The cat himself was oblivious as his tail thumped an entire ground full of water. By the time he blow-dried himself to his heart’s content, Xie Zhenshu was all dressed.
The time was exactly 5:00a.m.
“Byebye,” Su Heting picked up his washed sweater and waved his hand at Xie Zhenshu. “I’ve to catch up on my sleep later, so I won’t see you off.”
Xie Zhenshu nodded. Just as he was about to step out, something popped into his mind. He turned around. There were no guests on the long corridor at this time. The orange light fell softly upon Xie Zhenshu’s shoulders.
“All the best in the match,” he said.
This scene conjured up a sense of déjà vu.
Su Heting’s heart skipped a beat. He answered, “Thanks. I’m counting on that.”
Xie Zhenshu closed the door and left.
Su Heting put on his sweater and deliberately lifted the collar to take a sniff. It smelled of refreshing laundry detergent. Maintaining this posture, he lost himself in his thoughts.
It can’t be that much of a coincidence, right?
He never had a sense of familiarity when he became acquainted with the Hermit.
But it was impossible for Xie Zhenshu to have spoken to him before while in the midst of opening the door—
The stormy night suddenly materialized in his mind as if it had only just happened last night. In that treacherous Punishment Zone, a person had spoken to Su Heting in this way before.
That man, with his erect stance and equally broad shoulders, had then said to him with cold indifference,
A chill ran down Su Heting’s spine. He grabbed his trousers and put them on, then fastened them with swift movements. Without even stopping to change his shoes, he forced open the door and rushed out in his slippers.
The little dwarf robots weaving in and out of the corridor with their trays on their heads shouted one after another as they dodged to the sides and flashed beeping red lights.
“Please do not run in the corridor… Paging the supervisor… There’s a guest who seemed to be intoxicated…”
Su Heting did not catch sight of Xie Zhenshu’s figure. His heart pounded in his chest, although it was not out of fear but a kind of indescribable exhilaration.
He was merely suspecting.
Is Xie Zhenshu the Inspector?
Is Xie Zhenshu human?
Su Heting ran out of the corridor in his slippers, while the dwarfs behind him gave chase. Unable to keep up with Su Heting’s speed, they yelled “sir” as they swarmed forth. As there was not enough space in the corridor, the dwarfs jostled and bumped against each other, sending the trays all clattering onto the floor.
“Mr. Meowzai!” The lead robot appeared out of the blue midway and stood erect at the entrance. He crossed an “X” with his arms at Su Heting and shouted, “Please stop running. Keep yourself safe…”
Su Heting sprinted without stopping. At the same time he rushed towards the lead robot, he sprang up suddenly to grab onto the horizontal beam where the wishing tags were hanging and leaped nimbly over the robot to land on the ground in one beautiful move.
With a “swish”, he swiped up the hanging door screen and looked out.
“—Amitabha!” The Monk, who had been on edge ever since Viper left, was startled by the sudden lifting of the hanging screen. It was only when he saw it was Su Heting that his tensed back relaxed some. “What are you doing?”
Su Heting looked out at the misty street in the rain.
Xie Zhenshu was gone.
“Pre-match warm-up.” He shifted his gaze back to the Monk and gave him a dirty look. “What’s this? Stinky old man, you stalking me?”
“Protecting.” The Monk emphasized. “We are protecting you. Why did you run during the day? It took so much effort to look for you.”
“I was afraid you people would misfire from shaking hands.” Su Heting bent slightly at the waist and made his way out under the hanging screen of the door. He pointed to the poster on the wall with his thumb and reminded the Monk, “this establishment only takes in Hybrids as customers.”
The Boss of Yaochi was friends with Jiali and had ties to the trading center. The establishment of this bathhouse was to provide a service specifically to the Hybrids. This was the reason Su Heting often came by.
“Oh, didn’t see that.” The Monk did not barge his way in. He retracted his hand and stood where he was to study that poster while stroking his chin.
“You like taking a bath?” He asked.
“None of your business,” Su Heting answered curtly.
“Just a chat. Can you just…” This was giving the Monk a headache. “I’m here to protect you, okay?”
“Don’t make me laugh.” Su Heting fished around his pocket and took out Viper’s modified eye between two fingers. “You buying?”
The Monk fixed his eyes on it for a look, and his expression underwent a slight change. “You dug out Viper’s eye?!”
“There’s no point in him keeping it.” Su Heting flicked his two fingers up and grabbed the modified eye back in his palm. “If you people don’t want it, then I’m going to list it up for sale in the trading center.”
The Monk looked the eye up and down like it was a walnut being played with. With mixed feelings, he asked, “… Aren’t you keeping it for yourself? Keep it as a replacement.”
The tip of Su Heting’s nose wrinkled slightly as he put on a look of reluctance. “It’s kind of disgusting just thinking about it.”
This was something the coliseum often did.
Implants from retired players could be handed over to the coliseum, who would then conduct a comprehensive valuation and sell these implants as replacements.
“The stuff Viper uses is all pretty good.” The Monk lifted his trouser legs and sat down on the bench at the entrance of Yaochi. “But you dug out his eye; he must hate you to the core now.”
The Monk was secretly thrilled, but he could not show it.
He schooled his expression. “They will come looking for you again.”
Su Heting noticed the Monk was in casual wear today.
In the Black Market, there was no better identity to use than the Armed Squad, because they could carry guns openly. But the Monk went to the trouble of changing into his casual clothes before coming over tonight. This meant that their security detail of him had to be kept on the down-low.
“You guys caught Viper,” Su Heting said, “but then you released him.”
The Monk looked beyond the eaves and suddenly had the urge to smoke, but it was just a thought. The hand he set on his hand tightened and loosened. When he spoke, his tone was calm. “There is somehow always something that is beyond your control.”
The rain sent ripples coursing through the puddle of water, but the puddle could not jump up and give the rain a slap.
Although it was really damn aggravating, these bunch of Big Bosses did not give a flying fuck about the Supreme God Systems or the humans who did not escape from the Guanggui District.
The stability of the Survival Zone minified external threats. News of Guanggui District could no longer attract widespread attention, and the Doomsday unleashed by the artificial intelligence became history too.
No matter what the Supreme God System wanted to do.
—They never invaded the Survival Zone all these years, have they?
This was what the Big Bosses thought.
“Can you lose tonight?” The Monk asked.
“Sure.” Su Heting fished out a lollipop, very much open to negotiations. “Transfer three million bucks to me first.”
The Monk, “…”
“You guys really think of yourselves as a daughter-in-law in a bind, huh.” Su Heting bit down on the lollipop before realizing that he had yet to change out of his slippers. He lifted a foot to let the rain wash the sole of his shoe. “Wei Zhixin—is that dude called Wei Zhixin? I just want to tell him…”
His voice wasn’t all that loud.
“There are wins and there are losses in a match. If he isn’t up to playing, then don’t join the game.”
◈ ◈ ◈
It was all dark before Viper’s eyes. There were aging scars near his brain-machine interface, so the connecting cable was not directly plugged in. However, his head had disc electrodes stuck all over it.
“Boss.” Viper’s eyes were closed, and his breathing was short and hurried under the stimulation of the electrical signals. His voice trembled as he said, “I’m sorry. Boss, I’m sorry…”
With a gloved hand, the Boss picked up Viper’s tail, where it had been smashed into a pulp by the bullet.
“His speed is terribly fast…” Viper’s head twitched. “I was held down… His hand… Fuck!” Viper cried out in pain as if he was going through it all over again in his head. “He dug my eye out with his hand! Fuck him—! It’s too painful, too painful! Boss, I’m sorry…”
Viper’s body spasmed, and the veins on his temples bulged. Even the timbre of his voice had changed. “Stop repeating…”
The Boss benevolently stroked the break in Viper’s tail; the residual venom had already been cleaned up. His voice was very gentle, as if he could not feel Viper’s pain. “I know, I know… don’t keep repeating that. Viper, think about the details again. He has a modified eye. What is that eye for?”
Viper clenched his teeth. “I’m sorry. I don’t know!”
“Let’s do it again.” The Boss held down Viper’s chest. “He ripped off the billboard and came at you, fast. Then, your scales went flying from his blow, and he grabbed you by the throat.”
Viper seemed to return to that moment once again.
The back of his head slammed hard into the ground. Meowzai held him down. He could barely breathe. Then the cat’s finger amplified before his eyes. He could not even react. Even his scream was a beat slow.
“No…” Viper’s brain flared with intense pain. He screamed at the top of his voice. “Don’t dig…”
The Boss asked, “What is that modified eye of his doing?”
Tears streamed down Viper’s cheeks. The pain was so excruciating it sent his whole body convulsing. He forced himself to open his eyes wide in this infinite pain as if to meet Su Heting’s fingers. He stared fixedly at the cat’s modified eye—
An expanse of calm, misty blue.
The Monk stared at that undisturbed sky and asked Su Heting, “Are you going back to catch up on your sleep?”
Su Heting walked inside treading on his slippers, and sneezed. He merely answered a simple “ah” in response.
The Monk folded his arms and sat at the entrance to keep watch, like a dad who had come to catch his runaway son.
“Hey.” Su Heting leaned out from behind the hanging screen and asked the Monk a question, “Is the Inspector really a system?”
The Monk couldn’t keep up with the change in topic, so he just nodded first. “Yeah. He lives in the Punishment Zone, so he can’t be human, can he?”
“Oh…” Su Heting was skeptical.
“Our detection test for real people is foolproof,” the Monk said. “It won’t make a misjudgment.”
Su Heting stuck his hands back into his pockets and entered. He bypassed the enthusiastic lead robot and picked up a bottle of water from a dwarf’s tray.
I guessed wrong, haven’t I?
Su Heting unscrewed the bottle cap and rubbed his nape as he drank. He gave up on thinking.
He thought nonchalantly.
We will still meet again, anyway. There’s really no running.
◈ ◈ ◈
The rain had just stopped.
The coliseum’s live broadcast teaser swept in with countless advertisements playing.
Jiali arrived at the entrance of the coliseum on time to set up her stall. She lit a cigarette and looked through the smoke at her small screen. There was a message from the Hermit.
Hermit: They have begun to take bets. Wei Zhixin is going to place a bet.
Biting down on her cigarette, Jiali swiped to another page and jabbed on it with her pinky finger to place a bet on the match.
Hermit: I betted one buck on Meowzai!
Jiali: As stingy as ever, I see. I betted one thousand.
Hermit: I still have a family to support.
Hermit: Did you really only betted one thousand?
Hermit: What’s going on???
Hermit: Someone betted one million on Meowzai!!!
The barrage of his exclamation marks was about to burst out of his screen.
Jiali was still smoking as usual when she saw the “one”, but her cigarette dropped when she read the word “million”. She patted away the ashes in a fluster, almost falling off the stool.
A few seconds later, Su Heting received two messages at the same time on his phone.
Hermit/Jiali: YOU HAVE A BOSS NOW?!
Su Heting: ?
◈ ◈ ◈