Chapter 8: The Second Test (Energia: Titans of Verità)

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

Making her way back into the lobby, she found an empty spot in the benches and let her weight fall onto it. She leaned her head against the wall and closed her eyes, letting her body catch its first real break of the day. Her lungs finally stopped burning, the taste of copper left her pallet, and she cleared the cotton out of her mouth. Unfortunately, she couldn’t dismiss the dull aching in her legs. That would likely be her companion for the rest of the day. Or the week.

When she was finally as rested as she would get, she took another look around to see what was left of her competition. She quickly noticed that well over half of the former crowd was gone. Those she took note of earlier were still around, including the confident American man, who was currently red in the face and taking long, deep breaths. Seeing him in that state put her mind at ease.

The Russian man sat in the corner opposite of her. He seemed incredibly well-rested compared to everyone else. How long had he been sitting there? The question erased any ease she had gotten before.

Now that there were fewer candidates, she managed to take note of a few more interesting competitors. Among them, there was a tall man with a head of messy black hair, dark skin, and onyx eyes. He laid back casually in his own space on the benches, closely observing everyone around him. His face was flushed and his breath was heavy, but he didn’t seem to care. In fact, he didn’t seem to care about anything. He simply stared into space as if he were sleeping with his eyes open.

He didn’t strike her as the most dangerous competitor. But he was certainly the most interesting. How could someone be so laid back during this test?

“Gather ‘round, everyone!” Melcroft called out over the thinned crowds. “Its time we get a move on! Come on, let’s go!” she casually strode through the hall towards the door on the left-hand side of the room. When she lifted her badge into the air, a blue light shone down the roof, gleaming across its golden surface. After a moment, the light changed from blue to green, and the door slid open with a loud clang. “Follow me!”

Anna felt another twinge of excitement and dread as she fell into line. Her thoughts ran wild with the possibilities for the next challenge. She had been stupid to have thought it would be anything simple. Whatever was coming next, she clearly won’t be ready for it if she thought logically. Order was clearly thinking outside of the box; she’d need to do the same if she wanted to pass.

They slowly curved around a long, smooth and black hallway, descending further into Order HQ. The glass windows slowly disappeared, leaving only slick sheened walls with lines of lightning blue energy. After about five minutes, they came to yet another metal door, which Melcroft opened as easily as before.

The doors swung open, revealing a wide, empty space as wide as an American football field. Rows of bleachers lined the walls on either side. A large circle of water encompassing over half the arena sat in the middle of the room, glistening with the light from the ceiling. Four Order Operatives stood before this pool, all of them armed with their own unique E-Suits. Each of them was so varied that none looked even remotely similar to the others. Seeing them made Anna smile from ear to ear in wonder.

Melcroft took her place in front of all of them. Despite her not being in a set of mechanical armor, she still seemed to tower over all the candidates, like the queen of devils. “In our last test, we challenged you on numerous aspects.” She explained. “We challenged your speed, problem-solving skills, time management abilities, knowledge on Unity, etc. Now, we’re going to see just how well you know your Veritàns!” she gestured dramatically to the pool. “Specifically, Veritàn fish.”

Her words made Anna’s heart soar straight up, through the atmosphere and right back to Earth. This was her element!. As a kid, Anna would sit on her lap and listen to her telling stories about her monster-slaying adventures. Then, after her mother was gone, Anna would read the data files she’d left behind to hone her knowledge. No way in hell was she going to lose! Out of all the things she’d practiced for,

“If you aim to become an Operative,” Melcroft continued “then you need to know about Verità’s locals. You need to know how they look and how they hunt. But most importantly: you’ve got to know how to hunt them.

It took everything in Anna’s power not to shout in delight. They may as well have handed her the victory on a silver platter.

“Beneath the water, you’ll find a simulation of a water-dwelling Veritàn creature. A highly authentic one, I might add. In fact, it’s so authentic that one of those very monsters lived in it for over a year!”

A ripple of anxiety shot through the crowds. Whispers rose up from behind her. “Do they want us to go in there with that thing?!” one of them said with thin, panicked breaths. “No way. There’s no way!” vented another. “They’re not that crazy!”

One of the E-Suit clad Operatives behind Melcroft raised a hand. Even from twenty feet away, Anna could hear the hum of power and the vibration of the metal plates. Her forearms tingled with goosebumps. If he were to just wave his hand, he would likely knock them all over with a wave of sheer force. Part of her wanted him to.

When silence came back to the chamber, Melcroft spoke again. “Relax! We’re not asking you to dive in there and get yourselves killed! We’ve removed the creature and put it in a secure holding cell. You won’t be in any danger. Hell, you’re unlike to even drown!” Behind her, an Operative clad in tall, spiked, yellow armor stepped forward and handed her something. Melcroft lifted it up and showed it to the crowd. “You’ll be given one of our state-of-the-art breathers, which will let you breathe down there for prolonged periods of time. You’ll also get a cozy and protective swimsuit and ten minutes of time. All things considered; this may be our most generous test today!

“Your task is simple. You’re going to dive into the water and examine the scene to identify the former owner of that little space. When you emerge, you’re going to approach these lovely folks behind me” she gestured widely to the Operatives behind her “and give them your answer.” Another man, a short fellow in a tank-like, green E-Suit held up a translucent blue sheet, which Anna assumed to be a holo-clipboard of sorts. “After everyone has had their go, we’ll announce the winners. But before all that, we do need to decide who goes first!”

As if on cue, her holo-phone shook gently in her pocket. A new message had arrived. As she opened the app to look, Anna braced herself for a long list of complicated instructions. However, all she found was a very short, one-line text. The number twenty-three stared up at her from the transparent screen. She heaved a sigh. Why couldn’t she go first?

“Let’s waste no time, shall we?” Melcroft cried like a sports announcer. “Contestant number one, please follow me to the green room! Everyone else, get cozy! We’ll get to you in due time!” She gave a wicked smile that sent chills down everyone’s spines, then turned to go.

Everyone waited for a moment, eager to see who would be going first. For a moment, Anna considered leaving them all behind and taking her seat first. But when she saw who was pushing to the front of the crowd, she had to pause. Of all the people, he had to be the first one up to plate?

The short, tank-like Operative looked down at his clipboard when he approached. “Alexander Frolov, correct?” he said in a thick, cockney accent.

“Alex.” The tall Russian spoke in an incredibly thick accent. “Alexander is long. I am Alex. Save time.” It was clear that English wasn’t his first language. Maybe it wasn’t even his second.

“Alex it is then.” The Operative slid his bulky finger along the holographic surface, jotting something down. “If you’d be so kind as to follow Ms. Melcroft into the changing room. We’ll have you ready to go within five minutes.”

Alexander smiled at this. “I ready in one.” He turned to face everyone else. For a moment, Anna felt his eyes meet hers. In him, she saw confidence, unlike anything she’d ever seen. Along with a dark, almost sad twinge of disappointment. “All you. Watch how real man does Order work.” With that, he strode around the pool, quickly caught up with Melcroft, whom he stood a full head taller than, and disappeared into the hallway.

When he was gone, numerous sighs of relief came up from the other contestants. Others looked at each other, asking things like “Is that guy serious?” and spitting insults like “Cocky asshole.” They began breaking away, each heading to a different side of the room. One man, who bumped shoulders with Anna as he passed, said: “I’m looking forward to beating that self-absorbed asshole!”

But Anna knew better. She knew that Alex wasn’t lying, and he was far from being cocky. It wasn’t being cocky when you could back it up. He had unstoppable confidence on his side. Luckily, this wouldn’t be a problem. Confidence was on her team too.

She wondered which of them had a stronger feeling. And she went on to wonder if, should they come to face one another, that would make the difference. No, she thought, don’t think about that. Right now, you need to think about making it past this test.

First, she looked around the stands where she sat. Practically everyone around her sat casually in their seats, completing their recuperation from the first test. Some were doing as she was and eyed the competition. All of them did so silently, without even sitting anywhere near anyone else. None of them seemed to pay the water any heed. All except for one.

The apathetic man she had taken note of earlier didn’t sit, but rather leaned against the guard rail and stared intently at the surface of the water. He stroked his chin thoughtfully, muttering something to himself too quietly for her to hear.  His eyes were shining like gemstones.

Curiosity overtook her. What was it that caught his attention, when nothing seemed to trouble him before? She pushed herself up from her seat and strolled over to him. Standing beside him, she cleared her throat to grab his attention. It didn’t work. Anna rolled her eyes. “What do you think?” she asked, practically yelling in his ear as she took the spot next to him on the railing.

He jumped so high that he nearly cleared the barrier. For a moment, it seemed like he was ready for a fight. But when he turned to face her, his expression softened from frightful and alert to confused and anxious. “I-I’m sorry?” he spoke in an accent that Anna could hardly recognize.

She struggled to identify it. Pakistani, perhaps? Whatever it was, it was a rarity in Unity. “What do you think?” she repeated herself more calmly this time, nodding her head towards the water. “You’re looking at that water like you’re about to ask it to prom. So, I’m curious. What are you thinking?”

He blushed. “I-I wasn’t looking at it like-” he cut himself off when he saw the look on Anna’s face. “Alright, fine. Maybe I was. But it is a fascinating test, don’t you think?” he turned back to look at the water, smiling. “Studies have shown that over sixty percent of Verità’s unique life forms live under the water! Each one has its own completely unique methods of hunting prey, avoiding predators, and making homes for themselves! There could be any number of things living down there! It could be a-”

The man stopped. The door opposite from where they came in slid open, and out emerged Alex Frolov. For a moment, Anna felt herself blush. He was tall, masculine and currently dressed only in a large pair of swim trunks. But when she saw the scars, her mild infatuation turned into horrified disgust.

His chest alone was decorated with more damage than there was clean skin. There were dozens of small laceration marks, along with long scars that clearly came from a very sharp object. Those were scarce and mostly located on his back. But most frequent and horrifying were the wide, pale, and wrinkled burn marks. Those were displayed on his chest, replacing any possible hair he could have had.

Barefoot, and only armed with a small black tube in his mouth, Alex dived headfirst into the water. Everyone in the room stood up from their seats and went straight to the railing. Both Anna and the man she was speaking to silently agreed to put their discussion on hold. The cold atmosphere became one of intense awe.

For a split second, Anna wondered how long it would take. Depending on the creature, a nest could take hours to identify. More often than not, an Operative would find out what lived there after they had met and killed it, rather than by digging around whatever dank cave it lived in. She very nearly started to run through the different oceanic life to make her calculations.

But before she could even begin, the surface of the water broke again, and Alex emerged. His golden ponytail now sat like a wet lump against his shoulders, though a few strands matted his forehead. After rubbing water off of them, he opened his sapphire eyes and took a quick look around. Without asking for a towel, or waiting for one to arrive, he crossed the wide, open space to the judges. As he passed, Anna managed to catch a brief glimpse at his face. He had a long, thin smile on his face.

He said something to them too quiet for anyone else to hear, and then he was gone. Without waiting for a response from the judges, he left through the door to the changing room, leaving a trail of dripping footsteps behind him. Both the judges and the crowd watched him go in stunned silence.

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