As soon as the Inspector spoke, Su Heting slammed the door shut.
How scary. The reconnaissance system was welcoming him.
The Inspector intercepted the door, and the hand with the pretty carpal bone reached out like a soul reaper from the underworld.
“Sorry to have bothered you.” Su Heting stepped back at the same time. He kicked the doorknob, trying to shut the Inspector back inside. “I went to the wrong door.”
But the door seemed to be welded in place and would not budge.
The deadlock lasted only a second. The Inspector’s fist smashed into the door, shattering it apart. Fragments instantly went flying all over and nearly into Su Heting’s face.
Su Heting did not wait for the Inspector’s next move. He spun and let loose a flying kick that sent the broken door panel hurtling right towards the side of the Inspector’s neck without mercy.
The Inspector shielded the side of his neck with one arm, solidly taking the blow before he backhandedly clamped down on Su Heting’s incoming foot with the intent to twist him over.
Su Heting could not turn around at this moment, so he feigned a move with his left fist. This was a Black Panther’s feinting technique in fistfights, followed up right after by a solid right hook. It was typically enough to deceive the opponent.
The Inspector seemed to have anticipated it and simply dodged his head aside to evade the blow. Splashes of raindrops struck that cross stud earring of his, sending it swaying incessantly.
Su Heting took the opportunity to retract his leg and retreat. He grabbed the remaining frame of the door and flung it at the Inspector again, then took to his heels.
The air in the Punishment Zone was humid and stiflingly hot, while the rush of pelting rain sounded like the pounding of drums.
In the blink of an eye, Su Heting leaped into the garden. He heard a sound behind him—that door was completely a goner now. The Inspector’s catching up! Su Heting was just one step away from the wrought-iron gate when a gust of wind came sweeping towards his neck from behind.
Su Heting reacted quickly and bent his arms to block the blow, but the Inspector used so much strength that the kick sent Su Heting right out of the wrought-iron gate!
Why isn’t it time to log out yet?!
Su Heting’s back scraped across the ground. He did not even have time to catch his breath when he sprang back up. The Inspector caught up to him, and both men once again came face to face with one another. The expression in the other man’s eyes was cold and cutting.
At this critical juncture, the alert tone began to “ding ding ding” wildly. It sounded like ripped pieces of paper stuffing Su Heting’s ears full in a jiffy.
“The Punishment Zone’s trial experience is over.”
An unfamiliar electronic female voice suddenly announced in Su Heting’s mind.
“Please maintain your breathing and prepare to return to reality.”
But the Inspector was already reaching behind his back in a move to draw his gun.
—Why is there even a countdown?!
Su Heting unexpectedly reached behind his back too. His expression was calm, without the slightest trace of fear of being on the disadvantageous end. His posture of drawing his gun was pretty standard too, as if he was similarly certain of success just like the Inspector.
The Inspector froze for a moment, as if he did not expect him to carry a gun too.
“Bang.” Su Heting mimicked a finger gun along with a sound effect. His cat ears, which had been pulled to the sides, reverted back to their original, erected position. “Just a smaaaaaall joke.”
The countdown ended, and the scene before him instantly blurred. Everything looked like a movie poster soaked in the rain.
Su Heting vanished right on time. It was as if he had never appeared.
The wrought-iron gate swung with a “creak” in the rainstorm, and the lights at the entrance flickered. All that remained was the Inspector standing alone in the rain.
After a long time, he retracted his hand that had been going for his gun and crouched down at the doorway. This posture in the rain offered a vague glimpse of the sculpted muscles of his shoulders and arms through his soaked shirt. Those were muscles trained specifically for combat. They were neither exaggerated nor flashy, but they rippled with explosive power.
He stared at the spot where Su Heting disappeared.
A few drops of blood had been left behind, and the rain very quickly washed them away.
◈ ◈ ◈
Su Heting swiftly opened his eyes and returned to reality.
A strong wave of dizziness hit him, and his consciousness felt as though it was about to whirl away from him. This sensation was similar to how it felt after a heavy bout of drinking. Several minutes later, his empty stomach started to spasm.
“Dizziness is a normal reaction. Give it a while, and you’ll be fine.” The Lady Boss’s voice sounded alternatively close and far. “Monk, give him a cup of hot water.”
A moment later, the Monk set the cup of hot water on the table. His bald head shone so brightly under the light that it dazzled Su Heting’s eyes.
Su Heting squinted his modified eye, which was not used to brightness. He looked ahead. The rainstorm and the Inspector were gone, and some kind of incense had been lit up in the room. It was suffocating to smell.
The Punishment Zone was too realistic. It was like another real world. Su Heting had to adapt to this exchange of real and virtual worlds as soon as possible, or it would lead to significant mental trauma.
He looked down at his hands.
His palms were clean. There were no wounds on it.
The injuries he had sustained on the bus were gone too.
“Injuries sustained in the Punishment Zone won’t be brought back to reality.” The Lady Boss clutched her own glass of water. She was standing by the window, observing Su Heting. “But being killed in the Punishment Zone will literally kill you for real. Oh ho, sonny, you didn’t miss a limb or two in there, did you?”
“The weasel that makes a courtesy call to a hen is up to no good.” Su Heting clenched his fist, his expression hostile. “You can’t wait to get me killed.”
“A resentful one, he is.” The Lady Boss managed with some difficulty to console him a little. “Look at how exciting it is inside. It’s just like playing a game. You can even broaden your horizons.”
Playing a game won’t die for real.
Su Heting ignored her answer. After adjusting to the daze, he asked, “What’s with that reconnaissance system?”
“Oh, him…” The Lady Boss stroked her chin. “I guess he should be called the Punishment Zone’s firewall? In any case, he works all year round without rest. He killed all the undercover agents we sent.”
Su Heting knitted his brows. “All of them?”
“Right. All of them.” The Lady Boss took a sip of the hot water. “This dude is a thorny one to deal with.”
Of course, he is. Su Heting thought of the scene earlier. “He can resurrect.”
“Not only that. He also has precognitive abilities.” The Lady Boss paused for a moment with a slight frown as if deliberating over her upcoming words. “The locations in which the undercover agents appear online are all random, but somehow, he is able to know in advance.”
The Monk stood at the side and held up a paper timetable to show Su Heting the times. “You entered the Punishment Zone at 20:58, and at 20:55, he was already on the bus that would pass by you.”
Su Heting did not believe in precognitive abilities. “Then why didn’t he make a move on me on the bus?”
“The Nocturnal Wanderer1 cut his plan short.” The Monk said. “He had to protect the others on the bus first.”
Su Heting could not understand. “Isn’t he a reconnaissance system?”
“Even so, he has to save the people.” The Monk put his palms together and said an “Amitabha” before continuing. “We know that those people are NPCs, but he might not necessarily know.”
What is this strange setting?
If the goal was to save the people, then the Supreme God System could very well work up a string of data to act as the police force in the Punishment Zone, rather than let a reconnaissance system play the superhero alone.
Su Heting’s eyes stirred ever slightly. Keeping his doubts to himself, he did not delve deeper into the discussion with the Monk but followed up with a question, “How are you going to distinguish between real people and NPCs inside?”
Without turning his head, the Monk pointed next door with his thumb and said, “We have a specialized detection test for real people. When you encounter a real person, we will send you a text message.”
How fucking primitive.
Text messages were not the slightest bit useful at critical moments. Su Heting would not fish out his phone to read the whole thing before fighting. What’s more, the alert tone even interfered with his hearing like an annoying pager.
“Please give me all the information on the Punishment Zone.” Su Heting did not stand on ceremony. “Or you people can carry out the mission yourselves.”
The Monk had yet to unload his arms and had only just removed his gas mask. He glanced at the Lady Boss and warned Su Heting, “I’d advise you—”
“Don’t bother.” Su Heting coolly interrupted the Monk. “If you don’t want to give me the information, then shoot me to death here and hurry on your way to find the next unlucky guy.”
The room instantly became so silent one could hear a pin drop.
“Alright, spit it.” The Lady Boss felt around in her pocket, which still contained a pack of cigarettes. But she did not take a puff and merely pinched one between two fingers as she opted to compromise. “What else do you want?”
Su Heting asked for a large plate of chicken.
◈ ◈ ◈
When Su Heting returned to his apartment, it was already late at night. He spent fifty bucks to take a bath and stood before the washbasin with a hairdryer to blow his ears.
Titan was right. Su Heting’s ears and tail were tough to take care of.
He pushed aside his damp hair and blew them between his fingers until they were a tousled mess. His ears did not like the blast of hot wind and shook several times. After he was done blowing his ears, he blew his tail. Every side and corner had to be fluffy, or it would be easily infected.
Su Heting pinched the tip of his tail and observed if there had been fur shed. He switched the connection port and checked for water seepage within.
There was no joy in being a hybrid.
The cranium had to be opened for the brain-computer interface to be implanted. Brain neurons were easily damaged, and it was also possible for the interface to become old and obsolete. Most importantly, while the implant could change the body, it also increased the risk of brain death.2
Su Heting could not remember if he had been willing to undergo the surgery.
The Great Explosion almost blew away half of his life. Without these troublesome implants, he would probably have to lie in a hospital bed forever, unable to even stand up.
The small hair dryer overheated after half an hour of blowing and started to blow out intermittent puffs of wind.
Su Heting turned it off just in time to hear his phone beep.
This was, by far, his most expensive item. It was similar to the antique cell phone he used in the Punishment Zone, which only accepted the most primeval data ID card and could only send text messages and answer calls.
All the Hybrids Su Heting knew used this.
As this item was old, it was generally not subjected to Punisher of Heaven’s data surveillance. It was also widely circulated among the Hybrids. Other than that, it could still maintain its value.
The Supreme God System was too new and trendy, and the Anti-System Survival Zone advocated a return to the olden times. High-priced luxury goods would all be deliberately made with an antique finish, and these kinds of genuine old articles were even more expensive. To the Survivors who cherished the memory of the Old World, they had great collector value.
Su Heting clicked on the message. The sender was the Hermit.
Hermit: I heard you were caught, then released. Motherfucker, the Expletives Organization was raided by the Monk earlier. Are you an undercover agent?
The Supreme God System admonished human beings not to swear. Terms like “dickhead” and “motherfucker” were all prohibited words. So, a demonstration group had popped up in the Anti-System Survival Zone specializing in coaching others how to swear profanities in all kinds of languages available, even dialects.
Su Heting had only just learned “fuck you” when he withdrew from the group. There were too many crazies in there.
He answered: Are you an idiot?
Hermit: ? Identity confirmed. It’s you, the man himself.
Hermit: I haven’t pieced my head back together yet. I can’t fight matches for now, so I bribed the referee, hoping to hire a substitute to stand in for me.
Su Heting promptly sent him the stand-in advertisement he had put up at the trading center.
[Look for me. Professional stand-in. Super cheap. Rank-up guaranteed.]
Hermit: Why didn’t you say so earlier???
Hermit: I just paid the stand-in fee!
Su Heting: Who did you find?
Hermit: Someone called Xie Zhenshu.
Hermit: You heard of him before?
- Author’s Note ①
[Nocturnal Wanderer] Two meters in length; naked, with hair draped over her. Arms like vines; face like a human. Usually has 4 to 8 sharp, steel bladed-legs; moves extremely fast. Has a mouth, but relies on her chest cavity to feed. No fear of ammunition, but afraid of fire. Appears in the Punishment Zone only on rainy nights; easily lured by human cries. Will go into a frenzy when attacked, but will never hurt any young ones. — “Right on Target Records of Paranormal Anecdotes”
①-1, Inspiration source for the setting: Miscellaneous Morsels from Youyang 《酉阳杂俎》.
夜行游女 literally “Night-traipsing Wandering Woman”, some say she’s the daughter of the Emperor of Heaven; some say she’s a demon who goes by the name of Diaoxing. Flies free at night, hides in the daylight, just like a supernatural being. A bird when cloaked in a garment of feathers; a married woman when stripped of her apparel. Childless; loves to take off with human children. Has breasts in front of her chest.
Also known as the Guhuo Bird (姑获鸟) or in Japanese folklore as Ubume
- Author’s Notes ②
For details on brain-computer interface, please refer to “Life in the Socket: Has the era of brain-machine arrived?” 《插口人生：脑机时代已来？》