Encountering a nebula in space is not something that is particularly rare. At least, it is more common than encountering a neutron star or a supernova.
A nebula is a diffusive matter that spreads over a massive stretch of space, and the larger among them could cover more than ten light years of distance. To put that into perspective, a ray of sunlight needs almost nine hours to travel from the sun to Pluto. Humans, with our current technology, would take nine years to travel from Earth to Pluto, and that is if the party doesn’t perish in the perilous journey!
When one considers that a light-year is equivalent to the distance light travels in a year, or 9.5 trillion kilometers, the fact that a nebula could be more than ten light-years in size is mind-boggling…
It is simply impossible for man to travel across such a distance. The journey would take about one hundred thousand years, a number that is even bigger than the age of human civilization!
That was why when Yao Yuan was given the news that the Hope was stuck in the middle of a nebula, his expression instantly dimmed. Even though they still hadn’t figured out how big the nebula was, the smallest of them would be one light-year in size. Getting the Hope out of that alone would be a task bordering on the impossible!
He knew that the Hope’s store of energy couldn’t support another space warp. They only had enough energy left to keep the Hope running at its optimum settings for another 25 days… Even if they turned off all the unnecessary electrical systems and channeled all that energy to the engine room, getting out of the nebula would be inconceivable.
At the end of the day, no matter how hard they tried to conserve energy, the Hope would retain at most 30 more days of normal functions… After that, the Hope would be nothing more than a glorified space coffin!
To leave the nebula in under 30 days… that was truly a fool’s dream…
“So, a nebula… Has the Academy found out how big this nebula is?” Yao Yuan sighed resignedly.
The scientists were at a loss. Only Alan came forth to answer. “Major, no, we haven’t, and we couldn’t even if we wanted to… With our current technology, we can’t tell you exactly how big this nebula is. Major, you have to understand that everything we currently know about nebulas is speculation. We could try to calculate the distance based on known hypotheses and formulas, but how valid those results would be… There is no guarantee.
“Also, this nebula is covered in a layer of static charge. This blue sheen we are witnessing is evidence of that. This is another hindrance because we don’t have the technology to analyze static charges. Furthermore, our telescope can’t see past this static layer to analyze the nebula’s inner matter… So, there is no conclusive way of telling how big this nebula is, nor how far we are from its edges.”
The gravity of their situation was brought to the forefront with Alan’s frank words. Suffocated by despair, the room went silent.
Even Yao Yuan could only muster a lame response. “is that so..?”
Shattering the silence, a young man offered timidly, “Actually, we still might have one last hope left…”
Everyone in the room turned to look at the young man. His face immediately registered in Yao Yuan’s mind. This was the young man who first figured out that the alien plant species would not have been immunized against Earth’s plant virus.
Yao Yuan said, “I remember you. It is thanks to your brilliant hypothesis that we had a fighting chance at escaping Planet Sahara. Tell me, what’s your name?”
The young man, who appeared to have an Arabian and European mixed heritage, faltered before answering, “My name is Ivan Mohammed bin Rashad… My friend usually calls me Ivan. You can call me that too, sir.”
“It is nice to make your acquaintance, Ivan. You’ve mentioned a last hope, what would that be?” encouraged Yao Yuan.
Ivan was obviously stressed out by the weight of all the attention. Even though he had been recently promoted from a temporary intern to an official member of the Academy, he was still a bright-eyed teen in his early twenties. To know that the lives of twelve million people hinged on his hypothesis was a big pressure to bear.
He took some time arranging his thoughts before voicing them carefully. “Major, my suggestion has nothing to do with the nebula because that is not my field of study… But I do know that we have to get out it and the Hope might still have an emergency store of energy to help us accomplish that!”
Intrigue was palpable in the room. At that moment, Yao Yuan could hear a voice in his head, whispering two fateful words,
The two words were simultaneously echoed by Ivan. With a serious tone, he continued, “Based on our previous experiment, the alien plants have to absorb at least one million watts of electricity to form a 0.1 cubic millimeters sized energy crystal…”
Yao Yuan interjected, “Wait a minute, by watts, do you mean… du? That is 0.1 cubic millimeters of energy crystal contains five million Du of electrical energy, is that correct?
“Du?” All of the scientists, including Ivan, frowned at this unfamiliar term.
Bo Li, who was still standing beside Yao Yuan, muttered under her breath, “Dumbass,” before adding more clearly, “Yes, one thousand watts is equal to one du of electricity. Watts is the technical term, while du is what we Chinese use colloquially.”
Yao Yuan smiled half-heartedly at Bo Li, and urged Ivan to continue.
“If we calculate the conversion rate, the energy crystal Major carried back, which is about 1.5 billion cubic millimeters, contains one trillion and fifty billion  watts of energy!” said Ivan excitedly.
Not only were Yao Yuan and the rest of the Black Stars appropriately stunned, even some of the scientists had to ask Ivan to repeat what he just said. “How much did you say again?”
“One trillion and fifty billion watts!”
Ivan repeated affirmatively. He then retrieved from his backpack a stack of calculated data which he proceeded to pass around the room. Referring to the data, he said, “Of course, we have to take into account the amount of energy that is lost in the conversion process itself. The plants aren’t superconductors, so a 100 percent conversion rate is impossible to achieve. After consulting with the psychics committee, we have come to a safe assumption that for every one hundred thousand watts the plant has absorbed, it will be converted into an energy crystal with one thousand watts of stored energy.
“So with that in mind, the energy crystal that Major carried with him should contain around one billion and fifty million watts of energy!”
The talk of numbers, and astronomical numbers at that, had Yao Yuan’s head spinning. He murmured half-dazedly, “Wait, give a minute to process all this… In the year 2026, Earth’s total consumption of electricity was around one billion watts… Ivan, are you telling me that the small, basketball-sized crystal contains enough energy to power Earth’s whole population for one whole year?!”
Ivan stood by his calculation by asserting, “Major, and everyone else, I know this is hard to believe, but the math doesn’t lie. Of course, there might be some miscalculations along the way, but the difference would not be big enough to affect the final number… The biggest problem now is how do we tap into this reserve of energy? The technology behind the formation of this energy crystal is way beyond our current scientific comprehension. We have trouble even understanding it, much less unlocking its stored energy.”
That dropped the room into another period of silence, but before long, Bo Li started speaking.
Bo Li felt submerged again into that serene sensation and a familiar voice started whispering in her ears. She felt compelled to repeat it.
“Let him who ties the knot untie it…”
Everyone in the room, with the sole exception of one, was befuddled by the cryptic sentence. It was Yao Yuan who instantly grasped the intended meaning.
“Indeed, our current technology couldn’t understand these crystals, but we do have the technology that can!” Yao Yuan sprang up excitedly. Almost shouting, he intoned, “if the alien plant can convert energy into crystal form, perhaps we can induce it to conduct the process in reverse! This is perhaps our best shot yet!
“We still have samples of those alien plants in the lab, right? Do be careful, but you are free to use them to experiment on the energy crystal!
“Postpone the Academy’s other ongoing projects! I want the whole of the Academy to focus on this one task! This is our last lifeline, people! Understand that you have thirty days to make this work! Dismissed!”
- The original number is one trillion and fifty million billion watts which can’t be right because fifty million billion is already bigger than one trillion. So the numbers here and in the rest of the text have been adjusted accordingly.