When the gust of the sandstorm started gathering, Yao Yuan’s senses were practically singing. He could feel a strong surge of malice coming their way. It was pure and unadulterated. There was no hidden agenda; it just wanted to eat.
The feeling of malice was so intense that it knocked Yao Yuan off his feet. He could see the room spinning as he went down. Before he lost consciousness completely though, he bit down hard on his lower lip. The shot of pain inspired a moment of lucidity, and Yao Yuan managed to rally himself off of that. Pulling himself back from the brink of collapse, he was granted a closer look of their adversary.
The skeletal flower was most probably a crustacean because its every surface, from its bony petals to the stalk it grew out of, was covered with a hardened shell. The scariest aspect though was its size. Standing upright, it stretched to at least a hundred meters tall, while it covered almost twenty meters from one end of its bud to another. When it was in bloom, it would grow even bigger. That could explain the ease with which it engulfed one of the hovercrafts.
The hovercraft wasn’t a completely organic object. Its engine probably exploded when it came into contact with the creature’s digestive juices. The blast shredded the bud into pieces. Black ooze was flung around as the stalk started spasming crazily like a man losing his head. They knew that the ooze was highly corrosive, because the moment it hit the ground, the affected area melted. The creature’s demise pocked the ground around them with craters of all sizes.
The hovercraft closest to the flower was showered with a healthy dose of its vile liquid which ate through the metal like butter. Even the people within were not spared. The acid was so highly corrosive that the hovercraft’s unlucky passengers didn’t have the time to respond before they were melted off. It took less than three seconds for the hovercraft with all of its carry-ons to be completely disintegrated.
“Move away! Steer the hovercraft away from that liquid!” Yao Yuan yelled. “Keep your helmets on; this gas might be toxic too!”
Yao Yuan’s command tore the operators of the three remaining hovercrafts out of their shock. They immediately steered the hovercraft away from the general trajectory of the liquid spray. The rest of the people quickly switched on their helmets. They ran to investigate the spot where the explosion had occurred, but it was shrouded behind a wall of acidic fog.
Two hovercrafts, the lives of forty soldiers, and four Black Stars were lost in the blink of an eye. It showcased how truly fragile humanity was amidst the wide cosmos…
Staring at the toxic mist, Yao Yuan was at a loss for words. What was solid barely a minute ago was now a cloud of roiling gas. Out of nowhere, he heard a shot of gunfire from the shuttle. Using a pair of military-grade binoculars, Yao Yuan could see a person waving two makeshift flags by the shuttle.
Yao Yuan quickly communicated to the two other hovercrafts, “There are people stranded on the shuttle and those are the people that we’ve come to save. Be on alert, but move the hovercraft towards the shuttle.”
Fear was written clearly on the soldiers’ faces. They would be eaten alive by another one of those flower creatures if they absconded from the hovercraft. A few of the soldiers even started yelling dissention, refusing to risk their safety for others. Faced with such open opposition, Yao Yuan’s expression turned darkly serious. Abandonment of orders was no longer a misdemeanor but a heavy offense. Reading Yao Yuan’s expression, all of the Black Stars stood ready to step in should things continue to escalate.
At that moment, a unit captain came forth with a message. “Major, it doesn’t appear like the person was waving the flags for no reason. It is incredibly probable that he was a Navy SEAL and is communicating with us through semaphore!”
This threw Yao Yuan for a loop and he quickly returned his attention to the person waving the flag. Hurriedly, he asked, “What is he trying to say? Can you translate?”
The captain hesitated before replying, “I will try my best, major. But semaphore is normally used to signal situations at sea, so this might not make any sense… He is repeating four signals. First, dangerous carriage; second, cease your intention; third, danger ahead; and fourth, diving operation under progress, so keep distance.”
Yao Yuan waved one of the nearby soldiers to bring him a piece of paper. As the captain went through the meaning of the man’s flag signals, he jotted them down. When he finished, he turned to the captain and said, “Thank you, captain. Please continue to keep an eye on the soldier. If he signals something different, please let me know.”
Yao Yuan sat studying these four phrases. The stranded soldier had taken much pain to sign these four terms over. They were within minutes from the shuttle, so these terms had to be of great importance if the soldier couldn’t wait the few minutes to tell them this in person.
The problem was that Yao Yuan couldn’t understand what they were trying to communicate…
The first was dangerous carriage. Did carriage mean the people on the hovercrafts or on the shuttle? But wouldn’t it be weird to refer to people as carriages? Or did it mean something else…
Second was to cease your intention. Was it telling them to cease moving towards the shuttle? Could the shuttle be a trap set by waiting creatures? Were the planet’s creatures so calculative in nature? Yao Yuan had his doubts.
One thing was clear though; however, before he could figure out what these terms meant, they should not be engaging in any operation recklessly. With that in mind, he shouted through the communicator, “Stop movement of all hovercrafts. Stay idle but be on alert!”
Without taking the time to address others’ responses to his shifting order, Yao Yuan turned back to his thoughts. The third was danger ahead. Did it refer to the flower creature that attacked them or did it mean the person inside the shuttle would be a source of danger to them?
The last was the most curious of them all: diving operation under progress, so keep distance… It made absolutely zero sense. They were in the middle of the desert; how could there be a pool of water for a diving operation…
(Diving… water… Wait, water!)
Yao Yuan suddenly jumped out of his seat and shouted through the communicator, “Do not remove your helmets! I repeat, do not remove your helmet! Seal every bottle of water there is and do not open a single one! Also, operators, please resume movement towards the shuttle.”
(So that’s what the four signals mean. The word carriage wasn’t referring to people but the water that they carried. Secondly, it isn’t the intention to reach the shuttle that needs to be ceased but rather humans’ basic intention to drink and breathe. When the first two meanings are made clear, the third easily reveals itself. The danger wasn’t about the creatures but the water that attracted these creatures. The fourth could only be hinting at the location these creatures will appear from.)
With the meaning of the signals made clear, everything else started to fall into place. Yao Yuan had been wondering why they were suddenly attacked when they had been travelling incident-free for so long. He reflected that the attack took place right after he gave his crew permission to remove their helmets and to drink water!
(It is water then that attracted these creatures?!)
Yao Yuan’s rumination was cut short because they had neared the shuttle. As they walked in, they were greeted with the tired faces of the stranded expedition party. There were eight scientists, Ebon, who was in a state of coma from amputation and blood loss, Ying, Liu Bai, Zhang Heng, and the remaining soldiers who had returned from the second shuttle as well as… a flat, spindly alien carcass that was two to three meters in size.
“Bring it back to the Hope for autopsy,” said Ying when he saw Yao Yuan walk through the door. Pointing at the alien carcass, he continued, “Its noxious body fluid has been drained, so don’t wor-” before he could finish, Ying slumped to the floor. Entering the superhuman state had taken a serious toll on him and he had been holding on through the sheer power of his will, but right then, he had reached his limit.
All of this took Yao Yuan by surprise, and amidst the general confusion, he had forgotten to remind the Hope about his new findings regarding the planet’s dangerous creatures. And so, while they were distracted in the shuttle, Guang Zhen had obeyed his order to open the Hope’s air vent.
And through it, a large amount of water particles wafted out to the planet…
At the same time, the geological surveillance unit departed from the Hope. Their destination was a decline about twenty kilometers away from the Hope. They intended to start a drilling operation there, hoping to use the data that they would find to unveil the mysteries surrounding this desert planet…