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Rogue Agent: Chapter 1
ONE

[In which RCM finds a new HQ and Hax, after a year in the States, finally makes it home to normality...only to find he's now more embroiled in the spy game than ever]

teh_leet_haxor peered out the porthole next to his seat and let out a tiny sigh of contentment. Dipping out from the thick blanket of grey clouds, their altitude was low enough now that he could make out the cars zipping about on the left side - that is, the correct side - of the motorways, a sign that he was in fact finally about to touch down on British soil.

It had only been a few months since he'd been home last, but it felt as though he'd been gone a lifetime. A year previously, Hax had been living a quiet life in the English countryside when he received an urgent call to come to America. His friends and colleagues at RivalCast Media needed him to help battle an evil organisation which disguised themselves as characters from a popular children's television programme. Led by a creature known as Da Bark Lurd, the group kidnapped Hax's good friend, BiomedAlchemist, and then lured the rest of the RivalCast team into an ambush. They made it out, but Hax was recruited by British Intelligence to stay in the US to help investigate further dealings of Da Bark Lurd's network.

As vexing as it was to have to live among the Yanks for an extended period of time, he was glad to have been of assistance a few months later during the first RivalCon, which unfortunately had been the target of attacks by another terrorist group. That time, the RCM team went tete-a-tete with the agents of Arachnos, a mutant spider queen who had led a series of coordinated arachnid attacks around the world before descending on the convention venue in an attempt to destroy RivalCast in one fell swoop. The villains once again were thwarted, but not without some repercussions - although the Baroness performed admirably in battle after being poisoned by the enemy, months later her health had still not fully recovered.

Coincidentally, both Arachnos and Da Bark Lurd were revealed to have been, or been connected to, political candidates in the Lord of Terror elections some years before. Thus, on the instructions of his handlers in London, Hax had stayed in the States to endure the most insanely erratic weather patterns he'd ever experienced during what Cleveland referred to as "winter." Hax wryly thought of it more as a roulette game of "which days was one most apt to freeze one's balls off?" The assignment wasn't without its perks, however - Her Majesty's government maintained for him a rather comfortable flat, he was given the freedom to keep at his research work whilst analysing any information that came in regarding the Bark Lurd or Arachnos cases, and he was, after RivalCon, able to rid himself of the troublesome presence of his nemesis, the pompous and womanizing secret agent Parker Bennett. Meanwhile, the ever-expanding RivalCast Media moved their operations into a real studio, bringing the group one step farther along in their quest to build a media empire, and the location for the new headquarters happened to be across the street from a restaurant which served the best chili con carne Hax had ever tasted.

But as much as he enjoyed those successes, it wasn't home.

Hax was the type of man who preferred not to have surprises lurking around every corner. His idea of a perfect world would be for each person to mind their own business and live peacefully. His idea of an at least tolerable world would be for every store to stock his beloved Branston Pickle (finely chopped, not the chunky stuff he'd had to settle for only after great searching), for no region restrictions to be imposed on internet videos (to Baroness's delight, he easily coded a script to circumvent the US restrictions on streaming his favourite programmes, but was annoyed he'd had to go through the bother at all), and for British brand names to only be used on actual Britishly made products; the insult of Hershey bars being packaged and sold as Cadburys was almost too much to bear.

So it was with more than a little relief when, after months of no useful intelligence filtering into his little workroom, Hax was finally given the word his tenure in the US was no longer needed, and that he could return to his quiet little house in the country and resume the anonymity he'd wanted all along.

A light drizzle spattered against the window as Hax gathered up his things. He was in such good spirits that he even went so far as to help an annoying little Frenchman in a striped shirt and trilby to retrieve the latter's carry-on from the overhead bin. He smiled as he was jostled by impatient travellers as they left through the jetway. He smiled as he went through customs. He smiled as he waited for his luggage to be slid down to the carousel. He smiled doubly as he heard new arrivals griping about the costs of umbrellas at Gatwick's shops - this was the UK, for Christ's sake. If one didn't plan for the weather, it was their own damned fault.

Sweet, blessed, wonderful UK.

Hax himself had decided to forgo an umbrella this time, letting the cool British rain rinse him of the dust of his travels. His plan was to stop off for some fresh (and appropriately chopped) Branston Pickle, Taylor's coffee, and real, not-Hershified-Cadbury bars on the way home. His housemate had, he was sure, already procured these things, but Hax needed to see them in a store and pay for them with tiny portraits of his monarch in order to cement in his mind that he was not dreaming, and really was home.

Home.

He was so happy that he felt nothing could dampen his mood - not the crowds, not the asinine adverts lining the walls of the terminal, not even the expectation that his train would be delayed.

Nothing, that is, except the unexpected woman waiting for him as he reached the gate.

Hax's smile faded as he recognized her form from across the lobby. She had an air of command about her which served her well in her work, as he recalled from the days when they had been colleagues...no, Hax shook his head, more than colleagues, to him anyway. How she felt about the situation may have been a different story altogether, but he couldn't concern himself with that now. He needed all of his powers of concentration to maintain a passive expression as she strode towards him.

"Charles," she greeted him warmly.

Hax shifted uncomfortably, trying not to allow himself to be caught in her sky blue eyes. "Mary."

For a moment, Hax felt his panic start to rise as he thought she was going to hug him, but at the last second seemed to change her mind and went instead for a handshake. Even though it was professional, it seemed to Hax that she held on just slightly longer than necessary.

"I suppose you're wondering why I'm here."

"The thought had crossed my mind," he replied, rather coolly. "If you've been monitoring my work, you already know I haven't had any viable information come through for months, so a debriefing wouldn't be plausible. Not to gain information from me, at any rate."

The woman nodded slowly as she mulled something over. Hax hesitated, not allowing himself to hope that it was for some other, non-business reason she'd come. It had been more than a year since they'd spoken last, more than a year to reflect on their goals and wants and the complexities which surrounded them. More than a year since he'd taken a chance on that beach and told her everything, only to watch in abject horror as she took it in stride, no hint of emotion behind the cool facade of her training.

More than a year since...

But he couldn't think about that, not now. He swallowed the lump that had been slowly building in his throat. "So what do you want, then?" he asked, suddenly aware now of the chill dampness in the air.

Mary smiled at him again, weakly this time. "You must be famished after your flight," she mumbled. "Perhaps we should go somewhere and talk."

*****

The streets were dark and rainy when Hax finally left the train station some hours later to trudge the final part of his journey home. It was just as well he was running later than expected; Rupert, his housemate, was away on business and wasn't expected back until the following week. Not that it mattered much given the present circumstances - Hax needed some time to think. If Mary's presence at the airport had broken his fantasy of a return to normality, the tale she relayed to him over breakfast obliterated those hopes entirely.

"There had been whisperings for some time," Mary had said. "Strange symbols turning up at crime scenes, odd equations whose meanings we couldn't deduce. One of the blokes working in the undercover bureau recognized some of the symbols as arcane, which suggests some type of cult influence, but other parts of it looked like the maths problems you'd work out at uni." She'd smiled at him hopefully. "Well? Can I count on you?"

What could he say? he thought miserably as he kicked at a small stone on the pavement. If it had been only her, he might have been able to say no, I am quite content with keeping my nose out of the spy business entirely, thank you, and mind the door on your way out. But no, this wasn't about her, and his gut told him this wasn't something trivial. Thinking about some of the things Biomed had shared, Hax had an uneasy feeling that this was about something so much bigger. Something which, if what Mary had shared was true, had the potential to destroy Britain and perhaps the world as he knew it. A year before, Hax would have questioned the mental stability of a person approaching him with the problem Mary had dropped in his lap. But after his experiences fighting Da Bark Lurd and the agents of Arachnos, he wasn't quite so sure there weren't forces beyond what modern science could presently show.

Still, that didn't mean he was ready to drop all notion of logic to say that this maths cult was in possession of supernatural powers, nor was he willing to give them any more credence than he would a delusional murderer until facts presented themselves to prove otherwise. That nefarious acts were being committed, there was no doubt. But the results of those acts, the implications they had for humanity...

What was worse was that he had no one with whom to talk about it. In the US, he had Bio and Baroness to help analyse intelligence, Varyar and Killer to talk strategy, and Baron to discuss psychology, all within a few steps of his office door. One could approach the situation from a number of angles and get a solid picture of the whole. But here, bound by the National Secrets Act and not trusting the secured communications lines even if he weren't, he was completely alone. Even something as simple as checking in with Baroness through IRC was difficult, as he was so used to running ideas past her that he had to delete half of his messages before they were sent; the result was a somewhat disjointed conversation that, thankfully, she had accepted as being the result of jet lag.

Hax sighed as he rounded the corner onto his lane, cringing as he remembered only too late the dip in the pavement where water pooled ankle-deep. He cursed under his breath as he felt the icy moisture seeping through his socks. It was only a short distance further to his gate, but he was still annoyed that his homecoming had been turned into a series of unpleasantries from the moment he disembarked the plane. Almost as if it sensed his mood, the skies decided to rain down harder, so that by the time he finally reached the gate to his garden and realised the latch was jammed, he was thoroughly soaked.

An angry heave forced the latch with enough momentum that the gate crashed into the hedge, sending a small, grey blob scurrying across the garden to hide. Hax noticed its hurried limp as it traversed the lawn. Its two big yellow eyes watched him intently as he sloshed up the two steps to his door, but Hax paid it little mind. As he fumbled for his keys, Hax noted the tiny creature peering at him curiously from behind the bins.

It was young, not a kitten but still small. Its face wasn't exactly handsome; there were little patches of fur missing and a small chunk was bitten out of its ear. Its grey fur seemed to have darker stripes in it, but that was hard to tell in the fading light and especially since the creature was getting wet with rain. Hax felt badly about disturbing it from its place in the hedge, and made a mental note to see to the gate so as to avoid similar issues in the future. He could almost hear Vampy and Baroness in his mind, cooing over the small cat and tsking him for being rough with it, even if it were accidental.

Hax turned the latch to enter the vestibule, stooping to pick up the envelopes scattered from where they were pushed through the post-box before punching in his security code to the alarm system and unlocking the three bolts of the main door. He grunted a bit as he put his shoulder into heaving the thick oaken hatch on its ancient hinges - after a year in America, with their flimsy, hollow portals, it was good to come back to this. Years ago, when they'd first taken the house, that door was the first thing he'd admired - solid, enduring, and with a satisfyingly loud creak to announce anyone who entered without first ringing the bell.

Finding nothing interesting in the stack, he tossed Rupert's correspondence in the basket on the hall table along with his keys and slogged up the dark stairs with his suitcase to change out of his wet clothes. Hax was just considering how nice it would be to fall into his nice, warm bed when the door to his room caught as he tried to open it. Puzzled, he heaved into it a bit with his shoulder to widen the gap a bit more and switched on the light. There were all his boxes shipped over from Cleveland, as well as a number of boxes of things his housemate had temporarily stored whilst Hax was away. Everything was stacked helter-skelter about the small bedroom and blocking not only the way around the bed, but also any easy way of getting into the room itself.

Hax swore under his breath and switched off the light - he was way too tired to deal with this shit tonight.

He shuffled back down to the kitchen to get some coffee on... only to suddenly remember he'd forgotten to stop at the shops. Ransacking the cupboards, Hax began to wonder how his friend had managed to not starve while he was in the States. In one he found a box of tea, some sugar, a spoon, an egg, and a lone potato, while the other contained half a box of stale biscuits, a tin of baked beans, and a Green's custard filling mix. The icebox wasn't much better; beside half a quart of milk was a note apologising for the state of the kitchen and promising to rectify the situation moving forward. Hax checked his watch and sighed. If he hurried, he'd have just enough time to get to Sainsbury's for something to get him through the evening.

*****

The rain finally softened to a misty drizzle as Hax nudged the gate open again a half hour later, groceries in hand. A hot cup of coffee in front of a roaring fire was exactly what he needed to ward off the chill of a lonely English evening. As he approached the house, Hax was surprised to see the cat standing sentry at the bottom of the steps. It watched Hax, rather judgmentally, as he made the two steps up and fumbled to get the key into the lock without dropping the grocery bag. The outer door clicked closed behind him as he pushed open the heavy main door, but looking at the dark, empty rooms beyond the threshold, Hax suddenly felt very, very alone.

A square of yellow light spilled down the steps as the outer door opened again and Hax poked his head out. The cat was still sitting there, regal in its pose, though Hax thought for a moment he might have noticed it pretending not to shiver. He cleared his throat, feeling kind of foolish as he addressed the small animal:

"Well, erm, you are welcome to stay the evening inside, should you like, presuming you don't have another home in which to go..."

The creature seemed to give the web ninja a sort of annoyed look, almost as if to ask "what took you so long?" before it trotted (a little slowly, Hax noted, on account of its lame leg) with dignity up and through the door Hax held open for it. In the vestibule, almost in an act of ungracious defiance, it shook the rain from its fur and onto Hax's trouser leg as it entered the house and made straight for the kitchen, as if it owned the place.

For the first time since he left the plane that morning, Hax smiled as he shut and latched the door.

*****

Jen McCafferty started writing the adventures of RCM as a joke in 2014 - a joke which snowballed into an entire story universe and some real-life RCM innovations. Rogue Agent is the third book in the series.

All the way to the beginning
Crap, what happened last time?
ON WITH THE STORY!
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