Future Nerf: Chapter 1

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READ THIS FIRST!

This is being added to the beginning of every chapter of the former "Future Nerf" series that I wrote several years ago. While the story is available for nostalgia purposes, it must be understood that the story as I've understood and developed it is a far cry from what you'll find here. Please do not modify or construct any prequel/sequel/alternate stories of your own based on these. One day when I've put all my thoughts into words there may be a re-release...not only of these chapters, but of the entire story, beginning to end, which no one has seen yet. Aside from this, enjoy :-).


Introduction

This is a story about the future. The future of Nerf warfare, and how people from today live within it. The Nerf of tommorrow isn't just a game. It's a life. There are jobs, there are Nerf teams, and there are battles between the teams. It is, to itself, a world.

Part of this story is about the last NAB players, who found each other in the revolution of the Nerf world. The whole story is about what these people do, and how they change the world.

It's not about me, or any one person.

It's about everyone, and it has been written for everyone. Enjoy!

Before you start reading, it is suggested that you read the Future Nerf Reader's guide, and keep the glossary handy. There are many things that come up in the story that aren't explained on the spot.


Chapter 1

January 14, 2012, Nerf Central, US

Sharpknux was very happy. He had just opened a box full of antique nerf gun parts, and was vigorously working with them to build something. Three others in the apartment, Starbuck, Duncan, and Curt, were all maintaining or upgrading more modern guns, while Cam was typing nonstop at a computer. "I understand old guns can be a fun hobby, Sharp," remarked Cam disinterestedly, "But you spend more time cobbling together old ones than you do looking at new ones."

"Hey, the old ones are reliable!" Sharp retorted, adjusting a modified Big Bad Bow nozzle in its place, "If you take care of them right and modify them the way I do, you have no problems."

He proudly held up his original modded BBB, an antique weapon on its own. With a bit of work, however, he had managed to place a more powerful air pressure system. As a demonstration he sent an aerodynamic special mega zipping dangerously close to Starbuck's head to hit the window of the far wall.

"Point taken," Starbuck replied cooly and began loading clips with clusters of small but powerful PhoamTech micros with EF exploding tips.

Duncan, who was just affixing a laser sight to the belly of a short but beefy PowerClip AR, commented "I think it's good that someone at least still has an interest and bit of experience in the old guns. We may need to use them someday. Besides, if history isn't maintained by someone, who's going to remember where all this came from?"

"Yeah, the good old days," Starbuck said absently, as he examined the contents of one filled 40-shot clip, and placed it in his WildClip.

Sharpknux carefully placed his new weapon on the table, and began digging through the box once more. Curt began working on a hyperstrike scope that had been bumped around too much in a recent encounter. Duncan, satisfied with the position of the laser pointer, concentrated on running a wire from it to a switch on the trigger guard. Starbuck laid a third full clip aside.

"Hmm..." Starbuck said, peering into the box of ammunition he had been stocking from, "We're getting a bit low. Can someone go get us some more darts?"

"One...second..." Duncan said carefully, fusing the last connection in place with a heat pen, completing his weapon, "Yeah, I'll do it." He stood up, taking the PowerClip AR with him. He selected two large, 50-shot clips from the appropriate stack in the table, placed one in the assault rifle, and one in the hip pocket of his tan cargo pants. Slinging the weapon onto his sholder via a shoulder strap, Duncan headed for the door.

When he was within three feet of it, the door burst open to reveal a stocky british fellow of medium height.

"Come back here," he commanded, walking past Duncan, and grabbing his collar to make the point.

"Good day to you too, sir," Duncan choked as he was sat back down at the table.

"What can we do for you, Custer?" Starbuck addressed the superior, as he refocused his attention.

"A last minute job," Custer replied, looking disdainfully at the mess. He pulled a roll of paper from the interior pocket of his light jacket, and unrolled it on a rare clean spot of the large table. Cam stopped typing and walked over to see what it was. All the group fell silent.

"Custer," Sharpknux began quietly, "That's the Nerf Provisional Government building."

"Yes, isn't it just?" Custer replied in a dark tone, "Study it well, you'll be working there this afternoon. As you know, the council is going to meet tonight to vote on a bill to ban alcohol. Many people want this bill to pass, many want well enough left alone, however, " He paused, "on a topic this big, there's bound to be trouble. We've been hired for 'security augmentation,' but the truth is, we're nearly it. Most of the military is away at the Spain rebellion, and there's only a company-in-training here. As for non-military agents...most of the best were lost in Spain last month. Many of the remaining agents are away on secret business. Looks like...three five man teams are on duty here. You're there to watch their backs, and vice versa."

"Sounds good to me," Curt said, "Do we know about any potential threats, specifically?"

"We don't. Should anything go wrong, all you have to do is make the arrest. I've already cleared your warrants with the Nerf Bureau of Investigation."

"Clarification," Sharpknux said, "You don't sound confident. Either there are trouble makers or there aren't. Is there something you aren't telling us?"

"What I am telling you," Custer replied, "is that the NPG is at a terrible disadvantage. There are teams that may take advantage of it. Yes, that is a possibilty. I've heard of several teams moving into town just this weekend. Some are for the new law, and just as many are neutral, but there are a few who are against it. Should there be a complication, you know of course that it is your duty to uphold the laws of the council, use heavy force, and so on."

Duncan uttered a grunt of satisfaction, while studying the map.

"You'd better add some smoke screen to our shopping list, Duncan. That is if you're still going out," Starbuck said, "How much time do we have, Custer?"

"The council will meet at sixteen hundred hours," Custer announced, "And you should be in position at least thirty minutes before that. That means you have about six hours to finish arming up, eat lunch, train for a while if you wish, and get to the building. Once you're there, you'll be sworn in as temporary protectors."

"Then I'm out of here," Duncan said, standing up, readjusting his shoulder strap, and walking out the door.


Duncan beat the street to a small outlet store where he would purchase the ammunition for the rest of the team. He eyed team vans heading down the streets in various directions. A few of them he recognized. Most he did not, but from the paintings on the vehicles, the team names, and their home locations, he could guess why some of them were here. Taking mental note of the more trecherous looking ones, he continued to the store.

The shopkeeper in the store easily produced the assortment of regular, explosive tipped, and aerodynamic special mega and micro darts that the team required. However, he was sad to say that a large group had bought the entire stock of smoke screens.

"No, I don't know what team it was," explained the shop keeper, "I've never seen them before. They came in blue camo, and weren't wearing any distinctive marks besides green hats. I've never seen so many smoke screen canisters leave in the same hands."

Duncan paid for the supplies, minus the smoke screen, and stepped back to the street. He was walking on the opposite side of the road as the one he had taken on the first trip, and happened to walk past a dark bar, lit harshly in places by bright blue, purple and green lights. "The Luna Landa," it was cleverly titled, and the name implied the owners' identity. He had been there before, when the team needed to contact the Luna team, and Duncan visited it anyway. He enjoyed the lighting, not to mention the dance shows. For now, though, he had other business, and decided to pass. The bouncer, a rather beefy looking young man standing at least six foot seven, seemed to have other ideas.

"Boss wants to talk to you," He said shortly, and kindly shoved Duncan's lighter-weight figure through the door. It wasn't long before he was recognized, greeted, and offered several drinks. He turned them down politely, asking to see Mir.

Duncan then noticed the slim figure, who's tight bodysuit was set off by the odd lighting, sitting in a corner booth, motioning to him patiently. As he reached the table, the show on the circular center stage began.

"Welcome back, old friend," Mir began, smiling, "When was it you just decided to drop us like this and be gone for so long?"

Duncan decided against the lengthy version of the truth, and simply said "Been busy,"

"I don't doubt it," Mir continued, dropping the charm, and obviously taking point in the conversation, "I need to talk to you because there is about to be a good bit of trouble around here."

"I would think so. I've seen the team vans rolling in this afternoon,"

"Most of them are no threat, but there is one I suspect of causing a lot of messy trouble," she paused, "You realize what a controversy prohibition is going to be, don't you?"

"Looking at the 1930's in Chicago, I'd say so," Duncan said, recalling one of his favorite movies.

"The gangs, exactly," Mir said, pleased that she could cut this down a bit more, "I believe there is already an organization that is working against the amendment."

"Of course,"

Mir was annoyed at this laidback confidence. "This is serious. There's a team called the Green Hats, and they just arrived this morning,"

Duncan sat up and listened.

"I know you've heard of them. They were the reason you couldn't get smoke screens today. Anyway, I believe they're planning something, no doubt something with a lot of smoke screens."

"Obviously," Duncan replied, resuming a carefree posture, and deciding not to ask how Mir had known his shopping list, "So what do you know about them?"

"I know that they are the one team that has members who consume more alcohol in a month than an entire team does in three months. They're good fighters, but they are addicted to alcohol."

"Didn't know that," Duncan admitted, "I've never heard of them before today, of course."

"Word has it they were children of some redneck anti-government group from the northwest," she said waving her hand carelessly at the rumor, "But whoever they really are, they seem to be moved to quick, decisive action when they decide they don't like something. Add it up now."

Duncan chuckled, "Don't worry," he assured Mir, "Yours truly and his band of merry men are handling the security arrangements this evening."

Mir crossed her arms and looked hard at Duncan, "You haven't heard everything I know yet. This team operates like a 1930s gang. They resort to dirty fighting to achieve their ends. If you watch the crowe closely this afternoon, you'll probably see a few Green Hats nearby."

"Naturally," Duncan said darkly, "We're expecting to see a lot of teams..."

"I don't think you get it," Mir said, "They're likely to set traps for security people. They're very militant. I wouldn't put it past them to try even a direct assault."

"We've handled drastic action before," Duncan said with surety, "It sounds like they're just another group of angry little irresponsible kids, and those go down easily,"

"Hmm...no. I've seen them in action, Duncan," Mir said, worried at his overconfidence, "They carry the description of regular bullies, but they're different as fighters. They've…" her eyes seemed to unfocus, and see rather a memory of the past rather than the present room around her. "At any rate, we'll back you up if you need it,"

"We'll do what we have to," Duncan said reassuringly, wisely deciding to drop the emulated reckless-hotshot attitude.

"I know you will," Mir said to him as he rose from the booth, "Let's hope it'll be enough."

***

Four hours later, the council began arriving at the capitol building. The capitol was a large, domed building, much in the tradition of the U.S. Congress building, except that it was surrounded by the tall towers of Nerf Central. The grounds around it were a generous portion of acreage, now filled in by anxious people, team members waiting to see the result of the vote, many wanting alcohol outlawed for good, but a dangerous few daring the bill to succeed.

From Starbuck's vantage point of the ten-foot-high porch of the building, he could see the varied teams, different colored clothes, and signs either opposing or supporting the awaited bill. He could see a few Green Hats in the crowd below, but not nearly as many as he knew had come. Starbuck had been given proprietary command of the defense squads because his past experience surpassed that of any agent on the grounds, and in a position like that, he wasn't taking chances.

"Unit 3," Starbuck addressed the squad leader of the agents guarding the interior of the building, "Run a sweep through the inside, please."

"Ah, we've already run a sweep."

Starbuck frowned, "Humor me."

A short burst of static over the wireless comm followed an "acknowledged" from the leader. No one at all had been found inside the building, no one had been allowed in, and no one had so much as spoken to the officials as they approached the building. Starbuck, Curt, and Sharp, who were on the porch, watched as the first of the officials entered the building, between the large doors. They all had a feeling that this was too easy, and that something really must be going on besides payoffs. Amid the turmoil, a few moments later, all one hundred members of the council were inside, and the doors were closed. The noise outside quieted down a great deal. After a few moments, Starbuck realized that his last command to the interior defense group had not been reported as complete. Starbuck tried to remind himself that an interior sweep could take a bit longer, but he was nervous anyway.

"Unit 3, please report," Starbuck said cooly over the comm. A Green Hat at the bottom of the porch began to let a slow smile creep across his face. "Unit 3, respond," Starbuck ordered, just a bit more forcefully.

Curt, who was standing nearby, and was linked to the RAD comm. channel, understood Starbuck's concern, and decided to check the doors. While doors were closed and guarded well during sessions of the council, they were never supposed to be locked.

But they were. Starbuck, becoming worried, tried the last resort channel to the council room, which likewise rendered no reply. Mir, who was in the crowd, and was also linked to the RAD comm channel, began quietly ordering her members into close positions to the remaining Green Hats in the crowd. Starbuck nodded to Sharpknux, who had N4 explosive cord in hand, and said "Take it down," No sooner had Sharp begun pressing the cord to the cracks in the door when a dart flashed passed the last spot his head had been. A scattershot was pulled by a Luna troop, and smoothly removed the head of the responsible Green Hat at point blank range. Mir, wanting to move quickly to avoid a real uproar in the crowd, ordered her other troops to take the remaining Green Hats.

It was a contingency that the Green Hats were not prepared for. Without the ability to remove the elite defense from the scene, they endangered their main plan. Within a few moments, every Green Hat was rounded up and placed weaponless on an empty space of ground. Curt noticed the vengeful expressions the Lunas wore, and decided to ask Mir about it later.

Sharpknux finished his explosive placement, and motioned every one to stand back. He held a small detonator device in his hand, which he triggered, causing the door to blast outward at the destruction of its primary lock. Taking crouching and cover positions in front of and around the doorframe, the team peered in. They couldn't see a thing because of the smoke. It wasn't the smoke from Sharp's explosives however, but from a large number of smoke screen canisters, which lay expended on the floor. The smoke, breathable but unwilling to move except for swift movements of air, hung in front of them like an impenetrable cloud. Only two feet of vision was allowed to them before everything became an imperceptible swirl of dark gray gas.

A line of red light pierced the cloud, and landed at the seam of Sharpknux's armor. Curt, shoved him down just in time for an odd, red foam and yellow tipped mega dart to escape the darkness, pulling a twisted trail of smoke behind it a short way. The team cleared away from the door.

"They must have IR goggles," Custer observed through clenched teeth, "We either need to find some of our own, or get rid of this fog of war."

"Agreed," Starbuck said, and ran to their van. He returned in a moment with a whomper, already charged, to clear out the initial hallway. He readied the weapon one last time, then swung round the corner, and delivered an electromagnetic discharge that demolished the entire foyer. Their previous assailant, who had the misfortune of standing directly on top of the projectile's target, was thrown into the foyer's small domed ceiling before the forces of gravity laid him back to rest on the static crackling floor. The ceramic decorations were smashed. But most importantly, the force of the explosion had blasted open a hole in the thick smoke, and allowed the team to survey at least a bit more of the situation. They could now clearly see to the back of the T-intersection hallway, though smoke still hung at either turn. Lowering himself to the ground, Sharpknux crept forward on his belly until he reached the fallen sniper. He snatched the IR goggles from the surprised face, and returned, placing the straps over his own head. The world turned to shades of green, and Sharpknux could see. He looked back, and searched for heat reflections at the intersection. There was no sign of retaliation.

"All clear," Sharpknux said quietly, priming his favorite classic Secret Shot II. Curt raised a Powerclip v4 and assumed a half-crouched advancing stance. Duncan checked his Powerclip AR, and raised it to a shoulder-stock position. Custer and Starbuck both held their WildClips aloft. The slowly entered the building, with Sharpknux in front of them and the eyes of an anxious crowd at their backs.

"I'm seeing heat sigs down the right path," Sharpknux whispered his report once they had reached the intersction some twenty feet from the door, "Can't determine how many,"

As he began rounding the corner, the hall became pitch black. Not even gray smoke could be seen farther away. Only Sharpknux, with the assistance of the IR goggles, could see clearly enough to discern the three still figures guarding a door fifty feet away. All three were wearing the goggles, and immediately saw the bright spot Sharp's head made at the dark corner. The guards exchanged hand signals, and then began moving. Two of them moved forward while the third stayed behind with a high precision rifle to cover them. Sharp jerked back from the corner, and whispered to the team. Custer gave an order, and the entire team made a hasty retreat to the front porch, and stood out of sight beside the door. If the guards peeked around the corner they were not seen, nor did they see anyone.

"Okay," Duncan said, "This kind of job always takes unusual tools. Anyone got ideas?"

"They can't have filled the entire building with this stuff," Starbuck said in disbelief.

It was Mir who answered, walking up the steps. "Actually they have. We've checked around the perimeter. There's smoke in every window."

"It makes sense," Custer continued, "If they fill the entire place with smoke, and only they can see, it keeps rescuers from coming in, and hostages from finding their way out."

"What I don't know is what they expect to get out of this," Curt said, "They're holding this entire section of the government hostage, but it can't possibly get them anywhere."

"If they take this section of government out," observed Sharpknux, "They get plenty out of it. Not only could they cancel the bill, but they could take the government over entirely. Or destroy it."

"Doesn't matter," Curt replied, "Every legitimate team is going to be against them now for what they've done. I doubt they'll have a home much longer."

A loudspeaker above the door whined, bringing everyone's hands to their ears.

"Okay, you out there, listen up!" a sharp, unpolite voice demanded, "We've got a deal for you. We're taking over the NPG! Give us five million dollars, and we'll let the "officials" go free as regular citizens. If you don't, we'll still take over the government. Just not with these losers still around."

Sharpknux looked at Curt with the unmistakable I-Told-You-So look.

"Great," Curt said, rolling his eyes, "Now they want money too,"

"What do you expect?" Duncan questioned, just before the voice interrupted him.

"You've got one hour to leave five million dollars and a signed form saying that the bill is dead in the foyer. If you don't, or you try something funny, we'll just have to start putting your senators out of their burea-o-cratic misery, see?"

"I hate listening to idiots make demands," Duncan said, checking every moving part of his gun.

"I have a solution for our problem, I believe," Custer, who had been thinking hard said at last.

"Which one?" questioned Curt.

"For getting the smoke out of the building,"

"They'll start shooting hostages, Custer..."

Custer stood to address the team. "Of course we don't want members of our government being taken out! But is it more important to 'save their lives,' or is it more important to show these people that we don't bargain with terrorists? If we let them kick us around now, there's nothing to stop them from trying again later. Sure, if we carry out an assault mission on them some senators will get hit, but we can at least put the Green Hats back in their place, and make sure they stay there!"

Custer explained his plan to the team. "If we can force a large amount of compressed air through the drain pipes, it will empty out in many spots around the building. By increasing the overall pressure in the building, the air and the smoke will escape by whatever opening they can. If the pressure is high enough, we could have the entire building cleared in a few moments."

"That could really stink," Sharp observed, "Don't know how heroic we'd look then."

"The other option, of course, is to buy more IR goggles, which are expensive and hard to locate on short notice," Custer said folding his arms.

By this time, the military guards had arrived, and were clearing the area of all the people except Custer's team, the Lunas, and the captive Green Hats. Custer went down and talked to the captain in charge of the new group of soldiers.

"This group isn't trained to deal with this kind of situation, so I'm ordering them to surround the building for now," The captain was saying, "but it's not going to be enough. Looks like we're going to be on the short end of a bargain here."

"No," Custer said strongly, "never deal with terrorists. Never. My team can make it, but we need some gear. There's heavy smoke inside, and we will require IR goggles to get through."

"There are two sets inside that we were using for training earlier. That's all we've got."

"And we have one set that belonged to the Green Hats. We can send three in that way," Custer said, "But we don't even know how many are in there."

"With what's at stake, I'd say it's worth it," Curt said, walking over to join the conversation.

A soldier moved quickly to the spot with the necessary goggles, and handed them over to Custer.

Custer examined them. "Hmm...not a lot of battery power left," he observed, "But if this is all you have, it will have to do."

A moment later, the selected infiltrators, Curt, Duncan, and Sharpknux, were assembled at the bottom of the stairway.

"The way it looks, there's not much battery power left in any of these IR goggles, so you're going to be pressed to do your mission quickly," Custer explained hurriedly as he passed out the IR goggles to the three, "Any questions?"

"None that you could answer," Duncan said disinterestedly as he examined his goggles, assault Rifle, extra ammo.

"We better go in separately and in different directions to keep some level of secrecy," Curt suggested, fixing the IR goggles' strap around the back of his head.

"Whatever you do, do it quickly," Custer ordered impatiently, "We musn't keep the bureaucracy waiting."

Curt checked the loadout on his Powerclip v4, and satisfied, slapped the clip into the gun. He switched his goggles on, and then walked up the steps, and disappeared slowly into the gloom. Sharp was next, giving his SSII a final glance, to walk through the doors a moment later. Finally, Duncan, at Custer's signal, readied his assault rifle, and walked into the capitol.

The doors swung closed. Whether it was from a strong wind or an automated system, Duncan couldn't tell. But one thing was for certain: he was committed now. Switching on his IR goggles, he could see, through a veil of green, every delicate feature in the architecture of the capitol, the intricate woodwork, hairline carvings. Tightening his grip on his weapon, Duncan crept to the intersection. He knew that if he went any further, his heat signature could be seen, but he could never complete the mission by staying in the foyer, so he moved on slowly. Not seeing anything threatening down the hall, he began cautiously walking forward.

A green light flashed down the hall to the right as a sniper's weapon appeared in the door, fired, and then withdrew again. The fast-moving dart smashed onto a dead light fixture barely two feet from Duncan's head. As soon as the green smear had appeared, Duncan had raised his assault rifle to cover it. As soon as it had fired, Duncan had returned fire. As soon as Duncan's dart had left the barrel, the door had slammed shut, and as soon as the light fixture's shattered parts were nearly done falling to the floor, Duncan felt something down the left hall. The air seemed to grow colder, and hiss slightly. Whirling round once again, Duncan barely had an instant to see the black, nearly invisible shadow down the left hall before he heard the door open down the right. Leaping with all his strength, he grabbed the hallway over hang, and pulled his legs out of the imminent line of fire just as he heard the sniper rifle go off. He earned himself a few more milliseconds by kicking the at the shadow, confusing it long enough for the sniper rifle's dart to bury itself in the shapeless dark mass. Duncan then dropped from the overhang, spun round in mid air, and landed in a crouch, bringing his rifle to bear once again on the door. He fired, and this time he did not miss. The bewildered sniper hit the ground with a thud in the distance, and the door creaked open a little further. The shadow was no where to be seen. Duncan stood up with his back against the wall, looking both ways, breathing silently, and listening for other noises. He enjoyed the quiet for a moment, and then moved towards the partially open door down the right hallway.

Without incident, Duncan prodded the door open, and stepped inside, covering all corners of the small side room. A bright blaze of white light filled his IR goggles temporarily, as the blinding sun shone through the west-facing window. Automatically accounting for the Bright spot, the goggles did not register the dark shape opening the south-facing door on the adjacent wall. Duncan, who had instinctively blocked his eyes from the sun, didn't help the situation. He was suddenly thrown to the floor by a large, heavy, and professional being. Smashing through a small flower-stand table on the way down certainly wasn't comfortable either, but the assailant obviously didn't care. Attempting to pin Duncan down completely, the shape grabbed Duncan's arms and overwhelmingly forced them to the ground. Duncan saw no other option to get out of this one, so he twisted his right ankle to the left, and banged the side heel against the floor. The hidden rubber blade popped out from under the toe of the boot. Duncan straightened his foot, and threw it sideways, into whatever part of his seemingly formless attacker it could find. With a yelp that was definitely human, at least, the enemy leapt up, and stumbled backwards. Duncan came with him, already fired up by the ferocity of the sneak attack, and drew a much larger rubber blade from his utility belt, and flew onto the reeling black form. Using guess work to determine the place to slice and kick, Duncan got lucky. After a slash behind a hamstring and a stab in the back, the attacker hit the floor noiselessly and disappeared.

Duncan realized this would probably be a good time to check in. Lowering his voice, he did so, and got a whispered reply from Sharpknux.

"Yeah, well, we're stuck down at the end of the front west hallway, in an end room. There's quite a few guards here, and we can't exactly get through without making a lot of noise," Sharp reported.

"Looks like about seven of them, Duncan," Curt whispered over the comm. We could probably take them out if we rushed them, but not without drawing a lot of attention."

"I think I can manage to get them out of your way," Duncan said.

"What?"

"Listen and learn. I got your diversion right here"

Gathering all the gear together, Duncan went for the south door. Upon finding that his former assailant had locked the door behind him, Duncan went for a less discreet method of entry. Breaching doors without the use of explosives was one of his favorite pastimes, and one harsh kick later, and Duncan stepped through the remains of the door, pointing his rifle straight down the long hall. Several guards who were lazily watching various doors couldn't help but notice the entry, and put up a determined fight before being forced by continuous AR fire to take cover. Duncan was pleased with this reaction to his assault, but was shocked when his rifle finally gave up. After nearly thirty seconds of dartfire had brought down two guards, the fifty dart clip was expended. Duncan traded in a mini-pellet Nerf grenade for a few seconds of time to reload his rifle. Leaning back against the inside wall of the room, a smile took Duncan's face as he heard a resounding explosion, followed by several screams and thuds down the hall. Locking in his second clip, he then spun back to the south door, where the few remaining guards were in a semi-orderly retreat farther down the hall. Behind three rear guards, one soldier was herding a group of at least ten people with their hands over their heads. He then leapfrogged from door to open door, clearing each room quickly as he went, and following the last direction he had seen the prisoner group take.

"Curt here," Curt reported, in a slightly louder voice, "Looks like you did something right. As soon as the guards heard the explosion, five of them ran off to check it out. The other two were no problem."

Duncan smiled and replied, "glad to help."

Suddenly, Curt released a sharp curse into the comm system.

"What happened, Curt?" Duncan questioned.

"My IR goggles just drained! I'm blind over here."

Custer broke into the signal urgently "Curt, Sharp, back up now!"

"I can't exactly see anything," Curt said, trying to feel for objects in front of him, "what's up?"

"I just got a lock on their comm signals. They're heading back your way to regroup. If you don't get out of that hallway now, you'll be discovered!"

Curt kept reaching around, trying to feel his way out, when suddenly, he grabbed a cold metal object. He realized Custer's warning was too late. He tried to pull the gun away and fight, but without seeing his opponents, he didn't have a chance. Something landed on the back of his head, and things went a little blacker than they already were.

"Eh…too late…sorry, Custer," Sharp replied just before his comm went dead.

By the time he was at the end of that hallway, and about to take the stairs to the second floor, he knew he was the only one left to complete the mission. Depressed and somewhat annoyed, Duncan quietly opened the stairwell door, and entered. As soon as the door opened, the middle section of the stair way halfway between him and the second floor exploded. Duncan allowed the explosion to toss him out the door. Upon surveying the stairwell again when he had regained his balance, he saw that there was no way he was going up that way. A grenade that suddenly bounced on the floor in front of him punctuated that thought. Leaping away from the door, and rounding the hallway to the east, Duncan barely got away in time. Instead, he turned to the long east hallway, and cautiously but quickly moved towards to middle of it, hugging the right wall.

"Custer, please advise," Duncan requested in a whisper, "what are they doing now?"

"Sounds like they've just delivered the hostages to the second floor and are trying to get you next. They said they just blew up a stairway to prevent you entry to the second floor, where I might add, is where Curt and Sharp are now being held as well. You're going to have to find another way up, and fast, or you'll be caught between the stairwell and the front hall.

About halfway down the back hallway, Duncan found one of the few airvents in the building that was large enough to accommodate a person. Deciding it would be wise to conserve his ammo and go stealth once more, he carefully removed the grate, and climbed inside. The sound of footsteps preparing to round the corner into the hallway from the west prompted him to replace the grate quickly, and remain still. The grate didn't straighten out all the way. He watched motionlessly from inside the vent as a squad of perhaps seven Green Hats rushed past. From what he could hear, they were being stationed at various points. Choosing not to wait until one of the guards became curious about the slightly misaligned cover, Duncan ascended the vent as silently as possible. Suddenly, he heard something distant, and very loud. It ceased in a moment, and then Mir's voice crackled through the comm in his helmet.

"Duncan, they're a bit confused, but they're expanding their search," Mir said, sounding somewhat stressed.

"Yeah..." Duncan said through grated teeth as he rose through the shaft, "I'm not surprised,"

"I don't think you get it," Mir said more desperately, "They're threatening to kill the hostages if you don't give up now,"

Duncan started whispering more fiercely, "I've made it this far, and there's still a mission. It'll be a cold day in..."

"Shut up," Mir cut him off, "It just means you're going to have to work faster. Where are you now?"

"Vent, midway between levels one and two, going up," Duncan reported, regaining himself.

"Sounds good, They've moved all hostages to the second floor, so you'll have easier access to them," the voice of Custer cut in, "Cam's hacked into their security computer so we can access the internal cameras, but they're not IR-enabled. All we have to go on are enemy transmissions, some of which are encrypted. Cam's slicing the encryption right now. For the moment they still think you're on the first floor, so security up there is a bit lax. Still, even if you do get to them, we have no way to get them out,"

"I'm not sure about that," Duncan replied, pulling out a small remote beckon device, the one for his hovercraft, "Custer, you saw those hovercraft and copters that were flying around before? When I give you the signal, order them to land on the roof, and prepare to take passengers."

"The Green Hats have the roof covered. If anything lands they'll report it."

"I don't intend to let them. Signal me if they figure out where I am. Duncan out," Duncan switched his comm to standby mode, and continued till he found the shaft outlet he was looking for.

The one that opened into the elevator shaft. The elevator was currently on the first floor, and Duncan was between floors, right above it. Crawling silently onto the elevator, he saw that he was none too soon. Several more hostages had just been loaded on for the ascent to the more secure second floor. The elevator rose beneath him, and when it had reached the second floor, Duncan crawled out into the second/third floor air vent. Custer's voice broke in once more, "Duncan, they think they must have missed you somewhere on the first floor, so they're sending a lot more people down to search and hold positions. Sounds like…maybe…five guards total on the second floor."

"And I thought they were trying to make it difficult for me," Duncan joked,

"Okay, who to rescue first…"

"Your teammates, of course!" Custer yelled.

Duncan jumped, and hit his head on the vent.

"Very smooth," Duncan replied to Custer, "I think I better move. Out."

Crawling toward the first opening of the air vent, Duncan peered into the dark room below, where he saw at least twenty officials. Some were sitting still, others were groping around blindly in the fog, lacking any IR goggles. He continued to the next room full of hostages, and noted shouting from a vent further past it. As he made his way to it, he realized he was hearing an interrogation in progress.

And the prisoner was Curt. Curt, of course, had no goggles, and sat tied to a chair in front of the interrogator.

Duncan decided stealth was still a good idea, and primed his silenced Secret Shot. Right after Curt said "I don't know" for the thousandth time, Duncan lined up his weapon, and shot the interrogator in the head. Curt, not quite knowing what had happened, just sat there. Duncan dropped down from the grate, took the IR goggles from the former interrogator before he vanished, and placed them on Curt's head.

"Oh," Curt said "you."

"Yeah, I'm still here," Duncan replied while untying Curt, "we're getting the hostages out of here, so get your weapon and let's go."

"I had to manually rotate the frequency on my comm so they couldn't listen in on you, so I guess you're going to have to relay the orders."

A moment later, Curt was ready to go, but they still didn't have a plan to get the blind hostages out. Duncan decided to call in to Custer and see what could be done.

"Haven't you gotten Sharpknux out yet?" Custer was demanding.

"No, sorry, haven't found him yet. I found Curt by chance," Duncan reported, "We'll find Sharp soon, but right now we need to get this smoke clear so we can get the hostages to the roof. I was hoping maybe another plan besides backing up the sewer?"

"Roof?" Curt mouthed.

"That may be our only option, I'm sorry to say, but…wait…" Custer stopped, talking to someone else for a moment, "Mir says there is one possibility, but it may be dangerous."

"You don't say."

"Some of her scientists have developed a gas that is supposed to counteract the smoke particles, and make it fall like dust, which can be cleaned up later," Custer hesitated, "We just can't gauge the effects it will have on humans."

"Is it supposed to be poisonous?"

"Well, it's supposed to be safe to breathe, just as the smoke screen is, but they don't know for sure. Seems they didn't have any volunteers to test it…"

"Looks like they've got them now. If you're good with it, deploy the gas," Duncan said, hoping he wouldn't regret it.

Duncan heard glass breaking in several places, followed by a hiss of released pressure.

Mir's voice cut in next, "Er…we just did."

Duncan couldn't quite make anything out of the readings the IR goggles were giving him, but a sort of sparkling effect was sweeping down the hallway. Taking off his goggles, Duncan saw the smoke disappear, while a thin layer of gray dust gathered on the ground.

"Um…some warning would have been nice. Backup guards are going to be up here in no time," Duncan said, "Never mind, we'll do what we can, Duncan out." "I'll go bomb the elevator, Duncan, you go take out the second stairwell," Curt said quickly, unpacking two level 3 Nerf bombs from his gear. He tossed one to SLAM, then ascended into the airshaft.

Duncan took off at a sprint for the west stairwell. By the time he got there and tossed the door open, a stream of Green Hats were gathered at the first floor entrance to the stairs, and started climbing up. Desperately not wanting to fight that many off, Duncan set the NB timer for five seconds and tossed it down. The last thing he saw of it before he turned to run was that it had hit the lead Green Hat in the head, knocking his hat off. A curse was followed by a shout, and then followed by an extremely loud explosion. Duncan kept going, and stopped short. The elevator door in the middle of the hallway opened, and three figures, one crouching, one standing, and one somewhere in between, pointed weapons at him.

"Freeze!" The one in the middle ordered.

An explosion engulfed the entire elevator with fast expanding foam, taking out the elevator, and causing the Green Hats to teleport out so quickly they must not have known what happened.

"Burn." Duncan said in reply.

Duncan heard two thuds behind him, and turned to see both Curt and Sharpknux leap out of the overheard air vent.

"He's the reason I didn't get the elevator bombed right away," Curt said, jerking his thumb at Sharpknux.

Duncan smiled "Doesn't matter, seemed to work out better that way anyway. Now get those hostages, I'm going to clear out the roof."

"Alone?" Sharp inquired.

"Not exactly," Duncan replied, holding up the remote beckon call for his hovercraft.

"Ah, got it," Curt said, then slapped Sharpknux on the arm, "Let's move!" Duncan watched his two teammates, two of his oldest friends from Nerf, charge off, and then headed for the elevator shaft.

The shaft at floor two was a mess. The metal paneling had buckled, and the car was in twisted, fused pieces along the walls. This metal was uncomfortably hot, but with a little effort though, Duncan worked his way through the foam-dripping disaster. At length he found himself at the service door on the roof. He could have taken the stairwells from the second floor to the roof, they were still intact. But Duncan needed the element of surprise on his side. He opened the door slightly, and could see several very agitated guards trying desperately to coordinate with the people trapped on the first floor. Smiling, Duncan punched several commands into the remote, and from around a large skyscraper, his hovercraft (an armed hovercraft) made its approach to the building. It stopped just short of the building, hovering no more than five feet from the roof. It finished receiving its instructions from Duncan. Now it knew what to shoot at. The swiveling gun underneath the vacant cockpit twisted in the direction of the nearest stunned Green Hat guard so quickly that a blur of motion was barely seen. The weapon opened up, spewing mega darts at nearly six hundred rounds per minutes. Before the first guard hit the ground, the gun began swiveling, spraying the entire roof with darts. Three more guards went down. The fifth one, the only survivor when the hovercraft temporarily stopped shooting, decided to escape through the elevator access door.

"Surprise," Duncan said simply as the man opened the door. Duncan's rifle was now set to fire three round bursts, and the rather disappointed Green Hat took them all.

"I take it that means we can come up?" Curt questioned.

"Go ahead, Curt," Duncan replied, stepping outside to cover the rest of the roof, "I'm ready here. Custer, order the vehicles to the roof, we have hostages ready for transport."

"Order sent, Duncan," Custer said, relieved.

An assortment of air vehicles, ranging from news reporting choppers to large medical hovercraft began landing on the roof. It took two trips for the entire group to land the former hostages safely on the grounds outside of the capitol, but everyone made it, and none of them had been hurt. Finally, Duncan called his hovercraft back, climbed in, and delivered his team to the ground.

"They weren't as tough as you said," Duncan addressed Mir as he jumped out of the cockpit, "seems to me a lot of them had no real combat experience." Mir, who hadn't been facing Duncan, suddenly turned to him with a look of confusion.

"These weren't Green Hats," she said.

"How can you tell?"

"All Green Hats have a tattoo on the back of the neck, right about the hairline," Mir explained, "Look at this," Mir lifted the hair at the back of the neck of one of the "Green Hat" prisoners with her combat knife. There was no tattoo.

"Then who are they?" Duncan inquired.

"If I knew, I'd tell you," Mir replied, "he hasn't been very helpful so far, but we'll get what we need out of him."

"There's another matter," said Custer, approaching them, "we've got about twenty-plus terrorists inside the building, and they aren't showing any signs of surrender. We've uncovered a bit about their attack though. A few of the prisoners actually talked when we asked about their plan. Remember my idea about the sewer pipes? That's how they got in. They took over the building from basement level."

"Then maybe that's how we should go after them," Curt said confidently, joining the group along with Sharpknux.

"Yeah," Sharpknux added, "If these guys are mostly newbies, it shouldn't be a problem taking them out one at a time."

Just then, a man in a very decorated military uniform approached them, along with the captain who had brought initial reinforcements.

"General Wortham," Custer addressed him, "we were just discussing a plan for wrapping up this rather messy business..."

"I thank you for your assistance, and your desire to help us once again, but we have the situation well in hand now," the general replied with a smile, "You're dismissed."

"Are you certain, sir?" Custer asked, "We have learned a few things about these..."

"Thank you, Colonel Lock, but we really do have everything under control now," General Wortham replied hastily, "Please leave the grounds immediately. You too," he addressed Mir, with some measure of hidden disdain. Custer, wondering at the general's urgency, but not about to disobey a military order, turned, and got the RAD team ready to go. Within fifteen minutes, all gear was packed, and both the RADs and the Lunas were off the premises, leaving it in military hands.

And none of them knew what cards the military hands were dealing.


Chapter 1 Epilogue

In a dark room, a large man sat behind a large, ornate desk. A light behind him, silhoutted him to anyone that saw him. The only one that saw him was General Wortham.

"I warned you about using intelligence recruits for this, general," said the man calmly, "For all their academy training, they are nothing more than newbies in combat."

"I know, sir," General Wortham replied, "The trainers assured me they would be able to handle an operation such as this."

"The trainers, my good general, are like parents," the man explained, "To a parent, the accomplishment of a child is a great thing. The parent puts great confidence in the child's ability. The parent is blinded from the possibility that the child may not perform as expected, and thus, it is unwise to trust a parent's opinion of such a child. The trainers in Intelligence are no different."

"Understood, sir," the general replied, bowing his head slightly, "It won't happen again."

"Good," the man said, apparently satisfied, "Now, what do our mercenary friends know?"

"Very little, sir," Wortham reported, "They could not explain the IR shadow suits, but they did learn that the attackers were not, in fact, Green Hats."

"And how was this bit of information divulged?" the man asked, sounding only slightly annoyed.

Wortham looked at his PDA and said "The Lunas apparently know the Green Hats well. They seem to have had a rather violent history with them, and knew what to look for. The found a detail that our preperation teams seemed to have missed in preparing the troops."

"I see," the man said, thinking hard, "Well, this attempt has failed, so we must try another way. Send me your report, General, and get to work on a new solution."

"Yes, sir," Wortham said, "If I may ask sir, what should we do about the mercenaries? Do they know too much?"

"No, I...think we shall let them be for now," the man said thoughtfully, "We'll let the 'detail' remain a historical curiosity. That will be all."

"Yes, sir", General Wortham repeated, saluted smartly, then turned and strode out of the room.