Myriad Hunters [Mission for ScorchMan]

When ScorchMan returned to the scene of his latest battle, he found that the network had already more or less repaired itself; the deep furrow in the ground had sealed over and the surrounding terrain looked like unremarkable patch of a similar landscape. Normalised panels made up the majority, with the odd strip of metal or magnetised panels forming lines and divisions; far off he could see the now repaired fields that he had trekked through before, with newly repaired measuring instruments poking up amongst them, where previously there had been scarecrows for him to dispatch. The air remained hot and dry, however, almost uncharacteristically so, for Electown's outer nets.

The location was as deserted as he'd left it, except for a single entity, standing more or less on the spot where the dangerous spider virus had burrowed into the ground and fled. Though ScorchMan's own senses were more limited, if Griffin was watching on, the screen showed him a small figure; a petite, feminine build that stood three feet tall at most, including the laid back rabbit ears that added several inches on their own. Along with the ears, she was covered in a short coat of pure white fur.

Dress-wise, the woman was attired quite minimally; she was barefoot, with a denim skirt, divided into individual strips of an inch or two across for ease of movement, that ended at her mid thighs, and wore a slim chest band that was made in the same denim style and looked as though it didn't really have too much restraining or supporting work to do, other than covering decency. A pair of stylised red wings were printed on the back of it, either side of the back hitching, and small rabbit tail poked out between the pleats of her skirt. This, along with the ears, probably made it no surprise that there were clear signs of other lapin features defining her face as she turned around to face ScorchMan's arrival. She grinned and waved a hand.

“Heya! ScorchMan, right? I'd be surprised if you weren't, hehe.” The voice was small and high-pictched, but not enough to sound squeaky or shrill; rather, she sounded playful and upbeat. The bunny-girl painted a fairly innocuous image on Griffin's screen as she waved his navi over. To ScorchMan's way of reading creatures, as he got closer, the figure positively glowed with the weight of code and energy output concentrated inside her form. The small figure was an almost uncomfortable beacon on his senses. The reading for her showed up as 'Prosopopoeia.lapin', but her program integrity was masked.

“Nice to meet you! I'm Prosopopoeia, but you can call me Prose. Sorry for Shanghai-ing your thread, but this is kinda an anomaly and it'd be bad for any other under-prepared navigators to get mixed up in it. It's pretty lucky that you...” For a moment her voice trailed off; Griffin might notice her looking ScorchMan over and leaning in with a tilt of her head, peeking up at his visor, before wincing and drawing away again. “Are you okay? I hope none of that came from the Myriad. Lasting damage of some sort? Sorry...” she cleared her throat and looked down at her feet, embarrassed for a moment.
His awareness was a bloom of reds.

Compared to the soothing yellow cradle of the PET, the Net was always a bit cold when ScorchMan first touched down, typically a blur of deep shadows and little else to his heat sense. He didn't know when he started noticing that, but touching down to ElecTown Net and already feeling warm and comfortable was a feeling he wasn't the slightest bit used to. All around him was a swirling crimson gradient, the energy that had seared into the ground still diffusing into the Net. The pride he took in his growing power - that, too, was something new.

He wasn't alone. Nearby was a point bright enough that facing it felt almost like standing before the Myriad's jaws. Was this his patron? "Hello? Is someone there?" ScorchMan called out, relieved when the presence spoke up. Walking over, he realized the voice was coming from somewhere near his waist: a child? A small smile came unbidden, even when Prose's introduction faltered. "Old injuries, nothing to worry about. It's good to meet you, Prose, thanks for coming," he waved off her concern; it was easy to guess what she'd noticed.

"Speaking of being prepared, I should get my Operator on board." As ScorchMan gestured, a window popped open roughly eye-level to Prose. The room beyond was dark, with a deeply suggestive view of a man's bare torso amidst tangled sheets. Griffin Reim enjoyed his gym time, and it showed on every inch of visible skin, from his shoulders to the deep V of his hips where his boxers had ridden low. A gentle snoring came from just off-screen - utterly oblivious to the view, ScorchMan keyed the PET's alarm, calling, "Griffin, time to get up!"

"Whuzzah?" A symphony of abs flexed as Griffin levered himself upright, holding the PET up to his face. His cheeks dimpled around a sleepy grin as he noticed ScorchMan's company, "Awww, who's your friend? Hey lil' bun, how's it going?" He seemed utterly unconcerned with his state of undress, making no move to correct it as he set the PET on his nightstand, stretching and sighing explosively.

"My seeing-eye human," ScorchMan deadpanned to Prose. Turning to the window, he summed up the last few minutes for Griffin's benefit, "This is Prose, I met her on the mission BBS last night. She's gonna help me track down that spider-beast we fought, so I'll probably be yelling for Battlechips in a little bit." While Griffin hummed his understanding (and stretched a little more), ScorchMan turned back to not-quite-face Prose. "On that note, how did you want to go about this? The Myriad virus melted its way underground, so I was thinking I'd open the floor up and see if its escape route is still there. That's, uh, assuming you're fireproof; otherwise, I'm open to suggestions." It was hard to tell from the impression he got of Prose what element she might be, but the way she shone he wouldn't be surprised if she turned out to be a Fire-element like him. His furnace flared a little in anticipation, flames flickering across his chest.
Unseen by ScorchMan, a slight grin flickered across his patron's expression as the view screen came up; her eyebrows arched and she tilted her head a little, taking in the view.

“Hellloooo Sailor...” Her tongue played briefly over the tip of one of her small, pointed teeth before she caught herself. A short giggle escaped her before Prose cleared her throat softly, though she was still grinning.

“Ah... ahem... aaaanyway... I've been doing a quick reconstruction...” she made a gesture with one hand, moving fingertips to the centre of her chest before casting them out in a circle that threw slim blue tracers and wire-frames over the surrounding space; a red dot marked as the Myriad virus ScorchMan had fought moved thought the fight swiftly, before crawling away to burrow into the ground near her feet, as it had before. She looked up to him, thinking, then traced her fingertips through the air in front of her again, subtly changing the reconstruction. “I'm guessing if Mr. February there is your eyes, then you can't see normally like that? I can change this up if you use something else... If you can read the data space, I can do it in ray trace... or... Infra-red? Straight up therm-optic? What d'you need?” If ScorchMan had a preference, that worked, the bunny girl was quick to reconfigure her reconstruction to one he could read, but else-wise it was still easy enough for Griffin to make sense of and relay. She stood back, looking at the spot where the virus had vanished again then back to ScorchMan with hand on her hip and her head tilted.

“We can talk about how we're going to take care of this in a minute... First, I need you to fill me in. What actually happened, because, you know, these things don't come up to the normal nets on their own. So come on... What were you really doing?” She swayed back and forth with a playful smirk and a teasing cadence to her question. “Like I said, you're not in trouble, and I don't work for the GNA or any of the post net-war factions or anything like that. I'm not even really supposed to spend a lot of time around individual net navigators directly, but this needs cleaning up... and I've got holiday deliveries to get to soon enough, so the quicker we sort it out, the better.” She folded her arms, awaiting an answer, but despite the seriousness of the words, she still seemed upbeat and friendly – there wasn't any hint of recrimination or threat in her questioning, just curiosity, it seemed.

Around them the recovered network went on unperturbed and peaceful; a warm breeze whistling through the nearby fields, tall structures in the distance, glittering slightly in the sun, and a clear sky overhead; it was vaguely at odds with ScorchMan's way of seeing things – and thus the extreme readings the woman's small form was displaying – not actual heat, but simply density of code and volume of raw energy circling within. Prose bounced on her toes, letting her hands slip behind her back instead.
"Uh, that's Mr. December to you, thanks much," Griffin waggled a finger to the camera as he walked off-screen. The soft sound of rustling clothes ensued - from just outside the frame, he called coquettishly, "Kotobuki Firefighters' charity calendar, three years running? No big deal or anything." The rush of a faucet, then the quiet shake of a toothbrush going to work.

"There, that's fine," Cutting his Operator off, ScorchMan made a stopping gesture with a hand once Prose's reconstructions started putting out heat. Walking slowly forward into the wireframes, the walking furnace lit himself up, fire pouring from his body until he stood at the centre of a rippling bubble. With a simulated deep breath, ScorchMan pushed his awareness out and felt for where his heat brushed against the reconstruction. Memory supplied the rest, "That's right...I was flying around, and it tried to shark me just as I landed right...there." He nodded his understanding, barely registering Prose's teasing.

Before ScorchMan could begin, he was interrupted by the sound of a door swinging shut. A hand reached to grab the PET, giving the camera a thighs-up view of Griffin walking down the hall in rugby shorts and a loose tank top. "I can answer that, bro. This lazy mook was chilling in his lava bathtub that he made torching a bunch of viruses, and he stayed in there so long his feet got stuck! Next thing you know, big ugly's rolling up on him like 'yo, snacktime!'' Hey ScorchMan, it cool if I get my gains on while you do your thing?"

"Knock yourself out - and my feet did not get stuck," ScorchMan griped, looking put out in a very literal sense. Flames dying down to a red smoulder, his rippling sphere of influence faded in short order. Without turning to face the other Navi, he started, "I dunno anything about this thing, all I know is Griffin yelled 'big damn lava spider' and the next second it was running me down. Got me a couple times, but I kept ahead of it." At that he huffed a bit, expression twisting as he recalled the mad scramble, and summed up the rest, "Then, it was just a matter of Griffin having exactly the right chips for me to get clear, and blast it before it finished the job."

"Not to mention pointing you in the right direction," Griffin chimed in, hooking his PET to the handlebars of an exercise bike and walking a slow lap around the fire hall's gym. Stretching and unsubtly flexing for the camera, the mottled red of old burn scars were plainly evident along one arm and shoulder. At that point another fireman in athletic wear appeared in the doorway and wolf-whistled, prompting Griffin to bring his arms up, bracket his head with his biceps, and affect a pin-up pose for maximum peacocking. His voice filled the small room, "Yeah, can't say we've been doing this long, but ScorchMan over here? Pretty badass in a fight."

"Yeah, well, I had help." With an emphatic lean towards Griffin's voice, the flames licking from ScorchMan's armour flared back up to a strong yellow burn. Despite the imposing stance, his words were almost hesitant, "So, as long as I'm working with you, can I ask...what was that thing, anyway?"
At the mild scolding, Jazz's employer put a hand quickly to her mouth, stifling another little giggle. “No way, that's you? I should have recognised! My mum totally left last year's up for, like six months—” She cut herself off with a quick shake of her head. “Sorry, business...” A faint blush at her cheeks where the fur was thinnest accompanied the small bunny woman clearing her throat. She busied herself with the reconstruction while ScorchMan and Griffin alternated giving the details of their story. When they were done, she turned back, folding her arms with a frown.

“So you weren't doing anything shifty at all... just regular busting and exploring, up here on the normals? You're sure?” One small pointed fang gnawed at her lower lip as the tapped her fingers. “That's not good...” she returned to stand closer to ScorchMan and give him another appraising glance as the thought about his information.

“That thing was a Myriad – it's a special kind of virus entity, a hunter, but it also subtly balances various network features, mostly to do with terrain and structure retention. They're not really aware of doing so, it's just a by-product of their hunting patterns and predation. They're very elegant pieces of work, or they were, originally.” She shook her head and wandered back to the point in the ground where it had burrowed away, then back across to the place where it had emerged.

“But, they live in the chaos and the rogues, for the most part. Mostly consuming broken code and damaged programs, and refactoring scrambled terrain in the process. No real hope of getting anything in order down there, of course – legacy from an older time, more than anything. They don't come up to the higher nets – they've got no reason to. Their preferred prey tends to be programs with lasting or permanent damage of some sort, and that's a rarity up here.” Here, she looked at ScorchMan again and ducked her head, apologetic.

“I don't mean to upset or offend, but your situation alone wouldn't be enough to draw one. It was already up here and just found you, most likely... But it shouldn't have been up here at all... this has to be taken care of.” Here, she paused and grinned up at ScorchMan with a more playful smirk, though it was likely wasted on him unless Griffin was also seeing. Even so, her voice took on a more mischievous tone as well. “But that's what you wanted to do anyway, right?” After a moment she frowned again, glancing between ScorchMan and the last place the spider creature had been seen.

“I should probably file this before we start.... but I'm not supposed to spend extended time around individual navigators... Easier to ask forgiveness, right? Besides, this is your hunt, and if I get told to clean it up alone that's not going to give you the closure you need, is it? The Myriad will have probably dropped closer to the deeper nets. I don't know why it's up here, or what drove it here, but it'll still prefer to lurk where it won't be detected easily as much as it can in a normal net, and that means the roads less travelled. We're in luck though... You're just the guy that will make this easier, after all. I can boost whatever trail it left behind, at least as long as we don't lose it entirely, and if you've got good senses for heat tracing, that ought to be enough to let you follow it. It's going to be pretty dangerous, just so you know, but I'm guessing that's no surprise to you, right? You ready to do this?” She bounced on her toes and made a brief show of stretching and flexing her arms, though overall it looked more like she was warming up for a dance party than for serious hunting. Her exposed fur and simple denim attire didn't really seem too suitable for the heat they were chasing, but the bunny girl didn't seem worried. She looked to ScorchMan and then towards Griffin's display as well, checking to see if either of them had any questions or reservations before setting out.
Speaking in relative terms, ScorchMan was young and untested for a Navi. As with many of his kind, he was built for specialized job support, with his daily life a regimented, routine closed circuit that neatly separated everything he knew from everything he didn't. Only rarely did ScorchMan's world expand to fit a new depth in his understanding, each instance a milestone - and this conversation seemed like it was going to be another one. Several times, Prose's explanation used terms the Navi had no context for, and his face made no secret of the fact from 'rogues' onward, but he could piece enough dots together to make a game attempt at nodding along. "I think I get it," he said cautiously, once Prose finished her outline, "at any rate, seems like I'll be doing the Net a favour by getting rid of it."

"Too right," Griffin nodded his agreement. Finishing off his stretches, he segued into squats without missing a beat, first on bodyweight, then with a loaded barbell across his shoulders. Even with the weight, he didn't sound the least bit breathless when he spoke up, "So assuming big ugly didn't get chased up here by something bigger and uglier, there must be something screwed up underground, right? Something that drew it up to the...normals, right?" A slight adjustment of stance put Griffin in profile; the smooth glide of quads and hamstrings resumed. "It couldn't have been that far away, if it noticed ScorchMan's bathtub and came to see what's up. Dive down there, and you'll probably find both your bogie and whatever's distracting it from heading home," the firefighter continued, casually putting lie to the notion that more brawn equalled less brains.

The slighter half of the Beefcake Duo had gone quiet, mulling over Prose's words. A small shard of shiny black carapace blinked into ScorchMan's glove, who didn't seem to notice he was fidgeting with it until he pricked his thumb by accident. "I think you're right," he started, facing a point between Griffin and Prose's voices and addressing both at once. To Prose he nodded, gesturing down to the fragment, "It's not exactly closure I'm after. Yeah, I could've just pointed the authorities at the problem and washed my hands, but if it's something I can do something about..." the words fled him.

Hesitant, ScorchMan tried again, "I guess I don't like the thought of giving the Myriad a chance to find someone unprepared for it. That's just, no. Not happening, not on...heh! Not on my watch." The Navi's jaw curled into a rueful smirk, and let the fragment blip away. From beside him came a very Griffin-y 'eyyyyyy', but ScorchMan paid it no mind, choosing instead to reach down for those deep parts in his core that governed fire and heat, and pull. "Yeah," the burning man said, his body awash with curling flames, "I'm ready. If you've got a plan, then just tell me what you need and I'll do what I can. Oh, and uh, maybe stand back."
As the pair followed along, Prose made sure they understood, but her ears stood up straighter and her eyebrows rose at some of their slightly less certain answers. She folded her arms and tilted her head.

“Not underground, not exactly... You guys know how the net levels work, right? Er... Okay, so...” She paused as if collecting her thoughts. “So, we're in the general, standard network space right now. This is the internet that everyone uses every day. It's what most people see and it's all pretty... closely maintained... by the powers that be to keep it safe... or, um, as safe as possible for programs that traverse it.” As she spoke, her words slowed on occasion as her eyes trailed sideways to linger on Griffin's work-out routine. She bobbed up and down on her toes in a slow, seemingly unconscious rhythm.

“But the net... it's pretty old at this point, right? And people have been... Ah, building more and more on top of old architecture, and such, for more than a couple of generations now. So... Right, so, there are older layers that still have most of their structure, but it's been... ah, forgotten about, mostly, and it's mostly locked off for net safety. Old systems, outdated programs, depreciated architectures. Get past the safety barriers, and... you'll ah... find yourself... ah, you'll end up in what these days folks call the rogue networks. It's still mostly functional, but it's not maintained or regulated. Lots of bad stuff and under the table things go down there, out of sight, and things that are all taken care of by automated systems these days don't happen, like terrain restoration, because they used to be handled by physically net-present programs instead... and a lot of those are still roaming around down there, doing their old jobs, or not doing them and going broken or haywire or glitched. Myriads are one of those. You'd call them viruses now, but they used to have a proper purpose.” The small woman's intermittent distraction non-withstanding, she eventually got through her explanation.

“Dig further, and you get down to a chaotic mess of wild and broken code that's been all crushed and broken and barely hands together... barely liveable even for modern programs... and then there's two more layers that we know of below that, but let's not get in over our heads. Hopefully, we can find your Myriad wherever it's hiding up here, and either send it how or take it apart. After that I'm probably going to have to look into what caused it... and then get no time off at all before they want me back in costume and handing out presents again. Oh well. Come on, let's go!” She started to move towards the point that the reconstruction had shown it escaping, but Griffin's suggestion drew her up short(er), and she turned, thoughtful.

“That's a good idea, actually. If it's fled her, and is hunting prey, it must have made a recall point... ah... a lair, or a home base, sort of. Where it takes standby frames and repairs itself. So, if you guys really hurt it badly, that'll be where it will go, eventually. And the path it took coming out, to find you, will be easier to follow than the one it took running away... So you're smart as well as sexy, huh?” She stifled a small giggle, biting her lip, then seemed to refocus her attention.

“Okay, Scorch... can I call you Scorch? I always stumble over all the '-man' name bits...” She approached again, looking him up and down from a few feet away, then nodded and tracked back to the place where the lava pool had been before. “So, you made the pool that was here, right? The network repaired itself,f but that's only a surface layer repair, most of the time – deep repairs only go through at longer intervals. So, if you get this all magma'd up again, you should be able to find, down a little deeper, a trail of an actual lava tunnel through the normal network space. That'll be the Myriad's doing, when it came to get you – so, if we can find that, then it should be easy enough to start tracing back to wherever it's lairing here. If you find the chute, just keep going, I'll be right behind you.”

She stood back a few paces, watching from around behind ScorchMan to let him turn the peaceful network space back into a bubbling magma pool again; it was no sooner done, however, than a section of the pool left of centre sank inwards with a very slow-paced suction. If ScorchMan waded in, he'd find that the bottom of the pool, where his terrain shift edged out, a section continued to drop away, leaving him slowly sinking. The suction grew much stronger at the edge of the sink, however, and willing or not the slow sink soon became an almost inexorable pull that carried him downward into the unknown.

The current, such as it was, rapidly accelerated once ScorchMan was in the lava chute; being under the molten substance didn't impair him particularly, but it soon became a struggle to control his progress and steer with the gradual twists and bends as it moved through the ground. The lava-slide continued to drag him along every more quickly as other back-angled tributaries joined with his and his joined in turn with others, but the strangest part, however, was the flow wasn't just heading downward. Rather it seemed to level out, and then, after more than a minute or two of rapid flow, against all reason, begin to gradually spiral and climb upwards.

Here, ScorchMan's other senses began to note that the lava chute itself was no longer bored through the terrain, and was smooth in its gradual curve; almost like running through an actual metal conduit instead. Surely he'd travel up high enough to be back above ground now? Still fully enclosed, the journey continued until, after another minute, the sense of motion broke into open air, and a brief free-fall. A heavy, sludgey splash followed as he landed in another magma pool. This one felt smaller, and was only about four feet deep before hitting a bottom that felt more like a cross-hashed grate. The lava itself continued to be pulled down, but more flowed in from the chute above.

To ScorchMan's senses, he was in some kind of closed chamber, large, with a high roof, but with all the defined hard edges and smooth walls of something deliberately made; everything seemed to reflect heat or safely absorb it. On Griffin's screen, the room was dark, save for the glow of lava pouring from a vent in one wall, into a grated pool below. The pool was raised up, the top of some deeper tank, and other similar ones, all empty, were dotted around the room, with thick pipelines running between them. Many of the pipes were broken as well. A bank of consoles were on raised platform gantry on one side of the room, but for the time being their screens seemed to be dark. The trail of lava continued from the large vat, down a thick pipeline to a secondary pool that had burst one side; lava covered about a quarter of the back end of the chamber, though it didn't seem to be actively melting through anything – the room seemed designed to be heat proof, more or less. A large hole in one wall looked like it had been melted through anyway, leading further into the dark – the lava puddle spread part way into the gap, but didn't manage to illuminate much.