2-3

Beginnings: 2-3

Shaun squinted and looked into the distance, his back facing the hotel he was staying in. The winter’s air had a light mist clinging to the distance and the horizon, wreathing over lamp posts and traffic lights with a gossamer aura. The sky was clear, a pale light shade of blue with a hazy spot in the sky where he could make out the sun. The air tasted and felt crisp, cold and refreshing, though Shaun exhaled deeply to see how much breath he’d make. Surprisingly, it only made a light plume of white air, a small reminder of Katrina and her abilities.

He didn’t wait long, and zipped up his marl blue hoodie as he saw a car approach him. Another black BMW graced his presence and swept up, stopping to a halt in front of him. He grabbed the door and hauled it open, sitting inside. Across from him on the other side was a familiar figure, but not the one he’d come to expect.

“Shaun, hop in.” Jason smiled back to him and shuffled over slightly, even if he had more than enough room and a whole seat between them. He’d only seem him fully kitted out before, or training. This was a different look for him, as he sported a suit. Black, with a thin black tie and a very clean shirt. Shaun even noticed how well it fitted him, as if custom made.

Shaun himself never sported a single piece of smart clothing since his inception into the NFU. He wore either his self designed outfit for patrols, or some combination of jeans and plaid. Today was different, as he merely wore jeans, and a plain, dark grey t-shirt underneath his hoodie. He never changed out his Sketchers, not once.

“Is Visionary taking the day off or something?”

“Yuhong? No, never. I don’t think she’s capable of it.” Jason grinned slightly. “I know I’m not as pretty as her but I’m sure you’ll survive.”

Shaun buckled up and put his seatbelt on. He turned his attention to the driver; this one was male, with dark skin and slicked back, black hair. “Good morning. Are you ready?”

“You found a driver that talks?” It was hard to tell if he was more surprised or sarcastic.

“Hah. We’re good, take us away.” Jason reached over and patted the shoulder of the driver’s seat. The driver nodded, and began to pull away.

“So, yeah. Not to be disrespectful but Visionary is usually the one that comes with me.”

“Yeah, usually. Site visits are a little different. They’re my area, and I need to do a report on how our friendly inventor Artifex is doing.”

“Huh. You need to keep tabs on him?” Shaun seemed interested.

“He’s got a contract with us. He mostly does his own thing but we can’t be too sure, so we need to just make a visit every so often. Perfect time to have our new blood go and see just what he does. It adds perspective.”

“This is probably the point where I should ask, why he’s called Artifex and what he does. All I know is he has something to do with MAGI-Tech and he’s an inventor.” Shaun pushes the button to wind his window down, letting in some cold air.

“He’s called Artifex because he named himself.” He stated it honestly. “Bit of information on Artifex. A lot of Fargrace have very obvious powers, as far as we can tell. Artifex does something else entirely. The best way he explained it to us is that he can simplify technology. He knows how to cut every corner, make anything take up as little space as possible, work better and faster.”

“Simplify it?” Shaun began to muse on the idea.

“The best example is when he held a press meeting once. He said he could see a blueprint, and instantly see where every bit of wasted space was. He simplified the lack of space, and could make it a third of the size whilst keeping all of the power. He’d say that the operating system was too complicated, too messy, and reprogram it, so it took up less operating space, and ran faster. The power supply wasted too much energy, so he’d take an extremely advanced power supply, make it smaller and simpler, something that drained less energy, and fit it into this device.”

“So what he had was something that was half as big, twice as quick, three times as energy efficient, and he’d market it for the same price, because he’d managed to make his factory so simple that it ran quicker at much less cost, and could sell them for more profit at the same price. Then he said, that’s why he’s going to dominate this industry. As far as I can think about it, I don’t know if it actually is what he says it is, but I’m not going to argue it.”

Shaun nodded observantly. “I think I get it.”

“He got Fartouched, started working in the industry, started his own company and made enough money to move to England and start MAGI-Tech.”

“He’s not English?”

“Polish. No jokes. He’s not fond of them, and he can be mercurial at the best of days.”

Shaun raised both his hands. “I wasn’t going to.”

The mist had begun to fade outside, until all they saw was the clear blue of the skies above. It still felt like there was a lingering cold, especially coming in through the window. The driver made Shaun’s window go up slightly, though didn’t close it off. He noticed, but didn’t react.

“What’ll happen is, we go in, you get to meet him. Ask a few questions, have a look around. Don’t touch anything. I’ll ask him how things are going and what he needs, take a look at what he’s making and if it’s in line with our standards. He might kick us out after then. Play it by ear.”

“That’s what I wanted to ask.” Shaun leaned back, feeling more of the cold air on the back of his head. “What does he do with the NFU? From what I know, MAGI-Tech is the biggest Eldritch tech company in the west.”

“You’ve done your research.” Jason sounded a little impressed. “He has a contract with us. In his own words, he has enough money. He wants to help us out, because he realises we’re important. He doesn’t work for free though. He makes prototypes for us, new gear and armour, asks us to field test, and helps to mass produce what we need. We get to test some of the things he makes for us, things that don’t normally sell and don’t get approval. It’s beneficial for all of us.”

“Huh. Yeah.” Shaun glances around the car, then knocks on the plastic part of the door next to him. “Do you think he’ll make a better car?”

“He wants it. He’s been working on it for months, as far as we know. Nobody will give him the go-ahead. Too much paranoia about Eldritch technology. People still don’t trust it.”

“I know what you mean. But, an Eldritch powered Tesla, that’d be something.”

“You like your cars?” Jason raised his eyebrows.

“Yeah.” Shaun nodded. “My dad’s a mechanic. Can’t say I like all the BMWs you guys drive. I’m more of a Jaguar sort of guy.”

“Aston Martin for me. It’s a classic, it’s a british car.”

“Totally. Jaguars just have the look for me. I mean, they’ve got crap fuel economy, but you don’t buy a Jag because you want good miles per gallon.”

Jason nodded, and waited before he spoke. “So if you had your way, you’d get rid of the 3-Series we use? What would you replace them with?”

Shaun thought about it. “Yeah. I’d say, a Mondeo Titanium. It’s a Ford, so you know it’ll be reliable.”

“Huh.” There was a tone of being impressed in Jason’s voice. “Might have to recommend that.”

The journey was about as long as it normally took, though they went to an entirely different location about a mile away from the headquarters. They pulled up to a smaller building, in a very similar style to the others, though not being as large meant the glass front didn’t stretch so far into the sky. The windows themselves only covered a small portion, a strip two panes wide in the middle of the building. The rest was walled away, with regular sized windows allowing light inside. The security was tighter as well, almost as defended as the headquarters, with two separate identification and biometric checks before they were allowed to step past the front entrance and into the building.

The receptionist, a young man with trim blonde hair, had let them in and made a quick phone call as they verified themselves. He nodded and typed something onto the computer at his desk and inserted a pair of gemmed cards that were laying next to his mouse into a slot on his terminal. The machine made a pinging noise before he took it out and handed the first one to Jason, before repeating the process to Shaun, and handing them a pair of lanyards.

“Enjoy your visit.”

Jason lead them to a metal door and he inserted his card into the access panel next to it, and a light above it flashed green for a second before a loud ‘thunk’ opened it up, and the door slid open. Shaun watched, as it opened quicker as he stepped up to get through, and slowed down as he walked past it. He fiddled with the card in his hand for a second, then looked at it. The purple gem in the corner was part of the design that seemed to be prolific for the NFU.

“They use these cards a lot.”

“They’re really clever things. They check the biometrics of the last person to hold it before it scans them.” Jason replied, tapping the gem in the corner.

“Ah.”

They were walking down a corridor, which was a different look from the normal sterile look of whites and blacks in the main entrance, and the air seemed lighter. There was less noise of air conditioning whirring in the background that amalgamated with the voices of ambient chatter in the distance, and they could pick up a very faint noise of something going on past another set of ominous doors.

These ones seemed much more sleekly designed, with a larger control panel to the side. There was a red security lens that was bobbing from side to side that picked up on their approach. A circular ring, much like one on a conventional camera shutter, narrowed and pulled away. Gave off an eerie facsimile of a mechanical eye. Shaun pointed towards it, nudging Jason.

“Hey, it looks like James Bond.”

“Kinda does, doesn’t it?” Jason said.

Welcome to Artifex’s workshop.” Either the camera or some speakers that Shaun couldn’t spot were speaking to him. “Voices recognised. Shaun Larson, designation unknown. Commander Jason Cohen, no designation. Please insert your cards to verify identity.”

“Can it hear us?” Shaun asked. He took his card out of his lanyard and walked over, slotting it in the second lowest slot. Jason did the same once he had room.

“It hasn’t yet. Alex asked about that when he came. Artifex told him he had to change the voice so it didn’t sound creepy. It sounded like Megatron.”

“Huh.”

Verification complete. Please remove cards.” Jason grabbed both and handed Shaun his own. Shaun recognised the noise as one similar to the large doors that Sage had in the headquarters. The sound of gears and mechanisms moving out of place to allow them in. “Automatic defense systems have been disarmed for your entry. Please enjoy your stay.”

“I’m not going to ask.” Shaun elected to reveal.

The doors opened. The floors were a light grey concrete and the walls were a sterile white. The ceiling tiles were out of place, spotted and more at home in an office workplace. Wooden shelves lined the left side and everything was nearly arranged into unlabelled categories. Devices went up in size, special casings holding purple gems with one labelled “zasilacz”, then boxses of wiring and tools of all shapes and sizes. Furthest away were plastic, sealed boxes and containers. One even had a biohazard sticker covering the mechanism that would unlock it.

Wooden tables and consoles for power tools were in the centre of the room, and on the far end Shaun could see a 3D printer lurking in the back. The far wall had a wooden staircase on the left side which went up into an area that looked to be storage, whilst a white tarp that covered the entire back row was draped over, and access seemed to be on the right side.

A man was hunched over the table, sitting on a stool. He wore black trousers, polished shoes and his sleeves were rolled up neatly to just before his elbows. He had what looked like a solder gun in his hand, though this one looked far more advanced than anything Shaun had seen in the school workshop.

“I kinda expected an assembly line.” Shaun was surprised still, as he walked into the new room. He inhaled lightly, and smelled burning metal and sawdust faintly in the air.

They managed to get a closer look of his features. He had wrinkles on his forehead that were the sign of regular frowning, and his eyebrows were thick. His nose too, seemed to be a little bit larger than average, and his lips were contorted in focus. He took pride in his appearance, from the curly, dark hair that rested thick on his head, to the stubble covering his jaw and top lip.

As they walked over, they could hear him mumbling, before he put down his tool and took the circuit board he had in his hand, and threw it aggressively at the wall.

“Kurwa mać! Pojebane to jest! Gówniana angielska płyta, chuj ci w dupę!”

“Bad time?”

Artifex ran a hand through his hair and stood up, kicking the stool away so it slid on the workshop floor. He ran a hand through his hair, and he looked to be in his early thirties. When he spoke, his accent was obvious.

“Always a bad time in this piece of shit workshop. You, you NFU, you give me terrible equipment. I can’t do a fucking thing with this. You get me some cheap shit from China or something?”

“You don’t sound happy.” Jason sounded much happier. Artifex swept his hand and took the tool in his hand. Shaun expected a wire to snag on him, though it seemed to be wireless.

“Of course I fucking don’t. I mean, come on, you want me to do work for. Even on contract, I asked for my tools, a week ago.”

Jason took out a pen and a small notepad from his pocket and began to jot it down. “Tools. Understood.”

Artifex pointed his tool to Shaun. “This one, this is the one I’m meant to be nice to, show around? New agent?”

Shaun turned to Jason, almost expecting him to speak, though he seemed to look back and give him a slight nod.

“Yeah. Shaun Larson, I’m the new kid.”

“Yes. Very nice to have been meeting you, Shaun. Artifex, real name Janos Briggs. Few rules of workshop. Don’t be touching anything without permission, try not to annoy me, no photographs, no revealing confidential information. You understand?”

Shaun nodded slowly. “Uh-huh.”

“Good. Then you can ask questions. I will be listening, but I must keep working. Hope you understand.”

Artifex walked over to a small plastic tub on a table further away and fished around for a few things. He pulled out another circuit board and scowled at it, reluctantly keeping it with him as he dropped it onto the desk. He pushed a button on the grip of his took and the point of it began to glow white hot. He reached for some solder on his desk, and began to heat up the solid silver already present on the board, trying to remove it.

“I don’t really know what to ask.”

“This will be quick then.” He seemed capable of dividing his attention without issue.

“I did want to ask about the armour you made for Grandmaster.”

“Grandmaster?” He asked. He tapped the button again, and sat upright. “Oh, yes. Grandmaster. Custom made armour. One of best I’ve made yet.”

“Alex said it was made out of Carbon Shear?”

Artifex looked at Shaun this time. It was hard to gauge his expression. “Oh, you listen to him.” He points the tool to Jason. “This one listens.” He lays it on his desk, and began to use his free hand to gesture his words. “Improved Carbon Shear. He ask for custom make, so I give him the best money can buy. Do you know what Dilatant is?”

“Uh, no.” Shaun looked a bit out of his depth.

“Non-Newtonian fluid. When you hit it, it gets harder. Used same principle and applied it to armour made of Carbon Nanotubes. Several layers. Extremely complicated to explain to you. I’m not even going to bother.”

Shaun looked a little offended. “I did want to ask about your power as well.”

Artifex was turning to go back to work, though he heard what Shaun said and slid off his stool. “You want to ask about powers?” He went over to the desk where he’d previously gotten the circuit boards before and took out a device from the same tub, much like a phone with a screen on the front and some sort of glass sensor on top. Artifex walked back and turned it on, pointed it to Shaun, and raised his eyebrows and nodded.

“Oh. So you are interested. That is first.” He looks to Jason. “You bring me a boy who is interested.”

“Did you just use a lie detector on me?” Shaun folded his arms.

Intention detector. Not lie detector.” Artifex turned it off and threw it into the bucket, making a noise of crashing circuit boards. A small Micro Card flew out of the bucket and onto the table. Artifex shrugged, and sat back down on his stool. Only this time, he faced them.

“Yeah.” Shaun lowered his arms.

“It is not like the other one that came. Tall boy, got in my face, asking me every-fucking-thing about my works. Annoying little shit.”

Jason cleared his throat. “That’ll be Agent Tether.”

“Yes, him. It’s good to have enthusiasm, but he was bouncing off the walls when he came in.” Artifex sighed deeply. “You though, you ask well. I don’t mind asking.”

“How do you ask well?” Shaun asked, taking another glance around.

“It’s not important. You wanted to know about my power.”

“Yeah. I’m not sure I fully understand it.” Shaun admitted.

“It’s not an easy power to understand. It’s like difference between… knowing a guitar song and playing one. Technology we have, see this?” He grabs the circuit board and shakes it until it bends in the air. “This is a piece of shit. Normal technology works on basic principles we know and trust. It’s more complicated than it needs to be. We work on power limitations, overheating, circuit lines, inefficient wiring. What other people make is inefficient. Light and heat, going to waste. If you take the light and heat and convert it to energy, less worry about power, less overheat.”

“Modern technology can’t do that. But Eldritch technology!” He raises from his chair, passion in his voice. “That is future. What MAGI-Tech makes is a revolution of the industry. But people are stupid and ignorant. They think Eldritch technology will backfire. They don’t understand it, so they don’t trust it. Banda kretynów. Boy, Shaun, you know the Unit?”

“That’s the prison for all the Farborn and Fartouched.”

“Yes. I helped make the Unit. When the wars started happening back in 2001, when everyone was going batshit fucking crazy over religion, Forgefather made design for tank-sized weapon, the ones that hit people with energy and change their moods and emotions. Forgefather eventually sold me the blueprints for the design, the extortionate bastard. I used them to make the Emotional Dampeners in the Unit, and Emotional Dampener Rifles that Police and NFU use to this date.”

Shaun nods, slowly, though it seems a few things have gone over his head in the process.

“It is easier to say I know how to make technology less complicated. Everything else is side effect of the process.”

“Same difference.” Shaun nods, taking a third look around. “What are you working on?”

“This? Not this shit. This is for NFU. They want me to try to make cheaper version of Combat Scanner in helmet. Not easy, I’ll have to remove a lot of features. Do you want to see what I’m really working on?”

It seemed Shaun and Jason were equally as interested and both nodded. Artifex threw the circuit board onto the table again and walked over to the back of the store, beckoning the pair to follow him. He shoved the tarp out of his way, and they caught a glimpse of something large and metal that was hidden from view a second later. Jason lifted it up to let Shaun in, and they both walked in carefully. With eyes wide open, they approached and saw what was being hidden from view.

Computers, monitors and wires were everywhere. Many had different screens, showing rows of undecipherable code. There were several heavy tables holding power tools and saws, welding equipment and several devices that neither of them could identify. All across the room were parts of something, large and no doubt expensive. A gauntlet on the table with the palm facing to the sky, with wires leading from it to a monitor with a progress bar slowly ticking up. As it continued to compile more code, the fingers flicked and flexed, clenching in natural movements.

A helmet was nearby with a visor similar to Grandmasters, though the front was bare and without any design. This too was hooked up to a screen, and on it was an overlay of sensory information that it was taking in. When they walked into view, another screen had a square box that hovered over them, like it was targeting them. Text appeared above their body, and Shaun could see it was actually their names and ‘NFU AGENTS’ underneath. The square went green afterwards.

On the back, stood up and almost crucified was the rest of the power armour. There was a hole where the back would be, a rectangular slot that was similar in shape and size to a large block of metal on the table, which seemed inert and not doing anything.

It almost looked complete, in it’s own way.

“Wow.” Shaun broke the silence as he walked over to the table. His hand reached out, but he pulled it back before Artifex turned around to remind him of the rules.

“That’s a mighty fine impressive suit of armour.”

Artifex was busy tapping a few times on a tablet he had in his hand, of his own brand. ‘MAGI-Tab’ was on the top of it, above the screen.

“Personal project of mine. First one possibly ever made. The idea of power armour has always been around but it’s never been doable.”

He turned the tablet over, which showed a full mock-up image of the armour. It was painted with a steel blue. Sleek, form fitted but still bulky compared to the suits of armour worn by the Containment Squads or NFU agents. Down the side showed various options for weaponry. Amongst them were guns, underslung the hands, and he wheeled through several options. Another image showed the armour holding a large rifle, something far larger than a normal person could wield without bracing it first. The last option seemed to be less worked on than the others, a glaive or halberd of such.

“The reality of power armour is that it is too costly, not feasible without some sort of power supply, and there is a chance that sufficient impacts can turn you to mush. Cost is no problem for me. Power supply was easy to make, even managed to make it so that heat from inside the suit is absorbed back inside. Not even warm. Making sure you don’t turn into mush was greater challenge.”

He taps the tablet a few times, and a diagram of an equation comes onto the screen.

“Hard to explain but basically, there is a field of energy around the user. When the armour takes impacts, the force is absorbed by the field, then siphoned into the generator. Fargraced studied in the unit allowed us to make a similar device, then I made it simpler. See, Japan is not afraid of Eldritch technology. That is why I sell so well over there, and they make interesting prototypes. They’ve even started to make cars powered by Eldritch fuel gems. I took ideas from them, purchased schematics and blueprints, and they work. So I made them better.”

“That doesn’t begin to sound like it makes sense.” Jason contributes, tilting his head.

“I know.” Artifex responds. “It doesn’t sound like it. But it works. That is my best understandings of it,. It’s been field tested.”

“Field tested? How?” Shaun hovers over the gauntlet, still twitching with false life.

“I wore a test suit and threw myself off a roof.”

Shaun and Jason turned to Artifex; of all of them, the scientist was the one that didn’t seem to care much. Jason looked stunned, Shaun just looked at Artifex as if he was mad.

“You threw yourself off a roof?” Shaun sounded incredulous, and moved away from the gauntlet. “Are you fucking crazy?”

“Listen.” Artifex stood forward, pointing at Shaun. “I did smaller tests previously and proved it worked. Things like hitting walls, having cars ran into the armour. I needed to see if something big and sudden was violent enough to damage it. Risks are necessary if you want to succeed. Don’t tell me I’m fucking crazy when it works.”

“What are you even going to use it for?” Jason asked, curiously.

“There might be a day when I need it. Would rather have it than not at that point. And it’s a suit of fucking power armour. At what point is it a bad idea to have it?”

Shaun shared a glance with Jason. “I can’t blame him.”

“Oh, Artifex. You know the drill by now. Do you have a list of what you need?”

Artifex grunted and began to grumble as he put one tablet down on the table and dug through a pile of them on one of the shelves on the far wall. He took another, turned it on and checked to see if the information was right, then amended something and turned it off before handing it to Jason.

“I’ve already got a list of things you need to get me.”

“Great. When can we expect our own NFU suits of power armour?” Jason smirked, clearly joking.

Artifex possibly understood, though he sounded more sour. “Fat fucking chance. Even making a weaker suit would cost too much to make, repair, maintain.”

“It was worth a shot. We should be going. The NFU would like to thank you for-”

“-it’s services, yes.” Artifex interrupted him cleanly, finishing off his sentence. “You say the same thing every time. Just bring me my tools, my equipment, and give me new things to do. Making what we have better is good but we need to progress, evolve our technology.”

“Oh, we’re going now?” Shaun turned to Jason. “Yeah, okay. Not much else I need to ask, anyway.” Shaun turned to Artifex and nodded once in his direction. “Thanks for letting me look around. It’s been interesting.”

“Sure.” Artifex was already checking the screen of the gauntlet, and watching the code fly up the page. It seemed to be stuck at 43 percent, though the compiling was taking its time. “Keep up good work, or something.”

Artifex waved them off, as if it was all he could to do say goodbye in his distraction. Jason gave Shaun an affirmative nod before starting to walk back, offering to hold up the tarp for him. Shaun ducked underneath and they both walked together to the door. Jason was making his way to the console by the side of it, and they repeated the same process of exiting as they entered; both cards in and a vocal confirmation before they left the room.

The same corridor, which seems much more dull in comparison to the workshop, greeted them as they walked down.

“That didn’t take long.” Jason turned on the tablet and briefly scanned over the inventory list. “What do you think?”

“Of all that?” Jason nodded to the question. “Interesting. Lots of stuff I didn’t know what was going on. Artifex himself, he’s really smart, really intelligent. Bit of a dick at times.”

“Heh. He’s manageable. He has a lot going on, believe me.”

“I still don’t quite know what the point of it was.” He admitted, before they got to the next control panel that would take them to the front reception area again.

“It’s about communication and trust. Artifex is one of the NFU’s most powerful allies. He has a lot of resources and money, and we use a lot of his equipment. We can trust him, but we need to keep sure that he trusts us. We honour our contracts, we get him what he needs, and he gives us what we need. It’s about keeping him on our side.”

“He’s contracted though, isn’t he?” Shaun asks, getting his card out pre-emptively.

“He is, but he can still work for other people. Just remember, his loyalty so far is bought. It’s not a bad thing, as far as allies go.”

Shaun nodded. He went quiet again as they went through the door after putting in their cards. They handed them back to the receptionist and made their way back to the car. Before they left the building, Shaun stopped in the doorway and looked back to Artifex’s door, sealed shut.

Jason noticed he wasn’t keeping up the pace and turned around.

“Shaun?”

Shaun turned around, raising an eyebrow. “Hm?”

A look of concern etched over Jason’s face, then it shifted to realisation. A pause lingered in the air for a few moments as they shared a brief glance, before Jason broke the deadlock “Come on. Let’s get you back to the hotel.”

Shaun took another second to glance at the door, before shrugging off the daze he was in and walking outside. The fresh air hit him again, and brought him to his senses.

“Yeah. We should go.”