“How much sleep did you get last night?”
The question pierced Alex, who had gained a modicum of focus in that moment to answer.
“Uh. I went to sleep at like, 1. I woke up at… half five.” His eyes weren’t fully open just yet, and resting his chin on his hand didn’t add to an illusion of being fully awake. He looked expectantly at the next comment, already aware of what was going to play out. The thought showed on his face, clear as day.
“So four and a half hours.” Yuhong restrained herself, almost going to roll her eyes but thinking against it. “This will be your first patrol with me, and you think you can do it on four hours of sleep? I’m not just going on at you, I know. I can tell by the way you’re looking at me.”
“I’m not looking at…” He paused, a moment to reflect on the situation; he was looking at her. “…you. I mean, in that way. Not looking at you as a general sort of… thing.”
She sighed. “I know. This is just what the mentor process is like. We’ve got you in a gym routine, we’re training regularly. I hold up everyone who works with me to a high standard, because I know you can meet it. But-” She smiled, sincerely. “-not on four and a half hours of sleep. It’s not healthy. Neither are all the energy drinks you have. And you wouldn’t need all of them if you actually got to sleep properly!” Her advice, whilst truthful and sound, didn’t have as much of an effect as desired.
“I know, yeah. But the Battlefront Beta came out and I wanted to check it out.”
Sympathy drained from her face. “…make sure you’re up earlier tomorrow. Okay, that wraps it up. Handover, over. We’re going to suit up and do some training, then we can discuss our objective.”
Alex nodded, and took another look over her. She stood first, and lead the way in front of him.
“Did you get your hair cut?” He’d say. When standing, he had at least half a foot of height over his mentor, and wasn’t much wider than her regardless. They contrasted each other, from his baggy jeans and hoodie to her more fashionable purple dotted dress and jeans. She did smile back to him, looking his way as they moved through offices towards a corridor; one sign pointed to ‘equipment’, the other ‘toilets’.
“Yes, I did. Thank you.”
“Welcome. Just thought I’d say I like, notice things like that. Hair cuts. Pixie style, it suits you.”
At least it amused her for a moment.
Through the hallway, they approached the equipment room and split off to go to male and female changing rooms. Alex looked over his new suit with a bit of wonder, and laughed to himself. “This is mine? That’s so awesome.” He’d say to himself, whilst he started to kit up. His suit was modern, body armour covering him from head to toe, though most of it was sleek and form fitting. He had some muscle to fill it out, though it seemed to be designed with this in mind. Underneath the armour pads where normal spandex would be, was a chain mail-type suit that looked more like the scales of an ancient beast. He tested the gloves, admiring how well they fit, before slipping on the jacket. It was hooded, and zipped up on the left side and was snug and not bulky, unlike his regular hoodies. All that was left was to put on a pair of goggles; tinted, obscuring most of the top half of his face. With the hood up, it would be hard to recognise him at all, though it was easy to see he was still human underneath it. It even hid that mop of thick brown hair. Better than the beanie he wore over it, in any case.
He had to wait for Visionary though, and was testing how well he could move in his jacket. It seems from his small bout of stretching that he had great movement in this armour, and even checked to see how durable it was. It survived all his tests to tug and poke at it.
When Yuhong came out, her outfit fit over her like she wore a second skin, as if she’d never truly removed it. It was sleek and form fitting, with jet black body armour spread more over vital areas, and slightly thicker where it had such plates, though it seemed to allow much more movement. She kept her hair and eyes bare for the world; the only obfuscation would be a mouth mask that neatly covered where it needed to, cut under her eye line with a straight line. On her hip was a bar mace, an elegantly blunt weapon made from four flat bars of steel and a leather grip.
She bowed her head formally. All he had to do was take one look at her weapon before he started to ask “Is this training going to be, uh, painful?”
Under her mask, he could tell she was smiling. “It shouldn’t be. Let’s go to the training area.”
Down corridors and up lifts they went, nodding to people along the way. They saw other people, in more formal office attire walking past, who took no stock of their more outlandish, battle-ready outfits. They weren’t addressed by their names when they were geared up; they called her Visionary, and him Tether. He had to beam with a bit of pride, chest slightly puffed out whenever he heard somebody refer to him as such.
When they were about to enter, Alex raised another question.
“Do I get to have a weapon?”
She turned to him, and asked him something. Whilst what she said could sound patronising, she always had an honest tone, inquisitive and always waited for an answer to follow.
“Do you need one?”
He was disarmed for a moment, and she picked up on it almost instantly. “Maybe? Like, I don’t know.”
“Do you want one because it looks cool, or because you think you’ll be using it?”
“You’re being trained on the non-lethal team. There might be situations where you need to defend yourself but that’s why we’re training you and why we’ve taken our time to make sure you’re ready. Your powers will be where you make that difference.”
He nodded. He showed some understanding.
“What weapon would you have? Think about it carefully. It should compliment your powers.”
They walked inside as he mused on it. The room was spacious, filled with lots of training paraphernalia; navy blue training mats were spread out, with an area where the wooden flooring was blank. Several dummies of several sized and even shapes, some more bestial than others, were in one corner. Weights and other equipments were scattered around, though the room was incredibly spacious despite having the contents of a Dojo, a gym’s free weights section and a makeshift boxing ring all in one room. It was empty this early in the morning, eerily quiet.
“Maybe something like your namesake. Like a rope?” She lead him to the blank area, teasing him along the way. “The Farborn hero, Tether, with his Lasso of Justice.”
“The term is Lasso of Truth, thanks.” He’d rattle off. They stepped into the area, and she stood several feet away and faced him. He stopped in his tracks. “I’d need a tiara as well.”
“We’ll see about getting you one.” Visionary laughed under her breath.
He looked around for a moment. “So, what today?”
Visionary spread her arms. “We’ve done a lot of practical, a lot of training and a lot of thinking on how to use your powers. Let’s try something a little out of your comfort zone.” She lowered her arms, tilting her head slightly to the side. “I want you to try and hit me.”
“Hit you?” Tether looked shocked. “I can’t hit you!” He let a beat pass. “You’ll pull off some ninja sh-stuff on me. There’s no way I’m going to connect a hit on you.”
There was that smile again, skulking just underneath her mask. “You’re going to try.”
Tether sighed, nodded, resigned himself, and raised up into a ready stance with both arms raised. She did the same to mirror him, arms raised no higher than her sternum, and waited for him to make a move.
When he stepped closer, she didn’t retreat or dodge back, not yet. He launched himself in a surprise feint, throwing out a testing right jab towards her face. His fist came no further than a few inches from her face and only elicited a blink in response as he pulled back his hand. He looked at her eyes, flickering about left and right, as if studying and analysing him.
“See? You knew. You didn’t even try.” The gap hadn’t closed, not yet.
“Neither did you.” She responded. Her own hand darted out, trying to bring the back of it into his cheek. Though he went to weave out of the blow, her hand followed his movements down, even as he pulled back; she still connected him with a light tap to the cheek. “We’re going on patrol today for the first time. Put in effort here, and I know I won’t need to babysit you-”
That left jab came out of nowhere, physically trying to cut off her sentence. There was nothing pulled back, though Visionary watched the blow side past her cheek and withdraw back, having dodged through the blow with a minimal amount of effort. Again, she smiled. “Better.”
He had time to recover, though he didn’t move back. “I knew you’d dodge it.” His voice was filled, half determination, half defeat.
“You trusted that I’d dodge it. If I didn’t, what then? If you throw a punch, you intend to hurt somebody. That’s why you’re not throwing a good punch.”
“Well, yeah.” He admitted. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
“Then don’t.” She said, and resumed her stance again.
He took then hint, and stepped forward. When he did, she mimicked him and stood back. Again he relented, and she copied him until he had lunged for her. An open swings with a wide berth, brought back in quickly to defend himself, and she let it swing around her movement to evade the attack. Her eyes darted over him, never content in one place, scanning his arm each time his fist entered her personal space. He followed up with a small onslaught, combining them into a series of attacks and jabs, to no avail.
He had resolve, and blitzed her again. This effort was to try and grab her, and she’d ducked just a moment before he thought it would connect. Whilst he staggered forward, she moved in and lightly tapped his forehead with a pair of fingers. It annoyed him, just a little.
“Close. Practice has paid off. Your form is good.”
“Yours is better. Lots better.”
“I’m much more experienced. Try again.”
He stood for a second, and looked over her again. This time there was more scrutiny, more thought into what he was doing. He held back a realisation, and lunged in again. He threw attacks, each one was disciplined from what he had been taught, and watched as she danced around him. His body yearned, expecting the swings to hit, craving and losing hope when they didn’t. He waited, and aimed to grapple her again. Once more she ducked, just as she had done before, and knowing she’d do so, he threw up his knee. It still wasn’t enough, eyes still racing and flickering, she had ducked to the floor to the side to avoid it, stopping her fall with a hand before pushing back.
Tether held his arms up to his face, and saw that she came for him again. With fists clenched, she still weaved through his open hands, her right hand homing to him with unerring accuracy. He had learned from before, and went to swipe at her right hand with his own. Even then, she pulled away from it to the side, as if repelled by his presence, or anticipated so accurately. Her other hand came over when he was more off-guard, knowing he couldn’t raise his left hand to intercept so easily with his arm in the way, and managed to tap his forehead.
The noise was sharp. Her eyes ran in circles far faster than they normally could, tracing from his forehead to his hand, with only his middle finger touching his glove. She pulled back, though he reacted just as quick, and made that click ring in the air again.
She pulled back. Her hand pulled straight to his, aiming for the spot where her fingers touched his forehead and the middle of his glove. They aligned, and she barrelled straight to him.
They met again, and he’d managed to get her finger in a hold, though not without her almost managing to squirm out of it.
He didn’t expect her to jab him in the stomach straight afterwards, and reeled backwards. His grip on her faded, and she’d started to pull back as he lowered his hand to the floor.
He made it click again with his palm near the floor, and she felt herself tugged by unseen force, her hand to his, and staggered forward. Even when he went to trip her as she did this, she almost leaped over it.
She stumbled on the floor, and he let the connection fade from those two points. He spared no time and grabbed the back of her suit, and clicked his hand to her back. She was nimble still, and had begun to roll away. He stood up tall and raised his hand, and clicked again.
Pulled off the floor, flung several feet into the air from where she lay before, hoisted by the sharp pull of invisible force. He severed it before they met, and she started to fall.
Visionary managed to land on her feet with relative ease and before he could press the advantage, she was on her feet and standing opposed to him, with arms raised.
He let out a ragged breath, and she lowered her stance. She brought her hands together, and clapped a few times for him.
Tether was relieved and sunk his shoulders, sighing outwards. His heart still pounded in his chest, and she was smiling again. A sight he was happy to see as well, as he’d got a grin from what he’d achieved.
“Excellent! I thought you’d notice it. It’s taken people more than 3 tries before. You’re one of the quickest.”
“Thanks.” Alex inhaled. “Yeah, I hoped that would work.”
“Tethering those points together is what I meant before, about using your powers.” She nodded, with a tilt of her head to follow. “I was under the impression you couldn’t tether a person to another, not easily.”
“I didn’t.” He responded, to her surprise. “I tethered my glove to yours. And then your outfit to my glove.”
Visionary raised her eyebrows. “I hadn’t even thought of that yet. That, is clever.”
He picked up on how impressed she was, and cradled his stomach with a hand. “Can we do some training where you don’t sucker punch me?”
Yuhong laughed. “Yes, of course. I wanted to see if you were willing to actually try, first. Let’s try going over what we might face today.”
Alex took in a deep breath and nodded. He felt more ready than ever, and could feel a second wind giving him the energy he needed to carry on.
They had trained, recuperated, discussed, even had time to have a break, and eventually went over the basics of the patrol. They had begun to climb into their transport; a silver BMW 3-Series with all the windows tinted fully.
“This is going to be something easy for your first patrol” Visionary told him, as they were now sitting in the vehicle, buckling up. “We’re going to be dropped off near a location where there’s been an Eldritch sighting. We’re going to scout the area, assess the situation and find it, and report back. There’ll be a team nearby on stand-by who will come in and handle the situation. It’s uncertain if it’s a Girallon-class or Bayard-class but it’s definitely in that size category. Hopefully we won’t test how hostile it is to say if it’s one or the other.”
Alex couldn’t hide the lack of how unreassuringly that sounded. The car took off from outside the facility, paired and in their costumes to their patrol location. Behind them followed a large van, white, with NFU logos painted along the sides where the doors were.
“We go in, we scout, we come out and report back. No complications, no collateral.”
Alex rolled the earpiece he had in his hands, with a single piece of wire that would curl around his chin. The part where he spoke into was no bigger than his little finger nail. “Is this designed by Artifex?”
She nodded, and Alex grew instantly more curious and tested it out. He slipped it into his ear with a new measure of pride and tested it with a few breaths.
“This is Tether, Testing. One, two, three. Over.”
“It only works if you say their name. It’s C-Team, then one. They’re programmed by the name of your team and the number you’re designated. We’re R-Squad One today.” Visionary responded. “And if you want to test, you say ‘radio check’ after saying your name, and before ‘over’.”
He nodded slowly. “C-Team One, this is R-Team One, Agent Tether here. Radio Check, over.”
“R-Squad One, this is C-Team One, I read you five by five, Agent Tether. Over.”
The sound was so clear, Tether had to look to his side to make sure nobody had appeared next to him to say that.
“C-Team One, Uh, Roger Wilco. Over.”
“R-Squad One, just to inform you, Wilco means ‘will comply’. Roger Out is fine, Roger Wilco is redundant, just say one or the other. Over means ‘over to you’ for a reply, Out means you won’t reply. Over.”
“…Uh. Yeah. C-Team, thank you. Out.”
He heard a bit of a chuckle on the other end. “R-Team, you’re welcome, out.”
He nodded, and a grin crept over his face. “That was so cool.”
“It’s not always cool. But sometimes, it is.” Visionary was looking out of the window. Alex could see her eyes again, flickering and darting, back and forth between outside and glancing at him. He grew a little disconcerted if he stared too long, and eventually she looked back inside. “We’ll be at the drop off point at roughly 10am. A little sooner if the traffic is good.”
They were a few minutes early, if anything. They arrived on site, a few minutes from a dirt path that lead down towards a construction site. Visionary explained further. “We show the people that the NFUis good at containing Eldritch, and people’s trust in us grows. We need that trust. Afterwards, we can do some normal patrols along the streets, even see what people really think of us. Feedback is good for us and the NFU.”
They approached a gated area, where a fence was in their way. Tether took the gate up with some effort, and managed to shove it to the side after a small strain. Visionary walked inside, hand on her bar mace, flickering her vision around.
“Stay on guard.”
With a nod, Tether replied, though in a more hushed tone. “What does the NFU do with the captured Eldritch?”
Visionary turned her head briefly to him. She spoke differently; jerked, awkwardly spaced pauses between words, sometimes not even having a space between them at all, eyes shifting in their sockets. “Study. Mostly. There’s a. Lot todowith them. Youwill know. After. Probation.”
She walked ahead, and approached a wall. She hid behind it for a second, paused, then stood up. Without even entering, she turned to Tether. “It washere. Come and. Look.”
Tether walked over and carefully approached the situation. There had been something here, though whatever it was had seemingly left, leaving a large imprint of mud where it must have previously lain.
“That’s… big.” He’d pointed to the ‘footprints’, odd splotches where something had been in mud and made contact, though they followed no pattern that a normal creature followed, nor no normal footprint either. They all headed in one line, further down the footpath, leading into a small area of forest after leaving the building site. “Are these fresh?”
Visionary had started to look at Tether with more focus now, giving a nod. “We hope. Let’s keep moving. Report findings back.”
“Oh!” He tapped his headset. “Yeah. Uh. C-Team One, this is R-Squad One, come in, over.”
The headset responded again, as clear as a voice beside him.
“R-Squad One, this is C-Team One, reading you loud and clear. Go ahead, Over.”
Visionary started to follow the footprints. The mud was still soft as she walked over it, and Tether followed. He spied a metal rod on the floor and swiped it along the way, flipping it into his hand to test the weight, catching up quickly to Visionary.
“C-Team One, uh, target is not in the building site. We are following its tracks. Over.”
“R-Team One, affirmative. Verify location of Eldritch, do not engage unless hostile or civilians at risk. Out.”
“C-Team One, willco. Out.”
“You’re getting the hang of it. We’ll have to go over procedure words sometime but you’re beginning to sound good over the radio.”
Tether nodded. “Okay, that’s good.”
“Are you nervous?” She asked him, turning to him for a moment. She hadn’t slowed to speak.
“A little. Yeah, I’m nervous. Adrenaline’s one hell of a drug.”
“You’d better hold onto that pipe then. Keep it close.”
They approached a small clearing in the forest. Before they got any further, Visionary stopped and put her hand against Tether’s chest, sealing them in place for a moment. She gestured ahead down the pathway, beyond where the trees obscured the view into a small cull-de-sac ahead, and what was standing with its back turned to them. They saw something shuffle, the hind legs of an alien beast as it stood still, taking stock of the area. The tracks had lead them to it, mud over its hind appendages as proof of the deed.
He went to raise his hand, as if pointing towards his headset. Without turning to him, Visionary shook her head slowly, taking a moment to study what was going on.
The beast had started to hobble into the streets, picking up speed.
Visionary released him and took command of the situation, with Tether in tow. She reached for her bar mace whilst she spoke, quickly issuing her orders.
“C-Team, this is R-Squad. Target has been sighted, entering civilian area. R-Squad is going to engage, repeat. R-Squad is going to engage-”
They streaked around the corner. Tether gripped the pole in his hand tightly, the sound of him using his powers between glove and metal went unheard in the blitz. They saw the creature in all its glory, heading down the street with tentacle-formed limbs not so much running as grabbing the floor and hurling it forward into motion.”
-Requesting immediate assistance, out.”
Tether reacted first, and flung his pipe straight at the beast with a throw that left him standing still for a moment on the pavement. With an almighty crack, it struck the beast straight in the hind legs and rebounded off it, causing it to flinch for a moment from the impact. He raised his hand and mid-air, the pole launched back towards him, slow enough to catch without risking his hand being torn off.
Visionary stood in the middle of the road as the beast turned to them, finally gaining their attention. The ropes of flesh that formed around where its head to be, the orb that gave it a crude facsimile of a skull, reared open and split apart from the knot that held it. The noise it released was utterly alien, hostile to the senses like the noise of anathema, crawling deep into your core. It vomited it forth with enough strength to cause nearby windows to tremble, and for both of our heroes to reach for their ears in intense discomfort and baulk.
It charged towards Tether, throwing itself with its full weight in his direction. Visionary had still got her senses and managed to intercept its berserk charge, and slammed her bar mace deftly in the shoulder. The impact would have cracked bone, would it have any, so all that was achieved was to slow the beast’s momentum down. It barely registered it as a wound, as tendrils pulsed around the impact zone.
It stopped and turned towards her. Pre-emptively, she had shuffled back to avoid its ire, though it widened its tentacles again and regurgitated another horrific scream straight towards her. At point blank, it caused both her and Tether to grab their ears as well as their stomachs, as nausea crippled them for a scant second. Enough time for the beast to leap forward, slamming a raised arm into Tether’s chest. Tentacles oozed over his body, pouring down over him and pinning him to the floor.
“Tether!” The Eldritch reared its open maw, and Tether gazed deep, and felt a primordial fear deep within. His only response was to lash out, striking into the beast’s shoulder twice and swiping into the side of its ‘head’ once. The beast snarled deep inside, and when he struck it a second time, the tentacles snapped around and wrapped it to itself. His last measure of defence was being pulled from his hands, though he refused to let go. His eyes wandered, just for a second, and spied something within his other arm’s reach.
Visionary slammed her mace into the other shoulder, and up swung into the creature’s neck afterwards. It turned towards her and swung its free arm out, aiming to swipe at her, though her reflexes were too honed and she evaded it with ease. It swiped again to keep her at bay. Enough time for Tether, who had found a large stone beside him, raised it up so it was close to the bar, and the click they made was drowned out by the violent struggle. As he released the bar, the beast’s body drew it within itself, sinking it deep inside that protean mass of flesh, never to be seen again.
It turned back towards him. With all the strength his left arm could muster, he pelted the stone as far away from him as possible. It lurched up ready for a moment, and with the remaining strength he funnelled it into his power, and let another click rip through the air, strong enough that nobody could deny it went unheard.
The lead pipe was lodged deep inside the beast, and though it had pinned him to the floor, it hadn’t gripped him in the slightest. Drawn to the stone he had just pelted away, the beast was pitched from his body like a catapult had send it careening with immense speed and force. Visionary watched, as the stone flew through the air and made a loud thud as it collided with a window. Bouncing upwards, the beast followed, and had been thrown with enough force to go completely through the window, and the wall surrounding it. The sound was dull, painful, and the aftermath of rubble and broken glass scattering in the air, sunk deep into the pit of Tether’s stomach.
Visionary came over to him and helped him from lying onto his back, hoisting him up. “Tether, are you alright?!” She exclaimed, following it up with a much calmer call. “C-Team, this is R-Team. Mayday, mayday, mayday. Eldritch has breached civilian property. Large collateral damage. Immediate response and containment required, Aven’s Street-”
Before either could speak further, they heard a noise. A crack like thunder, or a sledgehammer hitting a wall, rang through the courtyard. They both drew their eyes to where the beast had been in fear of what would approach out. They saw it stagger back into the hole amongst the rubble and carnage that had been caused, though it was slumped down. Tentacles from its face had been torn off from an impact, and it oozed a foul ichor as it mimicked a noise loudly whining, pitifully crying for help.
It had no reprieve. Something else struck it, obscured from view. It struck with such tremendous force that the beast was forcefully shunted from the building, the awful sound of flesh being pulverised shattered the winds like thunder. The beast flew outwards, before slamming straight into a lamp post. The post itself, torn clean in half, with no hopes of surviving such a blow, the beast hurling to the ground, stopping with a slump. Some life still ran through the tentacles, but it was fading quickly.
As they both looked up to the hole, they saw a figure. A young man emerged, hands holding the rubble of the hole, toothpaste still fresh around his mouth. With a tremendous leap, he hurled himself out of the window, far greater than any human could ever muster the strength, and landed with a great impact onto the pavement next to the beast. He took one step to where the beast was and raised his foot high, and brought it down. The impact sent tremors through the ground, as nothing was left between his foot and the cracked pavement beneath. What had been there was the Eldritch, though what remained was utterly crushed beneath his foot.
Shaun sighed deeply, out of sheer frustration, before turning to Tether and Visionary, who were both utterly stunned, still trying to register what just happened.
“Why the fuck did an Eldritch just fly through my window, huh?!” He raised his foot now, caked in whatever substance ran through the beast. It had long stopped moving at this point.
“R-Squad, willco. Converging on Aven’s Street, out.”
Shaun turned to his house, and grabbed the sides of his head.
“Aw, shit. My dad’s gonna fucking kill me. Christ.”