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Chapter 532: The Clockmaker’s Return

    Chapter 532: The Clockmaker's Return

    Lan Jue wanted to take command personally. Not everyone was compelled to participate. People Lan Jue knew well, and those whom he had enough mecha data on where not required to join. These included Lan Jue himself, the Bartender, the Driver, and the Seamstress. They were involved as judges and team leaders rather than competitors. There were eight hundred of them, testing one by one was ludicrous. The A.R.C. students weren't exempt, though their participation was to determine how strong they'd gotten.

    The Wine Master watched Lan Jue go and couldn't help but sigh. He knew what the young man had to bear, how heavy the load was on his shoulders. How could he, a Paragon, not? Anyone could sense what kind of burden it was.

    Yet, Lan Jue seemed to be carrying it well. In fact he looked positive, ready to attack the task ahead.

    His eyes unconsciously swept back to the Clockmaker's shop. He took a deep breath and straightened his clothes, and before he knew it, his long legs were moving him across the street. He made up his mind, so there was no more hesitation. When things needed to be faced, it was important to face them head on. He had been a coward for so long, would he be a coward for the rest of his life? So long as he was alive he would avoid regrets, not accrue them. That was what Lan Jue was trying to tell him, he was sure.

    The Clock Store's display had been cleaned, he noted as he walked by. When he stopped at the open door he heard a chorus of mismatched ticks and tocks. Inside, needles jerked and pendulums swung.

    From the door he could see the Clockmaker inside with a grandfather clock. She muttered to herself from time to time, probably trying to find the perfect spot.

    He walked in, picking through the store toward the Clockmaker. He pointed to a spot nearby. "I like it there."

    She shot him a glance, then without a word moved around to the other side of the hefty clock. She straightened, managing to get it halfway off the floor before stopping. Her eyes fixed on the Wine Master. "Help."

    For a moment, the Wine Master was startled and didn't move. But he quickly recovered and quickly took up the other side. Neither used their Discipline, struggling mightily by muscle strength alone. Together they shuffled it to where the Wine Master had suggested.

    The Clockmaker straightened, then walked back toward the store's interior. The Wine Master remained behind scratching his head, unsure whether he should follow.

    "Come." Her voice saved him from the awkward indecision.

    "Oh." He hurried over.

    She stood behind the counter, looking at him. He looked back. Both seemed unsure of what to say.

    "I want some wine." Her wet, sad eyes betraying her hard façade.

    "Yeah," the Wine Master nodded. "What would you like?"

    She sighed an even response. "It doesn't matter. I just want to send him off."

    The Wine Master didn't have to ask who she meant. The pain of the loss of his friend was still fresh, and it showed on his own face. "Alright."

    She looked him dead in the eye. "I mean, from my heart."

    The Wine Master looked at her, confused for a moment as though he'd heard wrong. Then it dawned on him...

    ζ

    The sparring started in earnest. Lan Jue, along with the others, busily watched them for clues to their abilities. There were only ten proctors, so only ten fights could be watched at a time.

    DreamNet was convenient for this. It saved them a great deal of space, money and labor. There was zero possibility one of them would be injured or killed, but in all intents and purposes it was a carbon copy of real life. This was especially true for Adepts, which was why the upgrades to DreamNet were seen as the beginning of a new Era.

    Lan Jue stood behind the main control board, transfixed by the screens. From what he could see things weren't great, but they weren't dire either. Most of them had at least some experience piloting mechas. As Adepts they were also naturally superior over normal cadets, and that meant training would go smoother. The highest praise he could give them was that they all knew how to use their Disciplines to enhance their mecha combat effectiveness. That was the single most important factor of an Adept pilot.

    There were faults as well. In regards to maneuverability, they were all over the map from fresh faced to near-masters. While they could use their Discipline with the suits, they still relied too heavily on the machine to do the work for them. Their advantages were going to waste.

    Lan Jue had anticipated all of this. They weren't in a rush and he didn't expect perfection. First they had to separate them into type, then round them up into groups. That was the bedrock on which their full potential would be realized.

    The busiest person, though, had to be the Accountant. On top of running the procedures he was also carefully studying each fight and sorting data. He had three separate computers arrayed before him, and his fingers danced fluidly over the keyboard. He was starting to look like he could give the Coffee Master, the 'fastest hands alive', a run for his money.

    They carried on, one fight after another. It wasn't any sort of round-robin tournament, but rather in teams. A small team had ten pilots, so that meant every cadet fought nine times. There wasn't anything after that because it wasn't about rank. This was a chance to test every fighter against different opponents so they could see what they were made of.

    Lan Jue was surprised at his A.R.C. students' improvement. Their piloting and integration were much better than they used to be. In fact, their virtual suits were brand new, but it only took them a couple of days to become wholly familiar with them. Many Adepts stronger than them fell to superior training during the sparring. It was a rare, happy surprise.

    The Accountant was flagging. He was leaning back in his seat with lidded, misty eyes. His hands never stopped dancing across the keyboard, though.

    "How much longer until the analyses are complete?" Lan Jue walked over to stand by the Accountant's chair and put a hand on his shoulder.

    "A day for preliminary results," he replied. "Three for a full run-down."

    Lan Jue nodded. "Alright. There's no rush, don't overwork yourself."

    The data analyst nodded acknowledgement. "I can tell you just from what I'm seeing that some recruits won't be suitable for battle. Several of them have Disciplines like mine. I plan to conscript them to help me here. They maybe won't fight but we need intelligence and battlefield coordinators too. What we really need is a battleship..."

    "As you say," Lan Jue replied. Not everyone in a mecha unit was built to be a warrior. They would need logistics personnel for the back line. There would come a time when they were needed to fight, but they won't need a battleship to do it.

    The real-world mechas being built for them by the Avenue came with interspatial storage capabilities - that probably cost them an arm and a leg. The battleship Lan Jue brought back after meeting with his Master would be sufficient. To honor his teacher Lan Jue had the ship's name changed to the Majesty, flagship of the Avenue military.

    Of course, it wasn't just a transport ship. Lan Jue had delivered it to the Keeper and Bookworm, and asked them to try and find anything that could benefit from an upgrade. The results should make it more formidable in a fight.

    The communicator on his wrist buzzed and blinked. When Lan Jue looked down to see who was calling, his eyes lit up. He hastily connected the call.

    "Little Su, you finally called me back." The former Bloodfiend Empress was on the other end. Now she went by a different moniker, the fifth of Zeus' Amazons, the Morningstar.

    "Boss." She sounded tired.

    "What's up?" Lan Jue asked. "How's the situation in the Starfields?"

    "We've had a few scraps already and I got my people back, at least some of them. The rest have been scattered or killed. I've got a battleship and some resources, that's it." Xiaosu's voice didn't sound inspired. The Bloodfiend clan had been the product of her heart and devotion, and her allegiance was mirrored by her core people.

    "Come back," Lan Jue urged.

    Su Xiaosu was quiet for a time after hearing the words. She was strong, and in the face of an enemy she could be as cruel as her former title suggested. But those few simple words from Lan Jue made her eyes mist up.

    "Boss, I... " She was the leader of a pirate clan. Her flock had served her loyally for years, even forsaking lucrative Citadel bribes for her. She couldn't just abandon them.

    "Go to An Lun. I'll give you some contact information, get in touch with him. Leave your ship and have them drop you off here. I'll incorporate you and your men into my forces." Lan Jue's voice was calm and logical.

    "Really?" He could hear the excitement in her voice. "Boss, you're willing to take them in?" She knew the full implications of what that meant. By taking them in, he was also agreeing to bear responsibility for everything these pirates had done, past and present. She could also guess at Lan Jue's status in the Avenue. They could request asylum, and her people would have a chance at a normal life.

    Lan Jue didn't need to answer. "Here's who to call..." He gave a number to Xiaosu. All of this had been planned, he would fill her in when she got back. When it came to pirate leadership there was no one more capable than Su Xiaosu. She was also an expert in guerilla tactics, the same Lan Qing had suggested he use for the Star Division. As the analysis continued, Lan Jue became more and more convinced his brother had it right.
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