Age of Cosmic Exploration – Chapter 34

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Smoke and Mirrors

Sitting in the hovercraft, Yao Yuan was feeling incredibly down; there was even a shred of fear mixed in.

How could he have forgotten to contact the Hope? And it was not only he alone; the whole fifty plus member crew had forgotten as well!

This was where the fear sprung from. It was tolerable if only a small handful of people had forgotten this important detail, because humans weren’t robots with photographic memory. But to have all fifty plus of them lapse on this information…

That was scary!

It seemed implausible, but Yao Yuan concluded that they were all somehow lulled into this forgetfulness. How else was one going to explain this weird phenomenon?! Then again, Yao Yuan thought to himself that perhaps it was trauma from their brush-in with the skeletal flower that had pushed the need to contact the Hope out of their minds.

Yao Yuan kept going back and forth between the two arguments. He deeply believed that there was a malicious force at hand that had dulled their memory, but he couldn’t find any actual evidence of such a threat. And perhaps that was the biggest threat of all…

As the chinese idiom goes: it is easy to dodge the spear in the open but hard to avoid a stab in the dark. It was always the hidden attack that would prove to be the most fatal. And Yao Yuan just couldn’t shake the feeling of being observed.

(Calm yourself down, Yao Yuan. It’s no use crying over spilled milk. You need to clear your mind and slowly go through the clues again.)

Heeding his own advice, Yao Yuan took a deep breath. The pure oxygen siphoned into his helmet had a strangely calming effect as he started revising everything that had happened.

First, about one month ago, the Hope spotted this terrestrial planet. It was also the only planet the Hope could reach with its limited supplies and technology.

Then, the Hope charted its way towards this planet. In that period, the ship was ravaged by a mysterious virus, killing one hundred and two of the total five hundred plus patients.

This virus left as suddenly as it came. After the initial wave of sickness, there were no diagnoses of similar cases again. Treated as one of the cosmos’ many mysteries, the incident of Virus X had since been relegated into the central mainframe’s historical storage.

After that, the Hope successfully entered the planet’s orbit. To gather initial surveillance, a few automated probes were released onto the planet. The data gathered wasn’t complete enough to warrant a landing of the Hope, so Yao Yuan dispatched an expeditionary team which comprised of Ying, Ebon, Liu Bai, and Zhang Heng as well as some soldiers and scientists.

The lackluster performance of the probes was to be expected because they were inferior to actual galactic probes like the ones used on Mars.

The reason for this was simple: their creators were, to put it simply, slim pickings after the governments had done their rounds. They were not specialists; there were only a few handfuls of them that had contact with space technology before this. Naturally, their proficiency would grow with practice and time, but for this first planet, their creations were understandably less than satisfactory.

For this reason, Yao Yuan had convinced himself and the Hope that an expedition group was necessary… Personally, he felt that the ship needed hope from a successful operation, but now he started to have doubts.

The Hope’s storage of energy would allow for four additional space-warps. Their cache of supplies and the sixth floor biomes could provide enough sustenance to ensure at least ten years of survival for the twelve million people in space, a period that could be drawn out with systematic rationing.

The point was that the Hope wasn’t in dire need of landing. It would actually be more beneficial to use the extra time to conduct a more thorough analysis of the planet. He shouldn’t have been so rash in his decision to dispatch the expeditionary unit and to order the landing. But weirdly enough, when these momentous decisions were made, even with Yao Yuan expecting it, there were no voices of objection from the Hope’s citizens. It was as if the whole of the Hope was of one mind, and that mind was Yao Yuan’s…

(Could this be the source of the problem?!)

Yao Yuan sat up straighter in his chair. He was suddenly reminded of an operation he was given years ago. It required him to assassinate an international spy. Due to the mission’s covert nature, only Yao Yuan and the female leader of the Hidden Dragon squad were involved. The two of them were hot on their target’s trail, but at a pivotal point, they were diverted off track.

It was thanks to a coincidence that they managed to complete their mission. It was only after the target was eliminated that Yao Yuan knew that the spy was incredibly well-versed with psychology and hypnosis. Through the use of colors, words, conversations, and even interior design, he could subtly implant suggestions in people’s minds, swaying them into making certain decisions.

He had learned from the spy something called self-serving bias. Even when man was found to be in the wrong, he would be reluctant to admit mistakes and would instead twist the reality in such a way that the mistakes were found to be logical and intended. Yao Yuan had discovered that this psychological bias could be enhanced through suggestions. It was like what was happening to him then; instead of admitting that he had made some impetuous decisions, he kept telling himself that the moves were necessary because the people on board needed to witness immediate action and hope…

In other words, could it be that he, alongside the twelve million on the Hope, were under the influence of hypnosis?!

“Connect me to the Hope,” ordered Yao Yuan as he sprang up from his seat.

Call it a coincidence, but at that moment, the panel that indicated a communication from the Hope beeped. Yao Yuan quickly grabbed the communicator and asked, “What’s happening, Ol’ Wong? Why the sudden need for communication?”

In an uncharacteristically frantic voice, Guang Zhen explained, “Ol’ Cap’n, we’ve stumbled into an emergency…”

In an unceasing stream of information, Guang Zhen relayed to Yao Yuan every worrying report that he had received. The Hope’s service team had found some type of green organisms attached to the ship’s underbelly. They were rapidly draining the Hope of its reservoir of energy. Furthermore, the geological surveillance unit had reported stumbling across similar green organisms. They said that these green organisms appeared to be only attracted to the drills’ metallic parts. They also added that when the organisms finished draining the stored energy, they would start digesting the metal itself. Through some unknown process, the digested material would be converted into sand…  In other words, when the organisms finish sucking the Hope’s energy dry, they would start feasting on the Hope itself!

The thought of that prospect had Yao Yuan shivering with dread. The Hope was literally the hope of twelve million people! If they were stranded on this planet… there would only be death!

And not death of old age but death by the hands of those creatures! After losing the Hope’s protection, it would be a matter of minutes before the twelve million people were completely sucked dry!

The thought of that harrowing scenario spurred Yao Yuan into asking, “How about those monsters? Other than the green organisms, have there been sightings or attacks from those creatures?”

“That is indeed the weirdest thing. I’ve not received any such reports from the Hope’s patrols nor from the geological surveillance unit,” answered Guang Zhen.

These green organisms, probably the planet’s flora, consumed electricity and metal to produce sand…

The planet’s fauna, on the other hand, had a highly corrosive bodily fluid and an unfettered desire for water…

Yao Yuan swore that there was a link tying these two facts together… A link that could perfectly explain why the planet was completely covered with sand, why the whole of the Hope was so hasty in their decision to land on this planet, and why the alien creatures hadn’t attacked the Hope and the geological encampment… The insight was deliciously close, but every time Yao Yuan felt close to understanding it, it floated away…

In the meantime, on the other end of the communicator, it sounded like Guang Zhen was getting briefed on another report. After about ten seconds, Guang Zhen added rapidly, “This is bad, Ol’ Cap’n. That was the latest report from the geological unit. After the green organisms finished their work on our drills, they fell off and disappeared underground. Soon after that, the camp was attacked by alien monsters. The accompanying army has constructed an emergency garrison, but they won’t hold out much longer. The reports of deaths and injuries are increasing. What am I to do now? Should I send out reinforcements?”

With that information, Yao Yuan could see everything falling into place; he could see the big picture now. Calmly, he called into the communicator, “Hold the reinforcements. Tell the geological unit to pour all the water they have into the ground. After that, have everyone wear their space helmets and retreat. Make sure no one carries any water with or on them. Do not let them open their helmets until after they have reached the Hope. Remind them to move fast!” Yao Yuan paused before adding, “Ol’ Wong, are you familiar with the concept of the hive mind?”

At the other end of the transmission, Guang Zhen was busy relaying Yao Yuan’s orders. Being asked such a question apropos to nothing, he answered somewhat confusedly, “You mean like with bees and ants[1]?”

“No… never mind then. Remember to tell the Hope’s biologists to stand at the ready. After an autopsy on this alien carcass, everything will be clear, and the mystery of this planet will be unveiled…

And if I’m not mistaken, these green organisms…”

  1. Instead of examples from natural world, the author used human example like workers’ union. The meaning is the same: referring to group consciousness.

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