Skyfire Avenue Chapter 191-200

Chapter 191: Miracle? Masterstroke!

Tan Lingyun burst forward in a speedy dash the moment the bout began. Her Anticipative Advance was near flawless. Her speed and control made it clear, she was a solid Sovereign- ranked pilot – but the difference between her and Xiao Han was expansive.

Xiao Han was only just crossing the Sovereign threshold. He was learning the basic techniques, largely from textbooks and indices. Tan Lingyun, on the other hand, was old school. What’s more, she was the most capable pilot in the NEU – at least, as far as they knew. Her Sovereign experience was extensive, comparatively. Even in the whole of the Eastern Alliance, she was a name that was recognized.

But her opponent was not so easily cowed. As Tan Lingyun raced forward, Su He’s reaction was unexpected. Instead of dodging or racing away, he chose not to make an escape. There was no attempt to keep their distance fixed, nor did he heft and aim his weapon.

Instead, he urged his mecha to dart head-on towards the oncoming Savage Goddess.

What was he planning? Countless confused stares followed the yellow mecha, unsure of the tactics at play.

The two mecha drew ever closer. Tan Lingyun sat in the dark simulator, the full intensity of her focus on the screen before her. Like the others, she wasn’t sure what Su He was doing by charging her. But her indomitable will was stronger than the metal her suit was made of. She refused to be intimidated.

The green mecha’s arms splayed out to the side, and with them the small wings spread wide. Its mechanical hands flared, and a pair of three-meter long spikes protruded from the palms.

They were clearly close-ranged implements, and as they appeared the Savage Goddess coaxed her suit faster. The thrusters keeping her aloft changed from an angry red to a dazzling white. Less than one hundred meters remained between the two fighters. She tore ahead like a green hurricane.

Su He’s yellow suit stopped just then, hovering in the air. It seemed somehow, fuzzy.

Crash! The crunch of impact as the suits collided rang from the screens.

Su He remained where he’d stopped, but Tan Lingyun’s forward momentum had her reeling another hundred meters away.

Onlookers noticed, then, the weapon the yellow mecha bore. They had appeared at some point before impact, and the wicked looking things stretched from hand to shoulder, wrapped around his arm. It was an odd item that originated from the suit’s elbow.

Close combat? He had the giant canon on his back, but appeared to have chosen to engage Tan Lingyun in close.

Professor Tan had, by this time, swung her suit around her another pass. As she did, the audience could clearly see two deep gashes along her shoulders.

She was already damaged. In fact, were it not for her energy shield, she’d likely have been cut in half. At first, this looked like a simple hand to hand fight, but this was a shock to everyone.

Most onlookers couldn’t clearly discern what happened when he two mecha collided. All they saw was that, suddenly, Tan

Lingyun’s mecha was damaged.

Su He’s yellow mecha was on the move once again. But it was in no rush – no charge or tricky advance. It looked more like a leisurely jog. Once it drew within about a hundred meters, the mecha… flickered. At first it looked like a glitch, or maybe some malfunction of the suit, but as the audience watched the screens they saw a ghost image of the yellow fighter appear – for just a split second.

What the hell was that? Everyone was at a loss. It was a normal reaction, for only the highest level mecha pilots would have an inkling.

“Ghosting?” Wang Hongyuan gasped in alarm. He twisted his neck to talk to Lan Jue, but found the seat beside him empty. Lan Jue apparently hadn’t yet returned from his ‘bathroom break’.

Wang Hongyuan turned his eyes back to the screen, his heart fluttering. Of course he knew it was ghosting. It was the result of intense speed, where a pilot’s thrusters were engaged and shut off so quickly the mecha appeared in two places at once for just a moment. It was a God-ranked pilot ability.

DreamNet simulations were calibrated for safety. That meant that abilities and attacks were only employed to where the pilot could stand it. If they couldn’t, the simulation forced them to stop for safety. So, in DreamNet using the ability was somewhat easier due to the calibrations, but even then it was well beyond the ken of a normal pilot. Wang Hongyuan wasn’t capable of the feat himself, since his hand speeds weren’t fast enough.

Ghosting also had different ‘levels’. At the highest levels it was said the after-image was persistent, like it really was a doppleganger. An attacker couldn’t distinguish the real one from the copy. The very best pilots were reputed to do just that, with distances up to ten meters between the real mech and the ghost.

Su He wasn’t at that level, and the images he cast lasted so briefly it was hard to notice. Still, it was there, and nearly half his torso long. That was an accomplishment most pilots could never achieve.

The tactical benefit of the maneuver was misdirection. Making determinations on target, direction and more were made infinitely more difficult. Even radar couldn’t pick it up. It was traditionally used versus snipers, but this time the sniper Su He was the one using it.

Tan Lingyun watched from the simulator, her mind blank.

The crowds couldn’t see clearly, even with their eagle-eye view, what had happened. But Tan Lingyun, she should’ve. Should’ve, being the operative term.

The moment before impact, her green suit had been launching towards Su He, spikes bared like animal claws. For a moment she thought she’d landed the blow, but before her eyes she saw the spikes go through him, and then he vanished. He stood just slightly out of harm’s way. In that same instant he had mauled her.

Had she not instinctively poured full energy in to the shield, she’d have been reduced to scrap right then.

Tan Lingyun was stunned, and took stock of the situation. She was fast, with a hand speed that was more than sufficient for her rank. On average, a Sovereign pilot required twenty moves per second. She was capable of twenty-five, which in and of itself was an impressive feat.

But in that split-second confrontation with Su He, she was already well aware of her disadvantage. The young man’s hand

speed was around forty, nearly double her own. Forty combat maneuvers in a second, that was what she faced.

Wang Hongyuan was able to distinguish the ghosting method, so of course Tan Lingyun could as well. He wasn’t a God-ranked pilot, but damned if he wasn’t close to it.

It was over. She’d already lost, it was just that simple.

To the uninitiated the difference between a Sovereign and God-ranked pilot seemed surmountable; just a single rank difference. However, in reality even ten Sovereign pilots didn’t stand a chance against one God. That’s why they called them that. In the world of mecha piloting, the higher you climbed the greater the differences between peers.

Once one became a God-ranked pilot, there were no further ranks to attain. But that didn’t mean all pilots were the same there, either, and those in the know understood that there could be vast differences in ability from one God to another.

Mmmmhhhhzzzzz!

A powerful sense of dizziness washed over Tan Lingyun. In the next instant, she was assailed by the unpleasant sensation that she was being pulled apart. Even here in the simulation, she was forced to employ her Discipline to stave off the terrible feeling.

She lost? This was the feeling one had when they were being obliterated in DreamNet. It was a feeling she hadn’t encountered in quite some time, she thought bitterly.

She brought her powers to bear, to fight off the evil feeling. However, she couldn’t shake the dimness that was suddenly clouding her vision. She was struggling to even see the controls in front of her. Her body and eyes weren’t working in tandem.

Impossible! This was a simulation, not a real mecha fight. And if her suit was destroyed, the fight would have ended already.

What was going on?

Tan Lingyun took a deep breath, and tried to regain her composure. She focused her attention back on the fight at hand.

Outside, the audience was an in absolute uproar!

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It was indeed an uproar. Students and teachers alike gaped at the screen. They hollered and gesticulated, stunned by the display.

What did they see? A miracle.

In the moment Su He’s yellow mecha split in to its double image, those pilots in the know felt their hearts sink. But their depression was short lived. The green mecha that was their mecha blurred before their very eyes just before the Su He approached and landed his blow, and split in half.

It hadn’t been cut in half. Instead, it appeared to miraculously change midflight until it birthed a second copy. An identical mirror-image.

Su He’s strike had passed right through the phantom mecha, but the true one remained. This is what the crowd had witnessed.

A miracle? No, a masterstroke! And the people stared on with eyes wide and mouths agape.

Was this even possible for a pilot to do? Before this moment, no one would have thought such a thing possible.

Wang Hongyuan was among them. He had just been bemoaning Su He’s ghosting ability.

But this was real ghosting. It had birthed an actual phantom image. And it was their own Savage Goddess who’d pulled it off.

He suddenly felt like an injection of blood rushed through his mind. He was on his feet, overflowing with excitement.

Seeing something like this was a memory that would etch itself on your spirit forever.

Chapter 192: Lei Feng!

A yellow projection and a green doppleganger faced  each other in the sky.

The moment had passed in an instant, barely the blink of an eye. But it had lit a fire in the hearts of the entire audience.

Su He sat calmly within the sim pod. His features were peaceful, though there was a cold light in his eyes. And then his eyes went wide – he couldn’t believe what he’d just seen.

Clearly he had the upper hand in mecha control, or so he’d thought. But then…

It was real ghosting. What could this mean? He understood probably more than anyone.

Godly. Only God-ranked pilots could do what she did.

For Su He, his after-image could stretch about three-fourths the length of himself to any direction. It was the height of his abilities, constrained by his hand speed which hovered around

forty-six.

As everyone knew, hand speed was very important to a pilot. However, training it wasn’t exactly easy. Specifically, getting it above ten moves a second wasn’t all that hard, but every inch of progress beyond that was a fight.

Second-class Emperor pilots needed a fixed speed of twelve movements per second to be considered as such.  First-class pilots needed fourteen. Sovereign second-grade required eighteen, while first-class was twenty.

For pilots, reaching twenty commands was a watershed moment. There was good reason they said the difference between a God and Sovereign pilot was an immeasurable gulf – and the hand speed required for it was a fair indicator as to what that was.

A God-ranked pilot required a hand speed of forty to even be considered for promotion. It was the most basic requirement, and one the vast majority of pilots would never achieve in their lifetimes.

As such, the number of registered Sovereign pilots out-

numbered their Godly counterparts by several hundred times. In all the three alliances, the total number of Sovereign pilots hovered around ten thousand, whereas there were only a few hundred God-ranked pilots.

Su He himself wasn’t yet a full-fledged God-ranked pilot. Although his hand speed was sufficiently fast, he was still lacking in several of the other criteria. Still, he was confident he’d have his title in less than three years.

He was proud of his achievements, and confident in his abilities. In fact, as very nearly a God-ranked pilot, he rarely encountered anyone that was a challenge to him.

Xiao Han, it could be said, was his ‘half student,’ he’d trained him some since coming on for the competition. And although on the surface he was calm, inside he was a torrent of rage at the loss his pupil suffered. His presence now the arena was to hurt his enemy’s pride, as they had hurt his.

However, the moment he saw the ghosting image of the green mecha appear before him, he knew he had to swallow his indignation.

His spine was straight, and a cold shudder passed along his spine from head to tailbone. He was determined, no more hesitation.

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The nimble green mech had miraculous employed the perfectly cultivated ghosting maneuver to avoid Su He’s attack. But since, neither had made a move to advance.

They were separated by five hundred meters of air and clouds.
They hung in the air, regarding one another.

It wasn’t just the crowd that had been startled by the events of their fight. Tan Lingyun, alone in the dark of the sim pod, was just as stunned. Mostly, though, her surprised lay in the fact that she was somehow still in the fight. She had no idea what had just happened, or why her opponent was giving her such a wide berth when he had the upper hand. Why wasn’t he smashing her suit into little bits?

She reached out to urg her mecha forward almost unconsciously. The was not yet finished, and her own pride and willpower wouldn’t allow her to give up. She knew the chances

of her losing her great, but she wouldn’t give the Lir bastards the satisfaction of seeing her quit.

Her fingers danced over the controls. And nothing happened.

At first she thought maybe she wasn’t pressing hard enough. She banged on the keyboard, but nothing happened. Her mecha simply wasn’t responding.

What was going on? Was there a problem? Was her suit broken? Systems crash? No, her suit wasn’t some cheap slapped-together thing, but an expensive combat machine. It was an excellent quality suit, one in which she’d never encountered a problem before.

A deep voice rang through the simulator.

“If you want to win this fight, then you’ll sit there and not move. Concentrate, and watch closely.”

“Huh?” Tan Lingyun was absolutely struck dumb by the circumstances. “Who are you,” she blurted out without thinking.

The voice answered softly. “In Ancient China, there was a man – a hero – who dedicated himself to serving the people. His name was Lei Feng. I suppose that’s what you can call me.”

Link to wikipedia article about the man, a PLA soldier and cultural hero. Lei Feng is the premier people’s hero, a man whose exploits (likely largely fictitious) were always entirely for the benefit of the working man and the communist government. He’s the Chinese version of mother Theresa, though I’m convinced he was built up to be an icon of communist propaganda. But that’s a discussion for another time, the important cultural reference is that his life is celebrated every year. During the celebration young people in schools are forced to participate in community beautification projects like planting trees, or told to stand on street corners and help the elderly. The result is that the fine public improvement campaign is marred by constant pro-government rhetoric and disenchanted youngsters who are upset they have to stand in the scorching heat. People will espouse the virtues of a ‘Life like Lei Feng’ almost by rote when national pride is brought in to the equation, but largely disdain the holiday and the thinly veiled government propaganda that’s attached to it.

“Serving the people? Lei Feng?” Tan Lingyun could only repeat the words. She was at a loss.

But she had no time to dwell on her confusion. Su He’s yellow mecha was moving, brandishing its massive laser cannon. Almost instantly there was a dazzling red blast.

Snipers were experts at being adroit, nimble. This was paired with skill and speed, so that at the highest ranks a sniper didn’t need any form of radar or even aim once their target got within a certain distance. They could discharge their weapon based on feel. It had a name they’d taken from the old days, gunslinging.

Also in this moment, Tan Lingyun again felt that intense discomfort as dizziness flooded through her. However, this time she was quicker, and her Discipline flared up in defense. Her eyes remained clear, this time, and she was shocked at what she saw.

An image of herself, standing not far away. Ghosting!

The first time the audience saw this move in action, it was exciting. This time, the onlookers nearly exploded in uproar.

The two green figures merged, without her input, Su He’s deadly laser skimming harmlessly passed.

God ranked! Now, Su He had no doubt. His opponent was actually a Godly pilot!

Having a hand speed of forty moves her second didn’t automatically mean one was a God-ranked mecha pilot. However, if a pilot’s speed reached fifty moves – fifty effective moves – then there was no question of their status.

But that wasn’t the whole story. Tan Lingyun’s shadow was entirely separate from the original mecha, and that meant fifty moves was the absolute minimum. By what he saw the after- image was also stable and persistent, that meant fifty-five moves.

Twice now she’d employed the ghosting method with flawless execution. She’d revealed herself to be a masterful pilot, with a frightening speed of hand.

For the first time, Su He’s mind was blank.

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Not far from where the teachers fought and the students

observed, a tall white building peeked over the hill.

It was the sim warehouse for the mecha combat department. It was abandoned now, like the rest of the campus, as the competition continued outside.

But there was one pod nestled among the many dark simulators that was powered on.

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Skyfire Avenue.

The room was full of clutter; various books and pieces of electronic equipment were strewn hodge-podge with no particular system. Many of the books looked worn and well- read.

A figure with tousled hair was perched atop a chair, cross- legged. His eyes were wide as he watched the screen before him, the lollipop in his mouth nearly falling free.

Images of the exchange competition flashed across the screen, illuminating the area around the man.

“Heh, alright so DreamNet itself is impossible to hack in to – it’s processors and servers are simply too strong. Those sim pods at the school, though, are nothing. You’re gunna owe me a favor for this one, Jewelry Master. But damn is he fierce! I didn’t see the actual fight last time when we were in the Starfields. I had no idea he was this fast. Is he even a human? He’s even fast than me!”

Bang bang! A knock rattled the door.

“Who is it?” The scruffy looking man shouting towards the visitor begrudgingly.

“Master, the Lord would like to see you.”

“Eh! What’s that old man up to. I’ll be there in a moment.” The man shot to his feet, and ran his fingers through his mess of hair. As he rushed out of the room, it was clear he held this ‘Lord’ in high regard.

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Su He’s eyes lit up as something popped in to his head. It was the look of a man who’d discovered something invaluable. There was something else there as well, hard to define – a sort of fervor.

A god-ranked pilot. At last. Excellent… simply excellent.

By now he’d already forgotten his mission here. He’d forgotten about the thousands of eyes that watched. Right now, in this moment, all he wanted was to pit his all against this worthy opponent.

He knew well that the fact he hadn’t broken in to God-rank yet was closely related to the fact that he hadn’t any suitable challengers to spar with. At his level of ability, it was difficult to find things that stretched him. It was pressure that forged a great pilot.

This was a chance he couldn’t afford to waste, no matter the circumstance or consequence.

The yellow mech launched in to motion. However, this time it wasn’t directly towards Tan Lingyun. Instead he went upwards, getting lost in the clouds and mist.

The green mecha was also on the move. The wings at its back constricted, and thrusters sputtered to life. A glimmering contrail remained as Tan Lingyun raced towards Su He.

The green mecha made no attempts at dodging or concealment as it charged ahead. It seemed as though the pilot were entirely unconcerned with potential attacks from the sniper.

However, nestled in her simulator, Tan Lingyun saw this was anything but the brazen calm her mecha displayed. Through her heightened perception, she could feel the simulator rocking, though it’s movements weren’t as fierce as they had been moments before. Still, the frequency of the shudders where about the same. What this meant was that, even though the mecha looked to be flying straight, it was moving around at such speed and frequency that the yellow mecha couldn’t use its instrumentation to get a lock. They were similar to the ghosting maneuvers, but doing so while charging forward was in another class entirely from doing so while standing still. It was undoubtedly the sign of a highly skilled pilot.

Tan Lingyun didn’t even know if there was a name for it.

She was full of curiosity at her predicament. Just as the voice had commanded, she knew the most important thing for her to do in this moment was watch carefully. Memorize every detail. She knew her future improvement depended on it.

Chapter 193: THIS Is God-Ranked!

The difference in equipment quality for the  two  mechas wasn’t much. As such, the green mecha wasn’t significantly faster than the yellow.

Before long Su He’s mecha dipped in to the cloud cover. The stately green predator followed half a second behind.

Here the benefits of a sim match were made apparent, for as they drilled through the clouds and mist the spectator’s screens filtered them out and revealed a crystal clear picture. Now, they could see every minute detail of the fight despite the environment.

Su He did not pause as he penetrated the clouds. He became distorted and difficult to pinpoint, with a fuzzy grey light hovering around him. He looked very much like the clouds he hid in. More importantly, however, this aura he exuded hid the fluctuations of his mech and discipline power.

Slowly, he lifted the laser cannon to his shoulder. He continued to move backward through the mist while carefully aiming for the encroaching green hunter.

The suit stopped. Tan Lingyun felt the vibrating of the sim pod come to a halt, and although she couldn’t see Su He she was immediately filled with dread. What was this person doing? Why where they stopped when a sniper likely had their sights trained on her, especially a sniper as strong as this?

It was an opportunity Su He couldn’t afford to miss. With a sizzling bang, the laser cannon released its first shot. The clouds turned an angry red as the sizzling laser raced towards its target.

But what happened next was a strange turn, for just as the laser was set to obliterate Tan Lingyun, a powerful green aura gushed forth. The nimble mech side-stepped ever so slightly, as the verdant light congealed in to a thick layer before its chest.

The laser burst in to a fiery explosion, but the brunt of its force was avoided with the juke. The rest was deflected by the intense shield.

The impact force caused the suit to spin around.

Su He saw how his attack was mitigated until it was useless. In surprise and frustration, he began the procedures to ghost his suit once more.

He knew God-ranked pilots didn’t do anything unless it specifically granted them a combat advantage. There was definitely a reason the green mecha had stopped to suffer the strike.

As expected, the moment his shadow appeared he saw a green flash streak by. He broke out in a cold sweat.

The light had been one of the suit’s spikes, fired from its hand at incredible speed.

Su He stopped on a dime, refusing to let inertia pull him to the side. It was a poignant display of his mastery. The sudden change in trajectory saved him, for as anticipated a second flash of green raced past. Had he kept going, that spike would have impaled the cockpit.

Sweat had already soaked through Su He’s flight suit. The intensity was oppressive, and an underlying fear crept through his brain as he continued to narrowly avoid destruction.

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In the sim pod.

Tan Lingyun watched the exchange on her screens, absorbed in every tiny detail. Though she wasn’t the one piloting the suit, she was nevertheless full of a deep satisfaction.

Her observations were interrupted when that deep voice from before filled her cockpit. “The reason for leaving myself open for the blast, was to resolve this fight as quickly as possible. He’s got a very powerful shield defense system installed in his suit, capable of blocking our radar. Add in the cloud cover, and he’s practically invisible. Nearly all high-level snipers are outfitted like this. So, the best way to determine a sniper’s location is to have him take a shot. The precondition, of course, being that you’re confident you can avoid or block the shot.”

As the voice was instructing, she did indeed see Su He’s mecha partially concealed in the clouds.

Su He had indeed avoided the two attack, but in the course of evasion was forced to stop his retreat. In the same instant Su He’s location was revealed, the green mecha launched forward at top speed. Spin, launch, sprint – three actions that blended seamlessly in to one. No movement was wasted.

By the time Su He reacted, trying desperately to turn and flee, the green mecha was already hovering directly in front of him.

However, Su He’s training was immaculate, and his estimation of the situation appropriate. He knew that running at the needed speed would take time, time he didn’t have. If he tried, his enemy would catch up quickly, with his back exposed. What’s more, though his cannon was a far sight better than his student’s, it still needed time to cool before another shot could be fired. There wasn’t time for him to fire one off before Tan Lingyun could land a fatal strike.

So he didn’t run. Instead his hands relaxed around the grip of the laser cannon, allowing the powerful weapon to fall away. His arms rose and warded him, the blades wrapped around them dull against the gray clouds. Close combat was his only option, now.

The green mecha was unarmed, having fired its spikes earlier.

Finally, the two mecha met once again. The audience watched with baited breath, throats tight with anxiety.

The green mecha stuttered. Ghosting?

No, or… yes?

It appeared as though there was some problem, that the maneuver failed. Though there was the hint of a phantom, it wasn’t as expertly executed as before. The image was only partially separate from the real thing, not unlike Su He’s own attempts earlier.

But Su He saw something else entirely.

Indeed, the ghosting image didn’t entirely separate, however it wasn’t two mechas he saw. It was three.

Three? Damn! What is his hand speed?! Su He was thunderstruck, and excitement shone in his eyes. He held no fear for such opponents, only anticipation. His fingers danced over the controls fervently.

The yellow mecha’s torso began to rotate at intense speed. The weapons stretching from its elbow sockets became a blur. He became a wall of whirling steel.

Su He was not one for defense. Otherwise he wouldn’t have

chosen a sniper mech for the battle. Right now, though, he had no choice. He faced three enemies now essentially, and he had no idea where the next attack could come from. Nor did he know what manner of attack it would be, considering his opponent’s abilities. All he had to rely on was his ultimate defense.

Suddenly, a giant mechanical fist appeared in front of his face.
She seemed to pay the spinning blades no mind.

Is she crazy? This was Su He’s first thought. After all, those weapons he wielded weren’t ordinary alloy blades. They were high-frequency concussive steel, the best you could buy. It was for this reason that Tan Lingyun’s shields had failed to deflect the attack, and the strike had still managed to damage her suit.

And it didn’t even have any weapons, resorting to fists. She was asking for death.

Su He didn’t know what his enemy was planning, but he did know that hesitation when fighting someone of this caliber was a death sentence. So he punched buttons on his keyboard, and the whirling weapons exploded outward like a deadly metal dervish. They swiped mindlessly, viciously at his attacker. The terrible humming blades captured his adversaries fist between

them.

Did she have time to retreat? No. Nor was there any trickery.
The green mecha planned to eat the attack straight on.

Tan Lingyun cried out in alarm, watching from within the dark sim pod. She couldn’t understand why this person who called themselves ‘Lei Feng’ was acting so recklessly.

Crunch!

The sounds of impact reverberated through the air. The yellow mecha went flying, arms flailing and chest plate dented.

The green mecha’s thrusters fired at full strength, at the suit dissolved in to a piercing ray of light that shot forward.

He caught up, and the two suits stopped in that heavy cloud cover.

A moment later…

Boom!

The yellow mecha exploded in a fiery inferno.

“Su He’s mecha has sustained one hundred percent damage.
Victory: Tan Lingyun.”

Not a sound arose from the audience. They sat in silence, disbelieving, unsure of what happened.

“How… how did you do that?” Tan Lingyun asked quietly to the darkness of the simulator. She didn’t care who this Lei Feng actually was, she just had to know how he’d taken victory. It had all happened too fast for her to see.

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The VIP platform. Han Ruchao and Xu Renjian were comical mirrors of each other, staring wide eyed and slack-jawed at the screen.

Su He’s defeat had turned his earlier threats in to a joke. He’d

lost, and lost terribly. Their one-on-one bout, engaged at his request, ended up being a gift to the enemy.

“Renjian… did you see how your instructor won the fight?” Han Ruchao couldn’t help but ask his NEU counterpart, asking the question almost unconsciously.

Xu Renjian shook his head. “I didn’t see it clearly. The two suits were of about equal power. It looks like she won with her bare fists, though Su He’s defense should have deflected them. Somehow the strike must have landed, and then…  empty space.”

Han Ruchao sucked in an angry breath. “You’re certainly a sneaky one, Renjian. Keeping your cards very close to the chest. If this were some accident I could accept the loss, but… You must introduce this miracle pilot of yours to me later. I had no idea your university had managed to lure a God-ranked pilot on staff.”

Xu Renjian shot his rival a bitter smile. “I am pleased at our victory, Ruchao, but I am just as confused as you are. As far as I knew Tan Lingyun was a Sovereign-ranked pilot. I have no idea when or how she’s managed to make such a leap in power. It was quite the surprise, I assure you! Surprised doesn’t even

describe it.”

Xu Renjian shook his head, his fate face jiggling. He had to let go of his disbelief, for he’d seen it true. He went on, his face a mask of seriousness. “I suppose we should settle the terms of our wager, then.”

Han Ruchao’s face twitched as though in pain. “As straightforward as always.”

Xu Renjian huffed disdainfully. “And if you’d have won?
We’re all adults here, admit when you’ve lost and pay up.”

Chapter 194: Lei Feng Appears!

The sim pod opened.

Su He pulled himself from the dark and stuffy simulator. His face didn’t display any of the things you might expect; no depression or anger. Instead, he looked excited. Whether from emotion or the drama of the fight it was hard to say, but it was so intense that his hands were shaking.

He ran across to Tan Lingyun’s pod without hesitation.

However, the teachers and students had learned their lesson from watching Xiao Han. They warded Su He’s advance.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Tang Xiao gave the young instructor a hard look.

“Nothing,” Su He replied. “I have a great deal of respect for your instructor. I just wanted to properly introduce myself.”

Finally, Tan Lingyun’s pod opened, and the Savage Goddess pulled herself free. Her face was a mask of calm, like nothing

out of the ordinary had occurred.

“Greetings, Professor Tan,” Su He greeted with a nod of his head.

Tan Lingyun acknowledge him with a nod.

Su He took a breath, then spoke up with excitement clear in his voice. But there was also a pleading undertone. “Professor Tan. I am well aware that my own abilities are far inferior to your own, but I am very excited to watch your artistry in the physical battle. I am very fortunate to be able to learn from your instruction.”

Tan Lingyun was understandably stupefied. The mighty woman, in this moment, was intensely afraid of being discovered as a fraud.

It was evident that, had ‘Lei Feng’ not intervened, she would never have been a match for Su He. The battle had been a profound experience for her, one in which she got to experience fighting on an entirely different level first hand.

But the real fights were next, where Discipline and mecha combined. How could she maintain this ruse then? However, under the watchful eyes of her students, she had to keep it up.

If she acted in accordance with her nature, she’d absolutely have told the whole truth. However, in this moment, it wasn’t just herself involved. She represented the entire school. What’s more the God-ranked battle still had a hold on her heart, challenging her self-control. She may have only watched the exchange, but that didn’t mean she didn’t learn something. At the very least, she came away with a God-ranked pilot’s thought process.

Her mind was still mulling over just how her green mecha had managed to defeat Su He’s in the simulation.

Tan Lingyun brought her attention to the present. “Impressive close combat abilities. But answer a question for me; do you know how it is you lost the fight?”

The onlookers watched as their champion spoke. She seemed possessed of a mysterious and profound disposition, her words instructive rather than inquisitive. For all the world like a professor teaching a student.

Su He answered. “I know a part of it. In the moment when your suit collided with my defense, you most likely employed oscillation. The frequency of your fist and the vibration of my blades must have been at similar rates, nullifying my weapon’s advantages and dispersing their force. The rush and strike sent me flying. It broke my defense leaving my chest exposed. That’s when your second rush finished me.”

Students and teachers on both sides were enlightened by the explanation. Finally, they understood how the green mecha had achieved victory.

Tan Lingyun also understood, then, what had happened. She nodded. “Let’s prepare for the next round.”

Everyone there bought it. Everyone, that is, except Tang Xiao.
Something nagged at him.

Oscillation? Professor Tan was capable of the maneuver? A God-ranked pilot? Something wasn’t right. Tang Xiao  knew only one person who could employ such a skill.

And what a skill! Employing oscillation at just the right frequency to nullify those frightening blades. Could Professor

Tan really do such a thing?

Tan Lingyun walked towards the combat arena, calm and unhurried. There was no sense of hesitation or concern in her. The circumstances of their victory had been strange, but it opened up a whole new realm of knowledge to her.

It wasn’t ever Sovereign pilot who had the opportunity to witness a God-ranked battle first hand. It was an experience she knew was absolutely invaluable.

Oscillation! And the ghosting maneuvers earlier had shaken the simulator something fierce. To control the mecha despite that movement was an incredible feat in and of itself. Was this a glimpse at the power of God-ranked mecha pilots? She honestly didn’t know whether she’d have an opportunity to reach anywhere near that level in her entire lifetime.

It wasn’t just the masterful control of the suit that was inspiring, either. Watching the God-ranked pilot’s battlefield domination was also amazing. From the very instant Su He entered the simulated arena he was fighting for survival, and though his reactions were appropriate for every situation, the green mecha was able to adjust at every turn to maintain the advantage.

That was true ability! God-ranked pilots really were in a class all their own, she thought.

Tan Lingyun’s excitement was no less than Su He’s, though she kept it under wraps. She had been loathe to leave the simulator, anxious to get more instruction from the mysterious ‘Lei Feng’. She strongly believed that further instruction from this master would see her skills skyrocketing.

That deep voice was seared in to her memory. She may have walked away calm, but her heart thudded wildly in her chest.

It was a wonderful sensation. When the fights were finished, she planned to return to the pod. With any luck, ‘Lei Feng’ would still be there.

She arrived at the arena before she knew it. It was time to pick her suit.

Su He had arrived as well, though he had yet to pick his machine. He waited silently, watching Tan Lingyun approach. He offered her a respectful bow, then climbed in to a rifleman mecha.

Tan Lingyun took a deep breath. Whatever she was to face, she would face with grace. Indeed, she didn’t care whether she won or lost in their next encounter. Already her success and that of the Tang Xiao before her was an incredible leap forward for their university. Her sole fear was that she couldn’t live up to the showing in DreamNet. She was afraid it would raise questions.

Of course simulated battles and real fights were markedly different. They were using the most basic mechas available, and discipline would also play a role in this fight. The fight and its tactics would be entirely different. All were excuses she could rely on. So if she lost, she thought, then so be it.

As she pondered the circumstances, she walked over to the closest mecha – a saber suit. She had a preference for close combat.

“Pick the second suit.”

That deep voice rang in her ear, as though he were standing right beside her.

She stopped dead in her tracks, eyes wide.

Yes! It was ‘Lei Feng’ once again. He’s asked me to pick another suit… does this mean he has a way to help me? Is this even ok?

Though her heart was filled with surprise and delight, she constrained herself and did as instructed. After all, her opponent was not one to be trifled with. Was a second miracle in her cards?

These simple practice suits weren’t equipped with fancier equipment like tractor beams or transporters. As such she had to rely on ladders.

She pulled herself up with little effort, and hit the power button for the suit. The chest plate hissed as it snapped open. The inner cockpit was revealed.

These suits were possessed of only a small, factory standard cockpit. There was only just enough room for the pilot.

And there was already someone inside.

It was him? HE was ‘Lei Feng’?

He was dressed in strange clothes, like they were from the former era, and a golden mask. The only thing she could see was a pair of electric blue eyes.

The various students following her, however, saw no one.

The masked Lei Feng gave her a wave. Then patted his lap.

Wha-? Get in and sit on his lap?

Her face blazed red, unsure of how to proceed.

“You better hurry if you want to win this fight.” The deep voice called out to her.

She couldn’t afford to hesitate, not with everyone watching.
She grit her teeth, and climbed in.

What to do? What to do?

Tan Lingyun tried to keep herself dignified, but all of that fell

away when she pulled herself in to the cockpit. Never in her life had she had to contend with a situation like this.

The masked man reached down and pulled her up by the arm. To Tan Lingyun, it was like some great unseen force was yanking her in to his arms. The chest plate shut, under the masked man’s command. The cockpit felt intensely cramped.

The man’s hands her under her armpits, adjusting her position so that she had her back to him and her butt on his thighs. The seat harness swept passed and clicked, pressing her against him.

She felt his warmth against her, the strength of his torso. She felt heat rise up within her as well; here she was locked in a small room, pressed tightly against some man! One could imagine Tan Lingyun’s anxiety.

“Who… who are you?”

“Lei Feng!”

“It’s you!” Tan Lingyun’s heart fluttered. Her shyness and

curiosity about the man diminished somewhat, and she tried to crane her head back to get a better look at him.

Chapter 195: Don’t Move!

“Don’t move.” Lei Feng’s body stiffened. He was seated in close quarters, embracing a beautiful woman whose pert backside was nestled firmly in his lap. Beautiful suffering. And it only got worse the more she squiggled.

“Oh.” She stopped. “So what next?”

Lei Feng’s deep voice replied. “Later, when I tell you to employ your Discipline, make sure you exude it outwards. Follow my instructions to the word, and pay close attention to what happens. Remember everything you see and feel today, because this is what will improve your abilities.”

“Who the hell are you?” Tan Lingyun blurted out.

Lei Feng was silent for a moment. “Not important. All you need to know, is that I’m here to help.”

“But why are you helping?”

“We’re about to begin. Concentrate.”

Su He was already in his suit, and moving towards the arena.

Two long arm stretched from around Tan Lingyun’s tiny waist. Slender fingers settled on the suit’s controls.

Her heart skipped a beat. Unconsciously, she dropped  her head, and saw the pale hands as they worked. They were thin, but not bony. Pretty, was how she would describe them.

Pretty indeed, especially for a man’s hands. She found it curious a man could develop such feminine fingers.

She also spied the strange green ring on his left little finger. The diamonds, sapphires, and that strange triangular jadeite, all twinkling in the cabin’s dim light.

It was the ring that struck her most. She didn’t understand why, but it felt familiar. Where she might have seen it, however, she couldn’t say.

Where this any other man with such a ring, she’d look upon him with contempt. However this ring, on this man’s hand, was somehow different. It filled her with suspicion.

Those hands became a blur as they danced along the controls. Their movements didn’t effect Tan Lingyun at all, as though she weren’t even there to impede them. Lei Feng was doing his best to sit straight, with arms stretched forward to reach around her. It was very much like her was holding her in his embrace. She felt his breath at her ear as he craned his head to one side of her neck, in order to watch the screen.

His warm breath, proximity and indeed even his aura caused her face to redden visibly.

The saber mech lurched in to motion. Large steps swept the suit through the prep area, following on the rifleman’s heels.

“Professor Su. Please choose the arena.” Wu Junyi called out towards the sim match’s loser, giving him the opportunity to choose the battlefield as per their agreed upon rules. He, along with Shi Jiujiu of Lir, were the acting referees for this fight just as they were for the students.

“Arena.” Su He called out his choice without indecision. Indeed, the Arena would be his natural choice. It was the simplest and most direct terrain to experience his opponent’s God-ranked mastery and Discipline. That was his aim,  to witness and experience the powers of a God-ranked pilot, to

challenge himself under such pressure. He was almost sure the struggle would lead to a personal breakthrough.

What he didn’t know, was whether this God-ranked pilot he faced was going to apply enough pressure.

To Tan Lingyun it felt like her heart was beating a hundred- sixty times a minute. She could hear its thud in her ears.

“What are you thinking? Pay attention to what I’m doing. Listen for my command to use your Discipline.” His voice snapped her back to the present.

She was the Savage Goddess, she reminded herself, a woman whose emotions were far better managed than the average young woman. She bit the tip of her tongue, hoping the pain would quell her discomfort with the situation. She fixed her glimmering eyes on the hands in front of her.

The audience outside was buzzing, both with excitement and anticipation. As the battle neared, so too did the fervor of the crowd rise.

The screens overhead where replaying the recently completed sim battle.

They watched once more as Su He’s yellow mech first displayed it’s ghosting abilities, humble though they were. Then came Tan Lingyun’s display, shocking them all over again. It proceeded to the battle within the clouds, culminating with Su He’s oblivion.

The fight hadn’t been an overly low or long one. The entire thing had been over in around ten minutes. The audience watched as the replay continued in slow motion, though they were surprised to find that, even despite the slower speeds, it was still difficult to clearly determine what was going on. The primary reason for this was that the suits were incredibly fuzzy when employing their ghost techniques, even at greatly diminished frame rates. It was a poignant testament to just how fast they really were.

The students of both universities couldn’t pull their eyes from the screen. For them, still in school, they knew the opportunity to watch an exchange of this caliber was a rare treat. It left a deep impression on every single pair of eyes that watched the screen.

Who wouldn’t want to reach such levels of mastery, after all? Of course their desires were tempered with the understanding that only an exceptionally few people ever reached that level. For the vast majority this was the closest they’d ever get to God- ranked, and they drank in every moment like a fine wine, savoring it.

This was especially true for those in the know, who could recognize the fighters’ level of ability and illuminate the fact to their peers. They were the ones who got the passionate responses going.

Yes, it was a treat for all that they could watch such a high- level exchange with their own eyes. It was largely this fact that resulted in Lir University’s dean, Han Ruchao, change in mood.

He sat in quiet reflection, wondering whether he should work to mend the strained relationship between their respective learning institutions. They had a God-ranked pilot, after all!

There were probably only three universities in the whole of the Eastern Alliance that were capable of possessing a God- ranked pilot on staff. Only two saw their preeminent pilot involved in any actual teaching, and only rarely.

If word got out about this pilot, Han Ruchao mulled, the NEU would certainly enjoy a much higher enrollment rate. Worse, they’d adopt the attitude that came with being a famously strong university.

It was no wonder, then, why Poseidon had chosen to hold his concert here. Han Ruchao suspected and feared his presence was likely due to the fact they had a God-ranked pilot here among them. And a beautiful woman, no less.

Xu Renjian, unlike his Lir counterpart, wasn’t consumed by the gossip. As the Dean of the NEU he was absolutely clear on the abilities of his school and staff. This was especially true for Tan Lingyun. He could even say he watched her grow up. She held herself apart, was often cold and prickly, but was in the end a very fine young woman. She was frank, and  dutiful. Where she truly a God-ranked pilot, she wouldn’t have kept that a secret from him.

He had been present every step of the way, as Tanglingyun had grown and progressed. He’d never heard any indication that she was such a talented pilot.

There was a great chasm between a God-ranked pilot, and a Sovereign. It was a chasm that was famously difficult to cross.

This he knew.

So what was going on? Tan Lingyun, despite all he knew, most definitely displayed the mastery of a God-ranked pilot in the simulation!

Xu Renjian’s confusion roiled within him. He certainly had to find Tan Lingyun when all was said and done, and ask her about this whole situation.

ζ

At one corner of the bleachers.

Zhou Qianlin sat among her peers, biting her pink lip as though deep in thought.

Is that him? I’d asked him to help Professor Tan, was this his work? But how? And now here, in the real fight, there’s likely little opportunity to help her. How can he?

She was suddenly assailed by a pang of regret. Of course she

wanted to help her class leader, to save her from embarrassment. However, she was also afraid of having her bodyguard reveal himself. If he revealed his true powers, it would be impossible for them to maintain their close proximity. He wouldn’t be able pick her up or drop her off, or protect her at all.

Every spectator watched, their moods as numerous as they were. They waited in anticipation for the fight to begin.

The two mechas entered the arena; one swordsman, one rifleman.

Every soul present watched the screens before them, especially those in the mecha combat department. The last fight had been hard to imagine, with their high-level mechas and the separation of DreamNet. But these were suits these students used every day, about to employed in ways they could only dream.

What could these machines do, in the hands of top-level pilots? Not to mention the Discipline employed by the powerhouses. The students of the NEU all knew their Savage Goddess was an eight-level Talent, and would become stronger when paired with the suit she commanded.

The two suits lumbered in, then separated to opposite sides of the arena. Su He pulled his laser ripple in to his hands, and fixed his shining eyes on the distant challenger.

The saber mech’s stride was slow and easy. There was nothing in the gait that revealed its pilot’s frightening proficiency.

But was that so?

For Su He, that was not the case. He could see that each step of his opponent was covered by subtle defensive maneuvering. Each step was just as capable of defense as explosive attack. He had no doubt Tan Lingyun could coax her suit to its top speed in the blink of an eye, any moment she wished.

As the young instructor looked on, the statistics and information of their respectful suits danced through his mind.

Considering the suit statistics had reference value, however a pilot’s Discipline had to be taken in to account. It was that variable that made determining the enemy’s power and speed almost impossible.

“Ready to start.” Lei Feng’s deep voice hummed in Tan Lingyun’s ear.

She felt a nervous twinge rattle through her. Her eyes rose to the screen, and her hands rose to grip the harness that pinned her to the masked man. Her predicament forced her in to a demur posture she wasn’t used to, but there was clearly excitement at the prospect of what was to come.

Suddenly, a powerful attractive force arose from behind her. Tan Lingyun yelped, as she felt herself pressed tighter against the wide, warm chest of her benefactor.

It was an electric attraction, somehow forcing the two of them in to tighter proximity. Her presence in the tight cabin made it infinitely more difficult for Lei Feng to control the suit. The motion of the suit during combat was also likely to set her off balance, or cause injury. Lei Feng anticipated this, and pressed them together until they were practically one body.

Chapter 196: Diffusing Blade

“Begin!”

Both suits ground and clanged with the sounds of metal on metal as Wu Junyi’s voice rang out.

Su He’s rifle was in his hands and firing before the director even finished. The air sizzled as the angry flash rapidly closed the distance between Su He and Lei Feng. And yet, if he was aiming for the suit, he missed his mark.

The more astute in the audience, however, knew his plan. He had aimed for where Lei Feng would be, instead of for the suit itself. This would force the encroaching saber mech to stop, pinning it in place, at least for a time.

But Lei Feng was not foiled. He recognized the point of Su He’s early engagement, too. In response his metallic leg shot up, and the momentum had him reeling to the side.

It was well executed. Not only was the laser strike avoided, but the juke had him charging directly towards where the rifleman was sidestepping.

After the gun had fired, Su He coaxed his suit diagonally backwards. The saber mech was close behind.

Su He grit his teeth, fighting the discomfort that had begun to fill him up. His opponent was simply too good. He was dodging, but wherever he went his enemy was hot on his heels. Each passing moment made the pressure in his chest worse.

The rifleman planted its metal foot, suddenly changing directions. In the same moment he fired off several blasts from his laser rifle. The shots spread wide but despite their random appearance, were in fact aimed specifically towards the routes Lei Feng would have to use to advance. His shots were still defensive, attempting to create some distance between him and his enemy.

And once again Lei Feng saw it coming. The hulking saber suit stopped… and refused to move closer.

This was one advantage of the Arena, at least for long-distance fighters. While there were no obstacles in the way, forward mobility was difficult without any cover. Still, Lei Feng seemed disinterested in closing the rapidly spreading gap.

Tang Lingyun saw within the tight confines of the cockpit, staring raptly at the hands tapping away in front of her. The slim fingers tapped away at the keyboard, moving along as though it were the most natural thing for them to do, like they were a part of the machine itself. She couldn’t make out what keys he was pressing, exactly, but she could sense the rhythm in his keystrokes.

Indeed, they did have a special sort of tempo. His hand speed didn’t even appear too fast – really sort of relaxed. And yet the suit moved and stopped as though it had a life of its own. Everything was smooth like running water in a stream.

It looked like his hand speed was hovering around ten maneuvers a second, according to Tan Lingyun’s calculations. But despite the low number the moves were executed with frightening precision.

She couldn’t see what he was doing exactly, but she could tell
– along with everyone else – that there wasn’t any wasted motion in anything this ‘Lei Feng’ did.

This was an indication of true ability, of a master pilot! She couldn’t pull her eyes away, silently praising her benefactor’s skill.

“Guess. What do you think our opponent’s Discipline is?” Lei Feng’s voice called to her.

Tan Lingyun thought for a moment. “I’m not sure. But I can guess since he has a long-ranged suit, his powers revolve around energy promotion and precision. It could also be tracking or concealment. It must be within one of those categories.”

Lei Feng nodded. “You’re right,” he said softly. “But he’s a pilot of higher class, who’s still deciding to stick with a sniper. We can’t discount his close-combat capabilities. This means it’s even more likely his Discipline involves energy manipulation, which we know is a very explosive and powerful ability. If that’s the case, one well-placed strike from him can end the match. Whether in practices matches or real fights, make sure you keep a close eye on these sorts of pilots. They’re capable of sudden and frightening strength.”

By now Su He could also feel something wasn’t right. A faint red aura sprang up around him.

With the addition of the strange light, Su He’s suit adopted a more nimble gait. Its retreat was faster and more fluid. What’s more, as it fired again the laser blasts had turned an angry red, distinctly more empowered than the white flashes from

moments before. The rate of fire had increased, too.

“Pure energy control?” Tan Lingyun muttered thoughtfully.

“No. Not that simple. Energy injection. It’s time for us to reveal our hand, too, and finish this quickly.”

The suit dodged the rifle blast with little effort. An undulating green light began to emerge around the saber mech suit.

ζ

Xu Renjian’s brows furrowed as he saw the green light appear. Natural energy manipulation… that was certainly Tan Lingyun’s Discipline! Could that mean she really was a God pilot?

The saber mech adopted its own nimble stance, like a cheetah waiting to strike. It raced to the side, whereupon the audience gasped at what they saw.

The suit was going so fast it dissolved in to a flash of green

light. The beam shot through the arena faster than the eye could follow. It would appear for half a second as the light changed direction three times, but would vanish again just as quickly as it appeared. Somewhere in the interim, Lei Feng had drawn his alloy sword.

Low-end suits of this caliber weren’t suitable for maneuvers like ghosting. The construction of the suit wasn’t suitably strong enough to handle it. Not only would the suit fail to execute the ghost properly, the pilot could actually shake their suit apart in the process.

However, under the protection of the strange green light, the saber mech had achieved speeds nearing that necessary for ghosting. It advanced with frightening speed, and before they knew it the audience could see Tan Lingyun’s mecha closing in to striking distance on Su He. Fifty meters remained between them.

Lei Feng brought his sword-bearing right arm up, slashing viciously towards his opponent. A sonic boom of green light tore through the area between them.

Su He dove to the side. His suit wouldn’t be able to sustain a direct assault from the close-combat suit. But the moment he

did it, Su He knew he’d made a mistake.

It wasn’t a sword slash that Lei Feng had lashed out with. It was a burst of energy not ten meters long.

The fighter mech took advantage, lurching forward to intercept the marksman. Ten meters remained between them.

Bang, bang, bang, bang! It’s common practice for a pilot to use the forward momentum of their roll to swing them back onto their feet, but Su He didn’t do this. Instead, half on his knees, Su He fired off another volley of lasers. With only ten meters of separation between them, the shots didn’t have to go far.

His enemy was using a close-combat fighter, but a basic model. Without the ability to use ghosting or other such dodging maneuvers, how could he manage to avoid being shot when he was only ten meters away?

Snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. That’s what it looked like.

Premature advance! This was the first thought that raced

through Tan Lingyun’s mind. She may have still had a long way to go before she reached God-ranked, but she was still an eighth- level Talent. By her estimation, their opponent was of similar strength in that regard. Maybe even stronger.

And now here she was, facing the full power of the marksman’s blast. All she saw was the massive disadvantage.

There was, of course, the fact that the dense lasers could overheat her enemy’s weapon. But if they were going to take advantage of that fact, they’d first have to survive the volley.

The saber mech’s forward advance was brought to a screeching halt, and stood straight and tall like a nail hammered in place. The green aura surrounding it pulsed outward, emitting waves of gentle light.

Red versus green. Their collision was brilliant and colorful. Red light filled Tan Lingyun’s vision, as the laser strikes spread out all around her. Had Su He missed on purpose?

But as she watched those fingers dancing along the control panel before her, her eyes went blurry.

The whole suit began to tremble tremendously. Countless slight but violent shakes set her teeth to rattling. She felt like she was being shaken apart.

Thankfully the attractive power pinning her to Lei Feng strengthened in that moment. She felt herself go numb.

The shaking was so intense that she saw six hands tapping the controls in front of her. They looked like little more than six trembling shadows.

Schwing! The long sword stretched outward, the green light flashed.

Su He’s marksman suit was pinned to the arena floor, a shimmering green alloy blade running it through. The main control systems had been severed.

What? How did…!

It was the sim match all over again. Everyone had seen it, but no one understood what had happened. How could the rifleman mech miss at ten meters?

Lei Feng pulled his sword free, extracting it with a flourish. Each motion was trailed by a streak of green. He walked back to where he’d started the match, casting a large shadow behind him.

Su He’s breathing was rapid, as he sat in the dark cockpit. He remained in the darkness, unmoving. The last few seconds played over and over again in his mind.

Diffusing Blade? She… she used the diffusing blade?

In that instant he had seen dozens of swords approaching, flashing and leaving an afterimage as they tore through the air. Green flashes of power followed wherever they moved. Each swipe of its sword was so precise, they’d deflected every single laser round. It’d taken his enemy a fraction of a second. Just like that, like it was the easiest thing in the world. Then it was over.

This was how you crushed someone’s spirit. From beginning to end, Su He hadn’t the slightest opportunity available to him. Though he didn’t know it, the saber mech’s ability to use diffusing blade meant no shot from his laser rifle would find it’s mark. He would have been more effective fighting bare-handed!

A bitter smile slowly spread across Su He’s face. ‘There will always be those stronger than you.’ It was a phrase he knew well before leaving university himself. But to really encounter that person… his excitement couldn’t be quantified. However, his ultimate, impotent failure tore at his pride viciously. He was little more than a roach in the face of this master.

In this moment, faced with someone stronger than he, Su He came to a crushing realization: he still had a lot to learn.

Chapter 197: Biting The Hand That Feeds

With a fight like this, who won and who lost was practically an after-thought.

The entire VIP box stood; the two deans, the school administrators, even the Skyfire luminaries who attended. As one, they bowed respectfully toward the distance saber mecha.

“How… how did you do that? Just now I couldn’t make anything out. You operate too quickly for me to follow. So what did you do?” Tan Lingyun was as frustrated as she was curious.

“I’d have been faster if you weren’t holding my arm in a death grip.” Lei Feng’s response was audibly irritated.

Tan Lingyun looked down, surprised to see her hands tightly squeezing Lei Feng’s forearms. She didn’t remember doing this, but it must have been to stabilize her at some point during the match. Almost like she wanted him to wrap his arms around her.

The vacuum force that kept her in place relaxed. Finally, she felt some relief, though she couldn’t help but notice the cold she

felt without that wide chest behind her. Her own back was slick with sweat.

“I used the sword to deflect his laser shots.”

“The sword?” She said it almost as an afterthought. She wriggled on his lap, trying to find a more comfortable position.

But as she did, Lei Feng’s voice from just before the match rang through her head with that cautionary command. She sputtered apologetically. “I’m sorry! Something was  poking me.”

Lei Feng’s body went stiff at her words. “It’s fine, the competition’s over.”

“You still haven’t told me how you used your sword to deflect the attack.” She still wasn’t satisfied, and so fired the question without second thought.

“You’ve heard of the diffusion blade maneuver? A swordsman technique. This is a simple suit, as you know, and can’t sustain strenuous movements. But if it’s just the arms, it can manage.

It’ll still certainly need some maintenance when you put it back.” Lei Feng elucidated her in calm tones.

“Diffusion blade?” Tan Lingyun swallowed hard. Of course she’d heard of the move. It had its own reputation.

It was developed about thirty years ago, by a pilot who spent his life seeking out and challenging the best there were. He only ever fought with a sword, and trained until he had reached the very peak of mastery with it. During his time, he created several specialized techniques to use with a sword before finishing.

But according to Tan Lingyun’s own knowledge, most God- ranked pilots couldn’t use the technique properly, much less an average one. Manipulating a sword so that it creates an after image wasn’t hard, but being so fast that your phantom strikes actual had substance, could damage or guard… that was exceedingly difficult to pull off, for anyone.

The suits had been removed from the arena. Tan Lingyun’s suit slowly lumbered towards it’s starting position in the mecha hangar.

“When you leave, you mustn’t tell anyone I was here. I don’t

want anyone to know. You are the one who won the match, understand?” Lei Feng’s voice was deep and commanding.

“Mhm.” Tan Lingyun nodded. “Can you tell me your real name?”

“No!”

Tan Lingyun thought for a moment before speaking again. “Well… will I be able to contact you somehow?”

“We’ll meet again if fate determines it should be so.”

“Why did you come to help me?”

“At the request of someone else.”

“For me? Have we met?”

‘Lei Feng’ had begun to grow impatient. “You certainly have a lot of questions. We’re here, time to get out. Remember what I

told you, otherwise I can guarantee you’ll never see me again.”

The suit’s chest plate loosened with a hiss, and spread wide to reveal the cockpit. A deafening cheer arose once the audience saw.

“Can I study mecha piloting with you? My com number is…” She quickly relayed the information to her benefactor, then scrambled clear of the suit.

Lei Feng was finally able to move, and squirmed uncomfortably in the pilot seat.

Tan Lingyun quickly shut the cockpit door behind her, and locked the outside panel. She then slowly,  soundlessly descended the ladder.

Geng Yang, Tang Xiao and Tang Mi were waiting for her at the bottom. The other competing students and teachers surrounded her the moment her feet touched the ground. Cheers resounded through the entire arena.

“Long live Professor Tan!”

“Long live our Goddess!”

The cries came again and again, shouted from the lips of the entire gathered NEU body.

ζ

On the VIP platform.

“I’ve lost. No ifs ands or buts about it. Tomorrow, once the academic portion of the competition is completed, I’ll have someone deliver your power gems. You’re quite impressive, Dean Xu, even just in being able to cozy up to a God-ranked pilot. How about we go down and congratulate our latest champion?”

Xu Renjian chuckled good-naturedly. “Dean Han, I’m afraid now might not be the most opportune time. As I’m sure you know, the comfort and condition of a schools God-ranked pilot is their first priority. We don’t have a chance to speak with her just now. Also, if I may speak frankly, a pilot who reaches the God ranks traditionally bears their own… peculiarities. I wouldn’t want to upset her, wouldn’t you agree?”

Han Ruchaos’ face grew hard, but just for the space of an instant. In no time, he was smiling again. “Indeed, indeed! That’s fine. I suppose that concludes the day for us, then. We should head back and relax, ourselves. We’ll see you tomorrow for the academic competitions.”

“Take it easy, Ruchao.”

“Yup, no need to send me off.”

This is the penultimate Chinese departure. A small exchange, everyone stands, and attempts to send the guest off as far as they’ll let them before they refuse to move an inch until their hosts go back to their house. Of course the more you like someone, or the more respect you have for them, the further you send them off, and the more effort you put in to ignoring their pleas for you not to.

The two gentlemen shook hands, and locked eyes. Each bore smiles, but their eyes told a different story. Deep in their hearts, they spat the same curse at the other.

This old fox!

A fox is considered a trickster or troublemaker in China. They are simultaneously respected for their wily nature, and despised because it always comes at the expense of another. Calling someone a ‘xiao hu li’, or little fox, can be pretty insulting if you don’t know the person well.

The atmosphere all around the NEU was jubilant. Today, they had been lucky enough to bear witness to two heroes. The display had inflamed their enthusiasm and school patriotism.

Tang Lingyun wasn’t quite so bad as her peers. After all, the Savage Goddess had a reputation to maintain. And now, that reputation included the ‘fact’ that she was a God-ranked pilot. She was surrounded already by adoring fans.

Tang Xiao was the first to rush over, warding his instructor from the rush of students and teachers. In this moment, she was thankful for his wide girth. He was the only thing keeping her from being washed away in a sea of excited students.

ζ

The Spirit Caller gem warmed.

Zhou Qianlin: That was you, wasn’t it.

Lan Jue: What do you think?

Thank you. You are our school’s hero.

I can live with being a Nameless Hero. And it wasn’t just because of your request that I helped. Tan Lingyun has a famously bad temper, but she deserves respect. Moreover, I’m as much a part of this school as you and she. Only, there’s a problem…

What problem?

It looks like the Savage Goddess here has decided to bite the hand that fed her. She locked me in the suit.

What should we do?

It’s fine. I have my ways. I’ll see you by the university gates in a little while. I’ll send you home.

Oh, no good! Tomorrow we’re competing in the  mecha science and technology meet. I’ll probably have to be here until very late.

Alright, then I’ll head back first. For goodness sake don’t tell anyone what went on today, I don’t want anyone to know.

Neither do I.

Hm?

Nothing…

Seated in the dark and silent cockpit, ‘Lei Feng’s’ hands shimmered with electric blue light. Gently, he placed them upon the metal of the cockpit’s frame. Little by little, his body dissolves in to electricity until he vanished from sight.

ζ

Su He was pulled free of the destroyed mecha by Shi Jiujiu. He got to his feet, but it was clear by his expression he was still

dumbstruck.

The two fights he’d participated in today had left him with a very deep impression. Winning and losing had never been terribly important to him, but what had crushed him was the huge discrepancy in power he was forced to face.

God-ranked. He knew he was on the cusp, slowly advancing to God-ranked himself. But he’d never have expected there was still so far to go, and so huge a difference.

It was true that he hadn’t used the suit he was most comfortable with, but what about the other? Surely it was the same for her? If his opponent had been able to use a suit they were adept with, he feared the fight would have been over much faster.

Lir University dean Han Ruchao stood within the arena, waiting for Su He to regain his bearings. The older gentleman motioned him close, then patted him with grandfatherly affection on the shoulder. “You fought admirably, Professor Su. There was no fault in your performance. Your opponent was simply too strong.”

Su He slowly shook his head. “Such a huge disparity. There is no doubt that I was the inferior pilot. I never had a chance.”

“It’s alright,” Han Ruchao interjected. “We have the next round tomorrow. We’re still depending on you, Professor Su. If we win those, then we can walk out of here with our heads held high, as equals.”

Su He managed a smile with some effort. “You all head back first, Dean. I’d like to be alone for a little while.”

“Very well.” He patted the man on his shoulder once again. Lir’s Dean shot Shi Jiujiu a meaningful glance before turning, and walking from the arena.

A little while later, Su He was walking by himself along the pathway. The road connecting the arena to the main campus was a lengthy one. He didn’t mind.

Everything he’d seen and felt during the two fights swam through his muddled brain. The memories were as distinct and visceral as when he’d first experienced them.

His trek continued in this fashion until someone called out from a few yards ahead. “Mentor!”

A simple greeting, but the words had a strange sort of power.
Su He put away his thoughts and looked towards the voice.

He spied a young man, with his back against the trunk of a nearby tree. His face was lit up with a beaming smile.

“You talking to me?” Su He lifted a brow.

“Yup!” The young man responded.

Su He quietly regarded him for a moment. “Have we met?”

His accoster chortled. “A long time ago, yes. I’m not surprised you don’t remember. Lan Qing is my older brother.”

Su He’s whole body shook and stiffened at the Supersoldier’s name. He looked incredulously at the younger Lan.

“Your older brother is Lan Qing. That means… Lan Jue?” Su He sounded more surprised than anything.

Lan Jue nodded, that smile still on his handsome face. He walked closer, until they were face to face.

“What’s up? I imagine you’re feeling a little down after that loss.” Lan Jue said.

Su He was an exceptionally intelligent man. Suspicion welled up within him as he asked, “Do the fights today have something to do with you?”

Lan Jue’s response was calm, calculated. “I was your opponent, mentor. Do you think there’s anyone in this university who’d be able to handle you so easily?”

“You?” Su He pinned Lan Jue with his bright eyes. When he spoke again his voice was hard. “You.”

Chapter 198: The Old Man Beckons

Lan Jue nodded his head. “It’s not breaking the rules, either. When you threw down the proverbial gauntlet, you called for anyone from the school. I am a part of the school.”

Su He looked at him in surprise. “You’re a teacher here?”

“Yup,” Lan Jue replied, “though I’m only really interested in an easy and care-free life. You helped us a lot back when we were schoolmates in university. I’ve been wanting to see you for a while, in fact. Now, I’m going to need to ask for your help in keeping this secret.”

Su He’s breath had quickened since the beginning of their conversation. Lan Qing, and Lan Jue! To him, the two names were like a curse. Memories of days past crashed against his brain like a tidal wave.

The memories ran deep. He recalled being young, Lan Qing and Lan Jue had just entered in to the university. He was a national scholar in his school, and already a Sovereign-ranked pilot. He stood out from the others in his class as exceptional.

At that time his school had a policy, in which upper classmen were expected to take care of and show around newer students. They would lead them around, and acclimate them to university life.

Su He had been assigned to Lan Qing. A name that would forever be branded on his mind.

Everything Lan Qing did, he did with supreme concentration and care. It took him no time at all to get right in the swing of things. It was easy, as all he did every day was study religiously.

Su He still clearly remembered that the young Lan Qing was often asking for help and advice. His response had been to be aloof and superior, sometimes even arrogant towards the new student.

However, Lan Qing didn’t seem to mind. He poured all of his energy in to his studies.

This continued until one day, when Su He told him not to waste his life with those books and notes. If he wanted one day to be a strong pilot, then he needed to get out there, and experience it for himself. Su He then brought him to the

sparring arena.

That was when Su He’s nightmare began.

He saw it in his mind’s eye like it was yesterday. Three matches, with worse results even than he’d suffered  today. Three terrible defeats at the hand of that quiet underclassman. He never had a chance. Like Su He, Lan Qing was also a Sovereign-ranked pilot but he had only just enrolled in classes.

Worse still, the entire debaucle had been recorded by the school and kept for posterity. It was for good reason, for not three years later Lan Qing was a God-ranked pilot. A God- ranked pilot, still in college. His college! From then on Lan Qing didn’t attend any of the national scholar classes, in fact leaving school entirely. It was said he left for a very important reason, one which attracted Alliance-wide attention.

If that had been the end of it, it would have been fine. However, a year before Lan Qing left, his younger brother had also enrolled in the same school.

Whether by the university’s design or cruel coincidence, Su He was selected as Lan Jue’s chaperone as well. By that time, he

was already preparing to graduate from the scholar program.

Once again Su He bore witness to the inconceivable. In precisely the same amount of time it took Lan Qing, Lan Jue became the second God-ranked pilot in four years to graduate from the university. Like his brother before him, he never entered into the national scholar program, and left school. He, too, left a legend.

What Lan Jue did after he left, Su He had no idea. His brother, though… everyone knew Lan Qing’s name. The Anlun Supersoldier, Hero of the East!

The Great Protector, who saved a whole planet, and thus the alliance.

Su He thought back to his lengthy time as Lan Jue’s chaperone. He was even smarter than his brother, from what he could remember. Both were equally mysterious. No one know where they’d come from, but their talent and strength were still spoken about in that school to this day.

“I never would have thought I’d run in to you here, much less that we’d meet in the ring again. I appreciate you showing

mercy.” The last few words seemed difficult for Su He to spit out. However, now that he knew it was Lan Jue he’d just faced in the Arena, everything started to make sense.

Without a doubt, he did get off easy.

“My classmate’s abilities have improved tremendously since the last time we met. Still, there are some… limitations.”

Su He fixed him with a stare. “What do you mean?”

“My dear classmate,” Lan Jue began, “you still haven’t recognized your biggest failing. And that is, you’re too fixated on your genetic talent. Unless I’m mistaken, your Talent is explosive energy. It’s an incredible Talent, which even though you’re eight-level can contend easily with many other kinds of ninth-level Disciplines. And yet even back then, you were convinced you would have a difficult time reaching God-ranked, simply because you weren’t ninth-level.”

“I was still young and inexperienced then, and so had no way to contradict your belief. But now I can, and I must tell you that your thinking is flawed. I’ve met several seventh and eighth- level Talents who achieved God status. You must stop

pressuring yourself in this. Focus on your mecha ability, let go of your old mindset, and strengthen your self-confidence. Mentor, your greatest fault has always been a lack of confidence!”

Lan Jue’s words were like a thunderbolt. He simply stood there, staring at him.

His former classmate smiled, waved, and left.

Sometimes the slightest scratch could change the view from a window. Sometimes even the slightest chance can bring a revelation.

Su He had long been preparing for God status, but it appeared now that he had been taking the longer road.

Lan Jue did not return to the school once leaving Su He, it was too rowdy. Presumably everyone was still excited over the upset the NEU pulled. More than that, he was also afraid he might inadvertently run in to the Savage Goddess. He may have been wearing a mask and disguise, but the trouble that would ensue if she still managed to find out would be catastrophic. He just wanted to go home and change clothes.

ζ

Tan Lingyun eventually and with great effort managed to extricate herself from the throng of excited faces that penned her in. She convinced them to disperse, and only once the coast was clear did she return to the mecha warehouse.

Once more she climbed the ladder to the saber mech’s cockpit. She gently rapped on the metal chest plate, and when she spoke her voice was apologetic. “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to lock you in here, I just thought it important that we talk.”

As she spoke, she coaxed the cockpit open. That was when she discovered it empty.

‘Lei Feng’ was gone.

ζ

Beep-beep-beep! The ring of a communicator demanded attention.

“Ah, Accountant. What.” Lan Jue spoke in to the device on his wrist.

“What’s with the mood, Jewelry Master? Still trying to burn bridges?” The Accountant’s voice was thick with irritation.

Lan Jue just laughed. “Nothing! I actually wanted to thank you. When it comes to hacking you’re a wizard.”

This seemed to placate the ornery man. “Well, yes. There was actually something I wished to discuss with you.”

“What is it?”

“I was just speaking with the old man,” he began. “I’m likely going to visit your university. As I understand it, you’re currently host to one Lir University for an educational exchange?”

“Yup!” Lan Jue looked surprised as he spoke in to the communicator. “The old man actually pays attention to such small things?”

The Accountnt huffed. “Of course he doesn’t care about some educational exchange. But someone – I don’t know who – called and asked if he could speak with him about the most recent research and development news from the last few years. The old man has me going in his place, already got me a temporary student I.D. and all. The problem as that I’m not familiar with the campus. The Keeper said that, seeing as you’re already there, you could how me around. So you can bring me with you tomorrow morning.”

Curiosity welled up within Lan Jue, and he couldn’t help but speak up. “Did the Keeper tell you to meet with someone named Su?”

“That’s right!” The Accountant’s excited voice bubbled from the communicator. “I guess he already spoke with you about it?”

Lan Jue could only sigh helplessly. “Alright. I’ll pick you up tomorrow.”

“Actually if you’re free, the Keeper said he wanted you to come and see the results of some research he’s been undertaking. That thing you brought back from Taihua, in fact.”

Lan Jue was stunned at the revelation. “Alright, I’ll head there now.”

ζ

As was customary, Skyfire Avenue was calm, quiet, and deserted. Lan Jue walked down the small street, surrounded by the classical architecture he’d grown to love.

His footsteps rang against the stone blocks that constituted the walkway, lending to the quaint atmosphere. Whenever Lan Jue came back, he was always struck with how fresh and pure everything felt. This is what it felt to have a family, he thought.

Still, Lan Jue’s pleasant mood was developing cracks. The reason was obviously what the Accountant had revealed about the research results.

The traumatic experience of Taihua was still with him, and probably always would be. It wasn’t about the beasts, despite their capabilities. At full strength he was confident he could have dealt with that massive sea creature himself.

What was troubling, was their enigmatic origins and purpose. Their ability to devour all life around them was terrifying. His own powers were sufficient, yes, but it would take a prepared team of average mecha pilots to handle such a threat themselves.

When paired with the information he’d received from Piao Hong in DreamNet, it made matters all the worse. This was an issue that threatened the safety of the entire human race.

It took him very little time to arrive at the Skyfire Library where the Keeper did his work. By the time he did, the Accountant was waiting for him by the door.

“Why are you waiting for me outside?” Lan Jue inquired.

The Accountant didn’t repose, instead rubbing his hands together lasciviously. “So, Jewelry Master… are there a lot of female students at the university you work for?”

“Tons!” He replied.

The squirrelly man’s eyes lit up. “Look, ehm, I’ve been under

the Keeper’s strict thumb since I was small. Any measure of freedom is hard to come by. In some regards I’m still a… ‘blank sheet.’ So you think you could help a brother out?”

I know, the Chinese actually does say this, but in English it has different connotations. I kept it this way because a skinny, socially awkward pervert saying this paints a perfect picture of the Accountant in my mind’s eye.

Lan Jue stared at him, speechless for a moment. “Help you. Chase skirts. That you can do yourself. Can you even teach this sort of thing? Cuz in fact, I’m no good at it either!”

The Accountant looked indignant. “No good?! You expect anyone to believe that? Like you aren’t surrounded by beautiful women all the time? Four! Four of them!”

Lan Jue patted the smaller man’s shoulder, and sighed piteously. “I’ve never chased a woman in my life. They all chase after me!”

Chapter 199: Results And Hypotheses

For a moment the Accountant just looked at him. Soon, however, he was grinding his teeth. “You know, you’re a spoiled kid in need of a spanking.”

Lan Jue chuckled. “If you like we can head to the Reaper’s arena and you can give it your best shot? I’d be down for that.”

The Accountant’s expression changed. He adopted a faux dismissive air. “We shouldn’t keep the Keeper waiting. Let’s head in.”

The first impression when one walked in to the library was; scholarly. Most of the reading in these places was in line with modern technology, which meant it was largely populated with electronic media. Paper books were considered luxury antiques these days. It’s reputedly said that material from the famous writer Tang Jia San Shao, author of the masterwork Douluo Dalu, rivaled the cost of a high-class high-alt verti-car.

All of the books in Skyfire’s Library were paper, though one might come to expect this from the Avenue. The aggregate worth of everything gathered here was beyond measure.

The Accountant brought Lan Jue directly to the Library’s third floor. They pushed their way in to what looked like a very spartan room.

The walls were lined with book shelves, and the center of the room was dominated by a classic-style wooden chair beside a window. The window was open, allowing a cool breeze to waft through among the leather-bound volumes. The tall tree outside rustled incessantly as the air caressed its leaves.

The Keeper called out, waving towards Lan Jue as they entered. “Ah, you’re here,” he said. “Have a seat.”

Lan Jue did as instructed. Meanwhile the old man waved his helper away. The Accountant shot Lan Jue a begrudging glare before exiting and closing the door behind him.

Lan Jue watched, then raised a brow towards the Keeper with a grin on his handsome face. “What is it that’s so important the Accountant can’t be allowed to hear it?”

The Keeper coughed, his frail body jerking with the effort. “Too fidgety. Unreliable. Still a lot he doesn’t know well enough. This is to avoid an extreme reaction… so no face is

lost.”

“If someone is always looked at like a child,” Lan Jue began “how can you expect them to learn to walk on their own? You shouldn’t look down on him so. He’s young, but capable.”

The old man grinned. “Didn’t he just ask you to help him find a girl? If you could it might actually help the poor child.”

“Ah?” Lan Jue stared at the Keeper, surprised.

The old man’s yellowed, rheumy eyes regarding the young Jewelry Master. “And you may call me the Keeper, not ‘old man’. Once young men reach an age, they’re nothing but walking tubs of hormones. They all need to unwind, release. Besides, I only have the one grandson. I hope that he’ll continue the family line. And here in the Avenue, his prospects either aren’t suitably talented, or the age difference is too great. Only you two are similar, and you’ve got a much more stable head on your shoulders. So I leave him in your hands. I ask that you help me by taking him around with you. It’s mostly for this reason that I’ve asked him to follow you to the NEU. He needs more experience out in normal society.”

“Alright. If it’ll help you feel better, I’ll look after him. With me he’ll grow up in a hurry.” Lan Jue shot his old friend a lopsided smile.

The Keeper nodded, then changed the subject. “The results of our experimentation with the sample you brought back from Taihua is ready. Unfortunately, it causes more trouble than it solves.”

Lan Jue sat a little straighter in his chair. Already he was feeling nervous. “What were you able to discover?”

The Keeper delivered his report, not unlike a professor lecturing a classroom. “This is a beast that has never been recorded in any of the three Great Alliances. The piece you brought back had an enormous amount of life still in it, and energy reserves to rival an s-ranked power gem. But where this ‘life’… this vitality in it keeps it going, it’s a virulent toxin to us. So were a man to take this energy into himself, he’d see his natural life energies increasing. However, it would also mean suffering the debilitating effects of the poison – which rapidly lead to death.”

“To these beasts, however, this poison is not an issue. Nor is this energy present created by themselves. As you’ve seen, they

obtain this through a sort of phagocytosis. They assimilate the vital essence of their surroundings, and convert it in to power they can use. Through our research we’ve managed to reach a hypothesis; the most likely possibility is that the progenitor you encountered in the ocean was the only outside visitor to Taihua. When it arrived, it wasn’t that strong, however it expanded in size and power through incessant phagocytosis of the surrounding vital energies. Once it obtained a certain baseline of vitality, it began producing ovum. The gestation period between asexual conception and hatching is remarkably fast, though it relies on consumption of its surroundings to do so.”

“We’ve come to assume that the progenitor’s ultimate aim was to deploy its children throughout Taihua, and use them as gatherers and providers for its own sustenance. It condenses it in to the energy core you brought back. If this creature is permitted to continue this process unhindered, it would eventually consume the entire planet.”

“I’ve already discussed this with the Wine Master. He says he believes the beast traveled through space. We can then assume once a planet has had its vital essences depleted, these creatures migrate elsewhere to continue their voracious advance. Without any more samples to experiment with, we currently have no way of testing its phagocytic abilities in depth. We can’t tell how long or how quickly it’s transformative phases last. We can assume, however, that it is quite fast. The more beasts the

progenitor creates to sustain itself, the more frightening this process becomes.”

Lan Jue nodded his head thoughtfully. “Fortunately the progenitor’s powers were limited, according to what we discovered fighting it. If we’re capable of discovering them quickly, they won’t be much of a problem. A single shot from a battleship would do it.

The Keeper chortled with grandfatherly admonition. “Beware of blind optimism. How do you know this creature is the strongest of its race? What if it only serves as a transporter? It’s best to acknowledge the possibility that there are more challenging subspecies we’ve yet to encounter. Will your theoretical battleship be able to contend with that threat?”

“You never make a point without some motive. Tell me what you’ve discovered,” Lan Jue replied.

The Keeper shrugged. “Nothing discovered. Simple deduction is sufficient. One only need recognize the stupendous amounts of energy present in the sample. Were that creature left to its own devices for much longer, killing it would have been substantially more difficult. To put it another way, the creature itself was unable to completely utilize the power it contained

within itself. So what does it need so much for, precisely? The simplest explanation: to leave it room to grow.”

Lan Jue took a deep, slow breath. “If that’s the case, we’re looking at a serious problem. And other than us, everyone else remains entirely ignorant of the threat.”

“These are troubled waters,” the Keeper muttered sagely. “Our ancestors espoused these potential problems even before the age of space exploration. Inevitably, they claimed, we would encounter the multifarious denizens of an ever expanding universe. Among them may very well be creatures stronger than us, smarter than us. Creatures that wish to impede our progress and annihilate our species. In the universe as it was in the old world, the rules are the same; survival of the fittest. If a species seeks survival, seeks expansion, seeks a firm foothold in the vast galactic expanse, they must rely on their own strength and the strength of their peers. This is especially true for the human race. Our enemies are potentially limitless, their strength incredible. However, humans have their wits and drive, and our incessant forward march of progress has seen a solid foundation developed. We have bastions, and motherships. The chances of encountering anything that can contend with the likes of that are small. For that reason, we can take heart, and ease our worry. As we continue to expand, to explore… as we continue to encounter the unknown, the most important thing we can do in the present is make ourselves better. The Wine Master,

Clairvoyant and I know about the DreamNet competition, and for the reason we all stand behind you in full support. Of course, this matter is yours to deal with as you see fit, but rest assured we are here should you need our assistance. Do you understand?”

Lan Jue smiled. “I do.”

The Keeper humphed once again, as he leaned back against the old wooden chair. He looked tired, somehow older after their exchange.

The expression in Lan Jue’s eyes changed. He’d met with the Keeper several times since arriving in Skyfire Avenue, but it was the first time he’d seen the all-powerful Paragon like this.

“Is something bothering you,” Lan Jue asked.

The Keeper’s wrinkled face broke in a bitter smile. “Bothering is an understatement! If it were simply a bother, it wouldn’t have perplexed me for these many years.”

Lan Jue blinked. “So…” He felt that, since he said that much,

the Keeper still had more to tell him.

The Keeper sighed. “You know, I’m not the founder of the Skyfire Library. It was someone else. Many of these volumes were here before I took over.”

Of course Lan Jue didn’t know this tid-bit of information. He continued with curiosity. “So you mean, you weren’t the first Keeper.”

The old man shook his head. “No. The man who owned this place before me wasn’t called the Keeper. They called him the Bookworm. A fellow who loved books more than life, and the most renowned scholar of his day. I originally came to Skyfire Avenue attracted by the Clairvoyan’ts fame. I had questions I needed answers to. Suddenly, I found myself in possession of another man’s book repository.”

Chapter 200: The Keeper’s Request

“There is no master among intellectuals, and no losers among soldiers. I trust you understand this truth. With so many books, this place attracted my attention. As a result, after I had asked the Clairvoyant my questions, I decided to stay. I hadn’t been here a month and, eager to show my prowess, I read and commented on the collected works you see here. Around that time, I met the Bookworm, and immediately he and I launched in to an academic tirade. I was young then, and confident in my knowledge of all subjects. So our arguments continued, off and on. Before we’d known it, a month had passed.”

“We had a healthy respect for one another. We’d known each other for only a short time, but had already become good friends. In our world of academics, books and learning are the only thing we care to concern ourselves with. That short time, surrounded by books and intellectuals, was of great benefit to me. It’s plausible to surmise that, had my life been absent this exchange, it’s very unlikely I’d have reached the magnitude of success I enjoy now.”

“Around the middle of our second month of discussions, we discovered a significant discrepancy in opinion regarding one academic issue in particular. Both of us were combative, irritable, each unwilling to concede to the other. It became so fervent, so combative that we decided it could only be settled

with a wager. Should the Bookworm lose, he would relinquish the Library to me, and remove himself from the Avenue. Where I to lose, it would be my task to pursue and deliver books equivalent to the aggregate cost of those already in stock. More than fifty percent of those would need to be unique volumes, not copies of those that were already owned.”

“To be frank, I was already in love with the Avenue. I agreed on impulse. Immediately we set about soliciting input from every luminary the academic world had to offer. Many came to participate in our intellectual battle.”

At this point in his story, the Keeper paused. His eyes betrayed a look of disappointment. “Of course you can guess the final result, considering I’m still here. He chose exile. Even prior to his exodus, I harbored deep regret even in victory. I told him to disregard our wager, that he could remain as before. But he had a terribly sour temper, and ignored my pleas. He left in silence, alone. We didn’t see him again for thirty years.”

“And then one day he came back. He sought me out, and once again challenged me to a competition. The wagers would be the same as our first encounter. By that time, by virtue of my learning, I had already reached Paragon status. As ever, he was no challenge to me. He lost again. By then his shortcomings were clear to me. I knew that intellectually he was more than

capable of competing with anyone, however physically he was constrained and unable to realize growth. As such, I held the advantage.”

“What happened between he and I, even all these years later, is still a regret that lies heavy on my heart. I often wonder how deeply I wounded him by taking his precious Library. This was why I had hoped so desperately for him to return. But I never saw him again after that second encounter. We spoke by communicator, once. He told me he would never be able to better me, no matter how long he studied, even if he spent his entire life in the pursuit. But he made me promise… one day, if his pupil were to defeat mine, that I would pass the Library unto him once I died. He would inherit this place.”

“I agreed. Perhaps I felt as though I owed him still, but the hope he would remain never abated. I’ve tried to follow in his footstep since then, to do and study as he’d have done. As my knowledge and experience increased, I put his theories to work. The more effort I put towards it, the more I admired the Bookworm. Although our experimentation methods were in opposition, the end result was the same. I wasn’t wrong. And neither was he.”

The Keeper seemed more fatigued than before, going so far as to close his eyes. “Still, with his knowledge he’s certain to have

found a way to prolong his life, as I have. An invaluable treasure for anyone, but especially a scholar.”

Lan Jue took advantage of the lull to ask him own questions. “What do you need from me?” Lan Jue knew the old man wouldn’t have shared this story with him if he hadn’t needed something relating to it.

The Keeper smirked, bemused by his young compatriot’s tact and intelligence. “Wait until the academic competition at the NEU has concluded. Once it has, I’d like you to spend some time with the Accountant. Go with him to the Bookworm. I’ll be giving you something I’d like you to deliver. Tell him he was not wrong all those years ago. Tell him I’ve nearly reached my time, and he should return to claim his library.”

Lan Jue nearly gasped in alarm. “Keeper, your health…”

Suddenly the old man broke in to a fit of laughter. “I thought you were smarter than that,” he said with a grin. “These small tricks are… inspiration. I could sit and wait for him to show up, but give him a little incentive and the chances increase exponentially.”

Lan Jue heaved a sigh of relief. He was well aware of how significant the Keeper was, to the whole of the Eastern Alliance. This wasn’t just due to his Paragon status, but also due to his immeasurable scientific knowledge. He was a treasure of the academic world, and if something should happen to him, it would be a great tragedy.

He took a small computer chip offered by the Keeper, shooting the impossibly old pedant a grin. “Don’t worry. I’ll make sure to be just as convincing when I deliver the ‘news.'”

The Keeper nodded. “Go then. If he should have any questions with regards to mecha combat, I’ll leave that to you. And as for my impetuous grandson, help give him some stability if you can. I imagine he’ll be of some considerable use to you. I’ll find someone to substitute your classes while you’re away.”

Lan Jue was helpless to deny the old man, but inwardly he cringed. Off again. He could count the number of classes he’d taught since taking the job on one hand.

The Keeper was astute, and saw Lan Jue’s reservation written on his face. “Not to worry, it’s close. You’ll be back in no time. At most you’ll miss one class. I hear you’ve acquired quite a reputation at the university already. Though I can’t imagine

what benefit this class of yours has on the student population, I have faith you aren’t abusing your position or taking advantage. Anyway, you’re busy, I won’t take any more of your time. Ah yes, and do help my grandson find a woman willing to look at him.”

Lan Jue couldn’t express how much respect he had for the old master. However, he couldn’t help but laugh and shake his head at their parting words.

His certainly was a… unique personality, the Jewelry Master mused.

Lan Jue said his goodbyes, and left.

The Keeper lazily rose to his feet as the young man exited the study. Like a candle sputtering in the wind, on the verge of being extinguished, he hobbled his way to the open window and looked out over the Avenue.

“I’m here waiting, old friend. It’s my hope things go back to the way things used to be! You must know, I’ve done so much, prepared so much, to give to you. How could you pass up an opportunity like that? Come quickly.”

ζ

Lan Jue returned to the Jewelry Store. During the trek down the Avenue, Zhou Qianlin told him through the Soulcaller gem that he needn’t come back for her tonight. She was to remain at the school and study.

He wasn’t bothered by the news.

Lan Jue went to the Underground, where Hua Li and Chu Cheng were practicing. He didn’t go immediately to meet them, however. Instead he went to the store front.

“Boss.” Mika greeted her employer with a smile.

“Hey, Mika. What do we have available in our power gem inventory? How many a-ranked specifically?”

“Twenty-three in storage currently, plus or minus a couple. As per your instructions, we’ve been holding on to a-rank gems, barring special circumstances.”

Lan Jue nodded. “Alright. Pick out a few that compliment you and the other girls’ Discipline. Distribute them as needed. As to what precisely, I leave to you ladies to figure out.”

Mika’s eyes lit up. “Planning to take us for another adventure, boss?”

Lan Jue smirked. “Always thinking about going out to play. In fact I will have to make a trip in a few days, but I won’t need all of you to come along. Xiuxiu and Guoguo will be enough. You and Ke’er should stay here and look after things.”

Mika immediately stuck out her lower lip in a petulant pout. “You don’t like me boss? Why aren’t you taking me,” she whined.

Lan Jue gave her a flat look. “Cut it out. You’re the boss down here, so act like it. No matter the circumstances, our store can’t have its doors shut all the time. I’ll take you and Ke’er the next time. Also, representatives from the Dark Tower and the Pontiff’s Castle will be visiting soon. Take that in to consideration when you’re selecting what power gems you need.”

The tone in her boss’ voice, and the news of the two Western powers coming here, struck her like a brick. Her coquettish belligerence was gone, replaced with a stoic frown. She nodded. “They’d best not provoke me.”

Lan Jue patted her shoulder. “This is Skyfire Avenue, not the West. There’s nothing to worry about. Alright, well It looks like these guys are gunna be in there a little while still. I’ll head back. Guoguo, we depart day after tomorrow.”

“Yes, boss!” Lin Guoguo was jittery with excitement.

Lan Jue made his way back to his personal apartments. He took up position, cross-legged on his bed, and began to meditate. He’d tried to remain diligent, after his experience on Taihua. And there yet remained many areas where he wasn’t operating at full capacity. He still needed to keep himself steady.

ζ

The next morning, Lan Jue was rattling along the road towards the NEU campus. It was a familiar scene, but for the fact he bore a different passenger.

The Accountant beamed in childish wonder at the antique bicycle he sat upon. Smiling, he cried. “Jewelry Master, this bike of yours is a museum piece! Very interesting indeed. How long have you harbored such childish interests, I wonder? Forsaking verti-cars for this novel contraption. Very curious!”

“Brings you closer to nature,” Lan Jue explained. “This way you can actually experience it. Good views and a low-carbon lifestyle!”

The Accountant giggled his tittery laugh. “Yes, ah very good indeed! Next time I’ll fetch one for myself as well. We’ll ride together to school.”

“What, are you planning to stay and take classes after the competition?” Lan Jue inquired.

The Accountant nodded, saying “Of course! I’m an excellent student. I’m only here, really, to experience the lifestyle.”

As he was not carrying Zhou Qianlin today, there wasn’t any reason to stop at their usual corner. He drove instead directly to the gates, and stopped. Two others were already there, looking anxiously at them.

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