At an alt.i.tude of 5,000 meters, the Hope's anti-gravitational system finally regained its usual performance. Its previously slow ascent picked up speed. In the blink of an eye, the russet surrounding of Planet Sahara shifted to the inky black of the cosmos. A collective sigh of relief could be felt all over the Hope as the air of consternation hovering over its residents dispersed. People were celebrating their successful escape from that death trap of a planet.
It was around this time of celebration that Yao Yuan awoke. He was already mighty tired when Jay caught him mid falling. That combined with the many rough tumbles as the shuttle slammed into the Hope had completely knocked him out.
When he regained consciousness, he found himself safely tucked inside a hospital bed. It was a deja-vu experience because the situation was very similar to when he first awoke from Virus X. Doctors and nurses sans the hazmat suits circled him, admitting medicine, check-ups, and bandages.
Pinp.r.i.c.ks of pain shot through his system when he tried moving his hands and feet. The pain was a source of comfort because that meant the plants didn't cause any nerve damage.
"How long have I been unconscious?" croaked Yao Yuan.
After the initial shock, all of the attending doctors were glad to see their major awake. The leading doctor said, "Major, you weren't out of it for long; it was only about ten minutes. However, you survived a harsh tumble before you lost consciousness, and that was without the protection of a s.p.a.ce suit. So, Major, please rest easy while we take a few x-rays to ensure that you aren't suffering from any broken bones and concussions…"
Shaking his head, Yao Yuan adamantly rejected, "Sorry, doctor, I can't do that. Now is not the time to rest. After you are finished with the bandages, bring me a wheelchair. I need to get to central command."
The European middle-aged doctor dithered before finally yielding, "Alright, Major, if you are so inclined… But we hope you will agree to a full body-check after this business is over."
"Of course. I need to know whether those parasitic plant spores had burrowed their way into my body," Yao Yuan joked. Then he took a forty-winks while waiting for the wheelchair to arrive.
He was so tired…
The superhuman state was undoubtedly strong. In fact, they wouldn't have survived Planet Sahara without it. The last mission alone would have been impossible without access to that mysterious state.
Jay and Zhang Heng were, in all senses of the word, the Hope's heroes. Without their powers, the mission would have a zero percent success rate. It was thanks to Jay's power at mental manipulation and Zhang Heng's divination that the virus was deployed so successfully.
The superhuman state came with its own complications though. The exertion it had on one's physical and mental vigor was astronomical. It was enervating. As if proving the point, Yao Yuan spotted out of the corner of his eye both Jay and Zhang Heng soundly asleep. He envied them deeply because his short nap barely helped. What he wouldn't give to lie down there and enjoy a restful sleep.
But he knew it was not the time for sleep.
He could hear the sound of rejoice echoing through the Hope. But for Yao Yuan, it belied people's desperate need for safety and stability. And at the moment, the Hope was everything they had.
Yao Yuan could almost pick out the thread of worry weaving through the cheers because he of all people knew that the Hope's excursion to Planet Sahara was not without its heavy price!
For one, they had lost an incredible amount of energy. The amount of energy that had been drained was ma.s.sive enough to support almost two s.p.a.ce warps!
For another, they had not found any radioactive minerals on the planet. Yao Yuan suspected that these had all already been converted into energy crystals by the plants. All in all, humanity came off worse from the ordeal…
Based on initial reports, the Hope had enough energy left for one more s.p.a.ce warp.
Even if they decided to go on with the s.p.a.ce warp, the numbers were definitely not on their side!
To have the first warp land within a solar system system with a terrestrial planet was already in itself bordering impossibility and the chance of continuing that streak was… indescribably small!
To give the Hope a fighting chance, Yao Yuan had to know exactly how much energy the ship had left. He also needed to have a meeting with the Academy to figure out whether it was possible to unlock the energy crystals found within the plants, and to use them as fuel for the Hope.
With these missions in mind, Yao Yuan steeled his determination as he dragged his bandaged body out of bed.
At that moment, a few lieutenants rushed into the room. They were led by Liu Bai, who, right after stepping into the room, knelt before Yao Yuan to give him a cursory check. "I'm glad that you're doing fine, Ol' Cap'n… By the way, what is your next course of action regarding the capsule of energy crystal you brought back with you? None of us dared to move it without your orders, so it has been left sitting beside the broken shuttle. The scientists have been notified of this, so what's the plan?"
"Energy crystal?" questioned Yao Yuan. He recalled the baggage that he had grasped before falling. He originally thought it housed some sort of mineral.
"The crystal itself should be quite stable. If not, it would have exploded during the tumble… But to be safe, keep it out of the civilians' reach. For all we know, it could be highly radioactive. Let the scientists do their a.n.a.lysis first."
Nodding his head, Liu Bai added earnestly, "Yes, sir… Ol' Cap'n, the doctor told me of your request. I believe you should take a longer rest; G.o.d knows you deserve it."
Yao Yuan only laughed wryly. Other than the few scientists who were directly responsible for the Hope's store of energy, Yao Yuan had told no one about the s.p.a.ceship's dangerously low energy level. He had been trying to breach the topic with the Black Star Unit, but he couldn't do it with so many unrelated personnel in hearing range. He didn't want to sow the seeds of panic.
Ten minutes later, Yao Yuan was already in central command, having a video meeting with the few selected scientists.
"Major, the Hope's current energy level has been calculated… We are relatively confident that it can still support one more s.p.a.ce warp. After that, the remaining energy could keep the Hope running for another 25 days, give or take five days," said a frowning scientist as he glossed over his report.
Yao Yuan guzzled down the tea that someone handed him before replying, "How about solar energy? Hasn't the Hope been using its solar panels to gather solar energy?"
Another scientist interjected to pan the idea. "I'm sorry, Major, but that won't work. The level of energy the Hope uses is too high to be supported by solar energy. Even if we transfer all the solar energy away from the biomes, it can only supplement a third of the ship's total energy consumption. However, due to the importance of the biomes, we really shouldn't do that unless absolutely necessary."
Yao Yuan lowered his head to think. After a minute, he asked, "How about the desert planet? Now that the heart of the plant has been vanquished, couldn't we issue another landing to search for radioactive minerals or to salvage them from the dead plants?"
A cloud of gloom eclipsed the faces of the scientists on the screen. One of them finally said, "That would not be possible… Major, we are sorry to report, but I'm afraid that what you destroyed is only a single heart of the plants."
"A single heart of the plants? What do you mean?" Yao Yuan demanded.
The scientist turned to whisper to one of his interns that were standing by. After a few seconds, a window appeared on screen. It showed the map of Planet Sahara. Circling a spot, the scientist explained, "Major, this area is around where the Hope landed. As you can see, as big as the Hope may be, it occupies only a small s.p.a.ce when viewed in relation to the whole planet's land ma.s.s. However, it didn't take long for the plants to get attached to the Hope. This could only mean that the heart for this particular set of plants wasn't that far away from us. If we take into account the size of the heart that we saw and the size of this planet, we can safely speculate that there are almost forty hearts occupying this planet. They are evenly spread across Planet Sahara, and it was rather fortunate for us to stumble into only one of them…"
The more Yao Yuan looked at the graphs and statistics on screen, the more he was convinced of the scientist's argument. If there really was only one heart, then it meant that they had been extremely unlucky to have landed within its gathering zone. The odds of that happening had also been calculated, it was one over forty… It was not an odd Yao Yuan favored.
In other words, the biggest possibility was that the planet housed more such plant hearts.
"Major, this is why we are incredibly adamant against another landing. This is a chance that we are unwilling to take. We can't afford to have any more energy drained…" the scientist offered despairingly.
Gritting his teeth, Yao Yuan sat brooding. Finally, he sighed. "I understand. We can't gamble with the lives of twelve million people. But s.p.a.ce warping is also a risk, a bigger risk in fact… Then again, since we can't land on this planet, how about other planets in this galaxy? Have there been any other discoveries?"
An astronomer stepped forth to answer. "Major, we have managed to detect six more planets in this galaxy. Three of them are terrestrial planets and the other three are gas giants. But regretfully, getting to the nearest terrestrial planet will take at least one month. The furthest planet requires us to travel for almost a year before we can reach it… In conclusion, they are all too far from where we are. Other than the s.p.a.ce warp technology, the rest of the Hope is equipped with Earth's technology. We still aren't advanced enough to be able to cross great distances in a short span of time."
"Is that so?"
Yao Yuan closed his eyes. After a while, his head dipped. He remained still for so long that the people around him thought that he had accidentally fallen asleep. Suddenly, he said, with a pained expression, "Then do the s.p.a.ce warp. We can't afford to waste more time staying put. We have tried our best and so we shall leave it all to G.o.d. May he smile upon us… We will prepare for the s.p.a.ce warp in an hour. In the meantime, Lieutenant Wong will be the acting captain. It is instrumental to save every single ounce of energy possible because we have to be prepared for all situations…"
Yao Yuan's voice slowed before finally tailing off as he slipped into slumber…
Everyone else who was present gazed silently at their leader's sleeping profile. This was a man who had saved the lives of twelve million people twice; once on Earth and once on Planet Sahara. In the eyes of these men and women shone immeasurable respect and reverence.
The scientists ended the video meeting and then everyone started retreating quietly out of the room. Central command descended into a pool of silence with the exception of Yao Yuan's light snoring and the pitter-patter of receding footsteps…
For the people that left the room, their hearts were as heavy as their footsteps.
They had survived a supposedly doomed planet, a miraculous s.p.a.ce warp, and an industrialized plant species, but what would their future hold? How much longer would this journey be?
No one truly knew…
An hour later, the Hope blinked out of this starry galaxy, erasing all traces of its existence. It was as if it had never really been there…