Potential triggers for the entire novel:
Domestic abuse, sexual assault, suicide, nonconsensual sex (main cp).
T97 mentions this is an experimental work. Read @ your own risk.
If any of the above are landmines for you, please stop reading now.
The milk in the kitchen bubbled as it boiled over. Shi Shanyan caught a whiff of burned milk and reached out to turn off the fire and poured away the milk in passing. The rumble of the light rail speeding past overhead drowned out the sound of water. His hair had not been properly tidied. It was as if he had been influenced by Yan Junxun; there was even hair sticking out from the back of his head.
“Is Panda awake?” Shi Shanyan lifted the curtain hanging at the kitchen entrance and said to Yan Junxun, “I miss it.”
“That depends on when Jiang Lian comes.” Yan Junxun was huddled among a pile of books. He did not raise his head. “The little orange dragon has sent him a message.”
“What time will he arrive?” Shi Shanyan said. “Give me an exact time, with your power of prediction.”
Yan Junxun, having read until page fourteen of the comic, said, “Fourteen o’clock.”
Shi Shanyan smiled a little, looking unconvinced. He looked back at the bottom of the burned milk pot and thought for a moment, then stuffed it all together with the cup of water from which he had drunk into the sink.
He would not wash the dishes. All along, he never did.
Yan Junxun could not hear the painful screams of the pots and pans clearly. He was only focused on what was in front of him. But the situation at home was truly too horrendous; even the panda’s tortoise had crawled its way onto the carpet. Yan Junxun put down his comic and moved the books before him away to confront the tortoise.
He did not want to touch the tortoise. The tortoise was wet, and the somewhat hard tactile sensation always reminded him of the large aquatic bugs he had seen.
“Don’t move.” Yan Junxuan reached his hand out, revealing an unbearable expression as he grabbed the tortoise. He sent the tortoise back to its terrarium and heard the fire alarm in the kitchen blaring. As he washed his hands, he said, “Don’t smoke in the kitchen!”
The fire alarm which the panda had meticulously chosen was even smaller than the one in Tingbo District Penitentiary. It had the appearance similar to that of a screeching chicken, and when it sounded the alarm, it would grasp its throat and shriek as though its egg got stuck in the middle of laying. There were still reverberations of the aftershocks from the light rail that had traveled past. Shi Shanyan wanted to silence the fire alarm immediately, but it had already gone out of control in the smoke. Thus, Shi Shanyan chose the most violent method.
By the time Yan Junxun yanked the curtain open, the fire alarm had already turned into scrap. Yan Junxun put down the curtain, then pulled it open again and asked, “Were you like this when you were on missions in the past?”
“I suppose.” Shi Shanyan replied, as if he could not remember it clearly.
“Oh.” Yan Junxun looked at him. “You’ll never get a perfect score in your tests like that.”
“Who the hell cares?” Shi Shanyan propped himself up on the doorframe and said seriously to Yan Junxun, “It’s not like I rely on those questions to snipe and blow others’ heads apart.”
The sofa that Shi Shanyan had slept on had squeezed Yan Junxun’s little bookcases askew, causing them to fall onto the ground and the books in them to slip all over the place. As the kitchen sink was also choked full with pots and pans, both men could only have instant noodles for dinner last night. And the bathtub in the bathroom was so tiny that Shi Shanyan had successfully damaged Yan Junxun’s little yellow ducks when he squeezed into it to play with before he slept. Now they were still floating in the water with their asses sticking up in the air. The state of the entire house from inside to outside suggested that they could not do without the panda.
The doorbell did not ring when Jiang Lian arrived. He knocked for quite a while before the door opened.
“Welcome.” It was as if Shi Shanyan was the owner of this house. “The electricity is back.”
Portable Charger Jiang almost thought he had knocked on the wrong door. He dubiously swept a glance at the door number, looked inside again, and said, “You…”
“Wake Panda up.” Shi Shanyan said. “Right now.”
◈ ◈ ◈
“We’ve decided to use the Inspection Bureau’s principal management system, ‘Jue’, to help Panda fix and patch your system’s vulnerabilities.” Jiang Lian tapped to light up his own screen and enlarged it. “Jue is Guanggui District’s second-generation principal management system’s ‘daughter’. It is in charge of the Inspection Bureau’s case files storage and records. You’ve seen it, before we carried out Operation Mites.”
Jiang Lian was careful in his speech. He tried his best to make himself look less nervous. The demand Yan Junxun placed on systems was different from that of an ordinary person. Jiang Lian specifically chose Jue, whom Yan Junxun had met before, just so Yan Junxun would not be resistant to it.
The data on the light screen flashed past at a rapid pace. Jue’s voice was soft and gentle as it said, “Please rest assured, Mr. Yan. I will not damage your basic settings.”
Yan Junxun did not care. What else was there for him to care about? He only had the basic settings left.
“Once the recovery of the indoor system has been completed, I’d suggest you not to use the ID communicator for the time being.” Jiang Lian sat on the small stool which the panda usually used when it fed the tortoise. “Your serial no. review has yet to be concluded. As long as you turn off the receive setting, Black Panther will take the initiative to help you sort out all those illegal searches on their end.”
Yan Junxun made a sound of acknowledgment.
“Continuing our investigation into On-Time Cleaning, we discovered that they have cooperation agreements with the regional service stations.” Jiang Lian hesitated for a moment, then continued, “There are thirty-six service stations in the entire Tingbo District. They are mainly concentrated in the coke mountain range and steel industrial parks nearby. Many people there do not have proof of residence from Tingbo District, so they can’t find proper jobs; all of them are unemployed, non-native settlers. It will take at least one week to check them one at a time. They are truly a motley crew. But there are many closed down factories in these two places that would use the non-traditional models of enhanced grinders that had gone obsolete in Guanggui District. There’s no need for a master system to guide it, and it can be equipped with a circular cutting saw. We can proceed with the screening based on the previous purchase database. I’ll give Shi Shanyan a temporary communicator to facilitate your communication and contact with the Inspection Bureau. I’ll let you know if there is any progress in the case.”
“Liu Chen has been muted.” Yan Junxun watched as Jiang Lian handed the communicator to Shi Shanyan. “And the real-time news feeds have ceased too, right?”
“Right. Liu Chen is originally a master at swaying public opinion.” Mentioning this matter made Jiang Lian feel utterly exhausted. He said, “Now the focus has completely shifted from the case to you. That serial no. 7-006 is just like an undercover agent, making matters worse.”
“A miracle.” Shi Shanyan asked in wonder as he looked at the comic, “7-006 isn’t dead yet?”
“Nope. He wants me to pass you a message.” Jiang Lian looked depressed. “He said the one who attacked Junxun’s system last night wasn’t him. I don’t know exactly which part of his brain has short-circuited. To think he actually forbade Liu Chen from updating the real-time news feeds. I truly concede defeat. This has caused the anti-Black Panther sentiment in Tingbo District to continue rising to an all-time high. Fu Chenghui has already become the so-called ‘Big Brother’.”
“On some level, the districts under development are indeed in a living environment where ‘Big Brother is watching you’.”1 Shi Shanyan turned the page.” It’s no different from my staying in the incarceration cell. Everyone is living under constant surveillance.”
Systems were much more prevalent in the districts under development, where human living was more dependent on system operations than in places like Tingbo District. The ID communicator was bound to a person’s personal data. Your appearance, fingerprints, blood type, and even individual activities were all recorded in the database. Whether for the Inspection Bureau or Fu Chenghui, the level of support was much higher in the development zones than in the zones pending development. It was also worth mentioning that the Inspection Bureau of the Guanggui District had already incorporated a specialized reconnaissance system named “Athena”, which, its early days, was one of Black Panther’s appraisal systems. Its rate of solving crimes was extremely high.
Jue was, at this moment, still emitting a soft light. It alerted, “The indoor system vulnerability patch is completed. Do you need to activate ‘Panda’?”
“Wake it up.” At the same time Yan Junxun got up, he did not forget to point to Shi Shanyan and said to Jiang Lian, “And take him away.”
◈ ◈ ◈
As Jiang Lian prepared to leave, he said to Yan Junxun again, “What 7-006 means is that your address has already been exposed. If you need a change of place to stay, let me know any time.”
Yan Junxun did not answer this and merely said, “The cessation of Liu Chen’s real-time news feed and the internet buzz will both provoke the murderer. She pays attention to these, and her thinking is easily swayed by public opinion. You’d better make it clear to them that the mysterious profiler of the Inspection Bureau is merely an incompetent person. I can’t catch her.”
“Don’t put it that way, Junxun.” Jiang Lian felt that Yan Junxun was sometimes too modest. “You’ve helped us in the past…”
“This isn’t what I’d call ‘help’.” Yan Junxun interrupted him and tried to soften his tone during the pause. “I can’t guarantee that every word I say is right… Even a legitimate profiler will not be safe from the interference of experience. Observing humans is not like observing systems. Systems have certain rules of execution, while humans can change any time. Everyone is susceptible to influence. The murderer will be like this, as will I. Maybe one day, my answers will all be wrong.”
The sky outside was overcast and gloomy, and the after-rain smell of humidity had yet to disperse.
Yan Junxun heard rain again in his mind and forced himself not to pay it any attention. His gaze moved past Jiang Lian and fell upon Shi Shanyan, who was beside the car. He continued, “If you can’t address the public opinion, then you have to think of a way to tackle the murderer. My exposure is pressing her into action, which will mess up her rhythm and make her abandon some of her steps and principles.”
He fell silent for a long time and said nothing further.
A grinder cannot dismember a corpse. The one in here is put together with a slicing saw. Thanks to a reader for the online explanation.
Thank you for reading.