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Aftermath: Daemon's Chosen
By:
LadyBard

Chapter 4 - Confrontations

The present

The man who walked down the dark and silent corridor on the penthouse floor of DeCrypt Enterprises would immediately command one of two reactions, fear or awe. That is, if others were present to see him. It was almost 22:00 hours and the offices were empty.

Women called him handsome. He supposed he was. He never gave it much thought. He knew he favored his mother, which he was proud of. She had been his life and his world until he was fifteen. Until she was so horribly taken away from him and there hadn't been a blasted thing he could do about it.

His skin like hers, was metallic gold, his eyes were the same color except for the flecks of ruby sprinkled through. Those eyes had inspired many things, fear, desire, and respect. He wore his hair long in a single braid that traveled down the length of his back and unruly spikes in the front. Only the best warriors wore long hair as a sign of their skill. It was too easy to use as a grip to expose your throat.

He was dressed entirely in black trimmed with gold. His clothes were impeccable, made from the finest leather. He never went unarmed, and his swept-hilt rapier and matching main gauche were strapped to his hip and at the small of his back respectively. He had foregone wearing his sash. Hopefully, he wouldn't need his grenades here. He did have on his special cape, which seemed almost alive, flowing like liquid obsidian down his back.

He approached the door to Ran DeCrypt's office and they opened in mock welcome.

Ms. Warren was at her desk, doing some late-night work and her eyes lit up when she saw him.

"Raven!"

Raven couldn't help but smile at her. He truly liked the elderly sprite and there were few people Raven liked. He took her hand and raised it to his lips, "Ms. Warren."

"Raven," Ms. Warren said, "how can I convince you to give up this profession?"

"We've been through this before," Raven said, patiently. "I must be who and what I am. I must do what I can to survive."

"I know," she said quietly and inadvertently, she glanced at the closed double doors.

"So what does he want this time?"

"I don't want to guess. You'd better go in." She pressed a button on her desk console. "Mr. DeCrypt your guest is here."

The doors opened and Raven gave her a half smile, before striding into the office.

Ran Decrypt was standing and staring out the window that ran the length of the office. He didn't turn, even after the door closed.

"Did anyone see you come in?" Ran said.

"Of course not," Raven said. "Your security is sorely lacking."

Ran turned to face him and Raven stared at him mildly. People were so afraid of this pompous ASCII. Raven couldn't for the life of him see why.

"I want you to investigate a woman named Dot Matrix," Ran walked over to his desk and picked up a Notepad lying there. "Here's all the information we have on her."

Raven's eyes scanned the data. "Dot Matrix, Comman.com of Mainframe. Yes, I've heard of her and her system. They were instrumental in defeating the super virus Daemon."

"Her husband, the Prime Guardian, supposedly single-handedly did so."

Hmm, he may pose a problem, Raven thought. "She seems to have quite a respectable business."

"Everyone has secrets," Ran said. "I want you to find all of hers. I want to know all about her business practices and associates and what little skeletons she may have in her hidden files. I want to know when she goes to bed and night and what kind of java she drinks in the morning."

"Very well," Raven said. "So you wish to acquire her little operation as well?"

"I will have it," ran said. "No one says no to me."

"So I've noticed," Raven said and he ignored Ran's scathing look.

"And if you cannot, by some miracle of the User, find anything on the prim and proper Ms. Matrix, you know what to do."

"I see," Raven said darkly. Why did he continue to take work from this man? "I'm assuming you don't mean her husband."

"Don't be a smart-ASCII. She has children."

Raven's head snapped up and his gold and ruby eyes narrowed. "How old?"

"What difference does --,"

"How old?"

"It's all there," Ran nodded to the Notepad Raven held.

Again his eyes scanned the data, "No."

"What do you mean, no?"

"I mean no! You know I don't take little kids."

"You'll do as you're told," Ran said.

Raven shut the Notepad, "Then this conversation is over. Find yourself another spy." Raven turned to leave.

"Wait you son of a --," he broke off.

"Yes?" Raven's voice became dangerous.

"Very well," Ran hissed, "She has a brother. Her PDA."

Raven picked up the Notepad again, "It says she has two."

"You want the younger one. A real pretty boy. He's around your age."

Raven nodded. One look at Enzo Matrix's picture and Raven was confident he'd have no trouble if it came to that. As always, it seldom did, since business owners had their secrets.

"My usual fee, plus expenses, deposited into my account by midnight tonight," Raven said.

"Done," Ran muttered.

"I'll report by the end of the cycle."

Raven closed the Notepad and walked out without another word.

Ms. Warren looked up as he passed, "Raven?"

"Yes?"

"Was it about Dot Matrix?"

Raven smiled at her again, took her hand and kissed it once more. Then as silently as he entered, he left and went to prepare for his task.

***

Seven hours into the past.

There was nothing like flying on Baud and it was a nice evening for it. Too bad they were on such serious business. Ray had been looking forward to taking Mouse on a long romantic flight, finding somewhere nice and quiet, and showing her just how much she had come to mean to him in the few short minutes he had known her.

They had been taking it slow. Sure, there had been a lot of flirting and some heavy petting, but that's as far as sprite and search engine had ever taken it.

Now Ray began to wonder if it was time to take things further.

He had never felt this way about a woman before and in his line of work, there had been few and far between.

"So I understand you do all your surfing alone?"

"Never found anyone who likes to take the risks I do."

"I can't imagine where you'd find a girl like that."

"Well I found you, Bluey," Ray smiled at her from behind, "Now the question is where should we go from here?"

"You say something, sugah?" Mouse called back.

"Yeah, what are you trying to do? Out fly me?"

"Of course. Someone has to knock you down a few megs."

"You wish!" Ray said.

Mouse dropped back however, "So what do you think this is all about?"

"Don't know," Ray said. "I have a feeling though it's going to be something real unpleasant."

"Maybe involving Daemon's Chosen?"

"Maybe."

"I'm real worried about Bob, sugah."

"Don't worry love, between Matrix and us, we'll protect him."

"What if we can't? What if --,"

"Now don't start getting' pessimistic on me now love," Ray smiled.

"Yeah, you're right, sugah," Mouse motioned ahead of them, "Looks like we're here."

The factory was alive with the sounds of people working and conversing. From their distance all seemed well. It wasn't until Mouse and Ray landed that they realized how nervous everyone was by the suspicious looks and the abrupt way people ended their conversations.

"Security is kind of lax," Ray commented.

"They didn't need security, or at least they thought they didn't. We'll talk to Dom about starting a security force."

Someone who recognized them from the Conflict gave them directions to Dom's third floor office. Even inside the building there was construction going on. Dom had apparently moved to the office as it was quieter, more out of the way and had a working computer console. The door was open but Mouse knocked on the doorframe before entering. Dom was speaking with someone on a vid-window but he motioned them inside when he looked their way. Mouse and Ray took two of the four available chairs.

"Yes, I understand," Dom said. "You'll need to speak with my head of personnel. We haven't completely registered our workforce yet. Well sir, there's only two of us. Thank you, I'll speak with you tomorrow."

"Union rep," Dom said when the window closed. "SiRCe will handle him."

"SiRCe is here?" Ray asked and he saw Dom's face flush slightly.

"I convinced her to stay, at least temporarily, she's handling personnel, if we ever get the business up and running again. I still have to hire more people." Dom pressed a button on his desk console and the door closed. "I never close my door."

"So what about these disappearances mate? Anything more on them?"

"Nothing," Dom said. "We've questioned everyone and no one's seen anything or anyone suspicious, but like I said, how can you tell? I don't know really what else you can do, but I'd appreciate anything."

"Well first off, we noticed your security was kind of --," Mouse said.

"Lax?" Dom said, "Yes. We have a small security force, mostly former members of the Resistance. They've been hard pressed to keep the peace within the community."

"What about all the soldiers?" Ray asked.

"Very few remained. Those that did are part of the security force. The unofficial leader is a man named Harmean. He's doing his best with what we have but he's not -- well, you'll have to meet with him to see what I mean."

"If he needs help all he has to do is ask," Ray said. "Do we have your permission to act?"

"Of course," Dom said. "What ever decisions you make you can use my name."

"Good. We'll need to meet with this man and his security force. We'll also need all the personal information on those involved," Mouse said, "And the stuff that doesn't usually go into the files if you get my meaning."

"Yes," Dom said. "We've tried cross-referencing certain similarities of all the victims involved but all we've come up with is that they are all male between a certain age. Except for the little boy, which totally blew any of our theories away."

"Question for ya, Dom," Mouse said. "In your investigations, did anyone mention, or did ya hear anyone mention, Daemon's Chosen?"

"Daemon's Chosen? Why no. What's that about?"

Ray and Mouse exchanged a look. "Better let him know."

By the time they were finished explaining Dom was staring at them in wide-eyed amazement.

"Surely you can't be serious? Daemon worshipers?"

"Yup," Mouse said.

"I'm assuming Bob knows? And that he's being protected?"

"Well you know Bob," Ray said. "He didn't think he needed it, so Matrix, Mouse and I volunteered ourselves."

"Matrix is with him now."

"Then he should be perfectly safe," Dom said, "No one is that random to go against Matrix."

Mouse stifled a giggle and Ray cleared his throat.

"What?" Dom asked, "Oh no, Ray?"

"Um - yeah, well --,"

"Oops - sorry --,"

"No problem mate," Ray smiled. "Not something I'll ever try again."

Someone knocked and the door came open, "Dom? Why is the door closed?"

SiRCe entered, then halted when she saw Ray and Mouse. "Mouse! Ray!" The former leader of the Underground smiled at them both.

"Close the door, please, SiRCe," Dom said.

SiRCe nodded and did so, "You're here about the disappearances, aren't you?" She pulled up a third chair and sat down.

"We're here to help, sugah," Mouse said. "Now I understand you're in charge of personnel here?"

"For now," SiRCe said quietly.

Ray saw a flash of disappointment in Dom's eyes. So he is sweet on her, the Surfer thought.

"Then we're going to need some info on the people involved," Mouse said, "And a place to work."

"Then we'd like to do some snooping of our own," Ray said.

"Anything you need," Dom said, "There's an office down the hall with a computer and workstation. You're welcome to that. SiRCe?"

"Thanks Dom, we'll get to the bottom of this, I promise," Ray said.

"I hope so," Dom said. "After all we've been through, I was hoping for some peace. Guess it was just wishful thinking."

***

Three milliseconds of searching and cross-referencing on the computer proved futile and Mouse was becoming annoyed.

"Dom was right, we've tried every angle and the only thing the victims have in common are the fact that they're all male," Mouse hissed in frustration. "We can't even say age."

"There's nothing off the record that states they were acquainted in any way, either," SiRCe said. "But here's a list of various people each victim were known to associate with. We cross referenced that too but the closest we came to a match was this woman --," SiRCe punched up an image on the monitor, "- her name is Pixel Shim. She's one of the refugees that came in. She's the fiancée of one of the men that went missing. Apparently she was acquainted with the - um - married man."

"Umm hmm --," Mouse said. "As good a place to start as any. But this could use a woman's touch. Sugah, you want to go talk ta that Harmean fella?"

"Why not?"

"Is there a place we can meet, SiRCe?"

"Well a pre-fab building was erected as sort of a common area where the people meet. It's like a tavern-slash-club. Ray will probably find Harmean there."

"Then I'll meet you there in two milliseconds, Ray."

"Will do. You be careful, Bluey."

"Sugah, you call me that one more time --,"

Ray left before she could finish the sentence.

"What does it mean?" SiRCe asked.

"A woman with red hair."

"What?"

"Don't ask."

***

The city of pre-fabricated and retrofitted temporary homes spread across the clearing that had once served as the landing area of the rebel forces. Mouse could see the Libertas and the Mercurius from where she floated on her zip board. She wondered how the repairs were going and decided she should stop in a talk to Irina and Max anyway. It was possible that they could provide some useful information.

First she needed to talk to Pixel Shim.

SiRCe had told her where the woman was residing. She and her fiancé had been sharing one of the homes, but another woman had moved in with her when her fiancée disappeared. Mouse made her way there.

The place reminded her of System 998 about as grungy as a place could be but until construction was finished there was nothing else that could be done. Again Mouse knocked on the doorframe when she stood in front of the place.

"Yes?"

"Hi, I need to talk to Pixel Shim?"

The door opened to reveal a young lavender-skinned woman, "You found her. Who are you?"

Mouse decided Pixel Shim would be more inclined to talk to her in an official capacity, "I'm Constable Mouse, of the New Collective."

"Constable Mouse? What kind of a name is that?"

"It's my name sugah," Mouse decided she didn't like this woman at all, "And it's a name I'm proud of, you got a problem with it?"

"No," Pixel whispered, "The Collective? What do you want with me?"

"I want to talk to you about your fiancé. Dom Markup asked me to investigate."

"What, Mr. Markup can't do his own investigating?" Pixel asked. "You had better come in."

No, Mouse didn't like this woman one little bit. "I understand you were also acquainted with one of the other missing men?"

"My you get right to the point don't you Constable?" Pixel snapped at her. "My fiancé thought I was seeing him but I wasn't. We had an argument and he left. That was the last time I ever saw him. That's the same thing I told the people Dom sent out."

"Okay so what didn't you tell Dom?" Mouse asked.

"If I didn't tell Dom something, what makes you think I'd tell you?"

"Well," Mouse casually leaned against the wall, "I could get you in a lot more trouble than Dom could - seeing as I'm a constable with the Collective and all. Not to mention --," Mouse drew her dagger and took out a whetstone and began to sharpen the blade, " - I'd be real upset if you held something from me."

Pixel looked at her for a moment. "Well there's this guy that he recently started hanging out with but --,"

"But?"

"Listen, you have to promise me protection."

"Protection? From who?"

Pixel crossed the room to the door and opened it on a crack, then closed it. "My fiancé was recently approached by this man that has sort of gang here. They have a few things going on, you know illegal things. This place is perfect for it with all the transients and refugees and minimum security. I don't know what he wanted my fiancé for. He wouldn't tell me, but this man, well he has the kind of reputation - well you don't go against him that's all. He kind of runs this place."

"Damn it," Mouse swore, "Should a known something like this would happen here. Dom definitely needs a better security force. Okay sugah, you want protection you got it, but you're going to have to go to the factory complex and tell Dom everything you told me, got it?"

"Yes. And thank you, constable."

"No problem. Now where can I find this guy?"

***

Ray strode into the pre-fab building that SiRCe had indicated. All eyes turned towards him. The search engine shrugged inwardly. He was used to stares and strange looks.

"Evening, mates," Ray gave them his most charming smile, "I'm looking for a man goes by the name of Harmean?"

Several heads turned in the direction of the far corner of the room. Sitting at a table cloaked in shadows was an aging obese sprite that looked like he hadn't seen soap and water for at least a cycle. Ray sighed. Couldn't he ever have to deal with a decent clean individual?

The search engine sauntered over to him, "Mind if I join you for a drink, mate?"

"Who are you and what do you want?" Harmean grunted in a hoarse slurred voice.

"Name's Tracer. Constable Tracer of the New Collective."

Instantly a flush reddened Harmean's face at the same instance several heads turned in their direction.

"Sure, sit down," Harmean said. The sprite signaled for a waitress and she brought him a fresh bottle and a second glass. Ray eyed the bottle - Chevara Whiskey - dubiously. He didn't prefer hard liquor. It slowed the reflexes. Yet, he accepted the shot that Harmean poured for him.

"So I repeat," Harmean said, "What do you want?"

"Is there a more private place we can talk?"

"This is fine," he waved his hand in an expansive gesture, "These people don't care."

Ray shrugged and tipped back his shot glass. "Dom Markup asked me to do a little investigating into the disappearances."

"Oh so Dom doesn't believe I can do it myself?"

"Why should he?" Ray said. "Look at yourself. Why should Dom feel confident you could do anything?"

For the first time, Harmean actually laughed. "I guess I can't blame him at that."

Then Harmean seemed to sober. "Shame about that little boy going missing."

"Yes it is," Ray said. "And you found nothing in your investigation?"

"There was no investigation," Harmean said. "I asked a few questions and that was it."

"What's your problem mate? If you were having trouble why didn't you ask for help?"

"Because --," Harmean suddenly broke off and a look of sheer terror crossed his features. The source of his fear seemed to be over Ray's shoulder. The search engine turned in his seat to see a sprite and two binomes approaching.

The binomes were nondescript in appearance but it was the sprite that caught Ray's attention. He was completely yellow; his skin, eyes, and hair. His frame was thin with a weasel-like face and crooked teeth that showed in his malicious grin.

"Hey there, Harmean," his voice was high and nasal. "Who's your friend?"

"He's not my friend," Harmean mumbled.

"Sharing a drink with him and he's not your friend?" The yellow man said. "What is he something else?"

Ray moved his chair back in slow motion, turned and stood, "And who might you be?"

"I asked you first."

"No, you asked him."

His smile faded, "Call me Crack."

"You can call me Constable Tracer," Ray said.

"Well la-de-freakin'-da," Crack wasn't the least bit impressed. "So what? You takin' Harmean's place as the law around here?"

Several snickers from the gathered patrons followed his remark. Ray failed to see the humor.

"I might be," Ray said. "You got a problem with that?"

Instantly the mood changed. Some of the patrons moved away, out of the line of fire Ray supposed, but they watched with rapt attention. Ray sent a silent message to Baud in preparation. Crack's smile turned into a sneer.

"Yeah I got a problem with it," Crack said. "People around here tend to listen to me."

"You wouldn't have anything to do with the disappearances would you?"

Crack's expression turned mean, "Maybe. What you going to do about it?"

The two binomes moved slightly towards Ray.

"Take you in for questioning for starters," Ray said. "Release you when I bloody well feel like it, if at all."

"Is that so?" Crack snapped his fingers and three more sprites, all of varying sizes and weights, rose from their table to rush to his side. "Harmean if he's really not your friend, you'd better get clear now."

Harmean obeyed, slinking into the shadows against the far wall.

Ray donned his web armor.

"What in the net is that?" Crack laughed. "Oh well, won't protect you from getting' your neck broke." Crack signaled again and the sprites advanced on him.

The sharp noise of a door being slammed caused everyone's attention to shift to the tavern's entrance.

"Sugah," Mouse leaned casually against the doorframe as she sharpened her katana with a whetstone, "You in need of a little help?"

"No, love, got it covered," Ray smiled and before his enemies had a chance to react, Ray's fist lashed out, smashing Crack in his mouth just as the sprite turned his attention back to the search engine.

His companions watched in shock as their leader hit the floor hard, blood poured from his mouth and he spat out teeth. Crack said something, but the words came out garbled. Whatever it was didn't sound flattering.

The two binomes turned and ran but the three sprites advanced on Ray. The first to reach him got their teeth knocked out as well and when the other two rushed him, all three went down in a fierce tangle of limbs. The two had Ray pinned at first, giving them the advantage but Ray managed to free one hand and rammed the flat of his palm against the chin of one, but the other struck him across the temple and ended up breaking his fingers for his trouble. Now free, Ray rolled, came up and as his second attacker was struggling to his feet holding his injured hand, Ray kneed him in the groin. He went down and didn't rise.

By now, the patrons had gathered in a semi-circle to watch the spectacle and Ray looked at the sea of faces in heated excitement and the sounds of voices goading him on. A quick glance told him Mouse was still by the door, which was fine with him because he didn't want her in the way.

Suddenly arms wrapped around his torso, pinning his arms to his side as the first attacker recovered. Ray struggled, and then brought his foot down hard on the other man's. The attacker released Ray and spun him around, aimed a swing which Ray ducked and the search engine smashed the sprite's nose to splinters.

Movement on the other side of the room caught his attention. Mouse saw him too. Crack, running out of a side entrance. Calling for Baud, Ray pushed through the crowd. "Mouse, that one! We have to catch him!"

The red haired mercenary dashed out the front door. Ray hopped on Baud and followed in her wake. Crack disappeared behind some buildings, the spaces between them too narrow for Ray to navigate. Ray lost sight of his quarry for a while, but Mouse was easy to spot and Ray hovered behind her.

"Ruddy null-face must be hiding somewhere." Ray didn't want Mouse facing him alone so he alighted on the ground and followed her down the alley she had taken. He had a feeling she knew he was there, so he didn't call out to keep from alerting Crack to their presence.

Suddenly the sounds of a scuffle reached his ears. Ray dashed forward in time enough to see Crack, clambering over a wall and Mouse in hot pursuit. Ray followed. More twists and turns and the felon continued to run, until he ran out of places to hide. The open space between the buildings and the woods was small, but once out in the open, Ray hopped on Baud and was closing in, in the next nano. Crack turned suddenly and fired a shot. Ray had had no idea he was armed and it glanced off Baud. The search engine experienced a moment of pain, but ignored it as his quarry plunged into the woods with Mouse following.

"Mouse, don't go in alone!" Ray called but of course the mercenary ignored him. Ray maneuvered through the trees, but still had clear sight of Mouse. Suddenly she stopped running and Ray glided to a stop just a few feet behind her.

"Thank the User you're here!" They heard Crack said not too far ahead. "There's this crazy sprite and some red-haired hell-cat chasing me --,"

The forest was suddenly lit up by laser fire. The silence pierced by Crack's dying scream.

"Ruddy net!" Ray leapt from a Baud as two more shots barely missed him. Mouse had taken cover behind a tree. There was movement in the forest ahead of them, then another blinding light and an explosion. An eerie bluish incandescence that Ray instinctively knew was a tear appeared. Three figures were silhouetted in the light before it converted into portal and they disappeared through.

Using the cover of the trees, Ray was soon beside Mouse.

"You think they're gone love?"

"Yup," Mouse said. "But still watch yourself."

The pair moved forward, dashing from tree to tree. An acrid scent reached them, an odor of ammonia and rotting meat combined. As they stepped into the clearing Mouse gave a sharp hiss and Ray stepped in front of her to shield her from any danger.

Of danger, there was none but the sight that assaulted his eyes had the bile rising to his throat.

It was not the sight of Crack's slowly defragmenting body that made Ray ill, but the site of something else that gave off the stench of decomposing flesh. Actually several something's barely recognizable as what Ray somehow knew to be the missing sprites.

In his entire processing Ray had never seen anything so - he couldn't think of words strong enough to describe it. How could you describe a stinking rotting diseased thing that was once living?

As if coming from a daze, he remembered Mouse standing there, "Go and get help love."

Mouse didn't move.

"Mouse, go now!" Ray demanded. He half expected to her come back with her usual defiance, but instead, she nodded mutely and started back out the forest at a run.

Ray turned away and a tremor passed through his frame. His stomach lurched violently and he dropped to his knees as it emptied of its contents. He was relieved Mouse had left. He didn't want her seeing him like this. After a time he stood and moved a ways from the clearing and paused, taking in great gulps of air.

So the disappearances were now murders.

***

"That's the best we can do for now," Harmean said, "I don't want anybody touching the bodies until we can get a qualified team down here."

"Dom's taking care of it," Ray said. He glanced again at Mouse who was standing rigidly beside him. The normally talkative mercenary had been silent from the moment she had returned with Harmean and his security team. She was pale, her facial muscles tight and to Ray, she seemed like she would go random any nano.

"What do you suppose happened to them?" Harmean asked. He was looking to where his security team had cordoned off the area and had covered the remains with blankets.

"Don't know," Ray said. "Looks like some sort of plague. Nastiest thing I've ever -- ,"

Mouse suddenly made a noise, like a strangled gasp, then turned and ran deeper into the woods.

"Ruddy net!" Ray swore. He started after her just as Harmean spoke.

"Wait! You may need this." Harmean handed him a silver flask. Ray took it without comment and started after Mouse. He opened it as he walked and took a healthy swallow. The Chevara Whiskey burned his throat as it went down. He came upon Mouse in another clearing. She was on her knees, her arms wrapped around her stomach as it rebelled. Ray knew she was aware of his presence so he didn't approach immediately. When her heaves quieted Ray moved forward and knelt besides her, handing her the flask. Mouse took several gulps before wiping her mouth with the back of her hand.

"Thanks sugah," she said in a horse voice.

Ray rubbed the palm of his hand up and down her back; "I'm taking you back to the Hall."

"No - no, I'm fine now," Mouse said. "I just - I ain't never seen --,"

"I know, me neither," Ray said. He coaxed her to drink some more and she did without protest. "At least go back to the factory."

"I said I was fine," Mouse rasped, "Don't you worry none, sugah."

"Of course I'll worry you random hacker," Ray said. "This is too weird."

"That's an understatement," Mouse said. "Come on, we'd better get back."

Ray helped her up and the two made their way back to the scene.

Harmean approached immediately, "Just got a message from Dom. He's contacted the Prime Guardian. He's on his way here now with a special team."

"So what are you going to do, mate?" Ray said.

"Just wait for them," Harmean said, "Look, you said so yourself, I'm no investigator. I'm going to let you guys handle this. As of tonight, I resign."

"Here," Ray handed him the flask.

"Keep it Surfer," Harmean said. "I have a feeling before the night is out you're going to need it more than I am."

***

The cold sterile room gave Bob the jaggies but it was necessary for the work that had to be done. He stood there now watching his friend Doctor Rose Norton; examine what was left of the bodies.

Upon his and Matrix's arrival at the factory they had found Mouse and Ray leading the security team, the former security chief having walked off the job. Neither the mercenary nor the search engine looked well and Bob had ordered them both back to Council Hall. Both had refused, Bob had Mouse return to the factory to begin questioning the members of Crack's gang, whom Bob's security team (with Mouse as their leader) had no trouble rounding up. Ray had accompanied him and Matrix.

The special team from the New Collective had taken every precaution (or so Bob hoped) to carefully handle the remains and transport them to Capitol Memorial, where Rose had set up her new residence. Now in the basement morgue, Bob watched as Rose examined the bodies through a sterile containment field, which was the only reason Bob was allowed to be in the room with her.

After what seemed like milliseconds of tests, prodding, and muttering, Rose moved away from the remains with a belabored sigh and approached him, "Bob I'm going to have to run more tests, but the preliminary results are we're dealing with some type of viral infection. But one I've never seen before."

Bob expelled a breath, "This seems to be more than just a mere infection. This is almost like -," The Prime Guardian shuddered at the memory.

"Your power, when you were Dariem?"

Another tremor raced over his body, "Yes. What I did was more like a disease, but it corrupted then deleted. It didn't leave the body in tact and certainly not in the condition those bodies are in. Why haven't they fragmented?"

"I have no idea. That's what I'll need to find out, but I'll need some assistance."

"Whomever you need, I'll get them."

"If they're still alive," Rose said. "I don't know how this works at all, or if it can be spread. It's good that no one touched the bodies - um - Mouse and Ray didn't did they?"

"No," Bob said.

"Well I think they should get a full examination anyway," Rose said.

"Do you think they need to be quarantined?"

"Well it would be a moot point now if they did, but I don't believe so. Still have all the people who were anywhere near the bodies have a full examination."

"All right. Do what you need to do, you have my full support," Bob said. Unexpectedly, Bob felt ill.

"Are you okay? You look pale." Rose said.

"I need some air," Bob turned quickly and walked out.

In the corridor Matrix was leaning against the wall and Ray was sitting on a bench. Bob halted as a wave of dizziness over took him. He leaned against the wall, resting his forehead against the cool cement.

"Bob?" Matrix was beside him instantly, "Bob are you okay?"

"Yes --," Bob swallowed his throat suddenly dry.

"Here, mate," Ray handed Matrix a flask. The renegade sniffed at it, made a face and handed it to Bob. Bob took a massive swig and wished he hadn't for the whiskey set his insides on fire.

"What's happening?" Ray asked as Matrix led Bob over to the bench.

"Rose isn't certain what it is," Bob said, "She believes its some sort of viral infection but - well she says she has to perform more tests. She did say she wanted you and Mouse to get checked out."

"Why?"

"Precaution. You were nearest to the - remains."

Ray muttered an oath, "That stuffs not contagious is it? Should Mouse and I be quarantined?"

"I asked. Rose didn't think that was necessary," Bob took another drink.

"This is too weird," Ray walked a few steps way, "Maybe it's time I surfed on. Just take Bluey and get the net out of here." The search engine seemed to be talking more to himself.

Matrix and Bob exchanged a look. Bob stood, "Ray? You have every right to leave if you want to. Maybe I'm being kind of selfish here, but I wish you wouldn't. We need you."

Ray turned, "What for?"

"What do you mean, what for? You've been an immense help to us. You make one net of an investigator. Maybe I should make that Constable position permanent."

"Besides," Bob managed a smile; "I haven't had a chance to repay you for helping Matrix and AndrAIa find me."

"Oh that," Ray said. "Well -- Dre asked for help (Ray cringed at Matrix's look) and they seemed so fond of you and well -- it was worth it." The search engine's words cemented their friendship. "Aw ruddy net, Bluey probably wouldn't go with me anyway."

"So what now?" Matrix said.

"Rose won't be able to tell us anything until she finishes her tests." Bob said. "Ray, I need to know everything you and Mouse found out. We need to find those sprites and binomes who were with Crack and bring them in for questioning. You didn't see who went through the portal?"

"Afraid not mate," Ray said. "Just that there were three of them, one looked to be a small sprite. The other two binomes."

Bob frowned thoughtfully.

"What is it?" Matrix asked.

"We know we have a virus to deal with, one of the three could have possibly been the virus responsible. Remember we felt the presence of a virus at the meeting?"

"Yes," Matrix said, "One of Daemon's Chosen?"

"But wasn't anyone infected by Daemon cured when she deleted?" Ray said. "So what you felt was a true virus?"

"Someone from Daemon's Army? But that's impossible! They were all destroyed in the final assault!" Matrix said.

"Were they?" Bob asked. "I think we need to check the records of the final assault. What exactly happened."

"All that info is in Mainframe." Matrix said.

Bob nodded, "Hold on a nano." The Prime Guardian went back to the examination room but Rose was just coming out to meet him.

"I have to go back to Mainframe for a little while and do some checking of my own," Bob told her.

"I was about to tell you to. There's nothing we can do until the test results come back. You look exhausted, why not go home and get some rest."

"There's too much to do. I have to continue to investigate while the trail is still fresh." Bob said, "We may be obtaining some new information soon."

"I'll keep you posted on the status here."

"Thank you Rose."

Bob went back to Ray and Matrix, "I'd like you two to return to the factory and assist Mouse with the security team. If Mouse hasn't already, let me know what you found out about Crack and what exactly made him so powerful. As soon as you have anything, return to Mainframe through the Hall, I'll give you full clearance to use the portal generator."

"Will do, Prime Guardian." Ray said.

"Anyone you've brought in for questioning will need to be confined in the Hall Detention Center. Be careful though."

"You got it Bob," Matrix said. "What are you going to do?"

"I need to question the prisoners we have in Mainframe," Bob said, "And we need to get Dot into the loop here. All the information on the final confrontation is in the Principal Office database. If I find anything, I'll contact you immediately. Stay Frosty."

"You to Bob."

As the three men went to go about their separate tasks, Bob couldn't help but remember the feeling of icy fingers and the presence that had caused them. He didn't like not knowing who his enemy was.


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