Author: 年终 / Nian Zhong
Translator: Kinky || https://kinkytranslations.com/
Chapter 78: Two Bowls of Noodles
‘Ji Xiaoman was indeed wise to choose this place,’ Ruan Xian thought.
The street where the noodle shop was located looked more chaotic than Summer Street. There were still airtight walls and buildings above them, but compared to the dilapidated Summer Street, the buildings in this area weren’t completed at all. Cracked concrete slabs fell on the side of the street, and the broken steel bars stuck out in sharp fractures, like the ruins of an old city that had been bombed, or a dry and moldy honeycomb.
If Summer Street in lower town was an old man suffering from serious illness and dying, this area was more like a highly decomposed corpse.
Ji Xiaoman walked through the maze of architectural structures and parked the truck deep in the reinforced steel jungle. She meticulously put on the camouflage net around the truck and nailed alarms in almost every corner.
“Mom, stay here. Don’t go anywhere.” She half kneeled in front of the female android, holding the other’s hand with both her hands. “I’m just going to have dinner. It won’t take more than half an hour. Contact me directly if anything happens.”
“Xiaoman.” The beautiful android smiled softly and touched her head. That smile was a bit like Tang Yibu’s original disguise, bright but empty, so standard that it was uncomfortable.
After locking the car doors, Ji Xiaoman touched the alarms one by one, as if she had obsessive-compulsive disorder, and then led the group out of the small dust-filled collapse pit.
“For your safety, please do not move around after the curfew.”
Drilling out of the terrible ruins, the voice of the city became a lot clearer. The pitch-shifting electronic sound penetrates the fog and through the crowd, repeating its message over and over again.
“The City Defenders have the absolute right to deal with the defectors. Those who cherish their lives, listen to me. For your safety…”
The crowd was still surging at night, as if those harsh words were just background noise. Ji Xiaoman parked the truck very close to the noodle shop as they almost bumped into the signboard of Li Ji Noodle House head-on.
A thin old man squatted in front of the restaurant, smoking a strangely shaped pipe through a gas mask—He even left a special hole for that pipe in his mask. The old man spewed smoke rings into the poisonous fog, and the goggles of the mask reflected a little light. They couldn’t see the old man’s eyes clearly, let alone the other party’s line of sight.
The decoration of Li Ji Noodle House was very “retro”.
With the further development of virtual reality technology, fewer companies will need to work together in reality. People were beginning to work remotely, nesting in places they were familiar with. Except for remote areas with underdeveloped economies, under the influence of the over-developed drone delivery business, the ancient form of shops had gradually disappeared—since most of the daily needs could be met without leaving home, a considerable number of people wouldn’t even leave their door, find a small shop, and eat a bowl of noodles slowly.
In densely populated central cities, land was expensive. Except for big brands that needed to maintain storefronts in the business district, private small shops were becoming a rarity. This was still the case in the catering industry from Ruan Xian’s memory, not to mention that technology had become more advanced a few years after.
Ruan Xian exhaled slowly through the sultry gas mask.
The Li Ji Noodle House in front of him was more like a kind of shop depicted in the works of time. In a corner supported by steel bars, were neon lights. The flesh-red plastic cloth signboard was slightly faded, and the white font was extremely simple, without the slightest sense of design. There was a greasy thick curtain in front of the door, and the menu was written on a whiteboard with a fluorescent marker, and it was randomly placed at the front door.
Tang Yibu looked at everything in front of him with interest. The iron bead on his shoulder tilted its head just like him. Ji Xiaoman got him a pair of color-filtered glasses from the corner. Under the dim light, those golden eyes looked more like ordinary light brown.
[Half noodles with meat, meatballs cut with a knife, and vegetarian noodle soup. Toppings are extra. Barter exchange is supported.] The description on the whiteboard was mixed with a few typos, but the size of the words themselves was about the same.
An air filter was placed in the store, and there was no poisonous smoke, but there was a choking oil fume. The tables, chairs, and stools seemed to have been picked up from different ruins as they didn’t match one bit. It was difficult to even find two that were of similar styles.
Ji Xiaoman was the first to rush into the store. She covered her prosthetic limbs with gloves and an ill-fitting coat. She went straight to the dimmest corner and then nestled in a position close to it. After the remaining three sat down, the girl’s slender figure was almost completely covered.
There was no service staff that came to greet them. A blurred light screen appeared next to the table, which was constantly flickering due to quality reasons, and the resolution was quite poor. There was loud music playing in the store, and it was almost impossible to hear what was being said at the next table if it were just ordinary people. There weren’t that many people inside the restaurant. The majority of them huddled together, muttering, with various guns protruding from their waists. They were obviously not very interested in the people around them.
“Choose whatever you want.” Ji Xiaoman ordered a bowl of vegetarian noodle soup for herself and pointed to the light screen. “I have brought enough parts.”
“I understand meat, but what kind of meat is this meatball?” Yu Le touched his chin.
“A bit of everything. You don’t want to know.” Ji Xiaoman responded in a low voice as she stared at a piece of dirt on the table. “But it tastes good.”
“…Then noodles with meat.” The former pirate leader became cautious.
Seeing Tang Yibu’s solemn expression facing the doomsday question, Ruan Xian couldn’t help but want to laugh. This may be the few moments when Tang Yibu puts aside his interest in observing humans and fully focuses his attention on something else.
In just a few weeks, he had naturally laughed more times than in the first two decades of his life, so much so that his facial muscles even felt a little uncomfortable and stiff. After realizing this, Ruan Xian narrowed his smile and patted Tang Yibu on the back very naturally, with the illusion of comforting a large animal. “Choose the one you don’t like the most.”
“Vegetarian noodle soup.” Tang Yibu wrinkled his nose, sounding a little heartbroken.
Ji Xiaoman’s bowl of vegetarian noodle soup had been served to the table by a half-human-tall mechanical robot. The noodles were gray and yellow, and the soup was a bit cloudy. Ruan Xian recognized the chopped cabbage and mushrooms. He shook his head and checked the remaining two items on the light screen.
Yu Le’s noodles with meat came at the same time as their additional order.
The smell of the two bowls of noodles didn’t smell too bad. The square-shaped artificial meat was laid on top of brown noodles, mixed with a little scallion oil and chopped shallots. The store owner apparently didn’t intend to provide chopsticks as two pairs of peeled hard branches were stuck in the noodles. The meatball cut with a knife seemed relatively normal, although Ruan Xian smelled at least four types of animals in it.
“You won’t die eating it. Don’t worry.” Ji Xiaoman slurped her noodles. “At least the chopsticks are… Well, they’re discounted now. This shop has been open here for a long time.”
Tang Yibu solemnly picked up the half-eaten meat, tore it into small pieces, and dipped a little bit into the amber-colored noodle soup little by little, as if performing some kind of sacred ceremony. Then he picked up his chopsticks and sipped happily, as if he was tasting top-notch food.
It seemed that he wasn’t used to the glasses on the bridge of his nose. Tang Yibu was smoked by the hot noodle soup, and his two lenses fogged up. He held the branch chopstick in one hand and the iron bead in his other arm as he quickly tried to wipe away the condensation.
Ruan Xian wanted to laugh again.
“Why are you so persistent?” He pushed Tang Yibu’s bowl of noodles aside and hugged the iron bead that was almost asleep on his knees, with no intention of eating.
“Thank you very much.” Tang Yibu was busy with the noodles. The android puffed out his cheeks and thanked him inarticulately, and then tried his best to express his doubts with a single word. “……Huh?”
“Food.” After reading the other party’s thoughts without hindrance, Ruan Xian casually picked off the onion shavings from Tang Yibu’s mouth. Warm fingertips swept across his cheeks as Tang Yibu blinked.
“There are no two dishes that are exactly the same in this world.” The android swallowed the noodles in his mouth, licked the corner where Ruan Xian had just brushed, and leaned into Ruan Xian’s ear. “Even if it’s made by the same person or machine, there will be differences in materials, environment, or state— Every bite of food is unique in the world. Isn’t that a great thing?”
“Maybe they’re unpalatable in their own ways.” Ruan Xian tapped the table with his fingertips in a relaxed manner.
“…But there’s no standard for this kind of thing.” Tang Yibu took another breath, carefully placed the two bowls in front of him, and took a sip from each one. “Before I try it myself, I can’t tell if it’s unpalatable. Mr. Ruan, have you ever eaten piney raspberry?”
“No.” Ruan Xian hadn’t even heard of it.
“I can tell you—it tastes soft and waxy, a bit like a combination of pomegranate and peach, with medium sweetness, and the soft seeds in its pulp can be eaten. I can tell you its color, shape, size, smell, and even list the nutrients in a table and write the details in a book.” Tang Yibu picked up a noodle with his rough branches. “But you still won’t know the taste, because you haven’t smelled it, haven’t tasted it, thus you can only imagine.”
Ruan Xian’s stopped tapping on the table.
“Everyone can only try limited things in a limited time. It’s good to make sure it’s not harmful to your health, but you will miss a lot if you deny it rudely.” Tang Yibu took a bite of the meat, thought for a few seconds, and broke off half and held it in his branch chopsticks. “I agree with Miss Ji. It tastes really good. Do you want to try?”
“…You can eat it.” Ruan Xian’s voice fell flat.
“Also, emotions can also affect people’s judgments on the taste of food.” Tang Yibu pushed up his glasses unskillfully. “For example, if you gave me this bowl, I would find it more delicious.”
After that, he raised the corner of his mouth and tried to show a somewhat jerky smile. Ruan Xian exhaled softly and looked away a little uncomfortably.
Ji Xiaoman put down the bowl gently. The bottom of her bowl made a soft sound. The girl had been eating hard, quietly stuffing the large bowl of noodles into her stomach, while there was still a third of it left in Yu Le’s bowl.
“Whisper.” Her metal fingers were wrapped in gloves, which made them oddly shaped. “…I want to talk about the deal.”
“Please.” Ruan Xian immediately found a great goal for himself to divert his attention, even if he could guess what Ji Xiaoman wanted to say.
“I don’t want to make things too extreme.” Sure enough, after hesitating for a few seconds, she chose an opening statement for herself. “This was originally just an ordinary transaction. You get the mind access needle; I fix your car. Now I also… want to keep it to this extent. I mean…”
She raised her eyes to Ruan Xian, who responded to her gaze in silence, while Tang Yibu lowered the sound of him eating noodles.
“Well, I don’t know you at all. Eliminate Qian Yigeng? It doesn’t matter if you succeed, but if you fail, let’s not talk about what to do with the device in my mother’s brain. We would have to hide while trying to make a living under Qian Yigeng’s eyes, or leave this area completely.”
Ji Xiaoman cleared her throat and raised the volume a little. She rubbed the edge of the bowl nervously. “The Underground City is big. Qian Yigeng is just a small role. Abandoning contacts here and hastily moving to an unfamiliar place is no different from suicide… I would be fine, but my mother would definitely not be able to bear it. As a newcomer, all you have to do is get out of here and find someone with good skills to repair your car.”
She began to bite her lips again.
“The price difference is too big, isn’t it?” Yu Le struggled to finish the noodles as he coughed twice.
“As long as you stay here, Qian Yigeng will always force you to make high-quality imitation brains. You know this.” Tang Yibu’s tone didn’t reveal any tendency.
“As I said, I’m not a good person. If I had to choose between my mother and those cybernetic brains, I’ll choose my mother.” Ji Xiaoman shivered a little. This time, she didn’t look anyone in the eyes. “I’m at this level. I can’t be noble. How can I last long if I was?”
Ruan Xian still didn’t say a word. He just continued to stare at her.
“Everyone knows they are suffering. No one cares, you know? I can’t even save myself.” Ji Xiaoman took a deep breath and finally raised her head. She seemed to be trying to convince someone, but unsure of who it was. “Either maintain the original condition, or there will be no transaction. Anyway, one day I have to make peace with Qian Yigeng. He An is on his side, which means the City Defenders are on his side—There’s no hope.”
The young girl grabbed the heavy fabric on her pants, her shoulders shaking a little, as if she was under extreme pressure. She gripped her hands very hard, and the sharp metal fingertips pierced her gloves, passing through her overalls and stabbing her thighs.
The dark red blood gradually seeped out onto the dark pants, and a faint smell of blood permeated.
She was in fear, and Ruan Xian was familiar with this emotion. The girl in front of him was at most in her early twenties, with excellent skills, a smart brain, and a calm personality compared to her peers. If this was a one-on-one fight, Qian Yigeng wouldn’t have stood a chance.
But this wasn’t.
A fine net was cast down in the poisonous mist, and Ji Xiaoman was at best a sturdy fish, but in the end, she could only slowly suffocate in the mesh. When a person faced an unknown number of hostile people, they would always instinctively panic. In the case of a despicable opponent, this panic would expand endlessly.
She was still too young; it would wear her down and eventually crush her. Ruan Xian knew very well, but he didn’t want to be anyone’s spiritual mentor. He knew how oppressive it was to be alone with an established network of “order”. Beautiful words couldn’t solve the problem, and comfort wouldn’t change anything.
Just as you couldn’t tell a person with a knife in their back to “Cheer up and live an active life and it won’t hurt anymore.”
“I understand your concern, but I misjudged the degree of your hatred for Qian Yigeng,” he responded neatly. “In that case, you decide for yourself.”
Ji Xiaoman looked at him in surprise, half expecting, half disappointed.
“If you want us to steal the needle and quickly leave, then struggle for about ten and a half days by yourself and then listen to Qian Yigeng when you can’t stand it. I have no opinion.” Ruan Xian petted the iron bead in his arms. “We don’t have to cooperate with you.”
Tang Yibu just shrugged: “When will you do it? Mr. Ruan, it will take a while to repair the car anyway—”
Ji Xiaoman turned her gaze to Yu Le. She seemed to be trying to get something easier to understand or more relaxed feedback from the other party. Yu Le’s expression became serious. He crossed his arms, and the teasing and indifference in his eyes disappeared without a trace.
“You may have misunderstood something, little miss.” Yu Le didn’t smile. “We didn’t piss off Qian Yigeng, so we can make a deal with you. It was because we want to take action against him, so we want to make a deal with you. Aren’t you supposed to be an adult? Adults make their own decisions.”
He stopped talking, raised his eyebrows, and the unorthodox aura returned. “Of course, it’s good for you to find a nice little corner and wait to see where the wind blows*.”
*(见风使舵) Metaphor referring to find out or come to understand a particular state of affairs especially before taking any decisive or definite action.
“But you have no reason…” Ji Xiaoman looked a little confused.
“I don’t think Qian Yigeng is pleasing to the eye,” Yu Le replied. “I rarely really dislike a person, but as long as I don’t like them, I don’t mind gambling my life to create trouble for others.”
“Because it’s very interesting.” Tang Yibu answered sincerely.
The young girl looked at Ruan Xian. The young man on the opposite side had an elegant and handsome appearance and looked the least aggressive.
‘Maybe the other party would reveal a little bit of their true motivation,’ she thought. Otherwise, such an approach was tantamount to suicide, and it was even absurd—these people had no intention of carrying any banner of justice but were closer to another group of villains.
“Do I need a reason?” However, he gave such an answer.
Ji Xiaoman looked into the other’s dark eyes.
The man’s expression was calm, causing her to suffocate for a moment before she realized it was due to fear. It was like seeing an unknown venomous snake or a huge spider with its feet open.
He was serious.
The author has something to say:
In fact, there is still a reason why Ruan’s not very happy (?
In the previous chapter, someone mentioned why Ruan didn’t fix Xiaoman’s mother. Here is the answer XD
In fact, in theory, both Ruan and Tang have the ability to repair. However, currently they have insufficient information and, even with sufficient information, the technology may not be in place (Otherwise, he would borrow a lathe to repair the car himself), and Tang will not take action easily.
Once they really make their move, Xiaoman would immediately notice their strength. Not to mention, they’re not familiar with Xiaoman, they aren’t particularly the self-sacrificing types. _(:””∠)_