Chapter 26: The Height of the Mountain

Normally, Anna was quick to shower. She preferred to keep it fast, though she was always thorough. What time she saved cleaning was spent picking out the best from her wardrobe immediately afterwards. Today, however, Anna took her sweet time. Not just because her hair was a filled with so much wax it was practically a candle. But because the water felt like a miracle on her battered body.

The last hour still didn’t feel real to her. After she had cleared the obstacle course, Melcroft had told her to clean up and take the rest of the day off. Before, she would’ve complained and demanded for something else to do. But considering that she looked like a cheaply made statue? She decided a day off would be nice.

As she passed through the training hall, she was quickly surrounded by the other trainees and the crowd. Cara had pulled her into a tight, uncomfortable embrace, which she immediately broke out of when she realized that she’d gotten her own clothes caked in filth. Tommy tried to do the same, laughing that he didn’t care if he got a little messy, but he retreated when Anna gave him a murderous stare. Eitan and Sal gave her space, choosing rather to applaud then to go for an embrace. She appreciated that far more than anything else.

She caught sight of Alex before she was surrounded by the onlookers. He was the only one in the room that wasn’t looking at her. Instead, he ran his eyes over the course with a hand over his mouth. From the deep scowl furrowing his brow, she could tell he was deep in thought. Knowing him, he’d probably clear it soon, if not today. Still, seeing him like that was easily the best part of her victory. I’m finally ahead of you.

Then the crowd fell in around her. Dozens of people, none of which she knew, were suddenly patting her on the back and congratulating her. Anna became tense and glared at everyone who came close to her. She suspected that someone would go for her pockets or try to touch someplace that would earn them a powerful slap to the face. But her worries proved to be unfounded. Though she had the feeling that it was the thick coat of wax that kept people’s hands away.

Anna scanned the faces around her. She had hoped to find Hinata somewhere in the crowd, mostly for the satisfaction of knowing that she’d seen her win. But the Shinobi was nowhere to be seen. However, she did earn some sense of gratification when she saw several people transferring credits to others. While she had no strong joy at being made into a racing horse, it did make her feel better knowing that people lost money because of her.

It doesn’t matter. Anna thought as she rinsed her hair out for the eighth time. She’ll find out soon enough. Excitement drove her heart to hammer against her ribs. This was it! She finally had the in that she needed! The truth was well-within her grasp! It was difficult to stop herself from dancing for joy!

Still, a hint of anxiety tugged at the back of her mind. Would it really be better to know what actually happened to her mother? What if it was something horrible? No. She shook her head. Of course it was better to know! But what if she was wrong? What if it really was an accident? Again, she tried to shake the feelings away. It had to be a lie. Right?

After completing her tenth rinse and finally getting all the wax out of her hair, Anna stepped out of the shower. The room’s cooling system activated immediately, flushing all of the steam out of the small, white, box-like chamber and cooling her body to an average temperature. She quickly dried herself off with a towel as it went to work on her hair, drying it in a matter of seconds. She didn’t bother with the makeup; who needed it when you looked so good already? Instead, she pulled on the clean clothes she had set out, a pair of faded black jeans and a night-blue t-shirt with the words ‘Cosmic Chasers’ on the chest, surrounded by stars and violet supernovas.

Wow. Anna chuckled as she looked at herself in the mirror. When was the last time I wore this? She distinctly remembered sneaking into a concert held by the Cosmic Chasers when she was sixteen, back when their music had practically been her life. She listened to the entire show from the back where no one could see her, then swiped a shirt just before it ended. Her dad had been furious when he found out, but he ultimately decided to let her keep it. Now, it was a little embarrassing to have it on. She still liked the band’s music, but even she could admit that it was a bit… childish. She shrugged. If anyone made fun of her for it, she’d make sure they regretted it.

Once she had strapped on her boots, Anna finally stepped out of the shower and returned to the girls’ dorms, which was just down the hall. She passed several other shower units, some of which were still occupied and others of which had emptied since she had passed them before. The smell of various shampoos, deodorants, and perfumes all mingled in the air like a nauseous cloud. Each scent was pleasant on its own, but they smelled like death when they were all put together. Much to Anna’s chagrin, the smell still lingered when she got back to her bunk.

For a while, she sat still on her bed, thinking. Anxiety welled up within her, despite how desperately she tried to push it down. She tried to look casual as her eyes darted to and from the stairs linking the two floors. Eventually, she sat back in her bed, opened her holo-phone, and tried to pass the time by reading the morning news.

Tensions on the Rise! The first headline read. Meeting of United Earth Alliance Leaders Ends in Vocal Battle! Curious, Anna opened the article and continued reading. Earlier today, the leaders of the UEA gathered to discuss details regarding the colonization of a new, currently unnamed planet, as well as the future of the currently established colonies. The details of this meeting are currently unavailable to the public. However, one detail has surfaced regarding its conclusion.

For reasons currently unknown, President Wilson Headrow of the United States and Prime Minister Alfred Brimley of the United Kingdom got into a heated debate. Their argument went on for nearly an hour. If not for the intervention of Prime Minister Daigo Hajime of Japan, the fight would have continued for longer, our sources say. Both President Headrow and Prime Minister Brimley reportedly stormed out of the room, bringing the meeting to an abrupt end.

Anna rolled her eyes as she reached the end of the article. Tensions on the rise? She thought as she swiped away. Bit early to say that. It was just a fight.

“Are you finished?”

Anna nearly leapt out of her skin at the sound of her voice. She turned to see Hinata, standing over her bed with her arms crossed across her chest. After getting over her surprise, Anna took in her sparkling blue dress and black leather jacket. She suddenly felt less confident in her Cosmic Chasers t-shirt. Don’t show it. Anna thought, trying to hide her insecurity. Do not show weakness. She cleared her throat. “H-how long have you been standing there?”

“Five minutes.” Hinata said. “You’re a very slow reader. I had enough time to finish that article three times over before you were done.”

“Show off.” Anna grumbled, then spoke again, more clearly. “Were you in the training hall earlier?”

Hinata shook her head. “I had other matters to attend to.”

A smirk crept across Anna’s lips. “Oh. That’s a shame.”

“Indeed.” Hinata nodded as she sat on her bed. “I missed your victory.”

“Oh.” Anna deflated. “You heard about that?”

“No. But I knew you would.”

Anna froze. “Pardon?”

Hinata yawned and rubbed her eyes. Even with the eyeliner hiding them, the dark rings were still visible. It frustrated Anna to no end that they didn’t do anything to detract from her beauty. “I was lying last night when I said you wouldn’t make it. I thought it would give you the extra motivation you’d need.”

“Motivation?” Anna echoed. “What are you talking about?”

“You’re not the quickest on the uptake, are you?” Hinata shook her head. “Let me spell it out for you. I was trying to help you.” She reached into the breast pocket of her jacket, drew out her holo-phone, and started scrolling across the dim red surface. “Although I’ll admit that I didn’t expect you to make a bet out of it. But hey. If my taunting didn’t do the job, that certainly did.”

It took all Anna had to keep her jaw closed. She was trying to help? That didn’t make any sense! Why would she do that? Her scowl deepened. There had to be some ulterior motive in her actions. There always was!

“Here.” Hinata said, handing her the holo-phone. “As promised.”

Her suspicions immediately disappeared. She took the holo-phone from her like an eager child and immediately started reading. Emilia Ironchase. The file was titled. Right beneath it, her mother’s familiar face smiled up at her. Anna pressed down her sadness and continued reading.

Born May 7th, 3139. Died October 15th, 3160. Cause of Death: KIA. She skimmed the majority of the file, passing over all the mundane and familiar information. It wasn’t until the seventh page that she stopped and started combing over every word. Halfway to the bottom, she found the section she was looking for: Cause of Death.

Anna felt her heart sink deep into her chest. Every line on the page was black. A small line at the bottom read Details Classified. Access Level 1 Required. The next page, which gave a brief but detailed summary of her performance in the field, was more legible. But the bottom was all blacked out, save for one date: October 15th, 3160.

“That’s it?” Anna muttered. Her excitement had completely deflated and made way for cold emptiness. She grit her teeth as her chest grew hotter. “That’s it?!” The temptation to scream and hurl the holo-phone across the room nearly overtook her. But she bit her fury back. It’s the same. It’s always the same!

“Sorry to disappoint you.” Hinata said as she took the holo-phone back.

Calm down. Anna urged herself as she took a deep breath. It’s not the end of the world. It’s damn annoying, but we can work with it. She thought back to the file, trying to burn it into her mind. “What’s Access Level 1?” she asked quietly.

“Beyond me.” Hinata answered dryly. She laid back on her bed without changing out of her dress or removing her heels. “Only Commander Milldrew and the upper echelon have access to that. As far as I know, no Operative has Access Level 1. I only have Access Level 2.”

Anna bit her lower lip. She had always known that the mountain she’d have to climb would be tall. But the reality of how truly massive it was finally hit her in that moment. No shortcuts would get her what she wanted. Fine. I have the time.

There was a quiet buzz on the bed next to hers. Hinata pulled the holo-phone back out from her pocket and checked the screen. After a long, tired sigh, she rolled out of bed and brushed herself off. Then, without a word, she made for the exit.

“Hey, wait!” Anna called after her.

Hinata paused. “What now?” she asked in a cold tone.

“What do you want?”

“Excuse me?” Hinata furrowed her brow and tilted her head.

“You wouldn’t have helped me if there weren’t something in it for you. So, what is it? Do you expect me to do that favor for you after all? Is that it?”

A moment of silence passed. “You are an odd woman, aren’t you?” Hinata finally said. “I don’t want anything from you. I wanted to help you, so I did. The only reason I did it was because I was bored.” A small, joyless smile crept onto her face. “Unless you want to help me out anyways? I’d advise against that. I wasn’t kidding about what it could do to your career.”

Anna didn’t answer. She tried to find something clever to say. But she was too confused to find the right words. “You” she said after a long silence “don’t want anything from me?”

“Not a thing.”

“Then what was that favor you were talking about?”

Hinata’s eyes flashed with fury. For a moment, it seemed that she was ready to attack anything that came near to her or even spoke to her. But it was gone as quickly as it had come. She heaved a sigh and turned away. “If you did lose the bet,” she said slowly, “then I was going to ask you to talk to my father.” Then, before Anna could ask any further into it, she vanished down the stairs.

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