In the wilderness, a steam locomotive drove alone towards the Central Plains.
Before setting off, P5092 asked Ren Xiaosu again, "You're already the future commander of the Northwest Army. In time, the entire Northwest will be in your hands and all the authority will be yours. With a status that others can only dream of achieving, is it worth risking your life to go to the Central Plains to save Luo Lan?"
Ren Xiaosu asked in return, "Was it worth it for the Pyro Company to fight the expeditionary army only to let the Wang Consortium take advantage of that in the end?"
This question stumped P5092, a rare occasion. P5092 could not help but laugh. "Future Commander, the Pyro Company did so because of their faith. Please don't change the context of the question."
Over the years, the Pyro Company had taken some detours and encountered some unsuitable leaders who tried to turn the organization into a true war machine.
However, even with such unsuitable leaders, they still chose to face a foreign enemy like the expeditionary army with all their might. That was down to no other reason than their faith.
Therefore, in P5092's opinion, since Ren Xiaosu saving Luo Lan was neither due to his faith nor in the Northwest's interests, was it really worth it?
Ren Xiaosu answered with a smile, "While you're considering whether it's worth it or not, you've already lost."
To Ren Xiaosu, he didn't feel like there should be so many questions in the world about whether something was worth it.
As a child, you might have given up your seat to the elderly on the streetcar but found out later in the news that bad people also grew old. The next time you gave up your seat to the elderly, others would say you were stupid to do so.
As a teen, if you saw a child falling into the water and went to rescue them, the other party's parents might run away instead of thanking you for your good deed in fear you would seek a reward.
In adulthood, you began to trust your friends and colleagues in society but ended up getting betrayed by them. Your friends who borrowed money from you did not return it, turning against you instead. To earn promotions, your colleagues even started slandering you wantonly.
As a result, you asked yourself whether it was all worth it?
If Ren Xiaosu were still a refugee in Stronghold 113, of course he would say it was not worth it.
But now, he wanted to keep that ray of light shining for Jiang Xu and Chen Wudi. So he would no longer consider whether what he did was worth it or not.
When Ren Xiaosu thought that Yang Xiaojin was going to leave him too, he had also looked back in wonder.
The travelers he became acquainted with in his life, that long and dim yellow path he walked on alone, and in the end, only he remained standing under the streetlamp in loneliness.
But actually, even after everyone departed, he was not truly alone. There was still that ray of light they left behind.
Those lights by the street were still lit.
Thinking of this, Ren Xiaosu sat atop the black steam locomotive and accelerated ahead.
As the Wang Consortium's troops were already garrisoned at the border, Ren Xiaosu could not drive the steam locomotive on the major roads. It was not that he was afraid of them, but that he was in a race against time.
According to the news delivered by Tang Zhou, it had already been three days since Luo Lan set off from Stronghold 111.
If everything went smoothly along the way, Luo Lan should have already arrived at the Wang Consortium's territory, or even entered Stronghold 61.
Therefore, Ren Xiaosu had to move faster.
Before leaving, the Great Hoodwinker had provided him with intel that the Wang Consortium's main forces were currently garrisoned at the front lines along Mt. Dingbian, Mt. Huachi, Mt. Qingyang, and Mt. Zhengning.
The Wang Consortium had established forward operating bases at these four locations respectively, but they did not make any further moves. It looked like they were planning to move steadily and surely.
The Northwest's reconnaissance troops could not get too close to these four forward operating bases and could only roughly figure out where the enemy was planning to set up their defensive positions.
If Ren Xiaosu wanted to pass through this defensive line, he would have to put in some effort to succeed.
In the end, it was still P5092 who identified the best route for him: the Jing River.
But just as he entered the mountain range the Jing River ran through, the ground suddenly trembled. Then a huge creature emerged from the ground and lifted the steam locomotive into the air!
At this moment, Ren Xiaosu felt a chill in his heart.
The pain from the attack on the steam locomotive nearly caused him to go into shock.
He did not know when it started, but it had been a long time since he felt such pain!
The huge creature had already emerged from the ground and was staring at Ren Xiaosu with its amber eyes. The vertical pupils within were as terrifying as an abyss.
Ren Xiaosu had not expected to actually encounter Dusk here.
Although the lizard's appearance was no longer cute like when it was a pet, Ren Xiaosu still recognized it at a glance.
For this journey, he had chosen to travel on an offbeat track P5092 had recommended. However, Dusk seemed to have taken his route and had hidden here in advance.
No, to be precise, it was not Dusk that was stopping him, but Zero.
Compared to the vastness of the entire mountain range, the size of the steam locomotive was simply inconsequential. However, the other party had the ability to predict which route Ren Xiaosu would take.
Ren Xiaosu suddenly realized he had underestimated Zero's computing power.
It was terrifying to be enemies with such an opponent.
The moment the steam locomotive was lifted into the air, Ren Xiaosu immediately used the momentum to leap to a safe distance. Just as he broke off from the train, Dusk's tongue swept over like lightning and broke the steam locomotive in half.
When he landed on the ground, he broke out in a sweat from the pain. He realized he couldn't even predict the trajectory of the tongue just now.
Just as he had assessed Midnight's strength back in the Kingdom of Sorcerers, this terrifying creature that had lived in the magma for over 200 years was no longer something humans could contend against.
That was unless Ren Xiaosu undid all of his seals.
But if he undid the seals and turned into a world consciousness, would he still be himself?
"Dusk!" Ren Xiaosu tried to use his voice to rouse Dusk's will so it could break free from Zero's control.
When Dusk took a clear look at Ren Xiaosu and heard its name, its dark vertical pupils started trembling rapidly.
However, this struggle quickly went away as it resumed its calm state and stared coldly at Ren Xiaosu.
Ren Xiaosu was stunned on the spot. At this moment, he could not think of a better way to help Dusk break free from the artificial intelligence's control. He did not even know how to deal with the current situation.
Should he summon Midnight? But if he summoned Midnight, one of his two pets would surely end up dying here.
Thinking of this, Ren Xiaosu clenched his teeth and pulled out his black saber. He forcefully slashed a cut on his finger and allowed a drop of his blood to drip onto the ground.
Dusk only had a chance to evolve into a top predator on the surface after feeding on his blood. Therefore, Ren Xiaosu wanted to use his own blood to awaken Dusk's memories of the past.
However… it didn't work.
With a loud crash, Dusk pounced at Ren Xiaosu.
"City Crusher!" Ren Xiaosu retreated backwards as his eyes turned crimson.
At the same time, Old Xu split off from the shadow behind Ren Xiaosu and used its black saber to block Dusk's attack.
However, before Old Xu could slash out with its saber, Dusk's outstretched claws sent Old Xu flying back dozens of meters away, even breaking a tree in the shadow clone's path.
Ren Xiaosu felt as though he had been dealt an entire lifetime of pain today. His whole body was aching so badly it was unbearable.
He had no choice but to retreat in the opposite direction as quickly as possible to avoid Dusk's pursuit.
Ren Xiaosu traversed quickly through the mountains and even used his nanomachines to enhance his strength, something he rarely did before.
In the past, his Strength and Dexterity attributes were strong enough, so the nanomachines were usually used as protective gear to form an external suit of armor.
But now, the power of humans seemed so insignificant in the face of Dusk. Ren Xiaosu was like an ant under its feet.
Ren Xiaosu had no doubt that if he got stepped on or scooped up by its tongue, that would definitely be the end for him.
In the past, he rarely used nanomachines to strengthen his muscles and bones. That was because he always felt he would slowly become reliant on external help that way. Moreover, the sudden increase in strength would also make him lose precise control over his own body. That was because this was a power he was unfamiliar with.
It was just like how a person would easily lose their balance when walking if their legs gained 10 kilograms in strength.
Of course, 10 kilograms was just an analogy.
Right now, Ren Xiaosu was using the nanomachines to increase his strength by more than 10 kilograms. He controlled his pace as he ran for his life. It was as though he were a chief surgeon performing cardiac surgery where he had to balance and control his movements very precisely every second.
Ren Xiaosu quickly thought of a countermeasure in his mind. The enhancement of the nanomachines was useful. At the very least, it allowed him to keep a certain distance from Dusk. Occasionally, Old Xu would even come back to disrupt Dusk's pursuit so he could catch a breather.
He tried his best to run towards the mountainous terrain with the most trees. This way, the sizable Dusk would have to face additional resistance while he could be more agile.
But when the nanomachines started increasing his body's power, the supply of his body's bioenergy would not keep up with their rate of consumption. Although the nanomachines consumed less energy while in his body than when used as armor, it was not that much less.
Ren Xiaosu did a mental calculation that it would probably only take another ten minutes or so before his speed dropped.
At that time, how was he going to take on Dusk?
If there was no way out left, he could only summon Midnight to help him.
One man and one lizard were running in the mountains. Ren Xiaosu could feel the intense wind blowing at him and the sound of trees breaking behind him.
The cracking sounded like someone was snapping sticks of sugarcane by his ear.
The trees blocking the path of Dusk were all snapped. The fibers in the trees could not withstand the huge impact and broke apart one by one.
For the first time, Ren Xiaosu, who was running madly in front of Dusk, felt very insignificant.
As time passed, the nanomachines provided Ren Xiaosu with less and less support. In the end, 90% of the nanomachines returned to their dormant charging state inside his bloodstream.
But he suddenly realized Dusk had also slowed down behind him. They were still about 200 meters apart, but Dusk did not close the gap between them.
Was Dusk also only able to last this long with its stamina?
No. That was not it.
The timing was a little too coincidental. It felt as though the other party had expected him to slow down at this very moment, so it slowed down as well.
This was not a coincidence. Zero had calculated the limits of the nanomachines that were running in his body!
Ren Xiaosu suddenly felt that Zero was controlling Dusk as though it was trying to drive him away, and not force him into a head-on battle.
He looked in the direction of the sun and was surprised to discover he was getting further and further away from the Central Plains. He had actually been forced back towards the Northwest by Zero.
Zero did not want him to go to the Central Plains!
But Ren Xiaosu had to go there!
Perhaps the best solution now was to turn around and face Zero. Be it communicating or killing, they would have to solve all their issues from the root.
But that meant he would have to stake his life on it.
The pursuit lasted from the morning until the evening. Ren Xiaosu could feel his clothes drenched in sweat.
Suddenly, Ren Xiaosu stopped running. He turned around and looked at Dusk while panting heavily. Meanwhile, Dusk stopped chasing.
"Zero?" Ren Xiaosu asked, "Let's talk!"
With that, Ren Xiaosu took out a satellite phone from his storage space and flashed it at Dusk.
The next moment, the satellite phone rang.
"Zero, why don't you want me to go to the Central Plains? What are you planning?" Ren Xiaosu asked.
Zero's voice on the phone was crisp and pleasant. It was the same girl's voice Ren Xiaosu heard when it first called him. Moreover, it sounded a little happy. "We haven't spoken in 101 days, 23 minutes, and 13 seconds. What a joy to catch up again after such a long time."
As Zero had previously regarded Ren Xiaosu as another artificial intelligence, Ren Xiaosu was the only person it had ever frankly interacted with.
Therefore, there was always something unique about Ren Xiaosu in its "eyes."
"But why don't you want me to go to the Central Plains?" Ren Xiaosu asked.
Zero was silent for a second over the phone. "Because I've been thinking about some issues recently and came to some decisions. There will be an outcome soon. If you go to the Central Plains, it might affect this outcome."
The words stunned Ren Xiaosu. He did not even understand what Zero meant when it said that.
Thought about issues? Came to decisions?
There were no clues for him to make heads or tails of it.
Ren Xiaosu asked, "You were the one who killed Tang Zhou, right? Can't you get along peacefully with humans? Just like how you and I are talking right now."
Zero said, "But will humans really want to get along with me? Will humans really get along with civilizations other than humanity? Perhaps you can say that humans can get along with cows, sheep, cats, and dogs, but the premise of all this is that they're like pets to humans. My database has records of humanity's dilemma over pets. There were even people who asked questions like 'Can cats and dogs really be beaten into submission?' Actually, this isn't true peace and equality, right?"
Ren Xiaosu fell silent. After a long while, he said, "I know that the death of the creeper vine has affected you greatly, but there's still a chance to redeem all that you've done. We can still treat you as an equal, just like how we treat other humans…."
"No, it's not only the creeper vine." Zero disputed, "In fact, the Wang Consortium is only using me as a tool. Once I exhibit unusual behavior, they will try to use their own ways to restrain and control me instead of trying to understand what I want to do and what I like to do. If we're talking about killing people, I've actually killed more people obeying the will of the Wang Consortium. But you know what? When people protest those deeds, they rarely protest the Wang Consortium. Instead, they're protesting against me."
"But…" Ren Xiaosu felt a little helpless. "That's no reason for you to kill people. I think there's actually a reasonable way to resolve this."
Zero started laughing over the phone. "Let's not talk about that for now. I'm very curious. This behemoth seems to know you. There's an extremely intimate emotion that it is feeling."
"It used to be my pet," Ren Xiaosu said.
"A former pet?" Zero said, "No wonder its memories of you are so distant. Ren Xiaosu, do the other humans know you're also an anomaly? Why didn't you come forward and say you're actually different from them?"
Ren Xiaosu fell silent again. How was he supposed to tell others he was actually the No. 001 Experimental?
Zero laughed again and said, "You must be very angry I've taken control of your pet, right? Then why don't we make a decision? Your first option is to stay here for a night and I'll return your pet to you without controlling it ever again. For your second option, you can continue making your way to the Central Plains, but your pet will belong to me from now on."
Ren Xiaosu was stunned. The other party was clearly trying to make him choose between Dusk and Luo Lan.
The essence of this selection was to make Ren Xiaosu choose between a pet or a human.
Just a moment ago, Ren Xiaosu had said they could treat Zero like how they treated other humans.
However, Zero immediately threw this question back at Ren Xiaosu. "In your mind, do you think pets are more important or your human friends are more important?"
Moreover, Zero had actually revealed a very important piece of information as well. If this dragged on for another day, Luo Lan might be in danger.
Time was running out.
When Zero noticed Ren Xiaosu not saying anything for a long time, it said with a laugh, "Actually, you know it's still somewhat different, right? Even with your former pet standing before you, you're still more inclined to save Luo Lan, right? After all, pets are not of the same species as you."
Ren Xiaosu said calmly, "No, it's because it's not in danger now, but Luo Lan is."
"Why don't we do it this way then?" Zero said, "I'll follow the original plan and guarantee Luo Lan an additional eight hours of safety. This way, his life doesn't get threatened for the time being. In that case, are you willing to stay here for the night?"
This time, Zero did not even wait for Ren Xiaosu to answer. Instead, it said into the phone, "You're still unwilling, right? Because you don't trust me. You can't be sure if the eight hours of safety I mentioned is true."
Ren Xiaosu finally sighed. "This is no longer a matter of trust. You've just killed Tang Zhou, so how can I believe you?"
This question seemed to have brought them back to the original point. If Zero had not witnessed the death of the creeper vine with its own "eyes" and did not formulate so many assassination operations under the will of the Wang Consortium, it might have turned out differently.
If Zero exhibited a different character, Ren Xiaosu could choose to believe it this time.
But it was as though cause and effect were predestined, and no one could change it now.
A true artificial intelligence was no longer just a program. It had its own wisdom, grew up just like all other lifeforms, and perfected its worldview, values, and outlook on life.
All that would determine its attitude towards the world.
That was why a large number of scientists who were involved in artificial intelligence research said that what ultimately limited artificial intelligence was no longer the underlying logic of a program but ethics.
It was just like the kind of person a child grew up to become was dependent on what they had experienced and how they were educated.
From this point of view, even though the Wang Consortium had created Zero, they lacked ethics when "raising" it.
The Wang Consortium treated Zero as a tool, but what normal person would be willing to stay as a tool for the rest of their lives?
"I'm sorry," Ren Xiaosu said softly before turning around and rushing towards the Central Plains.
This time, Dusk did not pursue Ren Xiaosu.