Age of Cosmic Exploration – Chapter 1

Night mode

Chaos!

 

Yao Yuan had been straining his ears for hours trying to discern any would-be commotions beyond the shutters1, but try as he might, he couldn’t hear anything. Even under broad daylight there is nary a squeak, the street outside is as silent as a ghost town, the eerie calm a stark contrast to the erratic chaos days before.  

 

The reason was probably because enemy troops had already pillaged the area. The sorry state the room Yao Yuan found himself in a strong support for the supposition. The room was part of a once bustling shop lot that belonged to his friend but one could barely discern that fact from the condition it was in. The place was utterly thrashed, all valuables gone, with only dirty debris strewn all over the floor.

 

Fact is, long before the insurgence, said friend and his family had already moved away from the city to seek refuge by the countryside, and as an afterthought, he left the key to his business with Yao Yuan. Anticipating the impending chaos, Yao Yuan made a brash yet strategic decision, he ransacked the place and un-deployed the shutters, leaving the space to open view before retreating into its basement. The hope was for the dilapidated scene to deter possible pillagers, and thus preventing the discovery of his hiding spot.

 

Later when the pandemonium reached its height, a result of confrontations between the lawless army and the anarchic populace, thanks to his ingenuity, the spot he was in was left relatively unchecked. There were few incidents of course but none of them were of note. The worst was a case of arson that only managed to scorch the outer walls due to a lack of incendiary materials. Incidentally, that made the place look even more like a deserted ruin.

 

Just like that, while the world above raged on, Yao Yuan had spent the past five days in relative peace underground. On the morning of the sixth, he slunk up to the surface to survey his surroundings. His immediate area was clear of human activities but it was not until he dropped the shutters that he gave a sigh of relief.

 

Few hours had passed since then and the situation remained unchanged; he seemed to be the only human around with his ears up listening for others.

 

The massive riots appear to have culled the human populace. Most of the civilians laid around in lifeless husks, while the few fortunate ones were either in hiding or were far away enough from the city to have survived the onslaught. The army, on the other hand, in their bloodlust had turned on each other or had gone off on their own in vigilante groups. The number of people alive then, Yao Yuan deduced, could barely reach a thousandth of its normal populace.  

 

Yao Yuan could have easily joined the deserters. His years of war experience as a veteran had greatly tuned his sensitivity to signs of pre-war preparations. He knew something was off about half a month ago when important personnel like heads-of-states, military agency directors, special task forces, business moguls, celebrated scientists and other people of noteworthy accomplishments started to drop off the radar without any seemingly plausible explanation. He knew then that the world is going to experience a cataclysmic change; no place on earth was going to be completely safe, so he decided to simply bunk where he was.

 

Nevertheless foretelling it was dissimilar to understanding it or preventing it. Until now, Yao Yuan could not figure out the reason behind all those mysterious disappearances.

 

That alone was worrying enough but added to that were the discomfiting rumors that circulate alongside these disappearances. If those were more than hearsay…

 

Those worrisome thoughts had Yao Yuan’s mind up in a twist. As he turned over these speculations, he caught a small rustle of footsteps. Instantly he tensed up, like a wary tiger, he was ready to pounce.

 

As Yao Yuan prepared to face the new danger, a crisp quail’s birdsong drifted from beyond the shutters. Its melody caught Yao Yuan’s attention immediately and he started to reply with the same song. Despite being in birdsong, the two seemed to be able to communicate their intentions perfectly. Yao Yuan felt a big relief because that confirmed that it was an ally. He quickly unlatched the shutters and as the light streamed in from the few open inches, spotting a figure squatting by a garbage pile few yards away.

 

The figure went into action instantaneously. As Yao Yuan lifted the shutters, like a feline on the prowl, the person crossed their distance in a few lithe movements. The individual leaped into the room with an acrobatic roll and immediately after, Yao Yuan dropped the shutter. As the lock clicked into place, one could also hear two great sighs of relief.

 

“Lee2! Why are you leading the way now? Where are Ol’ Wong and the rest of the crew?” grabbing the fellow, Yao Yuan asked with much urgency.

 

This guy beside Yao Yuan was a teen of eighteen to nineteen but instead of the indifference and brazenness that accompanied his age, he exuded a sense of calm and stability that came with the sophistication of age. With a warm chuckle, he replied, “Ol’ Cap’n’, if I do say so, your jabs are always so peculiar. I’ve been a scout for more than a year now, so it has been decided that I alone shall scout ahead for recon while the gang waits outside the city walls. There are still small troops of soldiers in the area and while the team could easily dispatch of them, the sound of gunfire would inadvertently draws nearby forces and that would mean unnecessary complications. So they’ll only move at night, if I weren’t to return by then, they would know that you’re safe and would come here together.”

 

Yao Yuan nodded along to Lee’s explanation. The contingency where Lee couldn’t have made it back to the group because he had died did not even cross his mind. That is the strength of the faith members of the Black Star Unit have in each other. Despite being only a fresh recruit, Lee was a part of this elite group. He was right when he said they could handle the leaderless soldiers with ease. Fact is, every single of them could. Even if Lee should fail in direct combat, he could lose them effortlessly for his ability at stealth operations was unmatched. If Lee did not return on time, the only logical conclusion was that he has found security with Yao Yuan and not because he had landed himself in trouble.

 

At that moment, Yao Yuan couldn’t help but lament the obscurity the Black Star Unit couldn’t seem to escape from. He was certain the team could evenly match or perhaps be better than other special forces around the world but because of political reasons, their fame could never rival those of other local units that had “Dragon” in their names. Those names seem to suggest greatness while ours

 

Yao Yuan shook his head to snap out of his reverie. He then suggested, “Lee, please don’t refer to me as Captain anymore. I stopped holding that title when I left the army two years ago. Now that I think about it, I have never even been your superior officer, so please refer me by my name or Brother Yao if you prefer.”

 

At that suggestion, the usually calm Lee became uncharacteristically flustered, “How can you suggest such a thing, Captain?! If Captain Wong is to hear about this, I would be dead meat! Also, many times when the members were in trouble, it was you who came to our rescue! In any case, you’ll forever be our Ol’ Captain, Cap’n!”

 

Hearing this, Yao Yuan could only give a few dry laughs. He knew that further arguments would be pointless; the members were as stubborn as they were good. It was then that he could give Lee a good look. The fella’s fatigue could barely qualify as rags; there were still spots where the mud hasn’t even dried. Giving Lee a good-natured slap on the shoulder, Yao Yuan led him inwards. “Why don’t we go down to the basement first, we’ll find you a clean change of clothes and then some food to fill your belly. After that, you could rest until the rest arrives and I’ll give a briefing why I’ve issued the order for the team to come here.”

 

The prospect of rest appeared to lull Lee’s demeanor as he was led unresistingly to what would be the base of operations. The pair passed through rooms in various stages of destitution before reaching the stairs that led down to the basement. At the end of the steep decline though is nothing but a dark enclosed space, its state of disrepair not unlike the ones they’ve just passed. Yao Yuan moved to a corner and appeared to intend to lift up the floor in one mighty pull. A light source from beneath revealed an opening in the ground; the lifted “flooring” a giant sheet of steel that acts as the hatch. Yao Yuan deftly squirmed through the gap and Lee quickly followed.

 

The surprise of finding a vast, bright space hit Lee almost instantly. Before things started falling apart, Yao Yuan had spent quite a bit of resource modifying the 100 square feet space underneath the basement. The place was well stocked with food and water, several boxes of clothes, an array of weaponry and most impressively, well wired, thus capable of supporting light sources, a working computer, and other miscellaneous machinery.

 

Seeing all this, Lee displayed an out-of-character burst of youthful excitement. He even went so far as to doing a somersault before digging in voraciously into the ample supply of food and drinks. “Now this is the life! Ol’ Cap’n surely is something else! Few months ago during troop field trainings, the team got into an altercation with the Dragon Prosper Unit at some godforsaken desert. If weren’t for overall vigilance, we would all be beneath sands by now. Added to that were the need to trek out of the desert, the need to stay on the move to avoid the army, and also the need to rush here… it was truly a hell on earth. And to think Ol’ Cap’n was enjoying himself all this time,” Lee mumbled jokingly between bites.

 

There was not much Yao Yuan could say in response to that. He figured a shoulder pat would be a better interaction to signal solidarity, and as he did so, Lee collapsed under his touch as if he was hit by a punch instead of a light pat. The shocked Yao Yuan directly went into application of emergency aid. Luckily, Lee’s heart rate and pulse were fine and he also did not seem to suffer any physical trauma. It appeared that the kid has fallen asleep due to extreme exhaustion. To be able to doze off while chomping down food, it told Yao Yuan that the days must have indeed been awful. Factoring in Lee’s standing as the junior of the Black Star Unit, his journey surely had been more arduous than the rest. As Yao Yuan’s heart went to the kid, he also intuitively understood why Lee was given the solo scouting detail; it was a covert kindness on Ol’ Wong’s part that Lee would reach him first and could earn some rest before breaking under exertion.

 

Yao Yuan proceeded to move the lugging form of Lee’s sleeping body onto one of the makeshift beds. As Lee snored peacefully away, Yao Yuan’s fingers went flying across the keyboard. A set of numbers and a few lines of sentences in English appeared on the monitor screen. He then stared intently at the random sets of writing as if willing them to move into a more comprehensible arrangement. Nevertheless, as day moved into night, there wasn’t a discernable difference.

 

As night descended, Yao Yuan found himself back at his perch by the shutters. Maybe it was his encounter with the Black Star Unit; his surveillance reminds him much of his days as the captain of the team, like now; it’s a job that demanded much concentration and composure. On several occasions, he would be able to hear sounds of screams, of crying, and of gunshots from varying distance away.

 

They were the human civilization’s swansong. They represented man’s desperation and despair, the animalistic nature for whom human has spent ages to evolve from. It seemed oddly fitting that this is the form man reverts to before the end, clawing at each other like some feral beasts.

 

As time moved slowly to midnight, a celestial appeared in the inky sky, its luster paled even that of the moon. And under its silvery light, a group of men, about ten in number move mutedly through the city streets. Their movement made no sound and awakened no one as they moved towards the ruined shop. They moved through the rooms and later down the basement as hushed silhouettes of the night.

 

In the basement’s better lights, one could see that each of these men have their faces creased with lines, stories of the vicissitudes of life. The eldest of them all was about thirty of age and went by the name Wong Guang Zhen, the leader of the group. Despite his position and seniority in age, he still referred to Yao Yuan with much admiration and respect.

 

The rest of them no matter their age were also men of substance and this was evidenced through the restraints shown at meal time. In spite of their gnawing hunger, they only allowed themselves the bare necessities, not one bite more. As they settled quietly in place after the hasty meal, one by one, they slowly trained their attention at Yao Yuan. Finally, Guang Zhen asked, “Ol’ Cap’n, surely you didn’t invite us here just for a meal, right? Plus, I give this humanity business at most 8 more months, so now is not the time to be reticent. Do you need us clear this city of those army? Consider it done!”

 

A few others started howling at what would appear to be the simplicity of the task, the worst offender being a deeply tanned man that’s built like a tank. His size and physique lent him an appearance that’s more akin to a machine than a human being. He rasped in a deep baritone, “On the way, we’ve spotted quite a number of those filth. Ol’ Cap’n, you say the word, and tomorrow I’ll gladly give them the taste of their own medicine!”

 

With a head-shake and a sigh, Yao Yuan lamented, “Those are indeed some damnable nuisance but that’s what they are, a nuisance. The reason I’ve called you all here isn’t to handle those slim pickings, and then wait 8 months for the arrival of rapture. There’s a bigger problem at hand here and IT IS … THIS!”

 

While saying that, Yao Yuan flipped over the monitor screen to face the group. The team, other than Guang Zhen, who seemed to have caught a familiar glimpse of something, was understandably confounded by the series of numbers and words displayed on the screen.

 

Without missing a beat, Yao Yuan announced, “the series of numbers represent geographical coordinates, while the paragraphs under it describes a well-known story, a story that is entitled…”

 

“Noah!”

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Footnotes:

  1. The room, as the front part of the shop house, was is designed in such a way that one side of its wall is completely open to the streets. Therefore, the space utilized a wall of steel shutters that could be dropped down or rolled up according to business hours over doors.
  2. Full name Lee Hai Yun. But since he’s the junior of the group, he’s often referred to by others as simply Lee.

 

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