After her encounter with Hinata, Anna tried to lay back and relax as best she could. But no matter what she tried, she couldn’t make herself sit still. When she closed her eyes, the blacked-out document came back to her. When she shook the image away, Hinata’s parting words echoed in her mind. “I was going to ask you to talk to my father.” What does that mean?
Eager to get her mind off the subject, Anna rolled out of bed, pulled on her spare pair of boots, and made for the dining hall. Hopefully, a decent meal could distract her. As she made her way through the hall, she could feel her stomach growling violently. For the first time that day, she realized just how hungry she was.
When she arrived, she could feel eyes almost immediately fall on her. Whispers rose up in her wake, just audible enough for her to hear them. “That’s the one I was tellin you ‘bout!” said one voice. “Won a ton of money bettin’ on her, I did!” said another. “What is that shirt?” laughed a third. Anna ignored them, even if the last one made her want to flip a table over. Right now, she was too exhausted and hungry to start a fight.
She immediately piled on as much as she could onto a single plate, then took an empty spot in the corner and started scarfing it down like a wild boar. The eyes she felt before were still fixed on her back, but she ignored them. Her thoughts were too occupied by the mouthful of roast beef she had just shoveled into her mouth.
“You know it’s not going anywhere, right?” a familiar voice chuckled.
Anna looked up to see Lucas take the seat next to hers. He was dressed in a red suit the color of blood, accented with thin lines of black. His hair was slicked back, held in place by a thick layer of gel. His plate was scarce, featuring mostly steamed vegetables and a large apple. In his other hand, he held a small, steaming mug. She didn’t say anything to him; she was still working her way around a bite of bread.
“I get that you’re in a celebratory mood.” Lucas continued. “I’ll admit, I certainly wanted to party after I cleared the course. But maybe you should relax a bit.”
With a bit of effort, Anna swallowed the mouthful in one gulp. The struggle pained her chest, but it vanished with a quick draft of water. “You know about that?” she said after catching her breath.
Smiling, he waved around the dining hall. “Hard not to. You’re the talk of the town!”
“Of course I am.” Anna smirked, looking around the dining hall at everyone that was looking at her. “Did you see me? I was pretty impressive!”
“I’m sure you were.” Lucas nodded. “But I wouldn’t let it go to your head. The newer Operatives are always looking for some drama to bite into, since things are usually pretty calm around here. They’ll be talking about something else by the end of the day.” He took a long drag from his mug. “Still, congratulations are in order! Not a lot of people can clear the obstacle course with such style and grace! Have you gotten all the wax out of your hair?”
“Ha ha.” Anna scoffed before shoving the rest of her bread into her mouth. “By the way, what’s with the getup?” she asked between bites.
“It’s not a getup.” Lucas scowled at her. “This is my charming suit. I wear it when I need to look charismatic!”
“Uh huh. Sure. What does that make your brown suit?”
“My casual wear.” He shrugged. “I’ve got one for every occasion!”
“I’m not going to take fashion advice from the girl in the Cosmic Chasers t-shirt.” He chuckled at the murderous glare she shot him. “To answer your question, I just got back from an important meeting. I wouldn’t want to bore you with the details.”
“Oh please, go ahead and bore me,” Anna said. “What were you doing, bargaining for more cheap rabbit’s feet?”
Lucas smiled wryly. “Oh, it was nothing important. Just a typical negotiation with the higher-ups for important resources and budget increases.” He shrugged casually. “But you wouldn’t want to know about that.”
“You what?!” Anna nearly choked on the last bites of her meal.
“What? I told you what I do around here, didn’t I?”
“No! I thought you were just another Operative!”
He laughed loudly, drawing the attention of just about everyone in the hall. “I guess not. No, I’m not an active Operative.” He leaned back in his chair and sighed. “I’m not young enough for that kind of thing anymore. So instead, I handle the not-fun things so you younger folks don’t have to!”
“I thought you said you were in your thirties.”
“Did I? Doesn’t ring a bell. Regardless, I’m not as spry as I used to be. Old man Milldrew decided I’d be more useful talking to people and filing paperwork than I’d be grappling with monsters.”
“Huh.” Anna said. She stared at the few scraps that remained on her plate. “That’s impressive.”
“It’s really not. Trust me, when you get into the field, you’ll be doing far more impressive things. Believe it or not, but you’ll have more fun in the lower ranks of Order than you’d think.”
An idea came to her. “Lucas.” She said slowly. “What’s your access level?”
“Hm? Why do you ask?”
“Just curious.” She lied quickly. “I figured that it must be high, considering how important your job is.”
“Don’t flatter me kid, it’ll get you nowhere.” He took a casual sip from his mug. “I have Access Level Two. I’ve read Level One restricted files, but only when old man Milldrew asked me to for important business. Secret business, too, so don’t ask.”
Anna’s heart sank. I guess there are no shortcuts after all.
Lucas looked at her from the corner of his eye. “Y’know, you shouldn’t be asking about stuff like that. There are strict rules about who gets to read what. If you asked anyone other than me, they’d probably think you were up to something suspicious.”
“What? No!” Anna stiffened. “I was just… curious.”
“Uh-huh. Sure.” He set the empty mug on the table, leaned back, and sighed contently. “Just don’t get too ahead of yourself. Remember, you’re still in basic training. It’ll be a while before you have access to the archives at all, let alone the higher levels. For now, you should focus on getting into the field.”
“Yeah, yeah.” She grumbled. “And how long is that going to take?”
“Well, let’s see. You’ve cleared the obstacle course, so you’re done with the hard part. Now you just need to get done with the boring part. After that, you’ll get your E-Suit, along with clearance to take on low-risk missions.”
She raised an eyebrow. “The boring part?”
“Tests.” He answered plainly. “You know, the typical stuff. We’ve got to make sure you know all the rules, how to deal with monsters and use the equipment, so on and so forth. They’re not hard, but they are far from exciting. Still, dull as they are, they are necessary.”
“Shouldn’t that come before the physical tests?”
“It used to. Nowadays, the obstacle course is used more to haze the newbies. Get the people who are going to quit do it sooner.”
“How efficient.” Anna sighed, kicking back in her chair. “Well, at least that shouldn’t take too long.”
“They don’t.” Lucas agreed. “But getting your E-Suit? That one will take some time.”
Anna stiffened. “How long?”
He thought for a moment. “About three months, give or take. If you’re lucky.”
“Three months?!” she echoed. “Are you kidding me?! I can’t wait that long!”
Lucas raised an eyebrow. “You don’t know much about patience, do you?” he sighed, wiped his lips clean with a napkin, then stood up. “Fine. If you’re that eager to fight monsters, then I guess I can help you out. But if anyone asks, it wasn’t me. Got it?”
Anna stared at him for a moment. “What’re you talking about?”
“You’ll see. Come on. I want to introduce you to someone.”
Lucas led Anna through the winding halls of HQ at a brisk but casual pace. They passed the entry hall, climbed up the stairs to the second floor, and carried on towards the east wing. To Anna’s surprise, the eastern wing was populated almost entirely by older men and women dressed in sleek business wear. All of them shot her sideways glances as she passed, but they immediately looked away when they spotted Lucas. There wasn’t a single E-Suit to be seen.
Eventually, they came to a stop in front of a small door in an otherwise empty hall. “Here we are!” Lucas declared, beaming at her. “This is where the magic happens!”
Anna stared at the door. She thought she could smell oil and old chicken. “A supply closet?”
“No. Well, it used to be. But never mind that!” he knocked with a quick, powerful rhythm. “Bohai!” he shouted. “You in there?”
A moment of silence passed. Then the door slid open an inch, letting a thin slit of bright yellow light. The smell suddenly grew stronger. “Yes?” said a nasally voice. “What is it? What do you want?” a thin, black eye peeked out at them. “Oh. It’s you. What do you want now, Brimley? Do you have another complaint for me?”
“No complaints today!” Lucas said with his brightest smile. “I want you to meet someone!”
“No thank you! Your friends are nothing but trouble! I remember what happened last time you brought one! I won’t make that mistake twice! Good day!” the door slammed shut.
Anna looked at Lucas. “What was that?”
“Oh, just an old grudge.” He explained with a carefree grin. “I once brought him a new recruit with an unorthodox idea for his E-Suit. Ol’ Bohai worked day and night to make it, even called it one of his best works. Then the kid broke the thing on his first mission. Now he thinks that everyone I bring him must be some kind of bad omen.”
“Was that because the kid was stupid? Or was it because the suit was poorly built?”
Lucas’s face twisted into a grimace. “I wouldn’t say that around him if I were you. He’s very proud of his work.” He leaned back into the door. “Trust me, you’ll want to meet this one!” he yelled through the metal sheet.
“Doubtful!” the voice quietly called back. “Now go away! I want nothing to do with you or any of your friends!”
“Even if that friend is Emilia Ironchase’s daughter?”
There was a long, unnerving silence. Then, with an echoing bang, the door flew open, filling the hall with a yellow light. A short man dressed in a plain blue button-up and black slacks stood in the frame, staring at Anna wildly with thin black eyes. His face was as wrinkled as a raisin and covered in thin black hair that spilled wildly over his forehead. “You…” he whispered, leaning uncomfortably close to Anna’s face. He stank of oil and chicken. “You look just like her…”
“N-nice to meet you.” She said through grit teeth, resisting the urge to kick him away from her. “I’m Anna Ironchase.”
Bohai stepped back, leaning on the doorframe as he stared at her. “The resemblance is uncanny!” he continued beneath his breath. “If it weren’t for the scars, you’d be her spitting image!” a sad smile crept across his face. “If only Emmy could see you now!”
“You knew my mother?”
From the wide-eyed expression on his face, Anna thought that she had accidentally punched him. “She never told you about me?” he whispered almost inaudibly. “I suppose that makes sense. We didn’t leave off on a good note, she and I.” With a sad aura, he hovered back into the room. “Come in, come in. Let’s talk.”
He led them into a chamber so small that Lucas had to stand in the doorway for all of them to fit. A small metal desk was pressed against the wall. Empty containers of fried rice and chicken lay scattered at the foot of the chair. The blue image of an E-Suit skeleton hovered over the surface of the desk.
“Where do I begin?” Bohai sighed, setting himself slowly and gently into his chair.
“The beginning would be a good place.” Lucas offered.
After shoving past a few empty barrels of chicken, Anna leaned against the wall and settled into a corner. “So, um…” she said awkwardly. “How did you know my mom?”
“I suppose that’d be a good starting point.” Bohai nodded. “She was an old friend of mine, your mother. We were recruits around the same time, but I preferred engineering to murdering monsters. Way back in the day, when I was still apprenticed under old man Baumler, your mother came storming into our office. She had, get this, a piece of paper in her hands! With E-Suit designs on them!” he broke into a chuckle.
Anna sighed beneath her breath. Both of her parents had preferred old analog styles of keeping notes. At this point, she was used to people laughing at them. Still, she couldn’t complain. If her mother’s journals had been digital, she wouldn’t have gotten to read them so often when she was a kid.
“Drew like a baby, your mother did!” he continued. “I didn’t realize what I was working on for weeks! Heh, she was not happy when I laughed at her for it!” he cleared his throat to stifle another chuckle. “Anyways, back to the point. We worked on that E-Suit for months, my teacher and I. It was the most challenging design I’d worked with yet! But if I said it wasn’t fun, I’d have to stomp the flames out on my trousers.”
“Long story short.” Lucas cut in as Bohai put his face in his hands. “He’s the guy that made the Dragon of Order.”
Anna froze in place. She eyed the old man, who sat at his desk with his head in his hands, muttering something about good memories. This was the man who built her mother’s suit? Suddenly, the small and disgusting space didn’t matter to her anymore. This man wasn’t just some overworked designer in a cramped closet. He was a living legend!
After finishing his mumbling, Bohai looked at Anna. She suddenly felt extremely nervous with his eyes fixed on her. “Your mother was an odd one.” He carried on as if his break had never happened. “Rather than going to Baumler for maintenance, she’d always ask for me. Said I had ‘the right touch’.”
Lucas laughed. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“All these years later and I still have no clue.” Bohai chuckled. “Nothing that woman did made any sense to me. But she was a good friend. In the early days, she’d always tell me stories of her exploits whenever I was working on her E-Suit. Then she started taking me out to dinner and drinks. By the end of our first year, the two of us were the best of friends.” His expression darkened, twisting his nostalgic smile into a very sad one. “But then, we had a… falling out.” He said slowly, as if each word burned his throat. “Before we could make up, she was gone.”
Silence fell on the room, broken only by the gentle buzzing of the hologram. Anna shifted her weight uncomfortably. What was the right thing to say here? She briefly considered asking after the subject further, but she quickly threw the idea away. There was enough pain on his face already.
“So!” Lucas spoke at last. “You still want to kick us out?”
Bohai looked up at him, the darkness on his expression fading into an annoyed scowl. “Maybe I will.” He growled. “That depends. Why’d you bring her here, Brimley? You hoping to get back into my good graces?”
“Unfortunately, no. I know when I’m beaten.” Lucas chuckled. “I was hoping you’d do her a favor, that’s all. I figured you wouldn’t be able to say no, given who she is.”
He glared at Lucas for a moment, then at Anna. He started stroking his chin slowly. “I assume she’s finished basic training?”
“Well, no.” Lucas admitted with a smile. “But hey! It can’t hurt to help her get a head start!”
“That’s easy for you to say! If the higher-ups find out about this, Milldrew will literally hunt me like a fox!”
“Relax!” Lucas waved the comment away. “If anyone asks questions, I’ll throw them off the trail! Trust me, I’ve thought about this!”
“That’s what you said last time.” Bohai growled. He looked hard at Anna for a long moment. Then he heaved a sigh, reached down, and pulled a long metal rod from a drawer in his desk. With a flick of his wrist, the rod projected a blue holographic screen. “Fine.” He said as he handed it to her.
Realization dawned on Anna as she took the holo-tablet, causing her heart to do a summersault in her chest. A blueprint of an E-Suit skeleton was projected off of the screen. Multiple menus were connected to each of the many metal plates by thin white lines. “You don’t mean-” she looked from Bohai to Lucas, her words escaping her. Her eyes were as wide as dinner plates.
“What’s the matter?” Lucas asked, grinning like an idiot. “Do you need some ideas?”
Anna didn’t answer. Instead, she turned her attention to the screen and, like a child on Christmas, started building the blueprint to her dream E-Suit.