A Hail Mary Bet!
At around 4:40 PM, the rescue mission was completed. The operation tallied a loss of three hovercrafts, a total of two hundred soldiers, as well as one hundred plus scientists, technicians, and engineers. These were valuable human assets. Therefore, it was without a doubt a big loss for the Hope.
At the same time, finishing touches were being done on the Hope’s last functioning shuttle. It was being prepared to fly. However, that was not all that was behind the hustle and bustle on the Hope. The spaceship’s three nuclear energy generators had also kicked into high gear.
At this point, the Hope only had enough energy to initiate two more space warps. In other words, around one third of its energy had already been drained.
Three space-suit-wearing men stood in the alcove of the hangar that housed this last shuttle. They were Yao Yuan, Zhang Heng, and Jay. The weak flames of the cigars dangling from each of their hands illuminated the bare faces of these harried men. Their appearance would not have been noticed if not for Zhang Heng’s constant coughing from trying to keep the cigar smoke down.
Frowning, Yao Yuan advised, “Just give it a break, Zhang Heng. If you can’t get used to smoking cigars, stick to cigarettes. This is, after all, Jay’s request. You don’t have to go along with it if you don’t want to.”
With a trembling hand that could barely hold on to the cigar, Zhang Heng surly replied, “I knew that. In fact, what I wouldn’t give for a bag of powder right now. However, I have never tried a cigar before in my life, so I thought I’d give it a go because, god knows, this opportunity might not come again.”
With a sigh that reflected their shared frustration and desperation, Yao Yuan went over to give him a brotherly hug, and that communicated all that needed to be communicated.
Beside them, Jay said, with a hint of acid in his voice, “Yup, that’s sad. Unlike me, you are a lieutenant after all; why they would order you to accompany a criminal such as myself on this one-way journey is beyond me. And to think I have avoided judgment by escaping into space, how naïve I was… But how about you, Major, sir? You are the owner of this ship, its dictator so to speak, so why have you deigned to join us on this fruitless journey?”
“I just want to complete the mission I’ve given myself.” Without looking at either Zhang Heng or Jay, Yao Yuan glanced at the floor and said rather monotonously, “Everyone has to bear way too many burden in life, but only cowards and weaklings run away from them. Because these burdens are also one’s responsibilities and sometimes even duties, they are not things that one can simply discard…”
Jay retorted sardonically, “That is indeed so noble of you, our mighty savior… It makes criminals like me so shame-faced that I am so inclined to commit suicide to redeem myself.”
“How is keeping a promise one made a long time ago noble..?” asked Yao Yuan with a rare kindness in his eyes. Then he took a long drag of the cigar but ended up choking himself and hacking up a storm.
After his coughs petered out, Yao Yuan turned to look at Jay and Zhang Heng. With a sincere tone, he said, “Don’t think so highly of me. The amount of blood I’ve had on my hands will easily detach me from the concept of the word ‘noble.’ Everything I do is merely to fulfill a promise because that is a responsibility that I have made…
“So, don’t see this as being forced upon you… Jay, is it not the great American cinema that says ‘with great power comes great responsibility?’ Because let’s be honest, we have all been gifted with great powers following a recent event. An old friend of mine called this new generation of human beings the homo evolutis. Of course, that having any scientific validity is another issue completely, but it is undeniable that Zhang Heng, you have been granted the gift of divination. You can foretell the arrival of danger. And Jay, your gift at psychological manipulation has been enhanced, because let’s honest, that is how you have managed to go undiscovered for so long. I myself have the ability to see the projection of malice and I have heightened reflexes. Also, I realized I have also been given the power of impeccable navigation, so that is why I will be the pilot for this last shuttle…
“Zhang Heng, you will be our alarm, so I want you to inform me whenever you sense danger approaching. Jay, on the other hand… I’ll be frank: you will be the bait. You need to convince the heart of these plants to approach us. Those are essentially the only details of this mission. If we survive, then Jay, not only will your previous criminal record be completely wiped, you will be welcomed back into the Hope as its hero. I’ll award you the rank of unit captain and you’ll be given a residence at the Barracks.
“Zhang Heng, as a member of the Black Star Unit, it is your duty to complete the mission that is given to you. But if we succeed, no one will look down on you anymore, and I promise you that incidents like your little run-in with Ying will never be repeated again.”
It was hard to tell whether it was Jay that was the sweet-talker or was it Yao Yuan, because Jay had to admit that he was very much swayed…
Suddenly, from the depths of his childhood memories, a sentence rang out as clear as day. “Mom and dad, I’ll grow up to be a hero! You’ll see!”
Jay took some time to recover from the unexpected trip down memory lane and then he somewhat nonchalantly said, “Either way, I have no way out, so I’ll do as you say. I’m just afraid that if this thing you called gift of psychological manipulation is a dud, we would truly have a hot mess on our hands.”
That surprisingly caused Yao Yuan to laugh. “If that’s the case, at least we could die happy knowing we have tried our best… We would have the courage to face our families and loved-ones that are waiting down there…”
“Down there? I’m not going down there, I’d rather go up there,” replied Jay, who obviously didn’t subscribe to the eastern religions’ idea of reincarnation.
Yao Yuan did not reply but instead turned to face Zhang Heng. The young man was shaking all over; even the cigar between his fingers was vibrating beyond control.
Yao Yuan moved to give him a healthy slap on the shoulder and say, “Stop being so afraid, Zhang Heng! I handpicked you myself to join the Hope, didn’t I? In spite of you looking like you were a sleazebag, a drug addict, and a nobody, I saw the potential in you! Understand that your past doesn’t define you, and I believe that under that shady appearance hid a courageous, trustworthy young man. In fact, I have seen glimpses of this man a few times before. He appeared when we went searching for your father and again when you appealed for the safety of those women! So channel that courage within your heart, because I know it’s in there! It’s time to be that man!”
That speech injected a healthy dose of confidence into Zhang Heng and miraculously his shaking stopped. In fact, a warm, fuzzy feeling started spreading all over his body. He felt prepared to face the world.
“Alright, it’s almost five. Time to go!” With that, Yao Yuan slammed down his helmet and walked towards the entrance of the shuttle. With an energetic gait, both Jay and Zhang Heng followed.
The exact plan had already been hashed out after an intense discussion between Yao Yuan, representatives from the Academy, and the rest of the Black Star Unit. The mission was appropriately named Operation Hail Mary!
The three generators in the Hope would be simultaneously activated to support the initiation of its anti-gravitational system.
After calculating this planet’s gravity, the Hope would take about half an hour to rise to the height of five thousand feet, that is if the plants that adhered to the ship haven’t completely drained it dry by that point… The success of the mission hinged on the difference between the Hope having its energy passively drained and it actively feeding its energy to the plants.
As the energy output increased, the number of plants was expected to increase as well. When the Hope lifted off the ground, the plan was to pull the plants along with it and hopefully, with a strong enough pull, the heart of the plant could be lifted up into the surface. And that would be when the shuttle would strike.
“The shuttle only has two minutes because after that, its electrical circuit will fry and the anti-gravitational system will be rendered useless. Therefore, we have to insert the virus into the heart of the plants and return to the Hope within these fateful two minutes, or else…”
Yao Yuan sat in the pilot seat and took a deep breath. Then he told Jay, who sat beside him, “So your mission is very important. You have to manipulate this heart to appear within two minutes. I don’t care how you do it; create as ludicrous a lie as you want, just make sure the target appears in two, no, scrap that, one minute. And if you fail, then we will be unable to return to the Hope, and even if we can, the Hope will be stranded on this planet forever…”
“Okay, stop!” Jay slapped his own face, hoping to snap into focus, then he yelled, “I can’t stand that much pressure! Even when I participated in college football, my coach didn’t pressure me so much…”
“Then change that pressure into motivation!” yelled Yao Yuan in return before pulling the engine lever. Sparks flew across the hangar as the shuttle slid across the rails with an incredible speed…
Like a burning arrow, the shuttle shot out of the Hope and into the dark!