Upcoming: Bubba in 9h 8m
Upcoming: The Roundup in 14h 8m
Upcoming: Wolfpack in 1d 13h
Rogue Agent: Chapter 6
SIX

Hax frowned at the stacks of reports laid neatly across his desk and took another sip of his coffee. He'd spent the better part of his morning going back over the copies of case files Mary had given him during their first few meetings, mapping out each symbol and string of numbers from each crime scene. But he'd noticed very little that might provide any answers, and indeed, seemed to be acquiring more questions.

In each case, an MP had first received an envelope at their office in Westminster. Each envelope contained a cryptic symbol drawn in thick brown ink on a heavy parchment; at the bottom of the sheet was drawn a series of numbers. Neither the symbol nor the number string on any of the six notes thus delivered matched any of the others. These messages were always delivered on a Friday; Hax had been given the dates, but they had no meaning to him. From there, the MPs had each gone to their country estates to find someone -or ones- had gotten past security and vandalised one of the rooms on the ground floor, excepting the MP representing Salisbury, who instead found his prized rose garden decimated.

The vandalism was more or less the same in each location: giant pentagrams drawn in pig's blood, orange candles at each point burned down so the wax melted into the carpet, and a burnt offering, usually a chicken, at the centre. Clearly, Hax realised, this was some sort of occultist group at work, but it appeared to be different from anything that Mary or her colleagues at MI5 had ever seen. Even the runes themselves didn't quite match with the known. Some were certainly Nordic, as Hax himself recognized them from Norwegian metal videos, and Mary had spotted a few Celtic and Eastern ones, but all were mixed in with a variety of other symbols to seemingly create a language all their own.

The web ninja had then shifted focus to the number strings, trying to find a pattern or clue that might help decipher their meaning. But after two days, he'd come up with nothing, and knew he needed some outside help if he was to figure out this puzzle.

Which is why he was now keeping one eye on the Teamspeak window on his laptop, waiting impatiently for Vible to return.

Hax checked his watch again, grumbling to himself. Ever since he had found religion two years before, Vible had become increasingly steeped in occultist bullocks, spending more and more time engaged in rituals meant to honor and invoke his deity of choice, AGod. Hax had once greatly enjoyed their lengthy conversations about science, and lamented those times were now past; once Vible had his "vision," his embrace of the newfound faith was rapid and absolute. At RivalCon the previous summer, Killer and Varyar had to physically remove the young Swede from the convention stage when he and RCM's former HR director, Mysti, had nearly come to blows over Mysti's claims that AGod was nothing but a social construct to bolster the agenda of the patriarchy. That was an extreme case, but the fact remained that Hax's conversations with his friend had morphed from pleasant intellectual debates into sermons about evangelical claptrap.

And of course, the one day Hax wanted to hear it, Vible was late.

The web ninja was about to give up when finally Vible's name popped up in AFK, then down to the studio channel where Hax had been lurking. "Hallo!" came the thick Scandinavian accent. "I have just returned from vespers and saw your message. What can I do for you?"

"Evening," Hax replied, somewhat hesitantly. It was strange, he thought, how he'd waited impatiently for hours, but now suddenly felt self-conscious, as if he were encroaching on forbidden territory. He shrugged the feeling back. "Eh, well...I'm working on a case right now where I could rather use your help. Without getting into too many details, we're looking into a secretive group with quasi-religious undertones, small enough that their rituals seem to be a hodgepodge of existing elements from various cultures and their own bits mixed in. I'm trying to get a better insight on how these type of groups work, and was wondering if you could help answer some questions I have."

"Oh, of course!" Vible exclaimed. "I am always thrilled to share the word of AGod. Especially since so many people have no idea of how great AGod is."

"Alright. Erm, tell me about AGod."

"Ah, yes. AGod. Well, he is...great. Obviously. Whereas other gods are sort of shit. AGod is so great, he doesn't need a lot in terms of complicated ritual. Worshipping AGod is mostly about spreading the word and gambling."

"Gambling?"

"Oh, yeah. Gambling is about risk - based on what you know about the rules of how a game is played, is your bet worth whatever risk you're looking to take? Life itself is a gamble. You have stupid fuckers who don't care to learn how the game is played, and they place their bets on bad risks. Sometimes they luck out, but most of the time they are reminded that they are stupid fuckers. Then you have people who take the time to learn the rules and the odds and take calculated risks, and they tend to do a little better. It's still tough, but in the long run they do much better than the stupid fuckers. You see? Life is the same way. Gambling is AGod's way of showing us how life works."

"Right." Hax mulled this over a moment. "And how did you come to...find AGod? As I recall, the movement is rather small."

"Very small," Vible replied solemnly, "as I am the only one at present. But that will change, in time, because like I said, those other gods...anyway. For now, I will tell you how I came to find AGod:

"It was winter, the year Biomed was kidnapped. I had not been told what was happening, and all I knew was that you and Baroness and the others were gone for days. I found myself alone in my cottage in the deep, frozen north, as I do every day, my only window to the rest of the world being the internet. I had been sad and made a new friend through an online chat forum, who sent me frightening pictures. I wrote to my friend DS2 about it, but as usual, received no reply. And then, when it seemed I could get no lonelier, there was a power outage. I'd been through power outages before, but this one went on for days and days.

"The snow buried the door to my cottage; with no power and no escape, there was nothing to do except drink, smoke, and sleep. There were wolves circling my cottage, and at night, I could hear their howls mixing with the shriek of the wind. It was terrible. Without the computer clock to tell me, time became meaningless, and at some point I started to lose my mind. I started talking to myself, to objects, to the wolves outside my door. I spent a long time cackling at stupid jokes made by the wind. I destroyed my toaster in a fit of rage after it insulted my sister. It was clear to me afterwards that the darkness that filled my cottage had started to take over my soul.

"But THEN," Vible's voice boomed, "a MIRACULOUS thing occurred. My computer, in spite of there being no power, magically started up on its own! And when it connected, I saw Him. AGod came to me, a beacon of light out of the Scandinavian darkness, and I saw Him in all His glory! And He told me not to be afraid, because I had been chosen to help spread His message. He told me there was a war coming unlike anything we have seen in recent times, where friendships and loyalties would be tested to the breaking point. He said a monster would be awakened that would destroy life as we know it, devouring not just bodies, but souls as well. But a chosen sect would wage battle against this monster and its followers. Outside forces will be sent to destroy the sect from within. There will be three great betrayals, culminating in the death of a childless mother, and for a time it will seem as though the monster will win. But then a great warrior will rise from the dead, and with a renewed faith, the sect will rise up over the monster and restore balance in the world. Thus is the prophecy of AGod, and the message I am to deliver to His people."

"Right." The web ninja mulled this over. A ghost of a thought hovered just outside of his general consciousness, taunting him with the sense that something Vible said connected with his case, but he couldn't discern what exactly it could be. "Was there anything else conveyed in this vision?"

In his mind's eye, Hax could almost see Vible shrugging as the heavy Swedish accent came over the line. "No, not really. Just the thing about life being a gamble and that we should gamble and drink in His honor. I of course questioned His deity status by asking why, if He is AGod, He allows so much shit in the world, and he just said 'AGod abides, man.' Which, strangely, made sense to me. Also, he mentioned liking the rug in my cottage. And...that's it. The power came back on shortly after that."

Hax waited a moment, then cleared his throat. "Vible, what exactly did AGod look like?"

"Ah! He looked very God-like. Long hair - not as long as mine, but long. And wavy. Dirty blond, with beard. And a sort of pink robe and sandals."

The web ninja's fingers flew deftly over his keyboard a second before dropping a link in the text chat. "Did he look like that?"

An audible gasp came over the line. "That's Him!" the Swede cried. "That's AGod!"

"Vible," Hax said slowly, trying to temper his disappointment in what he was now sure was a dead end, "that is literally a photograph of Jeff Bridges in character as The Dude from The Big Lebowski."

"What?!"

"Ah," Hax tried to find some way of softening the blow, "you said yourself, you weren't quite yourself and there was a lot of drinking going on..."

"How DARE you insult the Word of AGod?!" he raged.

"What? I wasn't...I mean..."

"Clearly," Vible intoned ominously, "you were not truly interested in AGod, so much as mocking Him. Mark my words, Mr. Hax, you may poke fun now, but for your own sake I hope you see the light and the truth before the prophecy comes to pass. Good day!"

Before the web ninja could get a word in, Vible disconnected from chat. With a weary sigh, Hax pulled off his headset and dropped it on the desk. "Well, Rasus," he addressed the cat sitting imperiously on his bed, "it looks as though we're back to the beginning."

*****
Baroness stared at a fixed point on the bookcase, watching the dust floating slowly in a beam of morning sunlight while she waited. It had been a long time since she'd been here, and it amazed her how many things had changed in that time while so many others stayed the same. The rhythmic ticking of the large grandfather clock in the corner, for example - Doc had told her once that it had originally belonged to his own mentor, who found the quiet sound was soothing to his patients. From the Baroness's perspective, however, the ticking gave her an anxious awareness of the passage of time. She absentmindedly fiddled with a small charm in her palm, tracing her finger across the loops of precious metal. This was a bad idea. Someone was going to realize she was out longer than expected and start asking questions and she didn't have the mental fortitude at the moment to come up with anything remotely plausible for why she was sitting in a psychologist's office on a Tuesday morning. And she sure as hell couldn't tell the truth.

She had just about made up her mind to slip out and back to her own offices when a door opened, framing a petite woman in a skirt suit who looked to be about Baroness's age. Doc's assistant looked very much like what Baroness imagined Maggie might have looked like in her younger days. So vivid was the connection in her mind that it was jarring to hear not the raspy smoker voice of RCM's crotchety but beloved receptionist, but instead a soft, melodic tone calling, "Mrs. von Gosu, Dr. Johnson will see you now."

His hair was whiter than when she'd seen him last, but he still sported the thick beard and twinkling eyes that reminded her of those old "Most Interesting Man In The World" commercials. Granted, Baroness thought silently to herself, Doc's actual exploits in life were just as outrageous as the fictitious adventurer. While neat and uncluttered, a close look at the shelves and walls of his sunlit office revealed the trinkets and treasures of a world traveller: a tribal smoking pipe from Zaire, a framed prayer cloth from Jerusalem, an ornate puzzle box given to him by a colleague during a stint in Giza. Even the Turkish carpet on his floor had a story of danger and deception for those who were in the know - tiny, subtle reminders of a life well-lived by someone fortunate enough to have survived the trials faced in the defense of his country.

Baroness's hand involuntarily squeezed her own small trinket.

"Penny!" Doc rose from behind the massive oak desk to embrace his former student. "What a pleasure to see you again. And married, to boot! It doesn't seem like enough time has passed for all this change. Please, please, do sit down. May I offer you some tea? Ms. Grimwald, Penny was one of my best students at the university. Oh, the stories I could tell!"

Ms. Grimwald, only too happy to leave the doctor to his reminiscing, politely excused herself to make the tea.

"Do you still listen to jazz?' he continued after the door had closed. "I've been using some Charles Lloyd pieces in part of a cognitive resonance study, using music therapy in the treatment of PTSD..." He adjusted the volume a bit as a saxophone began to croon, then sank himself into a comfortable-looking old leather armchair near the matching couch where his protege had taken a seat. "There, now," he murmured softly, "we should be relatively safe from unwanted eavesdroppers. What brings you to my office, my dear? You sounded concerned on the phone, and aren't the type to just drop by for a chat."

Baroness's lips curled to a half smile, giving her trinket an extra squeeze before setting it down on the dark oak coffee table. "I need some advice. Lucia's back, and she's up to something."

Doc took a deep breath as he recognized the gleaming silver symbol, glanced up at her sharply, then looked off out the window to where the first flower buds were blooming on the trees. Her mentor was silent a few moments, the color in his eyes fading as his thoughts went back to a different spring morning twelve years before on the opposite side of the Atlantic. A spring morning that had replayed itself countless time in Baroness's own head since Lucia had turned up, until finally she needed to seek out the man responsible for putting her on that path in the first place. A man who, at this moment, looked about as haunted as she felt.

Baroness was starting to wonder how to bring him back to the present when Ms. Grimwald returned with the tea cart.

"Oh, what a beautiful charm!" she exclaimed, picking the small silver knot up from the table. "That's the Shield of Destiny, isn't it? A protection charm, if I remember right."

"It is," Baroness answered, surprised. "How did you know?"

"I spent a semester of college studying in Ireland," the woman continued as she poured the tea, "and my roommate was very into runes and knots and all sorts of mystic symbols. She had sketches and drawings all over the flat. Dabbled a little in Wicca, too, from what I remember, but she was really into the symbols.There were a lot of really neat designs she'd collected." She smiled at the memory as she handed the talisman back to the Baroness. "God, I haven't spoken to her in ages. She took a job for the British government after we graduated, so I can't imagine she kept up with it. Still, exquisite artistry. Yours looks to be very well-crafted."

"Thank you," Baroness replied. She took a sip of the very hot tea in an effort to swallow the lump of emotions bubbling up inside of her as she waited for the other woman to leave.

By the time Ms. Grimwald left the room, Doc had recovered from his initial shock and changed into what Baroness privately referred to as his "handler mode:" full attention, already analyzing the task at hand and looking for possible routes of action. "Right. Start from the beginning, leave out no details."

So Baroness started from the beginning: her life at RCM, the drama of the Lord of Terror elections, BiomedAlchemist's abduction and rescue, the attacks leading up to RivalCon, Lucia's reappearance and immediate badgering for information on Hax. "And then I did something I'm not proud of," she confessed.

"Which was?"

Baroness took a deep breath. "Hax never wanted a long term stay in the US. He didn't want to be wrapped up in the spy game at all. I knew he had connections there, due to his work, but he always seemed to show distaste for the profession. I always got the impression there was some intensely personal reason for it, but Hax is the kind of person who will absolutely not divulge anything unless he specifically wants you to know. Asking something outside of his comfort zone puts him on the defensive, and so I didn't pursue. But I knew he wasn't happy here, and I knew as long as the British government thought there was fresh intel on plots connected with the Lord of Terror elections they'd never let him come home. Lucia's arrival just exacerbated matters, and it would only be a matter of time before she did something to either get her way or ruin him." She shifted uncomfortably. "Hax had asked me to help with analyzing intel reports, and there wasn't a lot going on in the first few months after the RivalCon incident aside from Lucia doing some hard-core pressuring to get her close to Hax again - apparently their paths had crossed at some point when she was still overseas. The Brits were talking about letting him go back to England, and I was relieved. But then I started seeing reports come in about some odd animal sacrifices. What caught my eye was a symbol similar to something Baron had seen when he was being held captive by the Black Widows, so I knew it was important. But I had to get Hax out of the country." Baroness took a deep breath, her dark hair falling to shield her face as her head slumped forward. "So I started filtering information. I removed everything I could find that even hinted of anything out of the ordinary so Hax's handlers would bring him home, and secretly followed up on those leads late at night when I told everyone I was editing."

Her mentor's brow furrowed. "Before you continue, what is it that this Hax does when he's not being held pseudo-captive by the British government?"

"R&D," she replied. "He writes code for a small firm that builds next-gen gadgetry. He's absolutely brilliant; I keep telling him he should consider going for his doctorate and teach, but he says academic institutions won't accept his demands to be allowed to punish students appropriately for their continued failures, or to force them to bend at the knee and call him 'My Lord.'"

"Sounds like the type of person you'd become friends with," Doc smiled. "Continue. Where did the leads take you?"

"Well, the reports were of strange notes received by local officials in a number of towns, first in New Jersey, but then spreading outward. The official would receive a note with a strange symbol and a number written on parchment; the few recovered seemed to be written by the same hand. The official would later find his home broken into and vandalized with cultist symbols, sometimes with a family pet or a chicken sacrificed. Could be just a bunch of kids getting their kicks trying to form a dark coven and lashing out at authority, but what caught my eye were the numbers on the messages the targets received." Baroness took a sip of her tea, her eyes gleaming. "I noticed the digits were written in groups of five, so I ran some of them through an internet search to see if they had any significance. A lot of the groupings hit postal code matches, but not all. Some of the ones that did, though, happened to be sister cities to the towns targeted by this cult group."

"Interesting coincidence?"

"Possible, but it gets better. So back when Bio was kidnapped, RCM received a numbers-station type recording the same day we received Da Bark Lurd's hostage video. Varyar had sent it off to Sayomara and the Trisexuals--"

Doc raised an eyebrow. "The Trisexuals?"

"Um, it's a WoW Uncensored thing. Anyway, Sayo had been working at it for a while, trying to crack the code, and had recently sent some correspondence about it to Deededee. Guess whose creepy cult fan letters matched segments of the numbers transmission?"

Doc got up and pulled a bottle and two glasses from a sideboard cabinet, pouring a few fingers of liquid in each. "You always were the most intuitive recruit I'd ever encountered," he said, handing her a glass. "Lucia liked the gamble for the big win, and got lucky more times than she should have, but you...You checked your sources as well as your gut. Your reports were impeccable, your research was at the level of a seasoned professional, and on the few occasions where you worked in the field rather than in research, your demeanor was warm and made people want to spill their secrets to you. Still, that you made a close acquaintance with someone you knew to have ties to clandestine foreign projects--"

"I didn't know at the time," Baroness protested.

"--but you did by the time you decided to filter intelligence reports. It doesn't look good, Penny. I understand your feelings about Lucia. I was the one who got you home when your cover was blown, remember? And in spite of my better judgement, I helped you say goodbye to the young man who gave you that," he gestured at the charm on the table. "What was his name? Robert or..."

"His name isn't important," Baroness snapped, hoping her voice didn't sound as flustered as she felt.

"Don't lie to me," he retorted sharply. "If his name weren't important, you wouldn't be in my office right now confessing to stealing information from a foreign government and griping about the conduct of a federal agent who may, for all you know, be doing her job. And you're damned lucky I know you well enough to believe you." Doc drew a deep pull from his glass, watching her in silence for a few moments as he thought. Baroness bit her lip, and looked away trying to keep her nerves steady while she sat in anticipation of what her mentor would say next. Even out of the game, there were still rules, and she had definitely bent quite a few of them. Her finger traced the curve of the rune, waiting.

His voice was softer, but still authoritative when he finally spoke. "Right. Here's what we need to do. You're going to Rio, where you will play the part of the dutiful asset and gather whatever it is that Lucia asks you to gather. Whatever protocols she sets, follow them to the letter. I will need to know everything you see, hear, and talk about; do you remember the assignment you did in Dresden?"

Baroness straightened. "Draft message through a shared webmail account but don't send, you go in to pull the report so there's no paper trail."

"Exactly. The code word will be 'Muffin Man,' backwards and in leet. And as for Haxor... we'll call it 'protecting an asset.' You couldn't report what you'd found at that time without endangering both of your lives. Which, incidentally, might be where we are anyhow." He hesitated, swirling the drink in his glass again as he stared out the window. "I'll do what I can to keep an eye on your friend, but there's something else you need to be aware of. You're right not to trust Lucia, but more so than I think you realize."

She looked up, confused. "What do you mean?"

"Bippy's not ours. I can tell you that with confidence. That means that if Lucia is running her own black ops, she's either deep under cover, or there's a very good chance that she's gone rogue."



*****
All the way to the beginning
Crap, what happened last time?
ON WITH THE STORY!
Comments
Comment thread »
No comments!