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Striving for Science

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Chapter 23: Greed

Yao Huailin's initial reaction was that the scenic area manager was lying, but as he carefully observed the expressions on the manager's face, he realized the man was telling the truth, unless he had acting skills at the level of a movie star.

Worried that Yao Huailin would not believe him, the manager hurriedly explained: "If you don't believe me, you can check the tourism promotional brochure or our tourism navigation map - there has never been any mention of this so-called villa on our tourist navigation maps."

Yao Huailin flipped open the tourist brochure, and indeed, there were no road signs related to that villa. The technical staff from the police station also checked the satellite map and found no trace of the villa.

The villa concealed itself in thick fog, appearing like a sudden monster. What made it even more bizarre was that there were so many skeletons inside.

After the scenic area manager left, Yao Huailin took a few sips of strong tea and retrieved some surveillance footage from the scenic area.

He then discovered that because of the heavy fog that morning, the scenic area had already closed its entrance gates to other visitors, so the entrance was very quiet. Around 8:40 am, a black car drove into the scenic area park and a young man stepped out, heading straight towards the ticket booth.

"Shen Changan..."

Yao Huailin clicked on the surveillance footage of the ticket office, which showed it was empty inside. Yet, Shen Changan spoke to the seemingly empty ticket booth, before leaving with a few tickets and brochures.

Soon after, the gate of the scenic spot slowly opened, allowing Shen Changan's car to enter the scenic park. The black car quickly disappeared into the thick fog.

The policeman watching the surveillance video with Yao Huailin felt chills all over. He grabbed his police cap and hurriedly put it on, hoping the national emblem's radiance would protect him from all evil.

"Yao ge, this person...doesn't seem to know he saw a ghost in broad daylight, right?" The policeman shuddered. "Are the ones we brought back today actually people or..."

Just as he spoke, there was a knock on the office door. Captain Li and two colleagues walked in with a few strangers.

"These are colleagues from the Security Department - they'll be taking over the case from here." Captain Li glanced at the monitoring video still playing on the computer screen. He reached over to turn off the computer, then turned to the strangers, "Thank you for your hard work."

"It's our job." The people from the Security Department were very polite in demeanor but acted quickly. They took away everything related to the case, including the computer that had been playing the monitoring footage.

As Captain Li and his colleagues escorted the Security Department colleagues out, Yao Huailin, who was feeling a bit groggy, mechanically followed Captain Li to his office. "Captain Li, does this mean Shen Changan saw a ghost in broad daylight?"

"The case has been handed over to the higher authorities. Before the facts are revealed, let's not discuss it casually." Captain Li, with years of experience and a seasoned understanding of various cases, knew what words were suitable for discussion and what weren't. "You've been working hard lately. Go home and rest early tonight."

"After watching that video clip, there's no way I can sleep now." Yao Huailin wiped his face, unceremoniously plopping down in the chair. "I never expected Shen Changan to be so bold. Not only did he not have bad luck encountering ghosts, he even rescued people. If such a plot was made into a drama, wouldn't the audience give it a bad review for being too unrealistic?"

"You're overthinking it; we don't have ghosts in our Chinese films and TV dramas." Captain Li patted his shoulder, "Alright, let's call it a day."

Yao Huailin took out his phone and sent a message to Shen Changan.

Yao Huailin: Shen Changan, you're amazing.

Shen Changan, who was incredibly awesome in Yao Huailin's mind, was currently riding a shared electric bicycle, with two followers trailing behind him.

The two bickered back and forth, noisy enough to make his brain buzz.

"If you two don't shut up, I'll call the police and say you're maliciously stalking me, with intentions of robbery." Shen Changan jumped off his bike and glared at the two, "Stop bothering me. If there's something, talk about it tomorrow, okay?"

Seeing Shen Changan already on the brink of anger, Wu Wei didn't dare to follow him anymore. He whispered, "Back then after I explained to the school that the paper was yours, I came back and found that you had left the school. You didn't even attend the graduation ceremony. I don't know if this was because of me, but Changan, please believe me, I really wouldn't do something as despicable as stealing a brother's thesis."

"I know." Shen Changan looked at Zhang Gu, who forced an awkward laugh. "You guys chat slowly, I'll leave first." He pretended to turn the bike around heading in the opposite direction. However, unnoticed by Shen Changan, a tracking spell was secretly cast on him.

After Zhang Gu left, Shen Changan and Wu Wei fell into silence. Wu Wei scratched his head: "I don't know how to explain, but a few years ago I helped a lost kid find his way home, and later I don't know what happened but that kid passed away and turned into a ghost. He insisted on following me, claiming that he owed me a favor and had to repay it."

"During that thesis competition, I was just boasting to a friend about how good your thesis was, and that it would definitely take first place and I just went to make up the numbers." Speaking of this, Zhang Gu smiled embarrassedly. "Who knew this thing I said would be overheard by the little ghost following me secretly. Also don't know what method he used, but he swapped the contents of our two papers."

At the time he was very angry and asked the little ghost why he did this. But that little ghost still thought he didn't do anything wrong by helping him get first place. Unable to reason with a ghost who was only six or seven years old, and unwilling to plagiarize someone else's hard work, he could only go explain the situation to the university administrators.

But when he came out of the dean's office,  he heard from his roommate that Changan had already packed and left in a rush. Over the past year, Changan hadn't contacted anyone, and no matter how much he inquired, he couldn't find any news of him.

This incident became a heavy stone pressing on his heart. He always felt that without clearing things up, he would never find inner peace in his life.

"I know this reason sounds absurd no matter who hears it, but..." Wu Wei continued while scratching his head, "I really didn't lie to you."

"Where's that ghost?" Shen Changan asked.

"I don't know. He said he would disappear after I win the first place, so maybe felt he had repaid his debt and reincarnated?"  Wu Wei felt the more he spoke, the more absurd it sounded. He sighed, "I think he wasn't here to repay a debt, clearly he was here to take revenge."

If Wu Wei had given this explanation to him a day ago, Shen Changan would undoubtedly have mercilessly beaten him to a pulp. However, today, he felt a bit uncertain.

He rubbed his nose bridge and realized the space above was empty, just then remembering that he had taken off his glasses and forgot to put them back on.

He sighed, oh well, if they're lost then they're lost.

"Don't sigh." Wu Wei said. "I swear on my good luck awaiting me in the years to come that I absolutely didn't lie to you." Although his luck in the past year really wasn't that great to begin with.

"I didn't say I don't believe you, just...my worldviews are a bit shattered." Shen Changan shook his head.

"It's fine, when I first saw the little ghost, my worldview also shattered into pieces. You will get used to it." Wu Wei took out his phone. "Originally I thought being assigned to work in Wuming City was unfortunate, but who knew I'd run into you here. Looks like my run of bad luck by mercury retrograde is about to end. Since our misunderstanding is cleared up now, how about exchanging contact numbers?"

Shen Changan looked at him for two seconds, "Don't tell anyone I'm here."

Although Wu Wei didn't understand why, he still nodded in agreement.

After exchanging contact information with Wu Wei while enduring his endless ramblings, Shen Changan finally returned home.

The quiet and empty house finally gave him a moment to calm down and contemplate. He lay on the bed in a stretched-out position and suddenly remembered that ancient tree outside the government office building.

Miaomiao, the ancient tree, childhood friends...

He flipped out of bed, took his phone and keys as he rushed downstairs.

The streetlights outside the civilian service department building were not working well and there was no light in the courtyard, rendering the whole yard pitch dark. Shen Changan used a key to unlock the dilapidated courtyard door and walked to the huge tree.

As soon as he got close to the tree, its leaves started rustling noisily, as if blown by the wind, yet it also seemed like they were rustling in fear.

"Come out." Shen Changan stared at the tree for a while and suddenly spoke out.

The tree didn't respond.

"I heard trees are afraid of saltwater. There's a lot of salt in my house. If..."

"Harming protective-class trees is illegal." A weak voice came from the big tree, but no one appeared.

"Harming others is also against the law." Shen Changan spoke, "Since you understand human laws, why did you still selfishly steal others' souls and spirits because of your own desires, causing a whole family to live in pain? If I hadn't accidentally released Sun Jia's soul, he would have been a fool for life, and his parents would have worried about him until they died."

"And when he was about to leave, he was still thinking about you, his childhood friend. You say humans don't have integrity, they don't keep their promises, but I think it's you, this demon, who is heartless and only cares about yourself." Shen Changan sneered coldly. "Just because you're a demon, does that mean you can do whatever you want?"

The tone in Shen Changan's voice alarmed the large tree. It was so scared that the whole tree started shaking violently. "What else do you want from me? Because of you, I lost decades of cultivation and can't even transform into a human now."

Hearing this, Shen Changan remembered that night when he thought the tree demon and ghosts were just things in his dreams, so he had beaten them up. But it wasn't a dream - he was just deceiving himself and treating everything as a dream.

He remembered that he had only dragged that green-haired brat over to beat his arse – why does it say that it had lost decades of cultivation?

Now even demons are learning from talent shows these days and started to play the sympathy card, huh?

"If I had known you were the tenth reincarnation of a meritorious body, I would have uprooted myself from this place rather than provoke you," the big tree was still trembling. "I have low cultivation. I worked hard to absorb moonlight day and night to transform into a human. How could I provoke someone like you?" The tree spirit's tone carried a sense of grievance and regret. "With your constitution, instead of going to cultivate Buddhism, you've come here to bother older folks like me - is your brain working properly?"

"You have harmed families, it is heaven's will that you end up in this situation." Shen Changan's heart was filled with doubts; what did it mean to be a tenth-generation meritorious body? He didn't know how much this tree spirit knew, so he pretended to speak in a careless tone, "What's so great about being a tenth-reincarnation of a meritorious body? The days when you can't eat meat are the most terrifying."

"Nothing great?" If the tree spirit could transform into a human now, it would want to jump out and shake Shen Changan's head to see if it was filled with brains or water. "A tenth-reincarnation meritorious body is a rare occurrence in a thousand years, feared by all ghosts and monsters. If it was an era with abundant spiritual energy, you could have cultivated into an immortal with eternal life, and no longer have to go through any hardships. Isn't that what many people dream of?"

"But this isn't an era of abundant spiritual energy, right?" Shen Changan's confusion deepened after hearing the tree spirit's words. If he truly had the constitution that ghosts fear, why did he have so many dreams related to evil ghosts and spirits when he was a child?

"Since you didn't cultivate the Tao nor Buddhism, how did you survive until adulthood?" the tree demon asked. "While the constitution of a tenth-generation meritorious body is invincible that a hundred evils dare not invade, before adulthood, due to the unstable destiny, it's a precious elixir for all kinds of great demons and ghosts. Have you read 'Journey to the West'? Before you reached adulthood, your ethereal soul was equivalent to Tang Sanzang's flesh to those heterodox and evil forces."

"Do you also have a benefactor like Sun Wukong?"

Shen Changan: "..."

Recalling how he tried all sorts of methods to fight ghosts in his dreams as a child, Shen Changan felt that he might be a mutated version, martial-arts-focused Tang Sanzang.

"Or do you live in a place filled with righteousness?"

Shen Changan was stunned. Live in a place filled with righteousness?

He looked up at the massive tree with a profound gaze.

"You, you, don't look at me like that. I'm just chatting casually, just chatting." This tree had long been frightened by Shen Changan. Afraid that he would hit it a few more times and it might lose even his spiritual consciousness and become an ordinary tree, it hastily said something nice: "I dare swear to heaven that I've only done one bad thing in my life."

Today seemed to be a day for swearing oaths; this was the second person swearing to him.

"So you admit what you did was bad?" Shen Changan clicked his tongue and withdrew his gaze, "Reform yourself well, don't even think about taking human form until you've sincerely atoned for your mistakes."

"Hold on, brother, big brother, uncle..."

[T/N: xiōng dì - younger brother or pal, lǎo dà -  eldest brother or boss, shū shu - uncle]

Shen Changan ignored the tree spirit's cries. He walked out of the courtyard in big strides, locked the door, and stared at the dim streetlights on both sides of the road. Suddenly he felt loneliness engulfing him with no one waiting for him to return home in this vast world.

Taking out his phone, Shen Changan saw the strange message from Yao Huailin. He ignored it and sent a message to Dao Nian.

Changan: Dao Nian, do you believe ghosts, monsters, immortals and the like exist in this world?

He had asked Dao Nian this question before, but this night he suddenly felt like asking again. Maybe he didn't want to know any answer, but was just deceiving himself that he had someone to ask in his confusion.

After sending it, Shen Changan felt this action was a bit ridiculous and wanted to take back the message.

Nian: ?

Seeing this simple greeting, Shen Changan suddenly laughed. He didn't take back the message and quickly replied to Dao Nian.

Changan: Just heard a story from someone, felt like asking.

Nian: No, don't believe it.

Shen Changan deleted the words "Maybe ghosts and gods really exist in this world" one by one.

Changan: Yeah.

Dao Nian put his phone away and asked Liu Mao, who was bowing in front of him: "Add some more funding for scientific propaganda tomorrow."

Liu Mao immediately nodded: "Yes, sir."

On Monday morning, as Shen Changan entered the office, he saw Liu Mao chatting and laughing with Director Du as they walked out. He stopped in his tracks and greeted Liu Mao.

Seeing him, Liu Mao was very enthusiastic, "Mr. Shen, good morning. Have you had breakfast?" Today, Mr. Shen wasn't wearing glasses, and looked quite spirited.

Shen Changan nodded.

Before Shen Changan could ask, Liu Mao took the initiative to explain his purpose, "Sir thinks that promoting science can't rely solely on traditional print media. We also need to strengthen online promotion. So today, I came over on behalf of sir to donate additional funds to your department."

"Thank you for your company's support for our work.  This kind of spirit towards public welfare is really commendable, I will definitely write it into a report and report it to the higher-ups." Director Du Zhonghai's mind was a bit short-circuited. For a moment, he even forgot Mr. Liu Mao's surname so he could only use "your company" as a substitute. "Rest assured, we will provide detailed reports on financial expenditures to ensure every penny is used for scientific propaganda."

"I believe in your department, especially with Mr. Shen here, we feel even more assured," Liu Mao didn't forget to emphasize Shen Changan's importance in their hearts to Shen's boss. "If it weren't for Mr. Shen, we wouldn't have known that your department has been silently working hard for the promotion of science."

"This is what we should be doing," Liu Mao smiled. "Our sir has always advocated science and opposed feudal superstition. To contribute to science is our honor."

Hearing this, Shen Changan was secretly rejoiced - it was good that he didn't tell Dao Nian last night that maybe ghosts and gods really exist in this world.

For those who don't believe in ghosts and gods, saying such things in front of them would undoubtedly challenge their views.

As friends, one should respect each other's beliefs - like believing in science.

At that moment, on a peak in the north, the faces of cultivators from various sects looked haggard as they stared at the surging filth in the gorge, and the worry in their eyes grew thicker.

"Master Yanyin, we can't go on like this much longer," an old man in a yellow robe spat out a mouthful of blood, his face turned waxen. "The sealing formation is on the verge of collapse."

They had been here for days, and their spiritual energy was almost exhausted. Apart from stubborn resistance, they had no other choice.

"If it's really impossible, shall we try invoking the gods again?" A purple-robed female Daoist walked up to the yellow-robed Daoist, "What if it succeeds this time?"

Hearing this, everyone present could only smile bitterly. No one had succeeded in invoking the gods for nearly a hundred years. With the development of human technology, they gradually understood that the gods had given up on the mortal realm, or perhaps, humans no longer needed gods.

But if this filth were to spill out, a major epidemic would break out in the mortal realm. Although, with the current level of science and technology, humans might quickly develop effective vaccines, wouldn't these impurities eventually harm human bodies?

"Let's try once more." The  female Daoist in purple robes opened her tired eyes and looked up at the rolling white clouds in the sky. "What if the gods can hear our plea?"

"Humans have wantonly harmed nature and relentlessly exploited resources without any fear or restraint. They have long since lost all reverence towards heaven and nature," Master Yan Yin slowly opened his tired eyes. "Humans have long abandoned the gods. Countless gods have vanished between heaven and earth. Which god can we still beseech now?"

"This filth was born out of human greed, and all we can do is try to reduce the filth as much as possible." Yan Yin let out a long sigh, "As long as humans have selfish desires, this filth can never be completely eliminated. But all living things in the world, as long as they want to live they will have selfish desires. This is a natural cycle that cannot be avoided."

"Amitabha Buddha, may all attain enlightenment." Yan Yin closed his eyes and began reciting scriptures again.

The filth in the valley writhed and gradually condensed, as if taking on a life of its own.

Some people seek gods when praying for wealth, some pray for peace and longevity, but some reveal all their ugliness and darkest desires when praying to gods. For example, wishing for the death of their partner, or that their most detested rivals would die with their whole family.

Before the statues of gods, they no longer conceal their selfish desires, because they know the gods were just clay statues that could never reveal their secrets.

But... can the gods really not hear them?

On a Monday afternoon at 2pm in Wuming City, Shen Changan and Chen Panpan knocked on a family's door. The house emitted a stale smell of not being cleaned often, and several pairs of shoes messily scattered at the door.

"Hello, we are staff from the Civil Service Department and would like to learn more about your family situation," Chen Panpan smiled at the middle-aged man opening the door.

Facing Chen Panpan's smile, the middle-aged man hesitated for a moment before letting Chen Panpan and Shen Changan in.

The living room floor was a bit sticky, a few unwashed dirty bowls cluttered the coffee table, and there was a layer of grease on the tabletop. Shen Changan even caught a whiff of a stuffy oily smell.

After seeing Shen Changan and Chen Panpan's work passes, the middle-aged man invited the two to sit down: "What do the two of you want to ask?"

Glancing at the stained sofa, Shen Changan had Chen Panpan sit on a nearby plastic stool while he settled on the dirty sofa. "It's like this, we've heard that someone in your family is seriously ill, and we've come to ask if you're facing some financial difficulties."

"Who told you that, those few nosy old ladies from my wife's family?" The man's face darkened. He got up to close the door of the room, not letting Shen Changan and Chen Panpan see the room's condition. "Those old women love to gossip. My wife isn't that sick; she just lost her soul by going out at night. I've already hired someone to summon it back, she'll be fine soon."

Shen Changan frowned, then smiled, "What does it look like to lose one's soul? Can I go take a look?"

“What's there to see?” The man saw that Shen Changan had a tender face and looked like he had just come out of school, so he said, "Women are naturally weak due to their birth (natal) chart. I've long told her that no decent woman would work night shifts, but she didn't believe me. Did she not run into something unclean?"

There wasn't much concern for his wife in the man's tone, but rather a sense of pride and satisfaction that “she didn't listen to me and has now lost out.”

Chen Panpan, being a young woman herself, couldn't help but frown.

“So there's also such a theory?” Shen Changan said in realization, "So, is the elder sister (da jie) okay now? Should we send her to the hospital first, in case the doctors have a solution?"

"Why waste money on things that can be resolved simply by drinking talisman water a few times?" The man looked at Shen Changan warily, “You people from the Civil Service Department can't meddle in other's family affairs, right?”

Chen Panpan gave a fake smile, devoid of humor: “Can't meddle.”

“Alright, I have other things to do, please leave.” The man's expression darkened. He opened the door, saying, "Or I won't be polite."

He took out his phone and shouted loudly: "Believe it or not, I'll shoot a video and post it online, saying that you barged into a civilian residence, and bullied ordinary people?”

"You!" Chen Panpan couldn't stand it anymore. "Your wife is sick, and you won't take her to the hospital. Yet, you have the nerve to frame us?"

"She married me; she's mine. Whether I spend money on her medical treatment or not is my business," the man reached out to push Chen Panpan, but was blocked by Shen Changan.

"Sir, you've been preventing us from visiting the elder sister this whole time. I suspect that you have murdered your wife." Shen Changan sneered. "We're relatives from her mother's family. We heard she's sick so can't we come to visit?"

"Mind your own business," the man tried to push Shen Changan, but couldn't budge him and realized that this tall and thin young man was unexpectedly very strong.

These two young people, one moment claiming to be officials, the next claiming to be relatives of that ugly woman, clearly, they have just come here to deliberately cause trouble.

The man got angrier as he thought about it, and swung his fist to hit them.

Shen Changan pinned the seemingly strong man to the ground with one hand. Suddenly, a sound of something thrown to the ground came from the inner room, and then a woman's weak voice sounded from inside.

“Help...help...”

Chen Panpan's face changed instantly as she turned to look at Shen Changan.

Shen Changan increased the force pressing down on the man: “Panpan, call the police and ambulance.”

After calling and waiting for the police and ambulance to arrive, Chen Panpan found her legs a bit weak.

"Changan, thank goodness you suggested distributing promotional materials to every household and noticed something wrong with this family," Chen Panpan looked at Shen Changan with admiration. "Otherwise, this elder sister might really have been killed by her husband."

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