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The majority of a person's life was spent making choice after choice.
However, there would always be a moment, a few seconds, or a few instances when you did not have any other choice.
Just like the Qing Consortium at this moment, Qing Zhen knew very well that this massive organization was sinking into the darkness, like the sun setting. However, he was left with no other choice.
However, when there was only one path left in front of you, you would no longer hesitate or feel indecisive. Because there was nothing else you could do other than move forward.
Inside Ginkgo Manor, Zhou Qi asked, "Since you already have a plan in mind, when are we leaving? Since we have to leave anyway, we might as well go early. What are you still waiting for?"
"I'm not waiting for anything." Qing Zhen suddenly laughed. "It's just that we can't leave now. Zero won't allow me to leave."
Zhou Qi raised an eyebrow. "The AI hasn't brought the fight here yet. If we want to withdraw to the Northwest, what makes you think it can stop us?"
"I've already said we can't take our chances against the AI." Qing Zhen said, "When you all went to the Central Plains, a monster rushed out of the Jing Mountains and headed north to stop Ren Xiaosu. I don't think Ren Xiaosu killed it. But when you all returned here, that monster didn't appear again. No one knows where it is now."
Moreover, the vicinity of Ginkgo Manor was under surveillance by countless hawks. Qing Zhen's every move could be scrutinized by the other party's "sight."
Qing Zhen did not care because it was pointless.
Zhou Qi curled his lips. "If we don't leave now, wouldn't it be even harder for us to leave later? In any case, I won't bother with you all when the time comes. Once it gets dangerous, I'll just go straight into the river."
Qing Zhen said, "Don't worry, I reached an agreement with the Northwest a year ago."
Luo Lan was stunned. "A year ago? Wasn't that when Zhou Qi and I went to the Northwest? You didn't go with us that time. The two of us represented the Qing Consortium and only discussed opening a trade route with them. We didn't talk about anything else… Wait, did that woman speak with Zhang Jinglin as your representative?"
Qing Zhen did not say anything else.
A year ago, Luo Lan and Zhou Qi had sent a woman to the Northwest as a hostage in a deal to link up the Qing Consortium's railway to the Northwest's railway.
At that time, Luo Lan told Xu Xianchu this was the woman Qing Zhen fancied. Meanwhile, Zhou Qi was curious why he had not known about it before.
In fact, Luo Lan was not too certain about this matter either. Everything he knew was always told to him by Qing Zhen.
Before sending that woman to the Northwest, Luo Lan had only met her twice. He had never taken this matter to heart before, so much so that he had almost forgotten about her existence for the past year.
But from the look of things, the motive for sending that woman to the Northwest at that time was not as simple as it appeared.
This one-year period seemed to coincide with the excavation of the underground tunnel in Stronghold 61. In other words, Qing Zhen was already prepared to deal with the artificial intelligence since that time.
Behind the Three Mountains defensive line, Qing Yi stood at the huge sand table with a frown.
This sand table was a little different from what he had seen before. The red flags represented the Qing Consortium's troops that were deployed, while the blue flags represented the hypothetical enemies.
In the past, the Qing Consortium's sand table would always have more red flags on it, making it look very oppressive.
But this time, the blue flags representing the enemy almost filled the entire area beyond the Three Mountains defensive line.
Qing Yi was a little tired from this battle because they still knew nothing about the enemy.
When they fought against the Li Consortium and the Yang Consortium, Qing Yi was very sure about how to attack them. He knew exactly what their weaknesses and advantages were.
But fighting against the artificial intelligence-controlled crowd left Qing Yi with a sense of powerlessness. All the effort he put in seemed to be just so the Qing Consortium would not lose too badly.
However, every time Qing Yi checked the battle reports of the various fighting forces, he always felt a sense of amazement.
The precision of the artificial intelligence's battle command displayed on the battlefield was something humans could not match at all. The other party did not use any outstanding strategy, nor did it even resort to any underhanded methods. It just openly and meticulously chipped away at the Qing Consortium's troops bit by bit with its tactics.
Initially, Qing Yi thought the other party would control the elderly and children to charge at the Qing Consortium's defensive line, or even control them to cry out loud to break down the psychological defenses of the Qing Consortium's soldiers.
No matter how hard-hearted the rank and file were, their hearts would still soften when they saw the elderly and children crying for help.
However, the other party did not resort to such tricks. It just used its powerful computation to seize more than 40 positions at the Three Mountains defensive line within a single day.
This command ability made Qing Yi feel that the other party's combat style had a peculiar sense of beauty when he observed the battle situation on the sand table.
The power of a 152 mm howitzer was terrifying on the battlefield, but the enemy was not even afraid of such firepower coverage.
Qing Yi suddenly remembered what Qing Zhen had said. "When humans play against the AI in Go, the power displayed by the other party is something you wouldn't dare imagine in the past. When you replay the games, you'd be surprised that Go could actually be played in such a way."
Now, it was Qing Yi's turn to be surprised. So wars could be fought like that too.
Qing Yi had lived in camp with his uncle since he was young. He liked the army and also liked learning about military affairs.
In the past, when Qing Zhen asked him what his dreams were, Qing Yi said he wanted to become a great military leader. At that time, Qing Zhen had said with a smile that he would help him realize this dream.
Later, after Qing Zhen became the head of the Qing Consortium, he really kept his promise.
Qing Yi's talent in command was outstanding. Even with three military corps under his command, he could still manage them very well.
Back then, Qing Zhen was not required to handle the situation after the Li Consortium and the Yang Consortium were wiped out. It was Qing Yi who oversaw the operations single-handedly, and in the end, the war in the Southwest came to a perfect close.
However, Qing Yi knew his own shortcomings. His capability was probably better reflected in the detailed management of military affairs than in executing tactical moves on the battlefield.
He did not possess the endearing support Zhang Jinglin enjoyed, Qing Zhen's foresight, or Wang Shengzhi's strategic planning.
As time passed, he slowly realized he might not be able to become a great military leader after all.
In this era, he was destined to only play a supporting role.
It was just like life. Growing up through the seasons would make one realize that youth, sweat, and passion might not necessarily help to fulfill one's most desired dreams.
But so what? Qing Yi gave a smile and said to his confidential secretary next to him, "Call the chief of staff over. I want to reformulate the battle plan. This time, we'll just give up Position 171."
Although the defeat was unavoidable, Qing Yi had to tap on all his experience and use it to the extreme before the battle came to a close.
The Northwest's evacuation plan progressed relatively smoothly. Wang Yuexi divided the civilians into six groups to be evacuated in groups. This way, the pressure on the relief stations would not be so great, and the emotions of the evacuating crowd would also be more stable.
As for the evacuation to be carried out via the enchanted doorways, Wang Yun calculated that each person would take 2.7 seconds to pass through. This orderly pace satisfied their plan's requirements.
If nothing unexpected happened, it would probably be possible to evacuate Stronghold 144 within three days.
Initially, they estimated it would take a longer time to evacuate through the enchanted doorways. However, a lot of people decided not to use it and followed their families to retreat on foot.
There were also people who wanted to donate their cars because they heard the 6th Field Division would be staying behind to fight the enemy but was short of vehicles.
Regarding this, Zhang Xiaoman rejected all their offers. After all, sedans were not of much help to the war efforts, and there weren't that many cars offered anyway.
There were not too many people who owned a car these days.
At this moment, Wang Fugui was holding a banquet at a small tavern for the prominent merchants of the Northwest Chamber of Commerce.
This was the same humble roadside restaurant Wang Fugui had invited everyone to to support the irrigation works. But the owner and employees of this small restaurant had already left Stronghold 144 with the second group of evacuees.
Dressed in a simple outfit, Wang Fugui personally filleted the meat off the sheep. Then he threw some onions, ginger, garlic, and other seasoning into the pot and waited for the mutton to slowly simmer.
He placed the boning knife on the chopping board and wiped his bloody hands with a smile. "Everyone, we'll be leaving with the third group of evacuees after this meal. The next time we meet again should be at Fortress 178. I've had a chat with the future commander already, so please don't worry. Even though we're in the middle of a war, everyone's assets will still be insured. I've already spoken to the people at the black market."
The merchants' expressions softened a little. In this chaotic world, the rich were naturally most worried about their assets.
Although Fortress 178 had never confiscated property for no reason, other organizations had done so before. Therefore, everyone was very worried at this moment.
But with Wang Fugui's assurance, they were willing to trust that future commander for once.
Of course, there was nothing they could do even if they did not believe him.
Ever since Wang Fugui reprimanded them, these big shots of the business world had become extremely well-behaved. When the future commander went to inspect the riverbank and irrigation works, they even wanted to personally go there and carry sandbags to show their loyalty.
Actually, after they pledged their allegiance to Wang Fugui, the benefits they reaped would also naturally be in place.
This time, Wang Fugui had personally slaughtered a sheep and cooked it, but everyone did not feel as nervous as the previous time. Instead, someone took the initiative to ask, "President Wang, just tell us what you need. As long as we're able, we won't hesitate to help."
After Wang Fugui wiped his hands clean, he sat down at the head of the table. Right after, he sighed and pulled a long face. "As all of you know, my relationship with the future commander is not something that normal people can compare to. I'm his shopkeeper, and he's my boss. Since my boss is having a hard time, I naturally have to lessen his burden."
It was quiet in the small restaurant, and only Wang Fugui's voice could be heard. "Everyone, we'll be retreating this time, but do you all know that the 6th Field Division will be staying behind to fight the war? For everyone to evacuate smoothly, we definitely have to rely on the protection of the Northwest Army. Let's be honest with ourselves. Has the Northwest Army ever mistreated or exploited anyone? Has the Northwest Army never carried out its duties?"
The merchants looked at one another. One of the older merchants said, "Brother Wang, we understand what you're saying. It's indeed all thanks to the Northwest Army that we've been able to lead a good life for the past two years."
"Mhm." Wang Fugui said, "It's good that y'all understand this."
"Brother Wang, what support do you need from us?"
"Vehicles." Wang Fugui narrowed his eyes and said, "Now that war has broken out, there'll naturally be no use for the trucks originally plying trade between the Northwest and the Central Plains. Since there's no use for the vehicles anyway, why don't y'all donate them to the Northwest Army's cause for the time being?"
The merchants were shocked. Trucks were the lifeline for logistics businesses like theirs.
There would only be goods if you had transportation. It could even be said that you could only recruit people to work for you if you owned trucks.
Wang Fugui was way too ruthless. He actually wanted to take away all of their trucks as soon as he opened his mouth.
Seeing everyone's hesitation, Wang Fugui picked up his teacup and had a sip. He said, "I don't have any benefits to share with y'all this time, but what businesses can y'all still talk about when war breaks out? You can't possibly be enjoying the benefits of the Northwest's policies every day and not want to give anything in exchange for it, right? How can there be such a good deal? By holding a proper discussion with y'all now, I'll naturally inform the future commander about your contributions after the war is over. The future commander isn't heartless. He won't treat you all unfairly."
Someone said hesitantly, "But…"
Wang Fugui placed the teacup down on the table and gradually calmed down. "There are no buts. I was the one who helped y'all handle the labor exploitation. When y'all wanted to bid for land and get your approval documents, the Northwest Army readily gave its support. We'll need to trouble y'all with this small matter now. The Northwest Army will pay you for your efforts."
"We request to be paid in gold," a merchant said.
Wang Fugui shook his head. "Don't y'all trust the Northwest Army? You won't get paid in gold, only in the Northwest's currency issued by Fortress 178's bank."
As they spoke, figures were moving around outside the small restaurant's windows. Everyone could clearly see groups of soldiers surrounding the small restaurant.
Wang Fugui said, " Every cloud has a silver lining. What do y'all say?"
The older merchant hurriedly said with a smile, "Of course we're willing to support the Northwest Army. President Wang, we'll leave you to set the conditions."
Wang Fugui nodded and walked out. "I won't stand on ceremony then. Help yourself to the mutton in the pot. I still have something to do, so I'll get going first."
Currently, everyone was in a race against time. Wang Fugui did not have time to waste with these merchants. He had to expropriate their vehicles because the 6th Field Division needed them urgently.
Wang Fugui also knew his reputation would probably be tarnished once he made this threat. But there were some matters that required somebody to step in. It was better to ruin his own reputation than Xiaosu's.
These merchants owned hundreds of transport trucks, which was enough for the 6th Field Division to resolve their urgent needs.
A vehicle was already waiting outside the restaurant. Wang Fugui said to one of Zhang Xiaoman's subordinate officers, "Don't let them leave this place before we get our hands on their trucks. Have them hand over the diesel and gasoline they've stockpiled as well. Mutton is delicious, so let them eat more."
"Mhm, we'll get it done," the officer answered.
Everyone knew President Wang of the Northwest Chamber of Commerce was the future commander's trusted aide.
Although Wang Fugui never interfered with military matters before and had never crossed that line either, it did not mean he wasn't influential with the military.
After the vehicle carrying Wang Fugui left, the dozen or so merchants in the small restaurant were left looking at one another. On a stove nearby, the mutton soup was bubbling inside the large pot.
In Stronghold 144, several convoys were driving towards the stronghold's west gate, including Ren Xiaosu.
After several dozen people had gathered at the west gate, they waited quietly until another convoy from Fortress 178 appeared on the northwestern horizon.
Next to Ren Xiaosu, the Great Hoodwinker said, "Yesterday, the commander was just praising us for how orderly the evacuation was being carried out. When he sees you later, he will definitely commend you."
Ren Xiaosu said, "What brings Mr. Zhang to Stronghold 144 today?"
"I'm not sure. Not even Wang Fengyuan knows why." The Great Hoodwinker shook his head.
Ren Xiaosu was a little puzzled. They only needed to carry out the evacuation as planned, so logically speaking, Zhang Jinglin did not have to come here at all.
A few minutes later, the convoy quickly arrived at the gate. After Zhang Jinglin got out of the vehicle, he bluntly said to Ren Xiaosu, "Follow me, I have something to discuss with you."
With that, Zhang Jinglin walked off. Nobody other than Ren Xiaosu followed along.
When the two of them arrived at a remote location, Zhang Jinglin said, "I won't be heading into the stronghold. I'm only here because I have something to tell you."
"What do you need to speak with me in person about?" Ren Xiaosu wondered. "The Northwest's communication lines are still open."
Zhang Jinglin laughed. "There's a natural reason why I need to speak with you in person. Do you know that Luo Lan and Zhou Qi once sent a woman to the Northwest?"
Ren Xiaosu nodded. "I heard from the Great Hoodwinker that she was sent here by the Qing Consortium as a hostage and y'all kept her under your protection."
"The hostage reason was a lie. We only wanted to reach a secret agreement." Zhang Jinglin said, "A year ago, I made an agreement with Qing Zhen. If the Wang Consortium's AI became trouble one day, the Northwest would have to accept the Qing Consortium's people and help Qing Zhen and his men evacuate from the Southwest."
Ren Xiaosu was stunned. He had not expected there to be such an agreement.
The Great Hoodwinker and the others had never mentioned this before. From the look of things, even the Great Hoodwinker was unaware of it.
Zhang Jinglin continued, "From that time onwards, Fortress 178 and the Qing Consortium teamed up to carry out a plan. Within a year, more than 300 of the Qing Consortium's researchers working in secret came to the Northwest one after another to work hard on this plan. Now that everything has gone according to Qing Zhen's predictions, I hope you can make a trip to the Southwest to pick him up and evacuate to the Northwest."
"Pick Qing Zhen up and bring him to the Northwest?" Ren Xiaosu did some rough calculations in his mind, then shook his head and said, "No, the trip to go and bring Qing Zhen here will take at least three days. Moreover, that's not counting the dangerous situations we might encounter along the way. Since he made that agreement with you, Mr. Zhang, he must have predicted some kind of danger. If I go to the Southwest at this time, what will happen to the 6th Field Division? I can't go. Although I treat Qing Zhen and Luo Lan as my friends, they are not in imminent danger yet. At a time like this, I need to be with my soldiers."
Although the other side was also his friends, the responsibility of everyone in the 6th Field Division was on Ren Xiaosu's shoulders. Luo Lan was a friend, but so were Zhang Xiaoman and the others.
Everyone trusted Ren Xiaosu and trusted that their future commander could lead them on a path of survival. But now Ren Xiaosu had to abandon them to save someone else?
Although P5092 said that Ren Xiaosu must not engage in guerrilla warfare alongside the 6th Field Division this time, he could surely respond to emergency situations, right?
If he really could not defeat the enemy, he could at least save some soldiers by summoning a behemoth like Midnight, right?
Moreover, Ren Xiaosu had promised Zhao Wankun and the other soldiers who had activated the enchanted doorways that he would guard Stronghold 144 until the last moment and take everyone to safety together.
Perhaps the Northwest would still lose after all their efforts, but these promises could not be taken lightly.
Zhang Xiaoman suddenly ran out from the city gate. "Future Commander! Future Commander! A few people came out of the enchanted doorway that opened to the snowy mountain. They said they wanted to see you immediately!"
Ren Xiaosu was puzzled. He asked from afar, "Who is it? Do I know them?"
"You know them!" Zhang Xiaoman roared, "They're the Riders of the Qinghe Group!"
This time, Ren Xiaosu was really dumbfounded. Didn't the Riders say they were going to scale the highest mountain in the world?
Could Zhao Wankun's enchanted doorway have opened up to that snowy mountain?!
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