Energia

Chapter 5: Competition (Energia: Titans of Verità)

Energia: Titans of Verità
Table of Contents (For Catching Up)

A hush fell over the crowd. Everyone in the room, from test-taker to police officer, stared in Anna and the Chief’s direction. All eyes were on the towering Jakob Milldrew. The golden glow of his E-Suit seemed to shine more brilliantly than any of Verità’s suns, despite the fact that it was only as bright as a child’s nightmare repellent measures. But his stare was unmistakably cold and dark. “Let me ask you again, officer.” He said in a voice laced with demanding and menace. “Is there a problem here? Or are you arresting one of my applicants for no reason?”

For a moment, even the Chief was too stunned for words. It wasn’t every day that the greatest soldier alive was staring you down, after all. But he managed to compose himself with a simple and loud clearing of the throat. “I have a good reason, sir.” He spoke slowly as if he were choosing each word like it was potentially his last. Was he trying to hide his terror? “Last night, this girl was arrested and placed under house arrest. So long as I deem it necessary, she isn’t to leave her-”

“I know what house arrest means.” The goliath of a Russian interrupted with frosted sharpness. “How does this justify you assaulting this young woman?”

Once again, the Chief was stunned. “W-well, because she broke the law! She can’t be here, sir.”

Milldrew turned his gaze to Anna. For a moment, she thought she saw the briefest glimpse of warmth. He looked at her like a mischevious father, one who was simultaneously praising and scolding a child for misbehaving. A small smile spread across his face. However, when he returned his gaze to the Chief, this grin widened to a chilling, condescending expression. “Yet, here she is.” He reached a long, slender hand over to the desk on which Anna was pinned. With a quick swipe of his finger, the digital paperwork that she had just filled out returned. He scanned his eyes over it quickly, then raised the projection into the air above the metal sheet. He gestured the Chief to look. “She’s even filled out all the paperwork. Accurately and honestly, I may point out. Look, she even included her criminal record! And she was recommended by an Operative! As far as I’m concerned, she has every right to be here at this point. Her skills must be above average at the very least if she snuck past you idiots.”

The Chief’s jaw dropped, then clenched tightly shut. The awe in his eyes vanished, replaced now by a blazing red fury. “Now you listen here, boy!” He growled. It seemed he had found courage through his frustration. “I don’t care if this here girly flew back to Earth, climbed Everest and invented time travel to take this test! She broke the rules. I can’t just-”

“You can’t do anything now.” Jakob interrupted again. He leaned in close, putting his face mere inches from the Chief. The gruff German tried to back down, fright returning to his eyes as clearly as sunlight, but Milldrew only pressed him further. “Need I remind you where you are?” he asked in a whisper as cold as death. “This is the Central Sector. The German Sector is due west of here if you’ll recall. As is your jurisdiction. Now that Ms. Ironchase is here, and signed up for the entrance exams, she is outside your jurisdiction. Simply put: she is now our problem. And currently” he waved around the room to all the other applicants “she is no more a problem than anyone else in this room, regardless of how she got here.”

“But-”

Jakob put a metal-clad finger to the Chief’s lips. Even from this distance, Anna could hear the hum of his E-Suit’s overwhelming power. It sent tingles through her whole body. “May I remind you of one other thing: should Ms. Ironchase pass these exams, she will become an official Operative for Order. Ergo, she will have more authority than even you. In that case, any and all charges of minor criminal activity that she has built up over the years will be pardoned, and she will start over with a clean slate as an Operative. From then on, the only person capable of handing judgment down on her is me.”

The Chief’s eyes grew wide at this. His mouth flapped open and closed, like a fish struggling on land, but no words came out. The officers behind him all exchanged glances. They all knew it was true.

“However, should she fail the exams, then I will have no reason to stop you.” Jakob continued. “She will return to the German Sector, and you can punish her however you feel necessary. But that will have to wait until after the test.” He pulled away from the Chief, with the widest, condescending smile on his face. “Do we understand each other?”

It took the Chief a long moment to answer. “Yes. Yes, sir.” the words seemed forced like they were choking him on their way out. They screeched through his grit teeth like two ships colliding.

“Wonderful. Now…” Jakob nodded his head at Anna. “Uncuff the young lady. Then get out and go home.”

Anna felt the weight on her arms lift. She rubbed the pain from her wrists, wincing with every movement. She turned to face the Chief, who gave her a simple scowl. In return, she immaturely stuck out her tongue and pulled down an eyelid while making a rude gesture with her right hand.

In all her life, Anna could never have expected how he’d respond. Knowing him, she’d guess that he’d growl, or at least spit in her general direction, all while the veins in his forehead bulged to burst. Instead, he only smiled. His lips were pursed, and his eyes gleamed with frustration and malice. But his grin was unmistakable. Then, still holding the expression, he told his men to move out, said a few less-than appropriate things in their native language at no one in particular, then made for the exit.

Even when he was gone, the onlookers still stared at them. She couldn’t blame them; had Anna been in their shoes, she’d likely have done the same. And if they were looking at her for any other reason, she’d likely embrace it as an opportunity to show off her womanly charms to embarrass them. But she couldn’t find it in herself to flirt, even if it was an act. She was too shocked. Too exhausted.

Jakob turned to face the others, smiling with surprising, genuine warmth. “Sorry about that, ladies and gentlemen!” he announced, clapping his hands together. His voice was deep and hearty as if he were laughing while he spoke. “Please, pay it no mind. We wouldn’t want you to be distracted while you take the test, now would we?” he returned his gaze to Anna. “Especially you, young lady.” And with that, as well as a powerful pat on the back that knocked the wind from Anna’s lungs, Jakob Milldrew passed through the crowds, ascended the spiraling stairs, and vanished beyond the iron doors.

Silence hung over the crowd. Some still stared at Anna, slackjawed. Others remained fixed on the closed door as if it were the pearly gate to heaven. No one moved. Whether they were too afraid to, or simply too stunned, no one would ever know. It was as if a bomb had landed where Anna was standing. Now, everyone else was paralyzed by the fear that another shell would land on top of them.

Eventually, a member of staff clapped their hands and ushered everyone to move again, effectively signaling the all-clear. As if they had just gotten permission from their parents, the whole crowd swiftly came back to life, tending back to their own forms and problems.

Anna, taking her jacket from the table, walked slowly and carefully away from the table, as if the floor beneath her were going to give way. The room around her was loud with conversation. But to her, it was all distant. There seemed to be a thick wall of glass between her and them. Looking around, she found an empty space in the benches and took a seat against the cold metal. She pushed her arms through the sleeves, then hugged the apparel tightly. It was warm, but not hot enough to make her sweat. It comforted her, eased her nerves.

She took a deep, slow breath. Relax, she told herself. You’re not dealing with cops anymore. She eyed everyone around her warily. They were her opposition now. If she was going to pass, she’d need to beat them. It was time to assess her competition.

Looking around, she found that most of the other candidates were far from what she’d call an ideal Operative, at least from the image her mother had set for her. They were scrawny, starry-eyed and carefree. An exceptional Operative needed to be powerful, experienced and ready. Anna wrote these people off almost immediately. Unless they were pretending to be inadequate, they weren’t going to be a threat.

That didn’t mean no one posed a potential threat. Among the crowd, she spotted several individuals that were immediately recognizable as strong. An American with long brown hair was the first to catch her eye. He was dressed in a blue hoodie, jeans of the same color, and red running shoes. His fashion sense didn’t particularly grab her, as it was very plain and kind of boring. What caught her attention was his clear confidence. He eyed his competition with hungry eyes.

After that, she started to find more and more stand-out individuals. Several men and women were dressed in the instantly recognizable robes of a martial artist, most of them being from the Japanese and Chinese Sectors. Next, she spotted several men who carried swords, though they were simple fencing blades that were about as sharp as pudding. Some had large gloves dangling from their waists.

This was a common tactic that older candidates would use. They’d tell everyone about their unique fighting skills simply by wearing their weapons in hope that they’d intimidate their less experienced enemies. None of them were subtle. But all of them were clearly strong competition. Looking around, she could tell that their tactic was working. Other candidates, those who were obviously first-timers, stared at them with clear fear. Anna wrote these people off as well. Anyone who fell for such a simple ploy wouldn’t make it very far.

Out of everyone in the room, no one stood out to her more than the last man she laid her eyes on. He was a tall figure with long golden locks tied behind his head in a loose ponytail. His chin was square and firm, as was the nose that went along with it. His eyes were sapphire gems that seemed to shine in the glow of the powerlines around them. He eyed everyone else with disdain. Could he be so confident that he was bored just looking at them?

Anna gulped down the lump in her throat. If push came to shove, and the test declared it necessary, she might have to face-off against him. She was confident that she’d push him, no matter what the task. In fact, she had no doubt that she could beat anyone else in the room with ease. But he presented a clear and present threat. If anyone would take her down, it would be him.

An hour passed. Everyone had finished their paperwork and taken a seat, leaving the desks empty. The woman from the front desk stood at the opposite end of the room and clapped. “Okay everyone, gather around!” she declared in an exhausted but booming voice. Two men fully clad in black E-Suits stood beside her, one of which was holding a holo-phone in his hand. “The exams are about to start! Chop-chop, let’s go!”

Excitement rippled through the crowd like a wave of electricity. Anna could practically hear the collective heart rates of everyone in the room escalate. She moved forward with the rest of the applicants, finding a spot in the middle of the crowd. The buzz of those around her permeated her ears.

“Settle down, settle down!” the woman continued, then waited for silence. When it finally came, she cleared her throat, put her hands behind her back and spoke again. “Ladies and gentlemen! We are the officials in charge of today’s test! I am Suzanne Melcroft. Today, your fate is in my hands!” a thin, sinister smile stretched across her pretty face. “I’d say that I’ll take it easy on you, but let’s be honest: we all know that that wouldn’t cut it!”

Several of the other candidates tried to swallow the lumps in their throats. Few succeeded. Others broke into a cold sweat. Anna felt an eager grin push her cheeks upwards. Melcroft could have been a lion and she wouldn’t have been scared. She saw it as yet another challenge. One that she was excited to overcome.

“Consider this your last warning!” Melcroft cackled, like a witch ushering two children into her candy house. “Come time for the later tests, we won’t be able to guarantee your health or safety. If you don’t think you’re up to the task, then leave now! There will be no shame in backing down now.” She paused. “Well, maybe a little.”

They waited for someone in the crowd to move. No one budged.

“Excellent!” she threw her hands into the air in an exaggerated motion. “With that, welcome to the gates of hell! The Order entrance exams will now begin!”

A cheer rushed through the candidates. Anna jumped in immediately, adding her voice to the cacophony of excitement and determination. Her voice was hard to hear over the others. But she simply screamed louder, so hard that it scratched her throat and burned her lungs, to ensure that she was heard.

Suzanne made a large motion with her arms, ushering the crowd into silence. “You all sure sound excited! Let’s see if that holds true after your first test! But the question is: what is your first test?!”

Anna held her hand to her beating heart. Whatever came next, she’d be ready for it. She’d prepared all her life for this, after all. Nothing they could throw her way would take her down.

“Your first test is…”

She braced herself and ran through the possibilities in her mind. It was too early for a brawl with the other candidates. Maybe the two men besides the announcer were going to attack, and they’d have to survive for a certain time? Or perhaps they’ll be taken outside the walls and set to hunt one of Verità’s numerous indigenous life forms! Either possibility made her smile. She braced herself.

“A SCAVENGER HUNT!!”

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