Maria placed her palm on the touchpad. Lights whirred around her hand, making an affirming beep once done. She let go, waiting for the green to turn red, before placing her eye in front of the scanner. The touchpad beeped once more, opening the door connecting to it. Beyond it was a rocky corridor laced with wires that connected to bulbs that shone on signs, each belonging to a separate, diverging tunnel.
After arriving at side tunnel labelled “Moscow; St. Petersburg; Helsinki”, she headed down the shaft. It was similar to the main path. The only exception was that the wall on Maria’s right didn’t exist. In its place, metal tracks filled the bottom of a multi-kilometre trench while white pods rested just up ahead. They all had the same touchpad the entrance to the cave did but instead of mechanical noise, like before, a soft yet annoying voice echoed upon touch.
‘Welcome to the direct line. Which destination would you like to go to?’ it said.
‘Moscow, please,’ Maria responded.
The door to the pod opened, allowing access to the vehicle. All seemed ordinary. However, the door shut and the pod began to float. It veered along the tracks, turning into darkness, the only light coming from the blue haze that hummed out of the corners. I never get used to this, she thought.
Maria clapped her hands, turning what little vision remained off, then laid back into her seat. She shut her eyes and went into sleep. With the journey time, she needed to burn off the hours somehow.
‘Welcome to Moscow. Thank you for travelling with us.’
‘Looks like they haven’t changed that annoying voice,’ Maria said as she winked her way out of slumber.
A rapping on the door caused her to turn her head. She saw a bald man with holes on his arms and face, his expression was cold and one that told her that he was doing his job out of necessity rather than choice.
‘You’re going to get out or not?’ the man grumbled.
‘Yes, yes. Coming, Dan,’ Maria responded as she opened the pod and stepped out, stretching to get rid of all the niggles she picked up in her travels. ‘This thing is so convenient. Everyone should have access to it.’
‘Anasta!’ Dan’s eyes narrowed further.
‘I know,’ Maria shrugged off the statement. ‘I’ve heard it thousands of times. Still ridiculous though.’
‘Just accept that it’s the way it is.’
‘Just like how I’m meant to accept that this war has been going on for nearly a millennium and we’re still not close to ending it whatsoever?’
Dan rolled his eyes. He ignored the remark and walked away with Maria following close by. When he arrived at a metallic door, he swiped a card against a reader. The door responded in an instant, sliding open to reveal more convoluted corridors, all made of the same silver metal.
‘I really don’t understand why you’re still so childish, Anasta,’ Dan picked up the conversation again as the pair made their way, nodding at the people in white lab coats they passed. ‘You’re a squadron leader. You’re also nearly a-hundred-and-eighty. You should act your age!’
‘Dan, Dan, Dan,’ Maria gave a cheerful tut. ‘What does age have to do with anything? We’ve known each other since birth. I want to be a bit more informal with you. Unless you want me to start calling you Mr Maria.’
‘On second thought, I’d rather not be called that. Whose bright idea was it to call our batch that?’
‘Anyway,’ Dan faked a cough to change the subject before expressing a face of mocking concern, ‘Are you ready to meet him?’
‘Ugh. Don’t remind me,’ Maria covered her face in disgust.
‘Ha! This is always a fun spectacle to watch.’
‘Now who’s being the childish one?’
But before she could get an answer, a door opened ahead of her to the left. Out popped a tall, robust man in his late hundreds. He wore a different uniform from the other mages (opting for a dark blue jacket and buttoned waistcoat instead). His blond hair brushed his shoulders ever so lightly as he walked towards the pair, radiating an abundant amount of charm from his demeanour.
The only problem is… Maria thought as the man came close, placing his ivory-white fingers on her chin.
‘Anasta,’ he addressed.
‘Yes, Arthur?’ Maria answered.
A swift knee-kick to the groin sent Arthur collapsing to the floor. Not that Maria cared. She left the man to clutch his crown jewels in agony, ignoring him as she went ahead to the room that was left open. It contained a metallic table with metal walls lining the metal floors. The only non-metallic objects were the cushioned, wooden chairs surrounding the table.
‘Brutal as always, Anasta,’ Dan chuckled, carrying Arthur over his shoulder and following after her into the room. ‘You really do have no restraint when it comes to this guy.’
‘Why would I?’ Maria responded, her mood dropping with each passing second.
‘Well,’ Dan paused for a few seconds. When Maria didn’t say anything, he added the answer, ‘He is the king after all.’
Maria took a deep breath and pulled up a chair. She sighed a heavy sigh then looked up with the most unapologetic smile she could pull off.
‘He’s forbidden all of Magikind to have relationships and here he is trying to woo me. Hypocritical much, no?’
‘That rule is needed for our survival,’ Dan retorted in a more hostile manner than before.
‘Yeah, yeah. It’s our fault for messing with nature in the first place and now we can’t turn back,’ Maria sighed once more, reclining into the chair. ‘I’m sick of this place. I’m sick of seeing the same, bland view everywhere I go in this stupid MBP. I’ve practically lived here for eighty years and came to visit multiple times in the next hundred. Nothing’s changed at all! It’s like no one has an ounce of creativity!’
‘That personality of yours is probably why he likes you so much,’ Dan nodded towards Arthur.
‘I’m sick of him too,’ Maria added.
‘Errrr,’ Arthur groaned in response, still feeling the effects of the kick.
‘Ahem,’ Dan coughed again to change the topic. ‘Shall we get this meeting underway then?’
‘Oh, please do,’ Maria pleaded.
Dan placed Arthur down on an empty seat. Before leaving for a chair of his own, he reached for one of the holes on his right arm and pulled out a long piece of string stored inside. He then tied the man in pain, making sure Arthur couldn’t slip off with a tight, neat bow once done.
‘Ok, so you know full well why we called you here, right?’ Dan’s tone turned serious. The lazy, unwilling attitude in his eyes prior turned fierce and professional.
‘Yes,’ Maria followed suit, her back straight and voice commanding. ‘It’s about my squadron, is it not?’
‘Correct. Have you heard of their status?’
‘I have. As I predicted, they managed to deal with this small-scale threat with relative ease. We suffered minimal casualties despite being outnumbered and outranked. In short, our mission was a success I would believe.’
‘That is up to us to decide, Anasta,’ Dan’s eyes narrowed further as if to unnerve her.
‘Very well,’ Maria shrugged off the attempt.
‘It’s a good thing I trusted you,’ Arthur spoke up, hiding the pain in his voice and putting a brave face despite being tied up. ‘Normally we’d have gotten something like squadron R to handle this sort of issue.’
‘I am fully aware,’ Maria confirmed.
‘Indeed. Your squadron wouldn’t have had a sniff of a chance to do anything if not for the king’s recommendations,’ Dan added.
‘Even though we’re a democracy?’ Maria questioned, unaware of the situation.
‘The king still has some influence on the matter. Thankfully, it’s very minute. The other squadron leaders simply took heed to his suggestion and we agreed,’ Dan admitted.
‘Hey! What do you mean by “thankfully”?’ Arthur protested.
‘Because one person governing a whole continent would be near impossible,’ Dan explained before muttering an extra, ‘plus you’re an incompetent idiot.’
‘Is that so?’ Maria gave a sly smirk which Dan caught up on.
‘Ahem,’ he coughed. ‘Your squadron’s mission was so insignificant, it didn’t matter if you won or lost. It was a perfect testing ground for your capabilities as a leader and squadron W as a whole. Our only issue was the higher ranked mages that somehow work under you. Fortunately, we pulled them out in case the worst happened.’
‘Squadron W getting completely wiped out?’ Maria raised an eyebrow.
‘Exactly,’ Dan confirmed.
‘If that’s the case, I should expect that these members to return soon then.’
‘Unfortunately, that will not be possible.’
‘What?’ Maria raised her voice a little.
‘SS rank juggernaut bestial Varunel and S rank Xernim1XernimA parasitical entity that sometimes benefits its host user Alder are too valuable for the likes of squadron W. That’s something even I can’t change, Anasta. We have assigned them to different tasks,’ Arthur explained in Dan’s stead, airing an aura of authority somehow, even with the sight of him tied up to his chair.
‘Why haven’t I been informed about this?’ Maria asked through gritted teeth.
‘We can’t afford to have our best soldiers do menial yet dangerous activities. Nor can we trust your squadron’s strength just yet. It’s too much of a risk and the other squadron colonels are in agreement. Will there be any problems with this arrangement?’ Dan said with a piercing glare that told her to cease.
Maria was ticked off but remained as visibly calm as she could manage. Not only did they act behind her back, but they also insulted her squadron. Can’t trust my squadron? Are you kidding me?! She scowled in her head. However, she couldn’t show it. Not when future missions depended on her professionalism. Complaining now would go against all of Eurasia and she knew it.
‘Not at all,’ she submitted.
‘Good. We can get onto your next mission now,’ Dan smiled at the obedient response.
He waved his hand and light shone out of the table, creating a holographic map of Eurasia. He placed dots on three locations, one by the Iranian coast, one in Italy and the other in the Japanese Peninsula.
‘All of us know how untrained the low-ranked mages are and your squadron is full of them,’ Dan reiterated the hierarchy again. ‘But their accomplishments in this skirmish have warranted some acknowledgement. As a result, we’ve decided to let squadron W shadow another squadron. The only willing parties are squadron L, squadron O and squadron Q. You have a choice of who you choose.’
‘Squadron O,’ Maria chose in an instant.
‘Are you sure?’
‘Very well. I’ll go make arrangements,’ Dan said and, with that, he pressed the dot next to the Iranian coast, closed the hologram then left the room.
‘About time I leave too,’ Maria murmured, hoping to avoid any awkwardness.
‘Um, Anasta, a little help here?’
Maria stopped in her tracks. She turned to the man in the chair, all tied up and putting up a goofy grin. She could tell he was enjoying the alone time and it annoyed her to no ends. However, she still went over to release him. I can’t risk my squadron’s future, she argued with herself.
‘Thanks,’ Arthur said.
‘No problem. I’ll head off now.’
Maria tried to ignore him and walk away. But, as she was about to leave, an arm grabbed her by the waist, preventing her from doing so, much to her annoyance.
‘So, about my earlier question,’ Arthur started his usual nonsense. ‘Was that a yes or a no?’
Another kick to the groin gave him his answer.