Chapter 237: I Am!
Again the ARC students were in formation, ready to begin. Again, Tang Xiao stood at the front of the group. It was the same group from yesterday, and their mood was strikingly different from the first class.
Where yesterday there was excitement, today they stank of fear.
It certainly couldn’t have felt good to be blasted with bioelectricity. It was like being perpetually stabbed by a hundred thousand tiny needles. While simultaneously your body was too numb to do anything about it.
Moreover, the last time they’d seen just a smidge of this demon’s ability, and it was terrifying. Even the ‘god-ranked pilot’, their Savage Goddess Tan Lingyun had been completely unable to offer up any resistance. The Prince of Devils has used a basic sabermech to obliterate a high-level instructor and fifty of the school’s best students. What else could he be capable of?
There wasn’t just fear, though. There was also excitement, faint and buried beneath the terror, but there. They felt like they were passing through a threshold, to a whole new realm of possibility.
They were mecha pilots, and the pride of the school. How could they not thirst for improvement, and grow excited at the prospect? After all, everyone knew implicitly just what being a great pilot meant; an infinitely bright future.
They were still students, not fully integrated in to adult society but excited at the prospects. Hot-blooded and anxious, they each imagined how high their abilities might soar.
But what would today’s class be like?
Tan Lingyun had arrived early, and stood at the head of the group wearing a nasty expression. Today her hair had been brought under control, and she’d changed in to a less desperately singed flight suit. She glowered at nothing in particular, lost in thought.
The blow to her own self-esteem had been minimal, after yesterday’s loss. However, the real damage came from the whispers. Already word was spreading that she wasn’t a real God-ranked pilot. She ultimately didn’t care, though – her primary focus was finding that ‘Lei Feng’, and this guy… this golden-masked devil, he had to be him.
He helped because he’s also part of the faculty. He said it himself. What kind of person is he? Today, I’m going to find out.
Zhou Qianlin was also in attendance, in her place near the back of the group. She had been first to learn about the change to the ARC class structure, though of course she couldn’t tell anybody.
Tang Mi was at her shoulder. She leaned in, and whispered to her friend. “So what sort of bad things were you up to yesterday, Qianlin? You’re acting weird today, sleeping during class… it’s not like you! Something about this class got you bothered?”
Qianlin rolled her eyes at her friend. “There’s plenty that bothers me – you, mostly. I was going over what happened yesterday, so I went to bed late.”
Just then, two familiar figures stepped in to the warehouse. Their respective gold and silver masks twinkled in the fluorescent light.
The moment they appeared, the chatter among the students died, until the silence was absolute. The young pilots stood with backs straight and eyes forward.
Yesterday, Lan Jue’s whole purpose had been to prove his strength to the students. They were adults, and they knew to respect strength. He approached until he arrived before the gathered pupils, and stopped. His eyes fixed upon Tan Lingyun.
Tan Lingyun stared right back.
For a long moment the two simply looked at one another. Eventually, however, the demon’s intense stare was too much for Tan Lingyun, and she dropped her eyes.
“Professor Tan, if you’d like to remain you can do so as my assistant. However, I demand that you respect this class and my instruction. If you can’t do that, I must ask you to leave. Anyone who tries to disrupt this class will be removed.” Lan Jue’s cold voice rang out, filling the warehouse.
Tan Lingyun hesitated, regarding the golden-masked drillmaster. She eventually and vigorously nodded her head. “I accept.”
“Don your mask, and stand beside me,” he ordered.
Tan Lingyun took a deep breath, and choked back the comments she so desperately wanted to voice. Instead, she fumbled in her suit for the mask Lan Jue had given her at the end of yesterday’s class and put it on. She moved to his side, and turned to face the students.
Lan Jue returned his attention to the students. “Starting tomorrow, the ARC class will be considered a closed curriculum. This means we’ll be training all day, every day. You won’t be going home to your mommies.. This is the final time I’ll say this, before this class really gets under way: if you want to quit, now’s the time. If not, I’ll let Director Wu know to tell our parents you won’t be having dinner. The training period will last for two months. During that time all required resources will be provided by the school. I can promise you right now, that by the end of this class each of you will advance at least one rank as a pilot. I can also promise that these two months will be the worst of your short lives. Once your decision is made, there’s no going back. Join or not, this is the time to make your choice. Going forward, those who remain will be treated as soldiers, not students. You have five minutes to think on it.”
Lan Jue lifted his wrist and peered at his communicator.
The students had learned from the last class that if this demon said five minutes, he meant precisely five minutes. The situation quickly washed through their brains: Closed class? Two months?
It wasn’t as though they were unfamiliar with the concept. Every prospective mecha pilot student was required to undergo an intensive three-month training before they could enter the mecha combat program. Everyone in attendance had been through it.
Two months, then, was certainly acceptable. They knew on some level this would be difficult, but the Prince of Devil’s assurances that an increase of at least one rank was an enticing prospect.
A mecha pilot’s rank wasn’t just a means to determine their relative strength. It was also a metric by which society would treat them, when they entered the real world. For those interested in military service, for instance, a third-class pilot would simply be admitted as a private, perhaps not even given the opportunity to pilot a suit. However, a second-class pilot would immediately be assigned a combat group. These were the bulk of soldiers, private first-class in the army. Students who graduate from a combat program and enter the army untested begun two ranks lower. Once they prove themselves, and get to understand life as a serviceman, those ranks would increase quickly. The equivalent rank for a first-class pilot was Lieutenant. Emperors were Majors, sovereigns became Lieutenant Colonels. A god-ranked pilot, if they chose to join, was immediately granted the rank of Colonel, without the need for any checks or provisions.
So for these young men and women, still enrolled in their classes, the allure of raising an entire rank was too good to pass up. This was especially true for those students stuck at first-class.
The National Eastern University’s mecha combat program currently had three thousand enrolled pilots. Of those, there were only fifty who were first-class or higher, and they were standing in front of him. Of the fifty, twenty-eight were first-class, second grade. Sixteen were first-class. Five were Emperor-class, second grade, and one who’d just been promoted to Emperor.
If what Lan Jue said came to fruition, and all of these students jumped up a rank, then the NEU itself would be catapulted in to the top five mecha combat schools, practically overnight.
Five minutes passed quickly.
“Those who’ve decided to give up, get out of my sight.” Lan Jue called. There was a harsh and demeaning light in his eyes.
No one moved.
Each of these pilots before him were considered exceptional students in the NEU. They were prideful, and if no one else was going to leave how could they? They’d never be able to show their face in school again. Plus, what was two months of struggle when the result was an immeasurable increase to their future prospects?
One minute later.
Lan Jue nodded. “Very well. You are all very courageous to remain. I assure you that in two months, you will feel no regrets for your decision. That’ll be because you’ll have plenty of time for regrets before then. Remember that no matter what happens, physically or mentally, you will complete every task put before you. There is no failure permitted, understood? Tonight you will go to your homes, class begins for real tomorrow at eight a.m. Gather here, then we’ll leave for the training grounds. Bid farewell to your parents tonight, children, you won’t be seeing them once Director Wu lets them know what’s coming. Dismissed!”
Was this it? There was to be no training tonight?
Scores of nervous students let out audible sighs of relief. They left in twos and threes to see their families.
Lan Jue did not leave. He remained, watching them scatter until only himself, Wang Hongyuan and Tan Lingyun remained.
“Professor Tan.” Lan Jue turned towards her.
“Hm?” Tan Lingyun had never taken her eyes off of him.
“Once we begin you also must remain with the students,” he instructed. “I’ll be giving you certain tasks that you must adhere to, and execute to the best of your ability.”
Tan Lingyun simply stared at him. “Are you Lei Feng?”
Lei Feng? Wang Hongyuan, standing on Lan Jue’s other side, was surprised and curious at the name. Lei Feng was a hero from the former era! When did Lan Jue become a long-dead cultural icon?
Lan Jue craned his head to look towards Wang Hongyuan, and waved a hand in dismissal. Though the desire for gossip blazed bright in his heart, the dance instructor wouldn’t dare offend his new instructor. He took his leave.
The expansive classroom was now only populated by two.
“Are you?” Lingyun asked.
Lan Jue nodded his head.