A massive shadow that blotted out the sky and covered the earth passed menacingly over the dense clusters of clouds with a heavy, clamorous noise that sounded like millions of people fighting and slaughtering each other, but the clouds were so thick that even Su Heting’s modified eyes could not see what it was.
Xiaogu pushed against the wind with his shoulders. “The eunuch couldn’t be abusing its authority to avenge a personal vendetta, could it?!”
“This is never-ending….” Su Heting’s hood flapped in the wind, tightening around his neck, making it look like someone was lifting him by his hood. He amplified his voice. “Why isn’t this eunuch dead yet?!”
“It can respawn.” Yu Cheng hurriedly held on to his spectacles. “It can’t die!”
The gale went on a rampage everywhere, like a hyena in the dark trying to rip everything around it apart.
The mechanical eunuch looked down into the nighttime scene with the satisfaction of a bully counting on the backing of its position to flaunt its might. It wanted to avenge the Inspector’s headshot on itself, but it had to follow the procedural arrangements of the Supreme God Systems. It could not take matters into its own hands and act without authorization.
The death count tonight had already reached the mark, and the red light had to come on. Daytime was when gods and demons were prohibited from hunting, so the mechanical eunuch had to issue the prohibition before sunrise.
Perhaps the massive shadow had been perched on the clouds for too long , and that gave the Inspector an inkling. He thrust the pen back into his pocket, his gaze not lingering a second longer on the mechanical eunuch.
The mechanical eunuch abhorred the Inspector’s calmness and disregard, but the red color on the gourd on its outer robe had already lit up, indicating that the time was up for tonight.
The eunuch let out a cold snort and waited until the red color completely covered its outer robe before it haughtily raised its hand and said, “Stop—!”
It glowed red all over, like a flashing command center at the top of the building. The raging rain and wind all seemed to be waiting for this word. As that “stop” reverberated through the whole area, the rainstorm suddenly subsided. Even that eerie, lifeless atmosphere receded away into the darkness, leaving behind a stretch of wreckage.
“It will take a while for the sky to light up.” Dongfang saw Su Heting still gazing into the horizon and thought he was waiting for the sun. “It’s considered over as long as the red light lights up. We can rest now.”
“Uh-huh…” Su Heting retracted his gaze that had been tracking the massive shadow and pointed at the sky. “You guys even have aerial combat?”
“Haven’t really fought much of that. The chances of gods appearing are very small. Our squad…” A thought seemed to occur to Dongfang when he was midway speaking, and he started to hedge it, “I’ll tell you again when we encounter them in the future.”
In the future?
Su Heting’s expression was odd. “You’re so sure I’ll still be coming?”
The Punishment Zone was like a game of slaughter the Supreme Gods System made on a whim. Su Heting was a survivor who had already escaped from the Guanggui District. There was no need for him to continue risking his life here. He could run once he logged off, but whether or not he could make his escape remained to be seen. Dongfang’s attitude toward him, though, was way too trusting.
Dongfang was not as flustered as Yu Cheng was. He scratched his hair and joked, “Punisher of Heaven values you. They won’t let you go that easily. Anyway, once you come here a few times and interact with us, we will all be on familiar terms with one another… right, sir?!”
Sir was in the midst of pulling heads from Yanguang’s corpses. These heads all had their hair intact. Secured to Yanguang’s chains, they looked as if they had been strung together on a necklace.
The moment the heads heard “sir”, they looked sorrowful and began to shout too, “Sir! Sir!”
“These heads are called Flying Head Barbarians.” ① Yu Cheng completed his statement from earlier. Facing Su Heting, he gestured to the heads. “They have no bodies, only heads. Every day, they will fly around like drones. Their night visions are good, and they know quite a lot. Yanguang often catch them and hung them on its chest as radios.”
Yanguang adored bright light. It was all too easy for them to feel downcast when they walked around in the night. Perhaps it was to prevent them from arbitrarily growing bigger and going berserk that they had Flying Head Barbarians. These Flying Head Barbarians flew around all day long and were fond of peeping and eavesdropping. They loved recording down other people’s private affairs, and they whispered among themselves in the dead of night. They shared a common information memory that could mutually transmit information to one another. There were no secrets between them.
—Detestable creatures, they were.
“The vehicle is a goner.” Xiaogu squatted at the side and lamented regretfully. “I have to go and steal another one. Cat, you’re coming with me, right?”
Su Heting was a tough one to invite. “You paying me?”
“Aw, don’t be so distant.” Xiaogu clasped his hands before his chest and put on a pitiful expression, making use of his eight- or nine-year-old skin to put on an act. “Please, da-gege. Without a vehicle, it’s hard for us to get around.”
“Don’t you have a cannon?” Su Heting said. “What’s there to be afraid of?”
Xiaogu blinked. “My legs are short. I can’t reach the accelerator.”
Su Heting, “…”
When Su Heting left with Xiaogu, light was already peeking out of the horizon. A gust of chilly, after-rain morning air with the scent of petrichor greeted them.
The Inspector threw the chains as thick as arms on the ground and stepped on one of the Flying Head Barbarians.
Not daring to shake its head, the Flying Head Barbarian cried aloud, “Don’t kill the head! Don’t kill the head!”
The Inspector said nothing and merely straightened the head with his foot.
The Flying Head Barbarian’s slightly bulging eyes were bloodshot. It felt a chill running down the back of its head as the Inspector stared at it. It knew who the Inspector was, and it was precisely because it knew that it was afraid. Its blanched lips darkened, and it stopped yelling, daring only to part its lips when it wept.
The Inspector bent down, his shadow enveloping the Flying Head Barbarian. There was no warmth in his voice in the silence of the early morning. “Your lot tailed 016?”
The Flying Head Barbarian was hurting from being stepped on. Its face flushed, and its eyebrows furrowed tightly. Swiveling its eyes, it cried, “No, no, we wouldn’t dare to! We weren’t tailing him. We just happened to run into that squad of people who were investigating Zhurong. The leader was called 016, and he claimed to be a squad leader under you. We were merely curious. How dare mere mortals investigate the Fire God—”
Its panting intensified.
The Inspector remained silent, but the silence was so heavily oppressive that the Flying Head Barbarian was almost incoherent. “We didn’t mean to see…”
“See what?” The Inspector probed.
The Flying Head Barbarian’s temples were sweating profusely. “Fire… burning all over the entire area. 016 was struck by Zhurong’s tracking missiles. He shouted for help in the rain… but the communicator was no longer working. Zhurong’s chariot drove over and steamrolled over his chest…”
Yu Cheng took off his spectacles and wiped the water off his face, not wanting to continue listening.
“And then he died.” The Flying Head Barbarian sniveled. “That’s all we saw, sir!”
By now, the day had broken.
The Flying Head Barbarian was still crying and shouting, “we never spread ru—”
The Flying Head Barbarian’s voice came to an abrupt stop, and the heads around them fell eerily silent. Blood and brain splattered onto the ground.
The Inspector kept away his gun. “Clean it up.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Su Heting alertly and keenly observed the skyscrapers towering in the sunlight.
In the daytime, the Punishment Zone had a palpable air of bleak desolation. There was no greenery among these steel jungles, nor were there any humans. The highest building was about three hundred meters tall, and there were rows upon rows of them—designless and formless—which looked like tombstones if one were to look at them for long.
“The buildings will refresh.” Xiaogu put on a pair of children’s sunglasses. “Everything here can be refreshed, except for humans.”
“The few of you aren’t the only prisoners in Guanggui district,” Su Heting said. “Where are the others?”
“Everywhere.” Xiaogu stamped on the ground and indicated for him to look down. “Everyone’s hiding in the underground pipes like rats.”
Su Heting lowered his head, finding this road scalding to the feet.
“While the underground pipes are safe, there’s no food. We will regularly organize search parties to come up to scavenge for food. But there are too many people. So there are often those who are so famished that they would sneak up here,” Xiaogu said. “Come to think of it, it’s ludicrous. This is clearly a cyber world, but we will still go hungry.”
“Will food be refreshed as well?” Su Heting asked.
“Yes, but the location and timing aren’t fixed. You’ll need to search for them. That’s the reason why this squad of ours has been on the ground for a long time.” Xiaogu raised his head to look at the sun and said, melancholy, “Sigh, I’m old, and I don’t know how much longer I have to live. Who knows, I might just breathe my last one of these days. I’ll just take walking around as exercise now.”
“You’re only thirty-six,” Su Heting reminded him.
Right in the prime of life.
“That body of mine, right… has been soaking in the farm’s nutrition tank for six years. My limbs have probably wasted away.” Xiaogu beckoned to Su Heting and gestured for him to follow him as he casually chatted. “That’s the reason why I look like a child now. We have lots of old people and children here, because our bodily functions are degenerating in reality. Not many can fight.”
Su Heting recalled when they were fighting Bifang, there were plenty of old people among the crowd that had been forced out by the cannons between Bifang’s beaks. He strode across the manhole cover. “So you guys have been around since the time I was locked up in the Punishment Zone?”
“Let me see….” Xiaogu understood how things stand and knew what he should or should not say. “The data says that you escaped in the year 04 during the Great Explosion. At that time, I was still not doing this.”
Something clicked in Su Heting’s mind. “This squad of five is newly formed?”
“Not exactly new. It’s been formed two years.” Xiaogu did not elaborate further but diverted the topic. “What does the Anti-System Survival Zone look like?”
“Older than this place.” Su Heting did not have a good impression on that place. After comparing the skyscrapers on both sides, he added, “More run-down too.”
“It’s not great here either.” Xiaogu walked in front of Su Heting and raised a hand to point it out to him. “See that? It’s the realm of gods and demons.”
The realm of gods and demons?
Su Heting looked over. His view was obscured by the skyscrapers.
“It’s all flashy mechanical divine entities in there,” Xiaogu said, “and they sleep during the day.”
“So?” Su Heting narrowed his eyes. “They’ll follow the mechanical eunuch out at night to rock and roll?”
Xiaogu was amused. “They will roam around the periphery of this city and kill all those who cross the boundary. It is said that there are countless huge Buddha statues hundred of meters tall at the end of the dark night after you pass through the realm of gods and demons. We call that place the ‘Destination’. That’s the wall of this world.”
This virtual world was just this big. Even when a human’s consciousness was wandering, they did not become free. Day and night were all subjected to the whims of the Supreme God systems, and they had to wait for food to be refreshed before they could obtain it. The steel jungle formed a consciousness fence; this was already a micro-society gone twisted.
Su Heting thought.
The Anti-System Survival Zone was the same. The entire New World was rotten through and through.
“Who has been there before?” He stared into the distance. “That Destination.”
“Sir,” Xiaogu said.
“You are a squad of five people.” Su Heting withdrew his gaze and stuck his hands into his hoodie pocket. He sounded baffled. “Why call him sir?”
“Who said we are a five-person squad? We have lots of people.” Xiaogu adjusted his kiddy sunglasses and looked at Su Heting. “In our heyday, we had three hundred!”
“Oh,” Unable to read Xiaogu’s gaze, Su Heting asked bluntly, “where are the others?”
The morning sun was ridiculously hot, and it was silent all around.
“All dead,” Xiaogu answered.
①Flying Head Barbarians: Each head has a face that differs from one another. Has night vision and is adept at flying. They are often caught to serve as surveillance. Yanguang adore them. They are generally chatterboxes, love singing, and like to pry into other people’s private affairs and secrets.
— “Right on Target Records of Supernatural Anecdotes” 《准点狙击异闻录》
①-1 Inspiration source for the setting: Miscellaneous Morsels from Youyang 《酉阳杂俎》：Among the mountain streams of Lingnan,1 there are often people whose heads can fly. These people are called the Flying Head Barbarians. The day before the head is going to fly away, a trace will appear on the person’s neck, looking much like a red thread encircling the neck. The head will then sprout wings, and it will go scavenging in the mud of the riverbanks for crabs, earthworms, and other things to feast on.
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