Su Heting opened his eyes and found himself sitting on a bench at the intersection.
The sky at this time was dark, and rain was falling incessantly. The few pedestrians coming and going on the path all had umbrellas over their heads; he was the only one drenched in the rain. Su Heting swiftly swept a glance around, but did not catch any sign of the Chief.
The sound came from the pocket of his pants.
Su Heting reached into his pocket and fished out a phone. This phone model looked old, like an antique. He pressed the worn-out button and saw two text messages.
[Take bus #97 at 21:00 and tail a man with cross stud earring.]
[Kill him where there’s no one looking.]
Su Heting’s fingers nimbly and swiftly typed out a reply.
[The fart you dreaming.]
[Sever the connection to my brain-computer, now.]
A second later, Su Heting received a reply message.
[The bus will arrive in 30 seconds. If you don’t kill him, you’ll be the one who dies. A friendly reminder that he’s the Punishment Zone’s reconnaissance system, nicknamed “Inspector”. He specializes in ferreting out undercover agents like you, and he kills every single one he finds.]
[Off him, and mama will give you $200,000.]
[As pocket money.]
Su Heting was in a terrible mood. The bus happened to arrive at the stop just then, and opened its door before him. He glared at the door for two seconds before getting up to get on the bus.
The bus was driverless, and the seats were empty except for a scattering of about four or five people. Su Heting threw out the coins in his pocket as fare and headed for the back. None of the passengers he passed by were wearing an earring. He continued to walk towards the back, where he saw a person sitting in the last row of seats by the window.
The lightning in the bus was extremely poor on a rainy night. The first thing Su Heting noticed was the other person’s hands.
This pair of hands were fair, long, and slender, and his fingernails were cleanly trimmed. A black fountain pen rested on the web between his thumb and index finger, like a long, sheathed blade placed on a stand.
Su Heting sat down three empty seats away from the other person.
The other person was wearing a shirt with a slightly loose tie, a cross stud earring on his right ear with the chain clasped onto his ear. His skin was very fair, and he had broad shoulders and a narrow waist. He just so happened to be looking out of the window and did not seem to notice Su Heting taking his seat.
Fuckin’ text messages keep popping up like a bad penny.
[It’s slaughter time after sunset in the Punishment Zone. You know this better than me, right?]
Nope, I don’t.
Su Heting pressed away the message and put both hands into his pockets. Only his eyes were exposed behind his raised collar, and his damp hair was a mess. He looked just like a stray cat.
The Chief did not know it, but Su Heting had a secret. In the Great Explosion, he lost a part of his memory. He did not remember anything to do with the Punishment Zone, the Supreme God Alliance, and the Time-Limited Hunt, but he could not let the Chief get an inkling of this.
Because his body was still in the Chief’s hands.
The rain outside the window was intensifying, yet there were no street lights on both sides of the road. Su Heting glanced out of the window from the corner of his eye, where he could glimpse the clusters of buildings flashing by. Those buildings were all hidden in the dimness, and none of their lights were on. It was as if time had already crossed into the witching hour of midnight. Outlines of the buildings looked more and more like indescribable behemoths. They crept all around, making the advancing lights of the bus look all the more conspicuous.
A passenger in front got motion sickness and puked in the aisle with his head lowered.
Su Heting twitched his cat ears; he had heard the sound of metal scraping across the ground amidst all this noise.
He had a bad feeling.
There better not be any incognizable plot beyond his comprehension—
Right this instant, the bus lurched suddenly. Su Heting reached out a hand to stabilize himself. He still remembered that the Inspector was still at the side, so he fought back the urge to leap to his feet.
But the bus had already changed lanes, with the front forcibly knocked askew, sending tires scraping across the road amidst ear-piercing screeches. The entire bus tilted over to the left. Before that unlucky passenger who had been carsick had time to straighten up, he was thrown to the left by the force of inertia. He slammed hard against the seat and let loose a heartrending cry.
The next second, the windows on the left exploded, and shattered glass went flying. Su Heting raised his arms to shield himself. He heard the few passengers ahead of him shrieking and screaming. It was as if the bus had plunged into a cylinder washing machine as it spun and jerked violently before crashing into the phone booth by the road.
The glass door of the phone booth exploded apart with a “bang”.
“… Go home…”
A hand reached in from the broken window, along with an unfamiliar voice.
That hand was so soft it was incredible. It crawled inward along the seats, its arm stretching unbelievably long like it was plasticine. The scream of the passenger who had gotten injured by the slam earlier changed in pitch. He had not even crawled a meter out from his seat before that arm wrapped itself tightly around him.
“… Go home…”
This time, the voice was close by.
Su Heting whipped his head around and saw a “woman” with its breasts exposed leaning over the window to his right. Its hair was disheveled, and its face was as ghastly white as paper as it whimpered with sobs.
Su Heting was still hugging the backrest of the seat before him as he remained in his own seat and forced himself to play the role of a passerby.
The “woman” banged her head on the glass window and ignored the desperate struggle of the seized passenger as she dragged him out of the bus. The passenger let loose brief cries for help, yet the “woman” kept banging her head frenziedly in Su Heting’s direction amidst these cries for help.
The window shattered after a few hits, and Su Heting saw its head sticking through the window, its lips opening and closing.
“Ding Ding Ding—”
Text messages came thick and fast, but Su Heting did not have the time to look at them. The “woman” stretched out her neck, her face already pressing in close before him. He could hardly continue keeping up with his act.
What the heck is this mission?!
Right at the same time, a gunshot suddenly rang out beside Su Heting. The bullet struck the “woman” in the head. Unable to open her mouth, the “woman” could only issue a dull cry of pain from where her chest cavity was. It flung its head around in pain and bumped around haphazardly on the backrest of the seat. In order to pull its head out of the window, several long, narrow, and sharp metal legs protruded from among her thick, long hair and stomped on the outer wall of the bus, making shrill, ripping noises.
However, the head that had been shot did not explode. A kind of viscous liquid wrapped around the bullet and spat it out from the position of its temple to the ground.
Su Heting felt the back of his collar tightened as the Inspector, who had been silent all this while, yanked him to the left. Both men crossed paths in the twinkling of an eye, and in the dim and cramped space, Su Heting clearly saw a glint of silver light from that cross stud earring, which then shot towards the window like an artillery shell.
The “woman” had just pulled her head out and was maniacally wrecking the bus with her bladed legs.
The Inspector hooked his arm over the backrest of the seat and somersaulted directly out of the window in one nimble move. The howling wind blew his hair apart, revealing a pair of cold, piercing eyes. He moved with lightning speed, and in a flash, he had already bent his knee to slam it hard into the side of the monster’s neck with buildup power so unimaginable that the monster was unexpectedly knocked over to the ground, sending spatters of muddy water splashing all over.
Torrential rain pelted hard onto the Inspector’s body, and he expressionlessly raised his hands and fired at the monster. Rainwater trickled across his brows and eyes, yet he never even blinked as a succession of gunshots resounded through the night.
When the gunfire stopped, a kind of rending terror began to spread.
“Nocturnal—” The passenger who had a narrow escape had yet to finish his words when the color drained from his face as he faced Su Heting and let fly a short exclamation, “Eh!
In the twinkling of an eye, Su Heting abruptly tilted his head, and a sharp, blade-like leg whistled past and broke through the window to scrape across his cheek from behind. Glass shards instantly shattered all over.
Su Heting grabbed that sharp leg and exerted force with his arm. The glass of the bus behind him promptly shattered into smithereens. The monster was dragged into the bus and flung hard into the seat, where it immediately burst into a shrill, mournful howl.
Su Heting touched the side of his neck, which had been scraped by glass fragments. His heart was still pounding. “You’re a scary one, huh.”
Red smeared the side of his neck as he stroked it.
Su Heting spread out the hand he had used to grab the bladed leg earlier and saw the open cuts oozing with blood. This put him in an even more of a terrible mood.
He would get hurt here, and just like when he fought in matches, the sensation level of pain here was cranked up.
Su Heting’s heart was racing. He felt some kind of stimulation signal firing away on a rampage in his mind, just like the moment his tail connected to the coliseum. Blood trickled to the back of his hand, staining his cuff. He clenched and unclenched his fist, keeping his adrenalin running high in spite of his displeasure.
“Hey.” He wanted to say something.
But those stimulation signals engulfed him whole.
The alert for the text message chimed out of the blue, interrupting Su Heting’s rising level of stimulation.
The Chief’s message was short and concise.
The thunderous explosion outside the bus went off en masse, and the shops’ windows along the streets cracked and shattered into pieces. The blast overturned the bus, and the telephone booth by the roadside could not bear the heavy load and promptly toppled over. Su Heting was also knocked off his feet among the seats, and searing pain washed over him as his back chafed against objects.
Smoke permeated the air a moment later. Only the sound of rain remained.
Su Heting swatted away the shattered glasses and dust with his hands, then crawled his way out from between the seats and jumped out of the totaled bus.
The back of the monster was entirely ablaze in flames, and its hair began to burn too. Su Heting pulled down his zipper and saw that half of the Inspector’s body was already engulfed by the fire; there was no way he could survive. That fountain pen of his had also fallen onto the ground.
Su Heting crouched down, his dark silhouette forming a bizarre scene with the still burning monster at the side. He seemed to be the only survivor in this dead city.
[The Inspector is dead. Pay up.]
This time, the Chief’s reply was slow.
[You didn’t kill him, lad. Don’t hang around there any longer.]
Su Heting saw the time on his phone. There was still an hour before he went offline.
For reasons unbeknownst to him, Su Heting hated the Punishment Zone. He held a kind of fear for the “Supreme God Alliance “—an indescribable fear. Here he was, standing in the rain. The sky was clearly dark, and there were no lights all around. Yet, he felt as if he was standing under the spotlight.
[Mission accomplished. Cut off my brain-computer connection.]
As Su Heting typed, he smudged blood all over the phone. Rainwater blotted the screen, but as soon as he wiped it, the screen got even dirtier.
[You still have one hour left. Head to this address.]
[This is your home in the Punishment Zone.]
[Be there in one hour.]
The word “home” happened to be covered up by the blood. Su Heting released his fingers and tossed the phone into the fire.
“Don’t order me around.”
◈ ◈ ◈
The address given by the Chief was a distance away. Su Heting walked in the rain with his hood over his head. The tip of his tail could serve as a streetlamp, but he did not want to be exposed in the darkness, so he crossed the wide, deserted road like a specter. He attempted to recall a little something from the outlines of these buildings, but they were simply too dark, as if they were mere phantoms of a nightmare.
That phony house was located in a certain community of villas. When Su Heting arrived at the door, he was already soaked to the bone. He saw a chic wooden sign hanging on the iron wrought gate, with “Su” written on it.
Su Heting whistled under his breath and pushed the gate open. He passed through the small garden and stood under the eaves, holding the door handle. He suddenly hit upon an idea and said out loud in a cheerful tone, “I’m home.”
Unexpectedly, the lights inside the house suddenly lit up, and the door opened from the inside.
The Inspector, who had been confirmed dead earlier, now stood at the entrance, his broad shoulders blocking out some of the light. He lifted his icy, thin eyelids and looked down at Su Heting as he towered over him.
He had already thrown his phone away, but that annoying text message alert continued to chime.
Su Heting felt lethal danger. The stimulation level that had been interrupted in the bus instantly spiked as warning alarm blared frenziedly in his mind.
The Inspector looked at Sun Heting and said with cold detachment,
◈ ◈ ◈