“‘Punisher of Heaven’1 attacked the Supreme God System a few days ago.” The Hermit sat upright inside the teahouse; the collar of his wide-sleeved robe had stitches, an indicator of having been mended before. “Fifty or sixty people died.”
“A lunatic move.” Su Heting dipped his fingers into the tea and drew meaningless circles on the tea table. “Those AIs can’t die from being blown up.”
“Bombing acts like this are a show of force.” Using the drinking of tea as a cover, the Hermit leaned over slightly and whispered, “My sources say that it’ll be our turn next to carry out the next ‘Punisher of Heaven’ operation.”
“We all have brain-computer interfaces2 in us.” Su Heting turned his head sideways to look at the center of the teahouse where a few girls were performing tea painting.3 “All the faster we’ll die.”
“I predict it’ll be hard for us to escape this calamity.” The Hermit downed his tea. “If not for the fact that I still have a match, I’d have run—”
Halfway through his sentence, Su Heting heard the sound of a gun being fired. The bullet passed through the heavy barrel of the cold forged carbon steel and struck the Hermit right in the center of his brows. Blood and brain matter splattered, soiling the Hermit’s collar.
“Fuck.” Su Heting cussed. “Fuck me.”
He promptly and decisively plucked out the tail he had plugged into the interface,
The teahouse abruptly vanished. Su Heting opened his eyes and returned to reality. There was still the smell of instant noodles lingering in the room. It was completely worlds apart from the environment in the cyberworld. It was dirty, messy, and cramped here; one building alone could be stuffed with nearly a thousand people.
It was year 06 of the New World. The former human society was destroyed in the war. The intelligence systems formed the “Supreme God Alliance” and occupied the high-tech regions in the Old World with the intent to dominate the New World and domesticate human beings into second-rate inferior beings. The humans who escaped were called Survivors.
The Survivors built an Anti-System Survival Zone upon the ruins of the old human race, managed and controlled by an armed organization called “‘Punisher of Heaven’. This organization was also responsible for launching bomb raids on the Supreme God System.
Su Heting rolled out of bed and sat up. He was sweating, and his T-shirt clung to his back, making him rather uncomfortable. But he did not have time to wipe off the sweat, because he heard footsteps.
Those military boots that were making those regular-paced footsteps stopped at his door and kicked it open.
“I’d advise you to mind your own business.” Su Heting’s black hair, which he had not cut for quite some time, flopped over his eyes and partially blocked them from view. The foul language that was about to burst forth from his mouth turned into good-natured assurance in the face of the gun muzzle. “—And I’ll mind my own business.”
“Stop whining online all the time.” The head of the group was bald—a fake monk. He placed both palms together before Su Heting and advised him with sincerity, “The next warning won’t be a virtual headshot.”
“Roger.” Su Heting answered obediently. “You have a fucking gun so whatever you say is right.”
Satisfied, the Monk exited the room, not forgetting to say politely, “Sorry to impose.”
Su Heting watched them close the door, but he did not hear them leave. He sat on the edge of the bed. The room had no windows and no illumination. He bent over in the darkness and propped himself with his arms, then lowered his eyes and repeated,
“You have a fucking gun so whatever you say is right.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Su Heting opened the door at six o’clock. There were no signs of the Monk in the corridor. Covered in a black raincoat, he stepped over the plastic washbasin next door and headed for the elevator. All the rooms he passed by were very cramped and small; some of the occupants did not even have a table and had to squat in the doorway to wash their heads. The monitored network interface was the only standard configuration Punisher of Heaven gave to these Hybrids.
The place where Su Heting was now at was the Anti-System Survival Zone 03, also known as the Black Market. A large number of Hybrids lived here—Survivors who had undergone human body modifications and possessed brain-computer interfaces were called the Hybrids. They were placed under intense surveillance by the Punisher of Heaven Organization, which arranged for them all to live in the Black Market.
Su Heting walked out of the passageway and stood at the intersection to wait for the red light to turn green. Rain dirtied his raincoat. He raised his head slightly and looked through the misty rain under the xenon lights at the coliseum a short distance away.
In this current world where resources were scarce, it was tough to support oneself. Work always meant putting one’s life in danger and grappling with one’s morals, yet the competition was pretty fierce. Hybrids who blurred the boundary between human beings and system machines were not welcomed by the Survivors. Apart from seeking employment for dangerous work, they basically sweated their guts out in the Black Market’s coliseum.
This coliseum was modeled after the Colosseum – the Roman gladiatorial arena – in the Old World. It covered a wide area and could accommodate nearly ten thousand spectators. There was a virtual capture device within that could turn the tournament into a pay-per-view live stream in real-time. Onsite tickets for the live show, which could place each of the audience personally on the scene, were more expensive. The tournament was presided over by the Punisher of Heaven, who would come up with a final ranking of the players based on their accumulated tournament points, and this ranking would determine the price of the players in the Black Market.
Su Heting had to enter the coliseum once a week. He relied on the rankings to make a living, and he accepted employment requests too. As long as the employer’s price was high enough, he would consider it, no matter how dangerous the mission would be.
The green light came on.
Su Heting followed the crowd across the road. He bypassed the main entrance of the coliseum and came to the east entrance for players.
The coliseum tournament was a virtual fight, which required a connection to the players’ brain-computer to activate a hologram. For this reason, it was known as the New World “e-sports”. The risks of the tournament meant that it was easy to end up with damage to the nervous system, and the risk of death on the spot was much higher than in real-life combat. Nevertheless, it had taken the live broadcast market by storm with the excitement and diversity it offered.
“You’re next!” The manager cupped his mouth with his hands and shouted at Su Heting amidst the cheers in the arena. “Are you ready?”
Su Heting nodded.
It was jam-packed all around. The manager pushed away the staff who were in the way and continued to shout at Su Heting at the top of his lungs. “Then go to the waiting area! This round is about to end soon!”
Su Heting saw many players in the waiting area. His opponent for tonight was among them.
Titan was a muscular beefcake standing at nearly two meters tall. Both of his arms were made of steel that simulated the bulging muscles of a human, but instead of being solid inside, it was wired with fine and complex command processors. He was a classic Hybrid of the New World who has already been through hundreds of matches. His limbs’ response to the EEG signals stimulated by electrodes was precise, so regardless of whether it was in the virtual world or in real life, he could always get himself to react in the quickest way possible.
“Hi.” Titan opened his beer with one hand and locked his gaze on Su Heting. “I heard your tail is no different from the real thing. It even needs to be regularly washed and cared for.”
“Yeah. Occasionally it’ll shed fur too. How troublesome.” Su Heting fished out a rainbow candy and tossed it into his mouth. “I’d advise you not to emulate.”
“I’m not going to plug a tail up my own ass.” Titan took a few sips of his beer. “But I’ve had a few cats like you before.” He grinned at Su Heting and crushed the beer can. “They all work as whores in the trading center. Not once have they stepped into the coliseum.”
Su Heting ate his candy. He seemed as though he did not understand, “A pretty rich life experience you have there.”
“—Let me turn the camera to the waiting area!” The emcee floating in the center of the arena was a clown with heavy make-up. He waved both arms and greeted the players enthusiastically. “Look at the camera! The atmosphere between both players is so tense! Our match hasn’t even started yet.”
“Titan!” The crowd in the arena shouted out rhythmically. “Titan! Titan!”
Titan looked pleased as punch; he loved hearing this.
“Player Titan has already won nineteen matches in a row. One more win, and he will be the new Grand Slam King.” The emcee roused the audience. “He often uses his steel arms to punch through his opponents’ jaws and wring their necks broken. He gives back to the audience with such a serious attitude, and keeps bringing us priceless visual feasts! I’m so excited to watch Titan’s performance tonight!”
The camera turned to Su Heting, and the emcee slowed down. “Titan’s opponent tonight is a newcomer who ranks 58th according to this month’s points—‘Meowzai’.4 Let me see… Whoa, not bad. Three wins in a row. Let me cheer you on.” He raised his hand to his cheek and made a show of it, “Do your best meow!”
A chorus of boos erupted in the arena.
“It’s about time.” The emcee reverted to normal. “Hold on. What did I just see? Meowzai doesn’t need a brain connection cable, because he has a tail! Oh my god—” The emcee let loose an awww sound, as if he was melting. “He’s so cute~”
Su Heting took off his raincoat and revealed his entire look under the light.
It was a cat.
Two cat ears stood erect between his hair, and one of them twitched from the itch. His attention-grabbing tail swayed.
“The data shows that he had modification surgery because his vestibular system5 was damaged. This realistic, lifelike tail replaces the central processor and helps him to walk normally. Oh, my. He’s even a kitten with different colored eyes. How very cute! Is one of those eyes misty blue?” The emcee looked down carefully at the kitten’s profile. “This eye is also a modified implant. It has yet to demonstrate any special effects in the previous matches.”
Titan showed a contemptuous expression.
“Let’s start now.” The emcee faced the audience. “Connecting to the countdown. 10, 9…”
Su Heting lowered his tail. The tip of his tail automatically swaps to a connection interface to connect to the interface of the venue. In this very instant, the stimulus signal surged from his tail all the way to his brain, and an intense burst of excitement flooded the activity zone. His sensitive cat ears pulled to the side under the stimulation, making him look like one not to be provoked.
“3, 2, 1!”
With the holograms in place, the virtual arena instantly popped open.
Electronic chants billowed forth in waves from above, drowning the entire virtual arena. An old monk in a reddish-orange cassock materialized from the end of the arena. He released a massive nine-headed bird6 from his sleeves. Following right after, rainwater gushed up from the ground, and the entire arena began to turn upside down in Su Heting’s eyes.
Those spectators ended up being suspended overhead. What had been the night sky turned into the ground instead, and muddy and dirty rain fell in reverse. The nine-headed bird hung upside down at the edge of the arena, twisting its nine large metal heads in every direction. It patrolled the ground with eighteen scarlet eyes like a searchlight—a monitoring and supervisory setup for the entire tournament.
“—The match begins!”
Titan’s virtual avatar appeared first.
That dull “bang” brought down a weighty sense of oppression to the audience, as well as added to the immersive sensory experience of the scene.
“Here he comes—I think I heard the alarm for overloading!” The host perked up and was the first to shout, “Titan’s heading for Meowzai!”
The live scene promptly burst into wild cheers. “TITAN!”
The crowd’s frenzy distorted their faces as they screamed and howled amidst the hologram and swung their glow sticks hard.
Titan’s virtual avatar was a magnified version of himself, which made his steel arms even more terrifying to behold; it also made those modifications for combat even more apparent. He moved his shoulders and cackled in a way that made others grimace, then spread his legs open to stabilize his heavy figure.
“The proper use of an implant…” Titan held up a forearm and said to Su Heting, “I’d be happy to help you correct it—”
Before the words left Titan’s mouth, Su Heting’s fist had already gone smashing into his face. Compared to his flashy cool steel arms, Su Heting’s virtual avatar was simple. Other than that pair of ears and that tail, he looked like an ordinary human Survivor. There was not a single virtual embellishment of an offensive nature on him. He was just a copy of Meowzai in person.
But Su Heting was extremely fast—the effect of tuning up the speed of nerve reflexes.
A wave of heat swiftly shot through Titan’s nasal cavity, and he was sure that he was bleeding from the nose. But he was willing to grant Su Heting this small victory, because the audience loved seeing blood, and bleeding could whip them into even more of a frenzy. But once was enough. He faced Su Heting’s incoming fist that was aimed right at his head and ducked to avoid it. At the same time, he raised his arm in a protective pose, then wrapped the same arm around Su Heting’s outstretched arm.
“He’s going to fight back.” The emcee concentrated. “He caught hold of Meowzai!”
Titan’s arms were not modified for nothing. In the very next second, he flipped over and slammed Su Heting onto the ground. Water on the ground splashed all over, and a thunderous boom cooperatively reverberated through the venue, ensuring that every spectator could feel the vibrations from the impact at their feet.
“Jab him!” The spectators roared themselves hoarse, trying their best to convey their desire. “Put a jab through his jaw!”
They wanted to watch scenes even more exciting and bloody!
Su Heting yanked Titan’s hair like he was lifting a dog, and used his strong hand to greet Titan’s nose again.
Titan was forced to meet Su Heting’s fist. A steel arm “buzzed” as the outer flap “swooshed” back to reveal the shark teeth within. The shark teeth started turning like an electric chainsaw. He knocked Su Heting over with a bent knee, then sent the shark teeth smashing towards Su Heting’s head.
What a close shave!
Su Heting’s ear was very nearly severed. At the same time as he rolled, Titan’s steel arm punched him on the side.
“That was fast!” The emcee marveled. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is all thanks to the tail. It’s because this tail has replaced the central processor that enables Meowzai to adapt so well to the increased reflex speed. Look, his dodges and attacks are all very steady! Now, don’t quote me on this, but my guess is that he went through a long period of training after the implantation surgery.”
At the same time, Titan swept a leg out to kick Su Heting on the shin in an attempt to kick Su Heting over to the ground. Su Heting, however, did not fall.
Titan suspected that Su Heting had switched off the pain receptors. Otherwise, how could he not even frown?!
Su Heting’s palm abruptly struck Titan in the ear, and the impact of the blunt force caused the world to go dark before Titan. But the clamors in the venue held him hostage and made him opt to continue with his onslaughts of attack in between sharp breaths.
Su Heting dogged Titan’s impulsive hook and hit Titan square in the face with a straight punch. Titan failed to parry him, and Su Heting threw him another punch. The dizziness promptly caused Titan to dry-heave in real life.
Oh, fuck! This guy was not an ordinary player at all. His military-trained combat skills were brutal and precise!
Titan was seeing stars from the blows. He even sensed his nose bleeding in reality.
The pop-up comments of the network’s paid subscribers came flooding the entire arena like waters that had broken free of the dam to envelope the players within. This was the climax of the entire match.
[Kill him! Kill him!]
These pop-up comments surrounded the fighting platform, bathing the faces of the audience under virtual light and shadows. Every one of them was shouting, like species starving for meat.
Titan swung out a feeble punch, and Su Heting dodged his steel arm as though it were a toy. The backlash from Su Heting’s cupped hand was more than he could imagine. Before he could even clear his head from the current dizziness, Su Heting slammed right into Titan’s head with his elbow. Titan promptly dropped to the ground, and a loud “boom—” sent shock waves through the venue.
“Were you belittling me earlier?” Su Heting’s modified blue eye narrowed slightly, as though it was unaffected by the glare of the strong lights in the venue. He picked up Titan’s steel arm, ripped out the command processors in his arm as if he was tearing out junk, and crushed them just like Titan did with the beer can before the match.
“Fucking muscleman. To hell with your Grand Slam.”
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- In Chinese mythology, Xingtian (刑天) is a defier of Heaven who fights against the Supreme Divinity for supremacy. He is a symbol of resilience for not giving up even after he was decapitated.
- Author’s Note #1:
Brain-computer interface: an information system that connects the brain to the computer, allowing the brain to communicate directly with the computer.—“Life in the Socket: Has the era of brain-machine arrived?”
Simply put, with it, one can surf with one’s consciousness and can also manipulate their own implanted prosthesis.
Chabaixi (茶百戏), or literally the hundred tea show, also known as Tangxi (汤戏) and Fencha (分茶), is an ancient tea ceremony that uses only water and wooden teaspoons to paint elaborate patterns on the surface of especially high-density tea. This basically combines Chinese tea with Chinese art.
- 猫崽 Maozai, literally cat cub or kitten, but I’ll use Meowzai for now just because lmfao
- Author’s Note #2:
Vestibular system, a group of units in the inner ears that are responsible for the balancing of movements of the head. Without the assistance of cat ears and cat tail, Xiaosu will suffer from vertigo, unstable balance, and other symptoms, which would render him unable to fight.
- 鬼车鸟 Guiche Bird, also known as a nine-headed bird (九头鸟), a legendary bird whose unnatural appearance further led to it being associated with disasters, so much that it was given the alternate name of Guiche (鬼车, ghostly vehicle).