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The Watcher's Torch
Things had gone well for The Opyulian Mercantile Guild. Very well, as a matter of fact. Although, that wasn’t really surprising. Their species had a truly wondrous business sense and a nose for profitable ventures that outstripped all but the oldest commercial empires and megacorporations. After all, it was that very same sharp wit that allowed them to find me so quickly.
I closed my eyes and checked the time, finding that I still had several minutes before She’kai was going to arrive. I went over my to-do list once more, out of a mix of boredom and anticipation. I’d already sent one of the Gatebuilder clusters to the rendezvous point, and they should have returned by now. I had several of my other selves working on figuring out the still ongoing relief efforts for the Kantari Republic, so I could disregard that particular nuisance_… for now. Research and development was _likewise being handled, and I had nothing new or exciting scheduled to test.
So, I kept going down the list. Done, done, ignorable, infeasible, waste of time… I sighed and rubbed my eyes, pulling my mind away from the list and temporarily cutting my connection to that server to keep myself from going over it again.
“A drink,” I said, out-loud and to nobody in particular, “I could really use a drink…”
For a moment, I considered grabbing a cigar from the box on my desk as well, but decided against it. I already had too much energy as it was, a stimulant was the last thing I needed. I slowly made my way to the kitchen and looked at the bottles lining the walls. I had plenty of mead and wine, but… I wanted something a bit stronger. Opening the freezer, I pulled out a nice, cold bottle of bourbon, and the frost that was already forming on the elaborately shaped glass made me smile.
“I should head to New Kentucky after this,” I said, swishing the bottle and finding it half empty, “Sample what Brewer’s been cooking up.” I smiled, grabbed a glass, and walked to the balcony to enjoy myself while I waited. As I sat down and looked again at the bottle I found it rather hilarious that our alcohol lasted longer than we did, even if a good half of the stock is just further refined into biofuel by the other species.
I shook my head and took a seat, a ping in the back of my mind told me that She’kai’s ship had entered atmosphere as I poured the syrupy amber liquid into the glass. I sighed and smiled, staring at the glass a moment, swirling the thick liquid before taking a long sip and feeling the taste of cold smoke pour down my throat, the burn from the alcohol contrasting nicely with the cold.
By the time I saw She’kai crest the hill, the manic thoughts in my mind had slowed to a tolerable level and a nice haze had settled in over top of that. I set a sub-routine up to keep me exactly at this state and continued to nurse the glass on an empty stomach without worry.
I looked back out to the fields once more to notice that She’kai had wandered into the fields, picking a few bunches of grapes and attempting to jump up and grab a few low hanging pears that were just out of her reach. Chuckling into my glass mid sip, I sent a few drones over to her location to cut free a few of the juicy fruit and place them into her waiting basket.
I stood and waived as she looked towards the house till she saw me and waived back. I sat back down with a sigh as she made her way back to the path and towards me, turning my attention to stare off into the woods, letting my mind wander. There was a chill in the air that reminded me fall was well under way, the leaves on the trees had just begun to change colors and memories of long winter nights around a warm fire with friends and family flitted in and out of my mind. Good memories… Good to have… Good to hold on to even now after so long.
I turned to the sound of a clearing throat bringing me out of my nostalgia to see that She-kai, and her basket of fresh fruit, was standing before me. “Madam She’kai,” I said with a smile and a nod, “It’s good to see you again.” I really did mean that last part too, ever since our first meeting six months ago, she’d dropped by at least once every month to ask questions on behalf of the Opyulian Mercantile Guild, giving me plenty of good reasons to disconnect from my greater self.
“It’s good to see you as well Watcher,” she said, taking the seat across from myself, “You look… tired.”
I raised an eyebrow at that, making her shift uncomfortably for only a moment before I laughed and shook my head. “I suppose I do, after all, it has been about a hundred years since I last took a nap.”
It was her turn to laugh as I smiled into another sip of bourbon. “Well, with all due respect I think you could use a vacation,” she said, a bit of hesitation in her voice signaling that she still thought it possible to offend me.
“I happen to agree with you,” I said with a tired smile, making her blink in surprise, “Our talks have offered me a nice… change of pace. Reminded me how nice it is to feel small sometimes.”
“Well in that case, I won’t apologize for how frequent our meetings have been,” she said, giving her best approximation of a smile.
“Good,” I said, smiling back broadly, “Speaking of meetings, to what do I owe this one?”
“A few more questions as is normal for these meetings,” she began, setting the basket of fruit onto the table and offering me a pear which I took, “But these aren’t from The Guild, they’re things I’ve wanted to know for a while now.”
I raised an eyebrow at that, it wasn’t often that a species decided to have so many meetings with me but the Opyulians weren’t a typical case to begin with so it wasn’t all that surprising. But, I could count on one hand how many times someone has come to me purely to satisfy their own personal curiosity. It made me broadly remembering those times. “Alright then,” I said, taking a bite of the pear and adjusting my seat in the chair to get more comfortable, “Ask away!”
She hesitated for a moment, her beak opening and closing as though she were trying to figure out [write your name here]which question to ask first. “What planet is this?” she asked, making my smile broaden even further.
Most species make the mistake of thinking that this planet was Terra, forgetting the fact that the invaders detonated Sol out of spite. “Good question,” I said, making her blink in confusion, “This system is a replica of Sol, Luna, and Terra. I call the system ‘Toy Chest’ and while the planet is formally named ‘Nova Terra’ I call it ‘Sandbox.’”
She was silent for a long moment, no doubt contemplating something before she asked her next question. “Why?”
I grimaced at that. How I loathed that damn question… Why did everyone think that they could boil everything they wanted to ask down to a single word. No insight behind simply asking why… the worst part was that she had just asked such a wonderful question previously. Asking what system this is showed that she had either done a good bit of research or had a good bit of insight.
I sighed and took another sip of bourbon. “Why what?” I asked bluntly, letting a bit of disappointment slip into my voice.
“I’m sorry?” She’kai asked, the look on her face telling me that she was trying to puzzle out what she had done wrong. “Did I strike a nerve?”
I laughed at that. “No, no you did nothing wrong per se, just… what did you really want to ask me?”
She squirmed uncomfortably for a moment. “I… I wanted to know why you created this system?” she said while looking like a chastised hatchling.
I raised an eyebrow incredulously. “Really? The names ‘Toy Chest’ and ‘Sandbox’ weren’t enough of an indication for you?” I asked with a smirk, making her feathers puff out in embarrassment. “I know you’re smart enough to pick up on that.”
She sighed and smoothed down her feathers. “I just… didn’t want to offend you…”
“And I keep telling you that its not possible to offend me!” I said with a laugh, taking another sip of bourbon, “Shoot your shot, you came here to ask questions didn’t you?”
“Fine,” she began, a little annoyed at my antics, “Why do you still care about humanity?”
I smiled broader than I had in a long, long time. “Now that is a question!” I said, setting down my bourbon, “But before I give you an answer I have to know. What makes you think I still care about humanity?”
“Really now?” She said, her voice as incredulous as my earlier eyebrow, “It’s obvious that you care about humanity still because you decided to spend the resources to recreate their home star and home world. You also created all this,” she said, opening her wings and motioning all around us, “A home built for a human that you obviously do not need. It isn’t as if the rest of the galaxy cares either… okay maybe the Xznobians still care… maybe but the rest of the galaxy has only remembered your sacrifice. The only places I’ve found human culture still thriving is in backwater bars, historical sites and museums, and the odd ‘cult classic’ movie forum. So why would you keep this little slice of humanity alive here if you don’t care? You could easily just embrace your nature as an AI and live in a processor somewhere right?”
I clapped my hands honestly impressed, I knew she had it in her… but it was still oh so satisfying to see the fruits of her mental labors, especially when said fruits were so insightful. “Do you know why a human was chosen for the watcher program? I mean, part of it was the sacrifice yes, but do you know the whole story?”
She blinked and thought a moment. “No… no I don’t believe I do.”
“Well get comfortable, because it’s a good one.” I said, leaning back in my chair and waiting a moment as she adjusted herself. “First, how much do you know about ‘the sacrifice’, or ‘the last stand’, or whatever it’s being called these days?”
“I know what is being taught in schools, what I’ve read in museum exhibits. Humanity had resisted the invaders better than any species so far, and—seemingly out of spite—the invaders purged human worlds clean down to the atom. Every human colony, starport, trading vessel, was destroyed with extreme prejudice. Eventually, the last humans alive were the ones in their war-fleet. They’d been fighting the invaders for so long that they knew how to avoid being destroyed. The last million or so humans, in the last thousand or so warships made a final stand that bought just enough time for the rest of the galaxy to muster their forces and push the invaders out.”
“Ah,” I said, mulling over the information she told me, “So that’s what they’re teaching nowadays. I suppose it has been a thousand years and it does make for a wonderful story.”
“That’s… not what happened?”
“Well… it’s close enough to the truth I guess. Just a better story,” I said, making She’kai seem to deflate a bit.
“Well what really happened then?” she asked.
I scratched my jaw for a moment. “Well… It was definately spite that the invaders hunted us so mercilessly but, not for the reason you think and not only because of spite. And it wasn’t a warfleet… well not only a warfleet, but an arkfleet and its escort. Now for the big one, the thing that—for some reason—the Concord doesn’t want the galaxy to know: even if the entire galaxy united and met the invaders in full force as they were spotted at the edge of the galaxy we still would have lost. The technology gap between us and the invaders was just too large an obstacle. It wasn’t till after humanity’s last stand that even a single enemy ship was destroyed.”
Silence reigned for a long moment as She’kai waited for me to continue, but when she realized I was waiting for something she spoke. “If what you say is true than how did we beat them?”
“Humanity stole one of their ships,” I said, a broad, devious smile plastered across my face.
She’kai was silent for a long moment, a shocked expression on her face. “So that’s why…” she said, making me nod. “That’s why they hunted you down so ruthlessly. They wanted no, hey needed to make sure that you could never have a chance to reverse engineer their technology…” she said, making me nod again. “How did you manage to do it?”
“We used a trick that would only work once,” I said, leaning back and smiling evilly, “You see, we knew we had no chance of beating them. Hell, the only reason we held out for so long was the fact that they wanted our worlds intact at first, and we’d been digging in to them for hundreds of years. We couldn’t get close to them on the ground, their snipers were better, their armor was nigh invincible, and they could see right through our stealth systems.” I said, taking a long sip of bourbon.
“The first kills we got were from nuclear and antimatter warheads. They must’ve thought no species was insane or desperate enough to use those kinds of weapons on their own worlds… Or at least not so early on into their campaign anyway, because they shut that shit down real fast. They had some sort of system that just… disappeared the warheads before they had a chance to detonate. So… after that we fought pure guerrilla warfare, the only goal was to slow them down and harass them as much as possible” I said, chuckling quietly.
“We learned quickly that if we managed to steal any of their tech on the ground then they would just gray-goo the planet and move on, they didn’t take any chances on the ground where they were the most vulnerable. We still killed them after that, but we made damn sure they knew we didn’t take anything. But I digress, all of that is just to illustrate the fact that we knew, painfully well, that we could, not, beat them… And they knew that we knew that we couldn’t beat them… And that…” I said, nodding my head with a smile, “that made them arrogant.
“We were ‘fighting’ them for longer than most species. Not very long, but still long enough to learn just a bit about how their shields worked. Not enough to reproduce them, but… we figured out how to draw a bit of energy from them. Just enough energy to force about 200 kilograms of mass into hyperspace for about half a second. And let's just say that said 200 kilograms was a fully armed and armored marine…
“Did you know that you can’t actually exit hyperspace if you would end up in the same space as other matter? You just… stay in hyperspace until your mass is no longer intersecting something.” I said, smiling deviously as realization dawned on She’kai as to what we did.
“We were very, very lucky that the invaders didn’t bother activating their point defense till after this incident. Long story that I don’t know all the details about short, the invaders were not equipped to handle 10,000 pissed off marines. By the time they realized what happened, we’d ripped out that ship’s transponder and delivered it to the concord headquarters. But… there was one… little problem…”
“You knew the invaders would stop at nothing to get that ship back…” She’kai said, a solemn look on her avian face. “So you took that transponder… and used it as bait.”
I nodded, exhaling through my nose a breath that I hadn’t realized I was holding. “There was only one ship that humanity had that could have even theoretically housed the stolen invader ship.”
“The arkship…” She’kai said, swallowing dryly.
“Yep… We filled it up with as many able bodied sailors as we could and prayed that we’d be able to outrun the invader fleet long enough to let Concord scientists reverse engineer the invaders’ tech…” I said, taking a deep breath and sighing before continuing on, “We still don’t know why they didn’t use whatever drive system let them cross the galactic void to catch up to us. Who knows, maybe they were generation ships that crossed the void on normal FTL. They used hyperspace engines, which would make sense if that were the case, more energy efficient than Alcubierre drives if slower. Although, their hyperspace drives were powerful, 2000 c at least. These days, that’s a low end Alcubierre drive or a high-spec hyperspace engine. But back then, you had to have a massive reactor and a state of the art Alcubierre drive to get that kind of speed…
“Luckily for humanity, that’s exactly what the arkship had,” I said, smiling broadly and making She’kai tweet in an avian giggle, “We just barely managed to keep ahead of them, but we had to stop every now and then for fuel and supplies so they were slowly gaining on our position, and we slowed down as we picked up more and more refugees from the locations we stopped at. The invaders were extremely thorough in scouring all life from every station and planet in every system that we passed through so we took as many people as we could with us.
“They even split off portions of their fleet to block our path to the rest of the galaxy and destroy any location even remotely capable of putting together a starship and were prodigiously blocking out all FTL communications. We were alone, cut off from escape, slowly being backed into a corner, and leaving a trail of dead and broken systems in our wake.
“They’re nanomachines were… tenacious. Even today much of humanity’s old territory remains in quarantine due to there still being active gray-worlds. All that fleet could do was apologize to every world they stopped at, and take and take as many people and ships as they could before the invaders brushed aside the rest. Billions upon billions dead with each system we left in our wake… and all we could do was say sorry…
“Eventually,” I said after a moment's pause, realizing that I didn’t want to go into more detail about the hell I witnessed in that fleet, “We received word from the Concord after they somehow broke through the Invader’s signal jammer network. They’d done it, they’d successfully reverse engineered enough of the Invader’s war tech and retrofitted enough ships to be confident that they could turn the tide of the war. They told us that they were coming, and that we just needed to hold out for a bit longer.”
I took a deep breath as She’kai’s face dropped in horror as she realized what the final battle really was. “But, we were caught about four hours before the Concord warfleet arrived,” I said, forcing myself to smile despite the grim atmosphere, “In spite of what we knew that meant for us, we were in… relatively good spirits. After all, we did it, we managed to buy enough time for the rest of the galaxy to close the gap enough to win… I still remember the speech that the admiral gave.
“He broadcast fleet wide, a smile on his face: ‘Ladies and gentlemen of Arkfleet Shellgame, we received word not long ago that we have succeeded in our mission. We have cut a bloody line through our own territory, costing many families their homes… and many, many more their lives. But! The combined forces of every remaining species in this galaxy, armed and armored with the enemies own technology, is on its way to crush the invader’s advance and push them back out into the galactic void!
“‘However, and as much as it pains me to say this, the fleet will not arrive in time to save us. We are pinned in on all sides and the invaders will be upon us within the hour. Know that we face certain death in this upcoming battle, we have fought with the invaders enough to know that we have no hope of anything else. But we do still have hope, and we have pride. Hope that the Concord can keep its word and make our sacrifice worth while, that they can push the invaders out, that they can ensure no other species has to suffer as we have. And pride in the fact that humanity was the species that first drew blood from the invaders, and it was by no means a simple scratch. We drove a stake through their armor, a stake for the rest of the galaxy to hammer till it hits home!
“‘The invaders will surely exact a bloody toll upon us when they realize what we have done to them, I can only fear what is in store for the humans caught in the path of the Invader’s shameful retreat. But humanity will survive this! To all surviving humans who hear these words, know that we pass the torch on to you!’ he said, and at that point the admiral pulled out a flag that you might recognize,” I said, holding out my hand and forming a hologram of a golden torch on a black background, with the Milky Way instead of a fire.
“I recognize it,” she said, a solemn smile on her face, “Even now, that flag hangs above all others… Even on other species' homeworlds. A constant reminder that the torch has been passed to us, that we must accept its burden in humanity’s place…”
I nodded and sighed, “From there, you know more or less what happened. Arkfleet Shellgame was destroyed, I was found dying in an escape pod… I was the only survivor out of three billion… my body was put into cold storage, and my brainscans were making their way up the chain of command. The invaders glassed, grey-gooed, or—in Earth’s case—supernova’d as much of human territory as they could. They were powerful and they destroyed ten ships for every one they lost, but they were facing the industrial might of an entire third of the galaxy. They just didn’t have the infrastructure to replace any losses.
“By the time they were pushed out of the galaxy, there were only two million humans left… down from nearly four-hundred billion.” I said and the silence that followed those numbers lasted what felt like an eternity.
“But… humans are extinct,” She’kai said, making me chuckle and nod.
“A very astute observation Representative She’kai,” I said, making her narrow her eyes tersely at me. “It was ten years after the invaders were defeated that we learned the true depths of spite that those creatures could reach. In that time, humans had become celebrities. Everyone wanted to thank them for the sacrifice their species made to save the galaxy. More than a few of them let it go to their heads, but most of them to at least appear humble in public…
“Then one day… the galaxy woke up, turned around, or blinked and the humans were all dead, torn apart molecule by molecule by invader nanomachines. My body was the only one to survive destruction because it was placed into a sealed glass monument in the remains of Arkfleet Shellgame.”
“But… Why did the Concord lie? Why did they say that humanity died entirely in their last stand?” She’kai asked, a bewildered and frankly scared look on her face.
“Because an entire generation was panicking. The entire galaxy stopped all trade immediately, everyone was wondering which species would be next on the chopping block, when the nanites would come for them or their neighbors… It was part of the reason that I was created. To ensure something like that could never happen again. Luckily, the invaders only targeted humans. They shot a pellet of nanites disguised as a railgun round into a ship after its shields failed and allowed it to retreat. One final act of spite…” I said, leaning back into my chair and rubbing my eyes.
“They thought that it would cause less panic if they taught their children that humanity died in a glorious last stand, then have them constantly paranoid of death by invisible nanomachines. Even after they developed countermeasures against such a thing. It just took too long, by that point everyone had already been brought up believing that humanity died in a glorious last stand… At some point, the story twisted even more to better suit the propaganda, mostly for new species than the ones that survived the invasion…”
“There’s one more thing that the admiral said,” I said, after another long silence, “And it just so happens to be the answer to your question. He said—after hoisting up the flag—‘So long as a single one of us remains, we will protect this galaxy and its people. We will be the shield against that which would see this galaxy’s light snuffed out under its boot. We will carry this torch till the last!’
“You asked me why I still care about being human, and there you have it. You say that those Torchbearer Flags are for all of you, and you’re not wrong… but they’re mostly there for my sake. A constant reminder wherever I go, that I am the last one. The last human, the final inheritor of that torch.”
I smiled broadly, setting down my glass and standing up. I walked over to the balcony behind me and leaned my arms against the railing, feeling the warmth from the sun and the nice cool breeze on my skin and in my hair. “And I couldn’t be happier.”
Although if I get enough support for it, I’ll release a final story about the watcher taking action. That being said, if you guys personally have any questions about The Watcher or this universe leave a comment and I’ll be sure to answer any of them as best I can.
Either way, thank you all for reading!
Iron Prince (Warforged: Stormweaver Book 1) Review
TLDR: Overall I liked it a lot, good characters, interesting mechanics, interesting setting. It's only one book, but it's a really long one, longer than the first three Cradle books put together. The story isn't even close to over, but it doesn't end on a cliffhanger either. On the other hand the setting makes some of the tropes (like the scorned MC whose obvious value is unappreciated) seem out of place, I also think that taking some more space for world building to flesh out the setting a bit more would have been beneficial.
Now on to my incredibly long and rambling long version of that review. I mostly stick to "back of the book core concepts", but there is definitely some spoilery stuff too. Note again that I'm harder on the book than I mean to be. I definitely have the habit of nitpicking at all of the fridge logic that doesn't really stand up to scrutiny, but is pretty reasonable at getting you to mostly suspend your disbelief in the moment. I liked the book, which is why I am writing about it, but as I started writing about it all of my thoughts came spilling out.
In the far future humanity has spread to several star systems, as semi-intelligent alien robots stand in the way of humans continuing to grab more territory. Tech stolen from them is used to create combat suits (CADs) that bond with their users and improve over time, across those F through S tiers in discrete attributes that we all know and love. These Users use their phenomenal power to punch each other in the face on the TV for fame and fortune... unless they don't quite make the cut and instead must go defend humanity against the alien menace on the front lines with the other B and C listers... which is justified reasonably well.
Our main character (Rei) is a scrappy underdog who's incredibly, amazingly miserable childhood has given him an iron will and insane work ethic. He's also a genius. Unfortunately his crippled body has set him up for failure because in this universe where iron will, insane work ethic, and genius intellect are worth their weight in unobtanium, and physical weaknesses are trivially solved with fantastic technology and an insane work ethic... almost everyone judges each other immediately almost entirely based on physical strength?
Ok, I'm being super snarky here, and I'll probably continue that, but I want to reaffirm here that I really did like the book. These are the tropes of the genre, they're more than a little goofy, but they are implemented well and occasionally being reminded of their eye-rollyness is part of the fun. That said I think that this setting shows the rough edges of these tropes more than some other settings. For example Cradle's initial setting of an ignorant cluster of superstitious dummies explains away a lot of poor decisions by background characters in a way that is missing here.
We'll circle back to some of the specific weaknesses in a bit, for now on with the plot synopsis. After a bit of background and character building the Main character and first sidekick qualify for their mech suits, get into the Academy they want, and head off to college. There we get a bit more world-building and classroom scenes, lots of progression, stats, fighting, and tactical thinking. The school setting also brings in friendly students and schoolyard bullies, friendly and mean teachers, as well as those that are wondering whether the MC's phenomenally powerful ubersuit will put him in a savior or villain role. Like I said before a Progression story like Cradle, but rather than a sort of Hero's Journey travel through the world it's set on the University scaffolding that kind of evokes Harry Potter or Ender's Shadow (I chose Ender's Shadow rather than Ender's Game because I think that Bean's book has more school antagonists, and is also a little lighter on "MC is the savior" elements, because he's only the backup savior. In Iron Prince the savior elements are also kind of light because humanity doesn't seem to actually be threatened? The portrayal of how threatening the Archons are portrayed as is more than a bit inconsistent.)
So, about this powerful Ubersuit that the MC has. CADs go from F0 all the way to S in their individual stats. When someone initially gets a CAD hopefully they'll be at least in the high Es, being in the low D's means you have an actual shot of getting into the really good Academies. Being in the high D's means you are right around the best of the 18 year olds. After you graduate hopefully you'll be in the decent Bs (this part I'm more guessing on because while they talk a lot about initial specs in general the talk about later specs is all specifically in the context of the elite Academy they are a part of) but if you want to be elite enough to play sports all day instead of dying on the front-line you'll need to be very high-B or low A. You increase by putting in tons of hard work, but the effectiveness of this is governed by your Growth Stat. A Normal person's Growth stat will start at that normal E to D range and pretty much stay there for their entire career, while all their other stats go up to (hopefully) Bs, As, or even S.
Rei's stats start out nearly across the board at the completely laughable F0. His Growth stat is S. This sets him up for pretty much exactly the sort of progression that you would expect.
One of the things that this book does well is having characters on a pretty diverse spectrum of inherent reasonableness and especially the amount of information they actually have on Rei. For example, prior to getting his suit he was judged by his physical fitness because physical fitness is implied to be hugely necessary in getting a good CAD bind. There are only so many of these CADs made every year, and people that are not the MC don't have the ability to attain infinite cosmic power regardless of initial starting strength, so wanting people to be in peak physical condition makes sense. Rei's CAD specifically is the result of a nebulous and unexplained "experiment".
After Rei gets his CAD the Growth S is very secret, so people that don't know about it largely have understandable and reasonable reactions to Rei. They are under the impression that the CAD was wasted on a bad choice leading to a permanently weak and worthless soldier. When he also gets into a prestigious school many students assume that in addition to that he is taking up an even more precious Academy slot for some sort of political reason (the older students that know the Academy better figure something is up, but at this school older students appear to have basically zero interaction with freshmen in any way whatsoever, so that doesn't matter). The issue is that some of the people in the know are very stupid with this information.
Probably the most obvious example of this is an early scene where the Admissions Board is meeting to decide whether Rei should get admitted. First-off because of very bad filtering Future Ubersoldier of Obvious Unlimited Potential is almost lost entirely, but luckily the most intelligent adult in the setting spotted his application in time. She shows it to the board, so they all know that Rei has an S growth stat. A couple of the board members argue valiantly that they can't spare a slot for the obvious chosen one, and that it would be much better if they used all their slots on people that would not be infinitely powerful within five years. Are they secret robot aliens trying to sabotage the human war effort? No... they actually just appear to be dumb.
Once he's at school there are a couple conversations about how he's dragging down the rest of the class, when that's just verifiably incorrect? Like, it could be true, you could imagine group fighting scenarios where you are graded on wins and losses, so a bad team mate hurts your grade... But the really important metrics that the students care about just aren't like that. Later on in the school year there are events like that, but you either need to qualify or be picked by the team leader, so if he's bad it won't matter. Also, who cares? He's a freshman? "Fuck you Einstein, who I know is going to be be a humanity changing intellect in five years, your presence is causing your classmates in Geometry to drop half a grade point so we've got to kick you out". Later on this transitions more to a "I'm actually terrified of this guy because if he goes evil in five years he'll probably be able to rule all of humanity single-handedly" but the fact that any of the people that knew about his stats were ever in the "he is a waste of space" category is more than a little weird.
That "fearing the tyrant" motivation doesn't really appear to hold water at this point either. The experiment that created Rei's suit is not explained as some sort of non-replicable "a bolt of lightning hit our suit factory during a gamma ray meteor shower and your suit is the result". He was specifically told that he was going to be one of many of the sorts of experiments that are done all the time to improve all CADs generally. Maybe it will turn out to not be replicable, who knows, but we have nothing to indicate that. (It's unclear exactly what this experiment was, it seems to be represented as "is crummy starting stats with great Growth better than good starting stats with good growth", but um... yes infinite power is better than non-infinite power? If the experiment was "hey does this lead to an S Growth stat" then apparently it does!) Even if that can't be applied to existing CADs certainly subsequent CADs should be able to build off of this to have much better growth. It doesn't seem like people should be worried about Rei going space Tyrant on them, because next year they should have at least a couple more handfuls of new ubersuits. They should be upset about a future in which 4-5 years from now all of the new soldiers just completely obsolete them in every way.
Except... why is that a bad thing? This is part of what I meant earlier about how inconsistent the alien threat is, but it's inconsistent in what appears to be a rationale way. They are absolutely threats on the battlefield, and they kill soldiers etc, etc, but the decisions made on and off screen do not appear to consider them a strategic threat whatsoever. I think (and hope, because I don't think any other scenario would fit what has been shown) that these robots are almost entirely defensive. It seems like the Archons only want to defend their territory and attempt to retake what humans have recently expanded to, and if humans just stopped expanding the war would pretty much immediately stop. That explains why people that went to the front lines and were exposed to the fighting care a lot about it, but the general bureaucracy of both the military and especially society in general doesn't really prioritize fighting the robots, or care a huge amount about the soldiers that are sent to die in that fight, when they could instead watch the cooler soldiers play gladiator games on tv.
The biggest actual mistake in how fear of the aliens are portrayed is actually the students themselves. As mentioned, for reasons (revenue and research based) the top 20% or so of CAD soldiers live a life of fame and luxury as competitive athletes. The bottom 80% of the CAD soldiers are sent to the front-lines to be murdered by Space Robots (I am overstating the fatality rate on the front lines, I think, it's not really clear) so that humanity can build more space condos. The students know this, this is literally exactly what they signed up for. However the MC and his pals are repeatedly praised by their teachers for being practically the only students to use their mostly free afternoons and evenings to get an extra three hours of training by themselves done every day.
For the middle 80% of the book Rei doesn't display an unbelievable work ethic, he displays a barely acceptable one... which is still better than anyone else.
What? Why? In Cradle Lindon is surrounded by dedicated people that are incredibly talented and throw themselves into their training, but his will and drive goes to another level (and also his Iron body helps him train more too). In Iron Prince all of Rei's peers volunteered for a career that has an 80% chance of leading to fighting super high tech space robots because they wanted to be in the 20%... and the way they get into the 20% is to practice the awesome magic-tech fighting sport that they love, and playing this sport makes even them stronger and better far more than any normal human in a neat and addictive progression system, and they just can't be bothered? Why is the school letting them sabotage themselves like this? Even if it was such dystopian setting that the military didn't care about the death rate of the 80%, wouldn't the military still want the 80% that didn't make the cut to be stronger?
My actual concern with the story is, ironically, the MC's growth levels. I worry that it's too fast. In the context of number of words the pacing has felt pretty good, like I said, this book is longer than the first three Cradle books, so from that perspective we'd expect the MC to be a lot stronger and holding his own. In Universe, however, I don't think it's even been six months (two months of that a summer that was basically skipped), and at the end of the book he has caught up to the people at the top of his class. There are a lot of ways this can go, and there is probably a decent plan that makes sense, but it seems distinctly possible that this growth arc is going to get away from the writers. I'm worried that either his growth is going to drammatically slow for no reason, his peers are going to drammatically match him for poorly explained reasons, or it's just going to go off the rails. The whole second half of the book was hyping up a tournament that is probably going to be a lot of the second book, and I was expecting him to just barely slip as one of the weakest, but instead he's already one of the strongest. It's not like there is nowhere to go from there, there are the the main professional circuits, the actual interstellar war... I guess it depends on how they handle his relationships with his peers. The thing that seems like it would make the most sense is to graduate him early and send him away from his friends, but I guess we'll see.