artifex

Exposure: 4-3

Visionary knocked on Grandmaster’s door twice, light raps of her knuckles that proceeded her entering before he responded. He didn’t tell her to enter though, nor did he say anything until she was inside, with the door clicking shut behind her.

His helmet was on the table, beside a pair of empty plastic cups that had housed some coffee; a third, half drunk, was within arm’s reach. An open laptop faced him, and his expression was stern and serious, his tone of voice grave and lacking character. Visionary was accustomed to this from him, and knew to hold back on anything light hearted.

“Thanks for coming back, Visionary.” He said, glancing down to the screen of his laptop. “Hope your operation went well, but this requires your attention. I mean, hell, this is gonna require Messenger’s attention, truth be told to you.”

Visionary’s eyes flickered for a brief moment. “Messenger? I’ll need you to explain what’s going on. Is this with regards to the Burnham case?”

Grandmaster nodded, then pointed to his laptop. “Come and take a look. I’ll be the narrator to this Brother’s Grimm little story I’ve uncovered.”

She nodded and walked over, standing to his left. He tapped onto Outlook and opened a recently opened email he’d received, bringing up a batch of pictures taken by phone.

“With the Burnham case, you know he confessed and gave us the location of evidence to help us convict Barnes. Turns out, he wasn’t lying about it, and it’s all really solid stuff. He gave us the location of the Fartouched animals that were kidnapped, as well as the computers that were stolen, some storage bin north of Manchester city centre that Burnham took them to. And that’s the thing. I sent Impetus out because I wanted eyes and ears from somebody I can trust and’ll keep in touch with me, and because I ain’t got time for reports. Well, he showed me what he found out.”

He clicked, and opened the pictures.

The first picture was that of a calico cat, dead. Lying on its side in a cage. It had barely entered decomposition but its skin was withered, wrapped around bone and sinew tightly. The life from its eyes was just as drained as the rest of the body.

Grandmaster began to cycle through the photographs. The next two animals, a black rat and a bulldog had suffered the same fate. The rest of the animals, over two dozen in total, had their heads turned at right angles, their necks snapped to ensure their death.

Visionary’s eyes went wider, and she looked at Grandmaster. “They killed them.”

“If that were the half of it.” Grandmaster said, turning his head to Visionary.

“Why did he put them in a storage locker though?” She asked. “That doesn’t make sense.”

“I didn’t think so either, but Burnham’s smarter than I gave him credit for. See, that’s not the biggest thing we found. The C-Team took some laptops with them to extract data from the hard drives on site.”

He navigated to a second email, sent three hours later. This one had several video attachments, five in total, and he clicked the final one. It was several hours long and he paused it immediately, going about halfway through the recording before pausing at a spot where Burnham was meeting a secondary figure. It was showing a small living room from a ceiling corner view, with the blinds closed. A table was in the centre of the room, with the engine that Doppler’s crew had stolen lying in the middle. It was modified, with wires attached to the power generator and a control panel strapped to the side, and beside the engine was a small metal case. Three animal cages were next to Burnham, with two that had already been opened, their gates slightly ajar. One was rodent size, another for cats, and a third for dogs.

“That’s Michael’s home.” Visionary said, leaning in closer. “A containment team raided it. We found nothing.”

“Yup, but this was five days before we caught Burnham. He took security footage of what he did with Barnes. I reckon, because he knew if this went south, he needed to clear his name and have evidence that he was just an accomplice, not the main conspirator. Makes a little more sense when you think about it, and it points to him keeping everything in a storage locker-”

“-for evidence.” Visionary interrupted. “That’s very pragmatic.”

“You’re telling me. He even recorded the audio. Take a gander.”

Visionary turned slightly to Grandmaster and nodded. Grandmaster hesitated a second before pressing play.

The video came to life. Anthony Barnes walks forward a few steps and points towards the engine. He sounds frustrated, and a little weary.

And this is it, with the modifications I asked for?”

Michael Burnham nodded. The footage was of a good quality but it was still grainy, and didn’t show his facial expressions clearly.

That’s it. Everything you asked, you got. You get what you paid for, don’t ya?”

Anthony rubbed his chin, holding his elbow with his other hand.

I assume you’ve tested the device.”

Michael nodded. “Made sure it worked, then killed ’em.”

Anthony walked over to the cages, and opened one of them wide. The camera could just see that the two cages that had been opened, were empty. The third he knelt beside, and put a curled finger in the gap. Afterwards, he yanked his finger back out of the cage and stood, then nodded.

I need a demonstration. I assume these-” Anthony points to the metal case on the table. “-are the sedatives I requested?”

Michael nodded again and walked over. He opened the case, and the contents were obscured by the lid shielding it from the camera. He did take out something in his hand, a syringe and a vial that he began to fill up.

Anthony went back to the cage and opened it. He reached inside, and his mumbles were barely audible above the sound of the cat struggling inside. It hissed for a few seconds and let out a growl, but grew subdued in seconds.

Shh, there there. Come on, now. No need to scratch me.”

He emerged calmly with the cat held by the scruff of it’s neck, and he curled his other arm underneath to support it. He brought it over to Michael, who carefully administered the sedative. Within a minute, the cat had fallen asleep in Anthony’s arms. He brought it over to the table, easing it down onto it’s front and stroking behind it’s ears.

Michael nodded, and took the wires attached to the engine, and begun to fasten them around the cat’s waist and head. He wasn’t particularly careful when doing so, but he made sure they were tight enough. He moved over to the control panel and adjusted something on the screen before turning to Anthony.

Ready?”

Anthony nodded.

The moment of truth. Go on.”

With one final tap on the display, the engine began to activate. The hum of alien energy was audible and the screen began to show flashes of static, flickering boxes of white and black that seemed to surround the engine like a halo. Moments passed, and the cat began to convulse and shudder. Anthony leaned in, his hands beginning to clench whilst Michael watched calmly. The cat began to spasm more and thrash and rolled it’s head up, eyes wide, letting out a weak and feeble meow before collapsing. The cat looked gaunt and frail, an exhumed corpse; just as in the pictures that were seen before.

Michael tapped the display once and the engine powered down. Anthony stared, and though his expression wasn’t perfectly clear, it was obvious he was shocked.

…what did you do?” He stated, staring straight through Michael.

Sucked ’em dry. What’cher think was gonna happen, Barnes?”

Anthony’s voice began to fill with a slow fury. “This isn’t what I asked for, not in the slightest.”

Pacing towards Michael, Anthony raised his finger accusatory. Michael raised his hands, a gesture that Grandmaster felt familiar with.

You asked me to get you the engine, and fer’ these modifications to it. I did exactly what’cher wanted, word by word. It ain’t my fuckin’ fault if it went tits up!”

I asked you to get me something that could cut off people’s power. Drain them of their Farside energy and they’d be powerless. That’s what I-”

-that’s what you thought would happen, ya daft cunt.” Michael interrupted, raising his voice. “That ain’t my fault, not one bit, so don’t point ya cunt finger at me, blamin’ me! I took your money, I hired Flare an’ her little twat crew to steal those animals for you. I asked Doppler’s Crew to steal the Engine. I even got some anaesthetic because you wanted these bastard animals sedated, when I would’a just plugged them in live and kickin’! I’ve done everything you asked me to do, exactly as you wanted, no questions asked, and now you’re blamin’ me because it fucked up. Ain’t that right?!”

Anthony stared quietly, then lowered his hand down. Michael stepped forward, repeating himself.

Ain’t that right?”

After a second, Anthony nodded.

Yes.” He raised his head, speaking deeply. “But I have nothing now. What am I supposed to do? I promised. I said I’d have a way to suppress their powers. I wanted to turn them off altogether, neuter them, but this is just execution. This isn’t what I wanted, Michael.”

Not my problem.” Michael said, stepping back. The shift in his tone was noticeable, aggression into calm and controlled. “If you wanna tamper with shit you don’t know, your business.”

Anthony began to run a hand through his hair and turned away, and left his palm in his grey hairline. He let out an exhale, defeated and contemplating.

I need one more thing from you. I need you to get rid of the animals, and the data we have. No evidence. Destroy it all.” He turned, letting his hand drop to his side. “Nothing remains. No links to me whatsoever.”

Michael nods. “That ain’t a problem.. What about that?” He said, pointing to the engine.

I’ll deal with that. Just… do what you need to do. How much do you need?”

This one’s on me.” Michael said, prodding his own chest with his thumb. “You’ve made me well off enough, I think a freebie’s in order.”

Anthony nodded, turning away from the engine. “Thank you. I’d best leave. Help me move the engine to my car. I’ll find a way to hide it.”

Grandmaster stops the video.

Visionary lowers her hands from her gasping mouth.

“The rest of it is just him moving the engine out of the room.”

After a second, Grandmaster shoves his laptop closed, then leans back in his chair. “Everything clicks now. Burnham knew it was gonna go tits up from the start, so he recorded everything. We have enough info here to verify every claim that Burnham made. He knew, he fucking knew, and he’s covered his back every step of the way. And the moment it went south, he was ready to take a dive to drop Barnes in it, and save his own skin. That smart son of a bitch.”

Grandmaster rubbed the bridge of his nose. To his side, Visionary nodded slowly. “You were right.”

“I don’t give a crap that I was right.” He stated, leaning backwards, a dawning realisation washing over him. “I’m astounded. Burnham was much fuckin’ smarter than I gave him credit for. That man’s smarter than any of us here.”

“What do you mean?”

“Because you didn’t notice what he did halfway through the video, and now that I’ve seen it again, I saw exactly what he did. That son of a bitch. When he was talking to Barnes, that little rant he gave him?” Grandmaster turned to Visionary. “He worded that perfectly, because he knew he was being recorded. He made sure that he said that he did everything because Barnes hired him to do it, and got Barnes to admit to that on camera. God fucking damn.”

“And that’s why he kept the evidence.”

“That’s not all.” Grandmaster rubbed his face. “We didn’t get an admission of attempted murder, ‘cos there’s no intent to kill people. But what we did hear was an admission of intent for nullification of Farside-born abilities.”

Visionary raises her head and meets eyes with Grandmaster.

“It might be just a step above GBH, but it’s enough to issue a warrant for arrest.” A smile starts to grow on his face. “We got ’em.”

Visionary nods. “I’ll go and inform the Director. This will most likely have to be brought to his attention.”

Grandmaster nods. Visionary starts to walk out and Grandmaster’s helmet begins to let out an alert. He takes his helmet and puts it over his head, and as Visionary begins to turn on the knob, he speaks.

“Hold up, Visionary.”

She turns around to the sound of his distorted voice, taking a step closer to his desk.

“Answer, loudspeaker.”

The system that changes Grandmaster’s voice in the helmet now starts to crackle with background noise, and a familiar voice pierces through.

“Grandmaster here. You’re on loudspeaker.

Hello, Grandmaster. Whom else am I talking to?” Impetus answered.

“Just Visionary. I’ve shown her the pictures and footage you sent me, so she’s up to date. What’ve you got?”

Hello, Visionary. I hope you are well today. Did your operation succeed?”

“It did, Impetus. Thank you for asking.”

Grandmaster wags his finger from left to right. “Can you two skip using my helmet to catch up for one second here? Impetus, what did you find?”

Impetus scoffed. “So impatient, but I guess this is serious, is it not? You’re aware that we found that footage on the computers. We found something else that you need to see. I’m sending a picture to your email address… now.”

Grandmaster pulled open his laptop, and Visionary walked back around to his left as the screen came to life. A new email came in, and he double clicked on it. Inside was a PDF attachment, and he opened that as well. Inside was a report, detailing instructions in small print. Further down as he scrolled, he came across blue paper and white outlines, with precise and detailed drawings, measurements and engineering information.

“Schematics?” Visionary asked, leaning forward.

Schematics of the engine that Anthony Barnes has hidden from us.”

“Okay.” Grandmaster said, leaning back on his chair. “That’s good. Should help us as evidence that he was using it for nullification purposes.”

I would not show you just a mere engine blueprint, Grandmaster. Can you see anything different about it?”

Grandmaster scrolled back up and him and Visionary studied it for seconds. Grandmaster shook his head. “I can’t see anything. Looks just like the engine in the video.”

Exactly.” Impetus said. “Like in the video, Grandmaster. Not the engine when it was stolen.”

“Yeah, makes sense. You modify something like this, it’s untested, so you’ll need notes. I’m no engineer, but I don’t see what you’re getting at.” Grandmaster scrolled back up, reading through the instructions before. His eyes wandered over a note, scanning the bottom of the page.

This is not just that. This is an official schematic. It has come straight from MAGI-Tech. These are official blueprints. The engine was modified and these notes are annotated and signed by-”

“-Artifex himself.” Grandmaster said, as he saw Artifex’s signature on the bottom of the page. “Son of a bitch.”

“He’s still in the NFU workshop. I’ll send a C-Team to bring him in for questioning.”

Grandmaster nodded. Visionary bowed her head and left the room, closing the door behind her. “Impetus, you make my job easier and harder at the same time. Goddamn.”

A pleasure as always, Grandmaster. I would help you with Artifex but I need to continue here.”

“That’s fine. Give me a bell if you hear anything else.”

Of course. Goodbye for now.”

Impetus dropped the call.

Grandmaster took his helmet off again and left it sleeping on the table. He put his hand on his head, so that the tips of his fingers brushed against his temples. With a deep sigh, he spoke aloud to himself, barely above a whisper.

“Just a little longer, Kai. Just a little longer.”

The metal door opened with an ominously loud noise, a crack of metal and machinery that signalled the entrance sliding open. Several members of an NFU containment squad stood ready, armed with Emotional Dampener Rifles. They held them losely, fingers off the trigger as they walked through the open doorway. The last man inside took the keycard that’d been acquired from the receptionist, who had shrunk behind his desk and hadn’t said a word since their arrival.

One man led the way and two men flanked him, three others behind. With their armour, they were virtually indistinguishable, and walked slowly towards the control panel that lead them to Artifex’s workshop doors. Their approach caught the attention of the security camera, as several red dots started to dart and trace on their clothes. No further than ten feet from the door, the apparent leader raised his hand and signalled for a crunch of boots on the floor, and everyone stopped in symmetry.

The lens of the camera rotated for a second, before it spoke to them.

Weaponry detected. You have not been authorised to enter the workshop. Please identify yourself or the automatic defence systems will be armed. You have ten seconds to comply.”

Raising his head, the leader replied.

“Commander Jason Cohen of the NFU.” Jason said, turning his head. The red dots began to focus on him all at once, attracting to several points on his chest; his heart, shoulders, ribs.

Voice recognised. Commander Jason Cohen, no designation. You have not been scheduled for a visit. Please remove your helmet and disarm yourself for confirmation of identity.”

Not wasting more time, Jason passed his rifle to the man next to him, who held it by the stock as he took off his helmet. The red dots began to trace around his cheeks, along his nose and forehead and even dipping into his eyes. It took seconds to process before the voice called back to them.

Identification confirmed, Commander. Artifex has been made aware of your presence. This is a reminder that Artifex has strict policies regarding visits-”

The voice stopped. A few seconds later, it spoke again. Accompanied by the door being pulled open by machinery, and the way to Artifex’s workshop being opened.

Please enjoy your stay.”

Jason slid his helmet back on and took his rifle, then lead the way for him and the other five men to enter the workshop.

It was as much of an organised chaos as Artifex had normally worked with. Artifex himself was stood next to the table closest to the entrance, and to the side of the hand that leaned on the table was a laptop and a phone-like device on top. His white shirt had the sleeves rolled up, but otherwise he wore his characteristically smart attire as normal. He didn’t look annoyed, but calm and patient.

“I want to make it clear that I haven’t turned off the defence systems just yet, and you’re armed men. Even if it’s verified you, I need to be totally fucking sure about this.” Artifex raised his head. “Commander.”

Jason stepped forward, and Artifex raised his hand. Jason didn’t move further, and he let the hand drop to his side.

“Artifex. Nice seeing you again.”

“Not nice seeing you with a fucking rifle in your hand. You know, I made those weapons for you, and you come here holding them like this. Six armed men, standing in my workshop, what’s the phrase…” He snapped his fingers quickly three times. “…armed to the teeth? Some sort of fucking irony here.”

“I don’t like being here as much as you don’t like it, either. But we are here on official work business, and it’s not the kind that you can schedule or announce.”

“Mm.” Artifex responded, quickly. He took the phone off the top of the laptops and tapped the screen, then nodded. “My workshop, very secure. Normally sets to non-lethal, unless weapons are registered. Also set up some of my Intention Detectors into the security feeds, and it’s telling me you’re being honest. Or you’re very fucking good at lying.”

“Not that good, I’m afraid.” Jason turned his head. He caught a glimpse of the man to his right, who was holding his rifle in his hand. He’d yet to put his finger near the trigger, and he assumed nobody else was doing so. “And I’m not here to talk with you, either. We’re here to bring you in for questioning, regarding the theft of your stolen engine, and your involvement with Anthony Barnes.”

Artifex nodded slowly. “You know, now is good time to make joke asking if I’m being detained or not, but we all know how well that’d end for me.”

“That’d be in bad taste right now.” Jason responded. “Would you like us to call your lawyer for you whilst you’re en-route to the NFU headquarters?”

“No. “Don’t think is necessary. I figured you’d be here to talk about this with me, so I did you a favour.” Artifex raised his hand and put the device on top of the laptop, then patted it a few times. “With regards to stolen prototype and dealings with this specific client, all information recorded is on this. Will save you time, though I’m aware you’ll be looking through my workshop. Evidence gathering and all that.”

“Glad this could be done peacefully. If you’d like to make your way with us, we’ll make sure this goes as quickly as possible.”

“Room will need to be secured. Give me five minutes.”

The containment team waited and watched as Artifex began to secure the room for his absence, and he took the laptop with him after he was certain all defence protocols were up and running. He turned the lights off and locked the workshop door, before leaving through the relative darkness of the corridor. Two men behind, two either side, and Jason and the final officer leading the way, with Artifex in the middle.

With his arm on the back of his chair, Artifex casually glanced around the interview room. He hadn’t been there for long, a few minutes at most, so he was a little surprised as a familiar set of armour entered the room and sat across from him. Grandmaster had a file in hand, brown paper with sheets inside of it. He threw it on the table so it landed in front of his chair and pulled the seat back, resting down. Artifex watched him carefully, studying his moves.

“You were quick.”

“Things feel like they’re going really quick. For the purpose of this interview, I’m going to call you Janos. You okay with that?”

Artifex nodded. “Before we start, good to see you’re taking care of the suit. We can talk about it later though. I mean, I want to hear how it’s been doing.”

Grandmaster nodded. “For the record, I’m starting this interview at 13:06pm on December 3rd, 2015. My name is Kai Rhodes, also known as Agent Grandmaster of the National Farside Unit. With me is the person being questioned, Janos Briggs, also known as Artifex. Janos has declined a lawyer’s presence here today. This will be a quick interview, as Janos has come willingly here today.”

Artifex watched as Grandmaster opened the file and took out several photographs. The first sheets were print-outs of the PDF that was on the file of the computers that were previously seized.

“For the purpose of this interview, I refer to the event in which Janos was brought into NFU custody for questioning. Janos, when you were brought in, I was made aware that you already had a laptop that you said has, and I quote, ‘all the information on this’, with regards to the questions you’d be asked today. This leads me to believe you’re aware of why you’re brought in today. Is that correct?”

“That is correct.” He reponded.

“You’ve been brought in today with regards to information about the prototype engine that was stolen by Oliver Sullivan, also known as Doppler, as well as information that has recently been discovered about dealings that you’ve made with an Anthony Barnes. These dealings involve the prototype engine in question and modifications that, in documents seized today, indicate that you yourself have made to the stolen prototype engine.”

Grandmaster slides the sheets of paper towards Artifex. “I am showing Janos evidence A.1, the PDF document that shows proof that he has made modifications to the stolen prototype engine.”

“Would you like me to explain from the start, what is going on?”

“Yes please, though I’d like to make you aware that in doing so, anything you do say may be given in evidence. We would like to know primarily why you hadn’t reported to us that you knew where your stolen prototype engine was and that you’d modified it without the NFU being aware, despite knowing that it is part of an on-going case that we have.”

Artifex nods, then leans back further on his chair.

“Okay. So, the situation is like this. Anthony Barnes approaches me, tells me that he would like to privately hire my services, and even offers a sum of money up-front to keep things confidential. What is important here is that such contracts are made with my safety in mind. Is a promise of safety to me that such work can’t be sold or used publicly, nor used against me or MAGI-Tech. Said contract is on the laptop, so you can verify that as part of procedures. As part of contract, totally legally binding with regards to client confidentiality.”

“Anthony Barnes and I signed contract that stated total confidentiality, in return for previously agreed work that he reveals once it’s all done. We sign contract, he pays up-front, then decided to show me my prototype engine. At this point, contract has bound me. If I mention to NFU, contract is broken and I have a very huge lawsuit on my hands. That is why I did not inform NFU that he has my stolen engine.”

“And then what happened?” Grandmaster asked.

“He tells me what he wants. He wants engine to drain energy instead of produce it. I ask him why he wants to do that, and why he didn’t just ask for me to make him an engine to start with. Idiot idea if you ask me. Tells me, there’s not enough time, apologises and all that. He tells me what he wants, doesn’t say what it’s for, but knows I’m stuck and have to do it, because I want that engine back eventually. So I got to work, I made the modifications and left the engine functioning so it can be used normally, or as wanted.”

“What modifications did he ask you to make on the prototype?”

Artifex takes the sheets of paper and begins to neatly arrange then, putting them on the table just after he speaks. “Said he wanted me to make the engine suck in energy, instead of producing it. Not out of the realms of possibility, but I questioned many times. Why? He didn’t tell me. Told me I wasn’t hired to know that. Told him it was a dumb-shit idea, really dangerous, he had no idea what he was working with, but he was stubborn. I knew look in his eyes. It’s the look in mine. Arguing isn’t going to work.”

“After you modified the prototype engine, what happened then?”

“He took it and left. Not spoken with him since then.”

“And that was your entire involvement with Anthony Barnes?”

“That is correct.”

“For the purpose of the interview, I’m communicating through my helmet to the observation room currently watching the interview in progress. Are there any further questions you’d like to ask?”

Grandmaster waited.

“No further questions. Janos, thank you for your time.”

“Thanks for making this quick”

“We’ll be searching through your workshop for any additional evidence that may help with our enquiry. You’re not permitted to enter or be near that building until further notice. We require you to stay in the Headquarters until such further notice is given. Is that understood?”

“Understood, yes.”

“We’ll do our best to accommodate your needs for the duration of the stay. I’m concluding this interview. The time according to my helmet is 13:16pm on December 3rd, 2015.”

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Discoveries: 3-6

“Sure.” Shaun said. “Sounds great.”

Artifex nodded to himself. Visionary was smiling, as was Sage. Messenger hadn’t responded, but The Designer’s face lit up. She clapped her hands together, very rapidly without much force behind any of them.

“I knew it!” Her grin widens. “I thought these designs would catch your attention. Truly, my greatest work yet. Shaun, why don’t you elaborate on what you like about them for the rest of the meeting?”

Shaun glanced around the room. “Okay, put me on the spotlight, why don’t you. The name’s good. Just like you said, it’s not too out there, but it sounds cool. The costume doesn’t make me look stupid either. You said it better than I did.”

Sated with that answer, The Designer nodded. “Great! Just fab. I knew it would be a winning combination. Artifex, would you go over the final bits? The more nitty gritty details.”

Artifex nodded, then cleared his throat. “Right. Just final details needed. The suit, it’s unique. I was told to design a material that was tougher than anything else. You see, when I design armour, I think about three big things. Flexibility, durability, weight.” Artifex raised a finger for each word he said in that small list. “If you improve one, the other two are sacrificed. You make it more flexible, you have to lower the weight and make it weaker. That’s not problem, you design armour to individual. With this boy, I can make really heavy, moderately flexible armour. It’ll just be really heavy, but for him, not much of problem. Needs to be tough enough to take what he gets hit with. That I don’t know, so I made it as tough as I could.”

“I was working with an experimental material. Much like others, but was too heavy for conventional modern body armour. It showed amazing properties, normally very tough and still has the non-newtonian properties of other armours, but it wouldn’t work. Not for anybody else. All it took was the basic design, which The Designer gave me, few days ago. Should have it all ready in a day or two.”

Sage turned to Artifex, the first time she’d spoke in the meeting. “That’s very quick of you, Artifex. You do work fast.”

“Like I said, was already working on it. Had the material, computer scans of boy when he visited my lab provided basic measurements. The Designer confirmed them, gave the initial prints for work. My 3D Printers have been working on it for the past three days, non-stop. One, maybe two more and it’ll be ready.”

“Excellent.” Sage responded. “We’re happy to have such excellent service contracted to our organisation.”

“Eh, you pay well and on-time, have had much worse partners.” Artifex shrugged, leaning back in his chair “More than happy to for the NFU. This one, it was interesting at least. Something different than normal. Usually it’s just a different type of weapon, different gun modifications. This one was much bigger, it kept my attention more.”

“I believe we’re concluded then.” Messenger spoke, bringing his hands together. “Thank you for bringing this to my attention. The Designer, Artifex. You’re free to go.”

The Designer nodded, then clapped her hands together. “Artifex, darling. Would you help me move these easels for me?”

Artifex grunts slightly, and stands up. He grabs his jacket off the back of his chair and puts it on hastily. “It’s not like you can’t do it yourself.” Despite this, he goes over and lifts one of the easels up, taking one in each hand. Sage watches him with a curiosity, though she looks more through him than at him. The Designer takes the last one in her hands, and bows her head to the Directors as she starts to shuffle out of the room.

“Always a pleasure. Do let me know if you’ve got more work for me, new agents who need names and outfits.”

Sage nods and smiles. “We shall. Your work for the NFU is greatly appreciated.”

With a grin, The Designer and Artifex make their leave out of the room, heading for the elevator.

Messenger stands up and tugs on the lapels of his suit jacket. “It’s been a pleasure to meet you, Shaun.”

Sage turns to Messenger and stands up as well, nodding her head. “Before we’re concluded, Messenger. Might I have a word? It doesn’t need to be private. I figured as we’re here, face to face, I might as well enquire.”

In response, he nods. “Of course.”

“I requested a week off on holiday after the next week. Would you authorise that for me?”

Messenger studies her face for a second. “I see no issues with this. I’ll make sure you’re entirely off-call for that week. Nobody should contact you. Continue investigating in peace”

Sage nods slowly. “That’s all I wanted to know. Thank you. I’ll report what I find back to you on the following morning.”

Messenger nodded, and they both walked out of the door. Sage stopped just before Shaun and looked at him for a moment, before widening her smile and walking outside.

Shaun turned his gaze from her to Visionary, and leaned back on his chair. “What do you think they were talking about?”

“I wish I knew.” Visionary responded, starting to stand up. “I feel when we’re meant to know, we’ll be informed. Until then, all we can do is speculate.”

“Did you get the feeling she said it then and there so we knew?”

“Possibly. I try to question it less and assume they know what they’re doing.”

Shaun puts his hands on the table and pushes himself up. “You put a lot of trust into her.”

Visionary nods. “Her powers give me a lot of reason to have some blind faith.”

Shaun nods slowly. “I don’t think I could have that much trust in her.”

“You’ll get used to it. It takes time.”

Visionary stood up herself, and she and Shaun walked out of the room with her in the lead.

“I guess we’ll be calling you Verus from now on.”

“Looks like it.” Shaun turned his head to her. “What do you think of it?”

“I like it, personally.” Visionary smiled. “I think it’s fairly unique. It’ll catch attention.”

“Yeah, maybe. Hey, we’re doing training afterwards, right?”

Visionary nods, whilst pushing the button to operate the lift.

“I left my bottle of water in the handover room. Is it okay if I grab it and meet you there?”

“Sure. I’ll meet you in the training room shortly.”

Shaun nodded. When the lift doors parted, they walked down a corridor briefly. They parted ways for the time being with Shaun picking up the pace and almost jogging to make his way back to the room where they had handover. After making his way back, he swiped the bottle and walked outside, screwing open the cap. He lifted it up and drank, swallowing it down until the plastic was empty, and wiped his chin from the stray streak of water that escaped his lips.

He discarded it into the next bin he found, before doubling his pace and making his way over for training.

23 new emails.

4 missed calls.

11 new messages.

Messages:

From: Anna

Today, 11:36am

Steady trending increase of ‘eldritch powered cars’ on social media. 28.1K tweets on Twitter. Stocks up by 1.83% in MAGI-Tech. – Anna

Delete message?

Cancel.

Artifex lay his phone down on the table. He looked upwards and around the cafeteria of the NFU, glancing at the bustling activity around him. Despite how busy it was, he was sitting on a table by himself. Laptop to the left, phone to the right, and a ciabatta sandwich on the middle of his plate, dead centre next to his can of Coke. He was used to noise above all things, and constantly needed it around him as it gave him a strange sort of focus, but it was the kind of noise where it was more quiet than anything he really knew.

People moved around him, socialised and walked past his table, but nobody was doing so with him. It was a unique kind of busy silence, where he could enjoy a few moments to himself and actually think about what he wanted to do, without the constant stream of questions of interns, probing his latest ideas or being unable to take initiative and requiring him to point everything out to everyone, one at a time.

On the laptop screen was a PDF file, a blueprint design. It appeared square in nature with a large purple gem embedded in the centre, and several wires leading out of the device with no specific end to where they lead to. Along side it were a list of calculations of performance, power generation and longevity. He glanced over them for another moment, before he closed the file on his laptop and tilted the screen down until it fully closed.

He dug up his ciabatta and took a single bite, and the enthusiasm he had for chewing on it slowly died down. He stared at the middle of the bread, a tangled mass of pulled pork and coleslaw, and put down the sandwich whilst swallowing. If one could swallow in an annoyed fashion, Artifex had somehow managed to do so effortlessly.

“To angielskie żarcie jest do dupy. Wolałbym schabowego niż to gówno.”

He dropped the sandwich onto the plate, and it fell lifelessly onto the ceramic. He washed it down with a drink of coke, and gently let the can clank down onto the table. He spied somebody familiar walking past, and lifted his head up. When he caught their attention, he beckoned them over.

“Ah, yes. You, the boy. Come here.”

Shaun walked over with a full bottle of water, his marl blue hoodie unzipped and one hand in the pocket of said hoodie. He looked surprised more than anything, and Artifex snapped his fingers before hastily pointing at them to the chair opposite him.

“Come, sit. Don’t stand about gawking.”

“Okay?” Shaun said, complying and taking a seat. “Why?”

“We didn’t get much chance to speak before. Both times, when you came to the lab, and when we were upstairs. That is business though. No business here, just talking, chit and chat.”

“Why though?” Shaun reiterated. “Did you want to talk about something specifically, or what?”

“Nothing. In particular, anyway.” Artifex leaned back on his chair. “The way it is seen to me, you. You don’t care.”

Shaun blinked. “I care about a whole lot of things.”

“No, no. Not in general sense. You don’t care. Not for impressing others, not for kissing ass to get on better terms with boss or whatever the fuck people do to step on others to climb up business. None of that. You give proper opinion on things, honest answers. None of the normal bullshit you get.”

Shaun stopped, a pause lingered for a second. “Thanks, I guess?”

“Not problem. It’s nice when you get to speak to somebody that will tell you how it is. You ever get that feeling? Everyone trying to have own agendas, do their own thing and try to hide it. Full of shit, that’s what I think.”

“I know that feeling.”

Artifex nodded. “Good. We’ll get along fine. I’ll be honest with you then. I know a bit about you. Enough of what the files tell me.”

“Files?” Shaun asked.

“Yes. NFU, they gave me some files. They always do it when designing unique things, give me as much information as possible. Pretty sure you didn’t know that they have extensive files on you, your life, all that sort of background stuff you take for granted.”

“Not telling me everything is sort of the norm when it comes to this place.”

“Exactly. Can’t stand it.” Artifex grabbed his can of coke and took a sip. “I’m very… honest, is the best word in English. Many times I’ve had to ask one of my assistants what they think about something, and they just nod and say it’s great. So I have to ask somebody to tell me the fuckin’ truth and they tell me it’s shit, so I have to ask the first assistant ‘Why the fuck did you tell me it was great when it’s shit?’.”

“We both know they’re trying to save face, stay on good side of the big boss man. That’s bad for business. Sometimes, you need to call people out on their shit. If everyone’s too busy kissing your ass, you’ll never improve or get better.”

“I know exactly what you mean.” Shaun said, nodding. “I’m not even the boss of anybody and I feel like everyone’s trying their hardest to get me to stay, or not say something to offend me. Treading on egg shells.”

“Exactly the point.” Artifex agreed. “That’s why I think, you and I will get along. Maybe.”

Artifex’s phone vibrated again, sending out a beep. He promptly ignored it, as Shaun gave it a quick look.

“Like, this sandwich-” He grabs the ciabatta and holds it up in the air, giving it a shake before dropping it back onto the plate.. “-this sandwich is shit. You tell me this is the great British food that everyone speaks about? It’s crap. Who the fuck puts this white stuff with pork?”

“Coleslaw?” Shaun asked.

“That shit, Coleslaw. Disgusting. I mean, it would have been a perfectly good sandwich, but they add things onto it. Unnecessary ingredients, like, a normal chicken sandwich, but you put tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, those green things you get on burgers.”

“Gherkins?”

Artifex snaps his fingers. “Yes, those. Put on some spicy sauce, what’s it called…”

“Chipolte.”

“Yes, that’s the one. You pile them on, then how do you taste the chicken? It’s just a mass of fucking vegetables. You might as well go outside and eat some fucking grass. Way too complicated. Maybe it’s just me, maybe it’s my powers, but everyone tries to make things too detailed, too overblown. What’s wrong with just, make it easier? Make it chicken and a bit of sauce. Or in this case, don’t put this coleslaw dogshit on my sandwich.”

“That’s a very nice rant about two pieces of bread and some cafeteria filler in the middle, Artifex.” Shaun said, leaning back. “But you’re getting really passionate about a sandwich.

Artifex snorted a little. Shaun hadn’t seem him smile up until this point. “Maybe you’re right. I have to enjoy something, even if it’s… ranting about a piece of shit sandwich.”

“It’s cafeteria food, you can’t expect it to be the best English food you’ll ever get. Kinda like buying a phone charger off ebay for a few quid and wondering why it blows up in the middle of the night.” Shaun added. He unscrews the cap of his bottle and takes a drink.

“Oh, yeah, then what do you think is good British food then?” Artifex added, reaching for his can of coke.

“You ever tried an oatcake?” Shaun asked, leaning forward.

“What’s an oatcake?”

“It’s like a pancake made out of oatmeal. You make them hot and you put cheese, bacon sausage, even stuff like eggs in them. Some people put jam or bananas in them, but those people are wrong and need to stop making oatcakes.”

“Hm.” Artifex’s phone went off again, and he ignored it again. “Doesn’t sound bad. What else?”

“Black pudding?” Shaun asked.

“What that?”

“It’s blood sausage. Made with pork and offal, I think it’s got oats in it as well.”

“Well that sounds fucking disgusting.” Artifex snorts. “That’s the worst pudding I’ve ever heard of. What’s the deal with people in Manchester and oats? Everything had oats in it.”

“Oats are delicious, that’s why.” Shaun shrugged. “You’re the genius here, you should know that. How long have you been in England, anyway? Shouldn’t you know what food we do?”

“A long enough time. Yes, and no. I’ve tried the fish and chips, the Full Monty English breakfast. I mostly go shopping in Polish shops. The food, it reminds me a little more of home that way.”

“You ever going to go back? Home, I mean.”

“Soon, yes.” Artifex glanced up and down Shaun. “I don’t get many holidays. When I do, I’ll go back. Visit the family, relax for a week or two. I’d like to think I’d do nothing but I’d probably have to keep myself busy. Hard to stop when you start.”

Shaun nods. “I’ve got a question. If you came here to do that presentation and you think the food sucks, why are you still here?”

Artifex raised his head up slightly. “Other reasons as well. I came to do a small demonstration on some upgraded items I’ve made.”

Artifex had a briefcase beside his feet and reaches down, taking it from beneath him and putting it on top of the closed laptop. He wheels the combination into place and opens it with a click, then takes out something and puts it on the table. Shaun takes a look at it for a moment; it’s about the siz and thickness of a smart phone, with a switch on the side. The front appears to be glass, and Artifex lifts it up. It has a large camera on the front, and Artifex turns it a few times in his hand to show it off.

He turns the switch on, and the camera lens opens. A high definition picture flushes onto the screen, showing them the wall to the right of them, as well as a bin where somebody was scraping off food into.

“Looks like a camera.” Shaun added.

“It is.” Artifex added, then held it out in his palm for Shaun. “Point it at me.”

Shaun did with a nod, and held it up to point at Artifex. The image of him wasn’t entirely clear. Inside of him, as if he were a silhouette was a shift of movement. Something permeated with him, that crackled and flecked off in shades of mixed reds and purples. Around him looked like static, as if he had an inch-long outline of shifting pixels.

He raised his eyebrows, looking surprised. Artifex seemed to smile again. “What you’re using is a device that lets people see if you’re Farborn or Fartouched.”

Shaun lowered it down, and offered to hand it back. Artifex took it and turned it off, slipping it into his pocket.

“Lots we don’t know about the Farside, but we know a good few things. We know that Farborn, Fartouched have some energy inside of them. Farside Energy, it is called. Not something to easily recognise, but it gives off certain signals. Sort of like a type of radiation. This device picks up on it, turns it into a visual display on the screen. You can use this to see who has been touched by the Farside. It also can scan Eldritch as well, but not the main point of it.”

“That’s really cool. What do you need it for?” Shaun asked curiously.

“Few things. Hospitals use it, to see if children are Farborn or for health checks. Sometimes, police scans need them. That sort of stuff.”

“Oh, yeah.” Shaun nodded. “I think if you wanna become an MP, you need to be checked to see if you’re Fargraced. People were worried they’d use some mind control to take over people and get voters, give them too much of a position of power.”

“That’s true. How do you know that?”

“My sixth form media class. I’m doing about the effects of the Farside on modern life. One of the things I had to check was the effect on politics, and I found out that they don’t allow Fargraced to be politicians.”

“Hm. Smart little man. Good thing you value your studies. That’s important.” Artifex added.

“Working here cuts into my school time, a lot.” Shaun said.

“Mmm.” Artifex added. He took another sip of coke. “The device. This is an upgraded model. Turns out that the old model had an issue detecting small amounts of Farside energy in people or things. Lots of things saturated with the Farside, could be an Eldritch stayed in one spot for a while, who fucking knows. The newer version will be rolled out soon, one that gives off more accurate readings, doesn’t overload, better picture feedback. Might even add a camera feature if I get time. I’ve come to give the NFU a product demonstration, and to sell it to them. I mean, I already have the first shipment ready. This is more of a stress test more than anything.”

“Makes sense. The NFU are pretty relaxed with using MAGI-Tech stuff. They seem to be the only people who use it a lot.”

“People don’t trust it.” Artifex said, waving the device around like a phone in his hand. “They don’t know how it works or what it really does, so they don’t trust it. I mean fuck, we could have cars powered by Farside energy. Reliable, renewable, efficient. With my designs, it would be safer than anything on the road. People can’t even trust electric cars, let alone anything else. I mean, the only reason I’m even making one is to prove them all wrong and because I’m personally funding it.”

“I could make a phone with a battery life of weeks. These phones-” He puts down the device and holds up his mobile. “-they work for one, two days, then they run out of power. Phone companies think this is acceptable product. That’s why they don’t want to work with me, because they know I’d run them out of business in a year.”

Shaun nodded again. He hadn’t responded much, though Artifex seemed more happy to be able to speak with somebody listening more than anything else.

Artifex took his phone and unlocked it, looking at the time. He nodded to himself and shoved the phone in the opposite pocket that held the device he brought with him, then took a stand. He begun to pack his effects away into his briefcase.

“Another meeting at twelve. Good chat. Look forward to seeing you around.”

Shaun nodded again. “Yeah, nice chat.”

Artifex grabbed his loaded briefcase off the table and turned, walking out of the dining hall. Shaun was left with the remains of his leftover ciabatta and an empty can of coke, and he stared at the space in front of him for a good few seconds.

“Well, that was something.”

Shaun scrunched up his nose with a sniff, then took another swig of water. He stood up from his chair and looked around, then scratched the back of his head. “I should probably head up, we’ve got to look at previous cases of Eldritch or whatever.”

He flipped the bottle in his hand, catching it as the remaining liquid sloshed about in the container. Shaun glanced at the sandwich on the table and shrugged before making his leave, heading upstairs to the lecture room.

Shaun and Katrina sat next to each other, staring ahead at the vacant table. They were the early ones for once, both being ten minutes early and managing to settle down fairly quickly. Katrina’s helmet was on the table, whilst Shaun didn’t have much in the way of any protective armour just yet. That he’d have to wait for, though he was already aware that he’d have to wear it a good majority of the time, as long as he worked here.

As the idea struck him, he decided to turn to Katrina and ask her. “Hey. Do you always have to wear your armour?”

She inclined her head to him, and shook it briefly. “Nah. Most people do. Might get called out and they don’t wanna have to gear up and waste time.”

“Makes sense. Just thought it was a bit weird that everyone always wore it.”

“We’re always on duty. We’re not called out a lot ‘cos we’re still all training, fresh blood, y’know?”

“I hear you.” Shaun said, nodding firmly.

Visionary opened up the door and bowed her head as she saw Shaun and Katrina. Shaun offered her a nod in return, Katrina waved. She was wearing her armour as well, and Shaun knew that soon, he wouldn’t be the odd one out in normal clothes. Of all things, he wasn’t sure if he felt relieved by the thought of that. She had a laptop bag with her, and she put it on the table to unzip it, and retrieve it to set it up.

“I’m glad we’re all here early. I hope you’ve all had a good lunch and eaten well.” Visionary said, her smile obvious behind her mask. “This won’t be too difficult. We’ll go over the basics of previous encounters we’ve had with similar Eldritch. All Eldritch are unique in their own way, so it’s guidelines and principles that you need to take in from this.”

They both nodded. Shaun sat upright, looking a little more focused than before.

A knock came through the door. The masked face stared inside with glowing, pale blue eyes.

Before even being given permission to enter, Grandmaster already pushed the door aside, the distorted echo in his voice sounding clearly through the room. Under his arm, a file was tucked away in his grasp.

“Afternoon. Hope I’m not disturbing anything.”

“We hadn’t even started yet.” Katrina said, rolling her eyes with a bit of a smirk.

“That’s swell. Visionary, I need to borrow you. Two minutes, tops.”

Visionary paused for a second. Her eyes flicked twice in opposite directions, darting out before being pulled back to her gaze on Grandmaster. “Of course.” She turns to Shaun and Katrina, taking a stand and bowing her head again. “I’ll be a few moments.”

Grandmaster lead Visionary outside, out of the line of sight of Shaun and Katrina, who were both equally confused. Visionary looked over him with concern. “What is it?”

“Nothing too pressing. Well, it kinda is. I’ve cracked it.”

“Cracked ‘it’?” She asks questioningly.

“I got that Technomad piece of garbage to tell me who got him. Ryan Macey coughed up who he was working for.”

Visionary nodded. “How did you manage to get him to talk? He’s very stubborn.”

“I’m persuasive. Nothing I’d like to go into detail here and now, mind you. But I’ve got a good lead, and my helmet told me he wasn’t lying or coercing me.” He tapped his visor.

Grandmaster showed Visionary the file and handed it to her. On the front, it was labelled with a name. Michael Burnham. She flicked open the file, her eyes darting downwards before pulling back up to Grandmaster. His picture was a man in his fourties, unassuming and very plain, other than a receding hairline and a thick nose.

“Michael Burnham?”

“Yup.” Grandmaster said with a nod. “The very one. The black market guy. Police normally deal with the scum bag but if he’s involved in this, he’s become our jurisdiction. I did a bit of research as well. He’s normally big on arms deals, even prostitution. Apparently, word gets out that he’s starting to focus a little bit more on MAGI-Tech a few months ago. He dropped everything to focus on it, broke off contacts and fobbed off a lot of big players. Really big change of plans if you ask me.”

Visionary nodded. “That’s great news then. What’s your next step?”

“I’m going to find him tomorrow and drag him in for questioning.”

Visionary paused, so that the silence was audible. “You’re going to find a well known black arms dealer and detain him by yourself, tomorrow. Forgive me for sounding like I’m having trouble believing you. I know you like to work quickly, but this is quite something else.”

“Okay, okay. Let me just explain.” He holds his hands up. “I managed to get the information out of Macey. I coerced Macey and got him to call up Burnham and told him that he wanted to meet up with him at the last spot they met. Some pub in Stockport, the Red Bull pub. Midnight, tomorrow. He agreed to it, for whatever reason. And, I’m not going by myself.”

Grandmaster pointed to the door.

“I want Shaun to come with me.”

“You want-” She turned her head, looking at the door. “-Shaun, why? He’s new, he hasn’t gone through any Out of Uniform training.”

Grandmaster nodded. “That’s exactly why I want him. He’s an unknown. Nobody knows who he is, and I can’t have somebody with noticeable powers. It’ll look too much like a sting if we have anybody with external powers with me. He’ll definitely be able to take care of himself. Perfect fit. But as his team leader, I need your permission to bring him with me.”

“This is a bad idea.” She says, handing the file back. “I don’t endorse this. This is almost reckless. Grandmaster, I’m aware that you’re driven but this feels like you’re acting instead of thinking it through.”

“This isn’t something I need to think about. Burnham doesn’t know we have Macey in for questioning. If he finds out, he’ll get the hell outta dodge and we might have a bigger problem on our hands.”

“Over a few specific thefts in a few warehouses in Manchester? It’s far-fetched.” Visionary folded her arms. “And you’re chasing at best, a gut feeling on the matter.”

“Nobody steals MAGI-Tech like that, prototype stuff and specific things if there wasn’t something going on. Nobody hires Doppler to do it if they weren’t planning something and needed a guaranteed hit. Something just doesn’t add up here, and you know it. Especially if we’re talking about this jackass putting his irons in this fire.”

Visionary paused, then shook her head. “Even so, we need to approach this carefully. This is a potentially dangerous situation.”

“You’re right. Which is why I wanna be standing next to the toughest guy in the room.”

They both shared a stare at each other, locking eye contact. Grandmaster spoke again.

“Either he comes with me, or I go alone. Either way, I’m seeing Burnham tomorrow at midnight, with or without. If Shaun’s not there to help me if shit hits the fan, can you honestly say that you want that on your conscious?”

Visionary frowned a little. “That’s a little dirty, even for you.”

“So, that’s a yes to the guilt trip?”

Visionary shook her head again, her poise covering up the defeat in her voice. “I’ll have to make sure he’s unassigned from patrol and training tomorrow to do so.”

Grandmaster leaned in and patted her vigorously on the shoulder. “Visionary, you’re a star. I owe you one, big time.”

“If this ever comes back to you in a negative way, I expect you to say I’ve had no involvement with this whatsoever.”

“You know I’ve got your back. Go break the news to him, I’ll see about arranging transport.”

Grandmaster reached over, and Visionary handed the file back to him. He gave her a flick-point with his free hand and turned on his heels, walking away with a spring in his step. He whistled down the corridor, oddly distorted by his helmet.

Visionary took a calming breath and turned around, re-entering the classroom.

Shaun and Katrina hailed her as she came in, and she took a seat.

“My apologies about that. Before we begin. Shaun.”

She turned her head to him, and he nodded. “Yo.”

“It’s come to my attention that there’s been a change of plans for tomorrow. We’re going to be scheduling you in for tomorrow evening, a very late shift. You’ll be working with Grandmaster. Is that okay with you?”

Shaun shrugged, then nodded. “Yeah, sure. My armour won’t be here yet, right?”

“I’m sure that won’t be a problem.” She said, with a nod. “I’ll make sure he debriefs you by the end of today on what you’ll be doing tomorrow.”

Visionary propped open the laptop and turned it on, eventually connecting it to the wireless projector overhead. She stood up and dimmed down the lights, taking a seat once the room was darker and the images on the board behind her were much clearer. She made sure she was sat in a way that her head wasn’t blocking any of the view before she opened up a slide show, and finally begun the presentation without interruption.

Discoveries: 3-5

“It’s time you should go to bed, Shaun.”

Shaun turned his head from the television, looking at his mum. Anne was standing in the doorway, still wearing the tabard she wore when she was looking after his grandmother. Shaun had been watching movies since he sat down this morning, only taking breaks to walk Button. The dog herself had retired to bed long before, a few hours ago when Shaun had temporarily changed to music channels to flick through. It passed an hour or two of time. Shaun had intended to do nothing this day, and he certainly managed to keep that mental promise to himself.

He looked to the television again and pressed the button to bring up information on the show he was watching. The credits for Antman were beginning to roll up the screen, showing the time to be 11:23pm. Shaun turned back to Anne and shrugged slightly, bringing one of his legs up and tucking his foot beneath the other leg’s knee.

“I was gonna stay up tonight. That okay?”

Anne frowned at Shaun, a facial expression he’d picked up from her over time from questions like these. “You didn’t get any sleep last night.”

“I know. I’ll be fine.”

“You’re going to end up hurting yourself.”

Shaun raised an eyebrow. “Kinda doubt that.”

Anne gave up on her current train of thought and tilted her head, folding her arms. Her tone sounded defeated. “If there’s one person in God’s green earth that can hurt you, it’ll be yourself.”

“I guess I’m my own worst enemy.” Shaun cracked a smile.

“You’re a bloody cheeky sod, that’s what! Alright, fine. Just don’t make too noise. Craig has work in the morning.”

“I’ll keep the noise down. Thanks, mum.”

“If it were him, he’d tell you no.”

“That’s why I asked you.” Shaun said in admittance.

Anne walked over and gave Shaun a kiss on the forehead, and he made a demonstration of wiping it off with a bit of a groan. “Night, love.”

“Night, mum.”

Anne retreated away with a weary sigh, taking flight up the stairs.

Shaun changed the channel again, and began to flick up to see what other films were on to pass the time. After flicking through a few channels, He settled on watching Kingsmen: The Secret Service, and shuffled back on the couch to get comfortable.

Once the film had ran through and those credits were rolling, Shaun eventually removed himself from the sofa. He stood and stretched upwards, then shook each leg out to the side. He glanced at his phone, having a quick look at the time. It read 01:34am, and the battery was approaching its final lifelines. He took a small stroll to the opposite end of the room, by a small table near a power socket where a spare phone charger was left. He plugged it into his phone and left it on the table, then did another small stretch with his arms outwards.

“I should practice. I actually kinda feel like I want to.” He whispered to himself. “Giles did have a point. I need to make up for lost time.”

With this in mind, Shaun put on some trainers and walked to the kitchen, swiping the keys off the side near the back door to let himself out. He stood and took a look outside as the night air lapped against his face, brushing through the trees and plants with gentle rustles of movement. The light on the back of his house flickered on, illuminating the area and the sandstone tiles he took a step onto. The grass beyond that reached out a good twenty to thirty feet in length, until it reached a wooden fence that separated it from the gardens of houses around it. An old garden shed lingered in the far right corner, from where Shaun was standing. The windows showed signs of mould and cobwebs, and the bark was beginning to peel away.

Shaun stepped onto the edge of the grass and looked around. He observed the space he had to work with, then reached up to scratch at his chin. The small amount of facial hair he had made the noise sound much more coarse than on bare skin.

“Hm. Can’t exactly try running here.”

He looked upwards, then stepped onto the grass. He turned to the left, then to the right. Eventually, he turned to his house, and sized it up slowly. An idea sprung to mind, as he spied the edge of the guttering around the roof.

“Could practice my jumping. What about… the house? Can I?”

Shaun stopped to think about it.

“Well, yeah. I should be able to.”

Shaun stood back on the harder sandstone floor for better support, and kept his eyes on the upper reaches of the roof. He pointed up, still talking to himself.

“I just… jump. That’s all I need to do. Let’s try a smaller jump first.”

He rolled his shoulders, and stretched out his legs again to make sure everything was working properly. He started with a smaller vertical jump, bouncing on the spot at a regular height. He landed, and the next jump he performed had him reaching twice as high as before. He landed with his knees bent, staying crouched for a second before standing up. He mused, considering the difference in force needed to push him into the air, and looked at the house to estimate the distance.

Taking another step back, he aimed for the roof and shunted himself up in the air. Shaun launched himself up and towards the roof but only got so far as a foot below the guttering. He hung in the air for a second, letting his foot push into the wall and staying still, before gravity claimed him again. Pushing himself away made sure he curved away from the wall, and he landed onto the paving with a dull thud.

He was staggered, but his balance was okay. He looked at the ground; to his luck, the ground didn’t seem cracked in the slightest, undamaged by his landing. With a sigh of relief, he set his sights up again, and now had a good idea how much force he needed to apply.

With this in mind, he bent his knees, and jumped over the roof of his house.

It wasn’t a feeling he could have described before. An unusual mix of freedom in those seconds he was in the air, and a total lack of control as he felt himself being pulled by the trajectory he made. He arced over the house and landed at the front, slamming into the concrete a few feet away from the family car. He didn’t hold his balance well, so he force himself to tumble forward on the ground. After his roll, he got himself to his feet and tugged on his shirt, letting a few small stones cascade from his shoulders, and some dirt to clog the air around him.

He would have turned around sooner, but his gaze was locked on the torn remains of a stump where the lamp post used to stand near his house. Once he registered what he was seeing, he turned around and stared at the house, face full of surprise and mild wonder.

“Huh. Wow.”

A smile grew on his face, and he eyed up the house again. With less time to work himself up, he sprung himself over the house once more, travelling back the way he came in a single leap. The second landing had a little more grace to it, but he landed onto the grass part of the garden and left two large footprints embedded into the soil.

He yanked his feet out of the ground, almost losing his shoes in the process, and walked onto the sandstone. Shaun was kicking the ground beneath him to dislodge any soil on his trainers, and winced as he saw the holes in the ground.

“Aw, shit.”

He thought about what he was doing for a second, then turned back to the house.

“It’s not gonna be easy to jump over here, and jumping over to come through the front door is kinda awkward.”

Shaun looked down at his shoes. Even in this light, he could see the dark tinge of dirt still coating them.

“Should be fine for now. I did something new, anyway.”

Shaun laughed under his breath. He made his way to the door and went inside, and made sure the door was locked. He made sure everything was turned off, his shoes were taken off downstairs and his phone off the table off the table, before he finally decided to give in and get himself some sleep. The last light to go was his bedroom light, and with that gone, the Lawson household went still once more.

As normal, Shaun’s mother had already gone to work by the time Shaun was up. During these dark winter mornings, the sun wouldn’t be in the sky until Shaun was at work and beginning to settle. His morning shower felt just as refreshing as the one he took yesterday, though he had much less time to indulge himself and enjoy it. He even had enough time to warm up some Pop-Tarts in the toaster and make a brew before sitting down, and having a quick check of what’s on T.V.

Shaun sat down, slipping the remaining half of a frosted strawberry pastry between his teeth. One hand held his mug of tea, the other the remote. He changed it from the movie channel he was just on prior to last night to the morning news, and put the remote on the arm of the couch.

Shaun took a bite out of his Pop-Tart and hummed to himself as he munched it down, speaking after swallowing.

“When did I start watching the news so much?”

Shaun stared at his tea for a second.

“When did I start talking to myself so much?”

With a shrug, he crammed more pastry into his mouth, and watched the news. Broadcasting on BBC1 was a gentleman in a suit, with neatly parted black hair and a London accent. He was in the main room, sitting at a desk by himself.”

The APBIF, the American Paranormal Bureau for the Investigation of the Farside, are continuing to engage in an investigation into the nature of disappearing Eldritch from all over the south of the United States of America. Nobody is quite sure why they’re vanishing all of a sudden or what the cause is, but it’s enough that people are beginning to notice the absence. There isn’t a state of emergency at the present time, and the Bureau has yet to issue a statement regarding their findings or their position on the matter.”

From what we can gather, spots where many Eldritch are held, such as the New York Eldritch Zoo remain unaffected. No Eldritch have gone missing yet, but some of the larger ranches in Texas have been cleared out, with not even the smaller Eldritch spared. Who or what is taking them is currently a mystery, but what we do know is that it’s only affecting the southern states. No animals or people have been reported missing en masse. There is however, nothing concrete just yet.”

This has been Scott Young, reporting on foreign affairs-”

After consuming his remaining Pop-Tart and drinking his tea, Shaun turned off the television. His curiosity had been piqued for the moment but he felt the pull of interest beginning to wane.

His phone began to vibrate, and he tugged it out of his pocket to check. He’d received a text, from Visionary.

Shaun, change of plans today. Handover w/Spectre in morning, then big meeting with The Designer after. Very important, Directors will be present. No patrols today. – V

“Huh.” Shaun had a tone of curiosity. He slid his phone back into his pocket, then took a stand “Great, I bet my costume’s gonna look terrible, and my name’ll be even worse.”

He went to the kitchen and ran his mug under some water to give it a rinse, and put it on the side to drain away. On days like these when nobody was going to be in the house for most of the day, their elderly neighbours, the Colemans, would make sure she was looked after. As Shaun’s grandmother required more care over time, they found they were in need of their services more often, steadily growing until they were sure Button recognised it as a second home. Both retired, Marc and Cath enjoyed the extra company, and the walk helped them to keep active and fit. It worked for everyone involved, even if Craig and Anne felt it was a burden for them.

When Shaun looked down and saw Button was sleeping, he assumed that she would have to go next door when Craig got ready for work, and didn’t worry more about it from that point onwards.

Shaun wandered to the living room and took a peek out of the front window. The sun had started to climb the sky, and he saw the headlights of a black car waiting outside, parked up and ready. He grabbed his hoodie and jacket and donned them, making sure the hoodie was zipped, and tapped the front pockets. From the feel of things, his earbuds were still there, and with all criteria satisfied he dredged his key from his wallet and took it to the front door.

Unlock, step outside, lock up. Shaun put his key away, and quickly shuffled over to the car. He took one last look at home before he opened the door and slid inside, and buckled up for the journey.

“They just slip through, just like that?”

Katrina walked side by side, looking at Visionary. Both were wearing their respective suits of armour, though Katrina held her helmet underneath her arm as they walked down the corridor. Visionary’s face was covered with her mask, and she turned her head as she spoke to maintain eye contact.

“As far as we know. Eldritch just appear. All evidence points that they come from the Farside and emerge into our world, or universe, or whatever the distinction might be. Nobody has known an Eldritch to return back, but with what’s happening in America, it might even be the case.”

“Scary thought.” Katrina replied. “Less work for us to do. I’m not complaining if it lets us focus on the real scumbags.”

“It’s something to take note of. Until we hear news from overseas, we’ll have to remain focused on the Eldritch we have here. We’ve got initial reports that a large, docile Eldritch has been seen on the border of Cheshire, Bayard or Hecatonchire-class. We’re organising an effort to contain it and bring it in safely in the coming week. If it’s docile, I’ve asked that my team be the Recon Squad in lead of the operation.”

“I’m all over trial by fire. Throw me into the deep end, see how well I swim.”

“Try to walk before you run, we have ample time to train you. We’ll also need to go over the proper radio terminology for you.”

They approached the door for the small room where they had morning handover, and Visionary pushed the door open. Already present, Shaun sat there with steepled fingers, watching them as they arrived.

“Visionary, Spectre. Glad you could make it. I bet you’re wondering why I’ve gathered you here today for this meeting.”

They were both surprised, and Katrina smirked at Shaun’s attempt to sound authoritative. He took the half full bottle of water that was next to him and screwed off the lid, taking a swig.

“You’re in early, Shaun.”

“You made it sound like it was a big day today. I thought I’d get in early and be ready.”

Visionary nodded and moved into the room, unblocking the doorway for Katrina to come in as well. They both took a seat, and Katrina rested her elbow on the back of her chair, bringing her foot underneath the opposite thigh.

“Very well. I’ll get started with the handover then.”

“No laptop today?” Shaun asked, glancing over Visionary’s personal effects effects. She lifted up a folded piece of paper she withdrew from her belt and began to unfold it.

“As much as they encourage us to make a paperless office, one sheet isn’t going to cause any harm.” She said with a smile. “As per standard handover, we’ll go over any events of importance. Katrina, Shaun and I will be attending a meeting today with The Designer. It was due to be on Monday but she had an apparent ‘breakthrough’ and urgently called it in, so we acquiesced, and the Directors agreed to it. We’re not sure how long it’ll take, so I’ve asked Grandmaster to give you some basic training on radio signals and code words, as well as basic comms operations. If that’s not any trouble for you.”

She shrugged in response. “Sure.”

“Great.” Visionary nodded. “We’ll be going as soon as handover is complete. I had other plans for us today for some initial preparation but we’ll have to postpone them for later. Other points of note, we’ve heard over social media this morning that there’s a large Eldritch on the border of Cheshire and Greater Manchester. We’ve had no reports that it’s hostile and size reports are inaccurate at best without pictures. We believe it to be docile, so Bayard-Class to Hecatonchire-Class in size. Oncw we’ve gathered some more information, we’ll fill you in.”

Both Shaun and Katrina nodded in unison.

“Today’s planner will be as follows. After handover, Shaun and myself will meet with The Designer and the Directors to discuss his identity and aesthetic as an agent of the NFU. Katrina will learn about comms with Grandmaster meanwhile. We’ll see how long this meeting takes and break afterwards, then do some physical training up until eleven. An hour’s lunch, then we’ll go over previous reports and recordings of Eldritch containments from twelve until one, as well as learn the basics of Eldritch protocol for another hour, until two.”

“As we’ve had to be taken off patrol for various reasons, we’ll consider it an early finish today.”

“Sound.” Katrina contributed.

“That concludes the handover. Katrina, if you’d go up to Grandmaster’s office, Shaun and myself will attend this meeting now.”

Katrina pushed her chair back and stood up.

“Ta-ra a bit.”

She grabbed her helmet and gave Visionary and Shaun a mock salute, before turning on her heels and escorting herself out.

Visionary nodded, then folded up the paper and put it back from whence it came. Shaun stood as well and stretched his arms out a little, whilst Visionary took point and they back to walk out of the room.

Shaun had a vague sense of direction, of where they were heading to. They went down corridors, passing people with generic and brief greetings, nodding heads and smiling several times along the way. As they entered the lift, Visionary pushed the button for the topmost floor, and after the doors closed they began ascended up the building.

Shaun had seen the top floor of the NFU headquarters only a few times, and today they weren’t going to the same room he knew from before. They took a right before they got there though, and they walked into a much larger conference room.

Instantly, Shaun recognised The Designer, who was standing next to two large easels. Each one of them had a sheet of paper, A2 in size. She wore a grey sweater and a long black skirt down to her knees, and over that she wore an oversized pearl necklace. Her hands were behind her front, and a grin was on her face.

Shaun recognised the two others, but the one he hadn’t seen before caught his attention. He looked in his early fourties. His hair was trim, neat, waxed and parted to one side, and he looked freshly shaved despite showing the signs of stubble already. The suit he wore looked expensive, and he had noticeably high cheek bones and a stern gaze. Beside him was Sage, who turned her head and smiled at their entry. She wore the same robes as usual, the same kind smile.

Opposite them sat Artifex. He wore a suit as well, with the jacket on the back of his chair and his sleeves rolled up just before his elbows. He looked at Shaun and Visionary for a second, and seemed to not really care either way before turning to The Designer again.

“Shaun, this is Head Director Messenger.” Visionary said, making room. Messenger stood up, and Shaun took a step forward and bowed his head. They both extended hands and shook them, and Messenger had quite a firm grip and shook twice, nodding his head as well.

“Shaun, a pleasure to finally meet you.” His accent was hard to pin down, though he was well spoken and articulate. He broke his hand away and resumed seating. Besides Sage and Artifex were a spare chair each, and Visionary was the first to sit next to Sage. Shaun took his seat next to Artifex, and The Designer brought her hands together to clap them together once everyone was present.

“Fantastic! Everyone’s here, we can begin. Thank you all for joining me today. Now I know what you’re thinking.” She folds her arms. ‘The Designer, you said you’d be ready on Monday!’ The truth is, you can’t predict things like this. Inspiration just hits you out of the blue, and suddenly everything’s already laid out in front of you. I was as surprised as any of you were. Needless to say, I fast tracked the process to get it all done. The sooner everyone sees what I’ve created, the sooner we can get Shaun’s new identity out in the open.”

“It was a tough process. I had to take everything that Shaun gave as feedback, as well as keeping my own signature flare and the ever-growing aesthetic of the National Farside Unit’s agents. Firstly, I’d like to personally thank Artifex, for lending his resources and helping to make the body armour that your agents wear. With my designs, of course.”

“Yes yes, of course. Let’s get to the point where you reveal it. I’ve been sitting here for half an hour already.” Artifex rubbed his upper lip. “I’m only here for a single announcement and because I was asked to come.”

The Designer frowns, and holds her hands together. “Oh, Artifex. Can’t you just turn the grumpiness down for two minutes?”

“We could be done in two minutes, just show the suit already.”

The Designer shoots Artifex a death glare, before she clears her throat and turns sideways. She touches her finger to the pad of paper in the middle, and colour begins to seep into the image. At first, they begin to form into the shape of the NFU logo, with shadows and shading to give off the illusion that it was floating off the page. The logo then began to move and shrink, moving away into the upper left corner.

The Designer smiles and speaks. “The National Farside Unit is an organisation founded on integrity and a simple mission, to protect the common person from any threat of the Farside that would endanger them. To this end, the agents of the NFU have to look the part. They not only have to look strong and tough enough to take on whatever the Farside can throw at us, but also to protect them. Most importantly, they need to look trustworthy. The normal man needs to look upon the agents of the NFU and say ‘Wow, this person has my back. With Shaun, we’re going to make sure that’s more clear now than ever.”

The scene on the paper changes. The area begins to darken, but a figure begins to glow out of the pitch black depths starting to permeate the page. Features become clearer, a monochrome figure that begins to seep with skin tones, a hairstyle matching Shaun’s own. Midnight blue clothes begin to form over him, starting with a defined set of boots that cut off just before the knee, and bracers that travelled halfway up his forearm. These bracers split into three segments each, and then began to form downwards like triangles, with the lowest one forming the tip near shaun’s wrist, and the topmost one became a scale on the outside of the arm that pointed in the opposite direction. These arm-guards and boots started to change colours, growing lighter until they reaches a Glaucous blue.

The figure’s upper half soon became wreathed in a jacket, with the fastenings on the right side, much the same design as Tether’s own. The fastenings on the side slid up and to the left, just at the sternum level, where they formed into prominent lapels that curved around the neck into a collar. From the top of the shoulders, down to the point where the ribs and the stomach met, formed a triangular shape of raised fabric. Forming over that tip in the centre of his chest, a three pronged shield formed over it that matched the same colour as the arm-guards and the boots. The way the upper layer formed gave off the illusion that it formed into a cape, though nothing of the sort existed on this design.

Two stripes formed down the side, separating where abdominals would be from the rest of the torso. That section remained the same, but around on the lower level became embossed with a brick-like pattern. The armour underneath the jacket started to travel upwards from behind the head, until it formed a hood. Likewise, along the front it travelled up until it covered the lower part of the face. All that was visible were eyebrows and eyes.

The image became a little clearer, until it almost looked as if it was pulled from life itself.

“Artifex and I have had to go through a very different process with this suit. Artifex, now’s the time you’ve been waiting impatiently for.”

Artifex dismissed the comment and spoke as he intended to. “Yes, you see. With most people, you think about things like… what sort of things they’re weak against. We made Tether’s armour to resist punches, kicks, knives, that sort of stuff. He has to get close, so we make him good at being close. This one, the boy’s armour, is different. We don’t have to worry about that. I made a suit of armour that could withstand him.”

Artifex points to Shaun, who looks surprised at suddenly being called out.

The Designer took over. “We made the armour much heavier, and just as flexible, so it’s a lot more durable. Shaun doesn’t care about weight, so it works in our favour. And now, for the important part! The name.”

The design shrunk again, and moved lower down. Five blocks appeared in white, slowly starting to form into the shapes of letters, and rapidly sped up until they formed a glowing, single word.

Verus.

The silence deafened the room.

“Verus. Latin for truth, what is right and just. Verus was also a gladiator, but we’re looking at the more literal version of the word than the person behind it. It’s not too formal, not too casual. It’s easy to say, and it stands out. It’s not flamboyant and it’s not a word that people will instantly know. It even rolls of the tongue, and sounds gentle enough to people. It fits all the criteria I was given. The design of the armour is everything you wanted. No capes, a jacket, and something that says you’re strong, you’re tough, but you’re here to protect the common person. This is the image the NFU wants, a young man with the public in mind, who’ll stand up to any challenge and who’ll never back down.”

The Designer took her hand off the paper, and the images became still. All people of the room began to nod amongst themselves. Almost all at once, their heads turned to Shaun, who found it dawning on him that they were suddenly waiting for an answer. He sat a little more upright in his chair, and studied the designs for a second.

The Designer smiled widely, and waited in awkward silence. “Well Shaun, what do you think?”

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.”