The Inspector turned a blind eye to the cat’s tail, as if he wasn’t the one being poked. He shifted his gaze to Su Heting, the expression in it sort of saying, “believe it or not, your choice.”
Su Heting inwardly pondered it over.
—This gaze looks so familiar?
“Human beings will bleed in this place.” Yu Cheng, the bespectacled guy, hurriedly interrupted, worried that Su Heting would not believe him. “In order to make the Punishment Zone even closer to reality, the Supreme God System configured human beings to be vulnerable creatures that could bleed when injured and disintegrate when dead. So those who can bleed are all human beings.”
“Wait a minute.” Su Heting thought of the last time he came to the Punishment Zone and directed his wandering eyes back onto the Inspector. “I remember this sir here can resurrect.”
He pronounced the word “sir” exceedingly clearly.
“That’s a transfer of consciousness.” The Inspector answered and continued, “I do not share the same settings as them. When I leave briefly, an auto-regulator will restore my virtual body here. Once restored, my consciousness will be reintroduced, which looks like resurrection.”
“I get it now,” Su Heting said. “Your body is not in the human farm.”
The human beings in the Guanggui District’s human husbandry farm were kept under surveillance by artificial intelligence. They accessed the Punishment Zone by linking up to it through a unified gateway interface or chip. They had to follow the procedures set by the Supreme God System, or they would still get injured or even die even if they had a jammer in hand. However, the Inspector’s ability to automatically transfer consciousness had too much autonomy to it. That was why Su Heting guessed that his body was not at the human husbandry farm. He should be an infiltrator like Su Heting himself.
“Mn.” The Inspector sort of admitted it, but he did not say where his body was.
“You are not a robot, are you?” Su Heting suddenly asked.
“… Still a human for the time being,” the Inspector said.
The New World was still not at the stage where they could store complete consciousness. They could only look for possible bugs in a massive, complex virtual world like the Punishment Zone. Just as the Inspector said, he could only leave for a short time. If his auto-regulator were to be destroyed, or if the restoration of his virtual body took too long, he would die too.
The only exception was artificial intelligence. Not only could they inhabit machines, they could also live on for a long time after the machine had been destroyed, perhaps even forever.
“Since we are all human,” Su Heting asked, “why come after me to kill me the last time?”
“We couldn’t be certain of your identity.” The bell between the Inspector’s fingers jingled. “The gateway you used was Punisher of Heaven’s.”
“So here’s the question.” Su Heting took a deep breath and asked with a solemn and perplexed expression. “Why don’t you guys join forces with Punisher of Heaven?”
Punisher of Heaven was currently the strongest and largest armed organization among the human beings, and their goal was to fight back against Guanggui District and liberate all of humankind. If the Inspector and the others were all captives in the human farm, then everyone’s goal should be the same.
“The undercover agents Punisher of Heaven sent in are all here to find the super-evolved system ‘Jue’.” Hua Zhi raised her hand to brush away the stray locks of hair at her ears, “My guess is Punisher of Heaven must have told you that you only need to find Jue, and you’d be able to destroy the Supreme God System, right?”
“That’s right,” Su Heting replied innocently.
“That’s the reason sir killed the undercover agents,” Hua Zhi said. “We can find Jue, but we can’t destroy the Supreme God System immediately.”
“Those, those of you who fled from the Great Explosion are the last batch of survivors.” Hua Zhi pointed in Su Heting’s direction lightly with her fingertip. “Punisher of Heaven has abandoned the rescue operation in Guanggui District. We have all been abandoned. Once we let Jue fall into Punisher of Heaven’s hands, the Punishment Zone will collapse. We… all the hundreds of thousands of humans in the human farm will die.”
“The only way we can safely go offline,” Yu Cheng pushed up his spectacles, “is to liberate Guanggui District first and stop the Punishment Zone from operating.”
The wind blew the cacophony of rain on the outside into the vehicle. The temperature at night in the Punishment Zone was even lower than it was in the Black Market, like the end of autumn in the Old World, and Su Heting felt chilly air he had not encountered for a long time.
“Hundreds of thousands” was too huge a number. The cries of these many people might even be louder than the sound of the rainstorm in the Punishment Zone. With their bodies restrained and consciousness held captive, they were like stray phantoms in the New World drifting in the shadows of the virtual world, phantoms who still had to endure the torment of dying a slow death over time.
The atmosphere inside the car was slightly heavy.
After a moment, Su Heting asked, “If that’s the case, why didn’t you kill me?”
“You’ve had contact with Jue.” Dongfang threw a quick glance at the Inspector. “Didn’t you access Time-Limited Hunt before? We want to find Jue for a discussion.”
“Oh…” Su Heting wanted to raise his hand to touch the tip of his nose, but the moment he moved it, he brought along the Inspector’s hand too, so he could only put his hand back and meet the gaze of everyone in the vehicle. “Although I have a truckload of excuses I can use to fob you off, I still have to say: ladies and gentlemen…”
He paused for a moment in displeasure and wrinkled his nose.
“I’ve lost my memory.”
He did not remember this so-called “Time-Limited Hunt” or whatever, much less remember any super-evolved system, Jue.
But the people in the vehicle were quite calm.
“Oh,” Hua Zhi said.
“It’s okay,” Yu Cheng comforted. “You can take your time to remember… Uh, don’t force it either.”
What a suspicious bunch, these people.
Su Heting touched the tip of his nose with his other hand and scrutinized them. “Why aren’t you people killing me when I’m already of no use? Keeping me to spend the New Year?”
“We believe… uh.” The moment Yu Cheng got nervous, he stammered. He pushed his spectacles up frantically, trying to use this action to cover up his glances at the Inspector. “We believe you are a good person who loves the earth and who stands in solidarity with your fellow companions.”
Su Heting, “?”
Do you people think that highly of me?
The atmosphere grew increasingly bizarre. The gaze of the trio wandered. They did not dare to look at Su Heting in the face, nor look at the Inspector.
The Inspector’s hand moved. He handed the bell to Su Heting. “Wear it, and you won’t get lost.”
Su Heting caught the bell, feeling kind of like he had been approved to join the gang. But he shook his tail at the Inspector, the tip of which reassembled with a “click” into a small lamp that could be lit up.
“I come with my own light,” He said. “I never get lost.”
The Inspector stared at that lamp, and Su Heting found his gaze as substantial. “After sunset, it’s slaughter time. The rain will extinguish the lights of mortals.”
The Supreme God System was the god of the Punishment Zone. The program they set was the oracle here. Even if the occasional person could escape, the others still had to follow their rules.
“Even the lights of an infiltrator too?” Su Heting said. “I come from the Black Market and shouldn’t be bound by the restrictions of the Supreme God System.”
The Inspector’s gaze slid up to gently meet Su Heting’s gaze. The expression in his eyes was profoundly deep, with no irony or ridicule. His eyes at this moment were not that of emotionless indifference, but a kind of unspeakable loneliness.
“It will,” he whispered. “As long as it’s light, it will be extinguished.”
The bell began to tinkle, the sound quick and light. Su Heting shook it subconsciously as he thought back to that sentence.
After sunset, it’s slaughter time.
All of a sudden, the vehicle door was shoved open, and a child in a raincoat climbed in. He unzipped his zipper to reveal a face that looked to be eight or nine years old. “Review meeting? The wind outside almost blew me away.”
Yu Cheng hurried off to pour tea.
“This is the newcomer sir brought?” The child took off his raincoat and greeted Su Heting, “Hello, cat.”
“Hello, kid.” Su Heting answered.
“Call me Xiaogu. I’m not a kid.” Xiaogu took the tea and tilted his head back to down half of it. He flashed a smile at Su Heting. “I’m thirty-six years old this year.”
Su Heting lowered his body to meet his eyes. “Huh—?”
“I was the first to be exiled to the Punishment Zone. It has been six years now.” Xiaogu appeared rather sophisticated for his age as he held the cup. “I really miss the times in the Old World. So much time has elapsed in just a blink of an eye.”
“You’re thirty-six?” Su Heting asked dubiously.
His words amused Xiaogu. He stroked the non-existent mustache above his lips. “There’s a bit of a bug that caused this. If you want to hear it, I can slowly—”
Dongfang covered Xiaogu’s mouth and dragged him away from Su Heting. “Let sir tell him!”
Like a gust of wind, he scooped Hua Zhi away too while he was at it, then shut the partition in the middle with a “thud”.
There were only three people left in the car.
Su Heting and the Inspector were still handcuffed together, while the free man, Yu Cheng, was still holding the teapot.
“I…” Yu Cheng’s face suddenly reddened. He glanced left and right. “Perhaps I should also….”
Su Heting stretched out his long legs to block Yu Cheng’s path. He did not want to—no, he felt it was even weirder to be alone with the Inspector, so he bit the bullet and looked for something to ask, “Do you all have jammers?”
“Yeah, mine is the glasses…” Yu Cheng pushed his spectacles again, looking like he was about to break out in a sweat. “Dongfang’s is his cufflinks, while Zhizi’s is her hairclip.”
“And sir’s is his cross earring?” Su Heting’s “sir” sounded as though he was saying it through gritted teeth.
Yu Cheng nodded his head hard.
“Then why is mine a bell?” Su Heting asked.
“B-because…” Yu Cheng stammered again.
The Inspector raised his hand gently and pulled Su Heting a little over to himself. He had a light, delicate scent on him. The smooth contours of that exposed lower jaw appeared together with his Adam’s apple before Su Heting’s eyes.
“Because it’s the last one.” He paused for a moment, then turned his head away from Su Heting’s gaze and answered in a level tone, “It suits you.”
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Credit: Thank you Gress for spotting the typo! <333333