Energia, Web Novel

Chapter 48: Back Into the Cage

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

Hinata felt a woman among children when she stepped into Milldrew’s office.

How she ended up in this position, she’d never know. She was supposed to be long gone by now. Retired and happily making her way to some other planet on the other side of the galaxy. Now she was entering the office of the most powerful man in ORDER alongside three idiots. Father would be furious. The thought almost made her smile. Almost.

Anna simultaneously looked eager and alert. One second, she was grinning like a fool and bouncing up and down. The next, she peered around her as if someone would jump out and attack her. She wore a strange black hoodie that seemed to glisten in the hallway’s blue light. Her E-Suit? What was the woman thinking? Was she thinking at all?

No, Hinata thought, turning her gaze on Tommy. She’s at least better than this one.

Tommy was trying very hard to keep the smile off of his face, and failing spectacularly at the effort. He tried to smooth out his black t-shirt, brushed non-existent dust off of his jeans, and ran his fingers through his hair as if they were a comb. Hinata felt embarrassed just watching him.

Of her three companions, Eitan was the only one who didn’t humiliate her just by being there. He stood straight and stiff with his hands shoved into the pockets of his jeans. His green button-up shirt had been done up all the way to the collar. Hinata worried that he would drop dead of a heart attack if she so much as touched him.

Commander Milldrew stood behind his desk, looking out the window with his back to them. Hinata could see out over all of Unity’s Central Sector, with its blocky black buildings and lines of blue neon light. It cast him in a blue silhouette that made him seem almost like a glowing shadow.

Hinata had heard many stories of Jakob Milldrew. It was said that he had been as bright as a star in his youth. A beacon of hope for Unity in a time after the Titan attack. Many called him the most charismatic soldier ORDER had ever seen. Many others called him the deadliest. How, she wondered, had a man so apparently brilliant grown into the shadow she saw before her?

He turned to look at the four of them. A brief smile flashed across his features at the sight of Anna. It vanished so quickly that Hinata almost thought she had imagined it. But she knew better. People say that he personally intervened when she was sabotaged in the entrance exams. Why does he seem so fond of her?

“Anna Ironchase,” he said in a monotone voice. “Hinata Kurosaki. Tommy Decker. Eitan Avidan.” A humorless smirk pulled at his lips. “What an odd group you four make. Yet all of you share the spotlight. Coincidence? Perhaps. But I find myself believing less and less in coincidence as I grow older.”

The four Operatives exchanged confused looks. What on Verità is he going on about? Hinata wondered. She’d spoken to the Commander many times over the years. He’d always been a pragmatic man, the kind of man to get straight to the point, tell you what he wanted, then send you out to go and do something to get it for him. She’d always respected him for that. Why was he suddenly waxing philosophy?

Commander Milldrew gestured to four chairs on the opposite side of his desk from him. “Sit, all of you. There is something we must discuss.”

Hinata and Eitan obeyed immediately, Hinata naturally and Eitan as stiffly as a stone. Tommy looked ready to say something, but seemingly decided against it. He slumped into his seat, seemingly disappointed. Anna wore a slightly annoyed scowl on her forehead. For a moment, it seemed that she would remain standing and demand something of the Commander. She seemed to think better of it, as she sat down without a word.

Despite having told them to sit, commander Milldrew did not do the same. “You all did well with that incident,” he continued. “Even still, people are afraid. Reasonably so. Beasts like that aren’t supposed to be found within the walls. They see your intervention more as a miracle than as proof of ORDER’s capabilities.”

I don’t blame them, Hinata thought. Anyone could see that we were only there by sheer dumb luck.

Milldrew turned back to them, a dangerous glint in his eyes. Hinata felt a sense of unease grow in her chest. “We need to show them that it was no miracle. ORDER must reassert its control in the city. Unfortunately, it’s going to take something… dramatic. Which is where you four come in.”

“Us four?” Anna spoke up before the Commander could continue. “Why not only one?”

Why not only you, you mean, Hinata scoffed silently.

“Um, better question,” Tommy broke in. “Why us? Wouldn’t something ‘dramatic’ suit more experienced Operatives better? Not that I’m complaining, sir,” he added quickly, “I’m just wondering why, that’s all! Uh, sir!”

Awkwardly, Eitan raised a hand. “I’d like to ask that as well, s-sir,” he said in a quiet voice.

Commander Milldrew took the interruption with calm patience. “In any other circumstance, I’d choose someone else. Hell, I’d probably do it myself. But whether any of us like it or not, you four are currently standing in the spotlight of this whole incident. The public has its eye on you. Which makes you the perfect candidates for the job at hand.”

A chill ran down Hinata’s spine. This was starting to sound less like philosophy and more like a mission briefing. He wouldn’t put me on this, she thought. He knows what I was planning. He was helping me! But if that were true, then why was she here?

“In one month,” the Commander continued, “ORDER will hold a special event for all of Unity to see. My advisors were thinking of calling it the ORDER Olympics, although I’m not strong on the name myself. Regardless of what it’s called, you four must participate.”

Hinata blinked. None of what she had just heard made any sense to her. ORDER Olympics? Why would the Commander force the four of them to participate? What would be the point? How did any of that help? And why in the hell did she have to be a part of it?

Eitan seemed just as confused as she was, except he decided to voice his confusion. “Um, sir? I don’t understand how that’s going to help.”

“You, too?” Tommy asked, grinning sheepishly. “Because I am totally lost!”

Again, the Commander didn’t even seem to notice he was interrupted. “The event itself has a simple purpose. We need to remind the people of Unity just how powerful and capable our Operatives are. People need to see exactly how strong the shield that protects them is.

“The four of you have a slightly different task. You need to do something more than remind the people what we can do. I need you four to remind the other Operatives what we can do. Everyone else will be working on their own. I need the four of you to work together.”

That’s when Hinata pieced it all together. The conclusion she came to was baffling, but it was the only one that made sense. “You want to convince Operatives to form Squads again.”

The Commander’s only response was a small nod.

“What? Seriously?” Tommy grinned from ear to ear like a fool. “Hell yeah! I-I mean, yes sir! I’ll do it!”

Anna didn’t look so happy. In fact, it looked like she was about ready to break the Commander’s desk. “So you’re telling me,” she said in a quiet, boiling voice, “that you want us four to make a laughingstock of ourselves by teaming up in a competition against all of ORDER?”

“Oh, come on, Ironchase!” Tommy had a face like the sun at this point. Hinata had to look away to avoid punching it. “No one will laugh when we win!”

“Who says they’ll be laughing?” Eitan asked. His voice was a low, grumbling whisper. He seemed almost as upset as Anna was. “They’ll probably just try and beat us down right away.”

“No way in hell am I doing that!” Anna shot to her feet, her face a red mask of pure fury. “I can’t- I don’t-” she choked off, struggling to find the words through her fury. “I won’t do it!”

Hinata scoffed at her. Who in their right mind threw a temper tantrum in the Commander’s office? I can’t blame her, though. She’s only saying what what we’re all thinking. Except for the idiot, she directed that last thought at Tommy.

“I’m not asking you to permanently join forces,” the Commander said in an even voice. “Nor am I asking you to do it for free. Do this for me and I’ll grant each of you one request. Any one thing. Rest assured, there won’t be limits upon that. My authority grants me certain allowances that you could only dream of.”

That seemed to wipe the fury off of Anna’s face immediately. Her eyes grew wide, her jaw fell. Hinata knew right away what she was thinking. He knows she wants access to the restricted files. Would he really be willing to give it to her?

The boys seemed just as pleased at that prospect as she was. Tommy’s face grew even brighter, as if he were a child in a candy store that had just been told he could buy two pieces instead of one. Eitan’s eyes suddenly filled with a bright, hopeful expression. It warred with the doubt and worry on his face, causing his expression to twist and change from joy to fear with each passing second.

Hinata only felt betrayed. The Commander had already done plenty to help her in her plans to escape and leave her family behind. Was he now taking all of that away? Using it to force her to complete one last job for him? Just as I thought I was leaving the cage, he tries to force me back in.

After a silent pause, the Commander spoke again. “Do we have a deal?”

Tommy answered in the affirmative immediately. Anna and Eitan, however, now bore their faces scrunched up in thought. The two seemed to be tackling the issue from every angle they could think of. Young fools, the both of them, Hinata thought. They don’t know what it is they’re being offered. Nor what it is they’re being asked to do.

But she knew. She knew all too well. Worse, she knew what would happen to her if she chose wrong. Already, she could feel the door to the cage closing, with her still trapped inside it. So close. She was so close!

“No.”

Hinata didn’t realize it was her that spoke until all the eyes in the room fell on her. Oddly, her face felt like it was made of stone, despite how her anger and despair twisted and gnawed at her chest. Even now, she was still the cold-hearted, emotionless Shinobi that everyone thought she was. She supposed she should be thankful for that. Just this one.

“I thank you for your offer, Commander,” she said slowly, as if picking each word as she went along. “But my answer is no.” She searched for a moment for more, for some kind of explanation. But nothing more rose to her lips.

So, instead of speaking any further, Hinata simply turned around and walked out the door without so much as a salute.

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