Chapter 6: The Corpse Handler
Shu Jun didn’t dare to fall asleep and just stared into space for a long time.
The first reason was that he feared he would actually kick the bucket if he closed his eyes. As for the second reason…
Zhu Yanchen might be cold-tempered, but he didn’t carry the aura of a high-ranking officer, while his attitude only felt a tiny bit distant. But considering the sentiments that Zhu Yanchen subconsciously made people have, Shu Jun believed he was really a marshal.
Shu Jun was lying here, completely awake. A few steps away, Zhu Yanchen was slicing up the rotten flesh from his wounds and studying the samples. It was a rather bloody scene, and from time to time, there was a strange smell of flesh and blood being processed. If Marshal Zhu was a dentist, his clinic would definitely have glass walls that everybody could see through, and he wouldn’t mind his patients screaming in panic from outside the wall.
In addition to that, it was meal time when he was only half done with his work, so he simply sat at the same table and drank the nutritional supplement. This pragmatism was exactly the same as the ‘Haze’ that Shu Jun was familiar with.
There were plenty of gory elements in [Erosion], so of course Shu Jun wouldn’t be grossed out by this small scene, rather, he even found it interesting. Marshal Zhu was advertised outside the game to be quite a big-head, and now it turned out that this big-head actually cared more about flesh and blood.
Zhu Yanchen made two cups of nutritional supplement and placed one cup at the nightstand next to where Shu Jun was lying, his movement neither light nor heavy.
Shu Jun muttered some strength to speak: “Aren’t you tired?”
During the entire time Shu Jun was lying on the bed, Zhu Yanchen kept himself busy at the table without taking a break.
Zhu Yanchen hesitated for a moment, then shook his head and turned around to leave.
“I feel better now, or how about we talk —”
Zhu Yanchen glanced at him from behind the goggles: “Don’t try to argue.”
Shu Jun smiled and grabbed Zhu Yanchen’s arm in a flash. Zhu Yanchen was definitely not weak, but unfortunately he wasn’t highly adept in combat, so he was caught on the spot. He didn’t feel painful, and Shu Jun also had no intention to hurt him. No longer trying to turn away anymore, Zhu Yan sat down on the side and sighed: “Let go.”
“It’s been such a long time and I could only squeeze out six words from you.”
Shu Jun let go: “How about this then, I talk and you listen?”
Zhu Yanchen looked at him.
Shu Jun wasn’t trying to be funny. Other people might just lie down, but Shu Jun’s mind couldn’t be kept idle and waiting had never been his style.
“I thought about it before. For a casual player, A Yan, your understanding of strategy is too good. But even if you’re an official character inside [Erosion], there’s no need to suddenly use the identity of a major NPC to deal with my bug… From that, it seems like you’ve actually been Marshal Zhu Yanchen in [Erosion].”
“Your original purpose shouldn’t be to ‘save me’, but something else. It just so happens that you cross paths with me, and we happen to know each other, so you choose to present ‘save me’ as an official purpose.”
If he had prepared beforehand, Zhu Yanchen The Marshal wouldn’t bump into him in such a simple and rude manner. Considering any potential confidentiality issues, Yanchen’s reluctance to talk about his work was well understood.
The more Shu Jun talked, the more confident he was about his theory.
“There is only one problem left.” He smiled, feeling his sharp fangs a little in the way. “If I don’t understand it wrongly, we’re friends. Why don’t you reply to my questions?”
Zhu Yanchen narrowed his eyes.
The game and the reality had been swapped, and Shu Jun could start connecting the dots based on what he knew about the NPCs. Brushing that aside, Shu Jun had mostly decoded Zhu Yanchen’s actions correctly.
What a terrifying intuition.
“…I’ve had a lot of thoughts in my mind and still haven’t suffered any headaches. I suppose this information isn’t very sensitive.” Shu Jun took a sip of the supplement with confidence.
“Because you’re lucky. The attacks on your brain may hurt you severely. If this happens a second time, I may not be able to drag you back to life.” Zhu Yanchen’s tone was cold: “It’s difficult for people to control their thoughts. I know you always like to think, but don’t be in such a hurry to die.”
He didn’t correct the way Shu Jun called him.
“A Yan, it really is you.” Shu Jun scratched his face. He forgot the sharpened nails and made thin blood marks on the side of his face. “So at least it wasn’t a waste that I came up with so many ideas.”
Zhu Yanchen: “…”
Although his face was hidden behind the mask, there was a split second when the marshal seemed like he wanted to beat up someone.
Shu Jun didn’t expect that the guy’s temper would burst after his identity was exposed. As soon as Shu Jun saw his expression, he quickly flattened himself on the bed, with a neat posture that seemed as though he was ready to buried any time now.
But Zhu Yanchen didn’t plan to let him off: “It looks like you’ve almost recovered. We can go now.”
Then he tossed Shu Jun a plaster: “…Take care of your face first.”
Shu Jun’s nerves finally could relax a little — Whatever might be the case, this was the ‘Haze’ he knew. In the worst case, even if this person had been talking with him for the past few years with other purposes in mind, it would still be better than facing a completely unfamiliar ‘Marshal Zhu’.
Looking at the guy’s reaction, Shu Jun concluded that his guesses must have been correct. Considering how messy the situation had turned out, for now, it was enough to get this information. Certain dangerous topics shouldn’t be rushed — For example, what if Zhu Yanchen might just want to save himself? He might say on the outside that “the attacks on your brain may hurt you severely”, yet he was the culprit that sent those attacks to Shu Jun’s head.
He could only hope that their destination would give him an answer.
Shu Jun thought that Zhu Yanchen would send him to an official reception desk, somewhere in a normal building. It turned out that they just switched from one dangerous place to another.
Right now, Shu Jun was panting as he leaned against the stalagmites, a feverish exhaustion overwhelming his whole body.
But, there was indeed one building. It was a low concrete building lying on the ground, mottled and run down, its surface full of eroded black and grey patches. Only a few purifiers were still working around here and diligently filtering the fog. The building looked like neither a stronghold nor a place that was hiding some groundbreaking secrets.
As soon as the two landed, Zhu Yanchen led Shu Jun away from the security cameras and walked all the way to the back door of the building. Shu Jun pondered if he should say that the building was simple, or just downright bare. Half of it was stuffed with random machines, while the other half had been dug up to expose a square, deep pit. Shu Jun recognised the thing that was in the pit.
A miniature Erosion Marsh was squirming in it, shaking its liquid pillars leisurely.
After suffering so much from this monster, Shu Jun had started to dislike it even more than before. For a while, he sat behind one of the machines and stared at it, but he still couldn’t grow any particular enlightenment or premonition. On the other hand, he could sense some changes happening inside him: the air here must have been eroded, but he was feeling very comfortable.
Just as Shu Jun was about to turn around to ask, Zhu Yanchen made a silent gesture.
Someone was coming.
The front door creaked open, and someone in thick protective clothing walked in with two carts. Bulging body bags were placed on top of the carts, and Shu Jun could make out the shape of human corpses in them. He — or she — unloaded one corpse from the cart, put it into the chute, and watched it be swallowed by the marsh.
The corpse made some throbbing sounds and was quickly dissolved.
“How much do you know about Erosion Marsh?” Zhu Yanchen said amid the noise of the corpse being ‘processed’.
“…Just whatever is mentioned in the background of the game.”
It was a game after all, so inevitably there were some strange settings. Erosion Marsh, which was basically made up of a large amount of erosive substance, was the No.1 monster of the entire [Erosion]. Shu Jun only knew how to deal with it and hadn’t considered any other details about this creature.
But why did they suddenly start discussing the game settings?
“The apocalypse has resulted in a lack of talented researchers. To this day, humans still have limited understanding of Erosion Marsh.” Zhu Yanchen said: “Humans have only managed to use this thing for a few minor purposes. Keep watching.”
Shu Jun turned his head in confusion, and the person had already started throwing the second corpse into the miniature Erosion Marsh
What could be wrong?
The corpse of the first cart had quietly decomposed, and the corpse of the second cart was quiet enough, but its surroundings weren’t so. The ground suddenly started shaking, a fog started forming, and the rocks started clacking loudly. The worst thing was that the walls surrounding the Erosion Marsh started peeling off.
This manifestation felt a bit like their special abilities, but it was extremely weak in comparison.
“The first corpse is a civilian who died a normal death, and the second corpse is a soldier who died due to an Erosion Marsh. The latter will resonate briefly with the surrounding environment before his body functions completely stop. Each erosion zone’s air, water, soil… have different erosive substances, so the ‘attributes’ presented by the resonance are also different.”
At this point, Zhu Yanchen paused for a moment and looked at the corpse handler.
Shu Jun suddenly felt an inexplicable chill. It was late at night, and the scene before their eyes looked extremely gloomy.
All players had some special abilities or special traits, which had been pretty much considered a primary rule inside the game. As things were taken for granted, most people would only focus on the ability itself, and only a few would pursue the question ‘What principle is needed to manifest this ability?’.
Based on what Zhu Yanchen said, to what extent would a player have to be eroded to have such a powerful ability?
“Keep talking.” Shu Jun said.
“When it comes to setting up purifiers in erosion zones, machines can’t replace people, since the erosive substance will cut off signal transmission and erode mechanical joints, regardless whether those machines are controlled by a human from a remote location or by AI. Some human bodies are special and have strong tolerance to erosion, and they can rely on their resonance with the erosion zone to keep themselves safe for a while. But no matter how special that human is, if he stays there too long, he’ll die for certain. The purification project has sacrificed too many resources, with very few survivors left. Back at that time, humanity could no longer allow such a massive consumption of manpower.”
Zhu Yanchen spoke slowly. As his narration continued, the corpse handler packed up the carts and slowly left.
“Using humans as a model for synthesis and transformation, synthetic organisms can have both strength and high resistance to erosion. There’s also a price. As unnatural products, they’re destined to not live for too long.”
The light was turned off and the room was dark.
“…No, I should say that ‘you’ are destined to not live too long.”
Brushing aside the matter of whether he believed it or not, Shu Jun had actually guessed that things would turn out like this.
Who would want to be born to just fight then die quickly? Not to mention, they were ‘people’ born with massive strengths. Based on this theory, synthetic humans had the same consciousness as normal humans. In that case, educating these synthetic humans would be risky — the gap in strength was too big, so even if the probability was only one in a thousand or ten thousands, as long as there was a rebel, humanity might suffer heavy losses.
Then, it would be easier to find a way to simply hide away certain truths and deceive everyone completely.
It was a very absurd strategy that made total sense.
As many thoughts ran by his mind, the familiar headache slowly rushed back. Shu Jun didn’t throw up, but he couldn’t help kneeling on one knee. The reaction this time was stronger than last time, so much so that his head felt like it was split in half.
The miniature Erosion Marsh gave off a sound of erosive fluid stirring up, the kind of sound that would make most people feel uncomfortable. In the darkness, something crawled on Shu Jun’s hands and feet.
Shu Jun lowered his head to look at Zhu Yanchen. The guy’s face was covered by the gas mask, and Shu Jun couldn’t see his eyes behind the goggles. He still didn’t know what actually attacked his brain, but Zhu Yanchen had said that if it happened for the second time, he was likely to die.
So what was Zhu Yanchen doing now? If Zhu Yanchen just wanted to kill him, all these actions had been way too superfluous.
Assuming that all of this was true, what was the meaning of ‘Haze”s existence?
…Wait a moment, he was obviously kneeling on the ground, so why was Zhu Yanchen looking up at him?
Only then did Shu Jun discover the boiling marsh under his feet. Before he was even aware, countless liquid pillars lifted him into the air, wrapping his four limbs around his body. His whole body felt so painful that he wanted to yell, but he couldn’t make any sound.
“I am sorry.” Zhu Yanchen apologised for the second time, with a voice that seemed to come from the clouds.
As more liquid pillars entangled around him, the passage of time became blurred and everything in front of him became more and more distant. Shu Jun gasped hard as he couldn’t struggle any more. He could only accept the pain and tried to keep his eyes open with his last bit of strength.
Zhu Yanchen took off the gas mask. A beam of moonlight poured in through the window, illuminating his pale face.
The concentration of erosive substance in the air must be exceedingly high, Shu Jun thought vaguely, Does he want to die too?
Thereafter, Zhu Yanchen stretched out his hands to Shu Jun and mumbled something that Shu Jun couldn’t hear. He hadn’t even digested the truths that Zhu Yanchen had just informed him, and now his body was collapsing under the pain. He slowly closed his eyes, wishing that something could just hit him unconscious now.
[You won’t lose. ]
A voice rang in his feeble consciousness. It didn’t sound like Zhu Yanchen’s voice, and Shu Jun couldn’t remember where he had heard it, but he felt very nostalgic. Being simulated by the voice, Shu Jun tried to lift his eyelids. Zhu Yanchen was still standing there with his hand stretched out, his face unconcealed.
And his expression was sorrowful.
But Shu Jun couldn’t let that sorrow engulf him. Zhu Yanchen still owed himself thousands of explanations about this whole mess…
Wait, this time, I don’t forget what I’ve heard earlier. Shu Jun was shocked as the pain started numbing his whole body. It did hurt, but it wasn’t like he hadn’t been swallowed by an Erosion Marsh before, so he was getting used to this feeling. He had to stay awake. Even if he died, he would want to die after learning the truth —
But the Erosion Marsh here didn’t seem to have any plan to swallow him.
After a long while, Shu Jun fell from the air. To be precise, he was more like a discarded product that was thrown away after the Erosion Marsh had inspected him and decided that he was unsatisfactory. This time, it was Zhu Yanchen’s turn to be a cushion, and he was almost entirely crushed by Shu Jun.
The liquid pillars receded, the pain disappeared and the feeling of weakness was swept away. Shu Jun looked at Zhu Yanchen, whose lips had turned pale and whose posture at the moment seemed unpleasant. The sorrow that Shu Jun caught on his face earlier might be an illusion, because right now Zhu Yanchen was putting on his usual straight face, the blackness in his eyes so deep that it seemed bottomless.
Shu Jun decided to go straight to the point: “Just now —”
“Who’s there?!” Shu Jun’s question was interrupted with a piercing shout. For some reason, the corpse handler who should have left suddenly returned.
The light was turned on again, and the whole room became as bright as day.
Translator and reviewer at Strictly Bromance blog. In essence, she lives to indulge in plot-driven stories sprinkled with camaraderie and slow-burn drama-free romance, especially more so if they belong to adventure, mystery or supernatural genre. A trope that she always thirsts after: “Comrades who go through life and death together”.