It was a mixed bag of emotions when the expedition party found out about the possibility of the Hope landing on the planet soon. They were happy because this meant a greater chance for their survival, but they were also simultaneously worried because the landing would mean more innocent deaths in the face of those monsters!
Ying slammed his fist into the shuttle wall and gravely said, "We must reach that approaching shuttle and use its communicator to warn the Hope!"
Ying's directive was met by a room of silence until Liu Bai spoke up. "Ying, calm down. First, you need to understand that it's night time right now. This planet doesn't have something that's akin to Earth's moon that can reflect the sun's light at night, so it's literally a world of darkness outside. And since we only prepared for a scouting mission that was supposed to last for three hours, we did not pack any lighting equipment. Furthermore…
"There's still those creature outside to worry about…"
At this juncture, Ebon said, in a shaky voice, "Those are indeed monstrous creatures. There is no chance for communication nor negotiation…"
Ying rushed to Ebon's side, peering at his struggling friend grimly before finally asking, "Those were some sick moves you demonstrated out there. Was it because of…"
It took him much effort, but Ebon grinned and replied, "It was an out-of-body feeling. Didn't you experience it as well? When I was in that condition, I could clearly sense that those creatures had no mental faculty nor sentient consciousness. Their only intention with regards to us was… to feast, or more specifically, to drink. There was a deep hunger for liquid in those creatures. They would risk their lives for even just one drop of water. Ying, don't go out there to go searching for that shuttle, and don't let your concern cloud your judgment."
Ying stood up, shook his head, and gave himself a loud slap, hoping it would clear his mind. He took a few deep breaths before continuing, "Yes, Ebon, you are right. I was in that condition as well, but mine was different from yours. I couldn't sense their consciousness; instead, I was gifted with a clear vision of my surroundings. It was as if I was seeing with my mind's eye, and no matter the distance, everything was crystal clear… It's hard to put the sensation in words, but it felt something like that."
Turning to the scientists, Ying resumed, "Everyone, I will now describe every detail that I've observed about those creatures. And I would like you to confirm how they detect our location."
Ying recounted everything he had noted about those creatures down to the smallest detail. His audience of scientists was rapt. As Ying finished his tale, the biologist among the group offered, "If you're absolutely certain that the creature has no exterior organs, including eyes, nostrils, and ears, then I am fairly certain that their needle-like apparatuses act as sensors, probably highly sensitive ones at that. Like how echolocation works in bats, the needles are mostly used to detect surface vibrations."
Ebon, who was lying at the side interjected, "And water… I have a strong feeling that they are extremely attracted to water."
The biologist, however, shook his head. "We depend on scientific method and not intuition. We can't come to conclusions like that without any actual evidence…"
Surprising everyone, a scientist beside him added, "That might not be true. We may actually have the evidence to support his observation…"
The room turned towards this scientist. He was the lead meteorologist, the man who suggested that the planet's air was corrosive during the conference meeting.
He went on. "It is no secret fact that this planet having only a desert surface despite its young age is a scientific mystery. Since we've ruled out the possibility of wind erosion and acidic corrosion, then it must have been caused by something else. This mysterious reason aside, the possibility that a species can survive on this planet where not a single trace of water could be found shouldn't be dismissed." Turning to the biologist, he continued, "As you should know, all carbon-based lifeforms require water to survive. Take us as an example, we would die without water. So, they're either like us or they are silicon-based creatures that don't require water to function. The fact that these creatures physically grow and reproduce after liquid intake points to the simple conclusion that they need water. According to the theory of natural selection, all creatures evolve towards the direction that best helps them reproduce and survive. Contrary to what you have suggested, I believe that these sensory needles were the result of their evolution to aid them in triangulating water sources, not vibrations. They sense us through the water particles in our sweat and our breath."
The biologist was flabbergasted by the lead meteorologist's argument. It didn't take long for him to cede his position. "Indeed, you are probably correct. However, that doesn't mean that I'm wrong, because those needles might be able to sense both water and vibrations…"
After the back-and-forth between the two scientists, Ying suggested, "If we were to put on the s.p.a.ce suits and helmets and breath only the air within them, how long would we last?"
The room quieted down as everyone rushed off to give it a test. The result was satisfactory. They found out that one could last about fifteen minutes in the suit before the air inside become overly saturated with carbon dioxide.
Liu Bai shook his head at this result. "It can't be counted this way. The rate at which we consume oxygen when we are standing still is drastically different from when we're moving or running. Ying, I understand where you're coming from, but we won't last more than five minutes trekking through the desert using only the air in our s.p.a.ce suits. Five minutes is the limit I'm giving; going on for more than that will only lead to suffocation and asphyxiation."
"Five minutes, you say?" pondered Ying as he paced the room, before finally stopping in front of Zhang Heng.
This gave Zhang Heng quite a shock. He quickly protested, "Please don't use me as an experiment! I'm so much less qualified than you people, and I haven't even had any formal military training!"
Shaking his head, Ying explained, "We're not going to use you for some twisted experiment… But Zhang Heng, I want you to tell me, remember before when Chen Wei stepped towards Ebon? Why did you yell out a warning then? I thought that the creature was still hidden beneath the sand at the time. There shouldn't have been anything you could notice that would prompt you to yell out that warning!"
Zhang Heng hesitated before answering, "You guys are probably not going to believe me, but when Chen Wei took that step, I suddenly felt like the world had gone quiet. It was an eerie serenity, silencing all of your voices and gunfire. It was like the world had been peeled away. During that weird moment, my mind was blasted with a flash of prophecy. I could somehow tell that Chen Wei was going to meet his end in the next two seconds. It was a weird experience. Told you it was hard to believe."
Instead of confusion, which Zhang Heng was expecting, Ying appeared to be relieved. In a serious tone, Ying told Zhang Heng, "I believe you. Even though you, myself, and Ebon have all gone through that mysterious experience, it was different for every single one of us. However, it was clear that we were in some sort of superhuman condition. Ebon could sense malicious intentions and respond accordingly, I was granted super vision, and yours… has something to do with divination. In any case, all the weirdness that happened has been explained.
"Everyone, I will now lay down my plans. After I finish, you can decide whether you will follow me to go intercept that shuttle.
"First, we will leave this shuttle in the s.p.a.ce suits. With the help of a timer, we will allow a change of air every five minutes. Zhang Heng, during these brief windows of vulnerability, I want you focus your attention. As soon as you can see those creatures approaching, yell out their direction… To make things uniformed and easy, use the clock as a direction indicator. For example, if the thing comes out from our northern side, you yell 'twelve o'clock.' Then, I'll try to reenter my superhuman state to snipe those b.a.s.t.a.r.ds!
"Listen, I know that the plan is foolish and rash… but I believe this is the best bet we have. Ask yourselves: are the lives of thirty-two really more important than the lives of twelve million people? We have to think of the innocent people that are on the Hope; we can't just send them to their deaths without trying our best to stop it.
"Dawn will come in about half an hour. Until then, make your decision whether to follow or not…"
After that, Ying strode off to a corner of the room and slept. He even started snoring, not at all worried about the death mission that awaited him.
The rest of the soldiers were heavily conflicted. Zhang Heng opened his mouth multiple times, but actual words never came out… His intuition told him that if he dared to request a retraction of his involvement in the upcoming mission, Ying would personally shoot him dead.
As dawn broke, a total of twelve soldiers volunteered to join Ying because these men had their children, wives, and parents on the Hope.
Liu Bai also decided to join Ying's operation. Without necessary medicine and facilities, there was no reason for the field medic to remain with Ebon. Even though some of the scientists had also volunteered to follow, Ying denied their requests. Ying was given explicit orders to preserve the safety of these scientists before they left for the planet, so he was adamant that all of the scientists must stay behind in the shuttle.
Right as the small party stepped out of the shuttle entrance, Ebon, with the last bit of his energy, shouted, "FOR GLORY."
"OR FOR DEATH!" finished Ying and Liu Bai in unison as the pair led the way out into the open desert.