Skyfire Avenue Chapter 291-300

Chapter 291: Everyone Passes

DreamNet’s evolution was under way. Deimos, the Starlord, has retired. The Star Alliance is lauded as the greatest god- ranked team in history. A day after the games, it was front page news across all three Alliances.

DreamNet’s gambit was a success, and mecha fever was sweeping the realms of man.

For the students of the NEU’s ARC class, though, their life was still an abyss of suffering.

While the sim training the Demon Drillmaster had them doing was very basic, it was a far sight better than the razor blades and boiling water they’d faced earlier. Of course, as time progressed, so too did their feelings.

Eventually they determined these pods not to be simulators of mecha combat, but a vision of what hell must be like. They could not hesitate, even for a moment, otherwise they were punished. That jolt of electricity only needd to be experienced once to convince the students they didn’t want to try it again. It was like their insides were squished together and pan seared. The feeling indeed was…

They had no recourse but to put their full effort towards completing the tasks.

Indomitable will persisted, until it didn’t, and then the shock stimulated them back in to action. They were performing at their peak, because anything less equaled pain.

This program designed by the Gobi Group was constructed to increase their fundamentals, so that they became second nature. They would never forget these basic movements, they were so deep in their muscle memory they performed them in their sleep.

Beyond that it was dull, but required their full attention at every moment.

After the third day everyone’s face was pale, drawn and gaunt. They looked like a coterie of starved vampires. As they left for the cafeteria on the fifth day, every student needed help getting there.

After seven days, only a fraction of the students could keep down food.

But for Tang Xiao this was a silver lining. After all, there was no better way to lose weight!

Jin Tao was one of the few who were able to take any sustenance. Like Lan Jue determined so long ago, here was a young man who was vicious, rabid, and would relentlessly pursue whatever he felt to be right. No matter the hardships, his willpower saw him through.

And he ate like a glutton.

Other than he, the only others who could eat were three women. The Savage Goddess was one, and though she was a sovereign-ranked pilot before they’d begun she didn’t look any better than the students she was looking after. But she did have a much more solid grasp of the basics, and that helped. She was progressing faster than any of the other participants.

Tang Mi was also among them, and though the training hadn’t even progressed to the one-month mark, the changes she’d undergone were surprising to behold. She hadn’t smiled in ages, and her pretty face grew hard and frigid. Her capricious and headstrong actions had caused her classmates to suffer inhumane torment, and it was a fact she lived with daily. The lesson was a scar she still felt stinging.

I won’t drag anyone down. I will be the strongest! A woman’s tenacity will trump a man’s strength any day. The mantra ran through her head again and again. Though she would vomit up a portion of everything she ate, she persisted. Her brother found it hard to watch, and any time he felt the need to step in, Mika was there to – violently – dissuade him.

The final girl still able to eat, much to Lan Jue’s surprise, was Zhou Qianlin. She was also performing best out of everyone, Tan Lingyun and Wang Hongyuan included.

Her clearance speed may not have been as fast as Tan Lingyun’s, but her adaptive abilities were unmatched. Though there was a pallor to her face as well, it wasn’t as pronounced as the others.

Zeus’ amazons were all simultaneously impressed and surprised by what they were seeing. As Lan Jue and Hua Li were not present, they were in charge of observing the students. Qianlin was the one they spent the most time watching. Their ultimate determination was that her balanced capacity and adaptive abilities were almost super human. What others had to grit their teeth and fight vehemently to sustain, she did with half the effort.

During meal times she didn’t eat as much as Jin Tao, but ate as she normally would as though the effort she was expending on training wasn’t having any adverse effects. It was like this training wasn’t anything different from the normal one’s she’d participated in at school.

Eleven days passed. They were approaching the fasted recorded time this procedure had been completed. Of course, no one participated in this batch would be able to beat it. In fact, many of them were reaching their physical limit.

Killing one’s students wasn’t conducive to proper training, though, so the program was designed to be at least moderately humane. When a body reached critical dehydration levels, the pod itself injected them with nutritive fluids to keep them going. There were also medications to keep them alert and awake so that they could finish.

When Hua Li and Lan Jue returned, they began by carefully examining the conditions of their charges. The most surprising discoveries for the Demon Drillmaster came in the form of his client, Zhou Qianlin. Hua Li was stunned by the progress of all the students.

“They’re doing much better than I’d have expected,” Hua Li

revealed to Lan Jue.

“Oh?” Lan Jue turned his masked face toward his friend.

Hua Li continued with a nod. “They’re progressing very quickly. If they keep this up, they’ll be done in around twenty days.”

“Barely managing is ‘much better’?” Lan Jue muttered.

Hua Li’s response was curt. “Do you have any idea how many of the core Gobi personnel are able to even compete this simulation? No more than thirty percent. We have very strict selected criteria to Gobi, too. What I’m saying is, these kids are already better than most. Of course your bioelectricity and the medicinal baths have helped, but I suspect the protogenic powers they absorbed were most helpful. It helped them assimilate all that they experienced before and catalyzed their potency. It’s a perfect cycle! The training methods build on each other, making them better than the original.”

Lan Jue gave a little chuckle. “Good! And just wait till I get paragon. I’ll let you know and we can find a second batch to start training.”

Hua Li rolled his eyes. “Yeah, sure. I think I’m more interested in when I get Paragon. To be honest, though, I hadn’t thought coming to Skyfire would be so good for me. Not only do I get some residual protogenic powers from a Paragon, but the inspiration from our god-ranked battles is great. I feel like I’m on the verge of a breakthrough myself.”

Lan Jue nodded. “That’s great. Same here, ever since coming back from Taihua I feel like my improvement has sped up considerably. We have to keep it up! The Clairvoyant’s words have got me motivated as well.”

Hua Li replied with a helpless expression. “Unfortunately, I’m afraid I have to be leaving. If I don’t I’m legitimately terrified of what Mo Xiao might do. You saw her threaten me, in front of billions of people, right?”

Lan Jue gave a soft smile. “Head back. You’ve hung around here long enough. But Mo Xiao’s a good girl, alright? I think you two’d be a good fit. If this dreamlover of yours isn’t real, consider the girl.”

Hua Li petulantly waved away his words. “Cut that shit out. Look, being here hasn’t been a vacation alright. But I had a good time. Look after yourself, and call me if you need anything.”

Lan Jue’s face fell as he sighed. “I’m not sure what circumstances we brothers will meet for next.”

Hua Li looked at his good friend in the eye. “Don’t put any undue pressure on yourself. I don’t know what you and the Clairvoyant talked about, but humanity’s safety is everyone’s responsibility. Don’t fool yourself in to thinking you’re some kind of savior. You’ve got partners in crime. Whatever comes, we handle it together.”

Lan Jue’s heart was full of comraderie. He reached out and patted his brother on the shoulder. Hua Li took the opportunity to wrap him up in a fierce hug.

“Alright, I’m out of here. I’ll be back in three months. The big guy and Chu Cheng will too, I’m sure. The four brothers will meet again. I expect you’ll be a good host and keep us entertained!”

Lan Jue chuckled, and nodded.

Lan Jue left, with little he had to gather. He left Skyfire silently, without pomp or circumstance. It wouldn’t be long before his next Sounds of Nature concert, though.

ζ

The first one to finish the sim program, unsurprisingly, was Tan Lingyun. Relying on her supernatural gifts she completed it in fifteen days.

Despite her physical fitness, when she exited the pod she nearly collapsed, emaciated as she was. Lan Jue had his amazons immediately submerge her in a medicated bath.

Six more finished on the sixteenth day. Wang  Hongyuan, Tang Xiao, Tang Mi and Geng Yang.

On the seventeenth day, seven more.

Jin Tao emerged on day eighteen along with nineteen others.
Almost all of them immediately collapsed in to a coma.

On the nineteenth day, nearly all o the remaining students were done. Only a few holdouts remained.

Zhou Qianlin was among them, and hadn’t yet completed the

simulation.

Lan Jue, looking over the data, found what he’d expected; though she adapted well, her basics weren’t as strong as the students who majored in combat.

On the morning of the twentieth day, the remaining students exited from their sim pods. All but Zhou Qianlin.

It wasn’t until nightfall that she emerged.

Finally, everyone was finished.

Of course the next few days were no better, it was just a change of scenery. Hours of boiling in turbid soup was the theme for a while.

By now, however, the students considered this a spa treatment over the training regimens. They determined boiling to be a better torture than being stabbed or electrocuted

Chapter 292: The Second Stage Of Training

Through the process of the twenty-day Gob program, students had completely absorbed the stimulation from Lan Jue’s bioelectricity. Everyone’s progress was slightly different, but the largest improvements were almost exclusively seen physically. They were stronger, and leaner than when they started. It also meant the energy they could sustain through their Disciplines was stronger. It was most evident after their training, however, as there were no more screams or whines as they sat in the boiling water.

But if there was one Lan Jue had to choose as most improved throughout the whole process, it would have to be Zhou Qianlin.

Fifth rank! In this short time she’d actually progressed that far. More than just the students around her were surprised, Lan Jue was absolutely stunned. More than that, he still couldn’t tell what her Discipline actually was. It was exceedingly strange for a fiftth-ranked adept to still be waiting for their Discipline to awaken.

All he could tell was that her congenital energy reserves were far more abundant than average Adepts. At fifth rank, she had a

higher energy volume than most sixth-ranks, and exceedingly pure comparative to sunlight. And there was more, something else hidden inside. It was an enigma. Lan Jue, sadly, wasn’t yet strong enough to pierce the veil and see more.

“Do you know what day it is today?” Lan Jue, in his golden mask, regarded the gathered student body. His voice was cold, which his demeanor shared. It demanded attention and respect.

The students had greater and greater respect and fear for their instructors as time passed. There was a simple reason for that, and it was that everyone had already improved much further than they could have dreamed. At the outset, Lan Jue had assured them that he could raise their Disciplines by at least one rank. The words still rang in their ears. When he’d said it there were many who doubted the promise. By now, however, all of those doubts had been put to rest.

And yet, though they were certain of their progress, there were likely many of them who would have passed this chance up if given a second chance. They didn’t even dare think about the trials they’ve been through. The memories were too painful.

Thus there was fear for their Demon Drillmaster. Now, as the first part of their training came to an end, there was a great deal

of anxiety swirling around what Lan Jue would have in store for them next.

He went on, his voice even. “This is our one month mark. You’ve been under my charge for a full thirty days. You haven’t experienced much, but you’re keeping up have proven that you’re qualified. Now it’s time to take things to the next level.”

Next level?

Even the hard-as-iron Tan Lingyun couldn’t entirely suppress a shiver. Throughout the month, she’d developed almost a fearful reverence for ‘Lei Feng’ throughout the course of the month. He was heartless! But she, too, could sense her improvement. She felt as though she may have even broken through to ninth rank.

“Our training time is two months. The first month was to test your mental fortitude, and make it stronger. To make you aware of what kind of training this is.” Lan Jue went on.

Test mental fortitude… it was the most terrifying test they’d ever taken.

Fifty one souls, students and teachers. All of them felt like their willpower had undergone a change.

“For the remainder of this training I will personally guide you, mold you in to true soldiers.”

Soldiers?

The words washed over them, and the Drillmaster’s charges looked back, confused.

In the East, everyone had to serve in the military once reaching adulthood. Everyone enrolled in an institution of higher learning was required to participate, without exception. One difference between that training and this one, was that after graduation they could directly join the armed services.

This is something they do in China. Once while in middle school, and again while in high school and then college, students are required to undergo ‘military’ training, which lasts about a month if I remember correctly. In middle school they spend this time making kites and singing patriotic songs. In high school/college this becomes standing in formation for hours in the sun, then running several kilometers. In the end

there’s no real connection to the military. Thankfully I was exempt when I was doing my schooling.

Their military responsibility was for two years, unless special circumstances required more. If not, they passed through on to other things. It was mostly considered a training regime in service to the population. Therefore, it was also a way to raise the fighting capabilities of the whole Alliance.

There were many more male students than female gathered now. Many of them had dreams of being soldiers, of charging their metal suits in to battle. However, their skills and training were far below expectations for a true warrior. Then there were others who desperately tried to avoid the required training.

Dodging military training was a felony, and was strictly forbidden unless under extreme circumstance.

And now here was their drillmaster, telling them he’ll turn them in to soldiers. But while there was no small measure of apprehension, there was also curiosity growing in the students’ hearts.

“Starting now,  you’ve  got thirty  minutes  to  gather your

things for a field trip. We’re going in for a change of scenery. Remember, there is no quitting. You had your chance when the classes started. Anyone who tries to give up, will wish they were dead, plain and simple. If you aren’t standing here in front of me in thirty minutes, I’ll find you and help you pack. Trust me, you don’t want that. Disperse!”

If these students had learned anything over the last month other than how much torture they could handle, it was how to follow orders. Before the word even left his mouth, the students were at a ran to their bunks.

Tan Lingyun trotted over to Lan Jue. She spoke with a low voice. “Lei Feng. What are we bringing these kids out to do? We have to ensure they aren’t in any danger.”

Lan Jue locked her in place with a hard stare. “You are an assistant drillmaster. I make the calls here. You have no right or qualification to be second-guessing my training regimens. You just need to obey. Twenty-nine minutes, no exceptions.”

Lan Jue could actually hear the Savage Goddess grinding her teeth. But ultimately she said nothing, and left to prepare like the others.

As he watched her leave, his heart was full of a dark satisfaction. If you want to tame the Savage Goddess, you have to be twice as savage.

Thirty minutes later everyone was in place, standing at attention with their rucksacks slung over their shoulders. A hoverbus was waiting for them.

Lan Jue clapped his hands. “Let’s go!”

The students made their way on to the transport in single file. This did not include all Zeus’ Amazons, though. After consideration, Lan Jue chose to bring only Mika and Xiuxiu. Lin Guoguo and Ke’er were left behind to look after the shops on the Avenue.

But where were they all going?

The same question was on the mind of every student. However none dared ask – even the Savage Goddess had lost her nerve.

The bus took them to the cival air hangar, where they made

their way to a private lot. Lan Jue’s building came in to view, and when the bus stopped they filed out of the bus as organized as they’d gotten on.

The students each took in the large blue building as they got off the bus. The massive metal doors slowly spread wide as they approached, revealing what waited for them inside.

An airship hangar? Was he planning to take them off the planet? Where in the galaxy were they going?

Excitement began to intermingle with fear and curiosity. Among them, a number of students had never left Skyfire’s atmosphere. It was a fun prospect, to be leaving the planet for the first time.

Before long the doors were open, and the hangar’s interior was bare to all. What they saw was a dazzling, sapphire blue airship slowly taxying out in to the open air.

Perfectly streamlined, a comfortable and dark blue, the machine was a marvel of modern technology. It was the boys who reacted most dramatically, their eyes wide, replacing fatigue with excitement.

What a beautiful ship! It must have been prepped for battle, they reckoned, but since when were patrol ships so pretty? It must have been built to spec.

Tang Xiao swallowed when he saw their ride, and shot Jin Tao a glance. The psycho was almost quivering with anticipation at his shoulder.

“Hey dumb-mutt. You think this thing belongs to our teacher?” Tang Xiao’s voice was low, and furtive.

Jin Tao returned the clandestine glance. “So what if it is? Professor can do anything. Long Live the Master! Man, so sexy – I’ve never been in a battleship. This is too damn cool.”

The magnificent blue ship rolled free of the hanger, then stopped. The hangar doors shut behind it.

A beam of light exuded from the leading end of the aircraft, projecting on to the floor.

“Oh man, a state-of-the-art traction beam! Awesome! This has got to be a fighting ship.” A student called from somewhere.

Lan Jue’s sharp words interrupted their thoughts. “Fall in ranks, and board!”

As he spoke, he turned his face to Wang Hongyuan, bearing a silver mask at his shoulder. The Dance Instructor was no less surprised by the affluence than any of the students. He’d already known Lan Jue’s background was… different, but he’d never have guessed the guy had his own damn battleship.

And if the students had any doubts, he had none. He was sure the NEU didn’t have anyone with the skill set to fly a boat like this, much less possessed the funds to buy and outfit one. It looked smaller than your average patrol boat, but just glancing at its appearance and the tractor beam showed how much money had been poured in to it. He had some serious cash!

Neither was it possible that this thing belonged to Tan Lingyun. The fire in her eyes burned more fiercely than the young men.

In truth her excitement had begun once she heard Lan Jue express his plan to turn them in to fighters. In truth, she’d enrolled for military service after she’d graduated from university, but once her family found out they’d forced her to give it up. They found her a job as an instructor, because they

wanted her to be safe. In her family’s eyes, what sort of female made a good soldier?

She’d been interested in battleships specifically since a young age. Of course she’d been on them before, though the feeling she’d had before and the one she was experiencing now were worlds apart. Previously she was always going with someone, and it felt more like a visit. Now she felt like a participant.

Tan Lingyun didn’t wait for Wang Hongyuan to lead them through. With great strides of her long legs, she was through the beam and unceremoniously vanished from view.

The students followed, entering one after the other as Mika and Xiuxiu kept them in line.

The familiar hum of Zeus-1’s engines spooling up filled the air.

Chapter 293: Plastic Bags

The students were surprised at how small and narrow the interior of the ship was.

Although it wasn’t ‘small’ by conventional standards, compared to its bulks it was less than anticipated. Several metallic chairs had been added – recently, by the look of things – in the center of the bridge.

“It looks so big outside. Why’s it so small in here? It’s got to have like a lounge area, right?” Tang Xiao muttered inquisitively to himself.

Jin Tao sniffed in disdain. “You know nothing. Where do you think a ‘lounge’ is, eh? This sorts of ships only have a cockpit, this is where the crew rests and works. There’s nothing else. The rest of the bulk must be the ship’s propulsion systems and weaponry. Look at the weapons panel there, it’s more than seven meters long. Enough firepower to take on a fleet. You’ll need at least four crew members to run all the weapons at once. For a normal patrol boat, you’d only need one. We’re basically sitting on a miniaturized destroyer.”

Tang Xiao listened with rapt attention, and looked at his

fellow Disciple with amazement. “Jin Tao, how do you know so much?”

Dumb-mutt beamed with pride. “I may not be the best student, but I’ve loved airships since I was a little kid. I read all about them whatever chance I got. Of course I’d know a few things.”

By now everyone was on board and in the bridge. Aside from them, there was only one other person.

He was a young man, not much older than the students who stared at him. Clad in sweat pants and a t-shirt, with the stick of a lollipop jutting from his lips, he seemed well at ease. He raised his eyes from the screen for just a moment to regard the gaggle of young men and women, then went back to work.

It was no surprise that these mecha pilots would be interested in a fighter ship. The moment they entered, the cockpit’s decibel level shot straight up. Some spouted whatever knowledge they had about airships, after all it wasn’t just Jin Tao who had a passion.

There was a flash of light, then Lan Jue, Mika and Xiuxiu

appeared on the bridge.

“Silence!” Lan Jue’s august voice commanded. The young people were well trained, for they immediately shut their mouths upon hearing their Drillmaster.

“Pick your seats according to our rank orders, and fasten your seat belts. Accountant, alert the tower we’re ready for takeoff.”

The lazy-looking man threw up an ‘ok’ gesture to Lan Jue.

Indeed it was the Accountant piloting Zeus-1 today. He’d actually approached Lan Jue the night before he’d returned to West Hill with a simple request – he wanted to run away.

Ever since the arrival of the Bookworm, he felt like he was going insane. Previously there had only been one crotchety old bastard intent on ruining his life. Once he’d finally got used to that hell, a second hateful geriatric showed up.

Before the Bookworm became the Karmic Scholar, he’d begun force-feeding as much knowledge as possible to the Accountant. He knew well that if he failed in his endeavors to prolong his life

and reach Paragon status, he didn’t want all he’d learned to go to waste.

I’m not sure if I went in to this before, but the study situation in China is dismal. The sheer number of people means everything is a struggle to pull ahead of the pack. Success only comes (in the minds of the older generation) through accolades in school, and graduating from a good college. If you fail to do this, you are doomed to a life of penniless struggle where no one will love you, you will fail your family, and society will shit all over you. That’s the bleak future anyone not stellar in school faces – again, according to ‘common knowledge’. As a result, school work is stupendously difficult and volumous. This photo shows a girl with just her high school exams – I promise you that she had at least fifty pages of homework due before each exam. High school students especially will go to school at 6, and often won’t come home until ten or later, and then they have to complete their homework. The pressure to succeed in school is so great, in fact, that during the Gao Kao – their equivalent of the SATs – police are on high alert to help students get to testing locations, be on the look-out for suicides, and drive students to the hospital if they have panic attacks. There’s a saying in China that God cries for the students during Gao Kao, so it always rains on the day. It was true for almost every year I lived there. Long story short, this might better equip you to understand why the Accountant is pissed.

The Keeper, natural, did not disapprove. The Bookworm had many students, but there were only a very select few he chose to pass on the entirety of his knowledge, as a disciple. Most students only learned a infinitismal part of what he knew.

The Bookworm was also particularly interested in the Accountant’s Discipline. So his collusion with the Keeper was more of a conspiracy to create a sort of science and tech super- scholar.

At long last the Bookworm achieved his goal, leaving only the Keeper to look after the Accountant during his studies. It was now or never, his opportunity for freedom had arrived.

Lan Jue still felt like he owed the Accountant after Lir, and so he went in secret to the Keeper to plead the young man’s case. The old pedant did not object, and left him in Lan Jue’s charge.

He didn’t let him go without purpose, however. To use Lan Jue’s words, he was to ‘make good use of waste materials’. Zeus- 1’s navigation was temporarily under the Accounts purview, now. At any rate, the young pervert was just glad for the opportunity.

The students sat in accordance with their rank order. The furniture was set so that there was only half a centimeter of space between them, so they banged together with each slight movement. Comfort as not a consideration.

Once settled, they tried to look every which way at once with eager eyes. A lot of the desperate fear that followed them dispersed. No matter what the Demon Drillmaster had in store, they got to travel to another planet for their training. That was pretty sweet.

Lan Jue strode to the front, and addressed his students in a calm voice. “After discussion with the school officials, we agreed that two months wasn’t enough time. Here on out, there is no time frame for when this training will end. It will most likely be longer than the two months you signed up for. You will have ten minutes to tell your family, and tell them you’re safe. Anyone who shares details of what we’re doing here will have a special training protocol designed just for them.”

Tell their family?

Just the prospect of speaking with those almost-mythical caregivers was enough to inspire some students to tears. Xiuxiu and Mika walked handed out communicators, and made sure

Lan Jue’s orders were followed.

The golden-masked Drillmaster stood before them and watched in silence.

None of these talented students could be considered fools. They all knew precisely what Lan Jue was talking about when he told them to keep the training under wraps. None of the pain or misery that was the vast bulk of their lives now – only happy smiles and puppy-dog tails to placate their worried parents.

It had been a full month of torture! Many of the students couldn’t hold back tears upon hearing from their loved ones, but it was inevitably followed by Lan Jue’s cold stare.

Ten minutes passed in a blink. The communicators were taken away. By then the student’s appearances had changed. They looked far more at ease.

Lan Jue brought their attention back to him. “Soon we’ll be leaving for another planet. The pressure on you, the intensity, will be higher than the first month. Believe it. You can relax during the flight. Prepare to depart.”

Rest? The students exchanged looks of disbelief. They never thought they’d hear such a nice word come from this demon’s lips.

Lan Jue couldn’t care less what they thought. He simply made his way to the wide, comfortable captain’s chair and took a seat. He then shut his eyes and focused on clearing his mind.

Mika and Xiuxiu, hidden behind silver masks, took up position in their traditional spots.

Zeus-1 slowly taxied to the runway, then after a minute, took off toward the cloud cover. It pierced through like a fine sapphire needle, and before long they were in the emptiness of space.

Fast! This was the thought on everyone’s mind as they rattled in their chairs. The each had a front-seat view through the ship’s transparent shielding that afforded them a look of Skyfire from thousands of kilometers overhead. After exiting the atmosphere, the ship steadied and continued on it’s trajectory.

As the ship set itself to cruise velocity, the silence and isolation of space hung over them.

The beauty of space was a stunning visual, no matter how many times you’d seen it. It was the first time for many of these students, and the starlight reflected in their wide eyes.

“Hand them out,” Lan Jue quietly commanded.

Xiuxiu rose to her feet, holding a sack as she approached the students once again. She extricated plastic bags from within and passed them out.

What was all this about, the students wondered? Curiosity was writ clearly on their faces.

Lan Jue arose as well and stood before them. All eyes fell unto their teacher. “In modern times there are two things that encapsulate our current understanding of science and technology. One, are the mechas you each are well familiar with. The consistent progress of mecha suits has made our species stronger. Many – mostly boys, but not all – desire to become mighty pilots, riding these great metal constructs in to battle against their enemies. But aside from them, there are also airships. Combat airships, specifically. We relied on them for colonization of the galaxies, and still do today to defend us against those who wish us harm. Both of them together are the force behind our military power.”

“As several of you have surmised, the ship you’re on now is fitted for combat. I promise you, there’s a whole lot of punch in this tiny boat, enough to tear a battleship in half. It’s been fitted with more materials and power gems than an expedition freighter. Don’t make the mistake of looking at this like a patrol boat.”

Seeing the student’s eyes grow ever more interested, Lan Jue obliged. “Interstellar travel is lonely business. Usually this shit is equipped to support about a dozen crew members. The seats you occupy are a temporary addition. You can understand, then, why comfort is not a priority. So to combat this loneliness, our in-flight entertainment will be a demonstration of just how nasty this little boat really is. Is it really stronger than a battleship, you wonder? Well, I can’t reliably assert that this is the strongest patrol-class ship ever built, but it’s certainly up there. What do you say, are you interested in a little showing off?”

“Hell yeah!” Someone called out. This wasn’t to placate their teacher, but to express genuine interest, and was a sentiment shared by several more young men. Tang Xiao was conspicuously silent.

Tang Xiao couldn’t help but frown as he stared at his Professor. He knew his teacher, and it was definitely not his

style to be so nice. And then there were these plastic bags…

Lan Jue nodded his head in sinister satisfaction. He turned to the Accountant. “Are we ready?”

“You know it!” The Accountant’s response was  excited, jittery. His fingers drummed rhythmically on the keyboard like rain on a tin roof. From what the students could see, he was typing at about forty CPS. Those who noticed where surprised indeed – could it mean this young guy was also a god-ranked pilot?

Lan Jue returned to his chair and, leisurely but pointedly, fastened his seat belt. Mika and Xiuxiu followed suit, though markedly faster.

A stifling sense of foreboding filled Tang Xiao’s heart.

The students felt the automatic harnesses in their chairs tighten and click in to place.

Chapter 294: Redline

The safety restraints did just what they were intended to do. They gave the students a sense of support. But, wait, that means…

“Full speed!” The Accountant called out, and everyone felt the ship shudder as it’s main engines engaged.

The terrifying forces pressed them hard against the seat, and the skin of their faces flapped as inertia took it’s toll. They felt like the acceleration was threatening to tear the skin from their bones.

The scenery outside the cockpit screen blurred, and everything took on a dream-like quality. The speed played with their perception, too, and made it hard to think. They could only sit there and let it happen.

Zeus-1 continued to quadruple its speed until it neared sub- light speed. The closer they got, the more the scene within the cockpit warped until everything around them was a mess of strange lines and colors.

Of course Lan Jue wouldn’t be so kind as to give them a true rest. his was a special combat class, it was silly to expect anything else. They were here to grow stronger, not have a good time. This wasn’t an etiquette class!

About ten minutes later, the ship began to slowly decelerate. As they reached a more normalized velocity, the ship’s stabilizers were able to kick back in as well. By then the students were like sacks of wet noodles. Where it not for their safety harnesses Lan Jue feared they’d collapse.

It was a good judge of one’s Discipline as well. The stronger their Talent, the better they were able to sustain the bearing g- force of sub-light speed. Tan Lingyun, for instance, sat stoically upon her chair like nothing had happened. Wang Hongyuan’s face had blanched, and his head was full of particularly choice curses for Lan Jue and this deathtrap.

Tang Xiao was pleasantly surprised by how well he’d managed to hold out. Now that his Discipline had broken through to eighth rank, he was much better equipped to deal with exogenous stressors. Moreover, though he’d lost a fair amount of weight he was still hefty, and the excess girth had protected him from some of the force. Of all the students, he had fared best.

Although several of them looked worse for wear, they were much better off than most. A normal person had a significant health risk if they had tried to go that fast without stabilizers. But these were Adepts, and mecha pilots no less – this wouldn’t cause any lasting harm.

Tell that to the poor students, though, whose pale faces and wide eyes showed precisely what they were thinking.

Lan Jue’s calm, cold voice filled the cockpit. “You just experienced the sensation of going several times the speed of sound – nearly sub-light speed. Remember these sensations. Throughout this trip you will be expected to adapt and maintain in the face of many environmental changes. If you can’t handle that, you’ll never be strong enough to contribute to society. Continue!”

“Simulated evasive techniques against enemy fire!” The Accountant called out the situation as the ship’s stabilizers were inexplicably cut.

The students were squashed to the back of their chairs as Zeus-1 began its maneuvers. It took turns at break-neck speed, tearing up in to the black, then quickly changing directions and hurdling back toward Skyfire. The students swung and jerked

and shuddered with each movement of the ship, never knowing which way was up. Under constant assault from the rapid movements, the students could swear their insides were being shuffled around.

Lan Jue’s attention never left Zhou Qianlin. He watched her head flail around, sending her hair cascading in every direction. He was a little worried for her, but at the same time he knew that – while she wasn’t in the best shape – she was strong enough to handle it. His respect for her grew as he continued to watch.

Ever since the beginning of the ARC classes there had been no end to the complaining, from everywhere. Everywhere, that is, except Zhou Qianlin. No matter what was thrown at her, she kept her piece and did as she was told. Never once did she use the spirit caller gem, to speak or to whine.

She was not a mecha pilot, but she held just as well as they did, and her progress was astounding. This was one tough woman! It didn’t matter that she was specialized in research and development, because she took everything on without hesitation.

Still Lan Jue found it hard to watch. She hadn’t been a large

girl when they started, and like the others she had lost a great deal of weight through the course of the training. There were more than a few times Lan Jue had to force himself to keep going, instead of telling her to leave.

So they went on, because this training wasn’t for one person. This was for the benefit of all. Not to mention, if he did let her leave, what it would do to the psychology of the other students.

Lan Jue did recognize that many students who earlier were unable to keep up had by now learned to adapt. Part of it was certainly the presence of Qianlin and Tang Mi, venerated as the two most beautiful girls in school. Men were built with the innate need to appear strong in the eyes of women, much less women as stunning as those two. A secret hope lived in the hearts of every one of them, the hope that their strength and determination would earn the girls’ attention. In a way, Qianlin was the very mascot of adaptation and struggle.

After all, if a woman from the R&D department can handle all of this, what excuse did they have? That was something Tan Lingyun loved to remind them about.

And so, so long as Qianlin was able to hang in there, what right did Lan Jue have to pull her out?

Time after time she surprised him. This was especially true for the Gob program, which she completed despite his expectations. It had taken here longer than the others, but what was her training? What was her mecha experience? Practically nil. Even completing the task without any basic training was almost inconceivable! More than talent, she had willpower.

Ten minutes later the ship returned to normal operation. The students found out what the plastic bags were for.

“Yeeeuuhh!! Egghrrghh!” No one knew who the first to lose it was, but it took only a few seconds for the chain reaction to begin. The sound of violent vomiting filled the cabin, and n the end more than half of the fifty students were clutching bags to their faces.

This was their life, for four days. They would fly steady for roughly an hour, then the stabilizers would turn off and the worst roller coaster of their lives would commence.

Lan Jue made sure that these students understand all the different ways a human could suffer.

From beginning to end, Lan Jue held his tongue. Except for

the evasion maneuvers, things happened without warning and out of where so far as the students were concerned. Lan Jue, naturally, didn’t care.

The vast emptiness of deep space was broken up when a large planet appeared within Zeus-1’s field of vision. They shot toward it.

The young pilots held on to the armrests of their chairs, only remaining seated because their harnesses wouldn’t let them curl in to a ball. When the planet came in to view, a few openly wept for joy. They’d earned a new appreciation for solid ground.

A few dreams of combat had been crushed by the experience certainly. They never wanted to  live through  something  like this again.

Two patrol boats, silent as specters, suddenly appeared off the bow of Zeus-1.

“Warning. Warning. Weapons lock, recommend engaging shields.” That was the ship’s mainframe, its thoughts given digitized voice by the computer.

Mika reacted right away. Her fingers danced over the control board in front of her, and a cipher appeared on her screen.

The two ships turns around and took up position on either side of their ship. The harsh sound of the ship’s alarm ceased as the weapon’s lock was canceled. The three ships proceeded in formation toward the planet below.

Meanwhile the students were given a moment to recover. They’d all lost count of how many plastic bags they’d gone through. Even Tan Lingyun couldn’t hold back. Torment didn’t begin to describe what they’d gone through.

“Clean yourselves up and put on a straight face. You’re making it look like I’m mistreating you. The second part of our little excursion is about to begin,”Lan Jue said.

The students stared at him in disbelief. OF COURSE YOU’RE MISTREATING US, they wanted to howl.

TORTURE!

NIGHTMARE!

Someone please kill me!

Of course no one dared voice their misgivings.

Lan Jue rose from his seat and made for the exit. He passed Zhou Qianlin but paid her no mind.

But the soul caller gem warmed.

Lan Jue: How are you? Holding there?

Zhou Qianlin: Fine.

If you can’t handle anymore, tell me.

I’m fine.

Zeus-1 quickly pierced the atmosphere, revealing the kakhi- colored earth below. Their surprised faces peered through the windows set within the fuselage. Their shock wasn’t due to any inherent beauty the planet possessed, but rather because it was

hideously ugly.

It looked like a ruined mass, destroyed by some forgotten cataclysm. Their eager eyes scanned the horizon, but there was no water, no life anywhere. Nothing, stretching endlessly to the horizon.

An undeveloped planet? The same thought ran through everyone’s mind.

Lan Jue’s voice called them back to the ship’s interior. At some point their drillmaster had returned to stand in front of them.

“So what do you think, looking over this place? Tang Xiao.”

The large pilot sputtered his answer immediately. “It musn’t be suitable for human habitation. No signs of vitality, no water, no plants… but judging by the size it’s definitely a planetary body and not a meteor. Judging by the time it took us to get here, this place is probably within the Eastern Alliance, but right on the boundary.”

Lan Jue nodded. “Well done. You’ve got a solid foundation. It’s more than likely this is your first visit to the planet. You only get allowed in with special permission. However, I’m sure you all know it by name. An Lun.”

An Lun?!

It was the natural guardian of the East, the stellar vanguard, An Lun? Home to the legendary Prometheus?

Chapter 295: Blood And Iron

When Lan Jue revealed the name of their destination, neither student nor teacher was spared the surprise. Cold this really be the place? Home to the Supersoldier of the East?

There presence here meant the second portion of their ARC classes would take place here among the heroes of the East. It was unbelievable!

By how was it this planet was so barren? How could Prometheus even lead his armies out here? How could they live to protect the Alliance?

“Tang Xiao’s determinations were correct. This is not a planet that is conducive to habitation. But this isn’t just a planet, it’s a resource. When we discovered this place during our stellar colonization, extensive exploration revealed a cache of minerals including rare metals and power gems. Although this place was not a great find for life, it still became an integral asset for the East. It had everything we needed to give our Alliance the correct foundation.”

“It’s also adjacent to the borders of the Northern Alliance. Our front line. You saw how close the wormhole leading to the

Alliance’s heart is from here. That is to say, if the North wanted to send a ship through our territory, it would have to pass by this place. As a result, this planet has remarkable tactical value.”

“We know the North also understands this. Sixty years ago they tried to take it from us. They knew An Lun had enough resources to provide five hundred years of mining. Top three in all the known resource planets, none the less. It remains a very pretty prize to control.”

“Therefore, the East has spent an astronomical amount of human and material resources to turn this place in to a military outpost. Barracks and facilities were constructed to keep it safe. Although our Bastion ships and technology are inferior to the other Alliances, this planet has made sure every incursion by the North has been foiled. I’m sure you’ve learned all of this in class before.”

“What I want you to understand is, that even in this barren and inhospitable place, there is a group of valiant warriors who suffer the discomfort to bring us peace. Here they remain, as the vanguard against our enemies, to protect the foundation of the East and protect our livelihood from those who wish to take it. They spend their youth, their vigor – even their lives – in servitude. They are soldiers, An Lun’s guardians. You know

them as the East’s Iron Army, the North’s Nightmare.”

“Without the benefits of superior technology, relying only on their tenacity and strength, these young men and women keep us safe. They are lauded a the greatest fighting force the East possesses, with a singular, almost suicidal mindset. This isn’t just military power, but mental fortitude as well.”

Lan Jue paused in his lecture.

As their instructor’ voice reached an emotional crescendo, the students’ dull eyes began to light up. Here they were among the heroes of blood and iron, treading the land they walked. For these young pilots, it was almost mind-numbing.

“I’ve already spoken with the brass here, and they’ve agreed to let the second half of our ARC training commence here. Your trainers will be of the Iron Army itself. Remember that you are citizens of the East. I imagine you’ll do your utmost to ensure you don’t embarrass Skyfire or the NEU. Appreciate how rare of an opportunity this is for you – no outsiders have stepped foot in this land in over ten years. Henceforth I will be treating you like soldiers, like An Lun’s soldiers. For the next month you are no longer students of the National Eastern University, but its protectors. When we leave you can do so with head held high,

because you got to defend the Alliance shoulder to shoulder with the soldiers of Blood and Iron. Because you were brothers and sisters in arms!”

Lan Jue’s motivation address lit a fire in their hearts. All of the pain, all of the exhaustion that they’d suffered so far was worth it. What could be a better reward for their torturous existence than training with the East’s elite?

Their pale faces were suddenly ruddy and vibrant.

Zeus-1 tore over the shattered landscape under the guidance of the two patrol ships. Before long a massive fissure appeared on the horizon. They followed the An Lun pilots in to the valley.

“I made a promise to the officers here before we arrived that everything we see and do here is considered a state secret. If any information about any of this gets out, the military will deal with you in their own way. That’s a court martial at the very least. Understood?” Lan Jue’s voice was once more cold, and full of the promise of cruelty should he be disobeyed.

“Understood!” This time it was the Savage Goddess who answered first.

Lan Jue looked her way, his golden mask thankfully hiding his surprised expression. She was like a young girl, full of gusto, wit her clenched fists pressed to her chest. Her eyes blazed with a furious desire, and even her voice cracked with barely- contained anticipation.

What was going on?

The valley’s dips and curves were revealed to the students as the ship skimmed passed. The further in to the planet’s crust they traveled, they began to see metallic structures springing up all over the place. It almost looked like this entire planet had been converted in to a make-shift Bastion ship.

As they entered the base, they lost their line of sight to landmarkers. They no longer were able to differentiate location or structure, and they didn’t know if they were facing East or West. Thankfully the small ships on either side lead them to a small landing strip. Zeus-1 touched down there.

“Remove your harnesses and disembark.” Lan Jue commanded. The Accountant rose along with the others.

This was a wonderful vacation, as far as he was concerned.

Piloting this magnificent ship was always a treat. It satisfied a craving to bring them here, and the Accountant was well satisfied with the boat’s performance. The violently vomiting students may have also contributed to his enjoyment.

As the students and teachers of the NEU exited the airship, they were greeted with the smart ranks of a military welcoming party.

There were ten in all, clad in immaculate black military uniforms. They were tall, strong, and looked straight ahead as though they were made of stone. They looked calm, but closer inspection revealed the icy poise of a warrior.

Each of them bore five golden stars on the armband tacked to their left arm. This was the symbol for the Eastern Alliance. Their right arm bore a patch with a dragon embroidered in blood red.

The East called itself descendants of the ancient Chinese bloodlines. This badge was a nod to those olden days, and was known as the Mark of Blood and Iron. Only the greatest of An Lun’s soldiers were permitted to wear it. It wasn’t just some meaningless honorific either. It was a token of heroic achievement, and the dream of every young fighter.

All of the students present were students of mecha combat, and were well familiar with the tales of these soldiers. They knew what it took to earn that badge. It was also the first time they’d ever seen it in person.

They looked back as the contingent of living legends welcomed them to their home.

One such legend told of an Eastern government representative who was giving a speech during some public activity. Someone ran up and interrupted what he was saying, and begged that he postpone the rest for fear the crowds would become dangerous.

The man’s bodyguards rushed forward to bar his way, but then the stranger pulled out one of these badges. The senator, upon seeing the mark, immediately stopped his speech. He commanded his entourage and the local venue workers to disperse the crowd. He ended up giving the rest of his speech through another medium.

As his speech concluded, before the entire audience, the official bowed to the young man who made his concerns known. This senator would become our Chairman – Zhou Xueguan. That soldier would die in battle three years later.

The Mark of Blood and Iron was an accolade, awarded to the best the Iron Army had to offer. It remains theirs so long as they remain in active service here on An Lun. When they leave, the badge is returned.

It was an honor that simply defied explanation.

The students arrayed themselves in ranks without any orders needed. Five rows of students stood facing the decorated warriors in a show of respect. Their torturous journey here had already faded in to memory, as they stood toe to toe with these heroic public servants. What’s more, the bars on their chest revealed them to be lieutenants, with their leader being a Lieutenant Colonel.

Lan Jue separated himself from his charges and stood before the gathered soldiers. He snapped to attention, and gave them a sharp military salute.

The unit commander stepped forward and mirrored the greeting. The sounds and smells of metal flowed around him.

“Gao Lei, battalion commander of the First An Lun Independent Mecha Pilot corps.”

“Lei Feng, Drillmaster for the National Eastern University’s Advanced Robotic Combat training regimen.” Lan Jue returned.

“We have the honor of representing Vice Admiral Lan Qing in welcoming you to An Lun, Drillmaster Lei Feng. Please contact me directly if you need anything.”

Lan Jue nodded his head. “Thank you very much.”

Gao Lei nodded back. “If you would please follow me, we’ll take you to your bunks.”

The commander turned and strode off without any change of expression. The ten soldiers who brought with him turned as one unit, and followed on his heels in perfect formation. They looked like a crack mecha bettalion, like they were machines themselves. Their unyielding presence was almost oppressive.

Lan Jue followed, with the Accountant, Mika and Xiuxiu just behind. Tan Lingyun and Wang Hongyuan led the students forward.

The Savage Goddess tried to look in every direction at once.

The look on her face was in stunning contrast to normal, so it was a good thing the mask covered it. She looked like she was in love.

Chapter 296: The Brothers Meet

These were real men! Tan Lingyun’s heart was full of admiration for the young soldiers. At the same time, a face swam up to the forefront of her memory, a face she’d never actually met. However, she’d lost count of how many times it appeared when she closed her eyes.

Gao Lei lead them to their quarters, which were nicer than expected. In fact, they were nicer than the NEU dorms as well. Though only around eight square meters, each student had their own room. It had a bed, a bathroom, a cabinet, and a desk. Everyone had their own space, and that alone was a very pleasant surprise.

The rooms, like the structure itself, were entirely composed of galvanized steel and were linked one to the other. There were about five levels, connected by ladders.

Gao Lei turned to Lan Jue. “These are the barracks. You’ll be staying here for the duration of your visit. If I may, Drillmaster Lei Feng, when is your training set to begin?”

Lan Jue nodded. “It’s about four o’clock local time, yes? We’ll begin tomorrow.”

“Simple meals will be provided by conveyor belt to every room,” Gao Lei said in response. “Please make sure to remain in the barracks unless training. There are many restricted areas around the base, tell your students that if they trespass they do so at their own risk.”

With his instructions delivered, the soldier turned on his heels and left without so much as a wave of his hand.

In truth Gao Lei couldn’t understand why the brass had permitted these kids to stay here. They all looked sickly and unsteady. Would they be able to train with the soldiers? And then this ‘Lei Feng’ guy with his ridiculous mask. The whole thing was a farce.

But following orders was the duty of every soldier. He didn’t make the rules, he just executed them.

Tan Lingyun and Wang Hongyuan didn’t need to wait for Lan Jue’s instruction. They were already in the process of assigning rooms to their charges, and telling them to rest up.

Long flights were always exhausting, especially without any sort of crew cabin. And then, of course, there was the g-force

training.

Even the students’ excitement over training with these heroic men wasn’t enough to keep them awake. The moment their heads touched their pillows, the world went dark. Before long every one of them was comatose.

Lan Jue’s next command was directed to Xiuxiu. “Inject each of them with a nutritive solution. It’ll help them recover from the fatigue.”

His long-time Amazon looked apprehensive. “Boss, aren’t you afraid this is too much? They’ve suffered through quite a lot in this last month.”

Lan Jue smiled behind his mask. “A person’s potential is almost limitless. You know what I’m talking about, you remember my training.”

Xiuxiu nodded, then left with Mika to perform the injections.

Lan Jue exited the barracks. It was also the first time he’d visited this famed place, but he didn’t share the novel

excitement of his students.

He’s lived here for ten years! He started as a private, and now he’s actually a vice admiral. To rise through the ranks so quickly outside of wartime was spectacular.

Of course, what price Lan Qing paid for it, only he knows.

Lan Jue examined the meal they were offered. They were vacuum-sealed bags, MREs, with a thick and unappetizing contents. The scentless sludge was packed full of everything a body needed – assuming you could swallow it down.

Conditions on this planet were not ideal for habitation, which meant there was a spartan simplicity required to make it work. Life here wasn’t only war and preparation, but it was still more than most could suffer.

The moment Lan Jue stepped out from the barracks, two soldiers blocked his path. Laser rifles were raised and trained on him.

“You are not permitted to leave the barracks without orders,”

the soldier on the left nearly growled.

Lan Jue nodded, but did not move. “I’m waiting for someone.”

The two men lowered their weapons, and returned to their watch. They were like statues, standing in resolute silence on either side of the door.

Lan Jue remained as well, with similar posture to the young soldiers. Silence prevailed as the drillmaster waited.

The soldiers paid him no mind in the beginning. But as time passed, and no one came, they began to grow curious. Half an hour crawled by.

Life on An Lun was exceedingly lonesome. Any outside visitor
– aside from those they were meant to kill – was an interesting development. In fact there had never been visitors such as these, so far as most of the soldiers could remember.

The Iron Army didn’t accept new recruits. Soldiers were chosen from a pool of servicemen who’d been on active duty for

at least three years. Only after selection were they allowed to begin training here.

Nor was the treatment here stellar, and yet there was no shortage of warriors desperate for a chance to join. Three years was the minimum required tour, but no one stayed less than ten years. It was considered a disgrace to leave before then, not to mention you would be ineligible for the Mark.

Today’s medical knowledge has extended life considerably, so ten years wasn’t a life-long commitment. But once you rotated out of An Lun, you returned to civilian life a hero of the Alliance with a bright future ahead.

Every year business moguls would send people this way as veterans left the service. They would attempt to ply them by any means necessary. Some would take the offers, and others would remain as career soldiers. Those who remained were fast- tracked for officer positions.

But every year, the number of young men and women who reach that coveted retirement stage were only in the double digits. Most of them bore debilitating injuries.

So what was it about this place that gave it such unique charm? No one could say. But for the Iron Army, this place was their pride and joy.

The clanking sound of metal on metal drew Lan Jue’s attention. In the distance, a figure approached.

The two soldiers who’d been curiously waiting for Lan Jue’s friend to arrive were shocked when they discovered who it was. Even for soldiers here, seeing this one was a rare treat. They snapped to attention, and gave a flawless salute.

The figure stopped a few paces away and returned their salute. He would not deny them the respect, despite their low rank.

“Come with me.” The three curt words were directed at Lan Jue.

The Demon Drillmaster complied, nodding as he fell in behind the man. This time the soldiers didn’t dare block his way. How could they? He was leaving with the An Lun Supersoldier, their Vice Admiral – Prometheus!

Who was this golden-masked man, where the Vice Admiral himself would come to get him?

The guardsmen weren’t permitted to speak, but everything they wished to say could be expressed with a look. They saw their confusion and curiosity mirrored in the others’ eyes.

Lan Jue watched his brother, with his straight spine and chilly persona. He was bemused to discover that these soldiers were all essentially cut from his mold.

A soldier was also a representation of their commanding officer!

A verti-car waited fro them outside the barracks. It was not a fancy transport, and was fitted with only what a soldier might need. Lan Qing swung in to the driver’s seat, and Lan Jue took shotgun.

As the doors closed, the two brothers were cut off from the outside world.

“I’ve prepared a month’s training already,” Lan Qing’s quiet

voice assured.

Lan Jue nodded, looking over his uniformed older brother. He didn’t know why, but suddenly he felt a wave of sadness pass through him.

Lan Qing, perhaps sensing the emotive change in his sibling, looked his way. “Have you spoken with that one from Skyfire Avenue?”

Lan Jue knew his brother was referring to Thunderclap, known to the denizens of the Avenue as the Driver. The one with the yin to his yang.

Lan Jue nodded again. “I’ve been good friends with him for a long time. Once this business with the students is finished, perhaps he and I will start joint training. He’s a racer, though, and I believe he’ll be leaving for the West soon to participate in a competition.”

Lan Qing’s brows furrowed. “It’s been a long time since you’ve been back. When do you think you’ll have time to visit home?”

Lan Jue felt a sharp pang in his chest. A confused and complicated look flit across his eyes. “Have you been back?”

“Last year,” he answered. “Dad’s doing well.”

Lan Jue opened his mouth, but hesitated a moment before speaking.

“Did he mention me?”

Lan Qing shook his head. “I tried to. I saw disappointment in his eyes. I actually called him not long ago and let him know what was going on with you. He didn’t answer.”

Lan Jue reacted by sputtering a bitter laugh. “Really! I’m a disappointment.”

Lan Qing let the silence hang in the car for a moment. “You should go visit.”

Lan Jue only nodded.

“So if these guys do well enough in your training course, brother, do you think there’s a chance for them to join the Iron Army?” Lan Jue asked.

Lan Qing shook his head without giving it too much thought. “No. We can’t buck tradition. If they want to come to An Lun they need the requisite service experience. Then there are all the assessments and tests. Anyway, do you think these kids are actually interested in being soldiers?”

Lan Jue was silent for a moment. “I can’t say if they want it, but I can sense the tenacity in them. The things I’ve put them through can’t be much different than what you do here. You just wait and see.”

“You should know, there are no exceptions here,” Lan Qing assured. “You’ve only been permitted by special approval. I’m guessing the Avenue must have been involved to make this happen.”

Chapter 297: Wait And See

“Here our ideas diverge,” Lan Jue announced. “You’ve done it right – the well-disciplined do not break. But don’t forget what the Clairvoyant told us; we will face a cataclysm, one that’ll threaten all of humanity. It’s something not even the Iron Army will be able to handle on its own. You’ve forged a powerful unit, but it isn’t absolute. What if it isn’t enough to repel the invaders? I feel that the Iron Army’s prestige and training would do better if disseminated to a wider audience. The more soldiers you turn in to warriors the better, not just sitting on our haunches.”

Lan Qing’s brows knit tight. “You don’t understand the military. One hundred poorly managed units can’t stand up to one crack team. When you join the An Lun forces, you’re walking a path only the greatest soldiers have walked. When you serve here, you do so with the best of the best. My men, are all supersoldiers. If humanity should encounter a terrible war for survival, you can bet the Iron Army will lead the charge.”

Lan Jue, upon listening to his brother, was struck with how little he understood about this world. His brother was called the god of wisdom for a reason. “Maybe you’re right. But I’ll prove that these kids I’ve brought are the best of the best.”

Lan Qing replied, his voice low and indifferent. “We’ll just have to wait and see.”

Lan Jue replied with a nod. He opened the car door once they’d arrived and stepped out.

Lan Qing didn’t step out of the car, but followed his little brother his eyes as Lan Jue returned to the barracks. What the demon drillmaster didn’t see was Lan Qing sitting alone in the dark car, with the faintest ghost of a smile on his lips. There was something else there, too, hidden within the grin. Relief.

ζ

BEEEEP! The ear-piercing screech of an alarm broke the silence. The exhausted students were very rudely  torn  from their slumber.

A cold voice broadcast over the announcement system. “You’ve got five minutes to get ready, and five minutes for breakfast. Gather at the door when you’re finished.”

Their brains still sluggish with the fog of sleep, the students

began to mill about and prepare. But as they did they noticed that the voice didn’t belong to their normal tormentor.

Luckily the previous month of training had prepared them for this sort of life. Many were somewhat surprised to discover that they were fresh and ready to go after last night’s recovery. They felt ready to take on whatever An Lun had for them.

On the bedside tables there had been placed MREs for breakfast, arranged at some point while they slept. To them this was bed side service!

Ten minutes later, the students were waiting in orderly rows at the door to the barracks.

Lan Jue in his golden mask, and Xiuxiu, Mika, Wang Hongyuan and Tan Lingyun in silver, stood facing them.

Gao Lei, in the same uniform he’d worn yesterday, lead the small contingent to the training field.

There was surprise written in the eyes of the battalion commander of the First Independent Mecha Combat Regimen.

Obviously he didn’t expect these young pilots to be ready in such a short time. But more importantly, they all seemed ready and raring to go, as opposed to how they looked yesterday. T was like they were entirely different people.

“Drillmaster Lei Feng.” Gao Lei addressed Lan Jue. “For the next month, my brothers and I will be leading your group in training, but we are only responsible for executing the program. We will not stop to make sure your charges can keep up. How much they can handle, is up to them.”

“Fine.” Lan Jue’s response was as tepid as his brother’s.

Gao Lei turned away, and looked at the students with a distinct light of scorn in his eyes. He shouted at them in a booming, commanding voice. “Atteeeeention! Left- face! Get to running, maggots!” He was off like a shot, with his small coterie of soldiers close behind.

Lan Jue followed with his assistants and students in tow.

As they left the barracks area, Gao Lei picked up speed. The base had been under constant development for the last ten years, so it was vast and well paved. Everything fell under a

protective shielding that kept An Lun’s toxic atmosphere at bay while they worked.

There was a tradition among the Iron Army soldiers, that unless you were on official business or there was an urgent matter, you got to where you were going only by virtue of your own two legs. It strengthened both one’s body and one’s will.

And so, their training had started the minute they stepped out of the barracks.

Gao Lei continued to increase the pace. The decorated soldiers on his heels kept up without any trouble. Stamina, after all, was one of the pillars of strength for An Lun soldiers.

Any sluggishness the students may have been struggling with melted away as they started to run. Their curiosity and excitement took its place as they remembered where they were and what they were doing. This was planet An Lun! They had been accepted in to an elite military base, to train with the East’s most lauded warriors. How could they not be excited at the prospect?

The world of stark metal buildings passed around them, and

the students tried to take it all in as they passed. Despite its location deep within the fissure, the headquarters did not want for space. In the distance there was a tarmac for airships and, what was that? It looked like a giant mecha! The nearby warehouse was likely where they stored their excess energy cells. And there, specialized mining equipment? Clearly they were still in the process of exploiting the planet’s abundant resources.

Under command from their curiosity, the students tried to look in every direction at once. They let the novelty and excitement flow through them, which mitigated the strain from their full sprint Gao Lei was subjecting them to.

It was, of course, deliberate on the part of the battalion commander. Let the students get a taste of what true work was, he thought.

Gao Lei, commander of this crack independent unit, was truly one of the best military personnel this floating rock possessed. The First Pilot was what the title suggested, the first among his peers, best of the best. He was a weapon, and the soldiers of his unit were the tip of the blade. He couldn’t remember how many accolades he’d received, how many times he was chosen for a job. And then there was today. He had been confused, upset when the order came down that he was to be responsible for

these children. He couldn’t refuse, of course, but that didn’t stop the displeasure from living in the back of his mind. This was a waste of time, time he could be spending training his own people, or performing missions for the betterment of the Alliance. Looking after these kids was nothing but a waste.

He made the determination that they needed to know what really went on here. He would show them no quarter, and then he’d see how much they enjoyed their little field trip. Best case scenario, they’d complain enough and quit. No one could blame him or his people for that, he was just putting them through the same training his soldiers received. Another An Lun tradition was fraternity, and every upper-level officer made it a point to protect their own. How could they be expected to be an iron wall against their enemies if they couldn’t rally to each others’ side?

There had once been a conflict within the Eastern military forces. Many thought their commanding officer had spent too long on An Lun and wished to switch him out. When the army failed to listen, their response was to call in for their papers and retire – over three hundred of them – all of whom bore the Mark of Blood and Iron.

This news had spread like wildfire. Before long over one hundred ships from all of the alliances converged on An Lun, in

the hopes of snatching up some of these talented – if disgruntled
– ex soldiers. Luckily the East was able to backtrack somewhat, and reworded the release papers so that the officers cycling out were simply going for ‘advanced studies’ off site. When they returned they were all reinstated, and given promotions. There were no more complaints after that.

With that painful experience still fresh in their minds, the top brass of the Eastern armed forces released a declaration that all future commanding officers in An Lun would be internally selected from men who’d actually served there. This was an important announcement, one that showed a great deal of autonomy for the Iron Army. That’s how important they were.

I’m not sure if the author intended this, but this small aside bears interesting parallels with the Tian An Men riots. The chairman at the time, Deng Xiao Ping, was trying to consolidate power after the train wreck that was Mao Zedongs final years as overlord. To do so, its reputed that he had to make nice with the army. This afforded them with a daunting amount of power, so much that Deng couldn’t effectively contain them. When the democratic protests erupted, Deng was forced to rely on the military again, who responded in tragic, exceedingly violent fashion. The army was too important for Deng to ignore or weaken, so he had to let them do their thing. It resulted in tragedy. At least, this is how I understand it/was told. If anyone knows a different story, share in the comments. Sources are

even better!

The officer who spear-headed the revolt was Lan Qing’s predecessor. He became the supreme commander of An Lun’s forces until old age forced his retirement. He felt he could no longer effectively direct An Lun’s affairs, and stepped down of his own volition. He recommended Lan Qing as his successor, who was only a colonel at the time.

He had been groomed for three years for the position. With the blessing of An Lun’s officers, he was elevated to the highest office this border planet had.

This was the tale of An Lun. Gao Lei knew his visitors were familiar with it.

Half an hour passed, and in that time they covered at least forty kilometers. They were almost at the training field, so the First Pilot finally began to reduce his speed. He looked over his shoulder.

What he saw nearly made him stumble in disbelief.

The students were just as organized and in step as they had been when they left. Not only hadn’t any of them lagged behind, but they were in perfect rows. If it weren’t for their school-issued flight suits, he might have mistaken them for actual soldiers.

These guys are in excellent shape! No wonder they chose this place.

But while Gao Lei was surprised at the run, he still didn’t find it overly remarkable. Being in shape didn’t make one a soldier.

The training area was a large, flat field that was separated in to numerous sections. The one thing missing, the students noticed, were sim pods. The field was surrounded by several towering warehouses, each delineated by a large sign.

Gao Lei brought them to the center of the training area, where they stopped to catch their breath.

“In accordance with our military orders, we’ve arranged a training program for you. It will be modulated by your capabilities. What this means is that you will progress through the course only if you are able to pas the early portions. Today,

its running. Our little jog here was a warm-up. Ten circles – do that in a reasonable time, and we can move on.”

The field was massive, with one circle being easily ten kilometers. He was asking for a hundred kilometers from these kids.

Why so little? Is the An Lun training program really this easy?

None of the students could actually say what they were thinking, though.

Chapter 298: Manifest Excellence

Training at West Hill was much harder than this. The students exchanged glances, some actually beginning to suspect they weren’t being taken seriously.

“No holding back!” Lan Jue’s harsh voice sent a shiver down their spine. They snapped to attention, with the stark reminder that there was no relaxing when the Demon Drillmaster was watching.

Gao Lei followed on the golden masked man’s heels. “Go!”

Lan Jue did not remain to observe like the First Pilot. Instead, he lead the group, with his assistants fanning out behind.

The Demon Drillmaster would train as well? The young pilots where stunned to discover that he was, but they knew it only meant they had to work harder. They had better keep up, because the consequence for falling behind would likely be dire.

Gao Lei languidly swung to meet the gaze of a soldier standing nearby. “Double the gravity,” he ordered.

“Sir!” The soldier snapped to attention before darting off to do so.

Upon seeing their Drillmaster move to the front of the fine, the students were filled with an inexplicable happiness. So far, compared to the torment they’d suffered on Skyfire, this was paradise.

Running was an afterthought now. They were adepts, with Disciplines that fed strength to their bodies. After their first month of training and the medicine baths, it was hard to gauge just how much they’d improved but it was more than just significant. If what they were seeing was the gist of it, this An Lun training would be a vacation.

A few minutes in to their first kilometer, something seemed off. Their legs were heavy, like they were drained. There was no agility in them.

“Double gravity,” Lan Jue shouted to the others. “Maintain pace.”

Double gravity? Sure enough, the training wouldn’t be as easy as it seemed. At least they were prepared for the unexpected,

after Last month’s experiences. Their pace remained lock-step, if a mite slower. They never broke rank.

Really? Now, Gao Lei really was stunned. Even specially selected soldiers doing their first run here had trouble with sudden shifts in gravity. Many of them tripped straight off. These kids’ physical fitness was quite a bit better than one would expect! They hardly reacted at all.

Their first circle passed quickly and without incident. They moved like a single organism, with only the slightest of variations. Second lap passed much the same, then the third…

With each completed circuit the surprise in Gao Lei’s eyes grew. He was beginning to understand why the COs were allowing these kids to train here. Of course they’d have to be above average.

In the next hour they completed seven laps without a dip in speed. The steady thump of feet were like a metronome. Sweating was inevitable, but Gao Lei couldn’t see an ounce of fatigue in their faces. On the contrary, they were smiling!

What was double gravity to them? It was hardly a warm-up.

“Pick up the pace, run at your peak!” Their Drillmaster’s voice called back again, and in the next second he was off like a shot down the track. His four assistants were right in his tailwind.

Peak?

The students audibly groaned. The pace they’d been running was just above comfortable. Now there was no more playing around.

The first to break in to full sprint was Tang Mi. Her pent up rage and frustration were too much. The second she heard the order to go all out, she exploded like a hurricane. She stretched out her long legs to break ahead of the pack, plowing through toward the Drillmaster.

Before the dust of her passing could settle the others were on her heels. Geng Yang, Tang Xiao, Jin Tao and the rest didn’t hold back. Tang Xiao had the worst of it. His weight and the increased gravity conspired to make this doubly difficult.

The students flailed and kicked as they fought to keep up.
They were racing at twice the speed they’d just maintained.

The soldiers at Gao Lei’s side watched with surprise. Since when were college students so fierce? They sure ran like soldiers.

Lan Jue completed the run, coming to a stop before the First Pilot. He didn’t breath heavy, nor was his face red. He regarded Gao Lei the calm expression. “Commander Gao, we’re ready for the next exercise. I imagine we can complete at least one more before lunch.”

Gao Lei’s expression didn’t change, nor did the look in his eye.
What did this mean? Fitness wasn’t everything.

The students quickly put away the remaining laps. Though out of breath when crossing the finish line, they didn’t seem all that drained. Even the stragglers were in good shape.

“Alright, you guys finished the first exercise very nicely. Next we’ll work on your stamina and defense. We’re going to pair you up with the soldiers behind me in a bare-fist fight. Your job is to not got punched in the face. If you give up, you’re out of the program. Three minutes in the minimum to pass. Let’s get going.”

Defense, eh.

“Can we hit back?” Several dozen wide eyes looked in disbelief at the speaker. Jin Tao’s seriously expression met their gaze.

“Hit back?” Gao Lei sputtered in laughter. “Of course! If you think you got the stones for it, go ahead. Tell you what, if anyone lands a blow on one of my soldiers, you’ll get honored.”

Lan Jue, standing at Gao Lei’s side, added, “No Disciplines.”

Gao Lei shot him a glance. “Alright.”

Upon hearing their drillmaster’s words, the students’ faces fell, because they knew it had been directed towards them. The battalion commander, however, didn’t seem to get it.

Gao Lei continued. “Give me ten groups. Prepare to fight.”

The Iron Army soldiers fanned out, as did the students under the Savage Goddess’ direction. The women were all placed together in one group.

Jin Tao was first in line, head of the first group. He visibly twitched in excitement.

Tang Xiao was also first in his group, and stood abreast to Jin Tao. The two Disciples eyed each other sideways with fervent, defiant glances. Clearly this was to be a competition. Who was going to last the longest.

Tang Mi stood at the head of the female group. She was clearly the strongest of the group in battle prowess. Their soldier training partner was also female.

There were decidedly few women in the Iron Army, but those who met the criteria were certainly something to behold. They were vicious warrior princesses.

“Round one. Begin!” Gao Lei shouted.

The students all reacted differently. For instance, Tang Xiao – his face doe-eyed and honest – waddled toward the instructor. With his apologetic smile and self-deprecating stance, he quietly asked them to go a little easy.

Jin Tao descended on his instructor like a rabid  spider monkey.

Tang Mi also didn’t wait to strike. Her long legs lashed out like whips at the female soldier’s head. No one would mistake her for timid.

With five meters between them, she leapt in to the air and swung her leg heel-down toward her opponent.

“Showey. And impractical.” The soldier snarled disdainfully. She waited until Tang Mi’s foot was inches from her face, before taking a rapid step to the side. Her fist shot out through an opening.

The step was small, but quick and accurate. Tang Mi’s flailing kick met nothing but air.

The younger Tang reacted well, however, bending her knee and aiming for the woman’s temple. Her arms reached out to ward her counter strike.

The soldier didn’t change course, but did pick up speed. The

moment her fist struck Tang Mi’s palms she could feel it vibrating. The force of her strike vibrated up in to her arms, shivering her bones. She couldn’t steady herself suspended in the air as she was, so she tumbled out of control. Her knee swung wide.

The soldier’s fist groped out in attempts to grab Tang Mi’s ankle. She gripped it tight, and viciously pulled Tang Mi to the ground. The young pilot struck the floor at a full spin.

Though smaller than Tang Mi by a head, this female soldier was at least twice as deadly. A startling aura of bloodthirst surrounded her, hung around her with a promise of violence. It rattled Tang Mi, for sure.

Tang Xiao’s sister curled in like a shrimp as the soldier’s fist met her abdomen. There was no mercy, and Tang Mi felt as though her organs were all shifting around one another. She met the floor again with a crunch. The soldier stood over her, foot raised. With a grunt she brought it crashing down toward her head.

Tang Mi managed to lift her arms up just in time to block her foot. She was knocked back several meters, but she hardly felt it through the grey haze the hung over her mind.

Seeing their fellow student so assailed, the girls were stunned and frightened. She was lauded as the best fighter, and she was put down in three hits. This soldier was terrifying!

Vicious, callous, and not the least bit showy. This was clearly her style, and it was frighteningly effective.

Similar scenes repeated themselves among all the other groups. These kids hadn’t the ghost of a chance against these hardened warriors. One after the other they were put down. And yet there were no cries for mercy; either because they didn’t wish to be disgraced, or because they’d already had the sense knocked out of them.

There were, of course, exceptions. Jin Tao and Tang Xiao, for instance.

Jin Tao had been on his enemy from the beginning, His attacks were anything but refined – after all, he’d never studied combat – but what they lacked in polish they more than made up for in pure mad ferocity. He swung his fists at the defending soldier like a crazed cheetah.

The soldier dodged and juked quick as lightning then, kicking

out with his leg, tried to sweep the crazy little bastard.

Only Tang Xiao rolled free just in time. He wasted not a second, and went right for the soldier’s throat once again.

Tang Xiao, on the other hand, circles his enemy with wide lumbering steps. His hands her raised and would occasionally lash creep out like he was looking for an opening. Of course, the foxy bastard was just trying to buy time. They said three minutes, right?

The contempt in his opponent’s eyes was thick and fierce.
With a roar of frustration, he rushed Tang Xiao head on.

Chapter 299: Tang Xiao Breaks Out

At that very moment, Tang Xiao saw his sister about to get her head stomped in. He stopped dead in his tracks, fat jiggling, eyes locked in the scene. In the next instant, a wave of startling power began to emanate from him.

Little Mi! The scream was internal, but he reacted by bull- rushing the soldier responsible for his own group. He didn’t care what would happen to him, or how he’d be seen – something Mika was very familiar with. This was his sister!

He’d heard from Jin Tao that his sister had remained by his side the entire time he was meditating. Though he never said anything, how could he not be moved by the display? Ever since they were small, he’d looked after her. She was big now, he knew, and was able to take care of her self but it was a part of him. Family was the most important thing, and their dedication to one another was something he cherished.

Watching his sister suffer, the cunning depths of Tang Xiao’s mind turned to mad violence. He threw himself at the soldier with wild abandon. Their trainer, though possessed of a wealth of combat training and experience, was nonetheless stunned by the sudden ferocity from this fatty.

But the young man’s rush was unrefined. He threw himself in to danger without thought of protection of tactics. The soldier answered by swinging his thick, powerful leg right towards Tang Xiao’s copious belly.

“Ughh!” Bullseye! Tang Xiao, in his blind rage, couldn’t dodge the kick. But the soldier discovered something objectively terrifying when, as his foot connected, he got the distinct impression something was wrong. Tang Xiao stomach was soft and supple like cotton, and after the kick landed, the soldier couldn’t pull his leg free!

He yanked and kicked his leg, trying to free himself from the disgusting hold. But he failed, and Tang Xiao took the opportunity to press forward.

In generally, the more meaty individuals had more strength than skinnier folk. At least they weren’t at a disadvantage. Tang Xiao wasn’t a normal fatty, either. Moreover, he was a particularly talented Adept all his own. He couldn’t use his Discipline, but he knew how to take advantage of an enemy’s short-comings.

However the soldier was not alarmed by the change of circumstance. He pressed his weight on his captured leg and,

regaining some semblance of balance, swung the opposite foot around to try and catch Tang Xiao on the shoulder. The intention was to force his leg free with a distracting strike.

But Tang Xiao followed up with something the soldier couldn’t anticipate. He jumped as high as he could.

Despite his girth, he got some considerable height on the leap. With his opponent’s leg caught, Tang Xiao managed to spin in the air until the soldier was point right toward the floor, positioned to break the young pilot’s landing. His doughy belly toughened up and keep a vice-like hold on the leg. There was no way for the soldier to wrench his leg free, now.

A ferocity shone in the depths of the warrior’s eyes. In the blink of an eye there was a knife in his right hand, pulled free from a pocket on his uniform pants.

“Ah!!” The pained scream pierced through the air, hanging over the field.

Wasn’t this a bare-handed fight? What was he doing with a weapon?!

The thought raced through the heads of onlooking students as the soldier sought to extricate himself from this awkward situation. Tang Xiao prepared to Discipline to ward the inevitable stabbing. But much to his surprise, the soldier swept his dagger down toward his own ankle.

There was no hesitation. Even though this was training, the soldier was about to cut off his own foot for battlefield supremacy!

“Enough!” A figure appeared suddenly from the corner of their eyes. With lightning-fast speed, the newcomer grabbed the soldier’s arm before the strike could land. In the same motion he guided their fall so they could land safely.

Gao Lei looked over the two of them. He fixed Tang Xiao with his gaze, something strange in their depths. “You win,” he said. “Well done.”

Tang Xiao relaxed his stomach and allowed the soldier to pull himself free. But he didn’t care about the result, his eyes were already searching for his sister.

The losing soldier’s face was a mask of rage and

disappointment. After he regained his feet, Gao Lei responded by viciously kneeing him in the gut. The soldier fell to a knee with a pained groan.

“You underestimated the enemy. If this were a real fight, you’d be dead. You’ve forgotten the principle of throwing everything behind every fight, no matter the enemy, haven’t you? This is a warning, forget again and you’ll be punished.”

The exchanged had happened in just a few seconds. But it dominated the attention of every student. This was the Iron Army on An Lun! They would maim themselves even to win in training. If the fight hadn’t had been stopped in just that moment, surely the strike would have permanently disabled the soldier.

Nearby, Jin Tao was still battling his instructor.

By the time Tang Xiao had won his victory, Jin Tao had been viciously beaten down by his instructor seven times. However, each time he got back up. He refused to be put down, like a cockroach. He’d dust himself off, then launch headlong at his enemy once more.

The soldier’s eyes were full of stunned disbelief. This kid was tough as rocks! And he sure as hell could take a hit. Although each rush resulted in him being knocked away, he defended himself in just the right spots and at just the right times, to ensure there wasn’t any serious damage. This was training, after all, and the soldier wasn’t interested in killing his charge. What’s more, it took him longer and longer each time to repel the psychotic student.

Gao Lei stood not far off, watching carefully.

Combat was an excellent display of ability. Power, speed, psychology, reaction speed… everything came out when the fists started flying.

Even people with the same skills and strength could see vast differences in combat results if you considered their willpower. And those were only a few criteria.

The longer he watched, the more surprised Gao Lei became. These kids were much, much different than he’d expected. Not only were they physically primed, but they had a tenacity that was practically inhuman. Since the fight started, no a one has cried for help, or given up.

Even in the military, this was something else.

Tang Mi passed out, Tang Xiao went berserk. The students were like rabid animals, with a ferocity that was hard to explain.

Their basic abilities were also quite good, considering. They were also strong, and desperate. The soldiers couldn’t kill them, so they sought to thoroughly route these kids instead. However, they were finding it very difficult to do so. The fights took longer and longer.

Even the elite soldiers they poached from other units couldn’t perform at this level. Gao Lei’s disdain had slowly begun to melt away as he watched them perform. He couldn’t help but not in silent appreciation. They were all exceptional talents, with a wealth of potential. And they were young! The Vice Admiral was right – these kids deserved to be here. With time, every one of them could be part of the Iron Army.

Every student fought until they passed out. Not a single one gave up. To them, this beating really wasn’t that bad. They rose to their feet, dusted themselves off, and went in again. Over and over.

After all, compared to boiling water and a dozen metal rods and bio-electric lightning storms, what was a few gut-punches?

Jin Tao was a special case. The kid was a freak. While the other soldiers had nearly finished with their groups, these two were still at it. The soldier was drenched in sweat, and his breath was coming ragged. Jin Tao’s face only revealed excitement. They were already passed the ten minute mark!

In the end, Gao Lei could do nothing for it but give the kid his well deserved honors. He had other training courses to get to, and at this point the kid had so thoroughly embarrassed his soldier that he had shown his worth tenfold.

Lan Jue watched in silence, never moving. Until Zhou Qianlin fainted…

Qianlin was the final one in her group to fight. When it was her turn, Tan Lingyun had quietly approached Lan Jue, expressing concerns that she was no combat student. Lan Jue shook his head, and told her that this was Qianlin’s choice. She had made the decision to be here- she had earned it.

And she really didn’t have any combat ability to speak of.

What did have, was an expected calm. Her tiny arms darted here and there to ward off the attacker’s strikes. She was knocked out in under a minute, but when looking at her from the perspective of a ‘civilian’, it was an impressive feat.

But when she ultimately hit the floor, Lan Jue couldn’t stop his hands from curling in to fists.

The process was done in about half an hour. Seventeen of the fifty students had managed to pass muster. They had all made it at least three minutes. Although this was less than a third of the participants, Gao Lei no longer looked at them like pain in the ass kids. Even those who hadn’t passed needed only slight adjustments to make it the next time.

“Drillmaster, would you and your assistants be needing this training as well?” The First Pilot turned to regard Lan Jue, who’d been silent through the whole thing.

Lan Jue turned his mask face toward the soldier. “Would the commander mind showing me a few things?”

A light shone in Gao Lei’s eyes. “Alright,” he said.

“Excellent.” Lan Jue nodded his head in satisfaction, then walked to the center of the training field.

Most of the students had come to already. All eyes were now on Lan Jue and Gao Lei. Their brief exchange had not been quiet, after all, so they all knew what was about to happen.

So now they would get to watch their demon drillmaster at the First Pilot of An Lun have at it.

They forgot all about their aches and pains. Their eyes were wide and unblinking as the students’ two instructors met on the field of battle. The memory of their Drillmaster’s tyrannical victory in his saber mech was still fresh in their minds, but they didn’t know how he was in actual fist-fight. Grappling and mecha combat had many fundamental differences – would he be able to stand up to this battle-hardened commander?

Lan Jue walked to the center of the training field  before turning back to face Gao Lei. “We go until someone taps out?”

Gao Lei nodded. “As you like.”

“Let’s do it,” Lan Jue returned.

Gao Lei’s face curled in to a frown. “Feel free to start us off.” Although he didn’t say it straight, his meaning was clear: He doubted Lan Jue had any chance at all, if Gao Lei were allowed to start the fight.

Lan Jue said nothing further. He simply stepped forward and, with terrifying speed, whipped his back leg at Gao Lei’s rib cage.

Chapter 300: The Man In The Green Mask

A twinkle appeared in Gao Lei’s eye. He took a step to the side, then forward so that he was inside Lan Jue’s leg, effectively negating the strike. It was the same reaction the female instructor had used in avoiding Tang Mi’s attack. Likely something universal in their training.

However, he changed it up a little. After moving in, Gao Lei twisted on his heel and threw both arms up front of him.

Bang! Gao Lei flew off like a cannonball. He hit the ground and skid a good dozen meters before scrambling back on to his feet. The gathered soldiers suddenly paid much closer attention.

This…

Their first pilot was unceremoniously smoked by this masked stranger. What was going on? Gao Lei’s combat prowess was well known among his soldiers, even going so far as earning him the title ‘the Tiger of An Lun’. He’s passed every training with accolades, and earned nearly every military commendation on offer. Years of military service have honed him in to a weapon of war.

And yet, he was trounced by this strange professor. Was he really that strong, to send their illustrious commander flying?

There was an expression of appreciation in Lan Jue’s eyes, that twinkled from behind the golden mask. His reaction time was fast, and his determinations swift and correct. In the blink of an eye he’d determined Lan Jue’s kick to be uncontrolled, and swept in close to take advantage. He was also able to judge Lan Jue’s power by the strength of the kick. By what he saw, the drillmaster was no weakling. So, seeing that he couldn’t avoid or negate the strike, he threw his hands up to block it. The resulting blow caused him to tumble away, but he’d taken no damage from the trade.

“Alright!” Gao Lei growled, but not in pain from the strike. A violent light shone in his eyes as he raced forward to re-engage. His right hand slashed out with the flat part of his palm cutting through the air like a blade. He was aiming right for the center of the drillmaster’s chest. His movements were precise, and lacked any hesitation. His whole body moved like it was a perfectly cohesive unit, prepared for anything.

Lan Jue watched him come. He didn’t move, and made no effort to prepare for the attack. His eyes followed Gao Lei’s hand as it chopped through the air and, as it drew within a few scant inches of Lan Jue’s chest, the drillmaster lashed out with a

lightning fast punch toward the First Pilot.

Gao Lei’s hand made contact. However, as his chopping attack finally hit the drillmaster, he felt a powerful vibration. His whole body began to shudder, and just then Lan Jue’s fist found its mark. The punch caught Gao Lei in his left shoulder.

But when the strike hit Lan Jue felt Gao Lei’s shoulder move, like it was dislocated. The pilot swung his left shoulder back, and Lan Jue’s strike brushed along his opponent’s side. Once more Gao Lei’s hand chopped at Lan Jue, aiming now for his carotid artery. In the same motion his knee bent, and lashed out at his opponent’s legs to catch him off balance.

Lan Jue’s left hand hung down to block the knee, while his upper body twisted sideways and down. This helped him avoid Gao Lei’s chop while simultaneously knocking the knee aside. These close quarters encounters were brief, but fierce.

Gusts of air swept passed the onlookers as the two collided.

In truth neither were supposed to use their disciplines. But this wasn’t a friendly sparring session. It would more accurately be described as a death match! The students and soldiers

watched with rapt attention – this was a true meeting of two combat masters!

And yet as they fought, the onlookers began to take note. Though they looked to be neck and neck, Lan Jue hadn’t moved an inch from his starting location. Gao Lei had approached from every angle to try and get him to budge. He crashed against Lan Jue over and over like a relentless tide, while the drillmaster remained a steadfast solid cliff face. The stronger Gao Lei’s attacks, the more severe the response from Lan Jue. The more vicious the offense, the stronger his defense.

Gao Lei’s reactions and fighting style were fascinating for the students. When comparing the two, their Drillmaster’s fighting style was simple and direct. He was like water, and reacted where needed. This ensured that Gao Lei didn’t get an advantage.

The advantage, in both speed and strength, lay with Lan Jue.

The students were all talented pilots, and knew how to read a situation. It didn’t take them long to discover why it was their drillmaster was in a better position. Strength, attack, speed… he was better in every category. Gao Lei had to strike in very precise areas to have any hope of landing a solid blow. He was

also very careful not to suffer one of his opponent’s attacks directly.

Gao Lei was also using fundamental attack patterns, simple and straightforward. He was trying to make a point: with enough power, speed, and perception it didn’t matter how strong your opponent was or what style they used, you could beat it.

And generally he’d be right.

Gao Lei secretly battled a fear that was welling up in his chest. Facing off like this, he couldn’t get but be reminded of when he first arrived on An Lun, and his first drillmaster. No matter how hard he tried, how hard he fought, his opponent was indomitable. The oppressive defense was so much he felt like he couldn’t breathe. And the guy wasn’t even using all of his power!

Was he doing it on purpose?

Gao Lei clenched his teeth. Already he’d thrown everything he had behind his attacks. He attacked from all angles, rotating around Lan Jue to find an opening. But, no matter how hard his

strikes or from what direction, each one was negated by the drillmaster’s defense.

Total defense! This was Lan Jue’s strategy. Gao Lei’s hands and arms were red, and swollen from continuously beating against Lan Jue. He was only still going because his pride demanded it.

I can’t lose! I represent the Iron Army, the glory of An Lun! The fire in Gao Lei’s eyes grew fierce and bright. None of the students admitted defeat, he thought, how  could  he?  That would be unacceptable!

Lan Jue nodded. “Alright, let’s stop here I think.” Lan Jue brought one hand to rest at the small of his back, with his other reached forth. A strange power manifested afterward, with a traction force that grabbed Gao Lei and sent him spinning.

The First Pilot fought to regain control, but the harder he fought the stronger this strange force became. When he hit the ground it was a good ten meters from Lan Jue’s position. He tried to shoot to his feet for a counter attack, but that power remained. He was forced to the floor a second time.

Everyone looked on as Gao Lei was easily swept aside.

Gao Lei’s jaw was rigid, his face red. He scrambled angrily to his feet, glaring in unbridled rage. He had not given in!

“Alright, Lei.” A cold, indifferent voice interrupted.

A man had appeared at some point, clad in the military fatigues of an An Lun soldier. He wore a green mask to hide his features, with two twinkling eyes that were trained on the instructors.

The moment the soldiers saw him, they were in motion. Who was this man? How did he appear here so suddenly? An Lun soldiers didn’t hide behind masks.

They wanted to rush forward and wrestle the answers from this stranger, but Gao Lei’s voice stopped them in their tracks. “Stay your hand!”

The First Pilot snapped to attention and gave the green masked man a smart salute. “Drillmaster!”

“At ease.” The masked man slowly walked closer.

Gao Lei’s anger was gone, replaced with respect and astonishment. Almost as though he’d arrived on queue, here was the man who trained Gao Lei when he first arrived. He was an idol to the young soldier.

“Drillmaster Lei Feng. Allow me to offer my insight to you and your students.” The man’s voice was impossibly calm, and quiet.

Lan Jue narrowed his eyes, and the two exchanged a long look. After a moment, Lan Jue nodded. “Alright.”

The green masked man looked over the gathered trainers.

“All together, then.”

Damn, was he this strong?

The students were abuzz with the new development. Especially those who knew Lan Jue’s power; Tang Xiao, Jin Tao,

Qianlin and Hongyuan.

Who did the green masked man think he was? He was going to face their drillmaster and his assistants?

Watching their demon drillmaster handle the First Pilot had filled the students will a great deal of pride. Although the first month of training had seen them very cruelly tormented by this man, they nonetheless felt a profound sense of elation. Plus, someone other than them was facing the damn drillmaster’s torment now.

“Very well.”

The assistants stared blankly at him, stunned he’d actually agreed.

Then, he was on the offensive.

In polar opposition to the last fight, the demon drillmaster was first to launch an attack. He was fast, appearing before the green masked challenger in the blink of an eye. His right hand reached out to grab him by the shoulder.

The man allowed Lan Jue to grab his shoulder. Then, with a rapid shake of his arm, the man was free. Lan Jue replied with a wild throw, which the challenger blocked head on. The two collided in reckless assault.

Bang!

Lan Jue was pushed back three paces. The other rolled his shoulder, but wasn’t budged.

Gao Lei stood nearby, watching with a dumbfounded expression. Of course he knew who the green masked man was. This visiting drillmaster’s actions were almost sacriligious. Now, though, he could see why it was he lost so cruelly to this man. He could stand toe to toe with his own teacher. It even looked like he was holding back.

When the two men collided Tan Lingyun, Wang Hongyuan, Xiuxiu and Mika all rushed in. They approached from four different directions to surround him.

Tan Lingyun and Wang Hongyuan where at a complete loss as to who this man was, but once they were singled out they had no choice but to respond. He looked like a worthy opponent as

well.

Xiuxiu and Mika, though, had already begun to puzzle out the man’s identity. They were certainly familiar with their boss’ strength, and his acceptance of a one on five match-up spoke volumes to the man’s abilities. Who on An Lun could be that strong? The answer was obvious.

“Hmph!” The disdainful grunt was from behind the green mask. A terrifying atmosphere erupted from him.

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