Given the circumstances, escaping was not an option. Wang Tie didn't think he could evade the watchful eye of the world's No. 1. All he could do was go offline.
But that didn't turn the tide in his favor, so Wang Tie wouldn't just bail like that. Leaving would just leave too many questions unanswered and aggravate the standoff. He had indeed gone undercover to unravel the mystery behind the world's No. 1, but he hadn't done anything to harm the team. He would do all he could to ease the tension. Who knows—he might end up making some progress. He was in a game, after all; the worst-case scenario was getting shot dead. He could always get online another time or even log in with a new account.
But for someone who prided himself on his skills of disguise, it was a major blow to have his cover blown. Otherwise he would have been able to take things in stride when he'd been identified.
Schwarzer already had his gun trained on Wang Tie. He had learned a valuable lesson today. He was too naive. He actually believed all the bullshit this piece of crap had spewed. He had been warned about the importance of being on guard for journalists since he'd joined the team. Even though he hadn't yet risen to fame and wasn't that popular, he would have to learn to keep his guard up now.
But this fellow had managed such a convincing disguise. Except for Fang Zhao, everyone on the team had thought him to be a war journalist. Boss had earned his chops indeed. He could actually identify Wang Tie despite his ingenious disguise.
As Jinro was guarding Wang Tie, he thought back to the sequence of events, reviewing if he or any of his teammates had revealed any secrets. Thankfully, due to Fang Zhao's cautioning of late, they had become much more tight lipped. They had never let down their guard completely.
The others did the same, reviewing their comments over the preceding period. They only relaxed when they made sure they hadn't let any secrets slip. They would be punished if they'd made any mistakes.
"Hear me out," Wang Tie probed. But he soon realized that his audience had no interest in an explanation. They were simply waiting for their captain's command to beat the crap out of him.
Maybe it was better to go offline after all?
Wang Tie was pondering his options when he saw AliveAfter500Years raise his hand and make a subtle hand gesture.
The 14 folks who were glaring at Wang Tie with menacing looks turned and left. Milo and Jinro wanted to say something, but they ended up holding back, retreating in silence to a spot about 20 meters away.
Wang Tie blinked his eyes quickly.
This team's MO seemed different from the other Yanzhou e-sports teams he knew well. They appeared to be the product of military-style training in Rongzhou. What stood out to him was that there were no dissenters. Their levels of obedience and execution were superb.
Wang Tie had started wondering if this world No. 1 was from Rongzhou when he heard the man standing in front of him say, "I could ID you just like that even if you switched faces."
Wang Tie cast aside his thoughts immediately. After recovering from the shock of the comment, he started frowning hard, weighing the veracity of what had just been uttered. Self-doubt was creeping into his mind.
He had initially thought that his formidable opponent had just been bluffing. What had given him away was that fleeting moment of raw reaction just now. But now he was wondering if that wasn't the case, if this fellow could truly identify him immediately.
Wang Tie's gut told him that AliveAfter500Years wasn't bluffing.
Had his skills deteriorated since he'd left prison? Wang Tie started reflecting.
No, the problem couldn't possibly lie with him.
Wang Tie shook his head gently. No one had managed to recognize him since his return unless he identified himself, and that included Qian Cheng.
If the problem didn't lie with him, then the reason was his opponent. How on earth had AliveAfter500Years recognized him? The reason Wang Tie was so feared, the reason he was so obnoxious, was his incredible flair for disguise, down to the look of an eye. If he had lost his touch, he could no longer move freely.
That gave him a bad feeling.
As a seasoned journalist, Wang Tie was used to putting up an act in front of people and toying with them. No one could recognize him. But now, the tables had turned. He was the one on the defensive.
He had already lost this round of battle.
But did his opponent have something to say, given that he had asked the others to step aside?
Wang Tie heard his opponent say, "Do you mind if I check out the photos you took inside the game?"
Even though AliveAfter500Years was polite, he still projected an imposing figure, so Wang Tie didn't dare relax either. "Not at all," Wang Tie responded. He showed AliveAfter500Years the photos he had played for Jinro and company, all the while trying to figure out what his opponent was up to.
"These are decent shots. Are you interested in taking an assignment?" Fang Zhao asked.
The question caught Wang Tie unaware. "Who do you want to shoot?"
"Us," Fang Zhao pointed at himself and then the 14 others standing at a distance.
Wang Tie froze. Usually, people hired him to invade the privacy of others, to record all those dirty secrets. No one had ever made this request before.
If these were normal circumstances, Wang Tie would have demanded an exorbitant salary, but he didn't this time after weighing the pros and cons carefully and factoring into consideration the questions he wanted answered the most.
"What you're saying is that I take photos of you and sell them to the media?" Wang Tie asked in a cautious tone.
"No, I mean I want to hire you to shoot a publicity video for us from the perspective of a war journalist."
"A publicity video? You want a well-known Yanzhou entertainment journalist to shoot a publicity video for you? Like you said, I'm the king of Yanzhou paparazzi," Wang Tie said in a tone that mixed self-mockery and pride. I'm not just any entertainment reporter, nor the average paparazzi reporter. This mofo is the bloody king when it comes to my trade in Yanzhou. But he had never shot a publicity video for a gaming team.
"You said yourself that you're a war journalist," Fang Zhao said calmly.
"Oh, everything I said before was bullshit, how I'm a war journalist and what not. I just wanted to string them along. I'm not the king of war journalists. I know my limits," Wang Tie said with a wave of his hand.
As he uttered his response, Wang Tie observed Fang Zhao's facial expression to see if he was infuriated by the rejection. If Fang Zhao threw a tantrum, he would get offline quickly.
Fang Zhao stared at Wang Tie and, in a deeper, coarser voice than his appearance suggested, said, "No, more than 80 percent of what you said about your wartime experience was true."
Wang Tie wanted to respond with a laughing "How would you know? You weren't around," but he held back at the last minute, and the smile on his face vanished.
Jinro had recorded everything he'd said and passed it on to Fang Zhao. What a sneaky bastard.
Jinro had alerted Fang Zhao by message as soon as Wang Tie had appeared. In fact, Fang Zhao had logged in briefly at one point, but he hadn't entered the game. He'd gone offline after reading and responding to his messages. He'd responded to Jinro, instructing him to record his conversation with Wang Tie and sending it to him.
So even if Fang Zhao hadn't been around, he had heard all of Wang Tie's comments about his wartime exploits.
Fang Zhao continued to speak in a measured tone, "I have the ability to separate fact from fiction." And it was precisely his even temper that suggested to Wang Tie that he wasn't kidding or exaggerating; he was making a factual statement.
Wang Tie had better instincts than most, and it was precisely because of his stronger instincts that he felt all the more acutely the suffocating feeling of facing down the relentless stare of a giant beast.
Still, Wang Tie was mentally quite tough. Even if he was unsettled and in discomfort, he could still maintain a calm appearance. He continued negotiating. "Shooting a video for you isn't out of the question, but can I see what you look like? I have never seen a world No. 1 in person."
Wang Tie thought Fang Zhao would refuse or make a counteroffer. He hadn't expected him to agree readily. "Sure."
Fang Zhao's avatar was revealed when he took off his helmet.
Wang Tie studied this mysterious world No. 1 supergod carefully. He didn't look too old, but his avatar had no bearing on reality. Old geezers could pretend to be handsome young men in a game. His skills of disguise allowed him to pose as a university student even if he was more than 100 years old in reality.
The scars didn't mean anything either. Lots of folks used avatars with tattoos or scars, whatever distinguished them.
The only thing was that this face looked a bit familiar.
As far as pro-gamer avatars were concerned, their choice of build might be completely reckless, but their faces bore at least some resemblance to their actual appearance so they could be easily recognized. The face before Wang Tie seemed very familiar—he had seen it not long ago.
Who was it?
Where had he seen it?
Was it at the press conference at Silver Wing the other day?
After canvassing his outstanding memory, Wang Tie's eyes burst wide open. He looked like he had removed a rock and discovered treasure underneath.
"I know who you are!" Wang Tie said in an emotional voice.
Jinro, Schwarzer and company looked over when they heard Wang Tie yell. Milo switched to a gun with a silencer to kill a monster that had been drawn by Wang Tie's voice. He scanned his surroundings, shifting his gaze to Wang Tie along with the others after confirming that there were no other approaching threats. They all wanted to see the look on the face of the No. 1 paparazzi journalist after figuring out their boss's identity.
"You're Fang Zhao's father?" Wang Tie asked.
Fang Zhao: "..."
Jinro and company: "..."
As soon as he uttered the question, Wang Tie noticed the 14 disciples who had retreated 20 meters staring at him like he was an idiot.
Jinro and company secretly cursed. Are you f*cking blind?
You managed to recognize Fang Zhao's face and yet you mistook him for his father?
Wang Tie realized his mistake. He recalled the personal details of every staffer in Silver Wing's virtual projects department and started shaking his head. "No, Fang Zhao's parents are dead. He doesn't have any siblings either. Are you... his uncle? Or cousin?"
"Why don't you figure out yourself." Fang Zhao got up and walked toward Jinro and company. He was no longer looking at Wang Tie. "As for my offer, let me know when you've made up your mind."
When he finished speaking, Fang Zhao led his team away to proceed with their mission. This time, Wang Tie stayed behind. He planned on never following them again. He went offline instead.
Inside a high-end apartment near downtown Qi'an, Wang Tie removed his gaming helmet. He wore a confused expression.
His mission going awry was one thing, but what bothered him was failing to achieve the objective of his mission.
Wang Tie looked at his bracelet and noticed about a dozen missed calls. They were all from Qian Cheng. He had probably called for updates but hadn't wanted to intrude. Qian Cheng had hung up after a single ring every time.
Wang Tie called back.
"You offline? Anything?" Qian Cheng asked anxiously.
"I found out quite a bit."
"You saw him? Did you figure out his true identity?"
Wang Tie paused and responded, "No."
Qian Cheng was a bit disappointed, but he pressed on. "Even if he was difficult to identify, what did your superb instincts tell you when you saw him?"
This time, Wang Tie didn't answer. He let Qian Cheng wait before hanging up altogether.
What did my instincts tell me?
That I have met my match.