As the door of the bus opened, Luo Yuan disembarked, following the flow of the crowd. His white shirt had long been drenched in sweat while dirt and stains formed abstract art on the fabric. Commuting daily was a nightmare for Luo Yuan, and this unavoidable routine was testing his limits on a regular basis.
“It’s getting hotter these days,” Luo Yuan thought while he pulled at his damp shirt. The hot weather combined with today’s difficult client had made him even more agitated. Luo Yuan tucked his briefcase under his arm and walked briskly towards the Jingyue Residential Area.
The Jingyue Residential Area was near Donghu City’s suburbs, more than 10 kilometers from the city center. However, rent prices in the area were far from cheap. Luo Yuan shared a house with a young couple. It was a fully furnished 2-bedroom house, and he only had to pay CNY1200 out of the CNY3000 monthly rental, which was considered a very good deal for a first tier city. Although the location was not very convenient, his housemates were decent and they were quite nice to him.
He breathed in the smell of freshly cut grass before seeing a few workers mowing the lawn in the residential area. “What’s going on? Didn’t they mow the grass just two weeks ago?” Luo Yuan felt puzzled before he looked over at the lawns that had yet to be mowed. Only then did he realize that the grass had grown extremely fast, and was reaching about half a foot already. The trees in the area also seemed to have grown taller and looked very bushy and dense.
He then began to notice how odd the weather was. It was still hot when they were already approaching December. Most of the maple trees in the area were usually bald by this time of the year, but this year they strangely seemed to have grown lusher. There were many theories about it on the news, from equatorial counter currents to sunspot activity, some had even said that it could have been a supernova explosion from a nearby planetary system. A simple search online could produce all sorts of arguments and hypotheses complete with photos and solid proof. All were equally logical yet headache-inducing and, at the end of the day, taken as gospel.
“Better leave it to the scientists. What is there for an ordinary citizen to think about?” Luo Yuan shook his head.
A few minutes later, the aroma of a home-cooked meal greeted him as he opened the security screen door. Just as he changed into his house slippers, Zhao Yali came out of the kitchen. She looked surprised that it was not her boyfriend. Recovering with a smile, she said, “Oh, Yuan, it’s you. Let’s have dinner together. I’ve cooked an extra portion today!” She went back into the kitchen, obviously still busy preparing.
Zhao Yali was actually quite young. She was 27 years old, just four years older than Luo Yuan. She had fair skin, a slim figure, and a charming smile on her delicate almond-shaped face. She looked like a typical Jiangnan canal town lady.
“Sure, I get to save money that way,” Luo Yuan accepted her invitation with a big smile. “What about Bro Qiang? How come he’s not back yet? He usually gets off from work quite early. I was thinking I’d play a game with him while I waited for dinner,” Luo Yuan added as he saw that there was still a pair of slippers laid out.
Zhao Yali’s boyfriend, Chen Weiqiang, worked at the Forestry Bureau and his workload was usually quite light. He started work at 9:00 am and would usually get off at 4:30 pm. He hardly ever joined any social gatherings. It was quite strange for Luo Yuan to not find him home at this hour.
“All you do is play games!” Zhao Yali accused haughtily, still in her apron, “I know both of you gamed until 1:00 am while I was sleeping last night. Why didn’t you stop him?”
Luo Yuan smiled and replied, “Alright, I’ll try to stop him next time. I can’t promise I’ll succeed though! He’s an addict.”
“He can’t force you if you don’t want to play!” Zhao Yali retorted.
Zhao Yali actually knew her boyfriend well enough to realize that she could not put the entire blame on Luo Yuan. To put it nicely, Chen Weiqiang was a family man. But he was also known as a geek. He had no social life. He always left for home right after his working hours and spent the rest of his day gaming until midnight. She tried to stop him but failed most of the time.
“Okay, we’ll go to bed before 11:00 pm next time.”
Luo Yuan felt that they had been staying up really late recently as well, and always felt sleepy during lunch time.
He went to his room to get some clean clothes and then headed to the bathroom for a shower. Afterwards, he started a game of Dota. He realized that the sky had already gotten dark after just one game. Zhao Yali came into his room just as he was about to start another one.
“Yuan, let’s have dinner. We don’t have to wait for him anymore,” she said softly with a worried expression on her face.
“Have you given him a call?” Luo Yuan asked.
“I have, he didn’t pick up!” Zhao Yali tousled her hair a bit before saying, “He did say that he’ll be inspecting the forestry situation in Gaotang Town with his superior this morning. Perhaps he’s still busy. Never mind. Let’s eat first.”
Luo Yuan stopped asking and the two of them sat down at the dining table. Zhao Yali was a very good cook. There were five dishes and a bowl of soup on the table, all of them looking and smelling delicious.
“Oh, this Old Duck Soup is my favorite! I’ve liked it since I was in college and I’ve been missing it. Let me try this first!” Luo Yuan helped himself to a piece of duck fillet.
“How is it? Did I add too much salt?” Zhao Yali asked nervously.
“Are you kidding? You could’ve been a head chef with your culinary skills! It’s such a waste that you’re only cooking for Bro Qiang,” Luo Yuan complimented her.
Zhao Yali laughed and chided, “Stop flattering me! They’re just regular dishes. Have some more if they’re so delicious.”
The heavy earlier atmosphere was replaced by a harmonious one as they joked throughout dinner.
It was when the dinner came to an end that Zhao Yali started to worry again.
She took out her phone and redialed her boyfriend’s number, her expression turning darker.
“What’s the matter?” Luo Yuan asked.
“His phone has been switched off,” Zhao Yali replied quietly.
“Maybe it ran out of battery. Besides, Bro Qiang will probably need to entertain his colleagues after the inspection. With his alcohol tolerance, I bet he’s already passed out,” Luo Yuan comforted her while smiling.
“That’s true. His alcohol tolerance is the worst. All it takes is a bottle of beer to knock him out!” Zhao Yali looked slightly relieved when she entertained that possibility.
Luo Yuan heard a beeping machine sound coming from within him. His facial expression changed slightly as he summoned up the system silently. A green-framed hologram screen hovered in mid-air at the same time.
Occupation: Foreign Trade Sales Representative, Qimei Trading Co. Ltd.
Energy: 10 (10)
Dexterity: 11 (10)
Physique: 11 (10)
Intelligence: 13 (10)
Sensitivity: 10 (10)
Determination: 11 (10)
Skills: Science 16, Math 14, Mandarin 19, English 16, Finance 17, Programming 9, Dancing 1, Painting 3, Gaming 6, Negotiating 9, Socializing 7, Cooking 3, Driving 1, Hand-to-hand Combat 4
Special Skills: Identification
Pending Attribute Points: 0
Pending Skill Points: 4
Pending Mission: Level F – Become Assistant Regional Manager of the Foreign Trade Department at Qimei Foreign Trading Co. Ltd. in 12 months (Cancelled)
Optional Mission: Level F+ – Investigate the reason of Chen Weiqiang’s disappearance in 5 days (Accept/Decline)
He was stunned. Chen Weiqiang had gone missing? How?
Luo Yuan had had some good times with him.These bad news felt unbearable coming at this time. He felt worse when he looked at Zhao Yali who was grinning beside him.
“I must save him!” Luo Yuan thought.
He looked at the mission on the attribute screen. This was the first time that he had received a short term Level F+ mission. Short term missions like rescuing a drowning child and participating in a sprint race during sports day, which were the ones he usually completed, were all Level F. They had been quite easy to achieve while only missions like getting a scholarship and sitting for a Level 6 English test, which required a high level of effort, would be categorized as Level F+.
The tag Level F+ itself betrayed the mission’s difficulty and danger!
However, what was even stranger was that his mission of becoming the Assistant Regional Manager of Foreign Trade at Qimei Foreign Trading Co. Ltd. had been cancelled!
What had happened to the company? Would it be shutting down? Qimei Trading had about 10 billion dollars of trade value a year and its sales were always good. Could it really be shutting down so soon?
Luo Yuan recalled that this system had come about when he had been in his second year of university. His parents had been killed in a car accident and his girlfriend of one year had dumped him during the same time. He had been depressed and he used to spend his nights in internet cafes. One early morning, when he was staggering his way back home, a random object had fallen from the sky and hit him right on the head, injuring him severely.
He had always been a third tier student in a third tier university who truanted like nobody’s business. However, once he had been discharged from the hospital, he had suddenly changed and put all his effort into his studies, surprising everyone who had come to know him. He had already gotten a partial scholarship for the second term of that academic year, had sat a Level 4 and 6 English, a sales qualification certificate, an international trade vouching certificate, and had even advanced his degree. His impressive résumé upon graduation was the result of his perseverance through every hardship and obstacle. His initial path of fate had been shattered into pieces by the system.
Unfortunately, each level up was relatively more difficult as the missions were given to him, not found. Plus, each level up only rewarded him one AP, otherwise he would have already become a superhero. After all, the reward policy of the system was different from other games as each AP added increased 50% of the respective attribute. Out of the three AP that he had obtained, two had been added to Intelligence and one had been added to Dexterity. If he had trained a bit more, his sprinting speed could have beaten the speed of a world champion by now.
“What are you thinking about? Am I boring you?” Zhao Yali knocked on the dining table, the dissatisfaction clear in her tone.
Only then did Luo Yuan realize that he had zoned out for a while. He rushed to explain, “Never. I just had a very annoying customer today who drained all my energy.”
“Perhaps you should get yourself a girlfriend. Don’t think about work all the time. Is there anyone that you like? Do you need my help?” Zhao Yali voiced her concern.
“I’m good, no worries,” Luo Tuan replied as he thought about the mission.
They continued to chit chat for a little longer. Zhao Yali got up from her chair to clean the table.
“Let me get this. I can’t have you cook dinner and clean too!”
“You’ll break the bowls. Just go back to your games,” Zhao Yali laughed as she cleaned up fast.
Luo Yuan thanked her and went back to his room. As he lay on the bed, he thought about the mission.
“Tomorrow is Friday, so if I take one day off from work, I’ll have three days to complete this mission.”
He felt less enthusiastic about his job ever since he had figured out the possibility of Qimei Trading shutting down in six months’ time.
The next day, Luo Yuan came back from his usual morning exercise at the same time that Zhao Yali was coming out of the bathroom. She looked preoccupied. She forced a smile and greeted him. Luo Yuan knew that she must still be worried about her boyfriend not coming home the previous night, but he didn’t know how to comfort her. He looked at the time and left the house after applying for leave to his regional marketing manager.
The Ministry of Forestry was just a few kilometers from the Jingyue residential area. Luo Yuan had opted to jog there instead of taking the public transport. Since he had gotten the system, his interest in working out had been boosted as he could now measure his body’s attributes. Although he had not achieved much all these years besides an AP in both Energy and Determination, he had made a habit of exercising every morning.
About ten minutes later, Luo Yuan had arrived at the Ministry of Forestry. He registered at the guard post and stated the purpose of his visit. Walking into the office, he saw employees scattered around the main entrance as he approached a young worker.
“Chen Weiqiang? I think I’ve heard of him but he is not in our department. I’m not sure, perhaps you can check with other staff.” The young man carried an air of arrogance, his eyes scanning Luo Yuan as he spoke.
Luo Yuan thanked him with a smile and went on to ask somebody else. However, nobody seemed to know who or where Chen Weiqiang was. A middle-aged man passing by suddenly stopped and asked, “You’re looking for Chen Weiqiang? Is it urgent?”
He was holding a briefcase and rocking a beer belly. He had a slight frown though, and looked serious overall. Luo Yuan looked at him and knew that he had to be a superior. He smiled and asked, “Are you my brother-in-law’s supervisor? My sister sent me here to check if he is alright. He didn’t come home last night and his phone has been switched off.”
Luo Yuan knew that the manager would not disclose any information if he told him that Chen Weiqiang was his roommate.
“Oh! He went to the forestry station in Gaotang Town with Supervisor He. They should be back by today. You can go home.”
Beer Belly did not seem to suspect a thing and strode away right after finishing his sentence.
“If a Level F+ mission is this easy, then no reason to trouble myself!” Luo Yuan thought and sighed.
It seemed that he could not get any further information, so he walked out of the building. Then he hailed a cab to head to the forestry station in Gaotang Town right away.
The driver was a talkative person. He started talking non-stop the moment that Luo Yuan got into the car. At first, Luo Yuan had replied nonchalantly but eventually he gave up responding. The car quieted down when the driver finally stopped talking after noticing that Luo Yuan was not keen on continuing the conversation. The traffic in Donghu City was terrible, especially during morning rush hours. It only became smooth again when they passed the outskirts.
The trees along both sides of the road were tall and lush, looking exceptionally invigorating as they formed two rows of umbrellas that shaded the roadway. It would have been an enjoyable drive along the road, had it not been for the animal corpses that littered it every few kilometers. Corpses of snakes, rats, and sometimes even weasels and dogs, were the most common kind.
“Are there many snakes around here? They seem to be everywhere!” Luo Yuan said, frowning.
He had been afraid of snakes ever since he was young. He had goosebumps even if he saw one from a very long distance.
“It’s a recent development. What you saw is nothing compared to the village. The villagers could earn CNY500 to CNY600 a day just by hunting for snakes and frogs. Just a few days ago, someone caught a wild boar about 300 kilos! Nobody knows where it came from! The hill is becoming a jungle fast!” The driver had obviously held his tongue for a long time, so now he seized the opportunity to start talking non-stop again.
The topography around Donghu City was a flatland. Most of its mountain peaks were less than 300 meters above sea level. Therefore, it was more appropriate to classify them as hills instead of mountains. Plus, due to recent exploitation, rabbits and pheasants were hard to spot, and so was a larger-sized animal, much like a wild boar. Luo Yuan had been living in the city, hence he had not noticed any of these things. As he listened to what the driver had to say, he learned about the major changes that had been happening there during the past few months. “If that’s true, then isn’t the village dangerous?”
“What’s so dangerous about it? We can make exotic dishes out of them! It’s more dangerous uphill. There have already been a few people missing. Couldn’t even find their bodies. Ever since, people hardly go up there anymore. I’ve heard that the local government intends to chop down all the trees on the hill though.” The driver went on, “They used to rally to plant more of them, and now they’re cutting them down.”
“People missing!” Luo Yuan immediately thought of the F+ mission. “Maybe Chen Weiqiang has also gone missing after going up that hill.”
Luo Yuan lost his interest in keeping up with the conversation beyond that point. He knew the mission he had been given had to be a challenging one. It was Level F+ after all. How could it be completed so easily? He was worried about his safety if he really had to go up that hill, though. He was unprepared and had no weapons whatsoever.
However, it was useless for him to overthink it; the best course would be to go to the forestry station first to inquire, and then think about his next step. About 10 minutes later, the cab had pulled up in front of a two-story building.
“Alright, this is the forestry station. It’s CNY78 in total. Do you want me to wait for you?” the driver asked.
“No, thanks!” Luo Yuan paid and got off the car, making his way to the entrance.