Age of Cosmic Exploration – Chapter 29

Night mode

Helpless

It was a life-or-death gamble!

The severity of the operation was clear on everyone’s minds as they took their first steps out of the shuttle.

As the saying goes: to know your enemy is winning half of the battle, but for Ying’s troop, there were simply too many unknowns about their adversary. They did not have the answer to simple questions like how would these creatures know their location without the usage of conventional sensory organs like eyes or a nose? What they had were speculations. Speculations like they were tracing them through heat sensory, surface vibrations, or through the detection of water particles released by the human body.

Even with Zhang Heng and Ying’s superhuman powers, the possibility of being wiped out was not far from everyone’s minds. At the end of the day, they were still humans with vulnerable bodies. They were not immune to damage, certainly not from needles that could literally suck the life out of man within seconds.

Ying’s small group was made up of army holdovers from when the world descended into chaos. There were two Germans, one French, one British, two Americans as well as two Chinese. Not all of them were high-ranking officers in their original armies; some hadn’t even gone into actual battlefields, but they were familiar with the basics of firearms and protocols. And because of that, despite everyone’s highly taut nerves, Ying’s orders were still being closely followed. The group was further split into three units, one trailing behind the other. Zhang Heng, their human radar, was set in the middle.

Somewhere down the direction they were heading, a stream of smoke was billowing upwards. On that windless morning, it was a clear signal for the landing spot of the other shuttle. This saved them the trouble of scouting, but… the problem was that it was quite a distance away. A rough estimate of the time they needed to get to the shuttle was about fifty minutes to an hour, meaning at least ten stops for changes of air. It was a literal walk of death!

Every member of the party, including Ying, was extremely distressed, and that made for faster consumption of the oxygen within the space suits. The member most affected by this was Zhang Heng. He had the least military training, plus it wasn’t that long ago that he had his narcotic addiction cured. Understandably, compared to the others, he had the weakest physique.

It was Liu Bai who was the first to notice that Zhang Heng had gone considerably pale under his helmet. He immediately requested that the party pause as he rushed over to unlock Zhang Heng’s helmet. He yelled, “Ying, we need to stop! Everyone, undo your helmets! We need a change of air!”

Frowning, Ying looked at his stopwatch. It showed that they had only moved for three minutes. He spoke no words, but his frustration and condescension were loaded in the icy glare that he pointed toward Zhang Heng. In it was even a glint of menace.

Liu Bai, after picking up on Ying’s stare, ran and kneed Ying in his stomach with the full force of his anger. Roaring, he said, “Just what the hell are you thinking?! Did you forget that he’s a Black Star as well?! Put yourself in his shoes for one second, won’t you? He hasn’t received any formal training, so he doesn’t have the endurance the rest of us have. What is wrong with that? Give him that look again and I’ll gouge out those eyes of yours myself! The rest of you! Didn’t you hear me? Take off your helmets!”

Ying stumbled a few meters back from Liu Bai’s kick. Standing up, he sighed. “I’m sorry. That was my fault… Let’s take a two minute break, then. But don’t let your guard down. Zhang Heng, can you still access your heightened sense?”

A shivering Zhang Heng replied, in between desperate gasps of air, “I… I’m fine. I can still do that…”

“Good!” Ying nodded. Without an apology to Zhang Heng, he planted himself on the ground. Cradling his sniper rifle, he went as still as a statue.

After a while, Zhang Heng’s breath slowed and color returned to his face. Liu Bai strode to his side and handed him a black pill that he had removed from his medical kit. He said, “Here, keep this in your mouth. There will be an initial wave of bitterness, but it will pass… Zhang Heng, don’t take what Ying did to heart. He can be such an insensitive prick at times, but don’t worry, you’re one of us now; no harm will befall you from any one of us.”

Zhang Heng nodded enthusiastically. Next, he worked to train his focus on his surroundings, hoping to return to that superhuman state. Nevertheless, other than the light that refracted off the sea of sand, there was nothing else he could perceive. He would try other possible methods, but since he had no clue how he had entered that state in the first place, this was the best he could do. Under the planet’s sweltering heat and despite everyone’s general state of dehydration, they started sweating.

The two minutes passed in a blink of an eye. Luckily, the break was monster-free. There was hope that the operation might be finished without any encounter with those creatures. After all, this was a desert planet. There was a lack of sustenance to nurture any creature, especially one the size they encountered the day before. Perhaps there was only that one creature on this half of the planet, suggested some of the men.

After forty minutes of trekking with many breaks in between, the tip of the other shuttle appeared on the party’s horizon.

There was a palpable atmosphere of joy because according to their calculations, they would be reaching the landing site of that other shuttle after only another four to five breaks. There was, however, one whose expression had soured among the air of celebration.

Ever since the incident with Ying, Liu Bai had been keeping his eye on Zhang Heng. Zhang Heng was the junior of the Black Star Unit after all. When he saw Zhang Heng’s face drop, he approached him and asked, “Are you okay? I know you’re probably tired, but hang in there for a little bit more. There’re only a few steps left to the other shuttle. I’m sure they brought food and water with them–”

Shaking his head, Zhang Heng interjected, yelling at Ying, “Ying! They are coming! From behind… six o’clock! And they are coming fast!”

Before panic had the chance to settle, Ying summoned everyone to their posts. “Ready your weapons! Backlines, stick to your positions. The rest of you form a line before them! Nice job, Zhang Heng… They’ll come from behind you say… Liu Bai, hand him a pistol. Zhang Heng, I want you shoot at the spot where you sense the danger is emerging from. It’s okay if you miss; just shoot at the general area!

Zhang Heng nodded as he took hold of the pistol thrown to him by Liu Bai. With the weight of the pistol in his hand, he couldn’t help but be reminded of the days he was practicing his marksmanship with Ebon on the Hope. Of all the Black Stars, Ebon was the one who treated him best, the one who made him feel like he was part of the fold. He suddenly felt teary-eyed, but he reigned himself in. Pointing his pistol forward, he tried to concentrate his foresight.

Unlike the sensation of malice described by Ebon, Zhang Heng believed that his foresight wasn’t something that focused on the opponent’s projected malice. It was an act of divination or sixth sense, giving him a preview of the event that will happen next. Channeling the full range of his focus, he wouldn’t dare to even blink for fear that he might miss warning someone of impending danger.

The party stood prepared for about two minutes under the glaring sun. Some of the men started to get dubious and impatient, but one look at Ying’s and Liu Bai’s austere expressions persuaded them to keep their opinions to themselves. Suddenly…

“There!” shouted Zhang Heng as he shot at the sand dune before them. Almost immediately, Ying raised his rifle. Within that moment, he could again feel the world shutting in on itself. He could see the sand granules that were blown by the wind down to the details on each granule.

Among the canvas of the shifting sand, he could discern an outline of the creature hiding within… It was something that looked like a gigantic yarn ball. In the middle of it was a metallic-looking spherical object. Protruding from this sphere was a dense jungle of needles. It looked like a mutated, gigantic sea urchin.

Using its needles, it squirmed underneath the sand. It was a sight that was truly unpleasant!

“…here, no, here… no there!” mumbled Ying to himself. All of a sudden, a loud shot rang out of his rifle and he could see the electro magnetized bullet surging towards the creature before dislodging itself in the spherical object. The ammo burst into fragments, splitting the creature from within. Ink-black liquid seeped from its body and almost instantly the area ten meters around it was corroded into a giant sinkhole.

Ying slumped into a kneeling position. As waves of fatigue swept over him, he felt a strong desire to sleep. The shot had taken too much out of him mentally.

Everyone else though started cheering with the exception of one person. Zhang Heng hollered, “No, no… this corrosive acid is itself a form of liquid. I can sense more coming this way. It is a school of them this time. Their number is so high that I can feel their presence clearly even though they are still far away!”

That dampened the celebration immediately. The men had their doubts regarding Zhang Heng’s supposed power initially, but now, with the evidence before their eyes, they had no choice but to have full faith in him. And what he had just spelt was their doom.

Ying’s loud command shot through the air of depression that hung over the party. “What are we still doing here, then?! Run! They are after this liquid, not us! Open your helmets to take in as much air as you can. We are going to make one last sprint! As long as we can reach the other shuttle, we will be safe!”

Ying’s words rallied everyone into action. The group charged towards the billowing smoke. As Ying and Liu Bai ran past Zhang Heng, with a tacit understanding that could only come from years of partnership, the pair half-carried and half-dragged Zhang Heng between them, supporting him so that he wouldn’t lag behind.

Everyone ran towards the shuttle literally like their lives depended on it. Urging them on was a noise that sounded like a colossal creature slithering towards them from underneath the ground. No one was brave enough to turn and look! They all had their sights set on the shuttle before them!

Step by step… Their destination came closer and closer…

The first person to reach the shuttle slammed directly into its door with barely any time to slow down. After fumbling with the lock, he managed to get it open, then he lurched through the open door and fell flat on the floor completely drained. Soon after followed the rest of the group…

When Ying, Liu Bai, and Zhang Heng, who were holding up the tail end of the party, fell through the door, they could clearly see a creature sliding towards. This creature was less than a hundred meters away.  It looked like a snake, but instead of flesh and blood, it was made up solely of bones.  It was at least twenty meters long, and as it glided over the surface of the sand, it looked just like a serpent stalking its prey, just a hundred times more devastating and scary.

Before the party could get a better look, Ying rushed to close the shuttle door. With the door firmly closed, Ying slid down to the floor, trying hard to catch his breath.

Right then, a space-suit-wearing individual jumped out from inside the shuttle. Barely holding his rifle, he shook all over as he demanded the identification of the party. After he got a clear look at everyone present, he finally let out a sigh of relief.

It was Liu Bai who was the first to recollect himself from their death sprint. He urgently asked, “Are you part of the rescue team? Where is everyone else? And is the shuttle’s multi-frequency communication still functional?”

The soldier quickly unarmed himself, taking pains to salute Liu Bai. “Repor- reporting for duty, lieutenant, sir…”

“Cut the formalities and answer me!” demanded Liu Bai.

“N, no…” unexpectedly, the soldier started to cry. “Everyone is dead. They took the mini hovercraft out to survey the area yesterday and I kept communications from here. They said that they were thirsty and then I could hear the sounds of them gurgling water. The next minute all I could hear were painful screams before everything went quiet… They are all dead out there… killed by aliens… who are going to pick us off one… by one…”

It would appear that the trauma of his teammates’ horrific deaths and his subsequent confinement had caused this soldier to lose parts of his wits.

Exchanging a glance with Liu Bai, Ying said, in a calm and authoritative voice, “Soldier, calm yourself down! There are no vengeful aliens out there, it’s just… desert storms! Attention, soldier! Carry over some food and water, and then lead us to the multi-frequency communicator… Actually, never mind that. Come on, Zhang Heng, it’s time to get to work.”

Zhang Heng stretched himself up with much difficulty, but before he could steady himself, the soldier’s words sent him sprawling back down to the floor.

“Water, yes, sir, water and food, I will go get them… But the communicator is broken. With the scientists’ modification to this shuttle, the extra voltage managed to support its anti-gravitational system, but the high voltage discharge also fried the shuttle’s main circuit board, disabling technologies like its navigator and communicator…”

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