasley are going to be here soon and I need you to be extra-cheerful around them, okay sweeties?"
"Gramama cries a lot." James observed.
"Gramama's sad sweetheart."
"Cause of Mummy and Unca Ron?"
Hermione nodded. The ache was still there, but it was manageable now.
"Remember now, happy faces everyone!" Hermione reminded them and led them into the big downstairs living room.
"Gramama! Grampy!" all three children raced to their red and silver haired grandparents.
"Here's my Potter-Weasleys and my little Granger-Weasley!" Arthur cried with forced cheerfulness.
Molly looked shocked.
"Ginevra . . . Ronald?"
"No Gramama, Rosie and Albie!" James protested.
The Weasley matriarch fell to her knees and gathered her grandbabies into her arms and laughed and cried and kissed the squirming cousins who hugged her back as hard as they could.
"They're the spitting image of Ron and Ginny at that age." Arthur marveled.
"Maybe we're just being reminded that, no matter what, life goes on?" Harry ventured.
Grampy Weasley smiled - his first genuine smile since his children's funeral.
Harry took all the children on broom rides, Grampa Granger did some amazing parlor tricks - more so because, even though nearly everyone in the room could do actual magic, slight-of-hand was beyond them.
Through it all the littlest grandchildren stayed with Gramama and Grampy.
And a healing light was coaxed to life in the eldest Weasleys by the youngest.
"Well I'd say the evening was an unqualified success." Harry observed, picking lemon cake crumbs out of Hermione's shoulder length frizz. He'd managed to talk her into staying the night in the room he'd set aside for her and Rose.
"I was really scared when I saw Molly come in - she looked like she'd aged a hundred years in two months."
Harry paused, "Has it been two months already?"
Hermione groaned as she bent down to pick up a tiny shoe.
"I'll get that!" Harry offered.
"No, Master Harry," Kreacher interrupted, "I'll be doing the picking up and getting the cleaning done -please take Mistress to bed!"
Harry and Hermione were startled by the house elf's suggestion.
Kreacher looked at the gobsmacked mages and clarified "Mistress will be needing her rest; she's in a family way."
Harry put his hands on Hermione's shoulders and gently guided her to the stairs, "Come along, Mistress, Kreacher's right, you are needing your rest."
"Harry, I'm pregnant, not crippled -I'll manage."
Still she indulged Harry, allowing him to walk with her up to the guest room where Rose snored gently in her sleigh bed. He bent down to kiss her cheek and the newly minted two-year-old hummed contentedly snuggling against her stuffed dragon.
Hermione felt deep affection for Harry at that moment. He turned to say goodnight and was startled by the expression on her face and the thin trickle of blood on her upper lip.
He plucked a tissue from the night stand and dabbed just under her nose.
"Oh," she said with a nervous little laugh, "that's attractive isn't it?"
"Oh come on, Harry! I'm all thick around the middle and my face is blotchy and my baps are, um, well."
"Its okay, Hermione, I've been through this - twice now. And I can tell you from experience you're wearing it well."
She looked at his as if he'd grown another eye in the middle of his forehead.
Harry pulled her into a hug and murmured, "I thought Ginny was most beautiful when she was just a few months along with Jimmy and Albie, and I have to tell you, you are too."
"Oh!" she squeaked.
"Oh?" he asked, holding her at arm's length.
"I feel her moving!" She excitedly took Harry's hand and placed it on the bump on her belly. Sure enough there was aslight movement.
"That's brilliant!" he said and picked her up, swung her around and kissed her.
Then stopped, shocked at his reaction to his best friend.
"Ah, um, Hermione, I'm uh. . ."
"It's okay Harry," she said, kissing him on the cheek, "we just got caught up in the moment. Really, it's alright."
"Well, um, I'll just be next door, in my room I mean, um, goodnight . . . Hermione."
"Goodnight Daddy." mumbled Rose; her voice small.
Harry smiled, "G'night sweetheart."
In Kensington, Paul Kemp was happy. He'd gotten the promotion and had asked Lisa to marry him - and this time she hadn't said no. He was wearing her down. In the distance a clock struck one. That had been some celebration. He loved his mates, he loved Lisa - he loved his life.
The early morning was cool and damp -the ubiquitous London fog softened lights and obscured details.
As Paul turned to enter his own walkway he passed under a large oak, its leaves heavy with moisture. Something disturbed a branch spilling cold water down the back of his neck. He yelped and jumped and didn't even feel the thin red ribbons touch his face and neck.
Paul froze; his expression blank. After a time he grinned evilly.
He looked at the coach lamps, obscured by fog, at the flat across the street from his and, in a voice not entirely his own, said one word, a name.
For those of you not familiar with the joys of pregnancy, spontaneous nosebleeds are common. I recommend a humidifier for the room and a swab of Vaseline in each nostril before going to bed.