What a glorious sight. The currently rather massive slab of earth surrounding Tree’s roots is continuously growing, both because I do tend to take a lot of stuff inside this dimension, and as a representation of my slowly increasing cultivation base. This has allowed me to massively expand the mass production facilities located under my castle. Instead of a mere couple of dozen production lines, I'm now overseeing hundreds of the lengthy strips. Each can be modified to suit my needs. Each of the strips of malleable metal and qi channels can be changed to produce, manufacture, assemble, or do anything I want it to do in short order.
The amount of rockets I’m currently producing is truly monumental. I had been stockpiling massive amounts of raw materials, but I’ve had to make dedicated mining operations in the outside world to keep up with the increased material demand. I stroll through the busily producing lines as the large moving containers of parts, materials, and intermediate products zoom past me, avoiding me with calculated margins. In my hands is the end product of all this effort, a slender piece of stone the size of a pencil that is much heavier than it ought to be. This is the reason I’m sending all of these rockets up there, a lot of work just to bait the satellites into shooting their stocks of these small projectiles.
I’ve caved to my own wishes, and increased the number of rockets going up into the air by thirty times the previous amount. Or rather, I’ve got ten times the number of rockets launching at three places now. The north and south pole, as well as the launching site in the middle of the Shi-Eit Kingdom. The results are promising so far, as the densities of the projectiles have been lowering quickly. I’m starting to see the end of the preparations for this training goal I’ve set myself.
I’ve also detected an increase in the amount of hardware floating in orbit around this planet, as my ever-widening sensor network I have strewn around the planet become ever more capable of catching those sneaky satellites. I really hope I’m just triggering a slight increase in projectile production, and not some form of preparation for whatever form of total planetary exterminatus they have around these parts.
Looking upwards, I see a hole in the ceiling snap open. The newest batch of caught extra-planetary projectiles is dropped in my waiting hands. Eagerly and greedily, I push a few strands of augur into the things. Grinning, I confirm my expectations that they would dip below ten times density today. I think about forcing my qi into the things again, but I expect that taking all the qi away from Tree’s dimension temporarily will do a lot of damage. I’m more than willing to ruin everything inside this place, except for the smallest possible amount of power that can sustain Tree, but not for just an experiment.
I watch as the newest load of scrap is brought down to my production halls for processing. The massive amount of paper-thin shattered metal tanks, shielding, and aerofoils is largely recycled. A large area around my launch sites are getting heavily polluted with processed pure metals, but I don’t feel guilty at all. The planet will adapt, and the poles are polluted with much worse than some shards of scrap metal anyway.
I order the newest batch of superheavy objects to be stored in the remote containment facility - a fancy term for a box I placed in a very large orbit around Tree - and will myself upwards. Sliders in the ceiling snap open, letting me through. Grass-covered trapdoors at the end of the reinforced tunnel let me out into the shadow of Tree. Looking around, I see that all is still going rather well here. The amount of drone activity has picked up, but that is to be expected with all the automated rocket launching and retrieving processes I have running.
I see the hazy purple and grey ball of toxic mud and acid high above, and suddenly feel like checking in on my booze production facilities up there. I don’t even acknowledge the angry woman leaning against Tree, tapping her fingers while glaring daggers into my skull. “Drew.”
I continue to ignore her while floating upwards.
“Come back here!”
“No. If you are asking what I think you’re asking me, you can fuck off.” I don’t really like cursing at people I care about, but when it comes to fools, I have little patience.
“Drew, you must teach them. Is that not your chosen moniker? Why else did you build this place? The entire reason for Tree was to make a safe haven for your students to flourish.”
“Yes, you are correct,” I nod at her. The initial reason I made Tree was indeed for educational purposes. The entire qi generator thing came later, and the cultivation base after that.
“So why do you not Teach them, then?”
“You know why.”
“I will make you.”
I stop and turn around. “You will what?”
I can see the bad idea take hold in her brain. Has she been influenced by Lola? No, even that dumb rabbit would know better. Is she incapable of seeing how idiotic she is being?
Just to be safe, I quickly construct some reasoning and cost-benefit analysis processes. I patiently wait for them to run through their data before confirming that Re-Haan is truly being an idiot. Yet, despite how much empirical evidence I have shown her against the idea, I can see her making up her mind anyway.
“I will beat you up. Then I will continue beating you up until you teach them.”
“Are you sure,” I softly ask, despite knowing the answer.
“Yes,” is her reply. She even takes a fighting stance while nodding.
Yep. Friends and family are blind spots, after all. Thinking beings can’t help but become irrational in the face of social complexities, I guess. I ignore the idiot and continue my trek towards the hair-melting moon. “In my original language, there was a saying. It was about the fact that even a donkey - a really dumb and stubborn animal - knows better than to bump it’s leg against the same stone twice. At this point, you are asking me to rub the bloody stump of my leg against the bloody rock, you know that?”
“What are you talking about? You taught me, didn’t you?”
I think back to the red books I put together. “I had to beat you up, right? I had to act all mysterious and shit. I had to slowly lure you in with secret information that could make your wildest power fantasies come true. I needed to exploit something I only suspected to be there, a deep-seated need to become more powerful. I am just lucky it turned out well.” Recapping the beginning of my relationship with Rhea that way makes me sound shady as fuck, I suddenly realize. Shaking away the irritating epiphany, I look her in the eyes. “And then it took a direct attack by your own kin that left you half dead. And you must have heard at least a part of the entire self-affirming spiel I had to do to centre myself and calm my cultivation base afterwards.”
I start ticking the items off on my fingers. “Massive violence, putting out esoteric knowledge as bait, luring you with food, saving you from a lethal ambush, healing from the brink of death, pouring my heart out, and even then, you left me shortly after for an extended period of time. There is no force between the Heavens and the Earth in any multiverse that’s able to make me expand that much effort for all those stupid-ass dragons individually. I made this place to teach a carefully curated group of malleable talents a new way forward. I am not in the business of brainwashing beings that should know better.”
Breathing heavily through my nose, I zoom away from Rhea. She comes after me, but because she is inside my own cultivation base, I simply refuse her. She tries commanding the air around her, but as I have the same affinity now, she just mentally exhausts herself to no avail. Only after tinkering with the ceramic and golden distillery equipment for half an hour do I calm down again. My reunion with Rhea happened two weeks ago, and I have already wasted half the time since on trying to bring the Flight up to speed. The amount of success I have had with that task, despite me really trying, is near zero. I’m starting to think that I’ve been extremely lucky that Rhea is the first dragon I’ve come across, as she is one of the younger ones. All the Flight members older than five thousand years apparently have become totally and completely stuck in their ways. They are barely even willing to learn new information when it’s about a subject that interests them. Some human trying to teach them new stuff is just not something that is even a possibility in their universes.
I’d need to work on them individually, break down their personalities over weeks, probably months of gruelling torture, training, and teaching. Then I’d need to rebuild their shattered psyche into something that is willing to accept something as newfangled and scary as qi. I stop thinking about the relative months I’ve spent trying to come up with efficient training materials for the old lizards. Nothing I tried worked even slightly. Neither hard nor soft tactics managed to do anything. I even tried to isolate them for a while, but the sheer amount of the flying lizards on the north pole made that kind of difficult.
I decide to forget about that massive clusterfuck for now and turn back to making booze. I’m putting together a new recipe - this one with less of those purple glowing mushroom, as I’m not too fond of the earthy aftertaste they add to the liquor - when I hear a wet splash behind me. I stop pouring ingredients in the massive fermentation vessel and turn around.
“No. Here’s another saying for you. I tried leading those stupid horses to water all the ways I can think up. I made them stand under the shower. I tried tossing them into the lake. I even presented the water in a really fancy cup, advertising it as the solution to all their problems, provided they just drink the bloody stuff. Not a single one even took a sip. I can lead the Flight to water, but I can’t make them drink.”
“Then force them!”
“You forced your students.”
“Hell no. I kidnapped them and gave them options. That’s very different from forcing them.”
“You forced the mages.”
“Nope. I just gave them options. The few sorry sods still on their respective islands are proof of that.”
“You forced me!”
Rhea is silently fuming. I can nearly see the steam coming from her ears, but this time there is nothing cute about her outrage. I think about pulling the still frozen dragon corpses for my ring, along with the small stone I've bound their respective soul links to, but decide not to do that. There is a difference between bringing persuasive arguments to the table, and being a massive dick about dead relatives, after all. Then my mind makes a weird connection. “Wait, you told me that not a single dragon has ever died. I’m pretty sure that you’d have died from the attacks of that trio of dragons, outside of Tower City. What’s that about?”
This halts her in her tracks. Even though she is being a dumb and stubborn fool, I can’t help but savour the array of emotions her face goes through. She has been in her human form for months by this time, and where before she had this calculated yet ungainly clumsiness to her movements and expressions, she has learned to control her physical form a lot better. I still manage to read true shock in her microexpression and body language, though.
“Right, so did any of those assigned guardian positions ever return to Flight Mountain?”
“No. A guardian position is for life. There never…”
“Then you wouldn’t have been assigned to the Shi-Eit kingdom, as there already would have been a dragon residing over that area.”
“Yes, but they could have gone to a different area, right? New towns get made all the time.”
“No, they don’t. The last newly established town is the one Rityn is inside, and that’s an offshoot of a much bigger city.”
“So they do-”
“That was more than a couple of thousand years ago. The stagnation caused by the yearly beast hordes, dungeons, and monopoly on magical talents that is present has stagnated this entire world for a long time. Why were you assigned to a guardian position?”
“No, no Flight dies. They just go to sleep in the mountains.”
“Also, this planet is much older than a hundred thousand years. I’ve been finding traces of civilisations older than that. Why did you tell me that dragons first appeared that long ago?”
“Ruins everywhere. Check this.” I point her to a data storage location, and Database tells me that she starts going through the data slowly. “I am more than willing to help you with whatever, but I am not going to force people in any way. This is a slippery slope that will lead to the same situations that I had been avoiding and fighting against in the Cultivation world.”
“Isn’t being a good guy also a slippery slope, though? The way you keep talking about forcing people to do things, you should also never do a single good deed. Because you help someone once, and before you know it, you are giving away everything you have, becoming someone's slave just to help them. Why is slowly slipping towards the side of benevolence not something you fear?
“No, that doesn’t make sense. I take care of myself, so I can be in a better position to help more people. Just slaving away for one person is less effective than being slightly selfish and helping a lot more.”
“Then why don’t you force the Flight in order to help the rest of the world? Or even the rest of the universe? Good and evil isn’t black and white, you keep telling me. Why do you fear going into the field of totalitarian fascism when you let me use the entire Flight as puppets for an entire month?”
“No, other people can do as they wish. It’s not my fault you used them as meat puppets for that long. How come they don’t seem to resent you for that, though? Dragons are rather proud, no?”
Rhea is silent for a while. I shrug my shoulders and turn to the massive ceramic kettle. I throw in another bag of golden grains, some sugar, and a few more of the spicy toxic herbs that have started popping up on this poisonous mudball.
“Your philosophy is rather contradicting, you know? So you aren’t willing to force people in any way, shape, and out of some odd notion that freedom is the paramount right that all sapient beings possess. Yet you are willing to let other sapient beings take away the freedom of each other, because that is what they choose to do with their freedom?”
I stop tossing bundles of herbs into the pot and turn around to glare at Rhea. “Please stop making the mindset and mental framework I’ve bled and fought over sound stupid. You know the tolerant cannot tolerate intolerance, else tolerance will end.”
“We dragons are, as you’ve shown me in great detail, an engineered mess. We’ve also got this inbuilt thing where we need to follow the strongest. I can stay at your side without any nagging from my conscience because I know that you are the strongest here. Or at least, I know that you have the potential to become the strongest. You could beat them up?”
“I’d need to beat them all up individually, right?”
“Yes. That’s how the new All-Dragon is usually chosen.”
“Too much work.”
“But we dragons also tend to stick to our word. We can lie, but it’s hard. And we never break promises.”
I can’t help but raise a single eyebrow at that statement. That is a quality I had not noticed before.
“So, let’s say we get them in a state where they would be more suggestible, would that interfere with their freedom?”
“Just shifting odds around isn’t really taking away choices, I guess?”
Rhea looks at the barrels stacked to the side and the large vat that is slowly being filled. She walks over, takes a cup from her ring and fills it using the gold spigot tapped into the side. Her eyes water the moment the vapours reach her eyes. She takes a single sip, her face flushing immediately. “Alright. Drew, I’ll be needing your entire stock of this stuff. And we’ve got some contracts to formulate.”
Unwilling to believe that Rhea is willing to Shanghai her entire race, I listen to her plan with an open mouth.Previous Chapter Next Chapter