When Lan Jue revealed the name of their destination, neither student nor teacher was spared the surprise. Cold this really be the place? Home to the Supersoldier of the East?
There presence here meant the second portion of their ARC classes would take place here among the heroes of the East. It was unbelievable!
By how was it this planet was so barren? How could Prometheus even lead his armies out here? How could they live to protect the Alliance?
“Tang Xiao’s determinations were correct. This is not a planet that is conducive to habitation. But this isn’t just a planet, it’s a resource. When we discovered this place during our stellar colonization, extensive exploration revealed a cache of minerals including rare metals and power gems. Although this place was not a great find for life, it still became an integral asset for the East. It had everything we needed to give our Alliance the correct foundation.”
“It’s also adjacent to the borders of the Northern Alliance. Our front line. You saw how close the wormhole leading to the Alliance’s heart is from here. That is to say, if the North wanted to send a ship through our territory, it would have to pass by this place. As a result, this planet has remarkable tactical value.”
“We know the North also understands this. Sixty years ago they tried to take it from us. They knew An Lun had enough resources to provide five hundred years of mining. Top three in all the known resource planets, none the less. It remains a very pretty prize to control.”
“Therefore, the East has spent an astronomical amount of human and material resources to turn this place in to a military outpost. Barracks and facilities were constructed to keep it safe. Although our Bastion ships and technology are inferior to the other Alliances, this planet has made sure every incursion by the North has been foiled. I’m sure you’ve learned all of this in class before.”
“What I want you to understand is, that even in this barren and inhospitable place, there is a group of valiant warriors who suffer the discomfort to bring us peace. Here they remain, as the vanguard against our enemies, to protect the foundation of the East and protect our livelihood from those who wish to take it. They spend their youth, their vigor – even their lives – in servitude. They are soldiers, An Lun’s guardians. You know them as the East’s Iron Army, the North’s Nightmare.”
“Without the benefits of superior technology, relying only on their tenacity and strength, these young men and women keep us safe. They are lauded a the greatest fighting force the East possesses, with a singular, almost suicidal mindset. This isn’t just military power, but mental fortitude as well.”
Lan Jue paused in his lecture.
As their instructor’ voice reached an emotional crescendo, the students’ dull eyes began to light up. Here they were among the heroes of blood and iron, treading the land they walked. For these young pilots, it was almost mind-numbing.
“I’ve already spoken with the brass here, and they’ve agreed to let the second half of our ARC training commence here. Your trainers will be of the Iron Army itself. Remember that you are citizens of the East. I imagine you’ll do your utmost to ensure you don’t embarrass Skyfire or the NEU. Appreciate how rare of an opportunity this is for you – no outsiders have stepped foot in this land in over ten years. Henceforth I will be treating you like soldiers, like An Lun’s soldiers. For the next month you are no longer students of the National Eastern University, but its protectors. When we leave you can do so with head held high, because you got to defend the Alliance shoulder to shoulder with the soldiers of Blood and Iron. Because you were brothers and sisters in arms!”
Lan Jue’s motivation address lit a fire in their hearts. All of the pain, all of the exhaustion that they’d suffered so far was worth it. What could be a better reward for their torturous existence than training with the East’s elite?
Their pale faces were suddenly ruddy and vibrant.
Zeus-1 tore over the shattered landscape under the guidance of the two patrol ships. Before long a massive fissure appeared on the horizon. They followed the An Lun pilots in to the valley.
“I made a promise to the officers here before we arrived that everything we see and do here is considered a state secret. If any information about any of this gets out, the military will deal with you in their own way. That’s a court martial at the very least. Understood?” Lan Jue’s voice was once more cold, and full of the promise of cruelty should he be disobeyed.
“Understood!” This time it was the Savage Goddess who answered first.
Lan Jue looked her way, his golden mask thankfully hiding his surprised expression. She was like a young girl, full of gusto, wit her clenched fists pressed to her chest. Her eyes blazed with a furious desire, and even her voice cracked with barely-contained anticipation.
What was going on?
The valley’s dips and curves were revealed to the students as the ship skimmed passed. The further in to the planet’s crust they traveled, they began to see metallic structures springing up all over the place. It almost looked like this entire planet had been converted in to a make-shift Bastion ship.
As they entered the base, they lost their line of sight to landmarkers. They no longer were able to differentiate location or structure, and they didn’t know if they were facing East or West. Thankfully the small ships on either side lead them to a small landing strip. Zeus-1 touched down there.
“Remove your harnesses and disembark.” Lan Jue commanded. The Accountant rose along with the others.
This was a wonderful vacation, as far as he was concerned. Piloting this magnificent ship was always a treat. It satisfied a craving to bring them here, and the Accountant was well satisfied with the boat’s performance. The violently vomiting students may have also contributed to his enjoyment.
As the students and teachers of the NEU exited the airship, they were greeted with the smart ranks of a military welcoming party.
There were ten in all, clad in immaculate black military uniforms. They were tall, strong, and looked straight ahead as though they were made of stone. They looked calm, but closer inspection revealed the icy poise of a warrior.
Each of them bore five golden stars on the armband tacked to their left arm. This was the symbol for the Eastern Alliance 1. Their right arm bore a patch with a dragon embroidered in blood red.
The East called itself descendants of the ancient Chinese bloodlines. This badge was a nod to those olden days, and was known as the Mark of Blood and Iron. Only the greatest of An Lun’s soldiers were permitted to wear it. It wasn’t just some meaningless honorific either. It was a token of heroic achievement, and the dream of every young fighter.
All of the students present were students of mecha combat, and were well familiar with the tales of these soldiers. They knew what it took to earn that badge. It was also the first time they’d ever seen it in person.
They looked back as the contingent of living legends welcomed them to their home.
One such legend told of an Eastern government representative who was giving a speech during some public activity. Someone ran up and interrupted what he was saying, and begged that he postpone the rest for fear the crowds would become dangerous.
The man’s bodyguards rushed forward to bar his way, but then the stranger pulled out one of these badges. The senator, upon seeing the mark, immediately stopped his speech. He commanded his entourage and the local venue workers to disperse the crowd. He ended up giving the rest of his speech through another medium.
As his speech concluded, before the entire audience, the official bowed to the young man who made his concerns known. This senator would become our Chairman – Zhou Xueguan. That soldier would die in battle three years later.
The Mark of Blood and Iron was an accolade, awarded to the best the Iron Army had to offer. It remains theirs so long as they remain in active service here on An Lun. When they leave, the badge is returned.
It was an honor that simply defied explanation.
The students arrayed themselves in ranks without any orders needed. Five rows of students stood facing the decorated warriors in a show of respect. Their torturous journey here had already faded in to memory, as they stood toe to toe with these heroic public servants. What’s more, the bars on their chest revealed them to be lieutenants, with their leader being a Lieutenant Colonel.
Lan Jue separated himself from his charges and stood before the gathered soldiers. He snapped to attention, and gave them a sharp military salute.
The unit commander stepped forward and mirrored the greeting. The sounds and smells of metal flowed around him.
“Gao Lei, battalion commander of the First An Lun Independent Mecha Pilot corps.”
“Lei Feng, Drillmaster for the National Eastern University’s Advanced Robotic Combat training regimen.” Lan Jue returned.
“We have the honor of representing Vice Admiral Lan Qing in welcoming you to An Lun, Drillmaster Lei Feng. Please contact me directly if you need anything.”
Lan Jue nodded his head. “Thank you very much.”
Gao Lei nodded back. “If you would please follow me, we’ll take you to your bunks.”
The commander turned and strode off without any change of expression. The ten soldiers who brought with him turned as one unit, and followed on his heels in perfect formation. They looked like a crack mecha bettalion, like they were machines themselves. Their unyielding presence was almost oppressive.
Lan Jue followed, with the Accountant, Mika and Xiuxiu just behind. Tan Lingyun and Wang Hongyuan led the students forward.
The Savage Goddess tried to look in every direction at once. The look on her face was in stunning contrast to normal, so it was a good thing the mask covered it. She looked like she was in love.
Modeled, I’m sure, after the five golden stars of the Chinese flag ↩