True to his words, the Inspector arrived on time.
“Your medical kit is already in place.” Dongfang opened the back door and crawled in to say to Xiaogu, “It’s okay, bro. Let me see the wound.”
“This bite is so on target.” Xiaogu’s face was ghastly white, and his arm was trembling slightly because of the pain. “Are you up to it?”
“With Sir watching,” Dongfang opened the medical kit, “I’ll be even if I’m not. We have to get this worm off. Can you hold back from throwing up later?”
Xiaogu gasped for breath. “I already feel like throwing up now.”
The Blackworm had a simple structure. To pull out the needles, they had to first peel off its skin to get a look at its intravenous infusion device. It sounded like an easy task, but the process was highly disgusting, and it was quite possible that blood would splatter all over.
“Its infusion tubes are very thin.” Su Heting heard the Inspector approach. “Leave it to me.”
The seats were so narrowly spaced that Su Heting was shoulder-to-shoulder with the Inspector. He saw the hand with the distinct carpal bones—along with an icy aura—beside his hand, ready to take over his dagger.
“Fine.” Su Heting kept his words short and concise.
The Inspector reached out and grasped Su Heting’s hand. His fingers extended forward and came into contact with the sticky, bloodstained dagger. “I’m ready.”
Su Heting withdrew his hand. His fingers were dirty, but a hint of a chill still lingered at the back of his hand.
The Inspector lifted his eyelids and swept his eyes over Xiaogu. “Close your eyes, and don’t puke. It’s too narrow here to clean up.”
A bubble of snot had even ballooned on Xiaogu’s nose from all that crying. He shut his eyes tightly. “I wasn’t thinking of opening my eyes, anyway. Sir, do what you need to. I won’t look!”
The Inspector immediately worked the dagger and pared off the skin.
Su Heting stared at the Inspector’s hand, watching as the blade cut open the soft flesh… He managed for only a few seconds before swiftly turning his head away.
The Blackworm’s infusion tubes were all buried in the flesh, appearing as slightly winding arches, and each of the various infusion tubes were connected to different syringes that intersected in a jumble near the head. There was only a layer of limp, dry, and wrinkled skin covering it, with a texture similar to that of a rubber glove that could not even hang on to the flesh when it was pried away.
A pungent stench pervaded the air in the vehicle.
“It has steel rings at the bottom of the suckers. We can keep them for later use.” Dongfang, on the other hand, enjoyed watching. “We can even use these steel fangs as chopsticks.”
“Stop it!” Xiaogu nearly barfed.
“Just tapping our resources to the fullest.” Dongfang grinned.
The atmosphere loosened up the moment he cracked jokes.
The Inspector moved with practiced ease and dealt with the Blackworm in a matter of a few minutes. He put the sliced part into an isolation bag and sealed it.
“Pull the needles out,” he commanded.
The process of removing the needles was even more exciting than the skinning.
At first, Xiaogu was still conscious and could bicker and trade barbs with Dongfang, but as time lapsed, his arm began to swell, and the pain seared into his consciousness, gradually sending him into a semi-conscious state.
“Doomsday…” Xiaogu raved as if he was having a nightmare, “blew up the entire Old World… My wife and child…”
“They are all in the Survival Zone.” Dongfang monitored Xiaogu’s body temperature. “You’ll be able to see them when we get out.”
“When…” Reclining against the back of the seat, Xiaogu’s lips moved, “… will we…”
It was rather quiet in the vehicle, interspersed intermittently with Xiaogu’s garbled words. All Su Heting could hear were “human beings” and “sir”.
“Soon, soon.” Dongfang soothed him as he activated cooling mode. Wearing a mask, he cast a glance at Su Heting and the Inspector. “Both of you should go wash up and disinfect yourselves. Have Hua Zhi keep watch for me.”
“He’s okay now?” Su Heting asked.
“Yup.” Dongfang paused for a moment. “We got lucky this time.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Su Heting got out of the vehicle, only to realize that he was covered in sweat. He found a hose from the automatic car wash across the road and squatted down to study it for a moment. Cool water spurted forth.
Here, the sun shone high in the sky, so scorching that heat waves were visibly roiling off the ground. Su Heting could not stand the heat. He folded his ears back and heard the Inspector instructing Yu Cheng to handle the armament chests.
Su Heting washed his hands for a while, rinsing off the filth between his fingers before scouring the back of his hands.
“My time’s almost up,” Su Heting said with his back to the sound of footsteps. “I probably won’t be around for the next nightfall, so I’ll say bye-bye to you beforehand.”
The Inspector gazed at Su Heting.
Su Heting, muddle-headed as he was, thought the Inspector was reluctant to squat. He perked his ears up again and asked at the same time he listened to the sound of activity. “Aren’t you gonna wash your hands? Come here. I’ll rinse them for you?”
After a long silence, the Inspector squatted beside Su Heting. Even while squatting, he was still taller than Su Heting.
Su Heting did not want to concede defeat, so he quietly straightened his back. He very graciously shifted aside to let the Inspector have his spot, then gestured for the latter to extend his hands.
The Inspector very obediently held out his hands.
Su Heting looked up at him, face-to-face, and asked in surprise, “Aren’t you gonna roll up your sleeves?”
The Inspector did not move. His dark-colored eyes—eyes that reflected Su Heting’s silhouette—did not even blink.
Su Heting did not know if he was misreading it, but he felt that the Inspector’s gaze at this moment differed from the previous times. There was a vague hint of dissatisfaction in them.
Su Heting, “?”
Is my service not to your satisfaction, bro?
The Inspector waited for a moment. “You said you were going to help me rinse.”
“… Right.” Su Heting clamped down on the hose and, for the first time in his life, rolled up someone else’s sleeves for them. He clumsily folded the Inspector’s cuffs, making a mess of them but feeling rather satisfied with his handiwork. “I forgot. Sorry about that. Here you go. As long as they don’t get wet.”
Su Heting held the hose with one hand and grabbed hold of the Inspector’s fingertips with the other. Both were bona fide men, and it felt pretty weird to hold hands suddenly. Fortunately, there was the cool water that could play down the bizarre atmosphere.
“How long have you been here?” Su Heting suddenly asked. “Four years?”
The Inspector lowered his eyes and looked at his hands, his answer just as perfunctory as it had always been. “I forgot.”
“Well, then.” Su Heting shook the hose. “If that’s how you gonna answer me, I won’t come again.”
As soon as the words were out of Su Heting’s mouth, the Inspector grasped his fingers tight. The hose sprayed onto both of their arms, soaking their sleeves wet.
After a while, the Inspector answered, “Five years.”
Su Heting could not understand why they had to hold hands if the Inspector had been here five years, but he embraced the spirit of comradeship and did not fling the Inspector over his shoulder. Instead, he awkwardly uttered an “uh-huh—” as if it was a very solemn topic.
“So, still coming?” The Inspector asked.
Inexplicably enough, Su Heting uttered another “uh-huh”, as if he would not be able to extract his hand if he did not say yes.
The Inspector was not too convinced. “Will you wear the bell?”
“… Yeah,” Su Heting answered and silently added a “probably”.
On getting his answer, the Inspector released his hand and held the hose in place, wanting to turn off the water.
Belatedly realizing something, Su Heting grabbed at the corner of the Inspector’s shirt to prevent him from leaving. “Don’t you have precognitive powers?”
The Inspector was just about to say something when the prompt beeped in Su Heting’s head.
Shit, time’s up.
“The Punishment Zone’s experience is over.
“Please maintain your breathing and prepare to return to reality.
The corner of the Inspector’s shirt moved ever so slightly. He watched as Su Heting loosened his grip and vanished from his spot. The hose was still spraying water, wetting his trouser legs. And alone he stood, his fingers empty.
◈ ◈ ◈
For the second time, a bout of dizziness hit Su Heting. It was as if he had just gotten off a drop tower. As soon as he opened his eyes, he resisted the urge to dry-heave and held onto the seat for support. The scorching sunlight vanished, replaced by the air-conditioned breeze in the room that chilled his back and aggravated his nausea.
“Turn it off.” Su Heting buried his face in his arms. “Stop blowing.”
“You disappeared into the Punishment Zone for twenty-three hours.” The Chief propped her face with a hand and stirred her cold medicine with her other hand. “If not for the fact that your life monitor is still working, I’d have thought you died.”
“You guys suck at data tracking.” Su Heting pressed down on his stomach, which was suffering from hunger pangs, and looked up with slightly arched eyebrows. “Need I remind you I’m a lone soldier penetrating deep into the enemy territory?”
The Chief looked at him with a sharp gaze. “Where have you been?”
“Running for my life,” Su Heting said. “It’s slaughter time after sunset, and it’s all too easy to die if I stay put. I’ve been running from the time I went online to the time I logged off. I’m exhausted. Can this wait until I’m done eating?”
“Don’t pull that on me.” The Chief activated the 3D projection of the Punishment zone and found the little flashing star among the lines. “You met the Inspector here, and then you disappeared. Where did you go?”
“Like I said, running for my life.” Su Heting leaned back in his chair and partially tilted back. “You were the one who said that the Inspector kills undercover agents like me on sight. I saw him as soon as I went online. Of course I had to run.”
The Chief stared at him without saying a word. A few moments later, she relaxed and continued to stir her cold medicine. “Where did you run to? You can’t even find time to send a text message.”
“You can’t even track me. How am I supposed to send a text message?” The gears turned in Su Heting’s mind as he raised his hand to stroke the corner of his lips. The wound caused by the butt of the gun had already healed. He locked eyes with the Chief, suddenly flashed a smile, and bluffed, “You know there are jammers in the Punishment Zon, right? The Supreme God Systems are wary of you guys. Those temperamental A.I. have no wishes to be spied on. Or perhaps—and this is just a guess—they know what you guys are looking for.”
“That’s impossible,” the Chief rebutted.
“Why not?” Su Heting said enigmatically, “I thought about it carefully. Time-Limited Hunt was a Black Panther’s experiment. The relevant information has all been sealed. Other than the Supreme God Systems, who else would reveal the information of the super-evolved system, Jue, to you people? This bunch of A.I. may very well be waiting for you guys to take the bait and walk into the trap, and I’m the cannon fodder at the fore leading the charge.”
Neither of them told the other the truth. This cooperation was coercion from the very beginning. To the Chief, however, Su Heting’s fabrication was not without merit.
The Chief was not the boss of Punisher of Heaven. Her information on Jue came from the higher-ups. That Punisher of Heaven’s interface could infiltrate the Punishment Zone was, in itself, fishy. A lot of things had been just her guesses, so there was no way she could tell which was genuine or not.
“And one more thing,” Su Heting propped his chin on his hand, his heterochromia eyes full of suspicion as he continued to bluff. “You said the Inspector has precognitive abilities. Why am I getting the feeling that there’s an undercover agent planted among you?”
The Monk, who had been sitting in the corner all this time, spoke up without hesitation. “Impossible.”
The other two looked at him, and he folded his arms, looking the very picture of a fretting dad as he shook his head in all seriousness and answered firmly, “Punisher of Heaven staked all of its assets to secure the safety of the Survival Zone. Hundreds of us died in the surprise raid operation. I believe, no, I’m of the firm conviction that there are no undercover agents for the systems among Punisher of Heaven.”
The Monk’s eyes were deep and heavy.
He considered himself an ordinary person, but in the New World, he still retained a bit of lofty faith.
“You don’t understand the significance of Punisher of Heaven.” The Monk propped his hands on his knees and looked at Su Heting. “‘Punisher of Heaven’ signifies that human beings will continue to fight the Supreme God Systems even if their heads are cut off.”1 He paused for a moment, his tone sure and certain. “We are the undying flame of resistance in the New World.”
“I wish you guys victory in battle,” Su Heting applauded emotionlessly, not wanting to discuss Punisher of Heaven anymore. “Can I eat now?”
◈ ◈ ◈