The hygienic condition of the village’s food joint was relatively bad but its menu was unique, consisting mostly of exotic dishes like rabbit stew, snake soup with shredded bamboo shoot, sliced chicken with fungus, and braised frog. These were all captured by the villagers, and although they were usually rare, they had become pretty common as of late.
Despite the special menu, the atmosphere was rather tense and the conversation halted after some small talk. About 15 minutes later, Captain Chen put down his cutlery and lit up a cigarette. Luo Yuan borrowed Captain Chen’s lighter and mimicked him. It was not a habit for him, but he would sometimes smoke when he felt troubled.
“Let’s go!” Captain Chen said, standing up after he finished his cigarette.
Everyone stood up and departed in the direction of the base of the hill. Luo Yuan walked last in line and played with the machete, slashing it through thin air. Zhao Qiang turned and watched him. "You are very energetic, aren’t you?” he teased Luo Yuan, “There are weeds all over the hill. You’ll get to chop them all you want later!"
Luo Yuan did not mind his teasing. "I work out often, so I’m quite fit. You guys can leave it to me to blaze a trail. Just be on the lookout.”
Luo Yuan was not really that energetic or enthusiastic. He just wanted to practice his skills using the machete in the meantime. This mission was apparently more dangerous and in this forest his 4-AP Hand-to-Hand Combat seemed to be insufficient compared to having a knife. However, it was not that easy to acquire a new skill. It was not like it could be acquired just by owning a knife and simply hacking or slashing at things. One had to master the basic maneuvers, which required a lot of practice. Take Luo Yuan’s Driving Skill, for example. He had acquired it by getting his driving license and even then, he had only gotten a pathetic 1. One could imagine what the level of difficulty in this forest would be like.
“Sure. Looks like we have to rely on you after all!” Zhao Qiang laughed.
The young policewoman could not take it anymore and said, “Zhao Qiang, stop bullying him!” She then turned to Luo Yuan and told him, "It’s alright, Luo Yuan. We can take turns later.”
"I’m fine, don’t worry," Luo Yuan replied with a grin.
“Huang Jiahui, why are you blaming me? He’s the one who’s volunteered.” Zhao Qiang said before murmuring, “It sure helps to be young and handsome!”
The policewoman, whose name he now knew was Huang Jiahui, glared at him but kept quiet.
Wang Fei rushed to say, "Bro Qiang, Sister Hui! I’ll take turns with Luo Yuan since the two of us are the youngest." He was still new on the job, so this would be a good chance for him to prove himself.
“Alright, we’ll leave that to Wang Fei and Luo Yuan. The rest of you be on alert and watch our surroundings,” Captain Chen finalized the plan.
They passed through the village and reached the end of the cement road. A 2-meter wide farm trail with weeds replaced it at that point. If it weren’t for the villagers who used this route regularly, the trail would have probably been blending in with the farmland by now. They stepped on the grass, which felt soft and was actually not that difficult to walk on.
Bristling and hustling sounds came occasionally from the bushes and put everyone on alert considering that nobody knew whether it had been a rat, a snake, or some other kind of creature.
Zhao Qiang, who had been walking in the back, suddenly slapped himself in the face. He checked his palm to find an unfortunate mosquito crushed in a drop of blood.
"Damn it. What a big mosquito!" Zhao Qiang cursed while he scratched his face. He felt an unusual itchiness.
"We’re near the forest, the mosquitoes are usually more noxious here. Be on the lookout," Captain Chen reminded his team.
Suddenly, a vigorous movement came from the bushes just a few meters in front of Luo Yuan. The bushes seemed to thrash before a creature jumped out and fled in a flash. It moved like a released arrow, leaving a long impression on the bushes. The leaves had concealed everything so they were not able to see what it had been clearly. The unforeseen movement had frightened Huang Jiahui, who let out a yelp as she patted her own chest. “Oh my God, what the hell was that?”
“Could have been a vole, I guess.” Wang Fei replied uncertainly. He had been walking behind Luo Yuan and had gotten frightened as well.
"A vole? How can a vole be this big? Maybe it was a weasel. It sure scared me," said Huang Jiahui, fear still lingering in her voice.
Luo Yuan had been walking in front, but he had only seen a vague shape and was not sure what creature it had been either. However, he was sure that it had not been a weasel because weasels were not green. He did not want to add to everyone else’s fear though, so he remained silent.
He took a deep breath and held his knife tightly, continuing to beat the bushes in front of him while focusing on the way he handled the machete. He had been disturbed by the unknown creature earlier. “If the plants have been growing so strangely these past few months, what about the animals? Plants are the producers of the food chain. If they evolve, then the whole ecology will change drastically as well. Perhaps it’s not as obvious or widespread yet, but there must already have been some changes in certain creatures.”
Suddenly, he thought of his canceled mission and he broke out in cold sweat. He had speculated that Qimei Trading would shut down within six months but he had not thought about it any further. There were many factors that could cause such a shutdown, such as insufficient cash flow, financial issues or pissing off people in powerful positions. However, when he combined everything he had encountered in the past few days, he came to a shocking, impossible conclusion – Trade could be suspended.
“There must have been some changes in the ocean as well if there had already been changes on the land. Once sea freight started experiencing problems, the number of affected companies and people would be unpredictable.” The world seemed to be experiencing some sort of major changes. Luo Yuan lived in the city, and while he had been made aware of these changes by the media, he hadn’t thought that it was serious enough to attract his full attention. He would probably still have been ignorant if he had not visited this village.
“No wonder the price of rice has skyrocketed and the frequency of bank interest rate has increased suspiciously. I should prepare myself after completing this mission,” Luo Yuan thought.
After a while, they arrived at the base of the hill, where they found what seemed to be a trail covered by thorny plants and bushes. When Luo Yuan saw Zhao Qiang scratching his face and the lump the size of a baby’s fist that had just formed on it, he asked curiously, “What happened to your face?”
“It’s the sting from that mosquito. It’s so itchy!” Zhao Qiang huffed as he checked his gun and scratched his face a few more times.
Huang Jiahui came over to check it out and looked completely shocked. "Oh! How could the mosquitoes here be so noxious? I should’ve applied for leave today. I won’t be able to face anyone if I get stung like this.”
Wang Fei held in his laughter while he said, "Maybe Bro Qiang has sensitive skin. I used to have a classmate like this. He’d always get a big lump whenever he got stung.”
“F*ck off, my skin is perfectly normal. Did any of you bring any rosewater or ointment?” Zhao Qiang asked, scowling at them.
Luo Yuan had thought that it was probably skin sensitivity as well, but that was apparently not the case according to Zhao Qiang. He was surprised. “Looks like the animals are mutating too. How could a mosquito be so noxious otherwise?”
“Put some saliva on it. Use what you have.” Captain Chen was quite happy to see Zhao Qiang’s almost deformed face. The guy was a sore thumb at the station. He was always uncooperative and seemed to enjoy complaining about everything. The captain had wanted to teach him a lesson for a long time. “It’ll be fine soon. Alright, let’s go up the hill now. Luo Yuan, you go first.”
Luo Yuan put his thoughts aside and walked towards the forest carefully, holding on to his machete.