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Flashpoint: Part One

by antiaircraft


Also by livvy_granger

This is a prequel to Occupational Hazard, based on Resistance Agent Varlock's personal account of the events surrounding the Nevergreen incident, aboard Virtupets Orbital Space Station #4.

     * * *

"Spotters, this is Nevergreen. Check in with status and location," buzzed my earpiece. Yeah, that's right, buzzed. Loudly. Considering that the battery in an earpiece barely has enough juice to power a small light bulb, you'd think those things wouldn't buzz at all. Crackle slightly maybe, definitely not buzz. But trust me, until you've had a Resistance standard issue D40 micro (yeah right) auditory transponder rammed up your ear canal, you have no idea what it really means to buzz.

     "ACK, Nevergreen, Shaver covering the main elevator on the recreation deck. Standing by," the earpiece buzzed again, leaving me seriously tempted to give the thing a nice solid whack. Unfortunately I didn't have any hands to whack it with.

     What do I mean by that? Yeah, I may have forgotten to mention something. I'm a blue JubJub. I don't have arms. I'm also a Resistance agent, y'know, one of those crackpots running around trying to make sure Sloth doesn't manage to take over Neopia again. Trust me, we're not quite as crazy as we seem.

     I should probably introduce myself properly instead of constantly asking you to trust me.

     Hi. I'm Resistance Agent Varlock, at your service. Well, technically it's Lieutenant Varlock, but not even Queen Fyora herself could convince me that I deserved that promotion, so you can just call me Varlock. Or Agent Varlock, if you're feeling really formal.

     So how can a JubJub be a Resistance agent? Yeah, I get that a lot. Well, let's see, I can think, I can run, and I can shoot. Good enough? What? How can I hold a weapon?

     Seriously, mate, that's a trade secret. Trust me, I can handle a blaster. Moving on.

     "Lieutenant Nevergreen, Krux acknowledges your transmission. Status: all systems nominal; current location: recreation deck, Virtupets Orbital Space Station #4; current activity: mingling. Krux over."

     "Mingling, right," I muttered sceptically, rubbing a speck of maintenance fluid off my scope (if you don't get rid of it right away, that stuff never comes off). Krux never really mingled. Why? Well, he's not exactly the mingling type. For one, he's a giant robot Skeith. And have you ever met someone who can actually pronounce a semicolon? No? I rest my case.

     "Askar, checking in from the hangar. Nothing's blown up yet, so I should be good to go."

     Shaver, Krux, and Askar - only one agent left. I sighed and flipped on my transmitter. Naturally, after four hours shuffling around on top of a wooden crate, the blasted device had picked up some static electricity, which it happily discharged by sending a painful jolt through my earpiece. Counter-intelligence. It's such a glamorous job.

     "Varlock, supply deck," I grunted, wincing. "If you see a blue JubJub hanging from a crane, don't shoot him. Apart from that, everything's good."

     Just like it was five minutes ago, I added silently, I mean, come on, if one of us had noticed Sloth's spy android barging past, we'd probably have said something.

     "All right team, stay sharp," Nevergreen ordered in that infuriatingly calm way of hers. You heard me right: infuriatingly. I mean, it's not like I hated her or anything, and Fyora knows she's the best blasted agent I've ever served with, but still, the way she could just handle anything as if she'd trained for it her whole life got on my nerves. Then there was that look she had. It wasn't a glare or anything like that, but somehow when she looked in your direction you'd realise exactly what you were doing wrong, without her having to say a word. To top it all off there was that easy, confident walk that she had, as if she was already at her destination and moving around was just a formality. Infuriating.

     Okay, y'know what, maybe I did hate her. But that's beside the point, because about five seconds later my earpiece buzzed up again.

     "This is Askar, Lieutenant. I see the target, proceeding to the main elevator from platform six. Are you still tailing it? I can't make you out."

     I smirked. Askar had a long way to go if he thought he could make out Nevergreen while she was trailing a mark. You'd think her orange fur would stand out a little, but that Wocky had this weird way of fading in and out of the background. You might catch a glimpse of her cleaning a window, then turn around a couple seconds later and spot a completely different orange Wocky buying a Cheese Star Sandwich at the café. Sounds creepy, right? Trust me, it was.

     "Affirmative on the tail, Askar," Nevergreen responded. "Set up for a clear shot and stand by for intercept."

     "Roger that."

     There was silence for the next few seconds. If I'd had thumbs, I would have twiddled them, but as it was I was stuck with making sure my ARC 98 EMP cannon was primed and ready to fire. For the hundredth time. Nevergreen and Askar were setting up for a classic spooker-striker takedown. The agent tailing the mark would get a little too close and panic them a little, the mark would try to slip away, they'd end up in an open space, and boom. Case closed, unhealthy deep-fried café food all around. Of course, Askar would get all the credit for taking the actual shot, but hey, the rookie could use a little leg up anyway.

     Hold that thought. Rookies are rookies for a reason.

     "Askar, stop exposing yourself," crackled Nevergreen's level voice. I groaned. Askar had been reaching up to touch his earpiece. A classic rookie mistake. At least Nevergreen had spotted it in time.

     Or not.

     "Blast! Target is running! Askar, take it down, now!"

     "Roger!" There was a pause, then Askar said something that I probably shouldn't even consider putting in this report. The point is: he missed.

     "Left flank, Askar, go!" shouted Nevergreen, obviously pursuing on the mark's right flank. "Varlock, heads up, mark is climbing!"

     Now that got me properly awake. I rolled quickly into a firing position, taking care not to fall off my crate. From this vantage point I could cover almost every exit on the deck. And unlike Askar, I'd had actual experience with EMP cannons.

     "Acknowledged. Main elevator?" I asked tersely, swinging the weapon back and forth as I tried to spot any movement near the entry points.

     "Negative, service access D."

     Well, that's just great, I grumbled to myself. He just had to pick my blind spot. The supply deck exit for service access D was directly below the hanging crate I was stationed on. Once the android cleared it, it could head in any direction as fast as it wanted. There was an entire warehouse of critical equipment (read: too expensive to EMP) it could dive behind before I could draw a bead.

     Of course, I had to translate all this news to tactical-speak. "Got it. Be advised, I do not have a line of sight, repeat, I do not have a line of sight. Can you divert the mark?"

     "Negative, target is already en route."

     Blast! I seethed. Nothing for it but my best shot. Unless...

     "Copy that, I've got an idea," I announced, pulling out a small blaster.

     "Careful, Varlock," cautioned Nevergreen. Going off the background noise, I guessed she was taking an alternate route through the maintenance tunnels, trying to cut the android off. Not something an agent can pull off easily, even on her best day.

     "Relax, LT, I've got this," I replied, a lot more confidently than I was feeling. I aimed the blaster upwards. Somewhere below me, a metallic creak rang out as the service hatch began to unlock. No time for second thoughts now.

     "I love this job," I muttered brightly, and fired. The blast punched clean through the steel hook connecting my crate to the crane above, and suddenly I had a brand new mobile vantage point. Very mobile.

     The crate plummeted twelve metres straight down, smashing against the floor and depositing one and a half tonnes of MEGAFRESH Shenkuuvian White Rice on top of the service hatch. It also deposited me painfully on the ground half a level down. First lesson of the day: metal is hard.

     "Oof!" I gasped, trying to shake the stars out of my vision. "Oh my- Aaargh! Ow! Oh Fyora, that HURTS! So this is why skydivers have parachutes."

     "Varlock, what happened? What's your status?" To my surprise, Nevergreen's normally unreadable voice had a slight hint of concern to it. Or maybe I was just imagining things. Either way, I didn't exactly feel like being won over by sympathy. Instead, I staggered to my feet and surveyed my handiwork.

     "Target is contained," I reported, the pain drowning out any smugness my voice might have carried. "All yours, Lieutenant," I added, a little bitterly. I know we agents are meant to be for the good of the people and all, but you have to admit, I'd been the one with the genius idea.

     "Good work, Varlock, but it's not over just yet," Nevergreen countered. Naturally, she had always thought of something else that we hadn't accounted for. Always had to be right. Always. Okay, fine, I'll stop now. "Krux, there's a secondary access hatch on your deck, near sector E1-B5. Cut it off. Shaver, cover the nearby service tunnels."

     "Affirmative Lieutenant Nevergreen, deploying to secure service hatch now."

     "Shaver here, two steps ahead of you. Exits are already covered."

     I quickly checked my EMP cannon for damage, then dashed hard for the elevator, ignoring the chorus of protesting bruises. "Varlock, joining pursuit. I'll be up in thirty seconds."

     Not that I'll actually be able to do anything, I snorted to myself as I punched an override code into the elevator controls. Krux was big, heavy, and built like a tank. He could probably push harder than a tank. Our mark was toast, unless it happened to have a battleship or two in its pocket.

     To her credit, Nevergreen knew me well enough not to object. Of course, at the time I had the impression she simply didn't care where I went, as long as she got her target.

     Look, I said I hated her, all right? With the suffix -ed. Past tense. Can we move on?

     I bailed out of the lift about thirty-two seconds later, sprinting under the legs of several surprised tourists. Yep, under. The thing about being a JubJub in a crowd is that you mostly remember the legs. Everything else is kinda... tall. Not that I'm complaining. Under and between are generally the faster routes to take when you're dealing with a crowd.

     "Krux reporting target acquisition on ground-penetrating radar," declared Krux's unmistakable monotone drawl, "positioning for maximum physical obstruction."

     "Negative, Krux," warned Nevergreen, "do not engage physically. Back off and disable the target with an EMP. Repeat, EMP target immediately, engage at distance."

     Come on, LT, I thought, what's the worry? This is Krux we're talking about.

     The next couple of seconds happened very quickly (that's an understatement, but I'm not the best at adjectives). I skidded around the corner, edging nimbly around Krux's landmark-sized tail just as the hatch popped open. I had my ARC 98 primed, ready to give the mark a nice toasty welcome in case Krux decided to magically shrink by a tonne or so.

     The android bolted through the hatch like a terrified Meowclops. Which was kinda funny, seeing as it was built to look like a robot Grarrl, and they're a little on the tough side. Well, Mr. Tough was about to get a very rude wake up call, courtesy of Mr. Oops I Just Stepped On Tough, also known as Krux.

     And that was when the android cannoned into Krux, giving my six tonne buddy a crash course in basic aerodynamics, and blazed past before I even had time to twitch, vanishing into the bustling crowd of tourists (who, oddly enough, didn't think much of having to dodge a Skeith-shaped metallic asteroid). I spun back and dashed over to where Krux had landed, squeaking furiously into my earpiece.

     Yes, I squeak when I'm agitated. I'm a JubJub, all right?

     "What in the name of- Agent down, agent down! Shaver, heads up, you've got one tough nugget headed your way. Whatever you do, don't get run over!"

     "ACK, Varlock, both eyes open. I'll ping if I tag him."

     "Blast it Shaver, we're not talking in TCP," I shot back, "you could just say 'acknowledged' for once."

     "Acknowledged, Varlock," Shaver responded coolly. Yeah, he never gets angry.

     I bent down and gave Krux a once over. He wasn't moving, but he was making plenty of metallic grinding sounds, and there was smoke rising from a few of his joints. Contrary to popular belief, that's a good sign in a robot pet.

     "Krux is running diagnostics; he should be all right," I reported, a little relieved. And by that I mean I stopped squeaking.

     "Shaver here, all quiet. The mark should have showed up by now. Must be hiding in the crowd."

     "Copy that, Shaver," I growled, cursing silently. "This is nuts. Since when did Sloth start making spies that are actually smart?"

     "Probably since he figured out that Resistance agents are actually smart," answered a voice behind me, sending me leaping almost clean out of my skin. Nevergreen was standing right next to me, discreetly clutching her ARC 98 as she surveyed the crowd.

     I don't know how in Neopia you're supposed to clutch a one point four metre long EMP cannon discreetly, but she managed it.

     Nevergreen's eyes narrowed. "Got him, heading for the observation area. Shaver, keep those exits covered. Askar, main elevator. Varlock, with me. Stay well clear until we bring the target down."

     Talk about closing the barn door after the Babaas are gone, I retorted mentally. Although to be fair, she had warned us earlier. Multiple times. But what use is a warning if nobody's paying attention?

     "Split up," Nevergreen ordered once we were well into the crowd, "blend. If you have a shot, take it."

     "Got it," I replied, right as she flipped on that little internal switch of hers and dissolved into the crowd. Yeah, totally creepy. But hey, as long as I'm not the one being followed...

     As for me? Seriously, who notices a JubJub?

     I spent the next ninety seconds or so hopping back and forth through the moving forest of legs, making sure I still had eyes on the mark's shiny clawed feet. Here's a tip for you: if you're ever on the run from a JubJub, grab a cheap pair of boots from the nearest clothing store. Trust me, it'll help.

     Just as I was seriously considering climbing on top of a random tourist to get a good line of sight, I was clipped by a massive pair of tanker boots, spun around, and found myself face-to-face with a towering souvenir stand. Perfect, I thought triumphantly, making a mental note to move tanker boots to the top of my avoidance list.

     In a matter of seconds I was perched on top of the stand, well above head level, weapon at the ready.

     "Sorry," I hissed apologetically to the confused shopkeeper, "restocking, you know how it is."

     I scanned the crowd slowly to make sure I hadn't lost my target. Sure enough, a shifty-looking robot Grarrl was pushing its way stiffly through the crowd, carrying a large black rucksack. There was a sizeable dent on its head, courtesy of its encounter with Krux. But it was going to have a lot more than a dent to worry about the way things were going.

     I cranked my scope up to maximum zoom and took careful aim.

     "This is Varlock, I'm taking my shot."

     "Copy, Varlock. Don't miss."

     "Don't sweat it, LT. I never miss."

     Yep. Missing and filing mission reports. Two things I never do.

     I centred my sights on the android's primary control module, located just between its neck and the back of its head. Of course, the EMP blast had a radius of about three metres, but I'm a sniper. I take pride in my work.

     "Good night, Mr. Tough," I whispered, pulling back on the trigger.

     Unfortunately, my parting quip was drowned out by the annoying buzz of my earpiece. Or rather, Nevergreen's annoying buzz in my earpiece. "Hold your fire! Varlock, hold your fire!"

     What? I protested incredulously, I have the perfect shot!

     Risking a glance around, I spotted Nevergreen halfway across the deck. She had her weapon raised (yes, still discreetly) and one eye pressed against her scope.

     She has a shot too! She wants the credit for the takedown! I realised suddenly. Well, sorry, LT, but this one's mine.

     An invisible wall of concentrated electromagnetic energy unfolded itself from inside my ARC 98 and rocketed across the deck, right on target. It enveloped the mark in less than a second, sending its tendrils deep into the android's electronics (okay, I know it didn't actually have tendrils; give my imagination a break). Mr. Tough took one more teensy half step before he collapsed in a sparking heap.

     If I'd had fists, I would have done a little victory fist pump right there. But of course, Nevergreen wouldn't even give me a second to consider it.

     "Get down!" she called out loudly. Way too loudly for an earpiece.

     Come on, I sniffed, it's not like the mark was carrying plasmite or anything.

     Spoiler alert: remember the rucksack the android was carrying? Yeah. It was full of plasmite. I know this because the plasmite detonation sent me sailing three metres into the air and deposited me violently on the floor. Again. Sometimes I wish I could introduce Doctor Sloth to this fantastic new invention known as 'carpet'. Or maybe 'world peace'. Tough choice there.

     Anyway, this time I was a little quicker on the recovery, rolling with the impact and flipping back up onto my feet. I glanced back towards the blast zone. This wasn't good. Our mission had been to recover the android and the information stored in it. Intact. Not exactly an adjective that applied at the moment. And then there were the tourists screaming and running around in circles. Apparently a plasmite blast is scarier than Krux flying through the air. Can't say I agree with that one.

     So the situation was bad, but not crazy bad. Right? Wrong. Let me give you a quick brief on the space station's layout. We were on the recreation deck. The recreation deck is above the supply deck. Got that? Good. Let's get more specific. The recreation deck's observation area is on one side of the station, positioned two decks above the hangar, so tourists can gawk at the ships going in and out. Now, what do spaceships need? Highly explosive hydrogen fuel. Where is the fuel stored? Fuel tanks. On the supply deck. Packed neatly from floor to ceiling in the space above the hangar. See my point?

     'Uh-oh' doesn't half cover it.

To be continued...

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