As soon as the elevator doors on the thirty-sixth floor opened, Xuan Ji's eyes were dazzled - the entire floor was actually semi-open, with a row of large floor-to-ceiling windows facing south and a glass door in the middle, overlooking the entire capital city.
Outside was a terrace suspended on the thirty-sixth floor, extending from the building. Xuan Ji swept his gaze over it and saw at least ten different complex arrays on the terrace. Layer upon layer of arrays expanded the space of the terrace to the extreme, and in addition to a helipad, there was even enough space to accommodate a runway for airplanes.
Xuan Ji thought he had been idling in the mortal world for many years, seen and experienced everything, and had no more surprises, but at this moment, he was still amazed by this great artificial creation. The dazzling sunlight made him a little dizzy. He hadn't even found the Aftermath Department's office yet, and another elevator door opened beside him. Xiao Zheng and a few people rushed out from inside.
Seeing Xuan Ji standing foolishly at the elevator door like a country bumpkin, Hurricane Xiao swept over him like thunder without giving him a chance to cover his ears, and took him away: "Your department's plane is ready, you lead the team, take off in twenty minutes. Come on, let's talk as we walk."
Xuan Ji: "..."
What was going on? Why was he leading the team? He hadn't even touched the door of his own office and was already being sent on a business trip on a plane... Wait a minute, this department actually has its own plane?
The glass door opened, and the wind swept in from the open-air runway, sweeping everyone's hair into a mess. Only Director Xiao's hair, full of hair gel, remained steady in the strong wind, as immovable as Mount Tai. He turned his head and stuffed a stack of documents into Xuan Ji's arms, and said in a deep voice, "There's been an incident at Chiyuan."
As soon as Xuan Ji heard the words "Chiyuan," while busy combing his hair back with his hand, his eyes narrowed as if he had been hit by a glaring ray of light. "What?"
Xiao Zheng knew he was lacking in common knowledge and thought he didn't know what Chiyuan was, so he quickly explained, "It's the Chiyuan Grand Canyon, but when we say 'Chiyuan,' we don't mean the scenic area of the canyon - the scenic area is only outside/peripheral to the canyon. The vast primitive forest in the belly of the canyon hasn't been developed and is not open to the public."
Xuan Ji nodded with some hesitation, "What happened at the Grand Canyon?"
"The Chiyuan Grand Canyon is one of the high-risk areas we closely monitor. There's a huge unknown energy field in the depths of the canyon that we can't penetrate with our current technology, let alone study in detail. Because of this energy field, there have been frequent abnormal energy events over there, and there are still many lost ancient arrays and inscriptions in the primitive forest that can't be understood. To this day, less than one-tenth of them can be deciphered and interpreted. Experts from the Research Institute in the bureau speculate that there may be very dangerous things sealed in the Grand Canyon."
Xiao Zheng interrupted Xuan Ji, who seemed to want to express his views on the "extremely dangerous thing." He hastily led Xuan Ji and several other members of the Aftermath Department onto a small plane. Xiao Zheng sat down and opened his tablet, "Let me give you a brief rundown of the matter - during the National Day holiday, several ancient trees in the Chiyuan Canyon suddenly mutated. These mutated trees can move in the forest and hunt around. For safety reasons, the local sub-bureau communicated with the scenic area management and suspended reception of tourists, claiming a geological disaster. However, a small group of thrill-seekers sneaked in and live-streamed their exploration, which happened to coincide with the mutant trees' outbreak. This is the surveillance footage from the scenic area."
He opened a video file on the tablet. The video footage was shaky, and the signal was unstable, like an earthquake. After a moment of shaking, a shadow suddenly swept across the middle of the screen with quick movements, like a giant python hunting. It slithered with its teeth and claws close to the ground, then collided with a nearby ancient tree and immediately entwined itself around it.
The ancient tree entwined by the "python" quickly withered, as if it had lost its vitality, and in just a few dozen seconds, it had turned into a pile of dead branches.
It was not until then that Xuan Ji could see clearly that the "giant python" was the root of a large tree.
This terrifying root was full and round after feeding, and then crawled down from the remains of the ancient tree, swaggering and shaking a few times, and suddenly smashed towards the camera. The screen suddenly turned black, and the lens shattered.
Xuan Ji frowned and quickly pinched a few finger joints with his thumb. Recently, there were no solar eclipses, lunar eclipses, or meteor showers. The nearby Mars was steadily revolving and had not reached the retrograde point. There were no anomalies in the celestial phenomenon, and the almanac was not at the "inopportune time," nor was it the "time of demons." Everything seemed fine. Why did a group of trees mutate?
"Conservatively estimated, there were at least seven or eight mutated plants this time. The tree roots filmed should be from a mutated spruce, and they quickly spread out and hunted all creatures along the way—not just plants. Our people found several large mammal corpses inside," Xiao Zheng interrupted his thoughts, "It was said that after someone was trapped, the local sub-bureau immediately organized a rescue team. They have rescued all the people, and it's just lucky for them that they stumbled into a natural cave. However, it is uncertain how much they saw. The focus of the Aftermath Department this time is on these few people."
The several members of the Aftermath Department on the plane echoed in unison, "Understood."
Only Xuan Ji had not yet adapted to his position and asked in confusion, "Didn't you say that the people have been rescued?"
"Yes," said a staff member from the Aftermath Department next to them, "That's why our department needs to step in now. Our job is to handle personal and property losses, negotiate compensation, calm down the ordinary people who were involved, and prevent the spread of the paranormal event causing social panic, right?"
Xuan Ji: "..."
That's right, his main job now is to collect corpses, compensate losses, refute rumors, and promote the values of science to the public.
"I didn't have the right major before, and I didn't have any experience when I first came here. I'm sorry." Xuan Ji laughed and turned to ask for help from his new colleagues, "Can someone give me some guidance on how we usually handle these situations?"
When he turned around, he saw the three people behind him.
In addition to him, there were three people in the Aftermath Department, two women and one man. The one who spoke earlier was a highly experienced middle-aged woman in her fifties, wearing stylish and beautiful "Teddy curls" and a knitted cardigan in a deathly Barbie pink color, with a row of lace edging on the collar revealing the autumn clothes, which looked rather exquisite.
The male colleague next to her was even more exquisite, wearing a suit and leather shoes, shining brightly. Although his hairline was pitiful, he still carefully applied hair gel and neatly fixed the hollow headband on his crown, which looked like a row of barcodes from afar.
There was also a chubby young girl who either feared the heat or feared strangers, with a thin layer of sweat on her forehead. When the new boss turned to look at her, she became so nervous that she nearly ripped her pants.
Xuan Ji suddenly felt exhausted because he had to single-handedly raise the department's average appearance, and he felt very tired.
"Hello, Director, my name is Bi Chunsheng. I'm a few years older than you, so you can just call me Lao Bi." The woman with glasses spoke first. "Don't worry, we all have a basic office process - we talk to each person one by one, and if there's nothing serious, we just deceive them...well, we console them a bit. For those who have severe psychological trauma, we occasionally use some 'props,' but it's not complicated, and you'll know when you see them. Finally, be sure to check their phones and computers, especially things that can connect to the internet, to make sure there are no traces left online. You can let Qianru - that little girl named Ping Qianru - handle that. Young people these days are very good at using computers. When our office printer breaks down, we go to her to fix it."
It turned out that the girl who was picking at her pants was named "Ping Qianru." The girl herself was as introverted as the seam of her pants, and she was startled by being called out. She hung her head, showing a fair hairpin to Xuan Ji as if she couldn't bear to look at him.
Xuan Ji wanted to say something, but his mind was blanked by this mourning head. He had no choice but to smack his lips and force out a friendly smile.
"There is one more thing you need to focus on," Xiao Zheng looked at his watch and interrupted their department's internal icebreaking ceremony. "When we received the report, it said that there were five trapped tourists. The search and rescue team initially detected signs of life from five people in the cave. But, for some reason, they pulled out six people in the end, an extra one that nobody knows where it came from."
Several people from the Aftermath Department looked at Director Xiao with confusion.
"The trapped people were originally two groups of individuals who happened to meet during their escape. Both groups thought that the extra person was with the other group, so no one paid attention to it. One of the groups was trespassing in the scenic area to film, and their equipment was not turned off at the time. The whole process was recorded," Xiao Zheng continued, "After investigating the video, we found that all of the footage of this person was blurry, meaning that only his voice was recorded from start to finish."
As he spoke, he opened another video on his computer. In the video, a man in the corner of the frame seemed to melt into the light, with only an overexposed, blurry outline visible.
The outline said, "I'm tired of living the 9-to-5 life, so I came out to wander around."
Although only his voice was heard, it seemed that the person speaking was smiling, with a relaxed tone and a warm and friendly voice that made people feel good just listening to him.
Bi Chunsheng thought for a moment and said, "At the time, we were escaping for our lives, and this person seemed a bit too calm."
Xiao Zheng shook his head. "No, the problem is here."
As he spoke, he played several other audio clips.
The first clip was a crisp female voice that sounded young. The girl seemed to be talking to the camera, saying, "Okay, we're in now. Let's just wander around here for a bit."
The second clip was a deep male voice. "Tourism is just going from a place where you're tired of living to a place where others are tired of living. Now, there's traffic on holidays when people go out. I think it's better to lie on the couch and watch others run around. Today, we're responsible for traveling and taking you all around. Don't forget to give us a thumbs-up if you're having a good time, bros."
The third clip was from another man with a slightly hoarse voice. "I don't think it's that difficult. Everyone has their own difficulties, right? Is the 9-to-5 life not hard? Of course it is. At least we're free."
Xiao Zheng said, "Three of the trapped people were live-streaming before they were in danger. These are recordings of them chatting with their audience. It may not be obvious when listening to the complete sentences, but I'll show you..."
"I can tell," Xuan Ji rubbed his chin. "This mysterious figure cut out words from what others said and pieced them together to make a sentence."
Bi Chunsheng's glasses slipped down from her nose. "Are you saying he learned how to talk from other people?"
"Not just learned," Xiao Zheng first clipped out the four words "wander around" from the young woman's statement, and then played the audio of the mysterious man saying the same phrase. It wasn't very clear in the context of the sentence, and one could easily miss it, but when played separately, it gave people goosebumps.
"Speech speed, tone, pauses, and..."
As for me...
I'm tired of the nine-to-five routine...
So I came out to wander around...
"Pay close attention to this person. It's about time for you to set off." Xiao Zheng said, glanced at Xuan Ji, "Let me know when you come back. From now on, we're colleagues. Let's have a meal together."
Xiao Zheng was probably going to explain to Xuan Ji why he had been tricked into joining the Aftermath Department.
Xuan Ji smiled and teased him, "You're inviting us? That's not very generous of you, Director Xiao. Why are you so stingy? If you're treating us, you should invite everyone in our department."
Bi Chunsheng and the male colleague were both old hands at this, immediately joining in the act and saying they wanted to seize the opportunity to share the wealth.
"Don't try to fool us with cafeteria food. If you're treating us, take us to a place we can't afford to go on our own. Oh, and before we eat, let's get some work done," Xuan Ji copied the weird video onto his phone. "By the way, what's this 'mosaic' guy's name?"
"Oh... he calls himself 'Sheng Lingyuan'."
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