Though wise men at their end know dark is right.
Because their words have forked no lightning, they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Lu Feng watches as the two doctors bustle about, arranging and rearranging equipment in a way that looks more disorganised than professional. It’s not the first time he’s been taken for genetic testing, but the buzz of activity outside the testing capsule is… new.
“You should be testing suspected heterogenous.”
“Without proving the validity of our upgrade, Colonel Lu? Surely you aren’t suggesting we use faulty equipment on our people.” One of the doctors looks at Lu Feng with contempt poorly-hidden in his eyes. “You might believe in solving all problems with intuition and bullets, but we believe in rigorous testing and tangible results.”
Lu Feng meets that doctor’s contemptuous gaze without blinking.
Three seconds later, that doctor looks away and mutters, “I thought the colonel would be more well-informed. What a pity that he remains ignorant to scientific enlightenment.”
Lu Feng stays silent, because there is no point in defending himself.
He knows the specifics of the latest upgrade — how could he not, when the Trial Court relies so heavily on the doctors and their testing? That he chooses not to speak of it does not mean he is ignorant, but that seems to be a concept the doctors testing him do not understand. The way they glance at him out of the corner of their eyes, then whisper behind raised hands to one another, is even less subtle than the one time a ‘human’ had mutated into an anthropod before his eyes.
Thankfully, they are not paid to be subtle or judge the people of the settlement. Their job is to test for abnormalities, ones that can now be detected beyond animal and plant targets — testing him might seem like a waste of time, effort and equipment, but Lu Feng cooperates for the same reason he lets them take his blood once a month.
It’s the same reason Lu Feng continues to stay silent instead of expressing his opinions on the test — he may be cooperating, but cooperation is not the same as acceptance. His eyes are far colder than they were an hour ago, by the time the doctors indicate that the full-body enhancement scan, but the doctors are too busy bustling again to care for Lu Feng’s mood.
Another person might tap their foot against the floor, or clear their throat loudly until one of the doctors attended to them. Lu Feng retrieves his gun from a side table, tucks it into his waistband, and discreetly monitors the doctors.
“Are you 100% sure of the test results?”
“The results won’t be finalised until the blood sample is retrieved, but this…”
One of the doctors peeks at Lu Feng and lowers his voice. “There must be a mistake. We’ll need to run another full-body scan.”
“Why? You know the margin for error is less than one percent.”
“But if you’re saying the results are correct, then —”
“Have I tested positive?”
The doctors flinch as one — which would be amusing to Lu Feng, if not for the fact they were discussing his results. “What are you afraid of? Are your tests not accurate?”
One of the doctors draws himself to his full height. It would’ve looked more impressive, Lu Feng thinks, if the doctor wasn’t half a head shorter than him.
“Of course they’re accurate! It could even detect abnormalities in dead cell samples, let alone a living being like yourself, Colonel Lu!”
Lu Feng raises his eyebrows. “You had the time to test dead heterogenous?”
The doctor who’d spoken flushes a dull brick red. His companion, however, shakes his head and looks at Lu Feng with vigilant eyes. “You should know the consequences of your actions, Colonel Lu. Does it surprise you that some might demand a retest?”
It surprises me that you would waste your resources on a retest.
“Well, no matter. You’re too boring for such idle speculation anyway.” The two doctors look at each other, before one leaves the room and the other turns back to Lu Feng. “Now, I’m sure you know the correlation between DNA activation and categorial variations, but we’ve added parameters for radiation and other factors due to the atmosphere’s destabilisation.”
Lu Feng stares at the doctor. The doctor, after a few seconds of staring back, shakes his head.
“What I’m saying is that, according to these results, you do not match the profiling of a heterogenous.”
Lu Feng’s gaze cools further. “That proves your equipment works, since I’m human.”
“It would if it identified you as human, but —”
The other doctor enters the room with a phial of blood and a thin stack of paper. The one speaking with Lu Feng breaks off to read the results and discuss it with his colleague in a low voice, but Lu Feng is stuck on the doctor’s last statement.
He’s not a heterogenous. Lu Feng has never been in direct contact with one, and he has no memories of being contaminated. He’s a human that judges others’ humanity, executing them based on his intuition, but — no, the equipment must have malfunctioned.
Lu Feng, the Judge of the Trial Court, cannot be a heterogenous.
The doctors appear to reach the same conclusion, because they turn to him with serious looks in their eyes. Lu Feng eyes the needle in one’s hand, entertains the thought of leaving and recommending that funding to the Lighthouse should be slashed, but ultimately unstraps his gun and extends his arm.
“Don’t worry,” the doctor (uselessly) reassures Lu Feng. “It must be an external factor contaminating your results, Colonel Lu. A retest will give us more conclusive results!”
With the equipment you said was accurate? Equipment that should be free from contamination, no matter what?
Lu Feng gives the doctor a look that makes him wilt, but strides to the testing capsule and straps himself in. It is still, in his opinion, a waste of his time and the doctors’ resources, but how else can he prove that their equipment is faulty? The Trial Court exists for a reason. The doctors, no matter how they improve their equipment or method, will never be able to replace his training and intuition.
When the results come out for a second time, Lu Feng is the first to compare the results from his blood test and full-body scan. He’s no scientist or doctor, but the letters and numbers on his genetic report are plain enough to understand at a glance.
“Colonel Lu, this…”
Lu Feng sets down the report, gives the doctors an insipid look, and walks out the door. The doctors do not follow him or raise an alarm before Lu Feng leaves the Lighthouse, but it is an oversight he does not intend to report — not now, nor any time after.
If the results reach the city council before Lu Feng does, he doubts they would listen to him anyway.
That thought, to Lu Feng’s consternation, is less troubling than his genetic report.
Lu Feng finds An Zhe in the first place he thinks of: in front of the chamber holding the inert sample. It’s the best place to find An Zhe when he’s not on duty, but Lu Feng, like everyone else in the city, has never understood An Zhe’s obsession with the sample.
(It is one of the many things Lu Feng does not understand about An Zhe. It goes beyond his immunity to heterogenous attacks and the twinge in his intuition when they had first met, for all that An Zhe’s genetic tests have always come back clean.
It should annoy him that An Zhe remains a mystery to him, but Lu Feng’s feelings for An Zhe’s are the furthest thing from annoyance, or even rejection.)
The sample, like every other time Lu Feng visits, drifts in his direction and waves white tendrils at him. By the time Lu Feng is within arm’s length of the spore, An Zhe has turned to look at him too.
Lu Feng looks at An Zhe without saying a word. After a few moments, An Zhe’s gaze darts to the spore.
An Zhe’s eyes widen, gaze darting back to Lu Feng. It is not the first time Lu Feng has called his name, but it is the first time he’s done so without a smile in his eyes, or on his face. “Colonel?”
“I’m absolutely loyal to the base.” Lu Feng presses a hand to the chamber and watches the sample bump against the glass by his palm. “I’m a person of the base, and I have done everything for it.”
When Lu Feng looks at An Zhe, An Zhe’s lashes are lowered. There is no expression on his face, but the soft fall of black hair against his pale cheek gives An Zhe an air of naïve purity — one that is made starker by the soft grey robes he wears as a member of the Garden of Eden.
“The base has always safeguarded the interests of humans. As a Judge of the Trial Court, I must be responsible for the base’s security.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
Instead of answering An Zhe, Lu Feng asks, “Do you know how big the world is?”
An Zhe looks at Lu Feng like he did when they’d first met: with wariness and uncertainty, but no fear. When Lu Feng meets his eyes, An Zhe shakes his head once, then nods slowly.
Lu Feng takes his hand back from the chamber glass and tells An Zhe, “No, you don’t. Haven’t you only been outside once?”
An Zhe swallows. Lu Feng hears it clearly above the hum of machinery in the room, the crackle of static from the transmitter he leaves unanswered, and the rustle of clothing as he takes his necklace out.
“The first person I killed was my father.” Lu Feng looks down at the bullet casing resting on his palm, near-identical to the one that hangs on An Zhe’s neck. “The last person I killed was my mother.”
“Madam Lu —”
“Hated me for killing her husband and her children.”
Left unsaid are the words he’d exchanged with her before he’d pulled the trigger. For all that Lu Feng speaks more with An Zhe than any other person in the base, An Zhe doesn’t need to know that she’d smiled like she was crying inside the entire time, or that she’d never once referred to him as her son.
“But she told me she didn’t.”
Lu Feng looks at An Zhe and says slowly, “She does, because she should.”
“She hated me like everyone else in this base soon will — do you not hear the noise outside?”
There is the faint clamour of klaxons and the echoes of shouts, as though a mass protest was gathering outside the building. An Zhe looks at the door and takes a step towards it, but stops and turns to look between Lu Feng and the sample.
Lu Feng answers An Zhe’s unasked question, “No, I won’t take it away again. In an hour — no, in a few minutes, the military will come for me.”
An Zhe’s eyes tighten at the mention of the sample, but it’s Lu Feng’s last few words that makes An Zhe stare at him. “Why?”
Lu Feng looks calmly back at An Zhe, takes out a knife, and slices off his left hand. Immediately, thick red blood gushes from the wound, which is skin-coloured on the outside and white in the middle, but dull silver in the space between. Not a single bit of pain flashes across Lu Feng’s face, or in his eyes.
“According to the Lighthouse, it only takes a moment for a human to become a heterogenous.” Lu Feng watches as his skin writhes and a new hand grows from his arm, then bends to pick up the hand he’d sliced off. “It was once believed that all heterogenous could only be animal-based or plant-based — no human will exists after infection. Heterogenous could not be human and machine, either.”
An Zhe remains silent, gaze fixed on the limp hand Lu Feng holds in his new one. Lu Feng smiles, but it is too cold to be happy or comforting.
“I am the only Judge in the Trial Court who can screen heterogenous species with an 100% accuracy score. Once a month, the Lighthouse will take some of my blood and perform experiments on it.”
An Zhe whispers, “The doctor told me that… when I entered the main city.”
Lu Feng’s smile widens, but it does not get warmer. “I believed I was human until two doctors did a test they shouldn’t have on me. What would they say if they had done the test on you, An Zhe?”
Something aches in Lu Feng’s chest when An Zhe lowers his face, lashes shielding his eyes from Lu Feng’s gaze. An Zhe will say that he hates Lu Feng next and it will be as Lu Feng expects, but expecting and confirming are two different things.
(“The only regret I have,” his mother had said, “is that I can’t see the day you go crazy — if an android like you can express such a thing. What would it be like for the humanity you sacrificed yourself for… to turn against you?”
He’d pulled the trigger and watched her laugh, laugh until her heart stopped and all that was left in her eyes were tears and emptiness. His chest had ached as he’d turned his back on his mother, or the person who had pretended to be his mother, but it had ached softer and for less time.
Not once, in the time during their confrontation and before her death, did his ‘mother’ call his name.)
“A non-human killing non-humans.” Lu Feng stops smiling and walks over to stand in front of An Zhe. “Isn’t it funny?”
There is a long silence.
An Zhe’s fingers ripple and deform into soft mycelium — identical to the sample (spore, Lu Feng now knows) floating in the chamber. “You didn’t kill me.”
“Yet.” Lu Feng unholsters his gun and steps back in one smooth, practiced motion, levelling the muzzle so it’s pointed at An Zhe’s forehead. “I could still kill you.”
Though An Zhe shrinks back, he does not change his form completely or try to run. Lu Feng has seen many reactions before he shoots someone, from anger to denial to relief, but there is still that same expression of wariness and uncertainty (and no fear) in An Zhe’s eyes. He suspects An Zhe would still look at him with those eyes if he pinched An Zhe, or proposed to him on one bended knee.
(That the last thought makes his hand waver is… unacceptable to Lu Feng. There are other emotions at play beyond ‘unacceptable’, but the less he thinks of them, the better he can pretend they do not exist.
should not do not have feelings like ‘regret’ and ‘affection’.)
“What is your purpose in coming here?”
An Zhe’s gaze darts to the spore. The spore, as though sensing An Zhe’s attention on it, waves white tendrils at An Zhe.
“How did you become human?”
An Zhe says nothing.
There are many things Lu Feng can infer — he had long suspected An Zhe’s identity as a heterogenous, after all, and he had spent months in direct and indirect contact with the spore. What An Zhe chooses to stay silent on will not affect Lu Feng’s overall analysis, or their eventual end.
With his gun still pointed at An Zhe, Lu Feng lightly says, “The United Front has received my genetic report by now. It’s only a matter of time before they find me.”
And capture me to experiment on openly, now that they know what I am.
Interestingly, An Zhe’s gaze darts back to him at his words. It’s also at this moment that his transmitter crackles and a grainy voice demands, “Colonel Lu, report immediately! I repeat: Colonel Lu, report immediately!”
“You should answer that,” An Zhe says in a shaky voice.
Lu Feng does not move — neither to shoot An Zhe, nor to respond to his transmitter.
“This is your final warning, Colonel Lu!”
An Zhe takes a step towards Lu Feng. There is still no fear in An Zhe’s eyes, for all that Lu Feng’s gun is still pointed at him… and it is that fearlessness which convinces Lu Feng to pull the trigger.
The transmitter shatters instantly, pieces smashing into the floor and every other available surface.
The surveillance cameras explode in a shower of glass and plastic.
Lu Feng barely feels the bits that cut through his clothes and embed themselves into his skin, but An Zhe flinches back with a soft cry of pain. Lu Feng sways forward, but does not take a step towards An Zhe. His eyes stay fixed on the blood oozing from a cut on An Zhe’s cheek — blood that is as red as Lu Feng’s and any other human’s, for all that An Zhe’s hand is still but a mass of mycelium.
An Zhe, cradling his cheek with one hand, whispers, “Colonel…”
“Lu Feng. Only people — humans of the base can serve in the military, little mushroom.”
That, for some reason, makes tears well out of An Zhe’s eyes. “Didn’t you say you were a person of the base?”
“Does it matter if the base doesn’t want me?” Lu Feng smiles, but it is only an expression that hurts him (and An Zhe, from the way he shivers when their eyes meet). “If you were in my position, would you let me live?”
An Zhe says nothing. The spore, unaware of the commotion coming ever-closer to the room, bumps itself (himself?) against the glass.
“Do you like the base?” Lu Feng looks into An Zhe’s eyes, stops smiling, and says, “No. We took your spore away… I only hope you won’t infect anyone. That is, if you can.”
The destruction of the transmitter had been for himself, to buy a little more time before the judges he trained and the men who respected (and feared, or hated) him came. The destruction of the surveillance cameras, the only monitoring allowed for fear of contaminating the sample, had not just been for himself, but it is something Lu Feng will never tell An Zhe.
If he were human, if An Zhe was willing to go through him to take his spore back, would he have shot An Zhe? Would An Zhe be another to face the Judge’s sentence — another heterogenous destroyed, another life cut short?
(If he had never thought himself a human of the base, if he and An Zhe had met outside and he had never taken An Zhe’s spore, would they have been… more?)
Lu Feng holsters his gun, turns to the door, and says without looking back, “This might be your only chance to leave the base.”
Left unsaid is that Lu Feng’s own chance is gone, but why would a little mushroom with a bullet casing identical to Lu Feng’s care?
Beyond the door, a muffled voice calls, “Spread out! The target’s transmitter was tracked to this floor!”
Lu Feng had never thought about his death — only of serving the base he devoted his life to. He had killed so many with his own hands and his own intuition, but he is unarmed and walking to those who are, and who will not hesitate to shoot. His ‘mother’, he thinks, would be laughing if she saw him now.
“Live well, little mushroom… An Zhe.”
Lu Feng places a hand against the sensor and unlocks the door.
The last thing he sees, before it opens, is a wave of white swallowing him whole — like the mother’s embrace he never had, softer and warmer than he would’ve ever imagined.