Dong Zheng put down the files, and all logic and clues became a mess in his mind. They contradicted each other. After careful consideration, there were fatal flaws. What should he believe? Or should he not believe anything?
The phrase “the truth is false” written on the mirror came to mind.
Dong Zheng leaned against the edge of the table. He stared at the empty air in a moment of contemplation, and he very slowly tore the file in his hands into several pieces.
Was the so-called true or false really that important?
White paper fragments fell like helpless butterflies. At the end of the archive room, a light turned on, illuminating the dark corner where an old-fashioned gramophone stood. The brass speaker horn pointed at Dong Zheng, as if to say something to him.
Dong Zheng walked to it but saw that there was nothing on the turntable.
“Hello,” he said.
“Hello,” the gramophone answered in a low and hoarse voice. “Did you find the key?”
Dong Zheng put his hand on the turntable, stared at the center of the black hole that was the speaker, and said, “The truth is false.”
Then his vision went dark.
Dong Zheng heard gurgling water. It seemed that there was liquid flowing from his ears, and coolness poured into his brain. Someone took his hand and pulled him out of something.
He opened his eyes, and when the man saw that Dong Zheng had woken up, he showed a happy expression. Patting him hard on the shoulder, the man said excitedly, “Look! I knew you could do it!”
The man was in his twenties and was wearing a military uniform that didn’t look to be from any military branch that Dong Zheng knew of. They were in what appeared to be a laboratory with many large cylindrical, transparent tubes connected by various wires and pipes. Some tubes were empty while others were filled with liquid that submerged people inside.
Dong Zheng was also one of the people submerged in water, but the liquid in the tube he was in had been completely drained. The lid was opened so that he could be pulled out, and his clothes were wet and soaked in liquid, leaving behind a distinctive scent.
The task update in the upper left hand corner of his field of vision was no longer there.
Dong Zheng himself was also wearing the same military uniform as the man, and he was surrounded by many people, both male and female and all wearing either white lab coats or military uniforms. The patterns on their epaulettes didn’t seem to be of low-ranked either. All of them were clapping happily.
It was as if Dong Zheng was a warrior who had returned from the abyss after slaying a dragon.
He didn’t know why they were being like this. He looked around him, and amidst the cheers and applause, he was surprised to find familiar faces in the tubes behind him that was filled with people.
He recognized Dong Linhai, Wang Que, Lin Hang, and Xia Qiongyun at a glance.
These four people were mixed among the crowd, their eyes firmly closed. The transparent solution that submerged them in the tube rose and fell, but there was no sign of them waking up. The man who pulled Dong Zheng out of the tube gave him a hug, and said excitedly, “You are the first to successfully pass the test, and you can finally complete your dream of entering the Mobile Task Force!”
Dong Zheng patted him on the back in response. Everything in this huge room was reminiscent of sci-fi. But his concerned gaze remained on the four people in their tubes. Dong Zheng opened his mouth, only to find that his voice was hoarse. “How’s their situation?”
“Not bad. There were two who were in pretty bad straits but we were able to provide them with outside assistance. However, they still have a bit more to go. I don’t know if they can pass smoothly and come out of the subconscious space.”
Outside assistance? Dong Zheng frowned. A percentage were displayed on the screens above the cylindrical cultivation tubes. Lin Hang had an indicator of 78%, Wang Que 82%, Dong Linhai 71%, but Xia Qiongyun had reached a dangerous 64%.
Dong Zheng didn’t know the specific meaning of the numbers. He glanced at the screen of the cultivation tube where he’d been in. The number was 92%.
The veins in his forehead jumped.
“It was detected that you had to face an unsolvable logical dilemma in the test. According to regulations, we had to make some adjustment to the data in order to assist you. This will be recorded in your file and so your final score will be reduced accordingly.” One of the researchers in a white lab coat whispered to him, “But even so, you still came out with the highest score so far. Congratulations, the Special Mobile Task Force welcomes you.”
Dong Zheng remembered when he was stopped by the police in the consultation room and how his medical license suddenly appeared in his chest pocket.
Or was it the change of scene when he was stabbed in the heart by an attacker in Ms. Lois’ hotel?
Was everything he’d experienced since entering the box a test?
As everyone watched and applauded, a staff member led Dong Zheng out of the large door. Meanwhile, several chemists stood in front of the experimental table, adjusting the solution’s formula.
He did not have the opportunity to stop and take a closer look. The staff member led him out of the laboratory. In front of the door was a sleek hover car. Endless space stretched out around the building, but an unusual metal passage spread out in a circle. Even though there was no light source, the brightness was just right.
Dong Zheng got in the driver’s seat. The staff member closed the door for him and said through the car window, “Follow the instructions, and you’ll reach your destination.”
She turned and left without giving Dong Zheng a chance to ask questions.
The rectangular gear pattern on the operation console lit up and a mechanical but gentle female voice said, “The system is connected…Move forward, accelerate to 180 kilometers, turn right into ██, and descend to the Howling Void, then you will arrive at your destination.”
He gripped the steering wheel with both hands, but before he could react, the hover car automatically started and moved swiftly along the circular passageway. At this moment, Cui Zuojing’s shadow appeared, and he materialized next to Dong Zheng.
The young man sat in the co-pilot seat, looked out at the endless space ahead, and sighed. “What the hell is up with this crazy plot?”
“I don’t know.” Dong Zheng forcibly stepped on the brakes to no avail. At this moment, the shadow in his heart returned. He was reassured that Cui Zuojing was safe and sound, but he couldn’t spend more time communicating with him. The speed of the car had reached 180 kilometers, and the acceleration was pressing him and Cui Zuojing back into their seats. The navigation said, “Turn right into ██.”
The vehicle turned right.
“There’s a way out.” Dong Zheng wanted to open the door from the inside, but to no avail. He quickly hacked into the vehicle’s control system but was hit back with an extremely strong resistance. Meanwhile, the navigation continued with its weird instructions!
Dong Zheng’s temples throbbed painfully. The spiritual backlash also hit Cui Zuojing, and the slight weakness made him aware that Dong Zheng was in trouble. He immediately grabbed a magazine out from the glove box, tore off a page, and began to cut the door. “I’m on it!”
The material in this science fiction world was also a bit difficult for Cui Zuojing to deal with, causing him to take a bit longer to destroy the door lock mechanism. Then he grabbed Dong Zheng’s hand and shouted, “Let’s go!”
Cui Zuojing pushed open the door, and the fierce wind outside instantly rush into the vehicle. They jumped out of the hover car. At that moment, the navigation system said, “You have reached your destination.”
Unanticipated agonizing pain shot through them. Dong Zheng felt as if his body and soul were being forcibly separated. It was as if his body had not left the hover car and was still traveling along, while his soul was floating gently, still holding Cui Zuojing’s hand.
Dong Zheng couldn’t make a sound. He could only look at Cui Zuojing, and the young man tightened his hold on his hand in response.
Just like a skilled director who was in control of the camera, the angle of their view quickly zoomed out through the hallways, the floors, the buildings…zooming out into outer space. In the universe adorned with endless, dark stars, a space station was moving in accordance with its established orbit.
A deep sound slowly appeared in their minds.
[The Insects from Shaggai, the fanatical believers of the old ruler Azathoths, were interstellar exiles from the distant Shaggai star. They could directly walk through the brains of other creatures and control their host’s mind.]
[You were not lost in a series of absurd dreams that was created by stimulating your brain through electric waves. With your perseverance, your admirable wisdom, and your desire to live, you passed the selection process and successfully joined the K1 Special Mobile Task Force. As a member of the force, you were transformed into a biochemical warrior, and was sent to the battlefield to fight against the rapidly expanding Insects from Shaggai and to guard the human domain.]
The camera continued to zoom out, and they felt as if they were floating to the end of the universe. Just before their vision turned dark, a creature the size of a pigeon passed by them. It had no eyelids, and its segmented tendrils were twisted in confusion. Its tens legs were covered in black, luminous tentacles all entangled, and the triangular scales that grew on its nearly circular wings emitted a strange light.
“You have cleared [Challenge: Bald Soprano]. Your points are being calculated, please wait…”
The black box in the middle of the floor suddenly burst out in bright light, and Dong Zheng’s shadow appeared out of thin air. He staggered back a few steps and fell on the sofa.
The kind of fear unique to looking into the Cthulhu universe still lingered in his heart. The feeling was indescribable, unspeakable, intense, and ancient.
Cui Zuojing came out of the prisoner’s space and sat next to him. He sensed Dong Zheng’s weakness and placed his hand gently on his chest in concern. “Are you okay?”
Dong Zheng nodded. Even though he had no visual wounds, every breath he took brought a sharp pain to his heart. This kind of pain seemed to come directly from his soul, and so this wasn’t something that Cui Zuojing could perceive through the blood contract. Dong Zheng knew that this was probably because he was injured in the hotel. In the series of scenes in the box, aside from the last interstellar world, no matter how serious or fatal the injuries, as long as you firmly believed that you won’t die, then you won’t die in truth.
But the injuries he suffered would eventually result in corresponding damage to the spirit. The firewall in his kernel had collapsed, and his security bacteriophages were in the process of clearing illegal data that had broken in.
“Go and rest immediately.” Cui Zuojing helped Dong Zheng up. Dong Zheng’s muscles were shaking uncontrollably, making it clear how severe his pain was.
How could Cui Zuojing not know? After waking up from the lunatic asylum, he also felt the same pain, as if he’d been torn in half.
The clock on the wall indicated that it was exactly three in the morning when they entered the castle. Without knowing how long it would take them to clear the box, it was naturally impossible for Fu Zhe to wait for them at the table.
Cui Zuojing helped Dong Zheng to his room upstairs and helped him take off his dirty clothes. By this point, Dong Zheng’s pain had lessened somewhat. Cui Zuojing covered him with the comforter and intended to go back to the apartment to guard the others.
Dong Zheng’s evaluation was 92%, and he was already so uncomfortable. The others might fare worse. Cui Zuojing even suspected that after they left the box, their pain might not be only limited to the spirit.
As soon as he turned to leave, his wrist was caught.
In the darkness, Cui Zuojing didn’t see Dong Zheng’s expression, but in that moment, he felt the eager strength in that hand. Dong Zheng seemed surprised at his own childish action. He quickly released Cui Zuojing’s wrist and said, “Go ahead.”
It felt like a cat was lightly scratching at his heart with its claws. The itch almost turned Cui Zuojing’s heart into mush, and even his soul trembled. He sucked in a deep breath, took one last look, and walked out of the room.
Xixi: Insects from Shaggai refers to a fictional alien race called the Shan from the Cthulhu Mythos.