Sanity is forbidden Circulation: 183,942,985 Issue: 478 | 21st day of Sleeping, Y13
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Flashpoint: Part Two


by antiaircraft

--------

Also by livvy_granger

"Mag boots!" ordered Nevergreen, just as I realised exactly how much trouble we were in. It was the last order she gave me that day. I barely had enough time to fire up my mag boots before a massive explosion shook the space station right down to its imaginary foundations. And back. The (relatively) peaceful recreation deck was instantly transformed into a whirling mix of flying shrapnel, flying glass, flying souvenirs, flying Neopets... flying everything.

     Wait, flying glass? Flying reinforced observation window glass?

     Uh-oh of the year, isn't it?

     With a roar like the stomach of a hungry non-robotic Skeith, the air rushed through the shattered observation windows and out into space, dragging everything else along with it. People clutched at tables, railings, benches - anything heavy enough to keep them in place. Then the artificial gravity failed, and nothing was safe any more. Definitely not the slippery-smooth walls and door frames.

     The exception, of course, being the two agents in the area anchored to the floor by their magnetic boots. One of whom was standing in place gawking like an idiot. Guess which one.

     Of course the LT had a good reason, I berated myself viciously, she wouldn't have given me a direct order just to steal my shot. She's not that stupid. Nobody's that stupid.

     Except for one particular blue JubJub, my second inner voice interjected helpfully.

     Affirmative, another voice agreed, now shut up and do something.

     But what could I do? Unless walking around in magnetic boots could mysteriously seal the station's gigantic breach, I didn't exactly have much hope of saving the day. And on that note, why wasn't the breach sealed already? The deck's blast shields should have engaged automatically, sliding over the breached areas to prevent the atmosphere from escaping. The explosion must have taken them out as well. Great, just great.

     To top it all off, Nevergreen chose that moment to whizz over my head carrying a fire extinguisher.

     What? I wondered numbly. Did her boots fail along with everything else?

     But naturally, that Wocky knew exactly what she was doing. Even as I clunked clumsily after her, she ripped off the extinguisher's safety pin and fired a blast of freeze foam downwards, sailing in a smooth arc up and away. She was headed straight towards one of the station's demolished windows. Wait. Not quite directly. Firing off a few more bursts, she pushed herself slowly around and headed for the window's top right corner, draining the extinguisher in the process.

     I zeroed in on her destination, fumbling with the zoom on my scope, and suddenly I realised what she was doing. Maintenance crews often had to mess with the station's external circuitry, and that involved rerouting the primary power feeds to the blast shield motors. In fact, they had to do that so often, they'd installed a valve to make it more convenient - there it was, visible just beyond the corner of the third window, coloured bright yellow in contrast to the blackness behind it.

     I got my scope adjusted just in time to see Nevergreen catch the valve with one hand, swing around, and thump straight into it, tossing the useless fire extinguisher away as she did. She quickly braced both legs against the station's hull and twisted the valve as hard as she could. The valve would reroute the power feeds directly into the motors powering the blast shields, activating them to seal off the breached windows, and saving all our butts in the process. Genius. As usual.

     There was only one problem: the valve had been installed by maintenance crews. Outside the blast shields. There was no way she could get back inside in time, not without a high-powered jetpack.

     "Shaver!" I called, praying that I was loud enough to be heard over the chaos, "Shaver, come in! I need a jetpack here!"

     "That you, Varlock?" came Shaver's voice faintly. "What in Fyora's name is going on? I've got every alarm on the station going off here."

     "Hull breach," I answered gruffly. "Look, Shaver, I need a jetpack here now! The LT's about to space herself. She's sealing the breach from the outside!"

     Shaver muttered a string of words in a language I'm really glad I don't understand. "I didn't pack space gear, Varlock. This was meant to be an inside mission only."

     "Blast!" I growled, stamping my feet in frustration. The gesture knocked a piton cord loose from my pack, which promptly went flying out of the station along with everything else that wasn't welded down. But its sacrifice was not in vain.

     "All right, hold the line, people, I've got another stupid idea," I announced, clipping a piton launcher to the side of my ARC 98. As I nimbly loaded it with my one remaining piton cord, a deep rumble shook the station floor, and a shadow fell across me from the left. The observation area's massive metal blast shield was sliding closed. I only had seconds to act.

     Not to worry. I work best under pressure.

     The launcher's pneumatic charge primed itself with a sharp hiss, and I hefted the weapon once more, lining up my sights carefully with my target. Nevergreen had finished working on the valve and had turned to fire off a salute in my direction. Not a formal salute, but one of those jaunty two-fingered salutes people always make right before they die. At least, that's how it is in the movies. But I wasn't ready to salute back just yet.

     I squeezed the trigger, and the piton rocketed upwards like a speeding bullet, straight towards its target. That wasn't a good thing, not to someone with a sniper's eye. Sure enough, even as the piton rapidly closed on Nevergreen's position, the escaping air caught it and pushed it away. Not by much, but for such a tight shot, even a fraction of a degree was already too much.

     I'd missed.

     But fortunately for my reputation, Nevergreen had a sniper's eye as well. Quick as flash, she shrugged off her jacket and swung it to one side, just in time for the piton to bury itself in the right pocket's tough blast padding. She swiftly yanked the piton in and looped the trailing cord around her waist, signalling me to reel her in. I didn't hesitate for a second, twisting the throttle on the launcher's motor as far as it would go. Even then, it was a close call. Nevergreen actually had to twist out of the way of the blast shield as she passed it. But she made it.

     Well, that was one disaster out of three averted. Hip hip hooray.

     Nevergreen being Nevergreen, she was already spouting orders on the long-range channel before she even touched the ground.

     "...full medical assembled in sector B2-C9 immediately! We need an engineering squad checking every millimetre of that blast shield! No dispatch, this is not a drill! Yes, we need them now! Lieutenant Nevergreen out."

     Sighing, she switched back to the team's channel as she surveyed the damage. "Spotters, this is Nevergreen. Check in with status and location."

     This time, I was the first to respond. "Varlock, in sore need of a shower, right behind you."

     "Askar, a little rattled, but otherwise okay. I'm in the main elevator heading up now. Did the target seriously blow itself up?"

     "Shaver, coming up on your six. I think I've found what's left of our android friend."

     "Lieutenant Nevergreen, Krux acknowledges your transmission. Status: all major systems nominal, recharge recommended; current location: proceeding towards Agent Shaver; current activity: confirming identification of target remains."

     "Good to see you're back, Krux," acknowledged Nevergreen. "Stay with Shaver and help him out. You too, Askar. Find whatever's left of Sloth's android and get it back to HQ for analysis. There might still be something useful in there. Varlock, I hope you don't mind joining me for triage?"

     "Well, a few hours sans-shower isn't going to kill me, if that's what you're asking."

     "Excellent. Let's move."

     And that's how I ended up on triage duty. At first I figured Nevergreen just wanted to chew me out a bit in private (I mean, I sure would've in her position), but all she did was assign me a sector to check through before she went straight to work. It turns out, I'm actually pretty good at spotting if someone's dying or just faking for attention. Who knew?

     Three hours later the LT and I plodded back into Resistance Intelligence HQ. We were dirty, tired, very tired, and exhausted. Make that utterly exhausted. But that was nothing compared to being stared down by Commander Maxwell. Think Quiggles are cute? I'll introduce you sometime. Trust me, that guy is scarier than the Monoceraptor. You know the expression "purple with rage"? Yeah. Nobody knows if he's actually a purple Quiggle, or just angry all the time.

     "AND WHICH ONE OF YOU DOLTS IS RESPONSIBLE FOR THIS MESS, EH?" the Commander bellowed, at approximately the same volume as a Dynamo Mk3 seismic detonator.

     "That would be me, sir," Nevergreen replied. I should have owned up, but I let her go first. Superior officer and all.

     Okay, fine, honestly? I wanted to own up, but that Wocky is fast. Too fast.

     "SO LIEUTENANT, YOU DISCHARGED YOUR WEAPON AT A TARGET THAT JUST HAPPENED TO BE CARRYING HIGH EXPLOSIVES, EH? DIDN'T EVEN BOTHER TO CHECK, EH? I ALWAYS KNEW THIS WOULD HAPPEN SOMEDAY. WE TURN OUR BACKS FOR ONE SECOND AND ONE OF YOU LOT RUNS OFF BLASTING EVERYTHING IN SIGHT."

     "Well, sir, that's not exactly the case," explained Nevergreen. "Agent Varlock accidentally triggered the explosion with an electromagnetic pulse. He was acting under my direct orders."

     "UNDER YOUR DIRECT ORDERS, EH? WELL, LIEUTENANT, YOU'D BETTER SAVE THE EXPLAINING FOR THE DEBRIEFING. COME WITH ME. AGENT VARLOCK, YOU STAY RIGHT HERE. IT'LL BE YOUR TURN IN HALF AN HOUR, SO I SUGGEST YOU FIGURE OUT HOW YOU'RE GOING TO EXPLAIN YOURSELF."

     Well, there was no way I was going to disobey an order from Maxwell. Or even a suggestion for that matter. So I sat down in the waiting room and had a long hard think. Fortunately for me, some bright agent had decided it would be a good idea to stick a giant digital clock on the opposite wall, so nobody could forget how long they had until their looming appointment.

     I hate clocks. You know how time seems to pass more slowly when you're waiting for something? Well, I could swear that clock was malfunctioning. Seriously. I actually got up to check it twice.

     Twenty minutes after she'd gone into the conference room (according to the malfunctioning clock), Nevergreen opened the door and marched stiffly out again, closing it quietly behind her. Seeing me still sitting there, she smiled faintly and strode over, slumping into the next seat with a long sigh.

     There was an awkward silence for precisely six and a half malfunctioning clock seconds.

     "Tough debrief?" I ventured finally, hoping I didn't sound too forced.

     Nevergreen nodded mournfully. "You know Maxwell."

     "Unfortunately," I quipped, eliciting a short chuckle from the LT. Taking advantage of the brief respite, I chucked a few half-formed words and phrases around in my head, before finally settling on, "Look, you shouldn't be taking the heat for this. It was my screw up, not yours."

     Nevergreen just raised an eyebrow. "Well, I'd say there's plenty of heat left over, if that's what you're worried about. Besides, all you did was follow what seemed like perfectly sound orders. There was no way you could have spotted the plasmite detonators, not from your firing position. I hardly think following orders qualifies as screwing up."

     Knowing my history with orders, I had the perfect opening to crack a joke of some sort and steer the conversation down a more lighthearted path. But just this once, I decided it might be better to take things seriously. Insane, I know.

     "It wasn't like that," I answered heavily. "I heard your next order just fine. You told me not to fire, but-"

     Nevergreen raised a hand to cut me off. "Let me guess, you thought I was trying to steal your shot?"

     "Something like that."

     "I've been there before, Varlock," she replied, leaning back against the wall. "It's not unusual. But there's one thing we learned in firearms training that you snipers might not remember. When we're taking a shot, it's our subconscious that does most of the work. By the time your brain finished processing what I'd said, you were already firing. There's no way you could have stopped that shot unless I'd given the order sooner. Nobody thinks that fast."

     I shook my head. Considering that I'm all head, it was a pretty expressive gesture. "Oh, I don't know. I think pretty fast, even for a top recon agent."

     Nevergreen turned to study me more closely. I usually hate being stared at, but I was too tired to really object. "That you do, Varlock, but I doubt you can out-think your subconscious," she finally concluded. "Either way, even if you did take the final shot, it was my responsibility. I should have assessed the entire situation from every angle, twice, before we even thought about engaging. Don't blame yourself. It wasn't your fault."

     "Same goes for you, LT," I shot back. "No-one catches everything during planning. Even you miss stuff. Sometimes."

     "It doesn't take a genius to figure out that an android infiltrator with a giant bag on his back might be carrying explosives," countered Nevergreen. Touché.

     "Well, I can see I'm not convincing you," I conceded. "I'll save my objections for the debrief."

     "About that," Nevergreen began, reaching into her pocket. She drew out a signed note from Commander Maxwell and handed it to me. "Maxwell and the other commanders are pretty busy discussing damage control. You'll debrief with the rest of the team tomorrow. Plenty of time to take that shower you need so badly."

     I glanced at the note, then hopped off my seat and skewered the wall clock with my most ferocious glare. "You know, you could have told me this earlier."

     Nevergreen almost smiled.

     "At least I'll have plenty of time to object loudly in my mission report," I added testily.

     Nevergreen smirked. "You never file mission reports."

     "I'll make an exception."

     "Well, now you're really making me feel bad," she sighed, shaking her head sadly. "Go, Varlock. You did a good job today. You saved my life, in case you've forgotten, so keep it up. Now get some rest. You'll need it."

     I nodded. Or maybe I bowed. Kinda hard to tell when you're a JubJub.

     "Thanks, LT," I said quietly, turning to leave the room. As I did, I managed to catch one last glimpse of Nevergreen's face. There was a look there, one which I'd never seen before, and I really hope I'll never see again. I've seen a lot of looks in my time: terrified, angry, vicious, cold, evil, dying, pretend dying... Out of all the expressions I'd seen, this one was the absolute worst. Nevergreen didn't just look exhausted.

     She looked haunted.

     Man, screwing up sucks.

     So I guess what I've been trying to say all this time is: Nevergreen's a good agent. The best. Period. Sure, she's not perfect, but last time I checked perfection was kind of in short supply, just like Neopoints and politicians with a clue. Sending her off on a doomed mission was a waste we couldn't afford.

     So, the moral of this story: Follow orders once in a while? Always skydive with a parachute? Build your emergency space station valves on the inside? All of the above, I guess.

     Funny, this started out as a mission report. I guess I'll have to keep it as a journal now.

     Agent Varlock, signing out.

The End

 
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