From the Final World



Chapter 32: The Battle for Hel's Throne - 2


Chapter 32: The Battle for Hel's Throne

Part 2:

The captain plays with her wrist and displays a tiny hologram in front of her. The hologram flashes for a few seconds as she mounts one of the smaller guns to her shoulder before swinging the rifle under her arm. The shoulder gun looks backwards and forwards at regular intervals, scanning for hostile lifesigns, as the captain pulls up information on the state of the battle as a whole.

“How goes the fleet?” Arcane asks as they walk.

“Poorly.” The captain shakes her head. “Assets have been relocated from low orbit to counter the enemy reinforcements that broke through the system perimeter. Ground based defenses are still inoperable if we want to keep the planetary shield in place. The shield itself is holding perfectly, so Finale itself is secure, but we are losing orbital supremacy. Far orbit has already fallen into enemy hands; we still hold low and middle, but in high we are losing ground every second.”

“... That’s unfortunate.” Arcane says softly, spatial twists looking further for signs of movement. “Any information on how this happened yet?”

“Your guess is as good as mine.” the captain replies unhappily, swiping past numerous displays and extracting the essential data. “The enemy is about a tier and a half lower in technology, so they aren’t from any of the great powers, but they don’t fit the standard low tech profile of most of the major malcontents. This attack seems to have been completely unexpected, too, which is a major failure for information sections.”

“So a middle power or some combination of middle and high powers are behind this.” Arcane speculates. “A few of them are democratic; maybe they were taken in by the malcontent’s rhetoric.”

“More likely one of them is using malcontents as an excuse to strike the great powers.” The captain snorts, shaking her head. “More fools them. ‘Stolen weapons’ won’t work as an excuse after this disaster.”

Arcane doesn’t seem to agree but decides not to push it. A middle power using this as an excuse to strike at Finale and it’s symbolic presence as the neutral grounds of the great powers was ridiculously foolish; only fanatics would be so stupid. Especially not as anyone clever enough to plan this assault would be fully aware of the inevitable retaliation from the Dominion and Empire of Man, the two most militant of the great powers.

Arcane’s thoughts shift to a new direction with that. Anyone who could plan this would also anticipate the retaliation; thus one must consider them to have made plans with that in mind. If so, the raid must either have a purpose dire enough to endure massive retaliation or the retaliation itself must be the goal. For the first, Arcane can’t think of any target on Finale of enough pure value to justify obliteration as its cost, though there were several of such value to fanatical organizations. Especially herself and the other champions, who spat in the face of everything most of those factions represented. However, the raid has already shown itself not to have general information about herself and react to her teleport.

Thus, there must be another cause motivating the majority. If the champions are eliminated, Finale’s research and treasures are valuable but will not be obtainable for the long term. Thus the first option is impossible.

Arcane feels her mind make the connection and breakthrough instantly. The retaliation itself is the goal; a schemer wanting to provoke the most brutal retaliation in the hopes of turning others against the Dominion or Empire of Man and the rest of the great powers who enabled them. She thinks to herself that it would be effective, although not the way the mastermind wanted. Even if the entire universe set itself against the greatest of the intergalactic superpowers that formed the core of the Association of Nations, they would survive and possibly even thrive through the adversity. A universe at war is already close; this single added spark will likely ignite it.

Not that that helps Arcane decide who is responsible. Arms dealers, preachers of destruction, cultivators of every type, malevolent contractors… the list of those who desire for universal war to break out as soon as possible is too long to describe. Shrugging, she decides not to think about it as the Captain flips through her screens to find more information on the battle raging outside.

“Our new swarms are defeating swarms up to five times their size, and our shields have proven just as effective as predicted. Slaved fighters are also gaining merits, though boarding parties have not been quite as successful. Overall, we are winning the individual engagements but being pressured by sheer numbers. Winning the battle, losing the war, I guess.” The captain mutters as they turn a corner and start crossing a large room with many tables set around shuttered windows on the sides.

Arcane walks over to one of them and rips it off with her bare hand cloaked in a layer of cyan light. Reaching in, she grabs a few snacks and walks back to the Captain, who stares at her through the screen with critical eyes. “Want some?” she offers.

“... They’re probably not coming back anyway.” she shrugs, taking a few and starting to eat. “How much further?”

“Just around the corner according to the map.” Arcane replies, eating with rapid small bites that disappeared quickly down her throat. “I can’t see anything yet though.”

The two of them wipe their hands and throw the wrappers away, walking easily across the courtyard that must have been bustling with life and energy a mere forty eight hours before. A few fake plants shake as the station rings with impact once again, Arcane and the captain not even breaking stride or seeming to notice the tremor.

They round the corner to see a fortified location shimmering with a protective barrier. Arcane clicks her tongue and reaches out to touch it, making a hole and stepping through with the captain close behind her. Once they do they are confronted by a half dozen gun barrels, held by men in uniforms similar to the captain but also quite different. Arcane raises her eyebrow at the guns while the Captain raises her hands for peace.

“I’m Captain Ey’Ruthanalas, Dominion Navy, escort Cyan.” The Captain names herself, her computer flickering as it delivers authentication of such to similar ones on the wrists of the man in the back of the gun holding group.

“She’s clear. Hold fire.” the man says, coming forward and extending his hand. “Captain, I’m Sergeant Williams with the Throne Security forces. We’ve been holding this area for some time, preparing to evacuate.”

“Thank you, Sergeant. My forces have secured a tram to the central axis. I welcome you to make use of it.” the Captain explains, shaking hands before pulling the sergeant close and whispering soundlessly towards his ear, the computers taking her thoughts directly from her mind to his. ‘I am escorting this girl, a VIP of Magia. We were unable to break through the conflict in middle orbit to reach the surface, so we returned here.’

‘I understand.’ Sergeant Williams replies the same way, glancing at Arcane almost imperceptibly quickly. ‘I will take over from here. We will make sure she is returned to the central axis intact.’

‘Thank you. I intend to rendezvous with my craft at the tram; we can give you cover until the primary ring exchange. From there you’ll be on your own.’ The Captain replies, pulling back and nodding in agreement. The soldiers remain silent, moving to continue organizing supplies to carts and console civilians crying in the courtyard.

Arcane nods at the Sergeant when he gives her a significant look, and goes to help compile the supplies while the soldiers perk up as he calls out to all of them. “Alright, listen up! Captain Ey’Ruthanalas has secured a tram leading to the central axis. I have no idea if it will be safer there, or if we’d be better off staying here. There will be more security forces in the center, and the evacuation points are still operating there. Anyone who wants to remain here, I’ll leave a provisional guard and the illusion barrier. Everyone else, we move out in fifteen.”

The soldiers salute and start moving faster while the civilians begin to whisper amongst themselves. Arcane goes over to Sergeant Williams and tugs on his sleeve, leading him to look down at her with a question in his eyes. “There is a semi-maj communicator in this garrison, correct?” She asks.

“That is so, but what of it? With the Arcanist matrix thrown off by the invasion it’s unusable.” Sergeant Williams replies, scratching his head.

Arcane shakes her head. “I can get it working for a time, but I need to make a call myself. If you will allow it.”

“... Technically I can’t allow a civilian to use it, but I guess you don’t really count as such.” he mutters in reply. “If you can get two lines open I’ll let you do whatever you want.”

“I can open as many as you have the equipment.” Arcane retorts matter-of-factly. “Let’s go.”

“Gotcha. Oi, Davis, Captain! Come with me for a moment!” Williams calls across the garrison, a particularly large soldier packing a number of bags and the Captain running after him as he leads Arcane deeper into the compound.

As another resounding explosion shakes the steel chamber and the civilians quail in panic, the four of them climb the stairs to the upper level of the garrison and find a childlike soldier with bright pink hair packing up several pieces of equipment in a room with countless screens and headsets. He looks up and salutes Sergeant Williams when they enter, before returning to the task of packing what seems to be communication equipment.

“Corporal Morninglow, our communications officer.” Williams explains as they pass the soldier. “I trust him.”

Ey’Ruthanalas shrugs while Arcane raises an eyebrow in displeasure. “I try not to make judgements based on race, even for fairy blood.” she says coolly, moving to uncover several screens in the far corner.

“Strange… I took you for Dominion.” Williams replies without a trace of trust.

Ey’Ruthanalas smiles grimly and pulls her hair back to reveal her ears momentarily, shaking her head and saying “Elven Dominion, Sergeant. I’ve had my fair share of troubles; I wouldn’t wish it on anyone else.”

“Fair enough.” Williams replies, glancing at Arcane who glares back at him.

“I’m Magian, sergeant.” She says with ice in her tone. “Angel or Demon, fairy or beastkin, they’re all the same to me. Human, with a different name and color. Nothing more and nothing less.”

The sergeant looks taken aback while the captain laughs softly, and the half fairy corporal Morninglow smiles appreciatively. Opening his mouth to reply, Williams thinks better of it and turns to the communication array. “You really think you can get this working?”

“Of course.” Arcane replies, placing her hand on one of the boards in front of her and lighting all the screens up with a surge of power. Static fills them at first, before it levels off and shows the input section for an AI ready to connect them. “I’ll use the one over in the corner. I assume you can take it from here?”

Nodding assent, the three military personnel seat themselves in front of the dashboards and start typing with one hand while donning headsets with the other. Arcane moves herself to an isolated screen in the corner, a burst of power connecting it to the semi-maj array communicating with the outside world. The communicator reacts to her thought-driven command and establishes a connection to Finale, redirecting it from there to Arcane’s target. After a few moments, the screen lights up and reveals Dawn’s bright yellow eyes in a face identical to Arcane’s.

“Arcane! You’re okay! What’s going on up there? Is there really a battle? Who’s attacking us? Was that a starbreaker earlier?” a barrage of questions makes Arcane wince and hold her ears before Dawn is pulled away from the screen by an irate red haired girl with exactly the same features as the first two.

“Shut up and let her talk, Dawn. Arcane, what’s happening?” Flame goes straight to the heart of the matter, her eyes betraying worry and nervousness.

Arcane turns down the volume slightly and whispers into a mouthpiece pulled from the supplies. “I don’t know much. Hel’s Throne was attacked by a massive fleet of higher than expected technology, and I was ordered to evacuate immediately. But we didn’t make it; the enemy attacked low orbit all around Finale and I ordered a withdrawal after seeing no higher than five percent odds of making it through intact. It’s gotten worse since; we barely made it back to the Throne.”

“So you are safe now?” Flame demands, her hand tightening on Dawn’s shoulder and causing the other girl to wince.

Arcane shrugs, not wanting to lie. “At the moment yes, but if the Throne falls it’s anybody’s guess. Dominion reinforcements are three days away… well, probably a bit less now.”

“If we lower the planetary shield you can teleport back here immediately. I’ll inform the Archmages and they’ll…” Flame starts excitedly, but Arcane shakes her head.

“Absolutely not. If the distortion shield is lowered all of Finale will be threatened. For now low orbit is to our advantage, but high orbit is tightly contested and we can’t take the risk.” Arcane scolds her.

Flame falls silent, but Dawn jumps up without a care. “Arcane’s safe, right? Then tell us about the battle!”

“Too many ships, too much fighting, the enemy hit the sun with a breaker before we could react, it’s not as much fun as you’d think, and I don’t have much time.” Arcane says rapidly. “Dawn, I need you to contact the Archmage once this call ends. Tell him the enemy doesn’t have much magepower and that he should shift the barriers to purely anti-physical and technological, as well as supporting the distortion shields. If he does, you and Flame should be able to launch attacks from the ground towards high orbit. If you can reach far orbit, even better; most of what’s out there isn’t ours anymore. Have a few of the archmages help you aim; the navy should appreciate any help they can get.”

“Should I make a laser maze?” Dawn offers.

Arcane considers it, then shakes her head. “No. Single or grouped targets only. The situation is changing too rapidly up here, it’s unclear if we might need a region of space you lock off with your mazes.”

“Okay, Arcane. I’ll get on that. Anything else?” Dawn asks, her bright tone contrasting the seriousness of her face. “You will make it back, right?”

“I have no intention of dying today, Dawn.” Arcane replies with a half smile.

“Okay. I believe you.” Dawn says with a nod.

Flame stirs as Arcane turns back to her. “Support Dawn with the same conditions, right?”

“No.” Arcane closes her eyes and looks towards the wall. “Remember that thing we did in simulation last week?”

“Fusion acceleration? What about it?” Flame asks, confused.

Arcane takes a deep breath and returns to looking at the screen, opening her eyes to convey her intent. “... Accelerate the sun, Flame. Keep it under control, don’t increase the flares or allow a nova, but make it hotter out here.”

“You’re joking, right?” Flame asks, but Arcane shakes her head. “That’s insane!”

“The enemy still controls the immediate vicinity of the star, and far orbit. Most of the damage will be theirs, and the Dominion will react once we tell them what’s going on.” Arcane explains, running a few calculations in her head and on the screen. “We need to change the battlefield. Most of the enemy are small, fighters or cruisers and lightly armed capital ships. Increasing the passive damage they take just by staying in system should give us a decisive edge to finish this battle.”

“You said reinforcements are three days out; can the Throne not hold out that long?” Flame asks, still looking doubtful about the proposed course of action.

Arcane shrugs. “I don’t know, and I don’t want to find out.”

Flame nods unwillingly as Arcane stares her down, bowing her head and sighing. “Alright, I’ll do it. But this is on your head, you know!”

“Trust me, I am more than willing to take that.” Arcane smiles back, checking to the side and seeing the soldiers still in the middle of their own communications. “I’ve got about five minutes left. Anything I should know?”

Dawn shakes her head. “Dusk and Hope know you’re off world, they were worried too. I’ll tell them you’re fine.”

Flame nods along, shrugging as Arcane turns to her. “Nothing from me. We’ll do what you asked and try to clear a path.”

Arcane smiles grimly. “Don’t bother. It will be hours before I’m able to secure Hel’s Throne, even longer to manage another evacuation. For better or worse I’m in this ‘til the end.”

“Always figured you’d be the first in a real fight.” Flame comments with a smirk.

“I’m so jealous… well not really, of course, because it sounds really scary and dangerous and all sorts of no good, but still, sort of, maybe…” Dawn says, pouting and kicking her legs under the screen.

“You’ll get a chance yet, Dawn.” Arcane says, frowning. “It’s likely this is a lot bigger than it looks.”

“Bigger than attacking Finale?” Flame asks in disbelief. “Where the hell do you go from there, burning Yggdrasil to the ground?”

“Sparking Universal war, Flame.” Arcane replies softly. “The attack was too well planned not to consider the reprisal from the Dominion and the Empire. If they burn a high power out of existence it will force the others to choose a side, and then we’re all hanging from the edge of a cliff.”

“A high power?!” Dawn shrieks, jumping to her feet. “This is one of the high powers?”

“A tier and a half behind in tech, and far superior in numbers.” Arcane explains, Flame frowning hard and Dawn gaping down at her. “That’s the only conclusion I can draw.”

“... I’ll inform Rain and Dusk to start gathering information.” Flame whispers, her eyes staring at Arcane with naked fear in her eyes. “If you’re right, and I think you are, we need to be ready.”

“Thank you.” Arcane says sincerely. “But, Flame…”

“Yeah?” Flame grunts, turning back to the screen as warnings for the approaching time limit start to blink.

“Don’t tell the others about war yet.” Arcane requests. “I want them to sleep well for a few more days, at the very least.” Especially Fate, she thinks to herself. That girl would be beside herself with panic if she knew Arcane was in the middle of this battle.

Flame gives her a long look and nods. Dawn hesitates before doing the same, allowing Arcane to close her eyes and sigh in relief. “Thank you both. Stay safe. I’ll see-.” The screen flashes and goes dark before she can finish, leaving her speaking her last words to no one. “-you soon.”

Pulling the headphones off, Arcane rises to her feet and sees Williams clenching his fists in front of a similarly dark screen while Ey’Ruthanalas sighs and pushes herself away from her own terminated communication. Only Davis seems happy, sketching rapidly on a tablet and pulling Morninglow after him through the door.

“Ma’am.” Williams salutes Arcane as she rejoins the others. “I’ve been ordered to give you my full support until we reach the central axis. I am also instructed to hand you off to the highest authority I find there, if that is acceptable to you.”

Arcane nods, looking to the Captain who closes her eyes and shakes her head. “Evac’s no longer on the table. The enemy seeded vibro-rings throughout middle orbit; anything smaller than a destroyer runs a good risk of being shredded in there.”

“I wasn’t planning on running.” Arcane shrugs. “Now HQ won’t try to make me.”

“Heh.” Ey’Ruthanalas snorts. “You’ve got guts, milady. Now if we could, I’d like to get back to my crew. We have a battle to fight.”

“Aye, let’s be on our way.” Williams replies, stretching as he pushes himself to his feet. “You’re not the only one who has a job to do, Captain.”

Arcane smiles quickly then clears her face before leading the way out of the communication room and into the courtyard. Ey’Ruthanalas grabs a few supplies from the pile and steps out to the edge of the barrier, eyes scanning for any approaching enemies. Arcane moves to stand beside her, both of them separating themselves a bit from the garrison soldiers and civilians who perk up as Williams comes out and climbs on top of a table.

“Alright boys, listen up!” He shouts, gathering a few dozen pairs of eyes. “A lot of you are wondering what’s going on; a lot of you are worried or scared. I can’t tell you not to be; hell, I’m a bit worried myself.” He smirks, gathering a few chuckles from the audience and relaxing their tension. Seeing that, his lips twitch before he pulls his hands behind his back. “A few minutes ago I made a call to Central command, in the Throne’s axis. They didn’t tell me much, but from what I gathered the space jockeys are doing their best to keep this place secure. The problem is, they’re outnumbered, outmaneuvered, and have a hell of a lot more to protect than just us. So, sorry, but they ain’t gonna be enough.”

The nerves return, several casting nervous glances towards the barrier and others clutching children or family close. The soldiers shrug for the most part, except for a few nervous gulps among the youngest looking. Interestingly, Corporal Morninglow is not among them.

“Things are looking pretty bad, aye. Ain’t much I can do to soften that.” Sergeant Williams speaks in a loud voice to drown out any sounds of panic. “But what I can tell you is we’re not going down without a fight!”

“Sir!” Several of the garrison shout, thumping their chests with their fists. Arcane and the Captain exchange a glance, identical thoughts of ‘Men’ running through their heads. Most others don’t seem to mind the demonstration of enthusiasm.

“The Central Axis holds, with the best soldiers in the universe fighting to keep it that way. Finale itself remains secure, the enemy unable to penetrate the distortion shields powered by our technology and magic. And, yesterday, the Dominion dispatched one of its war fleets to reinforce us. Our enemies hope we can’t hold that long; I say they’re wrong!” Williams continued, his voice raising even further over the stir among the soldiers. “They can have this place over our cold, dead bodies; and let me tell you, boys, that I don’t intend to make that easy.”

“Sir!” Another shout comes, the soldiers repeating the chest thumping gesture. “Yes, Sir!”

“That’s what I like to hear, boys!” Williams shouts, then turns to the civilians. “The outer rings are being abandoned and will be unpowered from central to purge the invaders who set up bases in them. We’re all heading to central; this is no longer an option. Am I understood?”

Scattered nods and a few muttered “yes”s come from the civilians, leading Williams to shake his head and sigh. “On your feet and let’s get moving. Grab some supplies; we’re going to need them.”

Soldiers and civilians boil into action, running over to take up packs of supplies or load up a few onto metallic carts. Arcane walks slowly over to lay her hand on a cache of heavy weapons and ammunition, then entire cache vanishing apparently into thin air as her fingers touch it. Wandering around the outer edge, she does the same to every other pile of supplies being ignored by soldiers and several that are not, leading some to gasp in shock. Williams approaches her after half the garrison’s supplies vanished under her hand.

“I seriously hope you have some way to access those, missy.” He says, eyeing her suspiciously. Arcane rolls her eyes and waves to make a massive stationary battery appear, fully locked and loaded and pointing out towards the edge of the barrier. Williams’ eyes widen and he slowly nods, unable to speak until she makes it disappear again.

“Thank you, milady.” He bows with sincere respect in his voice. “Your help will make this much easier.”

“Keep a few out for yourselves in case we get separated.” Arcane reminds him, looking over the garrison and seeing little else she would be better off taking herself. Williams bows one last time and runs off, grabbing a few packs and herding everyone out into the courtyard.

“Let’s get this show on the road!” He orders as metal seals close over the Garrison and lock with hisses of wind.

Arcane and the Captain find themselves near the front of the group, just behind Williams and his vanguard but ahead of most of the civilians. The barrier shimmers and fades as the power supplying it is cut off, but most of the people have already left it behind and are heading off into one of the larger tunnels blinking in crimson light. Nobody reacts to the near continuous explosions and tremors that signify the Throne is still under attack.

“So, who’d you call?” the Captain asks once they are clear of the garrison chamber.

“Just somebody back home.” Arcane replies. “What about you, Captain?”

“Somebody back home, hm?” The Captain hums suspiciously. “I see. As for me, I made a call to Fleet HQ; my squadron is to probe the vibro-rings and try to find a safe path through. Oh, and just call me Rutha. We’re not talking as military right now.”

“I’d prefer to keep some distance, Captain.” Arcane declines politely, her eyes fixed ahead of them. “There will be plenty of dead at the end of this day anyway.”

The Captain says nothing for a time, then sighs. “And the next, and the next, and the one after that. Plenty of blood to go around, and for what?”

“For what they think is right.” Arcane says, looking back at the people gathered behind them. “Our enemy may be deluded, they may be unreasonable, but they will have a reason they think is enough to die for. That’s the way it always is; that’s the way it always has been.”

“...” Ey'Ruthanalas looks at her gently. “You are far kinder than I.”

“I am anything but.” Arcane rebuts with a shake of her head. “For no matter how good their reasons, I will destroy them for my own. That is not kindness, but brutality.”

“Perhaps.” the Captain smiles. “But I cannot help but feel that if more people thought the way you did, the world would be a better place.”

“Everybody’s human, Captain.” Arcane says with a frown. “Born to fight, defined by struggle, destined for conflict. Just because every last one of them is good, does not mean the entirety is.”

“Human.” The elven woman frowns slightly, her eyes distant. “But honestly, are we?”

“Yes.” Arcane replies, without a trace of doubt or hesitation in her voice. “We both are.”

The Captain says nothing at that, still staring off into space while following behind the vanguard of garrison soldiers. They made good time, less than ten minutes passing between leaving the garrison and reaching the tram station ten minutes later. Ey’Ruthanalas runs to join her shuttle, floating serenely above the tram with half a dozen fellows, while Arcane waves goodbye to her back.

Williams has his crew inspect the tram for damage while the civilians wait nervously. Arcane observes the surroundings and concludes there is no immediate danger, letting herself relax on one of the station benches. Battle is often like that, she notices. Moments of heavy action interrupted by hours upon hours of quiet, preparing for the next move or in the middle of making it. Even the explosions that were seconds apart at their zenith calm to fewer than three during the entire fifteen minute inspection.

“Alright, everything’s safe! Let’s get moving, everyone!” Williams calls once the inspection is finished, beckoning for the civilians to board first while the soldiers start setting up defenses on the tram. He catches Arcane before she can board and pulls her to the side to talk.

“Can you get some of those heavy weapons set up on the forward and rear?” He asks once they’re out of earshot of the others. “The central axis isn’t completely under ally control and I don’t want to be caught unaware.”

“I can place one at the front and three at the rear.” Arcane glances over the train and gives her assessment. “Any more and we’d be losing speed for more firepower.”

“Four ought to be enough. I’ll have Morninglow show you where.” Williams agrees, waving the childish half fairy over and telling him what he just told Arcane. “Oh, and try to be discreet about it. We don’t want any panic.”

Morninglow and Arcane first walk to the front of the tram, where Arcane sets a heavy kinetic launcher with plasma capability on the roof and melts it into place with her magic. A couple of boxes of ammunition, mostly energy cells, are also set beside it for the soldiers who swarm over the setup to deal with later. Then the pair travel to the back of the serpentine vehicle to start attaching another three in various places around the last two segments.

“Think here will work?” Morninglow asks.

“Too much drag when firing sideways. A bit more towards the center.” Arcane suggests.

He backs up a step and waves towards a new location. “Here?”

“Might as well.” Arcane shrugs, setting the next launcher in place, fully armed and ready. She then duplicates that setup on the other side, a few meters backwards and inwards to equalize the torque on the vehicle. The two inspect their work and nod in satisfaction before heading to the very last car.

“So is it true Magia has absolutely no racism?” Morninglow asks while Arcane removes the back wall of the tram so the launcher will have a clear shot.

“Depends on how you define racism.” Arcane explains. “By our definition, then yes it is.”

“And what is that definition?” Morninglow asks curiously.

“Nobody treats anybody different because of their race.” Arcane replies, manifesting the launcher and sighting along the barrel.

Morninglow frowns, moving the ammunition boxes to the walls except for a couple of energy canisters he set next to the gun. “That sounds like no racism period. How else do you define it?”

“It depends on whether you want everyone treated the same, or everyone treated equally.” Arcane answers acidly. “Apparently, those are not the same.”

“Oh, the ‘value individual cultures’ folks.” Morninglow says in comprehension, shaking his head. “Those people are idiots.”

Arcane focuses on welding the legs of the launcher to the floor before shaking her head. “Oh, they’re not the worst. I particularly hate the ‘can’t help it because of their race’ and the ‘inequality of outcomes implies inequality of systems’ groups quite a bit more.”

Morninglow glances at her with a question in his eyes, and she sighs and explains. “Most of the wealthy in Magia are Magi, and most of the poorest are human.”

“Ah.” He grunts, rolling his eyes. “Though… magi? Aren’t those banned?”

Arcane stops moving and gives him an ice cold look. Morninglow starts shivering, backing away while waving his hands in apology. “Ah, ah, sorry, sorry. I didn’t mean any offense.”

Arcane glares at him a while longer and then returns to her work. “You shouldn’t imply someone shouldn’t exist just because of their race, you know?” She mutters.

“It was not my intention.” Morninglow apologizes. “Though that does make me understand the complaints a bit better.”

“... How so?” Arcane asks in a flat tone, her eyes fixed on her work.

Morninglow doesn’t notice her far less dangerous displeasure and scratches his head. “I mean, humans aren’t a race that’s great at any one thing, so they sort of need the jack of all trades spot open in a society to succeed. They have a few geniuses, sure, but most of the time they’re weaker than the other races at specialization. But, if you add some Human=Magi…” He shrugs. “Those spots all vanish. Plus, Magi are engineered to be superior in practically every way; they’re just not fair from birth. It’s impossible to beat a Magi at anything because they just crush you on sheer genetics and natural talent. Even if you practice your whole life and are of a race specialized in that thing, a Magi can give you a run for your money after a few months or so. Plus they’re better looking and don’t have any weaknesses at all… is it any wonder everyone else hates them?”

“I don’t see it that way.” Arcane says with the same emotionless tone. “Talent is as much a part of a person as anything else, isn’t it? Especially if one expects to succeed in Magia, talent should be taken under consideration.”

Morninglow shrugs. “Yeah, sure. But Magi compete equally to everyone else when every law and system is stacked against them; is it any wonder people hate it if the deck is made fair and yet it seems like they’re cheating?”

“They are not, though.” Arcane reminds him. “Shouldn’t that be taken into consideration?”

“I mean, yeah, sort of.” He replies sheepishly. “But if nobody else can succeed simply because they’re not Magi, how is that any different from racism?”

“Because the playing field was level.” Arcane replies coldly. “One should not punish the fastest runners simply because they are faster, nor should one take the eyes of those who see too clearly or the ears of those who hear too much.”

“Of course not.” Morninglow shakes his head. “But sometimes people are born crippled, and we do not deny them a wheelchair, do we?”

“And if those wheelchairs were made motorized, able to outrun all those with legs?” Arcane asks back. “Should we not consider scaling them back a bit, or at least providing them to everyone whether crippled or not?”

“Against Magi? They’ll still keep up just fine.” Morninglow dismisses, waving his hand and looking over the gun. “I think everything’s set up here just fine; I’ll go tell the Sergeant.”

Arcane nods and stays behind, looking out at the tunnel behind her and shaking her head. “Fairness only applies at the start of the race; past that it’s time to determine a winner.” She mutters to herself, then smiles grimly. “The issue is, how do you define that start?”

Arcane shrugs, following after Morninglow towards the populated portion of the tram. The tram starts running while she’s walking, the metallic serpent lurching into motion before sliding along the tunnels circling the ring. It picks up speed as it moves, the tunnel blurring beside them as the shuttles above accelerate from a lazy half glide to powered flight. Above and below are equally quiet, an eerie silence punctuated only by the echoes of far distant conflicts.

Arcane heads past the civilians settling into the passenger seats and towards the military leaders in the forward cabins. A few look up and give her a nod as she enters, but most ignore her. Williams doesn’t even spare her a glance as she settles into a seat just behind him.

“We’re far from the hotpoints now, but pretty soon we’ll have to dive through enemy strong points nearer the central axis.” Williams tells Davis, the large soldier who accompanied them to communications, while he taps a holographic map floating in front of them.

“Sir, we should be able to use these back tunnels to avoid the majority of danger.” he points out, marking several red dots far from the indicated route of travel. “We’ll have to cut through three suspected strong points, but that’s before we enter the covered tunnels and lose air support.”

“Absolutely out of question. I want us much closer to the central axis before we engage; if they predict our route, it becomes a lot less safe. Too many enemies are within striking distance of your back tunnels.” Williams refuses, pointing to a different route that avoided red points until the very end. “This way, we only have to fight one time before we’re back in ally territory.”

“Sir, that area is going to be heavier than my three combined. Can we really break through without air support?” Davis asks, pulling up a display of the tram with several numbers surrounding it. “This isn’t a very stable fighting vehicle anyway.”

“We don’t need to win, we just need to make a hole and keep it open.” Williams declares. “We can do it, Davis. We have to.”

“Aye, sir. I’ll set the course.” Davis nods, feeling it would be pointless to argue further.

“Excellent. Now, milady.” Williams says, turning to Arcane. “Thank you for the guns. It gives us a lot more options than hope for enemy incompetence.”

“We still have to anyway.” Arcane notes, looking over the display. “These are only recorded hotspots; there may be enemies laying low in other places.”

“Of course there are.” Williams agrees without hesitation. “But if we wait to know where they are we’ll never get anything done.”

Arcane nods acceptance, leaning back and closing her eyes against the wall. It might be quite a while before they managed to get any sleep again, after all.


A note from Acarnina

Part 2: with Battle Unrelenting

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