They might have taken quite a bit of detour, but the group’s original purpose remains unchanged – in fact, no natural disasters, meteor strikes, nor alien invasions will derail Meng Yun’s intentions of going fishing.
Gilbert shares the same sentiments.
“First, it’s important to set metrics for our fishing efficiency,” he tells them as they head toward the black minivan. “Baits and rigs are equally as important as the temperature and depth of the water itself. The dissolved-oxygen factor affects water quality: the colder the water, the less oxygen for aquatic creatures – or to be more clear, approximately ten oxygen molecules per million of water is dissolved. Spring is a prime time for shallow water fishing because the epilimnion is neither too warm nor cold.”
He continues with the air of a scholar, “At the very least, we resort to trial and error to form a valid hypothesis. We can also use a bit of industrial engineering to assess water proficiency…”
“Or so is what this handy manual suggests,” he finishes as he waves a thick hardcover book, Scientific Guide to Fishing for Dummies. Its contents are far beyond most people’s scope of thinking but Gilbert seems to be an exception.
Meng Yun, too, is an exception. He’s carrying a different book, some kind of fish encyclopedia, but he’s on the exact same water wavelength as the other. “There’s a field meter in the car. It’s a multi-parameter that can measure pH levels and water turbidity,” he chimes in giddily. “I calibrated it last night.”
The conversation swerves to the nutritional benefits of preserving fish by dry-salting versus in a salt-brine solution – something about their physicochemical and microbiological changes, but the general consensus is: very high in sodium.
Gilbert and Meng Yun bump fists for the tenth time, and suddenly Shu is being dragged along to a field research as an unwilling participant, watching his companions – plus one extra hitchhiker – unabashedly load piles upon piles of vintage alcohol and snacks from house owner Chien’s prized stash without consent. Gilbert had insisted it’d be fine: “we’re practically like long-lost brothers. What’s a bit of sharing among family, am I right?”
He’s not necessarily wrong, but Gilbert’s already adopted the Meng siblings into the family tree after a span of ten whole minutes, and as such, his way of thinking is rather unconventional.
“Anyway,” Gilbert says after stuffing some freeze-dried fruits into the trunk. It’s probably the sixth large bag, enough to feed a whole platoon, and it’s clearly not just ‘a bit’ of sharing. “Do we have assigned seats because I don’t prefer shotgun. Seatbelts are uncomfortable.”
Meng Yun hops onto shotgun and his sister is the trustworthy driver as usual. Speed limits are still important – whether it be running away from the Corrupted or going on a fishing expedition, slow and steady make for safety.
Shu is already knocked out in the backseat of the car, sleeping peacefully against the window. Glenn puts a black duffel bag neatly in the trunk. It’s the only loot that’s not nourishment.
“Get in,” Glenn says as he holds the door open.
Gilbert takes it as his cue to enter the back of the car.
“Where are you going?” Glenn stops him in his motions.
“To sit? In the car?” the genius scientist looks confused.
His good comrade gestures to the trunk. “Your assigned seat.”
“That’s the trunk.”
“There’s no space in the back.” Glenn smiles at him.
“That’s impossible,” Gilbert refutes. “The average adult human body contains the mass of approximately 7 × 1027 atoms, occupying 1.76 billion cubic feet of space. I can squeeze in with the young master if—”
“Sorry,” Glenn interrupts him, “I take up the mass of two. 3.52 billion cubic feet of space.”
And that’s how Gilbert got stuffed in the trunk – uncomfortably cramped in between bags of stolen goods, screaming out the woes of life. The ride is smooth sailing, as expected of the reliable driver, but the unfortunate man is being crushed by a dozen things all at once and the heavy-duty duffle, which judging by the loud thumps against skin, has to hurt.
“—I thought I was supposed to be your tour guide,” Gilbert gasps out from pain. “How could you betray me like this?”
“You were never invited,” Glenn informs him kindly.
The other man cries out, “Officer Lenos, isn’t this bullying?”
Meng Qing makes an announcement from the front. “Spotted a Corrupted. Running it over.”
She runs it over. There’s a jarring slam followed by squeaking car tires and the impact sends Gilbert toppling over the backs of the passenger seats. The earsplitting clamor of noises – the collision, the howl of the writhing Corrupted which isn’t much louder than Gilbert’s pained screeches, and the offbeat instrumental playing on Meng Yun’s advanced audio glasses. It’s almost a live concert.
The sight isn’t much more pleasant. Car tiles squelch against the deceased body, its organs dangling from the bumpers, reflecting on the side mirrors. The windshield is splattered with entrails and black blood.
Shu is jolted awake as well when his head bangs against the passenger window. He lets out a low grunt of pain and looks around in a daze, clinging onto his duvet. “…What’s going on?”
“Nothing,” Glenn assures him to the side. “We hit a stray.”
Glenn reaches over but pauses just before contact. “Does your head hurt?”
“It doesn’t.” Shu doesn’t miss the hesitation in his movements.
Someone else screams from the back. “Glenn, isn’t the preferential treatment too obvious? Can you tone it down a little because I’m kind of heartbroken…”
Shu blinks. “Why is he in the trunk?”
“He doesn’t like wearing seatbelts.” Glenn thinks it’s a universal answer, but it doesn’t dissipate any confusion. Shu nods anyway.
“Wait,” Gilbert calls out, “I think there’s been a misunderstanding. There are no seatbelt rules in the backseat. Glenn, if there’s no space can I sit on your lap or something?”
“You can’t,” Glenn tells him. “It’s reserved seating.”
“Young master bro, can I sit on your lap?”
Glenn replies for him as well, “There are also no seatbelt rules in the trunk.”
“Uh…” Gilbert gets hit with a stroke of brilliance, “then the young master can sit on your lap while I take his seat. Think of it as the proximity principle within social psychology. It’s a strategic approach that aligns team harmony with interpersonal relationship bonding. What do you think of my foolproof proposal?”
Glenn ponders it seriously. “Not bad.”
“No,” Shu replies curtly before derailing the conversation. “What happened to the other car? It’s more effective.”
Meng Qing answers him. “Yun sent it flying off the cliff.”
There’s an insulted gasp from the culprit. “I’m not good with heights!”
Glenn leans over to whisper teasingly, “I carried you all the way back. How are you going to thank me?”
“…It beats bleeding out on the backseat,” Shu admits.
A loud exclaim comes from the back and Gilbert stumbles on his words. “B-b-bleeding out on the backseat?! When, how – why, fuck if boss finds out he’s going to kill me – oh shit, he’s going to deduct my pay—”
“You’re not here to just give me a message,” Shu breaks him off before the expletives become more vivid. “Why did he send you?”
“My main task is to escort you back to the base. That was assigned, um…” Gilbert at least sounds sheepish, “maybe almost three weeks ago. As for why he sent me of all people, it’s only because our team is split up. We’re trying to crack down Rebirth’s main headquarters but well… things happen and now I, a non-combatant, innocent researcher is being sent to the frontlines. By the way, my time limit was sort of like two weeks ago, so if you meet the boss, can you put in a good word for me? Like we got into an accident or something… I’ve got a family to feed and—”
Glenn answers him with a smile, “I’ll be sure to put in a good word for you, Gilbert. How should I phrase it? Science tourism?”
“When you put it like that, it actually does sound pretty good.” the other man acknowledges. “But there was another reason why I was a little late. If you retrieved my travel map then you’ve probably gone to my temporary place of residence. It’s a fairly long story, but…”
He coughs awkwardly and tries to summarize, “I’ve been hearing ghastly cries in the middle of the night. It went on for days – I’m serious – and I even thought I was just having nightmares again but one night, one lonely, morbid night, not unlike those dark, dark nights where I wallow in my lonesome, contemplating the complexities of the universe, stuck in a dark, dark—”
Shu yawns and buries his head into the duvet.
“—dark place, I went out to feed the chickens some water. Then… I saw it,” Gilbert emphasizes the last sentence gravely. “Yes, okay, you might think it’s strange but trust me – at the bottom of the water well, there was…” he lowers his voice, “there was a Corrupted. Right there. Stuck right at the bottom of the well. I don’t even know how. Can those things even topple that far in there? Like it was literally shoved in there headfirst, legs suspended in the air, and that’s not possible unless someone flung it down there, but man that’s kind of rude, don’t you think? Like come on, I was just trying to sleep and then I see a corpse in my backyard!”
Gilbert wails indignantly, “A corpse in my backyard! And I didn’t even get to feed my chickens!”
As the distressed scientist agonizes over the chickens that were not his and the backyard that is also not his, Shu is hit with a sudden flashback. That one day, many nights ago, he too had an encounter that involved kicking a Corrupted down a water well of a seemingly vacant house. The story is too unusual that it’s impossible for him to not make the correlation. He coughs lightly out of guilt.
“Hm?” Glenn catches on quickly as always. “Do you know about this?”
“No,” Shu replies but from the knowing smile tugging on the other’s lips, the denial is mere pretense.
Meng Yun picked out something interesting from the conversation, “Gil bro, there were chickens?! I’ve been looking for chickens!”
“Oh yeah, there were tons of chickens. Weeks’ worth of chickens.”
“What happened to the chickens?”
“Huh?” Gilbert sounds confused by the arbitrary question. “I cooked them. Meal prep.”