Age of Cosmic Exploration – Chapter 5

Night mode

Storming the castle!

 

As dawn broke, a moderate sized aircraft landed in a nondescript Tennessee airport. From it descended about ten solemn looking soldiers. Sticking up like a sore thumb among them was a conspicuously groomed, uncontrollable fidgeting teen.

 

The leader of the small company appeared to be a man of twenty-seven or eight, and he was focusing intently on reading the intricate device in his hands. After a long while, the man said, “We should be near by now. If we were to continue moving eastwards, in about two days’ time, we would be there. Can someone hand me a map?”

 

A map was quickly unfolded and set on the floor. The rest congregated around it, spending quite some time charting their path before refolding and keeping the map. Then they stood up and prepared to move out.

 

“So, according to the map, there’s a small town that we could stop at that’s right outside of our destination, but now the important thing is to locate a serviceable car because if it’s possible, we want to time ourselves to reach our objective under two days. Any extra time we save is useful because we have no information on the place, it might be a camp, or it could be a fortress or anything in between,” at that the leader waved the group out of the airport, to go in search of cars.

 

The ragtag bunch of people was indeed the Black Star, the leader naturally Yao Yuan. They have just spent one full day up in the air, or to be more precise, that and a short pit stop in Hawaii. The plane they were on board was not strong enough to last the full trip over the Atlantic, so they’ve picked Hawaii to stop for gas and maintenance.

 

Hawaii, like every other place in the world, was in a state of pandemonium, but luckily, the airport they landed in was far away enough from the interest of general populace that it was still relatively functional. They even managed to procure additional fuel, and because of that detour, were a bit behind schedule in arriving at Tennessee.

 

Nevertheless, they managed to land successfully on Tennessean soil. As they left the airport, along the driveways were already a bunch of stranded cars ripe for picking. As luck would have it, the airport they came out of was in the middle of downtown. There were even still surviving American families bunkering in neighboring buildings. The Tennesseans though knew trouble when they spot one. Yao Yuan’s team was too heavily equipped, too proficient in their movement to be mistaken as your run of the mill army soldiers. Even armed, the Tennesseans knew this was a group that won’t be taken advantage of and thus opted for flight instead of fight.

 

And just like that, Yao Yuan’s team hitched a ride out of town without much of a fuss. As they went on the freeway, their speed picked up considerably because the roads become much broader and thus number of vehicles blocking their way become fewer in between. The result was that they came upon the town that bordered their destination earlier than previously calculated.

 

It was the quintessence of a pioneer’s home-front, a small dwelling for a similarly small population. What’s weird about the place though was that there wasn’t any sign of human beings, not even those of the dead that they’ve come to expect. It was as if the whole town’s preserved in time, minus the populace. There was no sign of destruction nor of chaos, it was an incongruously idyllic hamlet compared to the devastation they’ve witnessed along the way. The effect was… unsettling, to say the least.

 

Yao Yuan sensed something was wrong and immediately went into action. As he leaped down from his seat, he signaled his commands. The rest quickly fell into action. Yao Yuan led two other agents into the town to scout, Ying and his partner scrambled up to the roof of the car to set up their scope, while everyone else spread out to secure the perimeters.

 

There was a pair though that had remained still among the flurry of activities, and that was Zhang Heng and his caretaker, Guang Zhen. Surveying the peaceful hamlet around them, Zhang Heng couldn’t fathom the need for all these security measures. Finally, he asked Guang Zhen, “What’s wrong with everybody? We finally found a town that’s intact so we should immediately drive in and go look for food first, right? Don’t you people ever go hungry?”

 

Without turning his head away from the spot Yao Yuan had disappeared from, Guang Zhen replied, “There’s something that’s very odd about this town, there shall be no hasty movements before Ol’ Cap’n Yao returns with his scouting report.”

 

Guang Zhen’s answer befuddled Zhang Heng, and so he quizzed, “Odd? What’s so odd about this place, it looks so peaceful here. Open cemeteries aren’t odd for you people but this place is…? Maybe the people had simply packed up and left. Have you guys thought about that?”

 

Guang Zhen whipped his head around and stared sternly at Zhang Heng for his folly, his displeasure with the kid’s ridiculous hair further fueling his irritation. The sudden burst of ire had a shrinking effect on Zhang Heng, who stumbled a few steps back before wobbling to the ground. Seeing as the kid almost burst into tears, Guang Zhen reined in his exasperation and said condescendingly, “Everything’s not as simple as you think, kid. The fact that the world’s ending in eight months is public knowledge now. Facing certain death without assurance from above who had long ago forsaken everyone, how many percent of the public you think can maintain their sanity? My guess and I’m guessing yours too would be only a small percentage right? This town has at least a minimum of, let’s say, a million people… what do you think are the chances that those million people are all a part of that small percentage?

 

And as you can see before you, there are no blissfully carefree townsfolk mulling about; they’ve disappeared without a trace it would seem, why do you think that’s so?”

 

As colors returned to his face, Zhang Heng subconsciously echoed, “Why?”

 

“Wipeout, massacre, migration, or… most possibly we have before us a trap!”

 

At that response, all the colors that had previously returned to Zhang Heng slowly seeped away. Wipeout… Massacre… Trap… all these were terms that weren’t part of his everyday vocabulary much less his everyday life. To have landed in such possibilities as a normal teen, a mere nobody, he… was stunned into speechlessness.

 

Luckily reality wasn’t as bad as Guang Zhen thought. Not long after, Yao Yuan returned with everyone else. There weren’t traps in town nor was there signs of bioterrorism or radiation, there were no literal skeletons hiding in the closet. Fact is their canvas turned up not even one dead body. However, Yao Yuan did manage to solve the mystery of the curated town. The answer came to him when his exploration came upon a fast-food restaurant. After his investigation on it, he knew the town was considerably safe and finally relaxed.

 

Based on the degree of decomposition of the food in the restaurant, it had been at least two months since the town had had human contact. In other words, the townspeople most likely were evacuated around then. Yao Yuan’s deduction was that the evacuation was carried out due to the town’s proximity to the secret base. To safeguard the secrecy of the spacecraft and its operations, the townspeople had to be moved.

 

“Or at least that’s my speculation,” explained Yao Yuan between bites of canned food that they’ve retrieved from around town, “Of course this is not to preclude the possibility of a secret wipeout. In any case, it’s all in the past and so doesn’t concern us. Let’s finish our meal and get to that base immediately. I’ve had a bad taste in my mouth all day. It feels like the biggest hurdle has yet come.”

 

And so, the team wrapped up their quick dinner and moved on their expedient way towards the locale pinpointed by the coordinates. After a few more hours on the freeway, they veered into a side lane that was attached to an outpost. Naturally, it was deserted. As they carried on, they passed through more outposts that were similarly empty. Finally, at around three in the early morning, they arrived at the spot where their map had painted as a mountainous, barren wasteland. So imagine their surprise and consternation when in reality they had driven into a secluded mountain valley.

 

As the team passed through the final outpost, the scene that greeted them put everyone on edge. The concrete floor before them was pockmarked with explosive shrapnel and bullet-holes, and equally disheartening were presence of a few dead bodies and what would appear to be spherical parts from some mechanical remains. The bodies were fresh kills, they had fallen only yesterday or the day before that.

 

“Be on alert! Ying, prepare to snipe, Lee, you’re with me, Wong take the rest and secure the perimeter! Ebon1, cover us!”

 

Right after he issued the commands, Yao Yuan slipped out through the car window and dashed to his nearest cadaver. He felt the inert body before taking a whiff of its blood to help procure a rudimentary reading of the situation. A few seconds later, as his team fell in place, he started to take careful steps towards the spherical object.

 

As Yao Yuan investigated the strange machinery, Lee and one other scout moved ahead for further exploration. Within 30 seconds, from the pair came a shrill eagle’s call, which gave everyone a mini-second daze before training their weapons at the call’s direction. However, the call quickly transformed into a more mellifluous quail’s birdsong, and without hesitation, Yao Yuan instantly headed its way.

 

A few hundred meters jog later, Yao Yuan spotted a bloody figure grasping for breath up against one of the fortress walls. As he moved closer, he confirmed the figure as a heavily-built man with bushy brows and large eyes. Despite a preliminary bandage work, copious amount of blood was free flowing from his chest and stomach. It didn’t take long for him to lose consciousness, either from passing out… or from death.

 

Upon closer examination, recognition dawned on Yao Yuan. The man was his old nemesis, the leader of the Dragon Prosper quadrant. Yao Yuan promptly retrieved bottled water from his backpack and poured it down the man’s throat.  As the man coughed up the liquid, he hazily opened his eyes, and quite some time had passed before he could get them to focus on Yao Yuan’s face.

 

“Yao… Yao Yuan? How can you be there? This is Tenne…” asked the man in shock, but before long, that shock turned into a booming howl, “Of course, I should have known those bastards would have tipped you off on this place as well. Yes, it’s true, there’s indeed a spacecraft locked behind these walls, the very last one. But alas, it’s so close yet so far. This thing here is impenetrable, it’s on complete lockdown and passwords they’ve given us were all false! That initiated the automated defense protocol. It’s a bloody trap and my squad had walked right into it!” and here, the gravitas that had appeared moments before from seeing his nemesis had run its course, and as his breath slowed, the man lamented in a dwindling voice, “To think the unspeakable things that we’ve done for them… and this is how they repay us… How typical… But fear not… Yao Yuan… I shall reserve some seats for the Black Star down below…  I’ll see you then…” and as he uttered those words, the man bled out.

 

After paying a final respect to his once formidable opponent, Yao Yuan collected himself, and as he stood up, he addressed the gathered group, “Alright team, it’s going to be a harsh battle ahead. I want everyone to be ready with their weapons and ammo. And prep Zhang Heng with the laptop and hacking equipment, we’re going to storm this base… And remember, as Black Star, we are not given the choice to fail!”

 

“FOR GLORY!”

 

“OR FOR DEATH!” rallied the group before charging into the ominously dark entrance of the base with Yao Yuan leading the way. That is… other than, Zhang Heng, who was still unfamiliar with the group’s dynamic, fell stumbling a few paces behind.

 

(Author’s note: Another update tonight, the target is a million words each day. So please do support my hard work. Pretty please)

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Footnote:

  1. The literal translation is Dark Iron, which technically counts as Ebony, but since that sounds too feminine for a man, I’ve shortened it to Ebon instead. feminine for a man, I’ve shortened it to Ebon instead.  

 

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