Chapter 701: Restructuring
The Bookworm was the one to answer. “Ships won’t work. It can be put into their weapons, but ship guns spread vital energy too thin. We can’t concentrate Discipline enough to pierce their defenses. As far as our tests have shown, mechas are the most suitable weapons. They deal the most damage while providing the highest rate of survivability for the Adept. Outfits like our Star Division are particularly effective against them for this reason.”
The leaders around the table nodded their heads in understanding. Star Division’s success, they knew, would also translate into a higher standing for Skyfire Avenue.
The Keeper continued. “We’ve given the results of our experimentation to the military already. They will share it with the West and North soon. I believe they will create Adept armies of their own once they learn of their efficacy.”
The Wine Master turned to Lan Jue. “Jewelry Master, as commander of Star Division why don’t you tell us about how it’s doing?”
He responded with a nod. “At present Star Division is one
thousand five hundred fighters strong, all Adepts of varying degrees. It is split into four brigades: First Brigade specializes in close- and fixed-combat; Second Brigade is composed of area- and long-range fighters; Third Brigade is recon and support; and Fourth Brigade is specialists.”
“As I said, Third Brigade is our reconnaissance and infiltration team. Fourth Brigade deals with logistics, rear support and coordination. First and Second brigades are mainly combat. They are subdivided into units of ten soldiers each, led by an eighth-level Adept or higher. We encourage our fighters by rewarding them with loot and vital crystals, based on merit.”
“Currently all of our people have been outfitted with customized mechas that play to their Disciplines. Results have been exceptional. I dare say that Star Division is stronger than any group of comparable size. Calling us a ‘Division’ may not be true in terms of numbers, but our accomplishments earn us the name.”
“We cut our teeth clearing out pirate strongholds in the Shattered Starfields. We were victorious is every mission. Star Division encountered the alien planets on Moonfiend and fled with one casualty, we’ve been building up arms and personnel since then. While we can’t compare to the destructive capabilities of a Bastion ship or interstellar fleet off-planet, we
can do just as much damage on the ground. With Paragons counted among our numbers, I believe we could compare to a Bastion ship in regards to sheer cataclysmic potential. After all, a human can go where a planet-sized ship can’t. If we can infiltrate a Bastion, we can take it.”
The Keeper chortled. “That might be a little ambitious. After the Violet Prince’s attack on Tyrannosaurus, the Alliances are taking a closer look at internal security.”
Lan Jue paused, then chuckled in spite of himself. “This is a good thing, a little pain to learn their lesson. Alright, that’s all I have to report.”
The Wine Master glanced at him. “In order to better protect Skyfire and by extension Skyfire Avenue, we’ve agreed to make Star Division part of the conventional Eastern army. We will fight the alien threat together, and toward this end I suggest all Paragons lend their strength to the cause. Star Division and the Eastern army would benefit greatly from your participation. Jewelry Master, as commander you can assign us as you please.”
Inwardly Lan Jue glowered at his old friend. The old bastard was leaving him all the responsibility. But he wasn’t wrong, it was Lan Jue’s job, and one he couldn’t avoid.
“After some thought I’ve decided it makes little sense for the Paragons to be disseminated among the Brigades. The way we’re set up it wouldn’t be fair or useful to other members of a Paragon’s ten-man unit. Further, Paragons aren’t best in mecha suits. They’re more than strong enough without them. In conclusion, I feel the Paragons should work as independent actors – essentially their own Brigade. They can be dispatched on strategic missions as is most suitable to their abilities and the situation.”
The Wine Master regarded him with a faint smile. “An interesting thought. I have no opinion on the matter, it’s up to you. So who should lead this Paragon Brigade?”
Lan Jue had already accepted his friend’s fine gift of alcohol. There was no recourse but to do his duty. “It has been very difficult to find a suitable candidate, and I’ve thought long on the problem. I don’t know enough about your individual leadership skills, so for the moment we’ll keep the post open. I’m open to suggestions, and would like to hear what our illustrious Paragons think.”
The Keeper was first. “I don’t care, so long as I’m not called out on too many missions. The Bookworm and I have a great deal of experiments that must be attended to.”
I know, Lan Jue muttered internally.
“I agree,” the Wine Master said.
None of the other Paragons had opinions to share.
While the Paragons seemed numerous on paper, the truth was somewhat different. The Keeper and Bookworm were scientists and wouldn’t participate much in field work. The Wine Master and the Clockmaker, meanwhile, would be leaving for who knew how long. The Pharmacist was dealing with personal issues, so really the only Paragons Lan Jue had under his command at any one time were the Gourmet and the Pauper. As for Luo Xianni, she wasn’t even here! He never really counted her among them, anyway. How could he presume to order around his mother and father?
The Wine Master pretended not to notice his sour expression. “The Clockmaker and I will be leaving tomorrow on a task of our own. We hope to convince two more Paragons to join us. During my absence all matters of leadership for Star Division and the Avenue will be handled by the Jewelry Master. He will temporarily replace me as chairman of the Skyfire Council. If anyone has any thoughts or objections they my share them now.”
No one spoke. They all felt Lan Jue was a fine choice.
A thin voice broke Lan Jue’s appreciative mood. “Look at you, Lei Feng. Congratulations, I knew the Wine Master was shopping around for a patsy.” The Coffee Master’s voice spoke directly into his ear, thick with mirth.
Lan Jue quietly replied. “You want the damn job?”
The Coffee Master chuckled. “That’s no good, everyone sees your skill – you’re our first choice. There’s no escaping duty, Chairman! Work hard.”
“Jewelry Master,” the Wine Master broke in, “things have been arranged with the army leaders. They would like you to contact Fleet Admiral Lan Qing as soon as possible and dispatch Star Division to link up with his forces.”
“Alright,” Lan Jue answered with a nod.
Star Division had been to An Lun before, but that had been for training. Now they were going to become part of the illustrious An Lun forces. It felt strange to the Jewelry Master.
“Will we remain an independent force or must we comply with their commands?” Lan Jue asked the Wine Master. He trusted his brother, but Lan Jue’s loyalties were to Star Division and Skyfire Avenue, whereas Lan Qing served at the pleasure of the East. It was better to understand their role clearly from the start.
He explained. “We’re a relatively independent adjunct force. If you’re given an unreasonable directive you are free to refuse, but our standing orders are to support and protect the An Lun army and Skyfire. In general you will adhere to their requests – I’m sure the so-called super soldier of An Lun will be cooperative.”
Lan Jue nodded, he of course had faith in his brother. It just felt strange, especially since An Lun was so distant from Skyfire. How could they protect something so far away?
The council went on for a while longer, discussing details bringing Star Division’s resources with them to An Lun. It seemed like the best decision, for if by some tragedy Skyfire was destroyed at least some of the Avenue’s assets would remain intact. An Lun was a military base, and so was far safer than Skyfire.
After the session conclusion Lan Jue made his way over to Jun’er, still seated quietly in the back. He lifted her up into his arms.
“Have you been good?” He asked, running a hand through her hair. She’d only grown bigger and more beautiful in the time since he’d seen her last. Jun’er was definitely blessed with her mother’s fine genes.
“I’ve been very good. I get to play with the stars every day, it’s so much fun! Do you want to come with me to see the stars?” She asked.
Following her lead, Lan Jue went with Jun’er to the former Clairvoyant’s room. When he opened the door they were bathed in gentle starlight.
Jun’er wriggled to get free of his embrace. When she did, a beam of starlight fell over her, and she floated into the air. Surrounded by that cosmic light she looked like a young goddess.
Lan Jue’s eyes narrowed unconsciously as he felt the waves of power coming from her. However, he was surprised to find that something was hidden from him – he couldn’t feel how strong she had become.
“I’m already eighth rank.” She said, like she’d read his mind.
Lan Jue gaped at her. Eighth rank?
Chapter 702: Human Survival Conference
“It’s because of what my teacher taught me, it helped me grow fast. He told me that when he leaves I must continue to improve myself in the starlight. Then I will understand everything. He left a lot behind for me, so I come in here to play every day.”
As Lan Jue looked upon her a seething pang arose in his chest.
She said she was here playing, but how lonely she must be!
“Daddy, I’m going to be strong soon. I can already feel that you and mommy aren’t happy – there’s so much for you to do. Don’t feel bad, things will work out. But you have to be careful, be careful with yourself and the people near you. I feel there’s a shadow following you, sometimes close and sometimes far. But it had a close connection to you. Not one… two. One is good and one is very bad.”
Lan Jue didn’t know how to react. People near him? For some reason a chill overcame him and he was filled with memories of Hera’s death. The same dark despair from all those years ago welled up in his heart.
“Can you tell me if you see anything else?”
But Jun’er shook her head. “No, I’m not strong enough. And you’re my daddy… it’s harder when you’re close to the subject. But I can feel you are more threatened than in danger. It will be fine. The danger is for the person who wishes you well.”
Prophets were famously ambiguous. They had the gift of sight, but rarely was that sight clear. Lan Jue believed Jun’er without a shadow of a doubt anyway, though he wasn’t sure precisely what she meant. They played for a little while until Jun’er said it was time to cultivate, then he left.
When he returned to his room he called his brother.
“What is it?” Lan Qing’s voice bore that typical distant chill.
“Hey brother, I assume you know our deal with An Lun?” He asked.
Lan Qing coolly responded. “I just got the news. When will you arrive? How many men can we expect?”
“We’ve got one thousand five hundred,” Lan Jue replied. “From what I’m hearing we’ll be sending most or all of them.
Aside from the soldiers we’re also sending a team responsible for overlooking Avenue resources. We’ll probably need a sector for ourselves, seeing as altogether we’ll be sending about three thousand people.”
“Alright.” Lan Qing replied without hesitation.
Were it anyone else Lan Qing likely wouldn’t have agree to accommodating non-combat personnel, but Skyfire Avenue was a special case. It was Skyfire Avenue’ vital crystals that had bought An Lun a second interstellar fleet! What’s more, the addition of Star Division would double the strength of An Lun’s forces.
“When is it convenient for you for us to arrive?” Lan Jue asked.
“You don’t. We’ve been ordered to move our people there.”
“Here? You mean the fleet?” Lan Jue inquired.
“Everything,” Lan Qing replied.
“What does ‘everything’ mean?”
“That’s a military secret. You’ll know soon enough.” It was clear he wasn’t getting anything out of his brother.
Lan Jue sighed helplessly. “Fine, then we’ll wait for you to show. I’ll get Star Division ready.”
“There’s no rush,” Lan Qing said. “As Star Division’s commander you’re coming with me to a meeting. Military conference. You’ll represent your interests there.”
Lan Jue blinked. “What conference?”
Lan Qing told him what he knew. “It’s been organized by the North, a conference to decide the best way to deal with the aliens. They’re calling it the Human Survival Conference and each alliance is sending high-level military leaders to discuss strategy. You’ve personal experience on top of being a commander, so you’ll come with me.”
Grudgingly, Lan Jue agreed. “Alright, I guess I’m going.”
“That’s all,” Lan Qing said. “We’ll be leaving for Skyfire tomorrow, and when I arrive we’ll go together. The meeting’s on Luo.”
“Got it!” He replied.
After hanging up with his brother, Lan Jue dialed in the Wine Master’s number. “Wine Master.”
“What is it?” The older man’s voice returned.
Lan Jue told him what he’d learned from Lan Qing.
“You are most suited to go to the meeting” the Paragon agreed. “Go ahead, but be careful. You’re going with a Paragon, yes? Who will you chose?”
Lan Jue shook his head. “No need to rush into a decision, either the Gourmet or the Pauper. Probably the Gourmet since we have a better relationship. Someone needs to stay back and look after the Division, too – probably Su Xiaosu would be best for that. But I’ll need to find someone to look after the Avenue’s affairs.”
“Who do you think?” The Wine Master pressed.
“Su Xiaosu’s busy, the Driver’s cultivating… the Coffee Master makes sense. He might be a little lazy, but he’s got good attention to detail. There shouldn’t be a problem,” Lan Jue answered.
“Alright, let them know.”
He cut the line. Lan Jue chuckled.
Lan Qing arrived quickly on an FTL transport, the trip only taking him a couple of days. Lan Jue had prepared everything for Skyfire Avenue’s eventual move to An Lun, employing the help of his four Amazons. Zeus’ Jewelry Store was a simple matter, just a whole lot of power gems. Most of them had already gone t Star Division, but the remainder would be arrange for transport.
When the time came for Lan Jue to leave he did indeed bring a Paragon, but it wasn’t who he’d thought. It was the Pharmacist, not the Gourmet. She eventually left her seclusion, and offered to come after she’d heard that Lan Jue was headed for Luo.
After her breakthrough the Pharmacist had grown quiet. Her illustrious persona was restrained, as was the sharp aura that so frightened the people she encountered. But what was present was a deep and abiding sensation, like peering into an abyss.
From what Lan Jue could gather, she was likely the third most powerful Paragon on the Avenue currently. Now that she had broken through she was able to truly command the deadly power of Occisus. How far that command extended, though, they would only learn through experience.
Zeus-1 lifted off from the airfield and toward their destination.
In contrast to his brother, Lan Qing didn’t bring any guards or entourage. As was typical, he chose to travel alone.
Zeus’ Amazons set about their separate duties, managing Zeus-1. The Pharmacist waited patiently in the waiting room, while the two brothers watched space fly by from a table by a window.
“You’ve improved. You haven’t been wasting time.” Lan Qing nodded his head at Lan Jue in approval.
Lan Jue nodded back. “I’ve been working hard. It won’t be long before I catch up to you.” His words were flippant, but determined.
“I’m not waiting for you,” Lan Qing retorted. “You better hurry.”
Lan Jue changed the subject. “You aren’t the only one there representing the East, I take it? Our relationship with the North is less than stellar, so why did they pick you?”
“Because I command the bulk of our army,” he said. “They wouldn’t dare provoke us now, and they’re too busy with their own business even if they wanted to. Anyway I needed to come, it’s the only way for me to understand the thought process of the other Alliances. It’s important to understand your allies. I’ll need you to tell me what you thought of the North’s fighting tactics as well.”
Lan Jue shot him a glance. “Aren’t you afraid for your safety?
A single person’s strength only goes so far.”
Lan Jue’s response was tepid. “I’m not not afraid. I’m just confident in my intelligence.”
Lan Jue was at a loss for words. Had he always been so…
He wanted to laugh… but…
Lan Jue went on to tell his brother about everything that had transpired in the shattered Starfields, and his opinions on them. He didn’t leave out any detail. Lan Qing listened attentively, nodding from time to time as though in thought.
“The whole thing makes me look at the North with new eyes. Luck didn’t make them the strongest Alliance, they strive hard for that distinction. Their soldiers are hard and determined. I still don’t like them, but I admire them.”
Lan Qing nodded. “Indeed, they’re good soldiers. They just see things differently than we do.”
Helplessly, Lan Jue added. “If it was you facing those planets, what would you have done?”
Lan Qing looked at him for a moment before speaking. “You want to know?”
Lan Jue nodded.
Lan Qing was praised as the ultimate soldier, and the youngest admiral in the Eastern army’s history. He was the next generation of military leadership. So what would he have done differently?
“If it were me,” he began, “I would have chosen a better battleground. Fighting within the Starfields was a poor decision. You had no ready support and retreating was slow and difficult. The enemy is largely a mystery, so even if they were evenly matched victory would have been difficult. With so little known about our foe I would have dispatched more scouts for better intelligence. Instead of a direct confrontation I would have continued to harass their outlying forces and captured more resources. Then I’d wait for the right time to strike, but even if I was in danger of missing that opportunity I wouldn’t rush in. Strike when the attack would spell their demise!”
Lan Jue silently mulled over his brother’s words, eventually leading to a quiet admiration. Yeah! Rushing into a fight without knowing what you were getting into was a recipe for disaster. But the North had been under pressure to act.
Chapter 703: Arriving
Lan Qing paused for a moment, then continued. “But that doesn’t mean their fight was without purpose. It was worth at least fifty recon sorties. They learned a lot about how the enemy fights and reacts, and that will make the war easier. The North must also have done their research, which is part of the reason I have to go to this meeting – to better understand. It can only help us in the long run.”
Lan Jue rejoined. “The North is still will make their attempts. As we were retreating we continued to field requests from Tyrannosaurus to meet – obviously a ploy to get us in firing range. You hold an important position in the East, don’t you think this is dangerous walking into the enemy’s clutches? What if…”
Lan Qing waved his hand. “No time for ‘what if.’ I’ve told you, I trust in my intelligence. Right, it’s time for you to cultivate. We can discuss more of this once you’ve become a Paragon.”
Shit, some brother! This is discrimination! Lan Jue speechlessly arose and left for his room. His Amazons snickered behind his back. The only person who would dare treat Lan Jue that way was his brother.
Lan Qing stared out of the window with a thoughtful expression. Whatever he was thinking, though, remained a secret.
Lan Jue couldn’t remember how many times he’d visited Luo by now. Last time it was to participate in the Great Adept Tournament. To hide his identity he wore a hat and sunglasses, but declining the mask Poseidon preferred. Lan Qing also wore sunglasses, and a black outfit complete with a dark windbreaker. He looked like a fashionable tourist.
At least it’s not a military uniform, Lan Jue inwardly commented.
The Pharmacist walked beside Lan Jue. Today she was dressed in a tailor-fit white dress. Half of her face was hidden behind a pair of large sunglasses, the rest expressionless. Her aura was constrained and the only person who would be able to sense her presence were the ones she allowed.
Although they concealed their identities, the three of them were still the focus of some attention. The reason was simple – they were tailed by four beautiful women.
Mika, the Stygian Succubus, was dressed in her typical work uniform; a deep blue fancy outfit, but with her glasses and fiery red hair she looked more the temptress.
The other women were similarly dressed – perhaps intentionally, perhaps not. White blouses and skirts cut to the knees, only the colors varied. Xiuxiu’s clothes were a pale maize, Ke’er wore aqua, and Lin Guoguo stood out especially in a hot pink outfit.
They were the definition of eye candy. One alone would have drawn eyes, four together couldn’t avoid them.
Lan Jue couldn’t help but ask if they were ready to walk some runway he wasn’t aware of. They looked back at him with big eyes threatening tears, and he couldn’t say no. At any rate it didn’t matter what they wore, they still would have been a sight on Luo’s drab streets. If they’d worn combat gear it would have been just as bad, if not worse.
Lan Jue’s sole point of gratitude was the fact Qianlin wasn’t walking with them. They were safely melded together. Though Lan Jue’s cultivations were curtailed, Xuanyuan Shishi was able to lead Qianlin in her own meditations to help her advance.
As the Eastern representatives left the airfield, Lan Jue’s first thought was how many people were out on the street. Luo was one of the largest planets to house humans, but it seemed almost jam-packed. Crowds jostled like ants packed in their tunnels, shoulder to shoulder. Peering into the distance, one could only see a sea of bobbing heads.
Of course, large groups of people gathered the interest of those with less than savory intent. Gentlemen with impure intentions tried to saddle up to the Amazons, but they were on high alert and had little patience. An invisible, inexplicable shield surrounded them that kept the rabble at a safe distance. The bolder among them were quickly silenced by Mika’s sour temper and hellfire.
“No one’s coming to meet us?” Lan Jue questioned his brother. Lan Qing was supposed to have arranged everything.
Lan Qing glaned at him, a look like he was staring down an idiot. “You told me you were worried about safety, and now you’re asking why our presence isn’t being advertised. Do you want to paint a target on our backs? Are you not thinking?”
“I…” Lan Jue felt defeated. After his brother’s breakthrough to Paragon he couldn’t even win a verbal argument.
“So where are we going?” He asked instead.
“I’ve arranged everything. Come with me.” Lan Qing walked on without waiting for his answer. The seven of them walked for a short distance before stopping in front of a very average looking verti-car. It looked like a large taxi with more than a few hard years of service under its belt.
Lan Qing opened the door and politely motioned the women inside. Then he and Lan Jue entered.
Their driver was a large man in a baseball cap. He also wore sunglasses, and a cigar hung from the corner of his mouth. “Let’s go,” Lan Qing ordered.
The driver didn’t speak. Apparently already in the know, he urged the verti-car into the air and toward Luo City. Despite the run-down appearance of the car, the driver was skilled. The journey was quick and smooth. Verti-cars like these flew about ten meters above ground. That was about their limit, and was the main separating factor between them and high-altitude transport.
The crush of people was even more apparent once they
reached the city interior. Undoubtedly this had to do with the evacuation order. Luo was the North’s largest planet, and one of its safest. It made sense, then, that people would choose to evacuate here. However, it looked like the planet was already at max capacity.
“Status,” Lan Qing softly asked.
Finally the driver opened his mouth. His voice was low, but clear.
“The city is close to capacity. Inflation is rampant, food and essential goods are three times more expensive than they were before the aliens showed up – even with the Northern government trying to stabilize markets. If they didn’t things would be ten times what they are now. Resources have been brought in from other planets to manage demand. Things are fine for now, but population growth has been unchecked for years. Word is they can sustain this for twelve months before it collapses.”
“What about the North’s resource planets?” Lan Qing asked.
The driver replied. “No good. They’re sticking to pre-war
plans, meaning mining, refining and manufacturing haven’t stopped. Products must continue to flow to protected planets. At least that’s the plan, but stories of the aliens’ savagery are rampant. No one wants to work on an exposed planet. Everyone knows if the aliens show up and there’s no fleet or Bastion to protect them, they’re as good as dead. Even soldiers don’t want to be stationed on resource planets. All of this means production is stalling, and we humans consume a lot.”
“Right now it looks like we’ve got our heads above water, but that won’t last. If the aliens don’t show up within the planned timeframe there will start to be restrictions imposed. No entertainment, luxury items, less food… it’ll lead to chaos.”
Lan Jue quietly listened to the driver, and his heart sank with every word. Skyfire wasn’t even close to being in such dire straights even though it’d already opened its door to refugees.
The North was strong, and had always encouraged childbirth. Because of this they had been in the midst of a baby-boom. They had planets that needed populating, after all. Now that population explosion was proving to be a problem. It was going to be difficult for leaders to find a solution.
Lan Qing was nodding thoughtfully. “So the North must be
anxious. Has there been any news of a second assault against the alien planets?”
“Yes,” the driver replied. “Congress has been mulling over a plan in the last few days, so has the army. Practically all available resources are being pumped into military production. The only way to fix their problems is to destroy the source, so no effort is being spared to find ways to destroy the aliens. It’s the reason they called for the Human Survival Conference, so a solution can be found before the problem gets worse.”
Lan Jue was surprised, but he kept it to himself. Obviously the driver was a plant, arranged by his brother. How he learned so much about the inner working of the Northern government he didn’t know, but this simple-looking driver was definitely more than he let on!
In the space of their conversation, they’d arrived. The taxi stopped before a small building in the Western style, simple and innocuous.
“Finding rooms is very difficult,” the driver explained. “I could only find rooms for two, small apartments. Best I could do.” He pulled to the side of the road and his passengers disembarked. Then, he relinquished his car to the valet and led
them into the hotel himself.
Now that he was out of the car his height was clear, only a little shorter than Lan Jue and his brother. Lan Jue didn’t know why, but suddenly he thought the man looked familiar.
Chapter 704: No Way
“Do I know him?” Lan Jue asked his brother.
“Figure it out yourself!” Lan Jue curtly replied.
Lan Jue’s face stiffened. “I really don’t mind flipping off a fleet admiral.”
“See if you keep your finger.” Lan Qing taunted.
The hotel’s lobby was small and simple. From the chipped floorboards to the stained counter and creaky stairs, the place looked like it’d seen better days. In truth Luo City was already a hundred years old, but this place seemed older.
An elderly receptionist stood behind the counter. While the others waited, their taxi driver walked over to handle check-in. Lan Jue took the opportunity to look around.
“This stuff looks like it’s half a century old,” Mika quipped. “Very Western. I can’t even tell when some of this stuff was made.”
The taxi driver was back quickly, and heard Mika’s comment. “The owners are descended from Western royalty. Something in their past forced them to immigrate to the North. It’s always difficult to leave your homeland, so they brought their furnishings with them. Everything in this place are antiques and family heirlooms.
Perhaps for the first time in history, Lan Qing had words of praise. “Very interesting place. It has heart.”
The driver sniffed. “Up to your specifications, is it?”
Everyone – Lan Jue included, gaped at the driver. Who was he that he could talk to Lan Qing that way?
The Fleet Admiral scowled but didn’t say anything. He took the key he offered and disappeared upstairs to his room. Lan Jue and the ladies were six remaining – seven including Qianlin. That meant four rooms were needed. The Pharmacist had her own. Lan Qing, it would be assumed, also had his own quarters.
However they watched the taxi driver walk up the stairs and follow.
No way. Could this… was his brother coming out of the closet? No wonder he’d never had a girlfriend. If father knew, Lan Jue thought, he’d beat Lan Qing bloody.
Lan Jue told the others to get settled. He headed for Lan Qing’s room. When he arrived the door was closed, but he simply opened it and walked inside. Lan Qing was standing by the window and the taxi driver was at his side. Both men were staring out onto the street.
The room was as classically designed as the rest of the building, to the point where it felt like Lan Jue had stepped into the former era. It was strangely pleasant, a place where one could easily forget their worries.
However, Lan Jue was too distracted to appreciate it. Lan Qing accosted him. “What are you doing here instead of resting in your room?”
Of course Lan Jue couldn’t tell him what he was really doing – supervising. He tried to look nonchalant as he strolled over. “I
just wanted to talk about the convention,” he lied.
“The meeting is the day after tomorrow,” Lan Qing replied. “I have the invitation letters prepared, you just need to show up. There’s nothing to talk about.”
“Oh,” he stalled. “So… you’re spending the night here alone eh? It’s a nice room!”
Lan Qing finally turned around and looked at him. “Are you trying to say something?”
Lan Jue flashed a quick glance toward the mysterious taxi driver at his brother’s side. “Nothing, nothing. I’m, ehm, a little hungry. How about we grab a bite?”
The Eastern admiral scowled. “I’m not hungry, you go ahead.
Why are you acting so strange…”
He was struggling to find reasons to stick around, and with his options dwindling just blurt it out. “Brother, th-there’s just some things that aren’t appropriate. Think of father!”
Lan Qing stared at him. “What inappropriate thing am I doing? Will you stop talking nonsense?”
Lan Jue looked at him, then pointedly at the driver. He tried to make it clear what he was referring to.
Lan Qing was indeed very smart. When he saw Lan Jue’s worried and accusatory expression a smile broke his cold façade. He turned his head away
The taxi driver was less amused. He caught Lan Jue’s look at glowered at him. “What are you trying to say?”
It was then Lan Jue heard it. Something wasn’t right – he sounded like a she!
“I’m sorry – sorry! I didn’t mean anything.” Lan Jue stumbled over his own tongue. Good, he thought, at least she’s a woman. It didn’t matter his brother was chasing cougars.
“I’m sorry to bother you two. Go on, don’t mind me, I’m leaving.” He left the room fast as he could.
“Is there something wrong with your little brother’s head?” The taxi driver said in irritation. She picked off her hat and glasses to reveal a plain-looking man’s face. Her hands briefly covered the visage, and when they dropped the Astral Phantom’s bitter expression was revealed.
He smirked at her. “He’s just being nosey, don’t take it seriously. We need to focus on this meeting, it’s important. Everything’s been arranged?”
“Yes,” she answered flatly. There was absolutely no love lost between these two. Were it not for the mark on her soul, the Astral Phantom would have found a way to kill this irritating man a hundred thousand times. The bastard called her old! Women held grudges, especially against those who insulted their age. She wouldn’t soon forget his transgressions!
“Then go rest. I won’t need you until it’s time to convene.
Find us the day after tomorrow,” Lan Qing ordered.
“Mnh.” She grunted her response, then left.
Lan Qing allowed her disrespect. He didn’t need to dominate her, they had an agreement. Once the alien menace was dealt with she could go free, and that would be the end of it.
Lan Qing’s heart sank. He’d gone over the North’s fight against the beasts a hundred times in his mind. He thought over and over about what he would have done differently.
What he’d told Lan Jue was only one part. Fighting in the Starfields wouldn’t impeded a Bastion’s combat abilities too much, though it would make retreat and reinforcements difficult.
The East’s Bastions were clearly inferior to the North’s. The East’s strongest ship was about equal to the fallen Arachnid. Tyrannosaurus was stronger than two of the East’s Bastions combined. If it came to war between the Alliances, he wasn’t sure who would win.
Only through more information and deeper understanding would their chances improve. Lan Qing needed to push his people to be like Star Division, that would serve them well.
Star Division would be integral in the coming fight.
When Lan Jue got back to his room, he couldn’t help but chuckle to himself. He really was a doomsayer! He retrieved a towel from Thor’s promise, then separated from Qianlin and wrapped her in it. He helped her put on some clothes.
It was torture for him every time.
The room was small, with only two single beds, a desk, and a single chair. Still Lan Jue liked it just fine. He was a fan of antiques. It wasn’t the Pharmacist’s Hall of Supreme Harmony, but it served.
Lan Jue coaxed Qianlin to the center of the room and had her cultivate. Meanwhile he arose and headed to the room next door to visit with the newest addition to the Avenue’s Paragon roster.
Knock-knock! He rapped his knuckles on her door.
“Come.” The Pharmacist’s crystal-clear voice called from within. Lan Jue pushed his way in.
The Pharmacist sat on the bed, looking out the window. It was one of the rare moments he didn’t catch her cultivating. It was dusk on Luo, and the sun’s golden light bathed her room in a soft glow. It was beautiful.
He walked over to her. “Hey sis. Have you stabilized your powers?”
She quietly nodded in response. “Not a problem.”
“Sis… you know, you shouldn’t take it so hard. We can’t bring back what is lost, but no matter what happens I’m going to help you get that sword back.” His words were soft and sincere.
She answered with a pained laugh. “Who’d have thought my husband’s death would inspire my pure murderous rage. It’s what allowed me to merge with Occisus. For years I waited, only to learn the worst. I just can’t hold myself back any more.”
Anxiety crept into Lan Jue’s face. “Sister, don’t do anything
She shook her head, stood, and faced him. “If I go out one day and don’t come back, promise me you’ll look after Jun’er.”
Lan Jue froze. “I- Listen to me, don’t be rash. Your husband’s gone but you knew that all along, didn’t you? You knew you were fooling yourself to think he’d magically come back after so long. He’s gone, but you are still here, and you have Jun’er to care for. That little one already has to suffer the loss of her father, you’d deny her a mother as well? I’m sure she knows I’m not her real father, and if something were to happen to you I’m not sure her little heart could take it. If you want to go hunting aliens, fine – but you’ve only got two choices. Go alone but kill me first, or take me with you. You won’t die alone.”
Lan Jue’s face was hard and resolute. He never looked away.
Water began to collect in the Pharmacist’s eyes, and she glared back with lips tight. “Why. Why do I have to suffer these disasters? Why was he chosen for that mission? All I ever wanted was to live happily with him and make a family! You know, I never went to see Jun’er after we went back to Skyfire. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to control myself. She looks so much like her father…”
She stopped, her voice choked with emotion.
Homosexuality is a strange thing in China. More and more it’s become accepted, but only begrudgingly. It still isn’t legal to marry someone of the same sex, nor is it permitted socially to make same-sex affections known. For example; my old boss is gay. It’s common knowledge, but he can’t go around sharing that with people – especially not his family. However, societal pressure demands that you marry as soon as possible. To get around this, he married a lesbian. They had the full ceremony, met the parents, had all the normal trappings – but they don’t live or even really speak with one another. She lives with her lover, while he lives with his. Once a year or so they get together to visit family for the holidays. This is so common that they have matchmaking business specifically geared toward matching gay and lesbian couples. They draft contracts and agreements about having children as well.
Chapter 705: Senior Colonel or Admiral?
She wrapped her in a hug and placed her head on his shoulder. “Cry. You’ll feel better once it’s out.”
The Pharmacist’s tears fell like glittering pearls down her cheeks and moistened Lan Jue’s shirt. Already he could feel the knot of pain and anger loosen within her.
“I’m sorry.” The Pharmacist pushed herself away and turned from him.
“Do we need to say sorry to one another?” Lan Jue said softly. “I mean what I said. When the time is right, I’m going with you to get that sword back and kill those monsters. We’ll avenge your husband’s spirit – and think, if his spirit is watching he wouldn’t want you to throw yourself into danger. He would want you to look after Jun’er, look after yourself, and live a good life.”
She gently nodded her head. “Don’t worry, I’m not going. I feel much better after crying. You’re tired, go rest. Call me when you’re going out for food.”
After she promised not to run off Lan Jue was relieved. It looked as though she were returning to normal. Pain was still clear in her glistening eyes, but who wouldn’t feel torment after what she’d been through?
Lan Jue thought about his own tragedies, about Hera, and a stab of pain arose in his chest. Hera’s death and Qianlin’s stupor, were they not his fault?
Northern Ministry of Defense.
The building was a six-sided structure on the outskirts of Luo city, ten kilometers in circumference. All matters concerning Northern military and defense were handled here. It was called the Hexagon by journalists and laymen.
Today, security was exceedingly tight. Soldiers patrolled the grounds armed to the teeth, with meha suits in full view and fighter drones hovering overhead. It was in preparation for the Human Survival Conference, as protection and an honor reception for leaders of the East and West. This was the largest collection of Alliance representatives in over ten years.
The purpose of the conference was to outline humanity’s plan for survival, and pledge cooperation in the battle against the alien menace. The North’s grievous loss had shaken the citizens of all nations, and brought the threat to the forefront of international discussion.
Economies were on the brink of collapse and society was struggling to cope with the ever-present threat of destruction. If there wasn’t some good news soon, it could put all three alliances in jeopardy before the enemy even arrived.
The military was important in this time of crisis. News of their exploits and preparations filled the news feeds of every station. Only a strong and unified people would be able to weather this terrible storm.
Lan Qing had changed into formal military attire, and Lan Jue was in a finely tailored blue suit. The North’s invitation had only been for the two of them. The Astral Phantom drove them to the Hexagon, and it wasn’t long before they were intercepted by drones and asked to provide credentials. Once their identities were confirmed they were permitted to continue.
They proceeded to a parking area where they were asked to disembark, and had to go through another round of checks.
Finally, they boarded the Hexagon’s internal transportation system and entered into the heart of the structure. The Astral Phantom had to remain behind.
With them in the transport was a Northern staff officer. He regarded the two brothers for a moment as they entered. They were familiar, he thought, but he could only verify their invitation, not their identities. All he noted was Lan Jue’s face, and the fact that the stars on Lan Qing’s shoulder didn’t match his age.
“Gentlemen, when you enter the Hexagon you will need to submit to an identity verification process,” he instructed.
Lan Qing nodded, but Lan Jue smirked at the man. “Is there a reason for all these checks? If only the normal folk got the protection military leaders enjoy.”
The officer’s face changed, and he looked at Lan Jue a little harder. Lan Qing’s expression never changed.
Before long, the shuttle arrived at its final destination and deposited the two brothers in a room where a military escort waited. When they saw Lan Qing’s shoulder bars, they struggled
to hide their surprise.
The transport officer was clearly ignorant and didn’t represent the rest of the Northern armed forces. His age, rank and appearance were striking, and even if you didn’t know him on sight it was easy enough to guess.
The first person to greet them was a man whose epaulettes designated him as a Lieutenant Commander. He snapped to salute. “Hello, Admiral.”
Lan Qing returned the salute. “Hello.”
The Lieutenant Commander motioned for them to follow. “Please come with me.” With no further adieu, he led them toward the door. This was much better treatment than Lan Jue had enjoyed aboard Tyrannosaurus. The Jewelry Master mused over this as he followed the other two deeper into the Hexagon.
Their guide walked half a step ahead, speaking as he led them through the halls. “Admiral Lan Qing, I presume?”
Lan Qing nodded.
All of a sudden, the lieutenant was the very picture of respect. Lan Qing reputation was known far and wide, not to mention he was lauded as one of the most talented military leaders in all of humanity – and the youngest Paragon!
“I’m honored to meet you, Admiral.” He gave another salute before walking on. He dropped the honorary title of ‘Your Majesty’, since Lan Qing was a representative of the military.
From behind Lan Jue smirked. Good, he thought, I don’t know how Lan Qing would’ve reacted if he used his colloquial title.
As they made their way, a second group came from another hallway. He was an elderly man in a smart dark green uniform A female soldier – likely his secretary – followed in tow.
Three golden stars glittered on his shoulder, the mark of a general. The woman’s insignias said she was a Colonel. Lan Jue was somewhat familiar with military dress and noted that they were Westerners.
They met in the hall, headed in the same direction. Lan Qing, Lan Jue and the Lieutenant Commander greeted them with a
nod before walking ahead. While each Alliance was independent there was a set of unspoken rules, such as allowing higher- ranked military officers to walk ahead of you.
“You don’t have eyes?” A cold voice called out.
There was a blur as someone cut off their path. It was the young woman, the general’ secretary. She made no effort to hide the potent energy roiling within her. Her sharp and threatening aura gave their guide pause.
“Xiao Chen, stop causing problems.” The Western general scowled and chastised her in his deep voice.
“Sir,” she pressed, “you should be walking ahead. These men clearly don’t understand their lack of respect.” Her words were cold and sharp, and she glared daggers at Lan Qing.
The Lieutenant Commander who led them was apologetic. “I’m sorry Colonel. Please go ahead.”
Her eyebrows pricked up. “Is this how you Northerners receive your VIPs? Where did you learn military etiquette?
When is it alright to allow a senior colonel ahead of a general?”
Senior colonel? The Lieutenant Commander was stunned, but turned to look at Lan Qing. Suddenly he understood what was happening. Typically Eastern uniforms were easily identifiable, but Lan Qing’s dress was peculiar. Because of his exploits on An Lun, his shoulders were adorned with a pair of aiguillettes. They were marks of distinction, but if one didn’t look closely they could be confused for the dress cords of senior colonels. Lan Qing’s age added to the misunderstanding.
He was going to explain, when suddenly another voice cut him off. “Get out of the way!”
There was a blur of blue as someone else stepped forward and waved their hand. A soft energy filled the hall, but strong enough to make the Western colonel stumble to the side.
Lan Jue had no patience or respect for Westerns. He didn’t know the source of the woman’s misunderstanding, only that she’d made his brother a target. They weren’t always on the best of terms, but in public Lan Jue was certainly going to stand up for his brother!
To him, this was a stand-off between the East and West. He was going to win it.
In truth he didn’t have much affection for the North either, after hearing they were in danger of being killed after all they’d done in the Starfields. He wasn’t in the mood to suffer any more insults. His brother wouldn’t raise a hand? Well he wasn’t going to allow such disrespect.
Still, he was as courteous as he could be with the colonel. He only used his powers to move her out of the way.
All the while Lan Qing said nothing. Once the way was clear he walked on with Lan Jue by his side, shoulder to shoulder. In a rare display the two looked and acted like brothers. Cold and lethal. At least to the Colonel!
Unfortunately, that didn’t seem to be enough.
“You want to die?!” The Colonel roared at them and launched herself forward. Her arms splayed out to the side and a pair of sharp blue lights appeared in her hands. She chopped at Lan Jue’s shoulders. It was a conference in a foreign land, otherwise her attack would have been aimed at his head.
The lights in her hand were a pair of foot-long knives that glowed with blue light. They weren’t typical weapons, obviously, but instead condensed Discipline. Her swipes were unnatural sharp, so much that it sounded like they ripped the air in passing.
Chapter 706: It’s Him…
Lan Qing continued to stride forward as though nothing was happening. Lan Jue never looked back. Just as it seemed her strike would land he thrust his hand back her way.
All of a sudden the women felt a tugging vortex open up in front of her. The Disciplines-forged daggers she prided herself in fell into chaos and its energies scattered. She reacted by urging her Discipline forth, but no matter how hard she called for her powers it was like some deep dark sea drank it all up. Then, an unseen concussive force blasted her off her feet. She tumbled head over heels down the hallway and, just before hitting the ground at her general’s feet, some invisible force eased the impact. No harm came to her.
She scrambled back to her feet, ready to charge in again when the harsh words of her superior stopped her dead. “Enough. You’re no match for them, they’re being easy on you.”
For a moment she seemed to consider refusing the order. Spinning around, she fixed him with petulant eyes. “General, they-“
Lan Qing and his brother had already walked a good distance
down the hall toward the conference room. Meanwhile the general watched them go with a thoughtful expression.
“Those are special young men. We aren’t in the West, get your temper under control.”
Colonel Xiaochen forced herself to take a deep breath, struggling to quench the rage that flared within her. Inwardly, though, she promised to make those upstarts see the error of their ways!
Meanwhile the Lan brothers had already put the episode out of their minds. The tantrum of a Western colonel was no concern of theirs.
“I apologize Admiral Lan, I think the Colonel misread your uniform. Your age likely confused her.” The Northern lieutenant spoke placatingly.
Lan Qing glanced at his shoulder board and nodded. “It’s fine.”
“I’m sorry, Admiral…” Again the lieutenant apologized,
standing awkwardly in front of them.
“What?” He looked at the young officer.
“I was a little distracted. I forget that we are required to verify your identities. If you could follow me to the verification instruments?” He had been flustered, it was true. When he’d seen who he was escorting he forgot the process and lead them down the hallway.
Lan Qing was readily identifiable, certainly, but although Lan Jue looked familiar he couldn’t place who he was. But even if he did the identity verification process was required for the safety of the conference goers.
The brothers followed the officer to an area off to the side of the conference room.
As they walked in Lan Jue scanned the area. The conference chamber was large, roughly the same size as the parliament hall on Skyfire. Altogether there were about five hundred seats
arranged around the circular room with a raised platform at the front. Twenty seats had been arrayed behind tables on the platform.
Lan Qing would likely occupy one of those seats. The thought made Lan Jue proud.
The lieutenant brought them to a set of instruments nearby. They arrived the same time as the Westerners they’d just encountered.
“What happened Ross?” The officer leading the Western delegation was also a lieutenant commander, and addressed Lan Jue’s guide with some confusion.
Ross regarded him with a sheepish smile. “I forgot to check their identities outside. I had to ask them to do it here. Go ahead and lead our distinguished visitors from the West to their seats.”
The two lieutenants caught the attention of Xiaochen. She
looked at the general, but he shook his head at her. As he stepped forward to find his seat she followed a step behind, fixing Lan Qing and Lan Jue with a glare. What was the story behind these two, she wondered.
Lan Qing handed their invitation to Ross, then the lieutenant motioned for him to approach. The verification process required fingerprint, DNA, and iris scans. The iris and fingerprint scanning was typical, and the DNA scan required a strand of hair.
Lan Qing stepped forward and began the process. A few moments later Lan Qing’s information appeared on screen.
From Xiaochen’s angle she could just make out the screen. All of a sudden she froze. On the screen she saw;
Eastern Navy Admiral, commander of the An Lun forces. Note: Youngest Eastern general on record, and a member of the Eastern military council. Rank: Paragon. Title: Peerless Light Emperor of Middle Heaven. Further Aliases: Prometheus, God of Wisdom, An Lun Super Soldier.
What followed was a laundry list of Lan Qing’s accomplishments and commendations.
He… he’s the An Lun super soldier? Poseidon, God of Wisdom… a general. A general? How is this possible? He’s so young. He – he…
Qiu Xiaochen stood nailed in place, her body refusing to move. Ever since she was small she had worked hard, and been told to apply herself like the legendary An Lun super soldier. She had strived to be meet his example.
A Paragon… and he’s a Paragon! My God! How could one person be so talented?
In this moment, if by some cruel twist of fate he were to come her way, she wouldn’t be able to control her emotions. She looked at his resolute features, his cold expression – and then she thought of how she’d made herself look like a complete clown!
“Thank you for your patience, Admiral.” The lieutenant was more polite than ever as he handed Lan Qing’s invitation card back.
Lan Qing simply nodded and stepped to the side. Now it was Lan Jue’s turn, but Qiu Xiaochen kept her eyes glued to his brother.
He seemed to have felt something and looked her way.
Qiu Xiaochen was a beautiful woman, a product of mixed blood. Her fiery red hair was cut short in military fashion, and she looked back at him with big black eyes. She boasted one- fourth Eastern blood, which made her figure tall and slender, well proportioned. She was as intimidating as she was lethal, and it showed in her bearing. Her legs could rival Tang Mi’s for length and appeal.
Lan Qing gave her a passing glance.
The shocked sound pulled Qiu Xiaochen out of her haze. She looked to where the sound had come from and saw that it’d been the lieutenant, Ross. He looked at his screen in disbelief.
What could that man – the one who’d lifted his hand against
her, who looked a little like Lan Qing – what could his records show that was so surprising?
When she glanced at the monitor she saw another long list of titles.
Skyfire Avenue designation: Jewelry Master. Chairman of the Skyfire Council, commander of Star Division. Champion of the Great Adept Tournament. Further Aliases: God of Lightning Zeus, Mercenary King (former). God-ranked mecha pilot and one of the Divine Monarchs.
Rank: Very near Paragon
As mentioned before, the Chinese firmly believe that babies that come from mixed heritage are smarter, more beautiful, can fly, and shoot money-lasers from their eyeballs.
Chapter 707: Acquaintances
It’s him? It is really him?
Qiu Xiaochen gaped at him open-mouthed. Of course she knew the name, even seen him on T.V. during the Great Adept Tournament. Dressed in a suit, she hadn’t immediately recognized him.
Now, beyond all expectations, he was here next to Admiral Lan Qing. Lan Jue had disappeared from the wider world after becoming champion, but here he was.
His victory over Titan had deeply affected her. Before she watched him put the convert down, she had had plans of entering the transformation process herself. However, she changed her mind after seeing what happened to the North’s second greatest convert.
She also remembered his heroic deeds, how he had been willing to sacrifice his life for the innocent. He was a real hero!
Lan Qing, Lan Jue… they were brothers?
“All set?” Lan Jue asked Ross.
“Ye… yes of course. Chairman Lan, right this way.” He respectfully referred to him by his highest title, chairman of Skyfire Avenue. Any other organization and his title wouldn’t have mattered, no matter how flowery. But Skyfire Avenue was different! He was one of the leaders of a group that boasted eight Paragons! Besides, he was a peak-ranked Adept himself, poised to join their ranks.
Twin rising stars! It was the best phrase Ross could think of to describe these two.
Qiu Xiaochen followed them with her eyes as Ross led the pair to the front of the room. She looked back at her own superior, unconsciously swallowing her anxiety.
Lan Qing was delivered to the table atop the dais, as expected, and offered a seat near the middle. Though he was young his merits, military status, and Paragon rank demanded a seat at the high table.
What came as a surprise to Lan Jue was when Ross offered him a seat atop the dais, closer to the center than his brother.
That was to say, in the center.
Seats of the dais were arranged into two rows. The first row had eight seats, and the second fourteen. Lan Qing was near the center of the second line and Lan Qing near the center of the first!
At first Lan Jue was shocked and a little confused. However, after a moment he understood.
It was simple; he represented Skyfire Avenue! Namely, Skyfire’s Star Division and its eight Paragons.
He recovered from his surprise quickly. The North set them up this way for a reason. These guys are competition? Well let’s show them we can play nice, they must have thought.
But far from being grateful, Lan Jue felt disdain.
Lan Qing sat quietly in the second row. His eyes were closed, as though he were meditating.
A short while later Lan Jue spied a series familiar face entering the conference hall.
The first person Lan Jue recognized was the man who had nearly died with him in the Shattered Starfields. Tyrannosaurus’ commander, Kang Hui! Though he’d suffered a terrible loss, discerning eyes could tell he had not lost much of his influence. Despite the rumors he’d retained both his command and rank, resulting in a stern rebuke but little more.
In truth the Northern leadership had no choice. The only person with experience in fighting these creatures was Kang Hui. His knowledge was indispensable to the Northern war effort, and it was that knowledge that saved so many lives. Relegating him to the sidelines now would be unwise.
So, after a series of intense discussions as to his punishment, it was decided he would work off his offenses on the battlefield.
Kang Hui spied Lan Jue almost immediately. He approached Star Division’s commander with determined steps and, disregarding the stares he received, he extended his hand to shake.
“Commander Lan, we meet again. Without the help of you and your people I’m afraid…” He trailed off. Circumstances were different now and it was best to say less than more.
He felt conflicted. He deeply respected this young man – he was capable and smart. But Wu Qiu’s mutinous actions had tainted their relationship. Lan Jue hadn’t been fooled, bu that didn’t mean he knew the whole truth either. How could Kang Hui not be embarrassed by what had happened? Lan Jue had saved his life, and in return…
Shame caught Kang Hui’s tongue.
But Lan Jue answered with a smile. “Hello, Admiral. I hope we have an opportunity to fight side by side again.”
Kang Hui sighed. “It may not be so simple. We’ll speak again later, the conference is about to start.” He took his seat on the second row.
While taking his seat the Northern Admiral was surprised to find another soldier, who looked very much like the young man he so admired. He sat in an honored position like himself.
“That’s my brother. Lan Qing, Admiral of the An Lun forces.” Lan Jue’s voice whispered in his ear.
He was surprised for a moment, but recovered quickly. He took his seat beside the Admiral and struck up a conversation. Lan Qing was famously economical with words, but he was happy to speak with Kang Hui. He didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to speak with a commander who had first-hand experience fighting the alien hordes.
Another familiar face came in shortly afterward. Their arrival caused many in the room to rise to their feet in a sign of respect. Military personnel snapped to attention as the Terminator, the North’s sole Paragon, entered.
His enormous stature was like a magnet, everyone’s eyes were immediately drawn to him. Lan Jue rose to his feet with all the others. As a Northern leader he also was sat in the first row of the dais.
“Small waves of the past become tides that propel us forward! The new generation is really something to behold.” Of course the Terminator would be able to sense the changes in Lan Jue’s strength.
Lan Jue’s response was respectful. “I am undeserving of the praise. His Majesty is just as vigorous as ever.”
This earned a chortle from the Paragon. “Is Jun’er well?”
“She’s doing wonderfully,” he replied. “She says she would like to come and visit ‘big uncle’ sometime when she has the chance.”
For a moment, disappointment flashed in the large Paragon’s eyes. “Tell her I’ll try and visit when the aliens have been dealt with.”
Chapter 708: The Terminator’s Good Faith
Lan Jue was somewhat surprised by his words. Skyfire Avenue would of course never allow Jun’er to come to the North for obvious reasons. But for him, with his status and history, to come to see her? Didn’t he fear reciprocation for what he’d done? It was the sort of masculine confidence his father had become famous for.
The Terminator’s eyes looked passed Lan Jue, to the row behind. Lan Qing had stood as well and regarded the Terminator with an easy smile.
The Terminator returned his friendly expression. “And the waves crest higher. It seems you’ve already stabilized your new powers – another young hero.”
“It seems his Majesty is also nearly ready to attain the next degree. Congratulations.”
The Terminator’s eyes lit up. The Terminator was stronger than Lan Qing, and had been a Reflection of Heaven and Earth for many years. Of course it would surprise him for Lan Qing to so readily sense the state of his powers.
“There is an opportunity for me to break through. You and I should compare notes.” The Terminator was back to his easy, smiling façade.
“I hope we have the opportunity,” Lan Qing replied.
The Western delegate and his Colonel secretary also took their seats on the second row of the dais. Qiu Xiaochen quietly told her superior everything she’d discovered.
The Western general’s face was strange, especially when he saw the Terminator speaking with the two young men. Secretly it annoyed him. How the world has changed, he lamented! The young were truly something.
The older one was a legend among soldiers, and the younger one – the one who’d turned his hand against Qiu Xiaochen – represented the greatest Adept organization on the planet.
Without question, the Eastern Alliance was enjoying an unprecedented era of growth. From the moment the aliens made their presence known to now – and even into the future – it appeared every decision the East has made was correct.
Their merits spoke for themselves. They were the first to acquire vital crystals; the first to learn the benefits of the exuvium process; first to learn anything about the alien threat; became rich through their auction; and finally, saved the lives of many Northerners through their efforts in the failed expedition. Most importantly, Skyfire Avenue continued to grow in strength.
The East was in an advantageous position when it came to Adepts, more than any other Alliance. Word had gotten out that the legendary Jue Di had also returned to the worlds of man. That man alone was as destructive as a Bastion ship – likely more so.
And the West? They were woefully deficient in good Adepts. Evil rumors of the Pontiff had begun to circulate, which were forcibly silenced. But as a high-level government official, the general knew all about it.
The West’s two Citadels used to think they were rivals of Skyfire Avenue. Though there was a discrepancy in strength, it wasn’t insurmountable. Now, however, the only people holding on to that assertion were the delusional and ignorant. Even if one considered the frankly impossible possibility of the two Citadels merging, they still couldn’t hold a candle to the Avenue. They had more Paragons than the West had peak-
ranked Adepts! Catching up was out of the question.
Where that became pertinent to the war against the aliens was in recent research. Although the findings were still uncorroborated, it appeared as though Adepts were particularly well suited to killing the monsters. If this was true, the East’s status among humanity would only benefit. They would become even more powerful and important.
Lan Jue was a top leader in the Avenue, and not even a Paragon yet. Skyfire Avenue’s seat on this dais proved all his conjectures true.
“Sir.” Qiu Xiaochen’s voice brought him back to the present.
“Ngh.” He grunted by way of response.
Curiosity glimmered in her eyes. “How do you think they did it? They’re so young but have so much power. Is that purely due to talent?”
The general smirked. “There’s no such thing as a casually successful person in this universe. It’s true now, and will
remain true in the future. You see them how they want you to see them, out here in the crowd. You don’t see the hard work they put in to get themselves here.”
Qiu Xiaochen seemed unconvinced. “But I work hard! How am I still so weak compared to them?” She was a ninth level Talent, a rare thing in the military, but only first rank. Compared to the two brothers from the East, it was hardly worth noting.
“I can’t answer that,” he replied. “If you’re able, do what you can to get close and ask them yourself. Only they know the truth.”
The conference hall was quickly filling up. Seats on the floor below and on the dais were quickly becoming occupied. In the first row, aside from Lan Jue, were three representatives each from the Great Conclave and Northern Army. The last came as a surprise to Lan Jue.
“You continue to get stronger. When did you break through?” A near perfect smile filled his vision. As familiar as the two were, Lan Jue was still taken aback each time they met. His first thought was always, if this guy was a woman he’d bring down nations.
The final person to sit at the head table was none other than Poseidon – Hua Li. Though he sat near the end of the line, it was nonetheless a show of respect.
To Lan Jue’s left was the President of the North. To his right was the Army Chief of Staff. It was an extremely flattering position for him. Meanwhile the Eastern Chairman and Army Chief were seated on the far end. It was all arranged according to power and prestige, as all these types of meeting were.
The Terminator himself sat in the second row, at a distance from Lan Qing. He represented the Eastern army, whereas here the Terminator only represented the interests of the Great Conclave.
Beneath the blazing lights illuminating the hall, seats quickly filled up. All the dignitaries were military leaders from the three Alliances. Most were from the North.
The atmosphere became more suffocating and boisterous as more people filed in. No one held on to foolish facades of ease, not when the dangers of alien invasion were evident. It felt like the weight of a giant boulder bearing down on everyone.
Bang! Bang! The Northern President was an elderly man who oozed with charisma. Today he was wearing a dark suit that complimented the somber atmosphere of the meeting. The sound of his gavel rang across the hall, and everyone fell silent.
All eyes turned toward the dais.
To the people below it was a spectacle. Mostly just for the presence of Hua Li and Lan Jue. They both were so young, and exceedingly handsome. Although Lan Jue didn’t look as striking as his friend, absorbing the thunder essence had imbued his presence with an inexplicable power. He seemed more elegant, almost ethereal like he was a visiting spirit from another plane. Even looking directly at him, it was difficult to penetrate that power and see him clearly.
Lan Jue did not concern himself with the spectacle of it all. He sat calmly in his chair, his mind on Hua Li.
Specifically, Hua LI’s presence here proved something. It proved that the Poseidon Group had more clout than he gave them credit for.
He’d heard that the group had recalled their Bastion – named
Poseidon – to protect their home planet. All of the family’s workers, servants and soldiers had been brought back to planet Poseidon. It was as though they didn’t fear standing alone against the alien planets, as though they were confident in their self-defense.
By all accounts Poseidon Group had consolidated a great deal of power. Hence Hua LI’s position of authority here. After the meeting he would have to spend some time and talk, Lan Jue thought. It seemed like this guy had a lot he was hiding!
“First, I would like to welcome all of our distinguished guests on behalf of the Northern Alliance.” The President’s voice was low, but abnormally powerful. Everyone could hear him as though he were standing at their side.
“You all know why we’re here. Human survival! It’s the name of this conference, and to my memory never in the history of our species has a conference like this occurred. It is unfortunate, but these are the times we live in – a time when the fate of our species will be decided.”
“I hope I’m not wrong in assuming all of you have seen the results of recent expedition. What those evil planets did to our three Bastions and five fleets. We shared all of the frightening
details with you. And frightening is the right word – these monsters are far more terrifying than we thought. We lost the first battle, but it was not a total loss. Frankly speaking, with as little as we knew about them the results were not surprising.”
“Through this process the North has suffered greatly at the hands of the enemy, bearing a tremendous amount of pressure. This pressure has come from many sides. From within the armed forces, from the government, and from our beleaguered people. However I stand here among now, as a representative of our government, to say that you – all of you – have done well. Although we have been beaten, we have not been defeated.”
Chapter 709: The Conference
His words rang with power and passion. Much to everyone’s surprise, he began with justification of the North’s failed actions while admitted its failure.
Kang Hui sat stony faced on the second row. Lan Jue was also expressionless.
Among politicians every sentences had a meaning. However, the President wasn’t playing politics. His words were encouraging, to the people and to the arms forces. That’s what they needed now.
“Our government has chosen to reinstate Admiral Kang Hui. He shall continue to lead Tyrannosaurus against our foes. In a moment the Admiral will share with us the details of the operation so we can understand what in the world happened. But more importantly, what we learned.”
Kang Hui stood, and as he did the overhead lights caught the four golden stars on his shoulder. With determined steps he took the podium, and the lights dimmed as a holographic image appeared in the air.
The images flickered. Frozen frames from the Tyrannosaurus’ recordings.
“Yes, we lost. The reason for it was primarily a failure of understanding the enemy. I stand before all of you today to tell you – unequivocally – that however strong you may think these monsters are, they’re stronger. We have had time to analyze the data we’ve recovered and have since shared it with all of you. We did this because when the time comes for us to defend ourselves, we hope it will help us all against the alien enemy.”
Kang Hui’s words were sincere and passionate. He went on to explain the planning and execution of the mission, the Bastions plans, and ultimately their fate after meeting the alien planets.
Whether it was Tyrannosaurus’ botched fight, Heron desperate escape or Arachnid’s destruction, no detail was spared. Kang Hui shared all he knew easily and without reservation. Everything was locked in his head, and never once did he have to refer to a sheet to provide the data.
Lan Jue listened intently. What he shared with his people was from a spectator’s perspective. Kang Hui’s knowledge came from a position of leadership.
It took the Admiral about an hour to relate the battle from start to finish. His eyes were red when he told them about Ying Tianlong’s final charge, and Arachnid’s decimation. Never once did he speak ill about the two fallen commanders. The only words he had for them were tales of heroism and strength.
“At this point I would like to offer my sincerest thanks…” He turned back, and looked at the rows of chairs behind him.
“We invited Star Division’s scout team to participate, due to their previous experience with the aliens. Despite their credentials, I will admit I had my doubts before we set out on our expedition. However, the more I worked with them the more their abilities were proven. What you ladies and gentlemen may not be aware of, was that Star Division’s scouting party consisted of five Paragons. Due to this deep well of ability they were able to time and again escape from the jaws of death and return with information crucial to our understanding of the enemy. Thank you, commander Lan Jue. Without your help Tyrannosaurus would have succumbed to the enemy’s traps. If you hadn’t come to save us from the Violet Prince the operation wouldn’t have even gotten off the ground. On behalf of everyone who served on Tyrannosaurus, thank you for everything you’ve done.”
As he spoke, Kang Hui saluted Lan Jue.
Lan Jue respectfully stood and smiled at his brother in arms, but said nothing.
Once Kang Hui finished relating all the information about the failed battle he returned to his seat.
The Northern President’s deep voice broke the silence. “After our ships returned, we set about trying to see what we could learn. We examined everything that was obtained from the Starfields and set about analyzing every bit of data we had on the beasts. Now, this includes the results of Eastern Alliance’s own research, which we’ve used to help make our findings more complete. His Majesty the Terminator will now take the podium to tell us all we know of the aliens.”
Surprised mutters rippled through the hall. They didn’t expect the Terminator to give the report himself.
The North’s ultimate convert rose to his feet, like a mountain ripping itself up from the roots. When he took the podium he offered no flower address. His booming voice rattled the walls.
“Ladies and gentlemen, what Kang Hui said is absolutely true. These monsters are worse than our most terrible nightmare.
Like the Admiral I, too, would like to first thank Skyfire Avenue. Their preeminent researchers, known as the Keeper and Bookworm, were the first to learn the secrets of our enemy. From them, we’ve learned a great deal.”
“According to research, the first thing we were able to discover was that these creatures are like us; biological. Where they differ – and what makes them frightening – is their need to consume. Their zeal for growth and evolution is all-consuming. They do this by devouring their prey, and using their genetic material to perfect themselves. It is this process that makes them strong, it is this process that makes them a threat.”
“We have evolved as well. In the former era the average lifespan sat around fifty years. Now it is not uncommon to live one hundred and fifty years. In some special cases we can live to be three hundred. This is thanks to evolution. However where we are changed over long periods of time, the aliens can evolve almost immediately.”
“We now believe that these aliens began small – a single-celled organism. As they consumed other living things they grew and changed. We suspect the three alien planets arose from that humble place. From the higher cast of these creatures we’ve learned their names. The largest is called Monarch, the one that fought against Tyrannosaurus. Empress is the second, the one
that destroyed Arachnid. Heron narrowly escaped the third, Consort.”
“Nothing can match the ever-changing nature of these monsters. While they may look like planets, they are as alive as you or me. Think on that for a moment. They react in a fight by instinct, faster than any machine we can create.”
“In the East they say the universe is ruled by an invisible force. When a single creature becomes too strong, that invisible force descends upon it. I know that many in the North and West’s science community believe that to be hogwash, but as a Paragon I can tell you it’s absolutely true. How do I know? Because I can already feel it. It isn’t clear, but it’s there.”
“Undoubtedly, the power these planets possess is far beyond any human alive – possibly stronger than thing that has ever lived. They have evaded the rules of the universe by concealing themselves as celestial bodies. We suspect their increased surface area diffuses the pressure from the universe and makes it more bearable. While the hypothesis remains to be proven, it does fit in with what we know.”
“What this means is that while it may look like a planet, we are facing a living thing – a strange, enigmatic living thing. I
suspect that not only do they gather live energy for their own evolution, but also to keep their leaders alive. If that’s the case, then the data we have begins to make sense.”
“Nothing is perfect, everything has a flaw. I do, as I’m sure every Paragon does. Nothing is undefeatable, and these aliens are no exception. According to what the Keeper and Bookworm have learned, the weakness of these beasts lies in their very DNA.”
The Terminator went on. From his words Lan Jue could tell the Northern Paragon believed in the data from Skyfire Avenue. That meant he believed Paragons were the best weapon humanity had against this powerful foe.
“During this last attempt, we were denied the precious vital crystals. For all we sacrificed, we didn’t even come close to what the East offered in their auction. But we can count the lives we spent trying to get them. What we learned was that other aliens would gather up the crystals left behind. We saw it clearest when Arachnid came under attack. You all saw the tentacles that came from Empress. Most were involved in containing Arachnid, but several others can clearly be seen gathering vital crystals.”
Chapter 710: Lan Jue’s Suggestions
“Vital crystals are energy – condensed vital energy. When faced with the question ‘what can the aliens not afford to lose,’ these crystallized shards of power are one of them. We can safely assume that the only real aliens are the three planets themselves. The others we’ve faced are extensions of them – like appendages. Every crystal we take is like taking a piece of one of the planets. As far as we can tell, this is why Monarch didn’t send monsters into combat against Tyrannosaurus. Were it not for Commander Lan Jue’s reconnaissance, the losses suffered by Tyrannosaurus and its fleet would have been much worse.”
“We know that these aliens are beings of higher intelligence, and so we must assume everything they do has a purpose. It likely knew that sending in the monsters would have been useless against a Bastion. All it would accomplish is delivering vital crystals into our hands. To keep them safe, the alien homunculi were dispatched from the battlefield, and ordered to return once the danger had passed.”
“Their ploy was very successful. We recovered no vital crystals in the course of the expedition. With all we know now, I suggest that any further clashes with the aliens should focus on gathering vital crystals. In this way we strengthen ourselves while weakening our enemy. Kill the homunculi and take their crystals by any means necessary. So much powered is stored in
those crystals – power that can create whole living beings – that they must be the most important resource our enemy possesses.”
As he listened Lan Jue slowly nodded his head. The Terminator’s analysis made sense. Why would so many reinforcements be instantly called whenever even one insignificant beast was harmed? Because the planets feared a vital crystal would fall into the hands of their prey.
Star Division had returned from their first tour in the Starfields with so many crystals because Jue Di was able to kill so many, so fast. At the time their aggregate strength was enough to handle a host of reinforcements.
If contemporary knowledge held true, then a direct assault against the planets themselves was ill-advised. Instead, ambushing the creatures – what the Terminator now called homunculi – and taking their crystals was the best plan of action.
After giving his report, the Terminator turned to military deployment and defensive strategy. It was also an important point of discussion. Plans needed to be laid for how the three alliances would work together for human survival.
The Shattered Starfields sat in the center between the three opposing territories. While some areas were thinner than others, the alliances were still separated by vast distances. For this reason accumulating troops in the appropriate areas was impossible. Nor did they have any clue as to where the aliens would appear. Their ability to teleport made determining at- risk areas impossible. Everywhere was at risk.
Lan Jue figured that the aliens would simply avoid any large gathering of soldiers. Their agility was a serious problem. Neither could humanity flee. Despite having nowhere to go, there were simply too many humans spread over dozens of star systems. Meanwhile the alien planets numbered only three, and could go where they pleased.
As the conversation continued on military strategy, Lan Jue listened but didn’t have any opinions. It was not his area of expertise. Instead, he set his mind to finding the most effective way for Star Division to help.
Star Division was beginning to take shape as a powerhouse of planetary combat. But out in space, that power was greatly diminished. Lan Jue suspected that even he couldn’t stand against a dreadnaught in outer space. Perhaps if he got close, but after a certain distance he would likely succumb to the ship’s cannons.
He was unsure how Star Division’s role would manifest itself in these conditions. How would he employ his soldiers to their full potential?
In the face of destruction the alliance representatives swore to put aside their own interests for the good of humanity. Sincere and cooperative discussion ensued about how best to protect the lives of their citizens.
Defeated their enemies wasn’t a simple feat that could be achieved in a single action. Nor was the defense of human worlds. The first step had to be to avoid unnecessary loss while impairing the enemy. The more they learned, the better they could craft a plan of attack.
Although the North had failed in their attack, it wasn’t without value. Alien defenses were discovered to have limits. Bastions may not have been as effective as the military hoped, but they nonetheless could contend with the aliens. Converging six Bastions on one of those planets would end in a different result, they were sure.
Determining further action would mean more reconnaissance, and so the important of scouting missions were also declared. Everyone agreed that Star Division’s help and
intel was what brought Tyrannosaurus and its entourage back alive. For this reason, more than anything else, he had been given a spot on the first row of the dais. Granted he wasn’t military, but his actions had made Lan Jue an unwitting standard-bearer for soldiers throughout all the alliances.
Lastly, the delegates agreed on a master plan for resisting the alien menace; Scout, harass, research, and destroy.
Reconnaissance was determined to be a pillar of the strategy. In order to protect their scouts and assist in their mission, the alliances pledged to work on new technologies and provide them for use in the field. These would include better ships and anti-interference communication devices.
“Now we would like to invite the commander of Star Division, Commander Lan Jue, to help us ascertain best practices in scouting out the enemy forces.” The Northern President invited Lan Jue to the podium with a smile.
Lan Jue paused. No one had told him he was expected to speak.
H rose to his feet and looked at the President, who nodded in
encouragement. All of a sudden Lan Jue understood. They wanted him unprepared on purpose, in the hopes he would reveal something he might have hidden before. He’d told them everything before, what more did they want?
He approached the podium and, after greeting the delegation, spoke his piece. “I have had the unfortunate experience of encountering these monsters over a long period of time. The first time was on planet Taihua, where their sudden invasion had stunned everyone. The sheer aggressiveness of these beasts, their insatiable hunger, was burned into our collective nightmares.”
“The Clairvoyant once said that this would be one of humanity’s greatest challenges. If we faced it, and overcome this adversity than humanity would rise to master the cosmos. If we did not, it would spell our destruction as a species.”
The hall was silent. All of a sudden the atmosphere was dismal and heavy. Who did not know and respect the Clairvoyant’s reputation? He was one of history’s greatest prophets, who established Skyfire Avenue with his own hands. His vision helped lift humanity to the interstellar society it was today.
After a moment Lan Jue continued. “His Majesty the
Terminator has given an excellent account of what we know about the aliens, I won’t address that further. However, I will emphasize that the aliens are an exceptionally intelligent adversary. They don’t just consume – they study, and learn. They knew all the North’s tactics and had counteracted their plans to assure the least cost to themselves and the greatest damage to our people.”
“I have met one of them that was at least as strong as a third- degree Paragon. It told me that our inherent potency is what they were after. They wish to emulate us in order to further their evolution.”
“So far I agree with everything this body has put forward. Reconnaissance must continue in order for us to learn more about what we fight, and why. I support His Majesty the Terminator’s determination that we need to send out our best troops to continually harass their supply lines for vital crystals. Little by little we can steal strength from our enemy and turn it to our benefit. However we must understanding that this is exceedingly dangers. We know that among the aliens at least one has achieved the Infinite.”
“My team’s success in scouting the enemy forces is simple; we had enough power, speed and defenses to evade them. But what you may not have known is that evading death came at the cost
of an s-ranked power gem each time we needed to teleport away. That was what separated us from success and failure, living and dying. In addition we were strong, strong enough to strike fast and hard before they could muster a response.”
“In my view there are several things that must be done to assure the future success of our scouting missions. First, we need better and faster ships. Second, we must develop psionic shielding techniques. These creatures are capable of carpeting an area in a psionic pulse that locks on targets even if they’re invisible.”
“Third, find way to protect ourselves. We found teleportation to be best, but there are other methods. You also need sufficient support.”
“Fourth, ensure that every scouting unit is strong enough to do the job. Even against common homunculi they need to be able to kill it and flee before reinforcements arrive. The higher caste of these creatures are frightening, but few. The alien planets are among this higher cast but they are restricted by their size. So long as you don’t get close they won’t be a problem. As long as our people have the ability to get away, our scouting and guerilla missions will be a success.”
“So, it is my suggestion and hope that all of the alliances put their focus on finding soldiers that can do these jobs and protecting them. For Star Division, this is how we’ve managed to survive. If we can maintain constant surveillance of the enemy we will know when they transfer, giving us time to prepare and react. That is all I have to say, thank you.”