Age of Cosmic Exploration – Chapter 23

Night mode

THE FALL

 

“Entering the planet’s third orbital track in thirty seconds. Counting down, twenty-nine, twenty-eight, twenty-seven…”

 

After one month and eight days of slow propulsion through space, at about eleven A.M, the Hope was finally entering the desert planet’s orbital track. Within the next thirty seconds, the ship would be touching the planet’s atmospheric layer.

 

The Hope was actually the Noah Two. It was what the people started referring to the spaceship as after Yao Yuan’s uplifting speech. After a while, the moniker even spread across the authority. It wasn’t before long that it officially replaced the name Noah Two.

 

The desert planet was the only interstellar entity within the Hope’s reach. According to multiple reports, the planet appeared to have an ozone layer and a physical surface fully covered by amber sand. Its mass was 0.007 percent greater than Earth’s. Its size wasn’t great, and it seemed to have a gravitational pull similar to that of Earth’s.

 

However, the planet had a fast rotation with regards to both itself and its sun. A day on this planet was sixteen hours long and a year was equal to two hundred and seventy days on Earth.

 

Further reports also revealed that the surface temperature during the planet’s day would be around fifty degrees Celsius while dropping to under ten degree Celsius when night fell. The night-and-day temperature difference was extreme, but it was still within mankind’s acceptable range.

 

The Hope’s team of astronomers and astrophysicists had spent much effort and time calculating and recalculating the planet’s data because this might be the location where the Hope will spend its next few years. Other than information that needed actual contact to be calibrated, like ozone and surface components as well as its flora and fauna, everything else about the planet was tallied and measured.

 

The results of all these analyses, with the exception of reports on the planet’s weather patterns, pointed towards a safe landing. Its balmy weather was a dangerous anomaly because it didn’t explain the extremely desertified planet surface. A month of observation showed no traces of natural disasters. Of course, due to the sandy nature of the planet’s surface, they would still need to care for the possibility of quicksand and sand traps. These dangers depended on the level of solidity of the surface, so it was a risk that couldn’t be calculated unless they were on the planet itself.

 

“Because we are unable to ascertain the planet’s atmospheric and geological structures, it will be too much of a risk to attempt a direct landing of the Hope. Therefore, we need to first deploy an expeditionary unit for initial inspection. This scouting party will be taking a mini-shuttle to the planet,” said Yao Yuan, addressing the four men before him. They were Ying, Ebon, and Liu Bai, who were senior members of the Black Star Unit, as well as its newest recruit, Zhang Heng. The four were going to be leading the ship’s first planetary landing party which was made up of twenty elite agents and eight scientists.

 

“There are only three of these shuttles within the Hope. These spacecrafts are unique because they can channel sufficient velocity to pierce through a planet’s atmosphere within a short timeframe both when entering it and leaving it. Equipped with an anti-gravitational system, they can support eighteen hours of continuous flight. With our current technology and materials… we are still unable to manufacture these kinds of shuttles, so each one of them is incredibly valuable. As the first landing party, you guys will be taking one,” explained Yao Yuan. Next he turned to address his own men one by one. “Now I want to explain why I’ve selected the four of you to lead this crucial party. Ying, you’re the most clear-headed of all the Black Stars, myself included. So, in cases of emergency and/or if communications are cut off, I want you to take charge and use your experience and analytical mind to lead everyone back to safety. Ebon, your role is to support Ying when necessary and to be the commander to the twenty elite soldiers. Xiao Bai, you’re naturally the team’s medic, but you’ll also be acting as the lieutenant that supports Ebon. Lastly, Zhang Heng, you must be curious as to why I’ve scripted you into this party. The reason’s simple: because your computer skill is the best among everyone aboard this ship.” Yao Yuan couldn’t help but feel gladdened at his serendipitous encounter with Zhang Heng. The young hacker had helped them acquire the spaceship and now was yet another valuable asset to the Black Star Unit.

 

“Zhang Heng, I’ll be honest with you. Within this past month, we have collated a proficiency chart by reviewing everyone onboard. We could refer to this chart to easily identify the best and brightest among the different communities so that when issues arise, we could locate the necessary individuals in no time. For example, for questions about aerospace engineering, we have quite a few rocket scientists to refer to and we have engineers and technicians for welding and molding of ship parts, but guess who’s at the top of the list for computer proficiency. It’s none other than yourself, and that’s why you are instrumental to the success of this expedition. In fact, your role might be the most important.

 

Within the shuttle, there’s a multi-frequency communicator. It’s a future-tech product that was probably created alongside the space warp system. Even through all sorts of environmental disturbances, be it electromagnetic or locational suppression, it will recalibrate itself to locate the frequencies needed to maintain a stable communications channel with the Hope. There is, however, a catch; the device is encrypted. The encryption is written into the communicator’s programming, so it can’t be removed. Even though its defense was heavily weakened when the government bombarded the ship with viruses to achieve entry, gaining full access over it is still troublesome because it will reconstruct a different encrypted firewall every ten minutes. That’s the device’s fatal flaw.” Yao Yuan allowed himself a long sigh before continuing, “Fact is, the space-warping system also comes with such an encrypted protection, but thanks to the ship’s own advanced AI and the professor’s decryption key, this is a non-issue. It doesn’t work that way with the communicator though; it needs manual intervention, and that’s where you come in, Zhang Heng. The communicator is linked to the spaceship and thus presumably has a similar encryption pattern. You’re already familiar with the decryption key, so I’m sure you can handle it… I know this is a big responsibility, but you’re the best hacker we have. In any case, I have full faith in you because despite being a fresh one, you’re still a Black Star!”

 

There’s a chinese idiom that goes, “He who knows the time and circumstance is a wise man,” and people who are born with a silver spoon, like Zhang Heng, are usually such wise men. When he heard Yao Yuan’s explanation, the first thought that popped into his mind was to find excuses to weasel his way out, but he was quick to realize that there wasn’t any escape path. There was no one for him to turn to; he had to fend for himself now. And so, instead of going through an extended back-and-forth, which would still end up with him on the shuttle, Zhang Heng gravely nodded, signifying an understanding of his placement.

 

Yao Yuan acknowledged him with a nod in return. He then resumed, “Then you should go get ready. The shuttle will be leaving in half an hour. Also, when the shuttle pushes through the ozone layer, its carapace will beam the ozone layer’s pH reading to its computer. If the readings show that it’s overly acidic or alkaline, abort the mission and return to ship… If everything works fine though, after landing, you will need to immediately gather necessary information. This includes details like the planet’s atmospheric components, bacterial make-up, geological structure, and the desert surface’s density to help us decide whether landing the Hope is permissible.

 

And then there’re also these things to be careful about…”

 

Yao Yuan droned on for another ten minutes before the four could leave to take the electromobile to the shuttle’s hangar. On the journey there, Zhang Heng let loose his thoughts. “I’m surprised; he isn’t usually so wordy. Major Yao Yuan, I mean.”

 

Ying appeared to not have heard Zhang Heng’s comment. He sat silently, checking his rifle’s barrel before proceeding to fixing his magazine of electromagnetic bullets. Ebon, who sat beside him, answered, “Ol’ Cap’n is such a man. Normally, he’s extremely reticent; he could even give this guy here a run for his money.” He nudged Ying with the butt of his assault rifle which he was deconstructing to check for kinks. “But during every operation briefing, he will go on and on… Alright, you can stop staring at me now, Ying. I know that’s just Ol’ Cap’n being cautious, and many times his prudence has saved our lives, I’m fully aware of that; I just wish he wasn’t such a long-winded mother hen every time.” He trailed off in his signature booming laugh.

 

Liu Bai added, with a smile, “Zhang Heng, you’re new to the Black Star Unit, so you’re still unfamiliar with Ol’ Cap’n’s ways, but he’s only so cautious because he doesn’t want anyone to lose their lives over his carelessness. You’ll get used to it and see that behind his every action, he has our best interest at heart.”

 

The amiable exchange continued until they reached a platform where twenty soldiers and eight scientists stood waiting. Behind them loomed the shuttle. It looked just like a jet fighter but larger and longer.

 

The four descended the automobile without any more words, each packing their necessary luggage; Ying and Ebon with their weapons, Liu Bai with his medical case, Zhang Heng with his laptop and electronic paraphernalia. After some last-minute inventory, the four Black Stars led the twenty agents and eight excited scientists on board the shuttle and stood ready for departure.

 

“Closing the first inner hangar door. All personnel, please vacate the area. Opening the shuttle exit in thirty seconds, neutralizing gravity forces…”

 

“Moving the first shuttle to hangar rail, scanning rail perimeters… Confirmed clearance of obstructions, charging propulsion energy. Preparing for blast off in thirty seconds…”

 

“Counting down to blast off in thirty, twenty-nine, twenty-eight…”

 

All across the Hope, the eyes of its twelve millions occupants were collectively glued to a video feed of the shuttle. This was because history was being made! This was going to be mankind’s first landing party on an alien planet, a planet with an ozone layer, light years away from earth!

 

Many were quietly praying to their own gods and deities, but their collective hope was for the landing party to have a successful mission. They had hope for a future on this new planet…

 

Although hope was a weightless thing, the thirty plus people onboard the shuttle could feel the weight of the collective hope from twelve million people on their shoulders.

 

Finally, the thirty second countdown came to a close. Discharging pulsing electronic energy from its rear, the shuttle glided swiftly through the rails before dislodging itself out of the Hope. After floating for a bit in space and shifting for the optimum angle, the shuttle shot towards the planet. As it flew through the ozone layer, the extreme friction between the shuttle and the planet’s atmosphere had the shuttle lit up like a fiery bullet.

 

This had everyone’s hearts up their throats. Thankfully, the shuttle got through the ozone layer without incident. After it pushed itself through the ozone layer, the anti-gravity device kicked in and the shuttle crested through the air before stabilizing. It then slowly descended towards the planet’s surface. Ying’s voice crackled through the receiver, reporting that everything had stabilized.

 

Through the live feed, the citizens of the Hope closely followed the shuttle’s progress. When they saw it slow to a standstill, they knew the dangers were over. It was now on anti-gravity support, so crashing was no longer an imminent possibility. The whole of the Hope breathed a collective sigh of relief before erupting in celebration. There were joyful laughs and teary embraces.

 

Back in the shuttle, two scientists were hurriedly collecting air samples through robotic arms that extended out of the shuttle. Using a makeshift lab that was constructed within the shuttle, the pair was busy conducting analysis on the sealed bags of air. Too many things hinged upon their result and so all the people onboard had their eyes glued to the pair of frantic and excited scientists, including Zhang Heng, who was standing ready with the communicator.

 

“… The result is out! But… but, this is impossible! In the atmosphere, there are two types of ox…”

 

In the conference room, Yao Yuan, the rest of the Black Stars, and almost all of the scientists were at the other end of the communication. The transmission was also connected to the rest of the Hope. However, no one could make sense of what they had heard…

 

Ox… oxygen..?

 

Just as they were waiting for more clarification, about ten people on the Hope had a sudden aspiration of premonition. This group of people, Yao Yuan included, all sprang up and yelled,

 

“Stop! Stop the descent!”

 

On the live feed, it appeared like gravity had decided to catch up with the shuttle, because the shuttle, which was sitting at a flat angle seconds ago, suddenly tipped downwards and started to freefall.

 

The ground a few thousand feet below was waiting to greet it. Even with the possibility of crash-landing into a carpet of soft sand, the long falling distance combined with acceleration could only lead to one conclusion…

 

Total annihilation!

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