Chapter 6: Scramble (Energia: Titans of Verità)

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

Maybe she wasn’t as ready as she had thought.

Apparently, neither was anyone else. Confused mutters coursed through the crowds, along with a few quiet sighs of relief. Everyone had the same, one-word question. But only of them, an American teenager standing in the back was bold enough to ask it aloud. “Seriously?”

Melcroft already had a sinister smile. But as she looked around, it only grew wider. By the time she spoke again, her cheeks almost seemed to be achieving lift-off from her face. “Don’t write this off as easy just yet!” she told them wickedly. She looked to her companion on the right and nodded. He tapped the see-through screen on his holo-phone a few times and returned the gesture.

Anna felt her own holo-phone buzzing in her pocket. She drew the small, silver rod out, pressed the on switch on the side, and the screen came to life. It notified her with a small, dancing blue icon that she had gotten a message. Opening the app, then tapping on the unrecognized ID, she pulled up a shortlist of ten items. Through the corner of her eye, she could see everyone else doing the same.

“It wouldn’t be much of a scavenger hunt without a list, now would it?” Melcroft rubbed her hands together maniacally. “Go on. Give it a look!”

Scanning it quickly, Anna was almost driven to laugh by the sheer mundanity of everything on it. The list had ten items, including an apple pie, a fresh packet of English tea, a sizzling bratwurst, a prop katana, a sedge hat, a cheap bottle of vodka, a kippah, half of a fresh baguette, a prop Unity flag and a prop Order flag. Beneath all that, the words ‘one hour’ were written in bold, blinking letters.

“The rules are simple,” Melcroft announced after giving everyone a moment to read. “Order will forward one hundred credits to each of you, which you’ll use to pay for the items and transportation from Sector to Sector. If you get five of the items on your list and return within the hour, you move on to the next test. Simple, right?”

On the surface, it seemed to be so. The bullet trains connecting the Sectors could get them from one to the next within five minutes, or eight if they take the high-speed tracks to get to one on the other side of the city. In fact, two of the items, the prop flags, could be bought from a tourist stall right here in the Central Sector! If she hurried, she could be back with ten minutes to spare!

Anna scowled at this. It seemed entirely possible. Easily so. How was this a test? So long as you could run fast, this one would be in the bag. Could it really be that simple?

At the front of the room, the two Operatives in E-Suits entered the crowd, handing out large, black canvas bags to everyone they came across. “We thought you would need these!” Melcroft grinned. “There’s more than enough space for each of the items in there. Consider them a gift!”

The holo-phone buzzed again in her hand. A notification appeared in the corner of her screen, alerting her that one-hundred credits had been transferred into her bank account. If Anna weren’t stressed and confused, she’d likely celebrate the fact that she’s richer than she’d ever been.

Her already short-lived excitement came to an abrupt end. The timer at the bottom changed colors from black to red. The digits slowly shifted from sixty to fifty-nine. Anna felt her blood turn colder than the arctic.

“Well, get going!” Suzanne shouted suddenly. “No rest for the wicked! Run!”

For a moment, the whole room was still and silent. Then, just as the fifty-nine became solid and started to fade, all hell broke loose. Everyone in the crowd surged forward, funneling through the arches on either side of the front desk towards the exit. They all became tightly entangled with one another, fighting to break free before the others. As they pushed over one-another, they slowed the flow to a halt.

Heat began to fill Anna’s lungs with her each breath as more bodies pressed against each other. Several different elbows were pressing against her stomach, bruising her ribs. The stench of sweat slowly became stronger, gradually making her stomach twist. A cacophony of shouting and different demands blended together in her ears, coming across as loud and annoying static.

She realized that this was as much a part of the test as the scavenger hunt; if she couldn’t find a way past her fellow candidates, then she’d lose a lot of precious time. Waiting patiently for the crowd to disperse would be her undoing. Her mind ran wild, searching for a way out.

Evidently, her noted competition had the same thought. Some used sheer force to power through the crowds, while others bobbed and weaved smoothly through the small gaps between bodies at high speeds. Several of them broke through well ahead of everyone else, then proceeded to mockingly wave the others goodbye as they left. This only further rustled everyone’s feathers, and the archways became even more claustrophobic than before as they tried to mimic them.

Equal frustration boiled in Anna’s stomach. She quickly tried to think of an efficient method of getting past her current opposition. But in the end, she simply decided to go with brute force. Sometimes the simplest solutions were the best ones, after all.

Most of the time, this logic failed her completely. This time, however, it didn’t just fail. It completely backfired. Everyone she tried pushing past pushed back with equal force. She did make small progress, yes. But in the end, she could only make a few extra steps of progress. Then, she was right back where she was. Only now, she had a few extra bruises to go along with them.

Defeated, Anna went back to the drawing board and took a look around. As she had moved with the slow, clumsily shifting masses, she had reached the side of the front desk. It was a short furnishing, only about as tall as her waist. The black metal surface was coursing with lines of blue energy.

An idea bloomed in her head. She planted one heel on its surface, she pushed her full weight on it and propelled herself upwards. As she planted herself on the metal, her now empty spot in the messy line was immediately filled. She muttered a quiet apology and leaped.

Cries of pain and fury rang out from beneath her feet as she jumped from person to person. But she left them behind well before they could reach her; if she paused, even for a second, she’d fall right back into the sea. Her only option was to keep surfing the tide. Which meant she couldn’t stop moving for anything.

She planted her boots on the heads, shoulders or both of everyone in her path, using them to propel herself forward. Her balance nearly collapsed with each leap, but she used the other heads around her to balance herself out. Ignoring the outcries of anger she left in her wake, Anna continued to repeat the cycle of jumping, stumbling and balancing over and over again. When she reached the exit, she sunk back into the waves and let them carry her beneath the doorframe and out of the building.

When she was finally free, she broke away from the dispersing crowd to her own, quiet spot beneath the dome’s shadow. She checked the list again; upon second viewing, she started to wonder if there was some reason for the madness or if the person who put it together was hungry that day. At the bottom of the glowing page, the timer clicked down from fifty-five to fifty-four minutes. That could wait.

Right away, she put aside the bratwurst. If she went back to the German Sector, something made her doubt she’d be coming back. Or at least, she’d have an unnecessarily hard time getting the item in question. She also threw out the idea of the vodka bottle, as it was likely for the older candidates. For a moment, she considered going to grab the two flags, as those were the closest. But when she saw the crowd fighting over each other once again to get to the transport platform, where most tourist stands would be found, she decided against it. The last thing she wanted was to go head-surfing again.

She recalled the maps of Unity that her father had in his desk. If memory served her correctly, then the Sector order, from north to west onward, was: America, UK, Germany, Russia, France, China, Japan, and Israel. If she planned her routes carefully, she could pass through them and back in one smooth arc. With that, she knew which items she would gun for, and she dashed towards the train station.

There was very little opposition along the way, aside from a few runners heading in the same direction and a few surprised pedestrians. Following her other competitors, Anna turned the corner and came to a tall set of stairs. Peering up, she could see a large, silver bullet train laying in wait. A mechanical, female voice echoed “Departing for the French Sector in one minute.”

Anna bolted straight up the stairs, quickly slid her holo-phone across the access terminal, which then lit up in bright green to signal that she’d been granted access, and ran straight through the sliding doors just as they slammed shut. The train picked up speed and departed, picking up speed almost immediately. She finally let herself catch her breath. It was a mild challenge, given how claustrophobic the small space in the compartment was. But considering what was to come, it was enough.

Through the glass, Anna could see the scenery blur. The plain black buildings slowly faded into a gross smudge, which quickly transitioned into a white, black and gray smudge. On any other day, she would take in the scenery, if for no other reason than to have something to talk about with her father. But that day was not today. She was far too busy.

She bolted through just as the doors opened, opening the translator app on her holo-phone as she moved. She’d wish that she spoke a lick of French, but modern technology had her covered. As soon as the screen lit up with the ‘speak to translate’ instructions, she dashed to the nearest passerby. “Entschuldigung!” she practically shouted, hoping that using German would draw more attention than her preferred English. When it was clear she had his startled attention, she lifted the device between the two of them and spoke again. “Where can I find a baguette straight out of the oven?”

For a moment, the Frenchman stared at her in confusion. Then, when he saw the words translated on the screen in front of him, he pointed down the stairs and spoke in long, elegant French. On the blue screen, the words came into English, reading: “Bakery around the corner. The wife and I like to get all our goods from there. They should have a fresh batch coming out by now.”

In the bottom corner, the timer clicked from forty-nine to forty-eight. Without giving the man so much as a ‘thank you’, Anna practically rolled down the steps, following her new guidance. Almost as soon as she turned the corner, coming onto a crowded street that was immediately recognizable as the market district, she caught the familiar scent of baked bread. All that was left was to follow her nose, push past a few of her competitors, and fork over the credits. The baker handed her the warm loaf with an equally warm smile, telling her something in French that she assumed to be ‘please come again.’

On another day, she would have enjoyed the look of confusion on his face when she split the baguette in half. Unable to think of what to do with it, she simply tossed it to the other competitors and shouted “Fröhliche Weihnachten!” and charged back to the trains. Just as she arrived, the mechanical woman announced “Departing for the Chinese Sector in two minutes.”

With time finally taking a turn in her favor, Anna slowed to a brisk walk and took her spot on the train. She slowed her breath as the doors slid closed. A wide smile crossed her face. One item down. If she kept this pace, the test would be a piece of cake.

For a while, it seemed to be just that. She quickly passed through the Chinese and Japanese Sectors, picking up a sedge hat and a small prop katana along the way, both from small pawn shops on the outer edge of their market districts. By the time she was on her way to the Israeli Sector, she was down to thirty-six credits and thirty-three minutes.

At this point, the fatigue was starting to set in. She shifted her weight from one leg to the other, trying to relieve the aching pain in her muscles. Sweat had drenched her clothes, forcing her to hide her white tank top beneath the black leather. Her mouth tasted like she had just swallowed a handful of pennies. Her throat mirrored the feeling. Hammering heartbeats drummed in her ears, blocking out most other sounds. Every part of her body screamed for her to rest. But her grin never disappeared. With each item that she added to her collection, she could feel her drive came back to life.

As the train began to slow, Anna took the time to look around. For the first time all day, her compartment wasn’t filled to bursting. Most of the ocean blue seats, which were made from a fine and likely expensive leather, were empty. Her only company was a trio of men dressed in simple black suits. All of whom were staring at her.

She frowned. Despite her good looks, people didn’t often give her looks if they could help it. The few who did usually focused on her hips or breasts. But these men met her eyes. Normally, Anna would mockingly flirt to make fun of them. But she felt uncomfortable looking at them. Something told her that they weren’t staring because they were into sweaty women.

One of them stood from his seat, brushed off his suit, and approached her. He was a tall, lean man, towering over her with a full head and a half of height. His onyx eyes looked her over several times. “Are you Anna Ironchase?” he said in a ragged German accent. His voice was as sharp as broken glass and just as cold.

Her body stiffened. How did he know her name? “Maybe.” She said slowly, bracing herself. “What if I am?”

Behind the man, all of his friends stood up. He sighed, pulling a small black box from his jacket. “Sorry to have to do this.” He flicked a small switch, and the box came to life with blue electricity. “I’ll make it quick for you.” With that, he grabbed her by the shoulder and drove the small, sparking box directly into her stomach.

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