Time-Limited Hunt – Chapter 29 : Steel Bullet

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.

In the year 2147, at the age of twenty, Chen Xiulian was already working in a factory. There were four children in her family then, and her older brother wanted to further his studies, so her dear mother sent her to work in the factory, where she worked for two years. She was very popular, as she was pretty and efficient in her work, but because of her tall height, she had never been able to find a marriage partner. 

Chen Xiulian’s mother brought her to matchmaking sessions everywhere. She went for a few sessions, looking much like freshly farmed vegetables as she sat on her chair for others to pick and choose. Chen Xiulian did not want to suffer such aggrievement as she felt that she was skilled in a craft and could endure hardships, so she stopped attending. Her mother, driven to a state of anxiety, tried to pull and drag her into going, but she refused to cooperate. 

It was in this year that the factory recruited a batch of new workers. Among these young men was a good-looking lad called He Zhiguo, who loved to play and horse around. Someone acted as a go-between and enabled Chen Xiulian and He Zhiguo to get to know each other during a dinner party. Chen Xiulian initially had a good impression of He Zhiguo. She was shy by nature and often blushed when talking to others. Not only could He Zhiguo liven up the atmosphere, he also took care of her. Over the course of several encounters, both of them came to be well-acquainted with one another. Whenever Chen Xiulian worked overtime, He Zhiguo would accompany her and work overtime too. When Chen Xiulian fell ill, He Zhiguo would show great concern for her well-being. 

But for some reason, He Zhiguo never formally confirmed to be in a relationship with her. When others asked him, he would just let out a silly smile without refuting. Chen Xiulian thought it was because they had not known each other for long and did not know each other well, so perhaps she had to wait for a little more. Half a year later, He Zhiguo invited them for a meal in celebration of his birthday. Chen Xiulian drank quite a lot at the dining table. When the party broke up, Chen Xiulian wanted to head back with her female companion, but He Zhiguo said there was no need to as he wasn’t drunk and could send Chen Xiulian home. In the end, he had her sent to his own house. 

Chen Xiulian would never forget the fragmented memories of that night. She wanted to go home, but He Zhiguo said no. She was so drunk that she could barely stand or pull the door open. He Zhiguo half-hugged and half-dragged her from behind. She kept repeating, “I want to go home”. At first, He Zhiguo would still utter some noises of acknowledgment, but he later simply ignored her words altogether. He dragged Chen Xiulian into the room and threw her on the bed. When Chen Xiulian thought back to it later, this was where her memory began to break up, turning from images into pure, unadulterated pain. All that remained in her eyes was that lamp in the house He Zhiguo rented. 

There was still a dead fly on top of the swinging light. 

Chen Xiulian felt sick to her stomach; she could not stand it and retch aloud amidst the struggles and beatings. She would later go on to dream of that dead fly countless times, as if it was this same fly that had crawled over her body. She passed out and woke up again. The booze was gone. All that was left was pain. 

From that night on, Chen Xiulian began to know just how long and endless the night was. She thought it was all over when the day broke, but it finally dawned on her a very long time later that it was just the beginning. 

Chen Xiulian huddled in the corner of the bed and said to He Zhiguo, “I’m calling the police.” 

He Zhiguo tossed the papers on the ground and answered, “Are you crazy? We are a dating couple, and we are both willing parties. No crime was committed.”

Chen Xiulian did not believe him. She went to the inspection division in the village with her bruises and said, I was raped; I want to sue He Zhiguo. The members of the inspection division were all acquaintances, and one of them turned his head to look at her and said, who are you suing? Both of you have been dating since a long time back. Chen Xiulian retorted, we are not dating, but no one paid her any heed. She sat in the inspection division from morning to night until He Zhiguo came looking for her. He tugged her hands and said, why are you still throwing a tantrum? Her mother came to look for her too. She held her hands and said, go home, pick your quarrel with him back at home. 

Chen Xiulian thought it was indeed a small world. In one night, everyone was pulling at her hands. They said they could understand. They said that’s the way things are. They said if you weren’t willing then why did you leave with He Zhiguo? If you weren’t willing, why would you go and celebrate He Zhiguo’s birthday with him? If you weren’t willing, why didn’t you resist?

Why didn’t you resist?

Why the fuck didn’t you resist? 

Chen Xiulian wanted to scream. She wanted to shout at the top of her voice, to go hysterical and make a scene. She wanted to tear open these similar faces and see if they were human or ghost underneath. But she could not do anything, except to pull her hand out to point at He Zhiguo and repeated, I want to sue him for rape.   

He Zhiguo kneeled before Chen Xiulian, as if she had just made a declaration of love that moved him to tears. He even wanted to marry her. Her mother held Chen Xiulian’s hand again and lamented, this daughter of mine is just stubborn; the couple often bicker.

Chen Xiulian finally burst out crying. What made her sad was that she had lived all of twenty years only to realize that she had learned a different kind of language altogether—a language no one could understand. She instantly became an alien species cast away into the crevices under her feet. No one was of the same kind as she was. 

Her mother took her home. He Zhiguo followed them into the house and said I want to marry Xiulian. He spoke to Chen Xiulian’s mother with great sincerity and even threw in his own stores, saying that they would all be under Xiulian’s charge in the future. Both of them, mutually moved by the other, clicked right away, as if this was a business transaction and Chen Xiulian was the object being weighed up in this deal. 

Chen Xiulian gradually came to find herself weird in this farce. She was really too weird. He Zhiguo was the boyfriend who had never explicitly asked to be in a relationship with her. The one who pinned her down that night was a fly. She leaned on the window back at home, watching the sun rise and fall. She could not sleep at night. Each time she closed her eyes, she would rebut herself. The rebuttal was too painful, so she could only force herself to keep her eyes wide open and told herself to accept the script Heaven gave her. 

In the winter of the year 2147, at the age of twenty, Chen Xiulian married He Zhiguo. She slept on the bed in her dreams and saw that familiar lamp, as well as the fly she could not banish from her mind. He Zhiguo could use her. Her body did not belong to her. Her eyes, her mouth, her mind—they all did not belong to her.   

Chen Xiulian had a question that had been on her mind for decades. What exactly was she? Was she a human being? No one showed her any respect though. He Zhiguo went drinking with others and boasted of his own great achievements after getting drunk. Look at how confident he was, speaking of his wife like a trophy badge, and even finding his wife not pretty enough. 

When He Zhiguo hit Chen Xiulian, he was teaching her a proper lesson. After all, spare the rod and spoil the wife, right? He thought himself mighty, comparable to the heroes of the war between the north and south, who made outstanding contributions behind the scenes to the Northern Front Alliance in regards to familial stability. A pity no one commended him, so he bragged about it on the internet. He saw himself as an intellectual who could bring on the cheers and applause of countless buddies with just a few words. 

After the war, Tingbo District faced an economic downturn, and a large number of steel factories closed down. He Zhiguo’s small workshop closed down too. His volatile moods became more and more pronounced to the point he was oversensitive and paranoid. At that time, Chen Xiulian had Qinqin, and mother and daughter slept downstairs. One day, she woke up in the middle of the night. The moment she turned her head, she saw He Zhiguo sitting by the door with his head peeking out as he stared at her. 

Chen Xiulian felt that He Zhiguo was sick in the head. She did not want He Zhiguo to go near Qinqin, so she sat by Qinqin’s bedside all night. She worked during the day to support and raise Qinqin; she was willing to do anything. Qinqin was, on her part, a sensible child too. Every day after school, Qinqin would bend over the table in the canteen to do her homework while she waited for Chen Xiulian to get off work. Chen Xiulian finally felt normal again. Qinqin was her tether to the world. Chen Xiulian hid away her money, saving up a dollar at a time, in the hopes of sending Qinqin to school. She wanted to take Qinqin away. They could go anywhere, as long as it was mother and daughter both. 

But with one drink-driving incident, He Zhiguo shattered Chen Xiulian’s dream to pieces.

◈     ◈     ◈

It began to rain when it was almost dawn. Raindrops pelted urgently on the tin canopy outside the small window. The noise woke Liu Chen up. His cheek was pressing against the ground, and the musty smell of the basement overwhelmed him. A few dogs were barking. Liu Chen heard the door open. 

“Get up.” Chen Xiulian turned on the light and squatted down to slap Liu Chen on the face. 

Liu Chen had a splitting headache after staying for the entire night in the damp basement. He shivered involuntarily when he was patted and restrained his urge to dodge for fear of triggering Chen Xiulian. He answered in a hoarse voice, “I, I’m awake.”   

Chen Xiulian held a wooden stick used for picking up stuff, poke it out of the window to the canopy made of tin sheet, and pulled it over to cover the window. 

The sound of the rain turned dull, like that of hot oil covered with a pot lid., and Liu Chen was the meat in the oil. Liu Chen’s glasses had fallen off to god-knows-where, and when he looked at the walls, they were all blurry. He turned his eyes. His throat was burning—the result of all those shoutings last night.    

“I thought about it all night.” Chen Xiulian put down the wooden stick, picked up the rice bowl, and said as she ate, “You had good intentions initially, right? Those stuff that you reported, I found them pretty good. It’s just that some of the words…” She deliberated over the words, “… sounds like He Zhiguo.”   

Liu Chen was dazed by the blow last night, and his back was presently burning with pain. He turned his eyes, but all he could see were Chen Xiulian’s shoes. 

Chen Xiulian was wearing her own shoes today; she was still planning to go to work later. She ate fast. Her bowl was full of meat. These meats were all piled up in a heap in the refrigerator; it would go bad if left uneaten. She said, “You have the literary talent. I thought of calling you before. Is the number you put on your homepage real?” 

Liu Chen homed in on the keywords. His parched lips quivered as he answered, “It’s… real.” 

“You should have said so earlier.” Chen Xiulian set the bowl and chopsticks aside. “I thought it was fake.” 

Liu Chen found the binding on his chest too tight. The rope on his body prevented him from breathing normally. He scraped against the ground and turned over. 

Chen Xiulian looked on as Liu Chen squirmed like a maggot and asked, “Have you called me before?” As if worried Liu Chen could not understand her, she shook the communicator before his eyes. “This. Have you?” 

Liu Chen swiftly shook his head. His face was wet, and when he opened his mouth, it tasted damp and stale. This smell was so overwhelming it seemed like it was going to engulf him whole. 

“Oh.” Chen Xiulian retracted the communicator. “It wasn’t you? You know MaySnow, right? You have chatted before. I saw it in the chatroom.” She was a little disappointed. “When he called me, I thought it was you who wanted to help me. I’ve been wanting to chat with you. About my life.” 

“We… “ Liu Chen hastily swallowed his saliva to moisten his throat. “We can chat now too.” 

Chen Xiulian listened to the sound of the rain and thought about it for a long time before she replied, “No thanks. You pretty much suck. All your reports are lies.” 

She stood up and pushed aside the clutter on the table. There were two cleavers in their sleeves. She took them out and held them down on the grindstone to sharpen them. She was already an old hand at this; she learned how to use cleavers to solve the problems. 

The grinder and saw left behind by He Zhiguo were no longer durable. 

Liu Chen heard the sound of knives being sharpened, and a cry escaped his throat. He sobbed hard, smearing tears and snot over his face. He looked both miserable and wretched. He rubbed his forehead against the ground and choked with sobs. “Sorry, I’m sorry! But I only reported on Huo Qingjun, Mr. Huo’s case when a definite judgment was given.” He began to cry. “You can’t blame me for this, really, I was just going with the verdict.”  

But Chen Xiulian ignored him and stubbornly went on sharpening her blades under the dim light.

◈     ◈     ◈

Rainwater drummed on the glass window. Cheng Lixin was crying and making a scene in the investigation room. He said to Piao Lin. “I really don’t know any murderer!” 

Yan Junxun leaned against the glass and stared at Cheng Lixin. His thoughts were like the rain swiftly pounding in his head, immersed in all those old and new details over and over again, as if he wanted to get a feel for the murderer from this. 

“Yang Yu is in 240.” Jiang Lian came over from the other end and said to Yan Junxun. “She said she has a few friends who worked with her, and of them, two worked in the industrial park near Puli neighborhood. Jue, tell Junxun the details.”  

“I’ve verified the data of these two friends of Yang Yu. They are both unregistered residents who have not passed the regional checks. Their daily access serial numbers aren’t their own either. One of them is called Lin Hui. She’s a canteen auntie in the steel plant in the industrial park. The serial number she’s using belongs to her son. The other is called Chen Xiulian. She’s a coke transportation driver for the steel plant in the industrial park. The serial number she’s using belongs to her husband, He Zhiguo.” Jue adjusted the light screen and continued to brief Yan Junxun. “Lin Hui usually works without taking any holidays. She doesn’t have much contact with Yang Yu in private, and she has never stood in for her before. Only Chen Xiulian has stood in for Yang Yu and taken up cleaning jobs in her stead these six months. She also knows where Yang Yu stays.”  

Yan Junxun’s eyelids felt heavy. “Alright.” 

“You don’t look too good.” Jue paused for a moment after finishing her report. “We have attempted to contact He Zhiguo, but no one answered.” 

The surveillance camera image of Chen Xiulian before the weighing room materialized on the screen. She was waiting for the weighing room staff to weigh the coke she was transporting this trip for the record sheet. 

“Chen Xiulian has always been using his car.” 

Yan Junxun looked at Chen Xiulian in the image. She had deep wrinkles at the corners of her eyes, and her reaction was not really that fast. Her expression was serious as she listened to the staff speaking. 

Yan Junxun thought. 

This was the look she used to strike up a conversation with Huo Qingjun. She looked so normal, and she did not feel the least bit distant either. She even looked as if she could be easily bullied. 

“But He Zhiguo moved home in 2156. At that time, Tingbo Distract had already begun its pre-war preparations and so the real-time update of residents’ information was overlooked. Yang Yu said she doesn’t know where they are staying. Chen Xiulian has never invited her friends over to her house.’ 

“She might have changed the vehicle’s license plate before, but she can’t change the vehicle.” Yan Junxun said wearily. “You can ask the steel plant for the surveillance footage to figure out her driving route. You’ll know where she lives then.” 

“That’s right. We have the same idea too. But the tricky part is that the steel plant refused to provide the surveillance footage as well as all relevant information on the truck drivers.” Jue said. “They have too many unregistered residents as employees.”  

“Then that’s on you guys to think of a way.” Shi Shanyan was still holding the lollipop stick in his mouth. He asked, baffled, “It’s not like Yan Junxun is a negotiator of the Inspection Bureau, is he? Jiang Lian, fighting!” 

Yan Junxun looked at the window once again. The streaks of rain had split the glass into segments. He kept feeling as if there was a steel bullet rolling around in his head. It was as if there was still a problem somewhere. But the lunatic, the car race, and the sound of rain all filled his head to full capacity, leaving him too preoccupied to think of more. 

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Special thanks to Alex for burning braincells<3