“The car’s here, Shaun. Don’t be late. I’ll see you when… you’re back, I guess!”
Shaun’s mother was a stark contrast to him and his father; where Craig was stocky and Shaun less so, she lacked any of the muscle in their frames. She still carried a bit of weight on her, and her curly brown hair was thick and recently trimmed, tamed and brought up to her cheeks in length. She had a warm smile, which right now seemed to make Shaun at ease. He popped in some gum into his mouth, gave his mum a farewell hug and a kiss on the shoulder, and closed the door behind him when he had left.
The car stuck out like a sore thumb. Jet black, a 3-Series BMW that he approached. His hand was in his pocket, rooting for something. He opened the side door, and saw that he had company, obscured by the dark tinted glass. He elected to keep his ear buds in his pocket for the journey, sitting himself on the leather interior next to Visionary.
“Hi. Visionary. You look different. Without the armour and face mask, I mean.” Shaun pulls the door to, and the car slips into gear and begins to pull away from the house. Yuhong wore much more formal attire; reminiscent of a board meeting, a grey suit and pencil skirt, and a blood orange blouse to tie it all in.
“Hi, Shaun. Nice to meet you again. Please, call me Yuhong.”
“Yuhong?” He extended his hand, and Yuhong politely shook it whilst lacking any firmness. “Nice name. You don’t mind me asking, is that Chinese, Japanese?”
“Chinese.” She kept her hands on her lap. “I’ve lived in England all my life. My parents moved from China to England.”
“Oh.” He sounded a little interested. “You’re Fartouched, aren’t you? I didn’t get to see you in action. Alex told me.”
“Fartouched, yes.” Her sights turned to the window. Her eyes flickered from left to right, though Shaun couldn’t see her errant gazes. “Now is not the place for me to tell you. Another time, Shaun.”
“Yeah, okay. I know some people had really bad experiences. I thought I’d ask. It’s polite, ain’t it?”
Turning back, Yuhong smiled to Shaun.
“Yes. Manners make a man, after all.”
“Well, Yuhong. Let me just be honest with you for a second. First. Kinda sorry about shouting yesterday. Understandably pissed off.” He looks to the driving seat for a second. His profanity didn’t register to the driver; she was eerily silent, professional and focused.
“That’s okay. We are the ones who are really sorry.” Shaun narrowed his eyes briefly.
“Yeah, I’m sure. Secondly, I don’t trust you. I don’t trust her-” He points to the driver. “-because she’s way too quiet. Who’s ever that quiet? And I don’t trust the NFU. Okay? No funny business.”
Yuhong kept her composure, and nodded after a second. “You don’t trust us? May I ask, why not?”
Shaun leans back slightly, and makes a dismissive hand gesture. “Would you trust the NFU after what happened yesterday? If it was your house?”
She tilts her head slightly. There was a disconcerting air about her; she never really stopped looking at Shaun for the whole conversation. “I wouldn’t, no.”
“Yeah, that isn’t helping either.” Her eyebrows raised for a second; a crack in her mask. “Being all cryptic, who even does that? I want to trust you guys but I’m in a BMW driving to fuck knows where, being offered money. Like, hush money.”
“Hush money? This isn’t hush money. There’s nothing stopping you from talking about it. Post about what happened on social media if you wish.”
They locked eyes for a second, and Yuhong studied him deeply for that brief second. Shaun could see her eyes, still on his, minute flickers from where they were drawing over his face, far faster than he was used to seeing somebodies eyes move. His own almost couldn’t keep up with them.
Eventually, Shaun backed down and glanced to the side, away from her for a second. Her smile crept a little bit over her face meanwhile.
“I don’t think people need to hear about what I did back then. Let’s just leave it at that.”
She nodded courtly.
“I still want the money though.”
She nodded again.
“I wouldn’t expect you not to, nor would the NFU refuse to pay you for any reason. I’d like to propose an idea, Shaun.” Her hands crossed over themselves, Shaun resisted rolling his eyes, just about.
“Wow, that wasn’t even a huge surprise. Yeah, okay, tell me your idea.”
“We’d like to give you a tour of the NFU headquarters. You get to meet our agents, see what we do everyday. There are a few members of our team who want to meet you.”
“Wait, you told them about yesterday?”
“Yes, Shaun. We had to write reports about it. There was a lot of collateral, and a lot of paperwork about it.”
“You’re not going to make me write any paperwork, are you?”
Yuhong smiled. “No, Shaun. We won’t bore you with that.”
“Thank god for that.”
The journey soon became less tense as Shaun lightened up and began to talk to Yuhong about other small things. He was curious about the NFU even if he tired to hide it, though he carefully skirted around the conversation of how much everything would cost. Shaun did prod her for more information about yesterday, in which she told him as much as she knew that wasn’t classified. In return, she asked him about himself, and described a rather plain and boring life, lacking in the use of his abilities for the majority of his life so far. She showed some interest in him, but withdrew when she asked too many questions in too quick of a succession.
Through Manchester they went and eventually pulled up into the car park of a large building. It was a huge building with a curved front and large panes of glass from top to bottom. There was a sign that clearly showed “NFU Headquarters” written, kept alight at all times. It was an incredibly secure complex, with several security checks to go through before they could even park their car, and an ID and biometric check once they stepped foot into the site. Shaun was given a visitor’s guest lanyard, which had a small purple gem embedded into the card. The security at the front, who Shaun noticed was fully armed with the same style of weaponry that the NFU agents had yesterday, had to look for said card for at least a minute before giving it over to him. He blew the dust off it with a curious glance and thought nothing else of it.
Visionary was greeted warmly and Shaun caught a few glances, and heard a few ‘who was that?’ when they walked down the corridors. They entered an elevator, where Visionary stuck her card in a slot by the numbers that take you to each floors. A voice rang through the lift as the doors sealed shut.
“Agent Visionary, taking you to the command floor.”
Shaun paused, then looked around. The back of the elevator had a full body mirror, and the carpet was a lush shade of scarlet. He tapped the panelled wood, and it rang out to be true judging by the sound it made.
“Command floor?” He asked inquisitively.
“Before we can begin, there’s somebody specifically who wants to meet you. She’s the director of the NFU. When she received our report about what happened, she said that she’d like to meet you.”
Visionary caught the wary glance he gave her. “That’s entirely normal, ain’t it? First day here, straight to the woman in charge.”
“She’s not in charge. I’m afraid the Chief Director is occupied. He’s a very busy man.”
Shaun mocked offence. “Oh, so I’m not good enough, huh.”
Visionary smiled. “You’ll meet him eventually.”
“What’s the director’s name?”
“She goes by Sage.”
Shaun gave her a wary glance. “I mean, an actual name.”
Visionary stops smiling, a moment of distraction flashes over her face.
“You just need to call her Director Sage.”
“So I’m meeting the nameless director of the NFU who calls herself Sage. Yeah. Great start so far.” His sarcasm was dry, not overblown, it rolled off the tongue from his normal way of speaking.
“There is a lot you don’t know just yet, Shaun.” She looks at him, and speaks more seriously than usual. It was enough to catch Shaun’s attention. “And a lot you’re going to know, and a lot of classified information you may never know. But for now, Director Sage is just interested in meeting you. Wouldn’t you be? If you heard somebody managed to kill a dangerous eldritch in two hits.”
Shaun considers, glancing to the side. “For me, that’s normal.” He brushed some hair to the side of his face. “Maybe. If somebody else was like that, yeah, I guess I would be. I’m not really interesting, like. I’m kinda normal. The only exciting bit is, well, being Farborn.”
“Do you use your powers much, Shaun?” Visionary looked at him. Before he could answer, the door opened. Visionary walked out, and Shaun took a second before he left as well. The outside corridor lead to a large double door, dark polished wood and a silver handle. There was even a carpet over the marble tiled floor, which Shaun walked with one foot on the tiles, the other on the carpet.
“Not really. Well, yeah. Like, if I really need to. Moving stuff around the house. Sometimes, Eldritch get in the way. Stops a fight before it starts. I’ve never had to throw a punch. People where I live know that they can’t really fight me, so I don’t need to.”
They approached a door, and a receptionist spoke over the intercom. “Director, Visionary and Shaun have arrived.” She pressed a button on her desk, and the doors clicked a few times before they slowly started to open. Despite their antiqued appearance, they seemed to be quite heavily fortified, with machinery woven inside and keeping the interior rather safe.
“Not really.” That was all Shaun responded, and he was the first to walk inside.
Visionary perked a brow. “Why is that?”
Shaun gave a glance over his shoulder, walking inside. The office itself was lush and replaced the tiled floors with pure scarlet carpet. Inside, there was a lady sat by a desk of mahogany. In front of her were two armchairs, comfortable and slightly extravagant. Shaun paused as he saw her; she wore a hooded brown cloak that draped over her shoulders, with the hood up and covering her forehead. Her robes underneath were elegant, well crafted, blending in pale greens and creams, though her arms were bare underneath the cloak. Strangely of all, she wore a blindfold that rested on her forehead; much in the same manner as the clothes she wore, and her blonde hair cascaded down beneath the gaps in her hood.
She smiled; Shaun could see the age on her. She wasn’t much older than his mother.
“You came.” Her voice rang with experience, and deep confidence. Shaun apprehensively took a seat. Yuhong waited, until Sage raised her hand and waved it downwards. She took a seat momentarily afterwards. “I’m glad.”
“When they said Sage, they weren’t kidding.”
She smiled wider. Shaun glanced to Yuhong, who was patiently keeping quiet for now.
“It’s important to look the part.” She locked eyes with Shaun; hers were a deep, piercing green.
“Did you wear these clothes before or after they called you Sage?”
She laughed for all of two seconds. “I like your sense of humour.”
Shaun nodded, and there was an uneasy tension in the room. It grew stronger as he looked to Yuhong and Sage, who both were taking this opportunity to scan Shaun, gauge his every subconscious reaction and conscious communication. It made him shift in his chair slightly, as Sage began to stare less at him and more through him.
“Sooooooo.” He said, sitting upright. He put his hands together and began pushing his thumbs together. “Did I actually need to be here for anything? Like, did you want me for anything important or to like, have two older women stare at me creepily for half a minute?”
Yuhong said nothing. If Shaun was looking at her carefully, if at all, he’d notice her frozen to her seat. Sage just laughed again. At least it was an honest laugh.
“Very funny. Sorry, I’m sorry, Shaun. I have a lot to keep track of.” She looked to Yuhong, who unfroze for a second just to freeze again. “Thank you, Visionary. Shaun.” She nodded again, and brought her hands on the table. “Visionary, if you would wait a moment. Shaun, if you would step outside until Visionary is done speaking with me? I will have to say goodbye for the moment.” Sage nodded to him. “Disrespect not meant. Yuhong will give you a full tour of the building afterwards. Tether is in today. You are acquainted.”
Shaun didn’t speak immediately. He rose slowly from his chair, nodded slower, and spoke slower still. “…okay then. I’m not even going to try to understand what this was about. If one of you could tell me sometime what just happened. Yeah.”
Sage watched Shaun as he left the room, the door pushed behind him so it was only slightly ajar.
Visionary turned to Sage. “What did you see?”
“A great many of things. Many useless contingencies we have in place.”
“Useless?” Visionary leaned forward in her seat. “Why would they be useless?”
“The majority would not work. Many are simply not needed. The further away we are from now, the more convoluted it becomes. They are entwined, tangled. They tug at each other, snag at the seams.”
“I see.” Visionary said this, with a good amount of uncertainty. “And what will he need for now?”
“The path can be started easily. Offer him again.”
“Certain. He is a normal, teenage boy. Security is all he wants.”
Visionary nodded, turning it into a polite bow of the head. “I would like to request to leave, and begin the tour.”
Sage nodded and smiled, and wafted her hand to dismiss Visionary. “Dismissed. It’s been nice meeting you again, Visionary. We should do this again.”
Yuhong got up slowly and held her hands over her lap, and bowed formally, before walking away. Sage laughed a little to herself, Yuhong unwilling to turn around and question the chuckle she heard before the doors closed shut behind her.
She was greeted to Shaun talking with the secretary, and neither of them seemed to want to part from their current conversation. The tour had officially begun.
She showed him many rooms, some more impressive than others. The training rooms where they sparred and practiced fighting and defence techniques, and the changing rooms they naturally come with. She showed him some of the more bizarre rooms, such as firing ranged for firearms of the mundane and exotic kind, a room where NFU teams were being trained with the latest Farside empowered technology and even a large laboratory where they were practising relatively humane experiments on docile, captured Eldritch.
“Yeah. Looks really nice as far as a tour goes.” Shaun commented, looking through the door window. “It doesn’t really give me a feel for how things actually work.”
With this in mind, Yuhong took Shaun to somewhere where more of the ground level stuff was being operated. As they went to the control room, Tether had managed to catch up with them and Shaun asked Yuhong if he could come with them. She hesitated but complied, and Shaun at least had somebody to indulge some small talk along the way.
They visited a control room and greeted the staff there, and also watched them as they handled operations. They had large screens pertaining to the operation they were on; Shaun saw an Eldritch capture mission, a particular docile beast as large as he had previously fought. It showed feeds from several of the cameras on the Containment Team’s helmets as well as tracking their vitals. This one was far more accommodating to them than the Girallon-Class that leading it into the van without resistance. It was a long, gangly creature with elongated limbs that had 4 joints each, eyes from head to hind legs that all blinked independently, weeping with a necrotic green fluid from its joints.
“That was way easier than I thought.” Shaun said, leaning into the monitor.
“Yeah.” Alex replied, swigging on a can of Monster. “Some of them aren’t difficult. We just got unlucky.”
“Tell me about it.”
Yuhong eventually finished the tour, after walking past a few ‘High security level personnel only’ doors that Shaun had asked about going inside. Yuhong refused, and Alex just told Shaun that there’s more doors you can’t go in, than you can. They eventually made their way to a canteen where breakfast was being served. Shaun was pleased by a free lunch, Alex was surprised by this.
Shaun munched on a sandwich, whilst Alex took the opportunity to pile a plate full of hot, freshly cooked food that had just been plated up. Yuhong ate conservatively, though she and Shaun both shared a liking for bottled water. Alex found his can of free Monster under attack from Yuhong, who berated him on the health issues they may cause.
“They’re not really good for you.” Shaun swallowed a mouthful of three cheese sandwich before speaking, then pointing at the can with what was left in his hand. “At least get Relentless.”
“Relentless kinda goes right through me.” Alex said, swigging again.
“Way too much info, man.” Shaun said, with a smile creeping on his face. “So, Yuhong.”
She looked up at him, eyebrows raised. “Hm?”
“Nice place you’ve got here.” He said; the sandwich was now being used to gesture to all the space around him, before he took another quick bite. “Bit boring. Kinda what I expected. All the secret stuff is kept off limits. It adds to the mystery.”
“I’m glad you liked it. Or at least, not disliking it.” She had put down the sandwich she had for the duration of when she spoke. “Would you like to come back sometime?”
Shaun stropped waving his sandwich about, and put it down on a plate in front of him. He grabbed his bottle of water, cold to the touch, and cracked open the lid with an effortless flick of the wrist.
“What are you getting at, then?” Shaun took a quick swig.
“I have a proposition.”
Shaun put the cap on his drink, then pointed it to Yuhong. “Yeah? Another proposition. Okay. You know what?” Shaun puts the bottle on the table, then leans back on the chair. There was a slight ire in his voice. “You take me here, give me some big tour, try to get me to like this place and when you think I’m starting to trust you guys, you try and slip something on me.”
Everyone was quiet but Shaun, who had begun to speak with enough volume to draw the attention of nearby tables.
“So all along, really, you were just waiting to ask me this. Right?”
Shaun looked to Yuhong, who had elected to stay quiet, then to Alex.
“Alex, did you know about any of this?”
Alex glanced at his fork after impaling a sausage on it, then to Shaun. “Not a sausage, mate.”
Shaun stopped. He stared, for what felt like an eternity, then glanced at the fork. He pointed at Alex, restraining himself totally.
“…okay, that was a good one.”
Alex grinned like an idiot. He looked to Yuhong, who seemed more startled more than anything.
“Look. Let’s be honest here. I can’t trust you. My dad’s right, and you know he’s right. I mean, c’mon. Everytime I so much as look at you funny, you look like something just crawled up you.”
Yuhong widened her eyes, and Alex stifled a snort.
“But you know what, fine.” Shaun’s voice was no longer raised, and he slumped his shoulders a little. “You can’t trust me either. Nobody trusts anybody. So, let’s just cut to it then. Are you gonna be totally honest with me.”
Yuhong nodded, lightening up enough to smile. “Of course, Shaun-”
“No, I mean, totally honest. Honest enough to tell me the dirty truth that you wouldn’t tell me in case I’d leave.” He’d started to use the water bottle to point again, mostly at Yuhong. “Because I’m probably going to leave if you don’t tell me. Nothing to lose. So just tell me, what the hell do you want from me?”
The pause hung in the air, making the air grow thick and uneasy. Alex remained quiet, and watched between Yuhong and Shaun, who were locking eyes for the moment. Of all things, Yuhong looked a little calculating, whilst Shaun had defiance in his eyes. Eventually, she broke out a sigh, and nodded slightly.
“Okay, Shaun. We wanted to bring you here to see if you’d be interested in joining the NFU.” Yuhong began to explain. “Because you have an amazing gift and it would greatly benefit us, and we believe we can help you to use it to do good things. Make the world better.”
Shaun retorted. “Being able to hit things hard, won’t make the world a better place.”
“Sometimes, it does.” She says, bluntly. “And taking a hit for somebody else who can’t take a hit, is a good thing.”
“I’m not a meat shield.” Shaun says, frowning. “I’m not the NFU’s meat shield either.”
“You wouldn’t be a meat shield. You would be a protector, a defender. You can stand up when others can’t stand for themselves.” Yuhong speaks with integrity in her voice. “Isn’t that noble, Shaun?”
Something resonated in him, as he lowered his water for a second. He opened it again and took a long, healthy drink before sealing it back up.
“All we want from you, is just one patrol with the NFU. You would join us for one shift, where you’d be on-call in case any Farside related emergencies come up. Once it’s done, you are free to leave and never return, or continue communications.”
She stared long at Shaun, who still had yet to say anything. She broke the silence.
“We’re willing to pay you to go on one shift with us.”
The reactions varied. Alex looked surprised and even a little amused. Shaun looked incredulous, and managed to find a response this time.
“Pay me? Jesus.” He leaned back slightly on his chair. “Pay me. You want to pay me. Wow.”
Yuhong looked around the room for a second, then took out her phone. “Let me show you.” She had loaded something up, and slid it over the table to Shaun. He took the phone and glanced at the figure, then raised an eyebrow.
“These are the repair costs of the house.”
“And the compensation you’ll be receiving. Including a hotel stay whilst you wait for your house to be rebuilt.” Shaun glanced up from the phone. “We’re willing to give you that much, again. On top of the compensation, tax free.”
Shaun looked shocked. He showed the phone to Alex, who quickly mimicked his expression, down to how wide his mouth was open.
“Seriously? Tell me you’re not just joking with me.”
“No. We’re serious.” Shaun could see a conviction in her eyes.
“Why the hell would you pay me this much, for one shift working with you?” He slid the phone over to Yuhong, who took it carefully. “That’s insane. Actually fucking insane.”
“You wanted me to be honest, Shaun. It’s not insane when you think about it. There’s no amount of money in the world to have you on our team, even for just one day. Because, you can’t put a price on what you can do. And the dirty truth you wanted, the cost to make sure you’re not against us has no figure either. This is the single most cost effective method we can offer. This isn’t factoring in the sheer collateral damage you can cause if you felt like it.” She didn’t blink for a minute. “That’s the honest truth you wanted.”
All he could do was stop, and take her words on board. He just stared, for what felt like a minute, before eventually, slowly opening his water, and taking a sip. All aggression he may have had before, had withered to dust from Yuhong giving him clarity into the situation. And deep down, there was some look of realisation, or acceptance, washing over him. Clear enough for Alex to pick up on it.
“…when you put it like that. Like, Yeah. It makes a lot more sense when you put it like that.”
Yuhong holds her hands up. “Just the truth. You could ask us to double that number and we still would say yes.” She admitted openly.
Shaun’s breaths were slow, contemplative. He finished his water and left the bottle on his tray, and also grabbed his sandwich and crammed it down without saying another word. Alex slowly bit into his sausage as well, whilst Yuhong still retained an air of seriousness about her. Eventually, they all finished and Shaun stood up first, keeping his eyes down low for the time being.
“Thank you for the tour. I’ll think about your offer. I think, I’m ready to head off now.”
Yuhong nodded, and opened her phone and made a quick call. She’d arranged for Shaun’s ride home, and offered him a business card. He put it in his wallet and nodded. Alex bid Shaun farewell, and Shaun offered him his hand and he slapped into it whilst shaking his hand. Yuhong wished him well, and offered to shake his hand one last time. Shaun simply took it, shook once with a weaker grip, and nodded before he left for the day.
The journey home was quiet and tense, reflective for Shaun. The driver barely spoke, so he dug into his pockets and slipped his ear buds in, letting the music help him sift through his thoughts and bring a bit of peace to the questions floating around in his head. The driver certainly didn’t seem to object, or speak, or react. The only thing she said was to alert Shaun that they were home, and even when he thanked her, she just nodded her head.
It was just another thing that he had to accept.
When he got home, he met with his dad and gave his mum a hug when he got inside. He’d apparently not missed his tea just yet and it was being set up. They could tell something was up, though they didn’t mention it much. Not until after food was eaten, when Shaun sat and watched T.V downstairs and Craig sat next to him to talk.
“You’re quiet, Shaun.” He’d say, starting the conversation.
“I’ve just been thinking.” Shaun’s eyes didn’t peel from the television.
“What did they tell you?” He’d ask. Shaun noticed that odd tinge of forceful curiosity in his voice. It made him frown slightly.
“Well, dad. If you want me to be totally honest with you, because everyone’s being totally honest with me today. They want me to do a shift with them.”
“And you said no, aye?”
Shaun didn’t answer.
“Dad, alright, I know, you don’t trust them, and I really don’t either. But.”
“But, what?” His dad looked over Shaun, then stood up. Shaun turned to watch him fully now, ignoring whatever was on. There was a pause, and Craig seemed to realise something. “…how much did they offer you?”
“…dad, how do you even-” Shaun stopped. He looked at Craig, and similarly stood up as well. Realisation swept his face as well. “-nobody can just guess that. What aren’t you telling me?”
“I told you not to bloody trust them. You’d better have said no.”
“I didn’t say anything. I told them I’d think about it.”
“No, dad.” He cut him off abruptly. “That’s what I said, so sod off, okay? Yeah, they offered me money, but it’s a lot of money, and nothing bad can happen to me.”
“It ain’t that what I’m worried about, Shaun!”
“Yeah?” He said, narrowing his eyes a little. “Then what is it that you’re worried about?”
Craig stood silent for a second. The part of him that wanted to keep things quiet had a firm hold over him. It just brought frustration to Shaun.
“Okay, fine. Now my dad’s not telling me something. Y’know, I’m 19. You could maybe treat me like it for a change.”
“You’re a 19 year old that could flip a bloody tank, Shaun. How do you want me to treat you?”
They stared for a second. Shaun furrowed his brow at that comment, and they stood off against each other. Eventually, Shaun relented, and walked around his father and decided to leave the situation. He walked through the corridor, where his mum raised a hand as he walked past.
“Shaun.” She said, with concern in her voice.
He replied, though it was calm. The type of calm that comes after an argument, as if he had just let go of whatever bothered him. “I’m just going to stay in my room tonight. Thanks for tea.” With a kiss on her cheek, he ascended the stairs. He didn’t even pay any attention to the bathroom on his way back, or if he did, he didn’t give it any visual clues as to whether or not he cared at this point in time.
Shaun stared at his ceiling for the longest of times. With music being pumped into his ears, he didn’t exactly mind the blank span of white stretched above him and all it had to offer to stimulate his senses, though it did little else for him otherwise. He didn’t move much either, no bob of the head or a tap of the foot in the air, just a solemn state of staring above, and listening around him. Something seemed to irk him, as he grunted before yanking out the headphones and pausing the music on his phone. He thumbed through the cards in his wallet, discarding the taxi cards he’d collected and found the card that Yuhong gave to him before. He flicked the corner with his thumbs and turned it over in his hands several times. The lure of it grew too strong, and he sat on the edge of his bed. Phone in hand, up to his ear. He waited, letting it ring four times before he heard somebody pick up.
“Hi, Yuhong. This is Shaun. I’d like to say yes to your offer.”