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167 Be My Goddess

 Wen Shouyi's expression froze as her eyes fell upon the credit card in Gu Nianzhi's hand. After a moment, she gave a self-deprecating laugh and said, "I see you went to Professor He and complained about me, again. Nianzhi, I really do care about you. I want the best for you. You don't have to appreciate what I do for you, but can't you at least stop thinking of me as some kind of evil villainess, out to get you at every turn?"

"I never make assumptions about a person's character." Gu Nianzhi withdrew the credit card He Zhichu had given her and said, with a hint of sarcasm, "I only make inferences according to their behavior. Miss Wen, I don't care what goes on inside that mind of yours, nor do I care about whatever private reasons you supposedly have for acting the way you do towards me. That's none of my business, and I don't want to know about it. All I want is to live peacefully for the next six months, and then return to the Empire to continue my studies."

Wen Shouyi stared at Gu Nianzhi, her eyes filled with undisguised pity and sympathy. Gu Nianzhi squirmed uncomfortably under her gaze.

Gu Nianzhi sat down and resumed working on her computer. She kept her face deliberately turned towards her computer screen in an explicit display of hostility as she asked, "Miss Wen, is there something else?"

Wen Shouyi sighed. She looked at Gu Nianzhi calmly.

Gu Nianzhi looked up from her computer and stared defiantly back at Wen Shouyi.

She took in Wen Shouyi's slightly plump figure, her round face, her thin eyebrows, and her small mouth. Her nose was delicate and straight, and the corners of her eyes were slightly upturned-they were what were commonly known as "phoenix eyes," similar to He Zhichu's characteristic bright, almond-shaped eyes, except longer and narrower. She looked like a classical beauty who had just walked out from an old painting; her full figure and chubby cheeks were pleasant and attractive to look at-if she kept her mouth shut.

Gu Nianzhi seized the opportunity to carefully look Wen Shouyi over. The longer she stared at her, the more familiar she seemed to Gu Nianzhi.

Who? Who does she remind me of?

Gu Nianzhi's thoughts ran wild as the cogs turned inside her head. Her eyes glazed over as she tried to remember.

Wen Shouyi quietly watched Gu Nianzhi. When she saw that Gu Nianzhi had zoned out, she smiled pleasantly and left the small office.

Gu Nianzhi was staring at Wen Shouyi's retreating back when it suddenly hit her.

She knew now why Wen Shouyi seemed so familiar to her.

Back in her Fengya apartment bedroom, in C City of the Huaxia Empire, there were several dolls she had played with as a child.

A dreamy princess outfit in pink gauze and purple organdy, thick bangs that covered the forehead, narrow eyes, a face as round and fair as a dinner plate, and a full figure-the dolls had resembled the young ladies commonly seen in classical paintings.

And now, they reminded her strongly of Wen Shouyi.

They were not entirely alike, of course; there were many differences between the two, but the overall feeling was the same...

Wen Shouyi resembled her dolls. Why was that?

Gu Nianzhi chewed on her pen. She made up her mind to call Huo Shaoheng later that night to ask where the dolls had come from.

She kept herself busy with her work at the Committee of Appropriations. When it was time to call it a day, she finally discovered she no longer had access to the archives.

Her access was now limited to the most basic files; everything else now said "Restricted Access" when she tried to open them.

What could she do?

Oh well-time to grow mushrooms.

...

Later that evening, when she had returned to her apartment and was having dinner with Zhao Liangze, Gu Nianzhi brought up the subject of her dolls at the dining table. "Brother Ze, do you remember the dolls I had when I was a little girl? I carried them everywhere with me."

"Yeah, I do. Why?" Zhao Liangze ladled out a bowl of soup and handed it to her. "Drink up, it's Chinese yam with pork ribs. It'll help you grow taller."

Gu Nianzhi was not in a hurry to drink her soup. She got out her phone and pulled up a photo of Wen Shouyi. "Don't you think she looks like my dolls? Thin eyebrows, a small mouth, phoenix eyes, kind of chubby?"

Zhao Liangze glanced at the photo dismissively. "...Thin eyebrows, a small mouth, phoenix eyes, kind of chubby-you've just described about a third of all the women from the Huaxia northwestern provinces. If you actually thought those facial features were in any way special, well, congratulations, you've narrowed it down from one in a billion to one in every ten million."

"Oh? So you don't think she looks like my dolls?" Gu Nianzhi's large eyes were round with surprise. Her dark pupils glittered like the best-quality obsidian under the lights. "Really? They don't look alike-at all?"

"They look similar, but I wouldn't say they look alike. It's a generic similarity, like a racial stereotype. You know how white people look similar to one another, right? Well, the same goes for black people, and so on and so forth-get it?" Zhao Liangze patted her on the shoulder. "The similarity is superficial. There's nothing more to it."

Gu Nianzhi carefully scrutinized Wen Shouyi's photo. Zhao Liangze was right-the similarity seemed to be superficial.

The sudden wave of nostalgia and familiarity that had come over her in her office that morning was completely gone now.

She sighed and turned off her phone. "Guess I was being paranoid."

"I thought you hated her? A lot? Why would you relate her to your favorite dolls?" Zhao Liangze found the idea extremely amusing. He continued chatting with Gu Nianzhi about it as he cut up his steak.

"I hate her guts. The first time we met, she tried to sabotage me, and I've never liked her since. But she's Professor He's assistant-she's always around, whether I like her or not." Gu Nianzhi drank her entire bowl of soup in one go, and then began picking out the Chinese yam inside to eat.

"Well, don't spend so much time thinking about her then. Just ignore her. The more you spend time hating her, the more important she becomes to you. Why make things difficult for yourself?" Zhao Liangze had finished cutting his steak into little pieces. He poured the gravy over the steak pieces, and began shoving them into his mouth with a fork. His eyes twinkled with gastronomic bliss.

Gu Nianzhi was done eating. She rested her chin in a hand and began talking about the supplier. "...I was able to find the details of the supplier yesterday, but today, they were all locked behind restricted access. I can't see them anymore."

Zhao Liangze paused. "Restricted access?"

"Yup. I was able to retrieve the data and reports yesterday, so I'm positive the extra security measure was only added today." Gu Nianzhi nodded confidently.

Zhao Liangze thought for a moment. "I know what happened. They probably added some sort of trigger in the list of suppliers. If someone not on their internal white-list tries to look up this specific supplier, the file immediately goes into restricted access. It's a very simple encryption method that can be carried out automatically with a script. Well, at least we know now that there is definitely something fishy about this particular supplier."

"Have you told Uncle Huo about it?" Gu Nianzhi looked at Zhao Liangze eagerly. "If you haven't, I can tell him, on your behalf!"

Zhao Liangze looked at her. He suddenly grinned. "I mentioned it, but I wasn't very clear. I think it would be better for you to tell him about it yourself." He winked at her.

Gu Nianzhi leapt to her feet, bursting with joy. "I'll call him, right away!"

She rushed to her room, slammed the door shut, and immediately dialed Huo Shaoheng's number on her phone.

Zhao Liangze remained seated at the dining table. He stared at the door to Gu Nianzhi's room as he ate his dinner, a thoughtful expression on his face.

...

Gu Nianzhi flopped onto her bed. She had finally gotten through to Huo Shaoheng's phone.

"...Uncle Huo?" Gu Nianzhi turned over to lie on her back, the corners of her mouth already curved upwards.

Huo Shaoheng was in the middle of a meeting. He heard Gu Nianzhi call his number over his headset; he answered the call, then immediately hung up. He took out his phone and texted her: I'm in a meeting.

Gu Nianzhi read Huo Shaoheng's message over and over again, wishing her intense staring would magically make it longer.

But that was it.

Huo Shaoheng was in the middle of discussing with his subordinates the viability of sending a research vessel to the Gulf of Aden.

"Our investigations show that Physical World was founded by a professor of physics from Harvard University. It's a small, limited liability company-not a public company-and all the registration details for it remain highly classified." Lieutenant Colonel Zhao, who oversaw North American intelligence, was standing on the podium in the conference room, presenting the results of their investigations. "Bai Yusheng's defection from two months ago severely crippled our Secret Service operations and intelligence network in North America. We would have been able to find out a lot more about Physical World, if it hadn't been for that."

He shook his head regretfully as he stepped down from the podium and seated himself in one of the chairs below.

Huo Shaoheng was silent for a moment. Finally, he said: "Send a research vessel to the Gulf of Aden. Two warships will act as an escort. Those amateur pirates in the Gulf of Aden would never dare approach a military warship."

"We'll have to coordinate with the Southern Military Region if we want to send warships," said Bai Yueran. She was not only a colonel, but also the head of the Legal Department for the 6th Military Region. "It's either them or the Eastern Military Region-these are the only two military regions with a naval fleet."

"We'll cooperate with the Southern Military Region." Huo Shaoheng turned on his computer and looked at the map of territorial waters. "There are many places of interest in the South China Sea, it'll be easier to work from there."

"That's true. We have plenty of natural wonders in the South China Sea to protect, don't we?" Everyone laughed in implicit understanding.

After the meeting was over, Bai Yueran waited for everyone to leave before saying to Huo Shaoheng: "Sir, my aunt will be going there in person this time. Don't worry-if there's anything remotely suspicious about the area, she'll find it."

Bai Yueran's aunt, Bai Jinyi, was a famous physicist in the Huaxia Empire. She was in her fifties, and had never married-rumor had it that she was completely obsessed with her research, and considered marriage and having children to be a waste of time.

Six years ago, it had been Bai Jinyi who had first discovered the abnormal magnetic field emanating from a particular section of C City.

Back then, Huo Shaoheng had been tasked with the duty of protecting her.

Now, the same magnetic field had appeared again. It was naturally up to Bai Jinyi to investigate it.

"We'll just have to do our best." Huo Shaoheng was not feeling optimistic about the excursion. The Huaxia Empire was only sticking their finger into the pie because the other countries were sending their warships to the area.

Although the data collected from the magnetic field matched the data from six years ago, the magnetic field had appeared under the sea, this time around-there were too many unknown factors, and Huo Shaoheng did not think it was wise to invest too much effort into the investigation.

Bai Yueran saw that Huo Shaoheng was no longer interested in the conversation, and excused herself.

Huo Shaoheng returned to his office and looked at his watch. It was 11 o'clock in the morning; it would be 11 o'clock at night over in the US east coast.

He thought about it, and decided to call her back.

"What is it, Nianzhi?" As soon as his voice sounded over the phone, Gu Nianzhi immediately felt her ear grow hot and feverish.

"I just wanted to talk to you about Physical World, Uncle Huo. I wanted to look up a few more things today, but the report had already been locked behind restricted access. I can't see it anymore." Gu Nianzhi held the phone close to her right ear, and made sure to keep her voice low.

Huo Shaoheng frowned. "Then don't go snooping after it anymore. Don't draw any unnecessary attention to yourself."

"Okay, I won't," Gu Nianzhi said obediently.

Zhao Liangze had said the same thing, but as usual, she had refused to listen.

The exact same words were now coming from Huo Shaoheng, and she immediately agreed with him. She decided not to risk going through the archived files again.

"Is there anything else? It's already 11 o'clock. Why aren't you asleep?" Huo Shaoheng put on his headset and walked out of his office to get lunch at the cafeteria.

Gu Nianzhi did not want to hang up so soon. She talked about Wen Shouyi and her dolls. She asked, with great interest, "Uncle Huo, where did you buy my dolls? Did you get them from one of the Western provinces?"

"Buy?" Huo Shaoheng smiled. "It was custom-made. You can't buy it off a rack."

"Custom-made?" Gu Nianzhi was taken aback. "What made you think of getting custom-made dolls for me?"

Huo Shaoheng took a moment to reply. "I'll tell you on your 18th birthday." With that, he hung up.

"Okay." Gu Nianzhi bit her lip as she rubbed her numb, feverish ears.

Huo Shaoheng's voice had been heavenly music to her. She could hear her heart beating in her ears-was this the sound of love?

Huo Shaoheng had hung up; there was no longer any sound coming from her phone, but Gu Nianzhi was reluctant to remove it from her ear as she lay on her bed.

A breeze entered through the window, bringing with it the coolness of the night.

Her heart was on fire. Her cheeks were warm. She felt the heat coursing through her even more keenly in the evening wind.

Gu Nianzhi wiped her face and sat up, hugging her knees.

She sighed. She realized now how much she missed Uncle Huo. She really, really wanted to see him, and talk to him face to face.

When he eventually married and had children, she would no longer be able to call him whenever she liked.

Gu Nianzhi closed her eyes. She was about to turn off the lights and go to sleep when she heard her phone ring again.

This time, it was a call from Mei Xiawen.

Gu Nianzhi's long, slender fingers reached out and unlocked the phone. She answered the call.

"Xiawen?"

"Nianzhi, who were you talking to? You were on the phone for so long. Isn't it almost midnight, over there?" Mei Xiawen's voice was skeptical and uneasy. It was completely unlike his usual gentle tone.

"...Something came up." Gu Nianzhi did not think it was necessary to give Mei Xiawen a detailed report. "Well, what about you? Why are you calling me at this hour?"

"What, I'm not allowed to call if there isn't an emergency?" Mei Xiawen said quietly. "I miss you. Do you miss me?"

Gu Nianzhi's heart softened. "Yeah, I miss you too. What are you doing?"

"I just finished a meeting, I'm off to have lunch now." Mei Xiawen walked over to the window in his office and stood before it. He shoved his free hand in his trouser pocket as he gazed at the clear, sunny sky beyond the window. "Nianzhi, you'll be celebrating your 18th birthday next month. I want to go to America and celebrate with you, is that okay?"

"Okay, sure." Gu Nianzhi smiled happily.

Her heart warmed at the thought of all the people who would be celebrating her birthday with her this year.

She was going to be 18. An adult.

But once she was legally an adult, she would no longer require a guardian.

Gu Nianzhi's heart immediately sank at the thought.

Her voice sounded nasally as she tried not to cry.

Mei Xiawen did not appear to have noticed. On the other end of the phone, he described to her, with great enthusiasm, his plans for her birthday. He asked her what she wanted for her present.

Gu Nianzhi smiled. "I'm just happy to have you here. I don't really care what you get me for my present."

"I hate it when you say that." Mei Xiawen laughed lightly. "From my experience, the people who claim they aren't picky always turn out to be pickier than everyone else."

"Haha, you know me all too well, Xiawen. Well, that's just who I am-what can you do about it?"

"What can I do? I want to straighten you out, of course, correct all your bad habits. I'll turn you into my ideal woman, my Goddess, and love you forever." It was rare for Mei Xiawen to be so open and honest about his feelings for Gu Nianzhi.