Age of Cosmic Exploration – Chapter 43

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Let the Hope Fly! (2)

 

 

Time cruelly moved on, paying no heed to the many lives that wished for it to slow down…

 

At about ten meters away from their destination, the anti-gravitational system was keeping the shuttle barely afloat. Its rocket engine was too damaged to manage more than a slow crawl. But the reality was that they didn’t have the time to slowly inch towards their target.

 

Yao Yuan sat silently at his seat before getting up abruptly and rushing to the shuttle entrance. He yelled, “You two keep the shuttle balanced. You don’t need to pilot it, just keep it balanced!”

 

On the way to the door, Yao Yuan swiped a black box that was hanging on the wall. Before the two men realized what was happening, Yao Yuan was already prepared to jump out of the shuttle. Secured only by a safety cable, Yao Yuan held in one hand the black box and in the other an army knife as he jumped over the distance that separated them from the heart of the plants.

 

With a little pre-jump acceleration, it was technically not a hard gap to close. But to jump with the realization that a slip could cost one’s life was mind-blowing enough to stun both Zhang Heng and Jay. After they managed to recollect themselves, the two men looked at each other and said, almost in unison, “Do you know how to control a shuttle?”

 

To which the answer was a collective silence.

 

Part of Yao Yuan’s willingness to commit to that jump was his faith in the tensile strength of the security cable. The rope was made for usage in space, so it was at least one hundred meters long and as strong as steel. With its help, Yao Yuan flung himself across the chasm. In mid-flight, at a distance where he could reach out and literally touch the outer wall of the heart, Yao Yuan unsheathed his knife and stuck it firmly into the wall.

 

Inertia dragged him further down another ten meters. When he finally stopped sliding, he quickly removed the knife. To his horror, the blade disintegrated right before his eyes. Missing not even a beat, he tossed the knife away and stuck one of his hands into the open crack in the wall while the other hand frantically unlocked the black box.

 

Resting within the box were three thick hypodermic syringes filled with plant virus. Because they were strapped within their case, they were hard to release using only one hand. In an effort to maintain his balance, Yao Yuan had to lean half of his upper body into the crack. When he felt relatively secured, he moved his hand out of the crack to help with the syringe strap only to realize the spacesuit around his hand had already been completely eaten.

 

That might, however, turn out to be a blessing in disguise because for a job as delicate as fiddling with a strap, the protection of a space suit might be more of a hindrance than an aid. During that moment, Yao Yuan unconsciously entered a state of deep calm and all his powers decided to kick into high gear. Within that peaceful cocoon of silence, the details of his surroundings were rising up to meet him, a voice was in his head was offering guidance, and a deep attunement to the emergence of danger and malice was forged. In a way, he felt very much unlike his human self.

 

With his hand curled firmly around the syringe, he wiggled his hand out of the box and fiercely shoved the syringe into the heart’s outer wall!

 

As predicted by the scientists, as soon as the virus was injected, the plant started shriveling. In a matter of seconds, the lush outer walls turned into a dry husk.

 

Despite having the world around him falling apart, Yao Yuan stayed in his position. He was silently timing himself. With a sudden burst of speed, instead of turning back out, Yao Yuan picked himself up and charged deeper into the heart. Ignoring the fact that his spacesuit was slowly breaking apart, he stormed ahead while each of his hands were gripping the remaining two syringes tightly.  

 

Back on the shuttle, a crisp snap could be heard. When both Jay and Zhang Heng twisted their heads around, what they saw was the end of cable flapping in the wind…

 

“That crazy man! He really does want to be humanity’s savior, does he not? Why did I believe him when he said he had faith in me?!” Jay growled angrily as he sprinted towards the pilot seat.

 

“Zhang Heng, be prepared to raise our elevation! Get this thing higher!”

 

Jay grabbed hold of another secured security cable and tied it to his spacesuit. However, as he neared the open door, the fire that had been burning in his eyes seemed to have dwindled. He started to hesitate.

 

“Damn that man! His faith in me is going to cost both of our lives!”

 

Yelling, Jay jumped out of the shuttle…

 

“Thirty-one seconds, thirty seconds…”

 

At the same time, Yao Yuan was essentially squeezing blindly ahead. He couldn’t confidently tell what direction he was going in in the semi darkness, but he knew that he had been circling around a basketball-sized object. It had left such an impression on him because its sturdy exterior felt so drastically different from the plump plant fibers.

 

As a realization dawned upon him, he swiftly pierced the two syringes into the object. Then he pressed down hard on them, injecting every single drop of the virus into it.

 

Right there and then, Yao Yuan felt an overwhelming emotion sweep over him. It was fear. Pure and unfettered fear. Before he could understand it, the pressure that had been pressing in on him suddenly released. The walls that he had been squeezing through had shriveled and shrunk. Before him, a semi-transparent capsule was revealed. The capsule was connected to numerous transference pipes and those pipes themselves were connected to more capsules that Yao Yuan realized littered the room. He surveyed his surroundings and realized that he had been standing in the heart of the plant all along. Unlike how the Academy had speculated, the heart was not a giant capsule but rather a room filled with a sea of capsules, each containing a type of mineral or energy crystal.

 

The spot where Yao Yuan had stuck the syringes were near the bottom of one such capsule. Yao Yuan could see the virus spread across the plant through the interconnecting tubes. Beginning from that one capsule, the plant started to wilt.  

 

More plant walls started to collapse as the virus travelled through the tubes. In less than ten seconds, it had even reached the tendrils underneath the Hope, killing them in one go. This was a testament to how strong and advanced these plants’ lives were, a strength that ironically enough became its downfall.

 

Caught in the collapse, Yao Yuan lost his footing and started falling towards the ground. Only then did he realize that he was almost naked; the spacesuit and the security cable had entirely fallen away. What he had on him was only the basketball-esque object that he instinctively grabbed before falling.

 

(Is this the end?)

 

With the wilting plants raining down around him, Yao Yuan closed his eyes, preparing to make his peace.

 

(Mission accomplished… Finally, it’s accomplished…)

 

(I did not opt for the easy way out. I stuck with it through to the end…)

 

(I did not fail you this time…)

 

(But I’m so tired now…)

 

Suddenly, Yao Yuan could hear something cutting through the air. Unexpectedly, the thing slammed into him, almost taking his breath away. Before he could make sense of the situation, a pair of hands caught him from behind and his falling came to a sudden halt. Then he started rising in accelerating speed.

 

“Damn, I know you see yourself as Superman, but is that really necessary?!”

 

The voice behind him said sarcastically. Instantly, Yao Yuan registered that as Jay’s voice. Saying that it was a shock for the military expert was an understatement. He never expected rescue, much less one from a professional conman. If he was being honest, he doubted even his Black Star comrades would have the guts to do what Jay just did.

 

He kept all of his shock to himself, but his impression of this supposed criminal had improved manifold. He was, after all, a realist, and they had about ten seconds to use the shuttle to return to the Hope. In other words, they were still in great danger, so it was not the place nor the time to be gushy with feelings.

 

Jay added earnestly, “I have to ask: why you had to say you have faith in me? Who would have faith in a professional liar?”

 

“Ah, that… No matter the reasons, you followed me onto the shuttle. That showed you have faith in me… I’m just doing the same, because is that not what partners and comrades do?” Yao Yuan replied nonchalantly, reflecting none of the dangers they were in.

 

Back in the shuttle, sweat was pouring down Zhang Heng’s face as his fingers flew over the control panel’s buttons. It was true that he had not personally driven a shuttle, but he had been the passenger of many such vehicles before. From his memories, he could piece together the method to operate the machine. In any case, there weren’t any other choices. Somewhat miraculously, he managed to switch on what was left of the rocket engine and the shuttle slowly ground its way towards the Hope.

 

The Hope too was climbing in height, but because of its size, it climbed at a slower speed than the smaller shuttle. Nevertheless, at that moment, the Hope was already six hundred meters off the ground while the shuttle was still hovering at around three hundred meters from the ground…

 

“Ten seconds, nine seconds, eight seconds…”

 

“Please move faster! I will not fail my father, who gave his life for mine, Yao Yuan, and the Black Stars who gave me ample opportunity. The respect that I’ve earned, the friends…” Zhang Heng started bawling like a child as he navigated the shuttle towards the Hope. “…and the life that I’ve made, the man that I’ve become… I will not give up now!”

 

“Four seconds, three seconds, two seconds…”

 

They were so close to the Hope that Zhang Heng could even spot the crowd standing by the ship’s cabin entrance. They were waving their hands and yelling. Among them were a bunch of familiar faces: there were many of the Black Stars, Ying, Liu Bai, Ebon, Ning Xue, Mao Miao, Bo Li, and…

 

There had never been such a moment in Zhang Heng’s life where the wish to live, to keep on adventuring with his friends, was so visceral…

 

“One second, zero…”

 

“It’s time to let the Hope fly!”

 

In spite of the completed countdown, the shuttle’s anti-gravitational system hadn’t gone completely haywire. But it was obvious that it had met its limits, as smoke started spluttering out of its many corners. It was as if the shuttle was channeling Zhang Heng’s desperate desire to live as it dragged its broken body towards the finish line…

 

An explosion at the rear end of the shuttle announced the death of the anti-gravitational system. As if planned, blow-back from the explosion gave the shuttle a final push, flinging it into the Hope’s open hangar. It slid across the floor before coming to a stop by slamming into a metallic wall.

 

The impact flattened Zhang Heng onto the control panel, knocking him on the side of his head. Before he lost consciousness, he could vaguely hear the crowd cheering. It sounded so happy, so carefree…

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