“But as we’re leaving, it’s important for us to leave something behind. Your instructors have trained you diligently for the last month, putting their heart and soul in to it. When I asked for their help, they complied. They did so by giving you all a chance to feel the reality of life as an An Lun soldier. In a moment, I will lead you all through a very special test. If you can pass it, then you definitely can pass the An Lun acceptance criteria. If, one day, you decide to join the armed forces and come to An Lun, then the doors to the Iron Army will be wide open for you.”
As the words washed over them, the students couldn’t help but mutter their thoughts to one another. Lan Jue could see the light of excitement in the eyes of several young men in the front row.
“Drillmaster, is this for real? You’re saying we can join the Iron Army?” Very few people would have the stones to interrupt the Drillmaster. Of course, Jin Tao was one of them.
Lan Jue nodded. “If you can pass the test we’re about to administer, then yes. You have a shot.”
Jin Tao pounded his fist in to his left palm, and grinned like a mad man at his instructor.
Being a soldier had been this young man’s dream for years. Over the last few months, he’d seen a tremendous change, and every day he felt stronger. Being here on An Lun had also forced him to grow up somewhat. More and more he felt as though he were no longer a child – he was a man, and no more Dumb-Mutt Jin Tao. And it didn’t go unnoticed, for Lan Jue recognized him as the most excellent student in the whole group.
It wasn’t that the others didn’t try as hard as he did. His passion… his obsession was more than the others could match. He approached every training course with a rabid tenacity, and threw everything he had behind every action. He just wouldn’t stop, until he had it down perfectly. Gao Lei had even approached Lan Jue in secret, and urged him to leave Jin Tao behind. He liked the kid, after all sometimes soldiers needed to be a little crazy.
Many had the same thought process Jin Tao did. In this last month they hadn’t just been training, but were also coming to understand An Lun and the warriors who protected it.
More and more they were beginning to see the truth behind the Iron Army. It was hard, but glorious work.
And now they had the chance to join them, if they could pass this assessment. This pie in the sky dream of theirs was a possibility, suddenly. They could hardly contain their excitement.
Lan Jue went on. “This assessment and An Lun’s traditional selection process are different. This is largely because we didn’t have the time to participate in several specialized training courses. However, for any warrior there is no better display of ability than actual combat. So, your final assessment will be a fight, with An Lun as your battlefield. Your enemies will be the First Independent Combat Group, led by the First Pilot. And do you remember that man in the green mask? He’ll be directing his soldiers. They will have mechas with training weaponry. Myself and my four assistants will be in charge of your team. If you guys can win, then you’ve passed the assessment.”
Real mecha combat?
Once again the students were blind-sided by the revelation. They’d been using actual mechas throughout the training, but never true combat. It was a dangerous endeavor, especially for students. The specialized training weaponry they used were harmless lasers, but they still recorded damage. The suits were designed to shake and smoke when the damage threshold had been reached, and that was a sign that the pilot was down. The lasers also recorded shield damage for close-combat attackers.
Lan Jue turned, and pointed toward the distance. “Do you see it? That is an An Lun combat mecha suit.” Their drillmaster indicated an array of pitch black suits with red dragon heads emblazoned on the chest plate. They stood in orderly lines, and an ominous sense of dread sprang up in the heart of all who looked upon them.
The students had used the basic versions of the same mechs for their training. ‘Basic’, though, wasn’t an adequate phrase. Even the lowest level models here were treated with a special coating that made them stronger. It allowed them to fight in space as well. Each time the students were confronted with them, they were extremely excited. After all, who wouldn’t want to fly in the same suits the An Lun soldiers used?
“If you pass,” Lan Jue began, “the army has agreed to lend each of you a Bloodlust suit equipped with an interspace armlet, for one year.”
“Woah!” Many students audible let their surprise known. Tan Lingyun and Wang Hongyuan, however, shot their drillmaster a strange look.
Lending mecha suits? It was the first time they’d heard anything like this. And they even had interspacial armlets.
The armlets were basic fare for any suit that needed storage. It was restricted to mecha specific items, but startlingly pricey. For these students, it was a beautiful addition.
Not everyone’s family had the funds to purchase a suit. The NEU wasn’t a top university, or a particularly affluent one. Their students were normal people living off of normal salaries. These military suits, though, weren’t even on the market for the rich!
Almost immediately, the excitement before a fight sprang up around them, almost palpable in the air. Aside from a few less enthusiastic participants, everyone was itching to give them a try.
Lan Jue’s deep voice cut through the din. “I do need to remind you, the difficulty to win matches the prize. According to An Lun tradition, a battalion has one hundred men. This means you will be having two-to-one odds, against trained killers. Their leader is a god-ranked pilot even stronger than I. He was an almost superhuman ability for critical thought and tactics, on top of being a powerhouse physically. So, when the fight starts, don’t underestimate your enemies. Don’t enter in to this with the mistaken assumption that it’ll be easy. You must follow orders to the letter. Next I’ll be giving out specific assignments.”
Lan Jue looked over the crowd. “We have fifty-six bodies, which we’ll separate in to five teams. First team will be led by Tan Lingyun. Those I call line up behind her…”
The groups were arranged quickly, five as he’d promised. However, none of the groups contained the Drillmaster himself, or his two mysterious female assistants – Mika and Xiuxiu.
The group leaders were Tan Lingyun, Wang Hongyuan, Tang Xiao, Geng Yang and Tang Mi.
“The actual fight will take place on a hilly battlefield roughly ten kilometers in diameter. This is a seek and destroy mission, so victory won’t be achieved until all of our enemies are defeated. I will be passing down orders throughout the match. Group leaders, make sure the instructions are followed to the letter. The base rules are as follows; do not continue to fight when you’re down or otherwise instructed; do not leave the allotted battlefield area; and do not give the enemy the opportunity to flank you. As the situation on the battlefield changes, you’ll be given more specific instruction. Understood?”
“Yes, sir!” the students roared.
Lan Jue nodded. “Good. Time to get started!”
The mecha suits they would use had been prepared earlier. They were military suits, but specifically altered for training purposes. All of their weapons were replaced with training gear as well.
Lan Jue, Mika and Xiuxiu also entered in to similar suits. Fifty-six mecha took off simultaneously, then formed ranks and headed for the battlefield.
By now the students were all very familiar with the lay of the land. Like their teacher said before, this was their chance to leave a mark before they left. It was a chance to show off what they’d learned over the last month.
As they left the base, the barren wasteland of An Lun’s surface came in to view. Now that they were beyond the base’s environmental shields, no living thing could exist out here. It was all noxious gasses and poisoned earth. The suit’s life-support systems were the only things between them and a painful death.
But despite the less than hospitable conditions, it was a perfect place to start a fight.
A small overhead map appeared on the console within each suit. It was a common tool in the arsenal of the warrior. Within no time at all they were following the map to their final destination.
As they were told, the terrain was hilly here. The ground rolled from peaks to valleys, stretching in to the distance. The tallest peak was only five hundred meters of dull yellow rock.
They received the signal from the An Lun soldiers; their enemies were in position. The assessment was set to begin at any moment.
“Attention everyone. Engrave it on your memory – this is not a drill. You are to treat this as a real battle, and use everything you’ve got. Disciplines are permitted. Remember to cease the moment your opponent’s suit starts to smoke. Is that clear?”
“Yes, sir!” the students replied through their communicators.
Lan Jue’s deep voice crackled through the consoles. “Alpha team, take cover in sector B. Echo and Delta, to your assigned positions in sector A. Charlie will start for sector D, and Bravo to E. Move out.” The students complied.
Fifty-six mecha spread out and shot off in different directions. Lan Jue, Mika and Xiuxiu headed straight for the opposite end. He was the commander of these students, so that meant he not only needed to give them direction, but also serve as scout.
Sector A was closes to the enemy’s starting position. Wang Hongyuan was leading his group there, as was Tang Xiao. Sector A did have higher ground, so the primary objective was controlling that area. Control of high ground was also of paramount tactical importance, because it made it easier to control the overall situation. That’s why there were two groups here.
Alpha team, led by Tan Lingyun, was the strongest one they had. Jin Tao and other accomplished pilots fought at her side. At least six of them were emperor-ranked pilots already.
The ping of functioning radar filled their cockpits as the ultraviolet rays swept toward the distant horizon in search of enemies. The deep heralded a frightening site. Every screen in Sector A saw it – a thick cloud of red dots descending upon them.
The An Lun soldiers spread out like a net, spreading wide as they approached the students’ location. None of their enemies were spotted in the skies, which was to be expected – it would make them easy targets. They worked together a cohesive unit and, although they looked to be spreading further apart, they were all ready to react to their neighbor’s movements at the drop of a hat. They came rushing in to the sector, then slowed as the search for their victims began.