Energia

Chapter 10: One Step Closer (Energia: Titans of Verità)

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

She didn’t dare move. If she did, she’d die. Had it caught her scent? Or was she safe, because it wasn’t her blood? No, that couldn’t be it. As far as it was concerned, it may as well have been hers. Nothing else was bleeding down here. Not unless one of the previous candidates was having more problems than they’d let on.

The Mangiacarne sat as still as the stones it had pushed aside. Anna was certain it had noticed her. Their noses put a dozen bloodhounds to shame! How could it not have spotted her? Was it full? No, that definitely wasn’t it. Even through the monster’s blanket of sand, she could tell it was underfed. By all leaps of logic, it should be chomping at the bit!

Her mind was blank. Could she just swim upwards without disturbing it? Or should she just stay there until an Operative came to check on her? That wasn’t an option, she decided. She couldn’t risk failing the test. Even if she was only a few feet away from death.

It was either risk being eaten or face the Chief’s wrath back home. It didn’t take her long to pick her poison.

Anna pushed upwards towards the light. Each stroke seemed to be as loud as a gunshot. She moved faster and harder with each passing second. The light grew closer and closer. Her panic reached from her stomach to the top of her throat. Get out, she thought. Just get out of here!

Beneath her, she could hear the monster stir. A deep, ragged growl bubbled upwards as it shifted uncomfortably beneath the sand. She could hear the beast’s stomach growling faintly through the depths. She pushed herself to go faster.

This proved to be a terrible mistake. Halfway up the exit, Anna thought to propel herself further by pushing off of the walls, as if she were launching herself like a rocket. She grabbed hold of the loose stones, planted her feet, and sent herself up. However, all she accomplished was a short, small burst of speed and sending a cluster of rocks falling through the water.

That should be fine, she thought. They’re only falling towards… a napping monster.

Her panic evolved into blinding terror. She turned around and plunged after them, hoping to catch them. But she was too late. The smaller pieces of rubble landed gently without much noise. However, the largest of them all, which was the size of everything from her waist to her head, landed directly on the Mangiacarne with a muffled boom!

The monster immediately flew into a rampage, throwing the boulder aside as if it were a pebble. Its glowing red eyes blazed back to life, then fixed itself onto Anna. With a single, powerful swing of its body, the creature shook the sand off of it and made for her. Its jaw slowly widened as it made its approach.

She got her first good look at the monster as it approached. Its scales shifted from a bright yellow, which matched the sand it was blanketed in, to a sickening green. Its jaws suffered from a major overbite, as its fangs were longer than the beast’s entire head. The venom dripping from the canines sent the water around it into a boil.

Her heart froze, then broke into a frenzy. She turned back to the light and started swimming upwards as quickly as she could. The water rushed past her, consuming all other sounds with a dull whoosh! She used the jagged stones in the walls around her to pull herself up further and faster. But it didn’t matter what she tried; the beast still gained on her. She felt like a dog trying to outrun a car. It widened its jaws to strike.

The adrenaline made way for another single, clear thought. She racked her memory, returning to her mother’s office and flipping through her files. The Mangiacarne was deadly, but it was big and slow to turn. That was why it relied on the element of surprise; otherwise, it wouldn’t be able to catch its prey. And if the predator’s next meal were to get around it…

Anna grasped the sides of the wall once again. Only this time, she didn’t propel herself upwards. Rather, she launched herself towards the other wall, passing over the Mangiacarne’s head just as it snapped its massive teeth. It sluggishly wheeled its body around towards her in pursuit, but she was already swimming in a circle around it at a quick and even pace. Together, they danced gently in a circle as they rose.

When they were nearing the top, Anna realized that she had another problem: she couldn’t get out in time. By the time she gripped the top and pulled herself up, the monster would have taken a leg. If it got that, she may as well be dead. The venom would kill her by the end of the hour at worst. At best, she’d be paralyzed for life and one-leg down. If she was going to end up in German prison, then she was going to do it with both legs.

She circled the Mangiacarne, mustering her courage with each pass. Then, when her head pounded and her lungs started burning, she grabbed onto the beast’s fin and, with as much force as she could muster, drove her fist in-between its clearly defined bones. It flailed in pain, breaking the surface of the water with each movement. Anna continued her assault, praying to any god that would listen for her grip to hold true.

Finally, the animal’s flailing began to slow. Opportunity shined brighter than the sun, and Anna refused to let it pass. She gave the monster one final punch with an aching, blistering hand, then planted her feet on its side. With one final, desperate push, she bounced off of the creature and broke the surface of the water. Spitting out the breather, she screamed “HELP!” as she clambered back onto solid ground. Just as she broke free and started scrambling away, the Mangiacarne snapped up from the water and chomped at the air where she lay.

The three Operatives still in the room, the short green one, the tall woman in blue, and the tall man in yellow, all leaped immediately into action. Anna felt the air rush around her in three ways as they dashed over her with enough speed to break through a mountain. The yellow and blue Operatives kicked the beast in the head, knocking its upper body onto the metal floor. The green Operative wrapped his arms around it, then lifted it into the air as if it were as light as paper. His two compatriots drew small, black pistols and unloaded a complete magazine into the monster’s stomach. Shocked cries rang through the entire audience on either side with each shot fired. Anna felt like her eardrums had been hit by a sledgehammer after every round. The bullets ripped straight through, leaving half a dozen holes the size of her fists in its side and bouncing off of their friend’s armor. With a gurgling cry of agony, the oversized carnivore gave its final struggle. Then it finally went limp.

Despite its obvious death, Anna couldn’t bring herself to move. The Operative in green dropped the corpse onto the surface, then began wiping away at the dark purple blood that had drenched his armor. He nudged the monster casually with his foot as if he were pushing a disgusting dog toy off of the carpet. Then he and his two compatriots went over to Anna. The blue Operative kneeled down and put a hand on her shoulder. The other two simply stood and stared at her.

Anna laughed nervously. “Um… Do I still have to guess?”

******

To her surprise, they didn’t keep her for questioning very long. After she told them what she found in the tunnels and how she managed to avoid getting killed, they let her go without a hitch. A few minutes later, she found herself sitting on a bench in an empty white room, surrounded by all the other applicants that had attempted before her. All of them were staring at her.

Well, at least they were distracted. Though she doubted how effective it would be at this stage in the game.

She started to look through the crowds, looking for familiar faces. It didn’t take long to find them. The man she was speaking to earlier was one of the only ones not staring at her. Instead, he simply sat in the corner and stared up at the ceiling. His former apathy had returned. He was muttering something to himself beneath his breath. She chalked it up to nerves.

Alexander Frolov, on the other hand, refused to take his eyes off of her. He stroked his chin thoughtfully, reaching for whiskers that weren’t there. His eyes seemed to be shining. A big, childlike smile was plastered on his face.

She met his gaze. She saw many things in him; excitement, curiosity, and overwhelming confidence. She wondered what it was he saw in her. Given how his face brightened up even further, he seemed to like it.

The attention on her faded as time passed. Candidates trickled in, one after another, each less confident than the one that came before them. Anna overheard them talking about how the Operatives had to relocate everyone to a different simulation chamber after the monster got loose. After two hours, the American she had taken note of came into the room. He seemed to be on the less confident side.

Three hours after Anna’s turn came and went, and everyone had been filtered into the room. Melcroft came in with the last candidate, bearing her familiar, sinister smile. The short, green-armored man arrived with her, holding something behind his back with both hands. She waved at Anna, then started clapping slowly. “Well, that got interesting!” she was a few steps away from cackling. “Before we get the show back on the road, we’d like to take a moment to deeply apologize to Ms. Ironchase for the near-death at the fins of a carnivorous fish! But on the bright side, now she’s proven herself to be a cut above the rest of you! Again!”

She could feel the angry stares of her peers on her like a burning knife against her skin. She thought about giving them a confident smile, but she decided it would be better to not make any more enemies. She’d already dealt with the police, mystery attackers, and a giant fish. It wasn’t worth provoking the others. Though she was sure that, given enough time, she’d be able to win them over. Unfortunately, it wasn’t time anyone had.

“That’s not fair!” a particularly bitter man in the back of the room shouted in a German accent. It must have been one of her ‘fans’ from back home. “It was just a big fish! We all could’ve done the same thing!”

“Yeah!” a French woman pitched in. “She’s no better than we are!”

A further uproar followed. Soon enough, almost everyone in the room was complaining that they were just as good, if not better than Anna. She felt her desire to shout at them rise in her chest. She wanted to stand up and fight back, if for no other reason than to make them shut up. At this point, she only wanted to move on to the next test.

Alexander stood up, silencing the room instantly. He looked over the room with disgust. “You think you do better?” he hissed. Even with his broken English, his malice was tangible. “Go on then! Go fight Mangiacarne unprepared! See how well that do you! When they send your corpse back to Earth, I am there to make sure everyone knows that you die stupid and arrogant. Meanwhile, she’ll become Operative and laugh at your grave.”

For a moment, the particularly angry members of the crowd were about to turn on him. But when Melcroft spoke again, they reluctantly fell silent. “Thank you all for your input! One was good, and the others were about on-par with a temper tantrum! Make sure you think about that for the next test!” she held up the holographic clipboard and waved it about gently. “Speaking of which: let’s see who gets to take that!”

The fury of the candidates immediately died. Everyone leaned in to pay attention. Anna still felt frustrated and annoyed at being singled-out once again, but she set that aside. This was far more important.

Both Alex’s name and hers were almost called immediately. Then came a shortlist of other names. Anna tried to take this opportunity to learn more names. But there were more than she had expected, and she quickly lost track of them all as Melcroft burned through the list. Nevertheless, she tried to learn as many as she could.

“Eitan Avidan!” Melcroft called next. In the corner, the man Anna had spoken to sighed and eased his shoulders. “Tommy Decker!” she announced next. The American man she had taken note of gave a much more energetic response, leaping up and pumping his fists wildly. She grinned. They seemed like they’d be fun. Hopefully, she wouldn’t ruin their chances when she beat them down.

After this, Melcroft continued to announce names for another five minutes. Then, she tossed the hologram aside, clapped her hands loudly, and gave an obviously fake frown of sympathy. “Our deepest apologies for those of you that didn’t pass. But, if I may be blunt, that’s what happens when you don’t bother keeping up with the news!” her evil smile returned, and she gestured to the door. “My compatriots will guide you out. Bye-bye!”

Anna frowned. All around her, those who had been rejected, some of whom had been complaining about her, were all grumbling loudly to make their issues heard. While she couldn’t deny that it was satisfying, she couldn’t get over the questions. Why was Melcroft acting this way? It was hardly mature, and it was far from charming. In any other field, she would have been fired a long time ago for poor behavior. Among other things.

She’s distracting us, Anna realized. She’s trying to get under our skin. She wants to throw us off our game!

Looking around, Anna realized that she was succeeding. Several of the remaining contestants were muttering among themselves, making their grievances with Melcroft and her behavior quietly known. She looked back to the sinister official; she was looking around as well, scanning them with hungry eyes. Her smile was so wide that Anna feared it would split her face in two.

Order only took the best of the best. Therefore, the one who selected them had to know how to separate the greats from those who were less. Up to now, it was clear that Melcroft had enjoyed her job. But now, Anna could see that she was just as good at it.

When the furious riffraff had emptied the room, Melcroft looked to the man beside her and nodded. He immediately returned the gesture. “Now then!” she clapped three times in a quick rhythm. “Let’s begin the third test, shall we? Operative David, please show the lovely people what they’ll need to do!”

Everyone in the room immediately sat up. The remaining attention that plagued Anna evaporated completely. Only the elite remained from the massive crowd that had been there at the beginning of the day. They were the best, and they all knew what was coming next. There were forty people left; this next test would cut them down to at least a fourth that much. Even that was a generous estimate.

Nevertheless, Anna couldn’t help but be excited. Her fingernails dug into her knees. Her confidence was at an all-time high. This time for sure, she’d be ready for anything they could throw at her!

The green-clad Operative, David, swirled his arms around, revealing the item he was concealing to the room. “Your next test” he announced in a thick English accent “is this!” He held up a large, golden circle. Steam rose from the small slits on the roof of the pastry.

Anna recognized it immediately. She tilted her head. Why the hell was he holding an apple pie?

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