Harry gets inside information as to what the cogs are up to, has a brief discussion with Percy and goes to the park. Balloons, anyone?
Chapter 15 - The WAN of the Cogs
Harry looked at his murdered best mate and asked, "Ron?"
"Yeah, it's me, or what's left of me."
"Are you a ghost?"
A feeling like ice-water being poured through his soul made Harry gasp, those were the exact words spoken by Riddle's Horcrux in my second year at Hogwarts.
"Or rather, a bunch of memories. When those brains first attacked me in the Department of Mysteries, I found myself in this room. Along with most of the people here, we've gotten some new ones lately." Gesturing to a small clutch of people.
The ragged old man asked, "Have you seen my dog?" for the hundredth time since Harry's arrival.
Ron continued, "It's taken me a while to get it sussed out, but when one of the brains attacks you it makes a copy of your memories, of everything you've ever seen or done or imagined. Then it shares those memories with all the other cogs, 'cause from time to time I hear things out and about in London, when I know I'm still in a tank in the Department of Mysteries."
"You said something about your daughter?"
"Ron's face screwed up in grief,"Bastard, he keeps distracting me!"
He seemed to shake himself, then pulled Harry off to one of the darker reaches of the room.
"I've been in this thing for years, and when it has strong feelings I get impressions, see?"
"Some time ago, I don't know how long, Istarted getting, well, not images, but flashes, y'know?"
"And what did you see?" Harry prompted.
"Focus Ron, you get flashes."
"Yeah, I saw our flat in Kensington, only no one was at home."
"Was that very recently?"
"Hard to say, time's wonky here."
"Okay, then what?"
"Well, last night, or maybe it was last week, I dunno, we got a new arrival." He said, pointing to Auror Lighter.
"Only she ain't the same as the rest of us, and neither are you. Why is that?"
Harry didn't want to say it was because neither he nor Cheryl Lighter were dead, "I think it's because we're just visiting, we don't live here."
Ron snapped his fingers, "Kemp!"
"Paul Kemp?" Harry asked.
"You know him?"
"Only just met him last week."
"Yeah, Kemp, he's a kind of a computator guy, and he says," Ron looked confused, "Wait, lemme just find him."
Ron led Harry around the gaggle of people until he found a Londoner, sitting cross-legged on the ground, making notes with scraps of paper he'd pulled from his pocket.
"Mr. Kemp?" Harry asked.
The muggle screwed his face up in anguish, "Oh, no, not you too!"
"It's alright Paul, it didn't get me, I'm just here visiting a friend."
Kemp brightened up, "Oh, good then, you can stop it."
"Stop what?" Harry asked.
"The upload, here, look at this." He said indicating the scraps of paper. Every one had a triangle drawn on it and the seemingly haphazard triangles were each connected by lines from one or two others.
"You see, these triangles represent individual entities, I call them domains, like network domains."
"Each domain is unique, if it weren't then there would be no need for a separate domain name for each, you understand?"
Harry frowned and asked, "Would each domain be an individual cog, like the one that took you and Ron?"
Both Ron and Paul looked confused,"Cog?" they asked in unison.
"Short for cognivore, a floating brain with long red tendrils, like red ribbons."
"The last thing I remember is going into my closet to get something out when a bunch of red ribbons grabbed me by my arms and, boom, I'm here."
"You were attacked by a cog." Harry said.
"Floating, disembodied brains? Sounds about right." Paul groused.
"You were saying, about the upload?"Harry asked.
"Yes, well, you see, I'm a networking engineer; I know a network when I see one. And the facts fit my definition of a WAN."
"A wide area network, made up of several domains."
Ron asked, "And what does that make us?"
Paul shrugged, "Data."
"I'm not part of the data, what would that make me?" Harry asked.
"Best guess? Orphan data, or possibly a Trojan."
"Why is the LAN so interested in Hermione?" Harry asked.
Paul directed Harry and Ron to follow his tracing pencil, "See these media connections?"
Harry nodded while Ron shrugged and Paul continued, "All these data points coming together are like site-links waiting to transfer data, to upload to a new domain."
"But a cog can only transfer data to another cog."
"And what is a cog?" Paul asked.
"A disembodied brain, one that has no memories."
"Mrs. Granger-Weasley is pregnant, is she not?"
Harry felt a lead weight settle in his stomach as he nodded.
"A developing fetus's brain would be perfect for the upload."
And Harry understood. He ran back to Cheryl Lighter and knelt by her side.
"Auror Lighter, Cheryl, I need you to hang on here for a while longer, okay? We'll get you out of here soon, but for now, you're my only way in here."
"Okay, boss, but how are you getting out? Merlin and Morganna know I've tried."
"I'll show you when I come back, okay?"
He turned to Ron and Paul, "I need you to look after Auror Lighter here, all right?"
Both men nodded then watched astonished as Harry closed his eyes and faded from view.
Harry opened his eyes and saw the bespectacled, disapproving eyes of Madam Proudfoot, his DMLE chief.
"Oh, shite!" he groused.
"Oh shite indeed, Potter, tell me, what do you do when one of your aurors disregards regulations? Such as the one requiring a Magistrate's order before performing active legilimens?"
"If we had the time, Madam Proudfoot, I'd ream him, or her, but good. Unfortunately we don't have the time; we have to lock down the Department of Mysteries, now!"
Madam Proudfoot had been in magical law enforcement long enough to know her star auror was on to something, and it would be best not to get in his way.
"Consider it done, Potter, but when this is over I want a detailed report." With that she turned on her heel, "It should make for interesting reading."
Harry flipped open his signaling mirror, "Stebbins!"
A calm voice answered from behind him, "Right here, boss."
"Get down to the DoM, keep Farkas in his office and get a count on the cogs down there, if I'm right, one's gone missing."
He turned to the other auror in the room who wasn't in the hospital bed, "Hall, go with Detective Stebbins, keep the remaining Cognivores from leaving, I don't care if you have to gaffe and net them. Oh, and don't let any of them touch you, understand? If they even look like they're about to float out of that tank, fry them!"
Both aurors nodded curtly and left.
He strode to the hospital floo connection, threw in a handful of powder and nearly shouted, "Godric's Hollow!"
Striding through the green flames he called, "Hermione! Albie, Jimmie, Rosie!"
No one was home. On a Sunday afternoon. He tossed a pinch of powder into the fireplace, "Burrow!"
Percy Weasley's face appeared in the fireplace, "Oh good, it's you," the unctuous Weasley brother sniffed, "I've been meaning to talk to you-"
"Shut it, Perce, is Hermione there?"
Percy sniffed, "And if she is, what business would it be of yours?"
Harry had enough, he reached through the connection and grabbed Percy by his neat lapels and pulled him halfway through the fireplace floo connection. The 'stuck-up' Weasley gasped in pain and surprise, his glasses dangling off one ear.
"Listen to me you cocked up little shite! I don't know what your problem is and I don't care, but Hermione is in danger, my children, your nephews may be in danger, Hermione's children, may be in danger. Now where is she?"
Being forcibly pulled through a floo connection configured only for communication tends to put quite a bit of pressure on one's body, Percy was just barely able to squeak out, "Kensington."
Harry shoved him back through, closed the connection and threw in a fistful of powder shouting, "Granger-Weasley's!"
He threw himself through the connection, wand drawn and did a quick search of the house.
No one home.
"Where?" he said aloud, and then snapped his fingers, "The play-park!"
Harry threw off his robe leaving him in what would pass for a muggle suit on a Sunday afternoon, and hurried out the front door.
He turned right at the gate and nearly ran face-first into a tangle of ribbons.
Harry fell back and drew his wand on a balloon vendor and his very large bouquet of 'super-hero' Mylar balloons.
"Oy, mate, watch where yer goin!"
Winded, and a little embarrassed, Harry scrambled up, deftly re-holstering his wand as he did so.
"Sorry. I'm sorry. I wasn't watching, in a bit of a hurry."
"Tis a Sunday, mate, slow down. Take awalk inna park or summat."
Harry nodded, "Yes, good idea. The park is just up High Street, right?"
"That'sa ticket, mate, yeah, straight up the footpath till ye hear the sprogs squealing on the swings and teeter totters."
"Thanks." Harry said, running in the direction of the park.
He scanned all points of the compass, as well as the trees as he hurried to the park, when he arrived it was crawling with children of all ages, shapes and sizes.
He took a deep, calming breath and began an active expanding circle search for magical beings.
There! He got five return pulses from the scrum near the high-slide. Walking over he was thrilled to see Hermione, who accounted for two echoes, and their three children. He ran over to choruses of Daddy, Daddy and wrapped his family in a tight hug.
"God I'm so happy to see you, all of you, I could just eat you up!"
"We've got the picnic table near the climbing oak, Dad!" Jimmy said proudly.
Harry looked around. There was no way a cog could harm his family as long as they were in the park. He was torn between the need to protect his loved ones and at the same time go to the Department of Mysteries.
If anything went wrong at the DoM and he wasn't there. . .
Hermione wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him warmly. She could tell he was distracted.
"What is it, Harry?"
"Let's have a look at that picnic lunch, shall we?" he suggested.
The two adults walked arm in arm to the table where Hermione had already spread a checkered cloth upon which stood a plastic cooler.
"An Igloo cooler, very muggle. I approve Mrs. Granger-Weasley."
"It's from Arthur. He's charmed it so that you can put a whole week's worth of food in it and it'll always stay cool."
Harry smiled wistfully, "We could've used it that time we spent living rough, remember?"
Hermione shook her head, "How could I ever forget? It was the only time in my life I had you all to myself. I'll never understand for the life of me why I didn't just throw you down and have my wicked way with you, all those cold, lonely nights."
Harry shrugged, "We were different people then, and you were pretty upset over Ron leaving us."
"I have to plead insanity, milord. God, it was like we were characters in a book written by someone who knew fuck-all how two hormonal teenagers would act if left alone, sharing a tent for months."
"Yeah," Harry agreed, "we should have been shagging like bunnies!"
Hermione kissed him, hard, and said,"Let's write our own story from now on, shall we?"
Harry surrendered himself entirely to her loving embrace.
"Now, tell me what's wrong, sweetheart."
Harry took a deep breath.
"The cog we took out wasn't a rogue; they're all connected, networked, according to Paul Kemp."
Hermione blinked, "But, Paul's dead."
Harry explained how the cogs would assimilate personalities of the people they attacked, and that he'd seen her neighbor, and Ron.
"Does this mean I - we can see Ron again?" she choked.
Harry went on to describe what Paul had sussed out - that the cog wanted to 'upload' itself into her unborn child.
"No!" she squeaked, then sat on the bench, arms wrapped protectively around her belly.
"What do we do?" She asked, a single tear running down her cheek.
Harry shifted to his Auror Officer persona, "First, we make sure you and the children are safe, take them to Aunt Andie's, Teddy will be thrilled to see you all, especially Jimmy."
Hermione nodded. "We'll go straight away, should I go back to my old flat and floo there?"
"No," he said, reaching into his jacket pocket for his muggle wallet. Handing it to her he said, "Use muggle transportation, call it a 'field trip', so that the children can get used to traveling by non-magical means."
Harry knelt on the damp grass, taking Hermione's hands in his own. "The most important thing is for you, all of you, to be safe. I can't do what I need to do if I can't be sure of that."
"There's something else, Harry, what is it?"
He looked down, "I know I promised, Hermione, but I'm going up against several cogs, and possibly one or two wizards or witches, who are master legilimens."
Hermione held his face in both her hands, "You need to rebuild your occlumency armor."
It wasn't a question.
"Then let me help, it'll take less time."
The rest of the world faded to background noise and Harry began his construction, and Hermione helped. She checked for weaknesses, ways over, under, around or through his mental fortress, and reinforced wherever she saw a possible weakness.
After fifteen minutes of meditation, most of which was spent testing his newly formed mental armor, they both stood.
"Thank you, Hermione. Please gather the children."
Harry looked at the play-park with a new understanding. These children, running and playing and skinning their knees and enjoying their ice-cream were completely oblivious to the threats all around them.
Over on one bench there was a middle aged man, apparently reading a book, with his mobile phone in his lap, its tiny camera lens pointing at a group of little girls clamoring over the climbing-frame.
Harry wandlessly directed a bolt of energy that fried the mobile's circuit board.
As Harry took in the whole scene before him he said, "Balloons."
"Sorry, Harry, did you say balloons?"
Harry nodded, "All these children, in the park and not a single balloon."
Hermione shrugged, "Maybe the balloon vendors just haven't arrived yet, it is just past noon."
He shook his head, "No, there was a balloon vendor, just. Outside. Your. Gate. . ."
"Hermione, go straight to Andromeda's, don't even bother with the cooler or the blanket, go now!"
Hermione nodded, kissed Harry on the cheek and ushered their children to the nearby bus stop.
Harry grabbed the wheeled cooler and walked purposefully back to the Granger-Weasley's Kensington flat.
Sure enough, there was the old balloon vendor, loitering by the gate, surrounded by children and their mums, all clamoring for Spider Man or Hulk or Iron Man.
The man was very slow, picking carefully, one would say meticulously from the bright ribbons. He would hand achild a balloon and accept whatever amount of cash the parent would offer.
Harry peered into the center of the mass of balloons and could just make out a few free-floating ribbons, red ribbons.