Age of Cosmic Exploration – Chapter 31

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Terror

 

Ever since the Hope landed on the planet, Yao Yuan had been getting increasingly bothered. It was an insidious feeling. It reminded him of his first field operation when he accidentally stepped on a landmine and could feel his body involuntarily freeze. It rendered him helpless.

 

Yao Yuan was certain that the planet harbored an unknown danger. Nevertheless, he chose not to voice his concerns out loud in fear of ruining overall morale.

 

The hovercraft journey was dominated by silence because most of the soldiers were too wrapped up in the discovery of the new planet. Many stationed themselves before the windows with some even taking the effort to videotape the scenery. Even though there was literally only sand, they were still exploring an alien planet. The joy of fresh adventure and exploration had the men shaking with excitement.

 

The men weren’t technically putting up a disciplined front, but Yao Yuan decided to cut them some slack. He knew that these men weren’t all from the Black Star Unit, so he reminded himself to not hold them up to the same standards. If he were overly oppressive, it might breed resentment, and that could only be disadvantageous.

 

The hovercrafts travelled at a much higher speed than expected and before long, the crew could already see one of the shuttles rising out of the sand about ten kilometers away.

 

As they glided closer to the shuttle, a few of the unit captains appealed to Yao Yuan with a request. They wanted to remove their helmets and drink some water to help cool down from the heat. They argued that since the planet’s atmosphere was reported to be similar to that of Earth’s, it would not cause them harm if they were to remove their helmets.

 

Yao Yuan was surprisingly adamant about none of the crew removing their helmets, retorting that there still remained the eleven percent of the atmosphere that was unidentified and that it could be latently harmful. Unlike the expedition party, who literally ran out of air, there was no reason for them to take unnecessary risk. Yao Yuan’s verdict was for them to suffer through the heat.

 

There wasn’t much of an uproar after Yao Yuan’s refusal. That could be accredited to the fact that before they left, they had been given stern warnings by the scientific community to not inhale the planet’s air unless absolutely necessary. The scientists had expressed concerns over the mysterious eleven percent of the planet’s air and were still conducting additional analyses on it back on the Hope. Until they could be sure that the air was one hundred percent harmless to the human body, the Academy had given an official statement that direct inhalation was discouraged to prevent possible complications.

 

It is worth mentioning that man’s technology at the year 2029 has undergone certain changes when compared to how it was in the beginning of the twenty-first century. An example would be the introduction of nano-materials. Materials like metal, plastic, glass, clay, and even textiles had undergone major improvements. Space suits of the twenty-first century that were bulky and difficult to move in had become something that was more akin to bodysuits following the advancement of nanotechnology. They were lighter, much more flexible, and had better heat insulation. Even the opening and closing of the helmets had become automated. All of these improvements in functionality were thoroughly showcased during man’s full-scale exploration of the moon in the year 2020.  

 

When they were still on Earth, Yao Yuan knew that these spacesuits would be invaluable assets to their mission, so he ordered his men to scour the American, Russian, and Chinese space centers to gather as many of these suits as they could. Before they departed for space, the Hope had almost one million of these spacesuits in storage.

 

Thanks to Yao Yuan’s prescience, the crew in the hovercraft was all wearing this handy space-travel wear. A few minutes after the captains’ request was rejected, Yao Yuan received an entreaty for communication from the Hope.

 

It was issued by the Academy. They had finished their analysis on the planet’s atmospheric components. Their analysis had confirmed that the atmosphere contained no traces of microbes and water. It was indeed similar to Earth’s atmosphere if one were to ignore its mysterious eleven percent.

 

Since the mystery component was unlike anything mankind had discovered, the scientists had no point of reference. Their analysis had to be conducted at an atomic structure level. The result of that analysis was the reason they called.

 

“…We have the result of the atomic analysis. It was unbelievable! It was made up of…” said the scientist with what sounded like crazed fervor in his voice. Even with Yao Yuan’s basic understanding of chemistry, after hearing what the mystery component was made of, he could understand the fanatic way the scientist had reacted. It was indeed an impossible find!

 

“You’re telling me eleven percent of the air contains metallic element?! How is that even possible?” asked Yao Yuan incredulously.

 

“Major, we have double-checked our results, so there is no mistake! We are as surprised as you are. Evidently, this planet’s air is host to molecules that are large enough to support extensions of metal atoms. It is a mystery that we can’t explain; it can only be described as one of the cosmos’ peculiarities… Frankly, with our current technology, even with access to its chemical composition, we are unable to engineer such a complex compound molecule!

 

“As you know, the air around us mostly consists of singular molecules like oxygen with two oxygen atoms and nitrogen with two nitrogen atoms. Even when they are compound molecules, they are chemically simple, like carbon dioxide with one carbon atom and two oxygen atoms. They have to be simple to maintain their gaseous state… We have never encountered a gaseous molecule that has a metallic atom… It’s a miracle!”

 

Coaxed on by the fervor of the miraculous discovery, the scientist sounded like he was ready to launch into a long speech exclaiming the majesty of the great cosmos. Before he could do so, Yao Yuan interjected. “It is a miracle. We know too little about the cosmos to presume we could understand it all. The Academy can have all the resources it needs to pore over this discovery, but I just need to know, is this element harmful to man?”

 

The scientist quickly replied as if shocked by the redundancy of the question. “Harmful? How could it be harmful? Even if the metallic elements are in a gaseous state, they are not elements that we have had no contact with. These are elements like zinc and iron; they are incredibly insoluble. Even if we were to breathe in this air for a whole day, the percentage of it that would get into our bloodstream may be even less than one percent of the total. The amount is too small to cause metal poisoning. In fact, inhalation of such trace amounts of metallic elements could help balance our body’s chemical equilibrium. Since it is directly consumed through the air, its effect might even be better than taking edible supplements. Therefore, major, it is my suggestion that we allow everyone to be exposed to this air immediately as its effect can only be positive. Thank God.”

 

“Are we absolutely certain that it is safe? How do the Chrome ZH mice respond to being exposed to this gas?” asked Yao Yuan.

 

“You mean the genetically-modified mice created by the biology committee? Yes, I think they were called Chrome ZH mice. They have double the metabolic rate of normal mice with only ten days life expectancy. We have indeed conducted experiments on a batch of these mice. After being exposed to this planet’s air, they showed an increase in physical status. There were no side effects. That is why I was willing to make this communication, major. The Academy is certain that this planet’s air is not harmful for human consumption. And that conclusion is backed up by one hundred and seventy biologists!”

 

Yao Yuan breathed a sigh of relief after hearing that solid confirmation. Before he closed communications, he said, “I am incredibly grateful towards the Academy for its hard work and dedication. Please relay this information to Lieutenant Wong. Inform him to open the Hope’s air vents. It is time for the people to take in natural air and not the air filters’ sanitized air!”

 

After that, he allowed everyone to remove their helmets, then everyone was handed one bottle of mineral water. Since they had been cooped up in their space suits for an extended period of time, some of the men started chugging down water like they hadn’t had a drop in days…

 

Yao Yuan too started unscrewing the cap of his bottle. At the moment right before he tipped the water into his mouth, he had a flash of premonition. It was intense but fleeting. It dissolved before he could catch what it was trying to communicate. He waited for it to return, but the feeling was gone. Shrugging it off, he started glugging the water.

 

The hovercrafts floated closer to their destination. A few minutes later, they would be expected to be right before the shuttle’s entrance.

 

Right then, a sandstorm started swirling around the group. The storm gradually gathered around one of the hovercrafts, immobilizing it in its spot. Before everyone’s eyes, a giant skeletal “flower” bloomed underneath the hovercraft. It stretched its bony petals towards the captive hovercraft before closing in on itself, dragging its victim down into the sandy depths.

 

A few seconds later, the skeletal “flower” reemerged in full bloom. Following a blinding explosion originating at the center of the “flower”, the taken hovercraft, or what was left of it, was ejected into the air before raining down in pieces of waste metals …

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