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Less Than Kind

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The door to the SID opened and Lin Jing slumped in.

"Good to see you, Lin Jing," said Wang Zheng, glancing up from sorting the mail. "You look tired."

Lin Jing nodded. "Very," he said, an unusually short sentence for him.

When it became clear that nothing more was forthcoming, Zhao Yunlan prompted, "Any news?'

Lin Jing shook his head. "The machine is just ... gone. Professor Ouyang dumped it in the basement when the ethics committee began looking into his work. It was never officially on the books, so there's no paper trail. And there are no cameras down there. Anyone could have walked away with it."

He sat down heavily at his desk in the bullpen. "And I learned some things I didn't want to know," he said.

His colleagues looked at one another, startled by his serious manner. "What do you mean?" asked Zhu Hong.

Lin Jing swiveled around in his chair to face the others. "Remember when Professor Shen told us that Professor Ouyang had tried to recruit him? That was right after Professor Ouyang realized he wasn't getting anywhere with brute force attempts to remove Dixingren powers from Dixingren, and needed to try another tack." He stopped talking and looked down at the floor.

"What was the brute force approach, Lin Jing?" asked Zhao Yunlan quietly.

Lin Jing shivered. "Li Qian explained it to me. She heard a little about it from the lab techs who had been there longer, and she found more in the records. Professor Ouyang had built a machine designed to pump Dixingren full of the kind of biological energy normally produced by Haixingren mitochon—I mean, light energy," he hastily amended as his audience looked baffled. "His hypothesis was that the infusion of light energy would force the natural dark energy out of his subjects and that the dark energy he collected from them would somehow contain their Dixingren powers."

"Subjects," said Zhao Yunlan. His voice was flat.

Lin Jing grimaced. "I don't know where he got them. Kidnapping is my guess ... he knew their friends would be afraid to call the authorities."

"And he used this m-machine on them?" asked Guo Changcheng. Chu Shuzhi was out of the office, but Zhu Hong reached over and patted Guo Changcheng's shoulder. They all knew the pain that Xiao Guo had experienced, thanks to Ouyang's later experiments.

Lin Jing nodded. "Half of his subjects died screaming after half an hour. He didn't really care about that, but the dark energy he collected didn't contain any powers, either."

He paused, giving the group time to experience a collective shudder. Then he continued. "It gets worse. He took the remaining subjects and reinfused them with their own dark energy to see if it would ... well, sort of flush the system. None of them survived this time. And then he learned that he was coming under scrutiny. So he hid the machine and pretended he had been looking for a genetic solution all along."

"And now it's gone missing. What would anyone want with it?" mused Zhao Yunlan.

"That's the problem that Li Qian and I ran into," said Lin Jing. "Since we can't figure out who would want it, we don't know where to start searching. And it's dangerous—it's still charged with dark energy from its last use. We're kind of hoping Professor Shen will have an idea, when he gets back."

Guo Changcheng stood up, a determined look on his face. "I want to help," he said. "Once we know where to look."

Zhao Yunlan nodded. "Of course," he said. "You've earned it."


Wang Zheng broke the somber atmosphere by getting up from her desk and bringing everyone their mail. "Here's a letter for you, Xiao Guo," she said as she made her rounds, bringing an envelope over to Guo Changcheng's desk. "It's from the Inheritance DNA company."

"Oh, good!" said Guo Changcheng, immediately reaching for a letter opener to slit the envelope. "I had it sent here because I didn't want my aunt and uncle to feel inadequate. But I thought it would be nice to see if I had more relatives that I didn't know about."

He pulled out the report and set about reading through the complicated charts and graphs. Then he turned it over and cried out happily. "Ooh!"

"What is it, Xiao Guo?" asked Wang Zheng, curious.

"The letter says they've identified two people who are probably my second cousins." Guo Changcheng read a little further. "They live near Dragon City!"

"Really?" asked Da Qing. "If they live that close, it's weird that you don't know them."

Guo Changcheng nodded. "You'd think so, wouldn't you? But they're related to me through my mother, and I lost track of that side of the family when my father's brother and sister-in-law took me in." A smile lit up his whole face. "There's an email address here, and they say they're happy to be contacted."

"Let us know how it goes," said Zhu Hong. "When Lao Chu gets back from his errand with Hei Pao Shi in Dixing, I'm sure he'll be interested." Guo Changcheng blushed.

"Don't go sending emails on company time," said Zhao Yunlan, swatting Guo Changcheng on the back of the head as he walked by.

"Of course not, Chief, I'll wait until lunchtime," said Guo Changcheng hastily.

"Ah, don't bother," said Chief Zhao. "Your letter is the most cheerful thing that's happened so far today."

Guo Changcheng typed a rapid message, looking back and forth from the message to the computer to be sure of getting the email address right. "I'll let you know as soon as I hear something!"

His computer chimed. Everyone looked at him. Zhao Yunlan, who was still lounging around near his desk, leaned over to take a look. "You got a response already!" he exclaimed, pointing with his lollipop.

Zhu Hong, Da Qing, and Zhao Yunlan gathered around Guo Changcheng's desk to see the response. "They're having a picnic tomorrow?!" exclaimed Zhu Hong, reading over Guo Changcheng's shoulder.

"How convenient," said Da Qing dryly.

"A public place is a good idea for a first meeting," said Zhao Yunlan. "I only wish Chu Shuzhi were here. I'd send him with you."

"You don't think my cousins would harm me, do you, Chief?" asked Guo Changcheng, wide-eyed.

"Never crossed my mind," said Zhao Yunlan. He turned away, muttering under his breath, "I'm just hoping they really are your cousins."


The next day when Xiao Guo set out excitedly for his picnic lunch with newfound relatives, Zhao Yunlan quietly told Da Qing to follow him in cat form. He also lent Guo Changcheng the red jeep--in part because that would make it easy for Da Qing to jump into the back seat in cat form and ride along unseen.

"Come on out," said Guo Changcheng as they pulled into the parking lot of the big suburban park. "I know you're back there."

"How?" asked Da Qing, still in cat form. "I am the stealthiest Cat Yashou in the world!"

Guo Changcheng parked the car, turned around, and bestowed a sunny smile on the cat. "But you're also the most obvious Cat Yashou in the world," he said.

Da Qing considered that for a moment. "Fair enough," he said.

"Actually, I didn't spot you," Guo Changcheng confessed. "But I thought the Chief would send you along, just in case."

"You got that right," said Da Qing. They set out across the park grounds toward the picnic area together. Only one table was occupied, so they headed in that direction. Guo Changcheng picked Da Qing up and tucked him under one arm; the cat grumbled a little, then settled down cozily.

Guo Changcheng waved excitedly with his free arm as they got closer. The two men looked about his own age; he tried not to stare, despite his hope of finding a family resemblance. "Hello, cousins!" he exclaimed. "I hope you don't mind if I brought my cat." He set Da Qing down on the grass. "He likes to run around outside." Da Qing jumped into a nearby cluster of leaves and began playing with them.

"Of course we don't mind!" said one of the cousins, standing up to greet him with a smile. "I'm Li Minzhe, and this is Wang Jiahao. It's wonderful to meet you."

Wang Jiahao nodded curtly. "Pleased to make your acquaintance," he said stiffly.


"You're back early," said Zhao Yunlan to Chu Shuzhi and Shen Wei.

"The negotiations went far better than expected," said Shen Wei. "Bringing Lao Chu along was a good idea. As I hoped, including him helped the council understand that I was speaking as a fellow Dixingren rather than as an enforcer." He nodded toward his companion. "Thank you, Chu Shuzhi."

Chu Shuzhi bowed. "It was my honor." He looked around. "Where's Changcheng?"

"He went to meet some cousins who were identified by Inheritance DNA," said Zhao Yunlan. The letter was still lying on Guo Changcheng's desk; he picked it up and flapped it casually at them.

Shen Wei's face hardened abruptly. "Let me see that letter, please." Zhao Yunlan handed it to him and watched intently as he looked it over. It only took a moment before Shen Wei said, "This isn't from Inheritance DNA. I've done consulting work for them, and I've seen what their letters to clients look like. This is a shoddy copy."

"So those people he went to meet--" Zhao Yunlan began, but stopped himself short at the sound of squealing tires just outside.

Moments later a bedraggled Da Qing limped in. "Xiao Guo ..." he began, gasping for breath before he continued, "... is gone."

Da Qing leaned against the door, closing his eyes. Zhao Yunlan leapt forward to guide him over to the couch, where he sat down and laid his head back.

"What happened, Damn Cat?" Zhao Yunlan asked, curling himself up on the couch next to Da Qing.

Shen Wei came over and looked at the cat Yashou closely. "Are you all right, A-Qing?" he asked more gently.

Wang Zheng came over with a glass of water and handed it to Da Qing, who nodded his thanks and drank most of it in one gulp. "I'm okay. I tried to follow them, but they kept throwing rocks at me, and I had to keep dodging. I finally lost them near the edge of the park, so I transformed to human, ran back to the jeep, and drove it here."

"Start from the beginning," said Zhao Yunlan. "What happened to Xiao Guo?"

Da Qing finished the rest of the water and nodded. "Right. Xiao Guo. His cousins welcomed him and invited him to sit down with them. They had a whole meal prepared. I ... was pretending to be his pet, so I scampered around pretending to hunt mice." He paused, looking embarrassed. "When I ... came back to check on him, he was eating, but no one else was. I thought that was suspicious and I wanted to warn him, but just as I approached, he fell over. Right off the bench.

"His supposed cousins weren't at all surprised. They didn't bother to catch him, either, just let him fall splat on the grass. One of them picked him up and tossed him over his shoulder, while another one pushed all the food off the table onto the ground. I tried to get closer to Xiao Guo and they kicked me away, pretty hard." He pulled up his shirt to show an ugly bruise across his ribs. "The rest you know."

The others were silent, digesting his tale. "Did you overhear anything useful?" Zhao Yunlan finally asked.

"Maybe?" said Da Qing. "Before he passed out, I heard the two of them talking to him about how unusual it was to meet a Haixingren with a Dixing-style power. They said they'd heard about him on the news, and were honored that he turned out to be related." The cat scowled. "They were laying it on thick. As soon as he collapsed, though, their attitude changed. I can't remember the exact words ... but it sounded like they were mad that he had a power that should have gone to one of their own people."

Zhao Yunlan shook his head. "That doesn't make sense. They all have their own powers anyway."

"Not necessarily," said Shen Wei. "Chu Shuzhi, when you lived in Dixing, did you meet anyone who didn't have a power?"

Chu Shuzhi nodded. "There were a few guys in prison like that. They hung around together. The other guys shut them out like they had a disease. I asked them about it once. "

"What did they tell you?" asked Shen Wei.

"They couldn't figure it out. Everyone else in their families had a power. Until prison, none of them had ever met anyone else who didn't have one. Made me wonder if there were others like them who just kept quiet about it."

"Professor, do you think these ersatz cousins were non-powered Dixingren who wanted to see if they could gain powers the same way that Xiao Guo did?" asked Zhao Yunlan. Shen Wei nodded. "But then, why wouldn't they just come and talk to him here? We could let them talk to Lin Jing and Li Qian, too."

It was Chu Shuzhi who answered. "They probably don't trust the SID. Or any Haixingren," he said.

Shen Wei nodded. "From what Da Qing told us, I think they consider Xiao Guo an undeserving outsider who got the legacy that they were denied."

"Hey," said Lin Jing . "What do you bet they're the ones who took Professor Ouyang's machine?"

"That makes a lot of sense," said Zhao Yunlan, jumping up from the couch. "We need to find them."

"Already on it, Chief," said Lin Jing, who had been typing rapidly for some time. "I found footage from the cameras in the park. There was a camera near the table, and another one on the side of the park where they left."

He swiveled the monitor so everyone could see it. Chu Shuzhi clenched his fists as Guo Changcheng keeled over on the screen. They saw Da Qing trot over nonchalantly and bunt Guo Changcheng's shoulder, and then saw the so-called cousins kick him away as they carried Guo Changcheng away like a sack of potatoes. Lin Jing switched to the other camera, and they saw the little group walking rapidly toward a van, one carrying Xiao Guo and the other picking up and throwing rocks at someone off camera.

"Wait a sec ..." said Lin Jing. He paused the video on screen and zoomed in on the van's license plate: it was blurry, but readable. He began scribbling it down.

"Good work," Zhao Yunlan said. "Call the regular police and have them put out a BOLO on this van. See what you can find out from the licensing bureau, too." He turned toward Shen Wei. "Professor, would you take care of—"

Shen Wei looked up from healing Da Qing's bruised ribs. "Almost done," he said with a smile.


Guo Changcheng was wrestling with the bands that held him down, hoping to find a weak spot. So far he had been unsuccessful. He didn't recognize the room in which he had awakened, and he couldn't lifted his head to see very far around. Wires connecting to a tight metal cap on his head connected him to a dented, dusty machine nearby that looked like a piece of salvage.

"Look, we don't need to do this!" said Li Minzhe. "You heard the kid. This machine doesn't work. But he knows people who worked on the genetic research. They can try to adapt it for us!"

Li Minzhe is right! Guo Changcheng thought silently. Listen to him!

"Of course he'd say that!" snapped Wang Jiahao, and switched on the extractor. "He's just trying to keep our power for himself!"

Guo Changcheng tried his best to be analytical and calm. This felt very different from Professor Ouyang's injection, he noted to himself. That shot had been very painful, but the attempt to extract his power was even more so, and kept on getting worse. Even as he completed that thought, the pain occupied his mind so forcefully that he couldn't think anymore. Someone was screaming very loudly.

The extractor was suddenly switched off. The pain lessened, though it still lingered, a deep and grinding ache. Guo Changcheng took a deep breath and realized his throat was sore; he had been the one screaming. His face was wet with tears he didn't remember shedding.

Li Minzhe was standing next to the machine, his hand on the on/off switch. "There had to be a reason that Ouyang threw this machine away," he said. "We can't be sure the other way will work—but it's a better chance than torturing this kid for nothing," he said evenly. "I don't think you're even trying to get his power out. I think you're just punishing him for having one."

The room went dead silent while the two men locked eyes. Finally, Li Minzhe nodded. "I thought so," he said. He reached over the table, disconnected the wired cap that had connected Guo Changcheng to the machine and began unbuckling his restraints.

"Stop that!" yelled Wang Jiahao.

"Give me a good reason," said Li Minzhe.

Wang Jiahao raised the gun. Li Minzhe scoffed and continued undoing buckles. Wang Jiahao fired into the ceiling; dust and cracked bits of ceiling filtered down onto Li Minzhe and Guo Changcheng. Li Minzhe resumed his unbuckling.

"M-maybe you should stop," whispered Guo Changcheng.

"He won't shoot me," said Li Minzhe. He sounded overconfident to Guo Changcheng, but then so did a lot of people.

"He s-sounds serious to me," said Guo Changcheng. Enough buckles had been loosened that he was now able to sit up straight, although it cost him a lot of effort. He put a hand on Li Minzhe's shoulder, partly to get his attention, partly to steady himself. "Please," he said earnestly, "please ... don't endanger yourself ... for me."

Li Minzhe stopped unbuckling the restraint across Guo Changcheng's knees and stared at him for a moment in silence. "I'm not doing this for you," he finally said.

"Cut the chatter!" snapped Wang Jiahao. "I mean it!" He fired into the ceiling again, bringing down chunks of plaster; Li Minzhe didn't miss a beat, flinging back the restraint that had held Guo Changcheng down at the knees, and reaching for the one across his ankles.

He never got to it. Wang Jiahao fired straight into his chest, and Li Minzhe flopped over across Guo Changcheng's legs, Changcheng's hand still on his shoulder.

Wang Jiahao stopped and stared.

Guo Changcheng felt the connection form, saw the edges of the soft glow that he knew was spreading between himself and Li Minzhe. This time it wasn't white, but a deep gray shot through with silver. Pretty. It still felt just the same. He reached out with his heart and gathered the connection to himself.

After a moment he began to speak quietly. "He wants you to know, Wang Jiahao. He wasn't trying to save me . . . He was trying to save you ... from becoming the kind of person who tortures and kills. If his death makes you reconsider," Guo Changcheng drew a long breath and focused inward for a moment before he continued. "Then Li Minzhe ... says . . . it's worth it." He sagged forward across Li Minzhe's body, exhausted by the earlier inflicted pain and the newly shared grief.

Wang Jiahao dropped the gun as if it had suddenly become superheated, then dropped to his knees, tears running down his cheeks.

The door burst open; Guo Changcheng looked up to see the SID crew enter. Zhao Yunlan went straight to Wang Jiahao, pulling out his cuffs as he went; Professor Shen and Lin Jing went to look at the machine. Chu Shuzhi headed directly for Guo Changcheng, his expression clouded and fierce. Guo Changcheng watched him approach with trepidation. Chu-ge looks so angry. How stupid I was to trust these people and cause so much trouble for the SID ... He closed his eyes, unwilling to face the scolding he deserved.

Then he felt a warm arm around his shoulders, and a hand patting his cheek. "Are you all right, Changcheng?" came Chu Shuzhi's voice. "Can you open your eyes?"

Guo Changcheng opened his eyes and saw Chu Shuzhi next to him. "Chu-ge, I'm so sorry ..." he began.

"Dumbass," said Chu Shuzhi gently. He pulled out a handkerchief and wiped the tears from Guo Changcheng's face.

Guo Changcheng saw Lin Jing coming toward them; the scientist checked Li Minzhe's neck for a pulse and shook his head. "Da Qing, some help here," Lin Jing said.

"It's okay, Changcheng, I've got you," said Chu Shuzhi. He put his other arm around Guo Changcheng's front and lifted him slightly, providing welcome stability as Lin Jing and Da Qing lifted Li Minzhe's body carefully from the table and lowered him to the floor. Guo Changcheng sighed and relaxed into the supporting arms around him, letting his head rest against Chu Shuzhi's shoulder.

Professor Shen suddenly loomed into his vision, looking very worried. Guo Changcheng blinked; he hadn't heard the professor coming over.

"How are you, Xiao Guo?" Shen Wei asked, peering into his eyes and reaching for his wrist to take his pulse.

"Better," said Guo Changcheng. "Once they turned the machine off, I started feeling better." Professor Shen stared at him, and he continued, trying to be helpful, "Not all better. But not as bad as when it was on." He looked around and realized the others were all gathered around him. "Did anyone bring water?"

Da Qing solemnly pulled a bottle out of his pocket, opened it and handed it to him. Guo Changcheng took a long sip. "That's nice, thank you," he said.

Chu Shuzhi took the bottle from Guo Changcheng's fading grasp and recapped it. "He needs proper care," he said, glaring around at the others.

Zhao Yunlan nodded. Shen Wei said, "The hospital won't know what to do for him. We should take him back to the SID. Lin Jing can run some tests, and I can help."

Guo Changcheng relaxed. Chu Shuzhi and the others would make sure he was taken care of. He closed his eyes and let everything go fuzzy and dark.


Zhao Yunlan tiptoed quietly into the lab, where Shen Wei was examining Guo Changcheng. Shen Wei looked up from his seat beside the lab table and smiled.

"How is he, Professor?" Zhao Yunlan asked anxiously. "Can you ... fix him? Get rid of the dark energy?"

"There is no dark energy," said Shen Wei. "Xiao Guo is entirely clear of it."

"Wait, what?" asked Zhao Yunlan. "How is that even possible?"

"I'm not sure," admitted Shen Wei. "But Lin Jing's initial readings confirmed it, and he's analyzing them now." He nodded toward Lin Jing, who did not look up from his computer. "Chu Shuzhi, you can touch Xiao Guo now, I'm finished." Chu Shuzhi, who was sitting near the other side of the lab table, immediately reached out and took Guo Changcheng's nearest hand. Professor Shen smiled at him, while Zhao Yunlan scowled.

"Chu Shuzhi, what are you doing here? Mooning over Xiao Guo when there's work to be done?"

"He's holding my stuff," said Lin Jing. He unplugged the standard dark energy detector from a USB port and handed it to Chu Shuzhi, saying, "Let me have that other scope now." Chu Shuzhi took the gun-shaped detector and handed Lin Jing another gizmo from a pile next to him. This one looked like a steampunk View-Master.

Guo Changcheng opened his eyes. Things were still fuzzy, but from the smells and sounds he knew he was out of that terrible room and back in the SID. A warm hand was holding his; it felt like a lifeline back to the world. He saw a fuzzy figure in black on his left side and closed his eyes again, feeling safe. No one seemed to have noticed that he was waking up.

He could hear Lin Jing was working on the lab computer while Zhao Yunlan scolded him about something. Professor Shen, who was sitting on Guo Changcheng's right, was saying something soothing to Zhao Yunlan, and he heard the chief fling himself into a chair, making frustrated noises.

Guo Changcheng turned toward Chu-ge and opened his eyes again. This time he could see much more clearly, and he squeezed Chu-ge's hand. Chu Shuzhi leaned forward and pressed his forehead briefly against Guo Changcheng's.

"Changcheng," Chu-ge said, somehow packing both worry and relief into those two syllables, along with a great deal of affection.

Everyone turned to look.

Professor Shen nodded to Zhao Yunlan and said, "We may be able to solve our mystery now," he said. "Xiao Guo, you used your power while you were held captive, didn't you?"

Guo Changcheng nodded. "Lin Minzhe died and I caught his last wish." He felt tears prickling at the corners of his eyes and blinked hard.

"That's what Wang Jiahao told us," Professor Shen said." But he'd never seen it happen before, and was so overcome that he couldn't tell us much about it. Now, we need you to remember. This is really important. Was anything different this time? When your power manifested itself?"

Guo Changcheng thought hard. "The glow," he said. "It's usually white. This time ... it was a soft dark grey. With ... bits of silver. It was pretty." He thought for another moment. "The rest went just the same as usual."

"That's precisely what we needed to know, Xiao Guo," said Professor Shen. He sounded pleased.

Chu Shuzhi patted him on the shoulder. "Good job, dumbass." Guo Changcheng closed his eyes again as the others continued talking.

"That's it, then," said Professor Shen. "We know what happened to the dark energy."

"He used it?" Zhao Yunlan asked. "But he's Haixingren! It shouldn't have worked, it should have made him sick—"

"It would have killed anyone else from Haixing," agreed Professor Shen. "But this is Guo Changcheng. His light energy is pure enough to blend harmlessly with dark energy. The infusion was painful and exhausting ... but he has taken no serious harm, especially since he was able to shed the dark energy by putting it to use alongside his own."

"You hear that, Xiao Guo?" Zhao Yunlan called out. "Up and at 'em, no excuses! That case report isn't going to file itself!"

He opened his eyes again and said quietly to Chu-ge, "That's Chief-speak for 'he's glad I'm okay.' Just like 'dumbass' is Chu-speak for 'sweetheart.'"

He might not have said it as quietly as he thought, given the stunned silence that followed, to say nothing of the laughter that followed the silence. But Chu-ge squeezed his hand again, and Professor Shen leaned over and said, "You're right, Xiao Guo. Exactly right."