Age of Cosmic Exploration – Chapter 24

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BEYOND THE SHUTTLE!

 

The first individual to sense that something was wrong was Ying, who was operating the shuttle. He was besieged by a flash of premonition moments before the anti-gravitational device shut down.

 

Ying brushed the feeling away, marking it down as tricks of his overly anxious mind. After all, it was man’s first expedition onto a celestial body other than the moon, so a certain degree of danger was to be expected.

 

The range of possible catastrophes included sudden windstorms, illnesses caused by the wide variance in day and night temperatures, alien pathogens oft-featured in science fiction, or even life-threatening encounters with extra-terrestrial lifeforms… Their mission had their lives on the line, and Ying was justified in dismissing the ominous feeling as unnecessary worry so as to not have it fogging his mind.

 

The shuttle’s anti-gravitational system fitted its interior with a simulated gravity field, so its passengers could move around as if they were on Earth’s solid ground. Even after they entered the planet’s atmosphere, the anti-gravitational system recalibrated itself, adjusting the indoor gravitational force to offset that of the planet’s in an effort to maintain a stable gravitational environment within. The descent was smooth, and because of that, only the small handful of its seated passengers who were particularly cautious wore seatbelts. They were all in space suits, but none of them had their helmets on.

 

The moment the anti-gravitational system broke down, those that weren’t strapped into a seatbelt, meaning most of them, were thrown violently around the room before getting shoved up against the walls or onto the floor.  

 

At the height of five thousand meters off the ground, Ying’s feeling of dread resurged in full vengeance. At one moment, the shuttle was floating down safely, but in the next, he could literally see the room tilting downwards. Everyone had their bodies pressed against the walls or the ground, immobilized as the shuttle began its plummet towards the planet’s surface.

 

Ying was one of the few who wore a seatbelt. His extra cautiousness that was often chided by his teammates was quite possibly the saving grace that had preserved everyone’s lives. He knew he had to reach the buttons on the panel before him, but because he was crammed forcefully into his seat, it had taken him a few tries before eventually hitting the necessary buttons.

 

The buttons fired up the boosters that were attached to the shuttle’s rear, buffering the speed of their drop. However, this was about twenty seconds after the shuttle started plummeting. By then, they were already falling at a tremendous speed and were dangerously close to the ground. Even with buffeting from the boosters’ fiery propulsion, it couldn’t overcome the shuttle’s overall downwards momentum.

 

Working to regain control of the shuttle, a sweat-soaked Ying yelled across the room, “Mayday! Mayday! We’re hitting the ground soon and hard! Brace yourselves for a harsh landing!”

 

That was, however, easier said than done. People were still getting flung across surfaces, and the boosters’ propulsion merely added to the force that was juggling people about. Only the few who were physically trained were able to crawl to their seats and struggle to fasten their seatbelts. The shuttle hit the ground with an intense impact, its vibration surging through the room. The shuttle then proceeded to slide several meters across the sandy surface before stopping and lodging itself several meters into the ground.

 

After the rocky landing, the interior was in a completely ramshackle state. Thankfully, everyone had space suits on, so their bodies were padded and protected. However, because they decided not to wear their helmets, an unlucky few had suffered head injuries, but the fall was basically just a rough tumble. For quite some time, other than cries and groans of pain, no sound was heard.

 

Coming out of his daze, a scientist suddenly issued in alarm, “No! The air’s leaking!”

 

That whipped everyone into attention. Frantically putting on their protective helmets, they rushed to check the shuttle walls for cracks. It took them quite some time to realize that the scientist who had issued the alarm wasn’t up on his feet inspecting the walls as they were. Instead, he was shaking on the floor and staring intently at a shredded translucent bag before him. It took everyone some time to place this seemingly unfamiliar object, but once they realized that it was one of the bags that held the planet’s air sample, their faces blanched. It was too late; they were already breathing in the planet’s air!

 

The significance that they had alien air in their lungs shouldn’t be downplayed. They were in an alien atmosphere, so no one knew what was in it. Even if it had just one strain of a mild alien flu virus, they would be expecting a tragic death because none of them had immunity against it.

 

Understanding that panic could only be harmful to their situation, a scientist standing by quickly added, “Everyone, please don’t worry just yet. We’re still unclear on whether this planet supports any life. Plus, it’s a desert planet; the air is extremely dry, so, technically speaking, it would be extremely unfavorable for the germination of microbes and viruses. So don’t fret; first check whether you’re feeling a burning sensation around your mouth and nose. This is to confirm whether the air is corrosive.”

 

The scientist’s words had an instant calming effect, making most of the people present sigh in relief. They searched for traces of burning sensations, but no one could find any. It was as if they were breathing in normal air.

 

Only a few of the scientists held a worried pallor. This was because they knew that it was incorrect to apply Earth’s understanding of microbiological behavior on this alien planet due to the environments being utterly different. However, they knew that it was not the time to mention that and so they stood quietly watching this scientist who was currently working to reconstruct the makeshift laboratory.

 

The man was about fifty years of age. With wet blood still dripping from his head wound, he was already fully focused on conducting analysis on the air sample in one of the test tubes. The people in the shuttle were as silent as mice as they awaited his result. After what felt like an eternity, the scientist released a breath that nobody realized he was holding before shifting into a surprised expression.

 

“…About twenty percent of the atmosphere is made up of oxygen while its majority, sixty eight percent to be precise, is nitrogen. Eleven percent of it is composed of a unique gas while the remaining fraction is made up of carbon dioxide and noble gases. This unique gas is still unidentified, but what’s certain is that it is not corrosive and not a variation of the poisonous carbon monoxide group. It’s similar to inert gases in that it doesn’t appear to have an oxidation reaction with our blood…”

 

He excitedly continued, “Do you know what this means? This means that the air’s breathable! We humans could very much survive in this atmosphere!”

 

The scientist got increasingly animated through his elaboration. At one point, he started pointing at the salvaged lab, saying, “I can’t find any microbe traces through the microscope, granted you’ll need a more powerful microscope to detect the presence of viruses. That should be done once we return to the Hope’s main laboratory, but based on everything we have at the moment, I am willing to conclude that… the atmosphere of this planet with its complete lack of airborne water particles is unable to support the growth of any microbes and viruses. Everyone, we are so lucky!

 

We’re standing on a planet that could very well sustain the hope for our future! It has a non-harmful atmosphere and the fact that it has oxygen means that it should also carry plants because of photosynthesis. To escape direct sun exposure, they are probably hidden somewhere, but the fact that there’s oxygen in the air confirms their existence. The most important part is that… we humans can survive on this planet!”

 

At this juncture, the man broke into tears, the rest of his exclamations submerged in his sobbing.

 

Ying stood up after a while, usurping all the attention the scientist previously held. He then addressed the group. “Listen up, everyone. Until we are one hundred percent certain that there are no harmful elements in the air, keep your space helmets on. We are not going to risk it… Okay, I admit the process wasn’t exactly smooth sailing, but we have indeed successfully landed, so proceed with your designated tasks. Each scientist will be issued two guardians when you venture outside the shuttle to complete your assignments. Zhang Heng, you remain to help with the communicator. Everyone else, get moving. We don’t have much time left; we must return to the ship before our supply of air runs out.”

 

With that, everyone got into motion. The scientists went off to their respective areas to finish their work, each escorted by two soldiers. The remaining soldiers were led off by Liu Bai and Ebon who were the first ones to step outside of the shuttle to secure its perimeter. When there was only Ying and Zhang Heng in the shuttle, Ying said, “Zhang Heng… Unlock the communicator. I wish to gain contact with the Hope.”

 

Zhang Heng went into action quickly. Seating himself before the shuttle’s control panel, he started hacking the communicator. After about five minutes, he breathed a sigh of relief and almost simultaneously, a voice reverberated through the shuttle,

 

“Central command to expedition squad. Central command to expedition squad. Please respond if you hear this… Central command to expedition squad. Central command to expedition squad. Please respond if you hear this…”

 

Ying hurried to the communicator, saying, “Central command, this is the expedition squad.”

 

“…Ying, is everything alright? Is anyone injured? Is the shuttle still operational? What happened? The shuttle suddenly dropped out of the sky.” The communicator relayed Yao Yuan’s questions.

 

In a serious tone, Ying answered, “When we were at fifty thousand meters above ground when the shuttle’s anti-gravitational system suddenly malfunctioned, and it has been non-operational since then. However, according to the shuttle’s self-diagnostics, the system had no issues. Its machinery and power source are all fine, and it’s showing on the screen that it’s operating, but the weirdest thing is that it doesn’t seem to have any effect!”

 

“…Use the communicator to relay the anti-gravitational system’s data back to the Hope for analysis. How about others? Has there been fatalities? Could the shuttle still take flight? Anything out of the ordinary to report?” asked Yao Yuan.

 

Ying replied, “The shuttle can still fly. Thanks to the shuttle’s water and sand-resistant carapace, we can still fly using the fuel-powered rockets. But without the anti-gravitational system, a rocket launch pad, or booster rockets, there’s little chance of the shuttle breaking through the ozone layer… People-wise, some suffered injuries from the fall, but none suffered injuries serious enough that Xiao Bai can’t handle. Also, we have the initial report on the planet’s atmospheric components. Other than an unidentified gas that makes up eleven percent of the atmosphere, the air is almost identical to Earth’s air. According to one scientist, this planet’s air is harmless for humans. We will know for sure after we make sure there’s no presence of harmful alien microbes and pathogens.

 

Until now, we have received no contact with the planet’s organisms. The sandy surface also appears to be firm enough to not be a sea of quicksand. I’ll beam over a more detailed analysis after they are done with tests on the surface’s bearing capacity…”

 

After a pregnant silence, Yao Yuan uttered, “Okay, then I’ll be waiting for the results and data… It must have been mighty inconvenient because we are still unable to understand and design anti-gravity schematics. It’s because of that that this disaster happened, but don’t worry, I promise I’ll get you men out of there.”

 

As if talking with Yao Yuan in person, Ying nodded and replied, “Of course, I have full faith in Ol’ Cap’n’s words… Then the expedition party will stay on guard waiting for rescue. Ending transmission.”

 

While contact was being made with the Hope inside the shuttle, outside of it, the platoon led by Ebon and Liu Bai took man’s first step unto this alien planet.

 

Under their feet was a layer of golden-brown sand which gave a little with each of their steps. However, underneath that granular surface layer was a more compact sand layer. After the first soldier stood firmly on this ground, the rest of them followed closely behind, each carrying their weapons, with eyes trained on their surroundings. Under the glow of this galaxy’s sun, the ground shone in its glittering majesty. The waves of sand spread as far as they could see, empty of threat and interest.  

 

However, unbeknownst to everyone amidst the agitation and excitement was the fact that a number of beakers had been broken during the rocky tumble. Among them was a beaker containing distilled water which pooled around the shuttle’s exit. On their way out, the men had unnoticeably stepped on it. The water particles that adhered to the inner linings of their soles evaporated quickly after coming into contact with the burning sand…

 

Carried by desert winds, these particles of water floated out to several hundred kilometers away, unwittingly signaling the arrival of Ying’s expedition group…

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