“Unbelievable!” The emcee drowned out the uproar with a shout. “Our prospective champion has encountered a dark horse!”
The referee ran over and kneeled beside Titan. He raised his arms high and made a “Game Over” gesture to the camera, then unplugged the connection cable to Titan’s brain and said to him, “Breathe—”
Titan’s cries of pain did not end right away. The electrical stimulation in his brain caused his real physical body to spasm continuously, and the sensation of pain in that arm of his was intense. The coliseum required players to crank up the pain level, because their cries of pain could drive those watching the live broadcast into a frenzy.
“Congratulations to Meowzai!” The emcee enthused over Su Heting ardently. “This is his fourth victory since joining the tournament. What’s more, his opponent was Titan!”
A chorus of voices filled the venue, while the live broadcast comments swirling around Su Heting kept refreshing.
Su Heting’s tail left the connection port, and those stimulus signals receded from his brain like a tidal wave, leaving only a slight aftereffect from the stimulation. He opened his eyes. It was as if he had just traveled through time and space; he had to take a few seconds to adapt to the real world, which had reversed back into place.
“You won.” The manager rushed forward, shouting and screaming at Su Heting. “You’re up against King Shen in the next match!”
“I won.” Su Heting glanced at Titan out of the corner of his eyes and asked offhandedly, “Who’s King Shen?”
His view of Titan’s curled up body was blocked by the referee, and he could only see Titan’s still spasming legs. The latter had “The Giants” tattooed on one leg, and “Safe Voyage” on the other leg.
“My fellow viewers! I’m still not over it yet!” The emcee raised his arms exaggeratedly. “Meowzai is moving up in the points ranking!”
The live projection suddenly switched to the players’ ranking list. Along with the sound of ceremonial salvoes, the name “Meowzai” rose swiftly through the ranks, from 58th place this month to Top 30.
Su Heting did not care to be interviewed. He bundled himself back into his raincoat and zipped up while facing the camera that was almost shoved right into his face.
“What are you looking at?” The expression in his eyes was alert and wary. “I’m a mysterious one.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Su Heting did not return home immediately after leaving the venue. Instead, he bought a skewer of Black Market’s roast mushrooms at the entrance.
“Make it spicy.” Su Heting stared at the skewer of mushrooms. “Super-duper spicy.”
“I’ll give you an extra piece of mushroom.” The stall owner was an auntie over the age of forty. Her name was Jiali. Jiali shoved the mushroom skewer to Su Heting. “You’ve fought well tonight. I didn’t see the Hermit, though?”
Su Heting bit into the mushroom and said, “He blew up.”
“The live broadcast blew up?”
“His head blew up.” Su Heting looked at the remaining mushrooms with a grave expression. “Can you give me a skewer for free?”
“No.” Jiali cast a glance at the surveillance camera at the street entrance and lit up a cigarette in one smooth move. “Man, what dangerous topic were you both chatting about online? You were just asking for death.”
“He started it.” Su Heting picked up another skewer. “There will be a change of people,” he ate very slowly, “… in the next operation.”
Jiali held her smoking pose, revealing the little girl tattooed on both arms. The rain was still falling. She slowly exhaled smoke and muttered under her breath, “Well, fuck…”
Punisher of Heaven wanted to swap the Hybrids over to blow up the Supreme God System, but none of them wanted to go, because they all had brain-computer interfaces. These brain-computer interfaces made use of electrodes which could not only allow the modified Survivors to adapt faster to the implants, but also turn the virtual world into reality. This allowed the Survivors who were trying to escape from reality to live in a mental utopia in the cyberworld. However, their current range of cyber activities was limited. In order to prevent them from being invaded or monitored by the Supreme God System, Punisher of Heaven had been implementing a high-handed policy towards them.
In Guanggui District, which fell under the mantle of the Supreme God System, Hybrids with brain-computer interfaces were like just fish meat on the chopping board, subjected to the mercy of the Supreme God System. Even if some of them could complete the mission alive, it would be hard for them to regain the Punisher of Heaven’s trust and return to the Black Market.
“I thought they don’t accept Hybrids? Shit. They deceived me into working myself to the death participating in matches here while at the same time trying to send me to the frontline. How the fuck am I supposed to fight against the systems?” Jiali pointed to her own modified leg. “Use my steel leg to kick them?”
Rain pitter-pattered down the ground. Jiali did not dare to speak loudly. Forcing back her fury, she stubbed out the cigarette and threw the butt to the ground. The ground was filthy and littered with randomly strewn, poor-quality paper napkins. Jiali turned her head and saw the flashing patrol drones above the coliseum, along with the dazzling and colorful night scene in the distance.
“To hell with them.” Jiali said irritably. “All of them.”
Su Heting went home after finishing two skewers of mushrooms. He jabbed his hands into his pockets, wanting so much to wrap all of himself in the raincoat so that no one could spy on him.
Every street Su Heting passed by, he would sweep a glance out of the corner of his eyes at an angle behind him. He had already become paranoid under such a high degree of surveillance. The feeling of being watched was just like the feeling of being surrounded by flies all the time.
A large building was broadcasting a fashion ad, where holographic projections of models walked from an elevated spot to the traffic flow, acting all coquettish to tantalize the crowd. Holographic advertisements played haphazardly on both sides of the street, and oddly shaped electronic LED signs crowded together. Once night fell, it would be a cacophony of audio-visual pollution everywhere.
Su Heting passed through a group of hanfu enthusiasts with vintage paper umbrellas. Someone among them was wearing a second-rate hat from ancient times, with intriguing reflected light on the drooping black felt.
“I placed the wrong bet.” The boy in a robe with billowing skirt secured with a sash around the waist and an ancient longsword at his waist made a chagrined sound. “Titan didn’t win! I lost all my money. Maybe I’ll bet on King Shen next…”
“Don’t.” Su Heting said as he walked past him. “Bet on Meowzai. You won’t lose.”
“Huh?” The other person turned his head to the side, only to catch a glimpse of Su Heting’s back. “Hey…”
Su Heting turned his way out of the sea of people and leaped over the stairs in a few steps to enter the old building.
The elevators in this kind of building were very old. From the entrance and exit to the waiting floor, they had to go through a total of three data recognitions. The biometric technology adopted by Punisher of Heaven was a mystery. In order to manage the Hybrids of the New World, facial recognition and retinal recognition had both been eliminated. There were also Punisher of Heaven’s patrol squads at the corners of each floor’s entrance and exit. However, they mostly amused themselves and kept a more tolerant attitude towards the incoming and outgoing Hybrids.
But there were always exceptions.
Su Heting stepped out of the corner and saw three patrol officers playing billiards. The billiard table occupied the narrow hallway space, and they had even set two holographic beauties up to light cigarettes. The group of them was blocking the passageway, and it just so happened that a video of Titan and Meowzai’s match was being broadcasted on the wall.
Su Heting promptly had a bad feeling about this.
“Wanna play billiard?” A patrol officer flicked his cigarette at the ashtray beside his hand and called out Su Heting’s tournament ID, “Meowzai.”
Having been warned by the Monk before, Su Heting did not want to get into trouble, but refusing the other party at this moment seemed like it would be more trouble for him. A few drops of rain dripped from the wet brim of his raincoat hat, making him look a little wretched. “I only know how to play the Chinese Eight Black Balls.”
“That’s my favorite.” The patrol officer flashed a smile at Su Heting. The yellowish tartar on his teeth was particularly conspicuous. “Come over and play two games to celebrate your win.”
They had no intention of giving way to Su Heting. While the other person was speaking, someone had already handed Su Heting a cue stick.
Su Heting pushed off his hat and took the cue stick. His black cat ears tilted upwards, its soft, fluffy fur swaying as he chalked the cue.
“Let’s start.” The patrol officer leaned against the edge of the table with a casual attitude. “What kind of cat are you?”
They did not see Su Heting as a “human Survivor”.
The upper echelons of Punisher of Heaven saw the Hybrids as a group of tools with the same shape as machines. The earliest experiments of implants and biochips were all conducted by the Supreme God System, and consequently, the emergence of brain-machine interfaces in the New World caused Punisher of Heaven to panic. They did not want to be domesticated by the Supreme God System, so they could only make the first move to domesticate the Hybrids who had been integrated into the system technology.
“Just a cat.” Su Heting felt that the stimulus signal he had received during the game had still yet to recede from his brain. Under this antagonistic atmosphere, he subconsciously twitched his ears. “The common kind.”
The patrol officer grabbed Su Heting’s raincoat and lifted him. “And where is that tail of yours? Hidden in your pants?”
Su Heting smacked away his hand with the cue. “Are you that fucking curious?”
The words had only just left Su Heting’s mouth when the patrol officer shoved his head down on the table. He heard the sound as the other party made his move, but he did not evade it. There were surveillance cameras on both sides of the floor. He could not hit out. Once judged to be the initiator in the attack, the armed squad nearby would shoot.
“So what if I’m curious?” The patrol officer flicked away his cigarette and bent down to let loose a torrent of curses at Su Heting. “Fuck you. I lost all my money tonight because of you!”
He yanked off the multifunctional electric baton at the back of his waist and slammed Su Heting over to the ground. Another man put his arm around Su Heting’s neck, bumping the table askew in the process, then bent over at the waist to drag Su Heting towards the public restroom.
There were no surveillance cameras in the restroom. Su Heting twisted his head to keep his throat away from the point the other party was pressing down hard against. At the very moment the other party’s arm loosened its grip, Su Heting grabbed hold of the man’s collar and flung him over to the ground. As he rose to his feet, the electric baton the patrol officer had swung struck him in the chest.
“Call the Armed Squad.” The patrol officer held down the in-ear communicator with one hand while continuing to swing the electric baton at Su Heting with the other. “There’s a Hybrid—”
Su Heting crouched down and kicked the patrol officer in the knee while dodging the electric baton. The patrol officer went down on one knee in severe pain. Su Heting grabbed his wrist and smashed the electric baton into the other party’s ear with the communicator.
The patrol officer let out a blood-curdling scream. Fresh blood poured.
Su Heting said nothing as he straightened up to lift his leg and kicked the patrol officer over to the edge of the sink. He turned on the faucet, and water came swishing down over the top of the patrol officer’s head.
“Fuck… you…” The patrol officer’s words were broken up by the rush of water. He started to choke and grabbed the edges with both hands in an attempt to lift his head.
“Who the fuck asked you not to put your bet on me?” Su Heting raised his hand and wiped his forehead. He was in a terrible mood as he continued to stomp on the patrol officer’s back. “It serves you right to lose all your money!”
The patrol officer choked until there was a “gurgling” sound emitting from his throat.
[Kill him! Kill him!]
It was as if the pop-up comments from the match were still before his eyes, and Su Heting suspected that he had heard the shouts of the spectators during the match. The residual stimulation in his brain shot up his spine, and the exhilaration caused his tail to wag. He kept increasing the pressure in his foot. It is almost as if he wanted to trample the patrol officer’s upper body into the sink.
“Warning.” The life monitor on the patrol officer blared out an alarm. “Warning!”
The glass inside the public restroom suddenly shattered. The Monk, in full battle gear, rolled to the ground and fired at Su Heting.
Su Heting’s heightened nerve reflex speed once again demonstrated the edge he had over them. The speed in which his pair of cat ears processed audio data far exceeded that of the average person. At the very instant the Monk fired, he covered his head and rolled away.
The bullet struck the wall, and the tile exploded with a “bang”.
“Squat down!” The Monk, who was wearing a gas mask, aimed the muzzle at Su Heting and bellowed, “Or I’ll fucking shoot you dead.”