The students were surprised at how small and narrow the interior of the ship was.
Although it wasn’t ‘small’ by conventional standards, compared to its bulks it was less than anticipated. Several metallic chairs had been added – recently, by the look of things – in the center of the bridge.
“It looks so big outside. Why’s it so small in here? It’s got to have like a lounge area, right?” Tang Xiao muttered inquisitively to himself.
Jin Tao sniffed in disdain. “You know nothing. Where do you think a ‘lounge’ is, eh? This sorts of ships only have a cockpit, this is where the crew rests and works. There’s nothing else. The rest of the bulk must be the ship’s propulsion systems and weaponry. Look at the weapons panel there, it’s more than seven meters long. Enough firepower to take on a fleet. You’ll need at least four crew members to run all the weapons at once. For a normal patrol boat, you’d only need one. We’re basically sitting on a miniaturized destroyer.”
Tang Xiao listened with rapt attention, and looked at his fellow Disciple with amazement. “Jin Tao, how do you know so much?”
Dumb-mutt beamed with pride. “I may not be the best student, but I’ve loved airships since I was a little kid. I read all about them whatever chance I got. Of course I’d know a few things.”
By now everyone was on board and in the bridge. Aside from them, there was only one other person.
He was a young man, not much older than the students who stared at him. Clad in sweat pants and a t-shirt, with the stick of a lollipop jutting from his lips, he seemed well at ease. He raised his eyes from the screen for just a moment to regard the gaggle of young men and women, then went back to work.
It was no surprise that these mecha pilots would be interested in a fighter ship. The moment they entered, the cockpit’s decibel level shot straight up. Some spouted whatever knowledge they had about airships, after all it wasn’t just Jin Tao who had a passion.
There was a flash of light, then Lan Jue, Mika and Xiuxiu appeared on the bridge.
“Silence!” Lan Jue’s august voice commanded. The young people were well trained, for they immediately shut their mouths upon hearing their Drillmaster.
“Pick your seats according to our rank orders, and fasten your seat belts. Accountant, alert the tower we’re ready for takeoff.”
The lazy-looking man threw up an ‘ok’ gesture to Lan Jue.
Indeed it was the Accountant piloting Zeus-1 today. He’d actually approached Lan Jue the night before he’d returned to West Hill with a simple request – he wanted to run away.
Ever since the arrival of the Bookworm, he felt like he was going insane. Previously there had only been one crotchety old bastard intent on ruining his life. Once he’d finally got used to that hell, a second hateful geriatric showed up.
Before the Bookworm became the Karmic Scholar, he’d begun force-feeding as much knowledge as possible to the Accountant. He knew well that if he failed in his endeavors to prolong his life and reach Paragon status, he didn’t want all he’d learned to go to waste. 1.
The Keeper, natural, did not disapprove. The Bookworm had many students, but there were only a very select few he chose to pass on the entirety of his knowledge, as a disciple. Most students only learned a infinitismal part of what he knew.
The Bookworm was also particularly interested in the Accountant’s Discipline. So his collusion with the Keeper was more of a conspiracy to create a sort of science and tech super-scholar.
At long last the Bookworm achieved his goal, leaving only the Keeper to look after the Accountant during his studies. It was now or never, his opportunity for freedom had arrived.
Lan Jue still felt like he owed the Accountant after Lir, and so he went in secret to the Keeper to plead the young man’s case. The old pedant did not object, and left him in Lan Jue’s charge.
He didn’t let him go without purpose, however. To use Lan Jue’s words, he was to ‘make good use of waste materials’. Zeus-1’s navigation was temporarily under the Accounts purview, now. At any rate, the young pervert was just glad for the opportunity.
The students sat in accordance with their rank order. The furniture was set so that there was only half a centimeter of space between them, so they banged together with each slight movement. Comfort as not a consideration.
Once settled, they tried to look every which way at once with eager eyes. A lot of the desperate fear that followed them dispersed. No matter what the Demon Drillmaster had in store, they got to travel to another planet for their training. That was pretty sweet.
Lan Jue strode to the front, and addressed his students in a calm voice. “After discussion with the school officials, we agreed that two months wasn’t enough time. Here on out, there is no time frame for when this training will end. It will most likely be longer than the two months you signed up for. You will have ten minutes to tell your family, and tell them you’re safe. Anyone who shares details of what we’re doing here will have a special training protocol designed just for them.”
Tell their family?
Just the prospect of speaking with those almost-mythical caregivers was enough to inspire some students to tears. Xiuxiu and Mika walked handed out communicators, and made sure Lan Jue’s orders were followed.
The golden-masked Drillmaster stood before them and watched in silence.
None of these talented students could be considered fools. They all knew precisely what Lan Jue was talking about when he told them to keep the training under wraps. None of the pain or misery that was the vast bulk of their lives now – only happy smiles and puppy-dog tails to placate their worried parents.
It had been a full month of torture! Many of the students couldn’t hold back tears upon hearing from their loved ones, but it was inevitably followed by Lan Jue’s cold stare.
Ten minutes passed in a blink. The communicators were taken away. By then the student’s appearances had changed. They looked far more at ease.
Lan Jue brought their attention back to him. “Soon we’ll be leaving for another planet. The pressure on you, the intensity, will be higher than the first month. Believe it. You can relax during the flight. Prepare to depart.”
Rest? The students exchanged looks of disbelief. They never thought they’d hear such a nice word come from this demon’s lips.
Lan Jue couldn’t care less what they thought. He simply made his way to the wide, comfortable captain’s chair and took a seat. He then shut his eyes and focused on clearing his mind.
Mika and Xiuxiu, hidden behind silver masks, took up position in their traditional spots.
Zeus-1 slowly taxied to the runway, then after a minute, took off toward the cloud cover. It pierced through like a fine sapphire needle, and before long they were in the emptiness of space.
Fast! This was the thought on everyone’s mind as they rattled in their chairs. The each had a front-seat view through the ship’s transparent shielding that afforded them a look of Skyfire from thousands of kilometers overhead. After exiting the atmosphere, the ship steadied and continued on it’s trajectory.
As the ship set itself to cruise velocity, the silence and isolation of space hung over them.
The beauty of space was a stunning visual, no matter how many times you’d seen it. It was the first time for many of these students, and the starlight reflected in their wide eyes.
“Hand them out,” Lan Jue quietly commanded.
Xiuxiu rose to her feet, holding a sack as she approached the students once again. She extricated plastic bags from within and passed them out.
What was all this about, the students wondered? Curiosity was writ clearly on their faces.
Lan Jue arose as well and stood before them. All eyes fell unto their teacher. “In modern times there are two things that encapsulate our current understanding of science and technology. One, are the mechas you each are well familiar with. The consistent progress of mecha suits has made our species stronger. Many – mostly boys, but not all – desire to become mighty pilots, riding these great metal constructs in to battle against their enemies. But aside from them, there are also airships. Combat airships, specifically. We relied on them for colonization of the galaxies, and still do today to defend us against those who wish us harm. Both of them together are the force behind our military power.”
“As several of you have surmised, the ship you’re on now is fitted for combat. I promise you, there’s a whole lot of punch in this tiny boat, enough to tear a battleship in half. It’s been fitted with more materials and power gems than an expedition freighter. Don’t make the mistake of looking at this like a patrol boat.”
Seeing the student’s eyes grow ever more interested, Lan Jue obliged. “Interstellar travel is lonely business. Usually this shit is equipped to support about a dozen crew members. The seats you occupy are a temporary addition. You can understand, then, why comfort is not a priority. So to combat this loneliness, our in-flight entertainment will be a demonstration of just how nasty this little boat really is. Is it really stronger than a battleship, you wonder? Well, I can’t reliably assert that this is the strongest patrol-class ship ever built, but it’s certainly up there. What do you say, are you interested in a little showing off?”
“Hell yeah!” Someone called out. This wasn’t to placate their teacher, but to express genuine interest, and was a sentiment shared by several more young men. Tang Xiao was conspicuously silent.
Tang Xiao couldn’t help but frown as he stared at his Professor. He knew his teacher, and it was definitely not his style to be so nice. And then there were these plastic bags…
Lan Jue nodded his head in sinister satisfaction. He turned to the Accountant. “Are we ready?”
“You know it!” The Accountant’s response was excited, jittery. His fingers drummed rhythmically on the keyboard like rain on a tin roof. From what the students could see, he was typing at about forty CPS. Those who noticed where surprised indeed – could it mean this young guy was also a god-ranked pilot?
Lan Jue returned to his chair and, leisurely but pointedly, fastened his seat belt. Mika and Xiuxiu followed suit, though markedly faster.
A stifling sense of foreboding filled Tang Xiao’s heart.
The students felt the automatic harnesses in their chairs tighten and click in to place.
I’m not sure if I went in to this before, but the study situation in China is dismal. The sheer number of people means everything is a struggle to pull ahead of the pack. Success only comes (in the minds of the older generation) through accolades in school, and graduating from a good college. If you fail to do this, you are doomed to a life of penniless struggle where no one will love you, you will fail your family, and society will shit all over you. That’s the bleak future anyone not stellar in school faces – again, according to ‘common knowledge’. As a result, school work is stupendously difficult and volumous. This photo shows a girl with just her high school exams – I promise you that she had at least fifty pages of homework due before each exam. High school students especially will go to school at 6, and often won’t come home until ten or later, and then they have to complete their homework. The pressure to succeed in school is so great, in fact, that during the Gao Kao – their equivalent of the SATs – police are on high alert to help students get to testing locations, be on the look-out for suicides, and drive students to the hospital if they have panic attacks. There’s a saying in China that God cries for the students during Gao Kao, so it always rains on the day. It was true for almost every year I lived there. Long story short, this might better equip you to understand why the Accountant is pissed. ↩