Chapter 9: Home Invader (Energia: Titans of Verità)

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

It didn’t take long for the onlookers to start moving again. Shortly after Alexander was gone, one of the judges cleared his throat and asked for the second applicant in the queue to step forward. A long moment of silence passed, then the second man stepped forward and into the hallway. This seemed to snap everyone else into motion, and they all made their way back to their seats immediately.

Only now, the room was far from silent. Quiet murmurs filled the hall, all of it in complete disbelief. Some called foul, others accused Alex of not taking the test seriously, and even some hypothesized that he was potentially cheating. No one directed these whispers to anyone else; they simply talked to themselves, as if to put up a wall between them and the others. A wall that said “I’m better than that guy, so be afraid of me instead!” in big, bold, and bright red font.

Anna knew better. There was no way that Alex had cheated, and he was taking the test just as seriously as everyone else. Whatever waited down there, beneath the currently calm water, he managed to identify it within seconds. His knowledge on the matter was clearly greater than anyone else in the room. As much as she hated to admit it, not even she could match that.

Even with everything else that had happened today, and everything that was going to come, this single realization angered Anna beyond compare. She had expected him to be good ever since she laid eyes on him, but she didn’t expect him to be unstoppable! Even in the one category that she was exceptionally confident in, that mysterious Russian had her thoroughly beat! She had hoped that she had overestimated him earlier, but both this and the first test proved the exact opposite. It didn’t matter how good she thought he was. He was clearly better.

The man she spoke to earlier was the only one who didn’t seem to care about any of that. He watched intently as the next contestant dove into the water. “Interesting…” he muttered quietly. “It must be one of the larger creatures if it took that long. Or maybe more than one creature lived down there, and they didn’t mention it…” his voice trailed off, becoming too quiet for Anna to hear.

She considered talking to him again, but she dismissed the thought. He was clearly very focused, despite his earlier lackadaisical behavior. It would be rude to distract him any more than she had. He was going to be her competition soon enough. She wanted him to be in the best condition possible. It wouldn’t be fun otherwise.

Seven minutes passed and the second contestant reemerged. Unlike his predecessor, he clearly wasn’t even remotely confident. He seemed to sulk over to the judges, then took a long time to say anything to them. The instant he was finished speaking, he went back through the doors and disappeared. The judges jotted something down and called for the third contestant.

“Alright!” the man beside her stood straight up and slapped his cheeks. He was fairly scrawny, at least in comparison to everyone else in the room, so Anna was surprised by how loud the clap was. His face was reddened when he was finished. “Wait for me, fishy! Let me see what you’ve got!” he dashed like a child running to the Christmas tree. He didn’t seem to notice any of the condescending stares he got along the way. If he did, he didn’t seem to care.

With her only company now gone, Anna returned to her seat and waited. The atmosphere had become cold and silent. She considered finding someone else to talk to, but she knew it would be a waste of time. None of them would meet her eye as she looked at them. It was clear that it had become an ‘every man for himself’ situation.

She was fine with this, of course. At this stage in the game, having help would only hurt her position. Just this once, she’d have to go along with everyone else. It seemed to be the best course of action.

Though, had she known how things would shake up during her turn, she’d likely have asked for help in advance. Looking back, she wondered if anyone would have stepped up. But considering how her turn would end, she doubted they would. And she could hardly blame them.

Her new friend’s turn came and went with little incident. He dove into the water with ecstatic glee and left it with nervous excitement. Judging from the smile, Anna guessed that he knew what was down there. There was little doubt in her mind that she’d be seeing him again later down the line. Though she hoped it wouldn’t be as an enemy. It would be fun, but she disliked the idea of crushing him beneath her heel. He seemed nice.

As he passed through the doors, Anna noticed something off that she had missed earlier. One of the Operatives was staring at her. She couldn’t see his face, as it was hidden beneath a bulky, red helmet. But his gaze was definitely locked on her.

They met eyes. His visor, which covered the entirety of his face, glowed with a dim red light. Then, as if he were waiting for her to notice, he averted his gaze and walked away. He entered the doorway right after the fourth contestant passed through, disappearing into the hallway. The short, green Operative seemed to ask him something. When he got his answer, he nodded sagely.

Anna put the issue out of her mind, chalking it up to an odd creeper. She focused back on the test. Think, she thought, what could be down there? Or, more accurately, what was down there?

The time during and between each round of testing began to pass in slow, tedious droves. One person would go, then another, and the number would slowly rise towards her turn. Each one took between five to the full ten minutes. Every second of them felt like a thousand years. All the while, Anna ran through as many possibilities as she could. She had the feeling that they were in vain, but it couldn’t hurt to try.

Then, at last, the judges called for her. She tried to play it cool as she made for the doorway, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that everyone around her had noticed that her legs were trembling. What they didn’t realize was that it wasn’t fear that made her shake. It was sheer excitement.

One of the judges, a tall woman in a blue suit with a tall helmet, led her through a long, black corridor and into a small room off to the right-hand side. It was a small room, containing only a small metal bench, a tall metal locker, and a pair of black towels hanging on the wall opposite her. A plain, unrevealing swimsuit was folded neatly in the center of the bench. A small, black breathing device sat on top of it; a state-of-the-art Order oxygen tank.

Looking at the suit, she couldn’t help but feel disappointed. With a more revealing suit, she was confident that she’d have impressed everyone. If nothing else, she could distract them. Plus, it would have been far more comfortable. And fun.

She quickly threw her clothes into the locker and slid into the beachwear. It was tight but surprisingly comfortable. As soon as she was dressed, she went back through the hall and into the chamber. She could feel everyone’s eyes on her. The suit hid her finer qualities, but it did put a strong emphasis on her thighs. How many of them were blushing?

I take it back, she thought. This suit is great!

She stood at the edge of the water, staring intently into the depths. A smile crept across her face. It’s time to go. The breather turned on with a quiet click, and she sunk her teeth into the grooves on the side. Taking a deep, steady breath, she elegantly dove into the water.

After her vision cleared, she took a look around. It was a small cavern, with two tunnels leading off to either side. A blanket of sand cloaked the floor, though an occasional stone peaked out from beneath it. Small, glowing orbs drifted through the water, illuminating the cave. The water around her was still and cold, biting into her skin like a million needles.

Anna spun as she slowly descended. She considered heading down either way for further investigation, but she stopped herself. If Alex figured it out as quickly as he did, then everything she needed was right there. She just needed to look around.

Her feet sunk into the sand when she touched down. That couldn’t be right. Everywhere else around her, the sand was solid and smooth. But here, it was ragged and uneven, as if she were walking down the side of a mountain. She kneeled down and pushed it away. What was she standing on?

The stones beneath the sand had been smashed away, making a deep and wide indent in the floor. Broken stones filled the gap, but she could make the shape out around them. It was the size of an above-average bodybuilder, but it was wide and curved. A small, curved blade, around the size of her chest, stuck from the bottom of the outline. Was that… a fin?

Dozens of Veritàn fish swam into mind. The Cervelo-Mignolo and Gelatino immediately left for other seas; they were equivalent to an Earth squid and a jellyfish respectively. No way could they have made that. Besides, it wasn’t in their nature to burrow beneath the sand. Not to mention that they weren’t nearly as large as this thing.

Then it clicked. If she weren’t relying on a breather to keep her alive, she’d likely have cheered. She knew exactly what this was! A large fish that buried beneath the sand after breaking the rocks? It could only be a Mangiacarne!

Her excitement quickly turned into relief. Melcroft wasn’t kidding; if they had left that thing in there with them, the casualty count wouldn’t just be high. It would be complete! Between its size, nigh perfect camouflage and toxic fangs, which would pierce from Anna’s shoulder down to her knees, a Mangiacarne was, without a doubt, one of the deadliest sea creatures of Verità. Without an E-Suit, not even she would be able to beat it. All she would accomplish was earning the title of ‘prettiest snack’.

She kicked off and swam back up to the surface. Confidence inflated further and further within her with each kick. Sure, she didn’t make the same time that some of her competition did. But she passed. There could be no doubt about it! As far as she was concerned, that was all she needed.

A quiet click dully reverberated from the tunnel ahead of her. She stopped, a seed of curiosity sprouting in her chest. Given how quickly she solved the puzzle, she surely had the time to check it out. Especially if it was something dangerous. She’d figure out what it was and tell the officials about it. She didn’t want anyone to get hurt, after all. That would leave a bad taste in her mouth.

Her body shifted in the water, and she pushed forward into the tunnel ahead. The path curved roughly back and forth, then dipped into a low, round chamber. A large, glass door roofed the chamber. That must lead to the Mangiacarne’s holding cell! Anna realized.

Immediately after having this epiphany, she came to another, though this one was significantly more blood-chilling. There was a large hole in the glass. Shards had settled on the stone floor just beneath her feet. A gentle flow brushed through her drifting hair and through the passage she had come from.

A chill coursed through her body like a poison. The breather nearly fell from her mouth, but she quickly clenched her jaw shut again. Panic rose in her chest. Stay calm, she told herself with a deep breath. Whatever you do, don’t freak out! You’re just in an underwater cavern with a carnivorous monster! Which has poisonous fangs longer than your entire torso and sharp enough to pierce your bones like… okay, stop thinking! Thinking is bad!

She quickly decided to stop thinking altogether. If she swam as quickly as possible, she could get out safely. A Mangiacarne was bulky and slow, whereas she was small and quick. If she bolted… yes, this would work! It had to! Otherwise, she was bound to end up as alien chow.

The image lit an extra fire under her. She spun around as quickly as the water would allow, then swam with all her might. Her surroundings rushed past her in a blue blur. She’d been in there so long that she was starting to feel numb. That’s not a problem, she told herself. Just go. If you get out before it knows you’re here, then you can handle being cold.

Through her rising terror, a single thought broke through. How did a Mangiacarne detect its prey again? Could it feel them through vibrations in the water? No, that wasn’t right. What little part of her that could still think flipped through the files at breakneck speed. It had something to do with smell…

Then she remembered. Her body came to a sudden halt in the central chamber. It was the scent of blood. Like the spot that she’d had in the back of her hair for the last hour.

Her breath became too fast for the breather to keep up with, and she found herself sucking down nothing. Her eyes darted around so quickly that she became dizzy. Where was it? Had it already hidden? Was it hiding in the walls? The sand?

A small trail of bubbles rose up from beneath the floor, brushing against her skin. The yellow grains shifted back and forth, then came to a halt. A bright red eye glowed up from beneath the surface for a moment, then went dark.

Anna swallowed the lump in her throat. Found it.

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