[Chap 7] Pepper

The ambiance became strangely silent as everyone was left isolated to their own thoughts. Different emotions stirred simultaneously within them, some more overwhelming than others. Their bodies, not sure which to portray, just remained oddly still. Only the ever so slight movements of respiration separated them from being comparable to lifelike wax sculptures. 

Crack——

Snapping sounds brought everyone back to their senses, while at the same time, attracting their attention.

Mika’s face was dull, though mysteriously full of disbelief and shock. Subconsciously, her grip tightened, splintering yet another one of her favorite fans. However, she had yet to realize as her mind was caught in a loop.

How is this possible? How is this possible? How is this possible?…

Soon, her thoughts were made audible to everyone through incoherent mumblings. Mika’s hands trembled visibly as droplets of blood pattered onto the ground, soon rinsed in the following tears.

Finally, her grip loosened, allowing her fan to fall. She had never felt so weak and defeated in her entire life. Her broken fan, now stained with her blood, resembled a mangled corpse which was left sprawled on the floor.

Her colorful and vibrant fan was like a flag representing her pride and ego. Just like a country’s, under no circumstances should it be in contact with the ground. Unfortunately, not only did it fall, its pathetic state signified Mika’s downfall.

Wahhhhhh~

”Daddy!”

Like a little girl, Mika jumped into her father’s embrace, trying to hide her shame, however only resulting in making her outlook seem even worse.

Snot, tears, blood, and makeup mingled together, ruining her exquisite face as well as her father’s expensive suit. Dr. Fields was livid but also embarrassed. The only thing he could do was to wrap his hand around her, rubbing her whimpering back comfortingly. 

The three male candidates’ impression of Mika suddenly plummeted by a few points. Even if she was pretty, she was too spoiled. Such exaggerated reactions…one would think that her soulmate dumped her.

Because of her arrogance and proud airs, they looked up to her as a goddess that they could not touch, but at this moment, she didn’t seem all that unreachable after all. At least they were better than her in regards to tolerance and fortitude.

The middle-aged men were surprised at both the results as well as Mika’s abrupt behavior. They shook their heads in pity.

So is the consequence of growing a flower in a greenhouse. Even the slightest of winds topple it

The men now viewed Jaylin in a new light. The test was already hard enough, but not only did he pass, he even surpassed the country’s top ranker, Mika, by a full 1.2 points, though the odds were stacked horribly against him. Needless to say, he earned their respect.

If Jaylin managed to escape Dr. Fields’ clutches then he’d definitely be extremely successful in the future. While the middle-aged men still had the chance to butter-up to Jaylin before his inevitable rise, the professor and Dr. Fields didn’t have the opportunity, rather they would surely suffer if they allowed Jaylin to mature.

The gloominess around the professor seemingly faded his smile, The saying that bullying an old man is better than bullying a youngster wasn’t wrong at all. 

Jaylin stood off to the side while watching things play out as if he wasn’t the protagonist behind the unfolding drama. The only thing he seemed to pay some attention to was Mika’s pitiable state. He didn’t think that she was so fragile as to crumble without even receiving an intentional or direct blow— not that it mattered much.

Life seemed to have given Dr. Fields too many lemons as his expression was starting to turn sour. Mika’s head that was resting on his chest bobbed heavily as hot breaths ruffled her hair. 

Mika soon realized that her father was about to explode. The humiliation of absolute defeat was already bad enough, but she further worsened the situation by making her emotions get the better of her. Though she had now calmed herself, the damage was already dealt.

Dr. Fields was just about to open his library database of curse words when he suddenly felt a tug on his sleeve. 

Successfully gaining her father’s attention, Mika quickly whispered, Let’s go. We shouldn’t stay here any longer.”

Dr. Fields gritted his teeth before speaking to the professor hurriedly, his gaze threatening, “As you can see, my daughter is not feeling well. Is it possible for the process to be postponed?”

The professor smiled and flashed the holographic screen results deliberately before closing it, nearly reigniting Dr. Fields’ anger. However, in the end, he did not burn the bridge to retreat.

“It’s possible, however, the chief will have to be informed and a new appointment negotiated. A fee would also have to be paid for occupying another time than which was scheduled.”

“That’ll be fine. Thank you for the trouble. Hmph.”

Dr. Fields glared menacingly in Jaylin’s direction before turning around with Mika still hugged to his chest, preparing to make his memorable exit. However, after walking out of the room, the sound of his heavy steps was reflected back into his face as the sight of the familiar and spacious hallway met his eyes. He then remembered the unconventional route they took in order to reach this place. How should they return?

Two shadows reflected on the doorway, standing there awkwardly. The professor chuckled to himself inwardly before snapping his fingers, calling for his little assistant.

The rhythmic echoes of trodding feet and squealing wheels soon faded down the hallway, while the professor and the rest in tow, headed in the opposite direction towards the next tests, where from thereon, everyone would split up. The time together was short but eventful, though soon fading like the departing steps, would still echo on in everyone’s memories as ‘the duos misfortune’.

*  *  *

Ding——

After what seemed like an eternity, Mika and Dr. Fields finally returned to the surface under Android 9’s leadership. The elevator was connected to the ‘upper building’, so even though they were out of what Dr. Fields would refer to as ‘hell’, they were still on the ATDR’s property.

The upper building was just like a normal office. Busy workers, ringing phones, chattering clerks…everything seemed like the norm. Unsuspecting visitors would never imagine there to be a whole establishment underground.

The workers only gave the passing duo and robot a quick glance before going back to their respective duties. They were in a technological sanctuary so surveillance was strict; there was no room for slacking. 

Android 9 extended a small compartment, returning all of Dr. Fields’ portable devices before offering systematic ‘goodbyes’, to which Dr. Fields paid no attention. Maybe if it was a beautiful female secretary, he would temporarily forget his bitterness and offer a polite response, unfortunately, the professor had bad tastes.

Dr. Fields and Mika took the fearsome, self-driving minicars back to the gate, on edge throughout the whole ride. This reminded them of the whole saga— it all went downhill the very moment they entered the ATDR, meeting these cars. 

After hurriedly calling his personal limousine, Dr. Fields immediately went online to freeze his bank account. 

There’s no way I’m going to take this loss. I don’t believe he can withdraw such a large sum of money within a short period, especially without any bank inquiries.

Unfortunately, he underestimated the professor. Instead of freezing his account, he himself was frozen in shock.

O-o-one dollar balance. How is this possible?!

Dr. Fields shakily operated his phone, checking his messages. There, he saw a few bank messages asking if the withdrawal was within his knowledge and allowance. Prompt responses were given, all from his own phone, giving way to the process.

That b*stard! Gahhhhh! I don’t believe this! I refuse to accept…

He then called his bank, “Yes, this is Dr. Fields. I’d like to cancel my recently written check. It’s code? 132AC. Yes. Hmm…what?! It’s already collected?!”

Dr. Fields: “(ʘ言ʘ╬)”

Hanging up dejectedly, Dr. Fields erupted with a sudden burst of momentum, filled with hatred and anger, smashing his phone into the sidewalk.

“JAYLIN, PROFESSOR BLANCHARD, YOU SONS OF B—”

Beep~

Dr. Fields’ limousine parked on the other side of the road honked the horn, alerting Mika and him of its arrival.

*  *  *

The professor who was leading the group to the next destination suddenly snickered. Everyone looked at him strangely, but they didn’t say anything. They all realized that he was a bit abnormal. His evergreen-like smile, never fading during autumn or winter, no longer evoked any warm or positive feelings— it was creepy.

Doesn’t his mouth ever get tired or is it glued on?

That question was worthy enough to be added to the world’s seven wonders.

After arriving at a specific door, the professor entered before gesturing for Jaylin to follow, leaving the rest outside. He had already explained that the remaining two tests, the physical fitness and the loyalty (lie detector), would be done by different personnel for each candidate. After which, they would be sent off and that would be that, simple and easy.

The door shut behind them, leaving their presences to mingle. The first door was just the outer door, so another door would need to be opened in order to truly enter the room. After no more than a few steps forward, the professor halted before taking out a stack of paper and throwing it towards Jaylin.

Huh?

Jaylin was caught off guard and instinctively stretched his hands to grab it. His body jerked slightly upon contact; it was a heavy stack of thousand-dollar bills.

“…And what might this be for?” Jaylin inquired calmly, his question direct.

Turning around, the professor stuck his hands back in his pockets, “Kid, I can tell you have potential. What do you say we put all past grudges and possible grievances behind us? After all, you still won, even resulting in a total loss for Dr. Fields in the end. You will also gain my possible support without any need for worrying about additional hindrances to your growth. This cash is just a token of my sincerity and willingness to cooperate. So, what do you say? I believe you to be pretty smart, no?”

A sarcastic chuckle almost escaped Jaylin’s lips. A rare smile surfaced. Crisp noises resounded as Jaylin drew out a few bills out of the heavy stack before slipping it into his sling bag. He then proceeded to throw the stack of cash back in front of the professor.

“Fine. I’ll accept your sincerity, but the cooperation is off. My forgiveness isn’t something that can be easily bought. If I weren’t competent enough, this stack of precious cash would still be sleeping soundly in your plump bank account.”

The breeze generated by the impact of the money hitting the floor brushed the professor’s face. He didn’t remember to speak until the wind finally settled, “Or not…”

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He didn’t expect to be rejected so outrightly by a youngster who was almost desperately in need of money, especially to the point of throwing it on the ground.

Though his smile was still present, it was frozen awkwardly on his face. He couldn’t bend down and actually pick it up, could he? This was the result Jaylin wanted. It was either leave it or grovel, though indirectly, before him.

The standoff lasted a few more moments before the doorknob to the inner door trembled and twisted, eventually opening. Their attention was shifted over.

In the doorway stood a slightly short, red-headed girl. Her thin glasses rested on her tiny nose, through which fierce, stubborn eyes pierced. Her furrowed eyebrows gave people a feeling of being irritated and easily provoked. In spite of this, in efforts with her loose coat, her sexy and curvy figure could not be overlooked. Her presence gave people a stimulating feeling of both attraction and repulsion.

“What’s all the hubbub around here about?!” Her voice was commanding but hurried at the same time, seemingly bothered.

The professor stiffened for a moment, “Ah Pepper, long time no see. I see you’re doing well. I…”

“Since when were you allowed to call me that? I never knew you and I were so close,” She mercilessly interrupted. 

Noticing the stack of cash, the source of the thudding noise, she sneered, “Disgusting. Up to your despicable schemes and bribes again? You never change, do you?”

“Pepp— no, Lillian, I just came to deliver the candidate for the screening for receiving the most advanced A.I Chip. Hehe, this? Of course, I just dropped it.” The professor shamelessly bent over, picked up the cash, pushed it under his coat, and left quickly, all done in a series of fluent, quick actions.

The outer door creaked as it slowly restored its closed position.

“Oh, so you’re the lucky kid huh?” Then she snorted in disdain, “People who achieve things unfairly through money won’t make it far in achieving a fulfilling life. I despise people like you, taking my hard work as just another piece of buyable jewelry. Sadly, my job is a job. It has to be done regardless. Follow me.” She then turned and left indifferently, not even bothering to register Jaylin’s face properly or leaving the door open for him.

Jaylin’s eye couldn’t help but twitch as if pepper was caught in it, I think you have some sort of misunderstanding…

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