Su Heting, “…”
He forcibly squeezed out the words, “Thank you.”
Xie Zhenshu released his hand and answered, “You’re welcome.”
A panda on the screen cheerfully shouted “I win”, and the words instantly materialized in a gradient of fluorescent colors. They flew off the screen along with the mahjong tiles and gradually magnified, flashing for five whole seconds in the bar before disappearing.
The Hermit stood up with an exclamation of surprise and fished out a handkerchief from his bosom. He handed it over solicitously. “Quick, wipe it.”
Su Heting didn’t take it. He felt around for a handkerchief in his pocket and wiped the water on his pants with it.
The Hermit was shocked on seeing the handkerchief. “Are you hurt?”
It was only when Su Heting saw the bloodstain midway through wiping that he remembered this handkerchief was Xie Zhenshu’s. He could feel the gaze from its owner on him, so he braced himself to meet the Hermit’s eyes. It took a very long time before a word popped out of his mouth. “… No.”
The Hermit, being a sensible one, gave Su Heting an “OK” gesture and stopped probing. As he wiped the table, he continued to whisper to Su Heting, “Are you done watching?”
Su Heting nodded.
“Do you recognize whose legs those were?” The Hermit asked.
“Titan’s,” Su Heting answered.
Those were Titan’s legs.
Su Heting saw them when Titan fell to the ground convulsing at the end of the match the last time.
“That’s right. They were his!” The Hermit pulled hard on his handkerchief, his voice so soft he sounded like a mosquito. “You saw it too, right? Someone dismembered Titan.”
Su Heting frowned, “Just because he lost the match?”
The Hermit gave a slight nod of his head. “He was predicted on live broadcast to emerge victorious. Many people bet on him to win before the match. I heard,” he gulped, “I heard that a Boss also placed a bet on him.”
“Boss” was a kind of honorific in the Black Market. It specifically referred to people who had power in this place. They were usually someone from the upper echelon of the coliseum or a bankroller from the trading center.
There were three Anti-System Survival Zones, each with fungus cultivation bases. These bases, which provide food to the Survival Zones, all belong to the Bosses. On the surface, Punisher of Heaven was the one in control, but in truth, they also relied on the Bosses to bestow food upon them.
In the Survival Zones, the Bosses had unlimited privileges.
Su Heting thought of the endless stream of mercenaries pursuing him today.
“You’ve pissed off a Boss,” the Hermit said. “How would I dare to see you directly? I could only ask Mr. Xie for help. But never in my wildest imagination did I expect them to dare to open fire in the trading center, with all those people there.”
The fact that the men sent by this Boss could bear guns in spite of Punisher of Heaven’s rigorous arms control meant that they did not have the slightest scruple doing so. To them, killing a human was just like crushing an ant to death.
“Where did you get the video?” Su Heting asked.
Every night, Jiali would sell mushroom skewers at the entrance of the coliseum. This was a business she bought off through her connections. But in actuality, she was passing on information for Hybrids who were unable to gather and interact in the Black Market.
The bar was stiflingly hot with no air conditioning and no airflow. The Hermit wiped the sweat from his forehead and fanned himself with his sleeve.
“What are you going to do?” he asked. “I’m really afraid you’ll get assassinated by the Boss’s men the moment you walk out.”
That was really hard to say.
What a fuck-up.
Punisher of Heaven wanted him to enter the Punishment Zone, where a tough nut Inspector was waiting for him. Back in reality, there was a son of a bitch Boss trying to kill him.
“You are about to fight against King Shen.” The Hermit couldn’t hold back and was about to cry. “King Shen is the real champion.”
“What do you mean?” Su Heting asked. “King Shen is a beefcake the Boss betted on too?”
The Hermit nodded his head hard, as if Su Heting had already been shot with a bullet.
◈ ◈ ◈
“Well, you know who my boss is, yes?” Secured with a sensor lock, Viper rested his legs at the edge of the table. “You nincompoop of a monk.”
The veins of the Monk, who usually had plenty of “amitabha” to spare, were presently bulging from being yelled at.
Viper kicked the table askew, making a noise in the room. He laced his fingers together and rested them on his stomach, keeping up with this posture as he looked at the Monk. “How long can you keep me locked up? Hm?”
The Monk’s in-ear communicator rang, and he turned his head away to avoid Viper’s gaze.
“Yo,” Viper said. “Here it comes.”
The silence in the communicator lasted several seconds long. The Monk could not help but get his hopes raised some, but very quickly, he heard the Chief say, “Let him go.”
The expletive lingered in the back of the Monk’s throat.
“Next time,” he turned his head back to stare at Viper, “we will shoot you on sight.”
Viper put down his legs and rested his arms on the table. He inched his face closer and suddenly bared a grin to reply the Monk, “You. People. Won’t. Dare. To.”
◈ ◈ ◈
The Monk flung the door apart and headed to the smoking area.
The Chief was leaning back against the railing, taking a smoke with an ashtray in one hand. When she saw the Monk, she flicked the ashes into the ashtray, and the silver bracelets on her wrist tinkled. She leaned back slightly to gaze at the ceiling. “How vexing.”
The Monk took out a cigarette from the cigarette case she had set on the railing and asked for a light. This kind of real cigarette was scarce, but it all felt tasteless to the Monk.
Silence reigned between them for a very long time. When they were almost done with the cigarettes, the Monk sighed.
“Don’t think too much about it,” he said. “… You did your best too.”
The Viper was a henchman of the Boss. If the top brass said not to touch him, they could not lay a hand on him. If they said to let him go, then they would have to release him.
“I should have thought of it,” the Monk continued. “He launched his assault armed and defied warnings. There’s only one kind of person who can do that.”
“No matter what,” the Chief stubbed out her cigarette and simply said, “we have to protect Su Heting.”
◈ ◈ ◈
The Hermit was burning with anxiety on getting the news, and now his cheeks were hurting even more when he saw Su Heting taking his time. He could not help but cover half of his face and suggested, “how about you hire a bodyguard?”
Su Heting answered, “no money.”
“I know one whose price is low.” With his eyes, the Hermit gestured to Su Heting to look back behind him. “And he’s pretty reliable.”
Su Heting did not turn his head back.
The bar was saturated with human voices, yet he could keenly hear the ice cubes swirling in Xie Zhenshu’s glass. This reminded him of Xie Zhenshu’s hand when the latter handed him a handkerchief.
The joints on the hand were distinct and fair.
“No need for the time being.” Su Heting pushed his glass with his finger to make room for his arm. “Did Jiali say which Boss is causing trouble for me?”
There were so many Bosses he had to know exactly which one.
The Hermit dipped his finger in the water and wrote a “Wei” on the empty spot on the table. “Got it?” he whispered.
Su Heting replied decisively, “no.”
“This one.” The Hermit affectedly held both hands up with a solemn expression and said in a croaky voice,1 “Wei Da’s mock meat. Top-notch taste.” With that, he raised his empty palm to the side of his face and displayed an extremely businesslike grin. “Our flavors are distinctive. You can count on it!”
Su Heting, “…”
“Oh,” he said, “I remember it now.”
The famous Wei Da Mock Meat.
Wei Da was a giant of biological technology research in the New World. Their meat substitutes monopolized the markets in the Survival Zones. It was a household name widely known to all here. Su Heting had a good impression of Wei Da before, as they regularly gave food to the Hybrids and did a lot of charity in the Black Market.
“It’s the young master of the eldest branch2 of Wei Da’s household.” The Hermit drew back. “He has been to the coliseum for the live matches and often throws money on the tournament. Titan and King Shen had both been sponsored by him before. “
“The Old World has already perished,” Su Heting said. “Give me his full name.”
The Hermit did as he said, “Wei Zhixin.”
Su Heting committed this name to memory.
The Hermit felt uneasy and asked again, “Are you really going to fight King Shen? Or how about we just apply to withdraw from the match?”
Su Heting picked up the iced water on the table and tilted his head back to down it all in one go.
“It’s actually simple if he wants King Shen to win,” He crushed the ice in his mouth. “Just wait for me to die.”
Ever since the Hermit got his head blown up in the Safe Zone, he would habitually keep touching the back of his head. He didn’t dare to sit for long, and it had taken him a lot of courage to meet up with Su Heting here.
When both of them rose to their feet, Xie Zhenshu was still sitting.
The Hermit leaned over to inform Xie Zhenshu of their departure. “Xie-ge, thank you for today. I’ll transfer the money to your card later. It’s late now, so both of us shall take our leave first.”
Su Heting parroted out of politeness, “I’m leaving.”
The upper half of his face was concealed under his hood, revealing only his chin. He was so unfeeling he resembled a scumbag.
There was a voice coming from the communicator in Xie Zhenshu’s ear—he was in the midst of talking to someone. The cuffs of his shirt had been pulled up a little to reveal that prominent wrist bone. He even wore a watch above it.
Su Heting brazenly observed Xie Zhenshu’s hand under the cover of his hood.
This guy must be a night owl who rarely saw the sun.
Inexplicably enough, Su Heting thought of the Inspector.
Xie Zhenshu’s gaze shifted and lingered on Su Heting’s hood for a moment.
Su Heting promptly strode a step out and took his leave first.
Xie Zhenshu’s gaze passed over him. He nodded to the Hermit.
This one’s even more unfeeling than Su Heting, the Hermit thought to himself. With a smile, he said, “Let’s have a meal together when the tournament’s over, Xie-ge…”
Su Heting opened the door and walked out. It was drizzling outside.
The Hermit closed the door behind him and muttered, “Be careful whenever you go out. It’s now the critical moment between life and death. What we said a few days back about Punisher of Heaven going to send Hybrids to blow up the Supreme God System is like the Sword of Damocles hanging over our heads, ready to fall anytime.” He sighed and touched the back of his head again. “Our great undertaking of unifying humanity has yet to be accomplished. I still haven’t been to see the other two Survival Zones.”
Punisher of Heaven sent the Hybrids to the Black Market for management under a centralized command. To leave the city, these Hybrids had to go through a set of complicated procedures before their application was examined and then reviewed by the Punisher of Heaven. In recent years, only Jiali had ventured out of the city.
After Doomsday, the high-tech districts fell, and the three Survival Zones were strictly guarded. The networks the Survivors were able to log in now were all Safe Zones under the Punisher of Heaven’s jurisdiction. To avoid being hacked and wiretapped on by the Supreme God System, the three Survival Zones could not even communicate with one another.
When it came to information exchange, Punisher of Heaven and the Bosses stuck to the most primitive way. Every month, they would set out under the protection of the Armed Squad and gather somewhere for a meeting. It was forbidden to carry any electronic products or bring along any Hybrids during the conference.
Su Heting bade farewell to the Hermit at the entrance of the narrow alley.
“Since you are going ahead with the match, treat yourself to a good meal tonight,” the Hermit said.
He didn’t know what he should think of the future.
Every future the Hybrids discussed was pessimistic. They were a variant of the New World, stuck in the gap between the human beings and the Supreme God Systems. They were held at gunpoint by both sides, caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.
Su Heting suddenly thought of the Expletives Organization.
He lifted his fingers to his temple and flicked them at the Hermit. “Respect, motherfucker.”
It was respect, motherfucker, not respect, freedom.
The Hybrids of the New World had no freedom to speak off.
“Cool, bro,” the Hermit said. “I’ll be there tomorrow to cheer you on.”
“See you tomorrow,” Su Heting said.
He did not move, but motioned for the Hermit to leave first. When the corner of the Hermit’s robe disappeared into the darkness, Su Heting took two steps back and turned around to walk to the end of the street.
Both sides of the streets were lit with LED signs, and the sounds of all kinds of advertisements flooded Su Heting’s ears. But other than the drizzle, the place seemed emptied of living people.
Like a jackal flaunting its might, a new model motorcycle let loose a sound that sounded like a firecracker being set off. With eyes bright red, Viper, who was straddling his bike sans his helmet, let loose a long, drawn-out whistle at Su Heting.
“A little kitty all alone outside,” the Viper said. “Got a death wish, huh?”
Su Heting stepped down gently on a drink can and, with a kick, sent it flying towards the Viper’s face.
◈ ◈ ◈
To prevent confusion with the (Big) Bosses (or Head Honchos, 大老板), I’ll be replacing Lady Boss (大姐头) with (Lady) Chief instead. (or if you have a suggestion feel free to poke me!) The term specifically refers to a female gang leader, female boss, or “big sister” (i.e., anego in Japanese).