It was the afternoon of the meeting…
And Zhang Heng was noticeably absent. The reality was that other than Yao Yuan and Guang Zhen, the rest of the Black Stars were exempted from attendance. While the meeting was underway, they were at the fifth-floor gymnasium and shooting range training their marksmanship and close combat skills. Zhang Heng once more was the exception here due to the recent injuries he had suffered. Hence that fateful afternoon, he had his schedule wide open.
It was then too that Zhang Heng realized how much power his title of sergeant carried. He had spent the whole day marveling at the amount of benefits a simple title could confer.
Noah Two had a total of six levels. The civilians were limited to the lower three levels and their own designated campgrounds. Trespassers and violators would be warned and repeated offenders would be arrested.
Limitation for scientists and technicians were looser; they could technically roam freely between levels one to four, but due to safety measures, whenever they wanted to leave level four, which was the Academy and Workshop, they needed attending guards. And since there were only one thousand and five hundred soldiers available, requests for descent into the civilian's campgrounds weren't issued and passed often. Things were similar when they had the desire to ascend to the fifth level in that requests were required, though direct access was given if they were members of specialized units that had their laboratories or places of work at that level.
The military was allowed free access to all areas except the sixth floor, which was restricted to only the leading officials of the three districts. Nevertheless, due to a limited number of soldiers, the military normally was assigned to guard or patrol duty and weren't free to wander around Noah Two.
Zhang Heng, as an extended member of the Black Star Unit, was granted unrestrained access to all areas within Noah Two. Due to his unique position as a relatively non-combative member of the technical community, he was also always accompanied by two selected black-star guards1 whenever he stepped out of level five, and it certainly didn't hurt that the pair that was assigned to him were two drop dead gorgeous women.
Zhang Heng was secretly gratified by the special treatment, but he wasn't supercilious enough to let his feelings show on his face. As he patrolled the third level residential campgrounds, he was heartened to notice the undercurrent of order that presided over the ostentatious hustle and bustle. The gloom that had initially settled over the Tennessean base had all but dispersed and it had been replaced by a sense of camaraderie and jollity. Even though they were originally from different cultural backgrounds, the people seemed to slowly settle into the realization that they had entered a new era, a more hopeful era, with their newfound neighbors.
As Zhang Heng made his rounds, he passed by a group that was made up of a few Chinese families. They were discussing the issue of ration portions. They were in agreement that having the ration be portioned out according to body sizes was fair since there were few bulky individuals that survived the ordeal long enough to get on the Noah Two. This prevented unnecessary wastage.
From the way the group members addressed each other, it appeared that they were neighbors since before the world fell apart. Their discussion continued on the topic of rations but it had moved on to the issue of excess. Because the families still had elders and children, they would end up with leftovers almost daily. They were discussing ways to deal with the wastage.
"Maybe the government could release a form of currency," offered a slightly paunchy young man. "Do hear me out; I'm an economics student. Currently, the ship has about twelve million people; it's a veritable city-state. The rationing system the government is currently adopting could only work short-term. Its issues of wastage and disorganization aside, if this continues long term, the biggest negative impact it will have is its psychological implication. One or two years down the road, this system is bound to breed negligence and exhaustion. Just take a look at the soldiers who have food and water dissemination duties; even though they have a better housing situation on the fifth level, compared to everyone else on that level, their workload is ridiculous. They have to be on duty twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week. Now everything's still okay because everyone's still in their initial high, but as time passes, this can't be good for their morale."
A nearby middle-aged man who had in one hand his young daughter and in another his wife chipped in. "That is true… We're essentially trapped in space; there's nothing around to threaten us other than the evil in people's hearts, especially those armed forces… We've experienced ourselves how quickly power corrupts and how easily these people who were supposed to protect us could turn on us… But thankfully, the government of this spaceship has shown themselves to be trustworthy2."
The rest of the group sighed in agreement.
Zhang Heng was incredibly shaken up by what he overheard. Before this, he was merely a guileless teen. Thanks to his father's position as a government official, all he knew were his women and his electronic toys. He was completely insensitive to the undertows of societal rules and norms. Therefore, the more he listened to this group of people, the more he bought into their agenda that people around him could prove him harm. Unconsciously, he stole a glance at the two guards behind him and they appeared unaffected. They seemed to be busy keeping watch over their surroundings.
This made Zhang Heng even more paranoid, suspicious of their insouciance being a front to mask the fact that they could understand Mandarin and were plotting some insidious plan to undermine the safety of Noah Two. This paranoia combined with his existing injuries assaulted his sense of wellbeing. Feeling suddenly dwarfed by the surrounding cosmos, feelings of anxiety, consternation, loneliness, and fear flooded his mind.
His vision blurred and before he collapsed under the extreme duress, he felt a sensation of heat surge through his body…
As he faded out of consciousness, he tumbled into a chasm of dread and disquietude.
Back in the conference room, the discussion was well underway.
"From our observations thus far, this planet's surface is an expanding desert terrain. Okay, I can see that a few of the meteorologists are already raring to interject. I know the planet's weather patterns aren't tempestuous enough to support this observation, but I'm not here to debate that. I'm just relaying a fact…"
The current speaker was the geology academic committee's director. He was a strapping man in his forties who looked more like a boxer than a geologist due to the way he was built. Nevertheless, it was this incongruity that had often impressed others when they realized he held such high regard within the scientific community.
He continued, "As I was saying, the planet's a giant desert. We were unable to spot any water sources from our telescopes. Weirdly enough, other geological structures like bluffs, ridges, plateaus, and hills were also absent. Furthermore, I would like to add that this condition is not caused by natural desertification. Based on the findings of the astronomical committee that was released this afternoon, it was shown that this planet's age is similar to Earth's. In other words, this means that its timeline's not sufficient enough to support desertification. All of these facts led my committee to come up with a conclusion…
This planet's atmosphere contains corrosive elements that will erode everything that comes into contact with it! That's the only explanation for the degree of dehydration and sandification that we're seeing on its surface! If we are to insist on landing, it will be akin to us willingly jumping into an acid pool! Such foolishness!"
What followed such a shocking announcement were claims of confusion and stupefaction. Amidst the uproars, the man took a silent bow and retreated from the podium, leaving behind a strepitous conference hall.
Frowning, Yao Yuan turned to the director of the meteorological committee who was scheduled to speak next. However, the female head meteorologist was engaged in a heated consultation with the rest of her committee. It wouldn't be any time soon that she would take the podium. Without a choice, Yao Yuan took to the stage. What he was hoping to do then was at least temporarily palliate the uneasiness and tumult brought upon by the chief geologist's announcement. Its validity aside, he knew that what Noah Two needed then was a confirmation of hope. They had been surviving on hope for so long that to have it violently extinguished would send a rippling, irreparable, psychological strain throughout the whole of Noah Two…
A successful landing would rekindle much hope for their community! Despite its possible dangers, the landing must proceed! That was his decision!
As Yao Yuan stepped towards the podium, he snuck a look outside the window beside him. The darkness that greeted him sent a chill down his spine…
[Space is such a dangerous place; once man steps out of the protection of the spaceship, he's as vulnerable as he could possibly be… What's truly frightening is that despite its size, the cosmos feels like a soul-crushing cage. It traps one with its infinite size. Since it's infinitely huge, there will never be a way out…]
Right then, a few soldiers dashed into the conference room. Disregarding the curious stares of the scientists, they rushed ahead to Yao Yuan's side where one of them detached to whisper something in Yao Yuan's ear. The scientist nearest to them managed to catch a snippet of the conversation, it sounded like, "...seventy-three people, including twelve black…"
Yao Yuan's facial expression dropped for a few seconds before returning to normal as he was being relayed the report. In a low voice, he issued his orders back to the attending soldier before waving Guang Zhen over.
Guang Zhen, who was already on alert when the soldiers rushed in, quickly jogged to join Yao Yuan. Lowering his volume, he hissed, "What's happening? You don't look too good. Is there a problem of riot?"
Yao Yuan shook his head. "No, I suspect the ship's exposed to some kind of unknown virus. Every Black Star except you and me are infected and are running high fevers; even Zhang Heng was not spared. I suspect Ning Bo Tao might have released a biohazard when we were in the police station. Currently, within Noah Two, there are seventy-three people that are running high temperatures. They need to be quarantined immediately. Ol' Wong, now you must…" right then, Yao Yuan saw black ink blots bursting before his eyes. Concentrating his immense focus, he steeled himself through the vertiginous sensation. As the feeling passed, he felt a chilling fear caress his heart, and he hastily continued, "I think I may be infected too. To be safe, quarantine me as well. In the meantime, Ol' Wong, I want you to secure the mili…"
Before he could finish, Yao Yuan felt darkness claim him. As he fell into it, he could hear cries of shock and turmoil erupting around him.
Within the fuzzy darkness, despite still sharing a concrete link to his corporeal body, all Yao Yuan could feel was an eerie desolation overloading his senses…
It was as if his spirit had been plucked out of his body and dropped into an empty void. After a while though, Yao Yuan could see the darkness that was enveloping him receding as wisps of light started emanating from within his own self. As the area around him brightened, he noticed other effervescent orbs of varying brightnesses floating around his periphery. There were seventy-three orbs in total and he was the brightest and biggest of them all…
1. Members of the eighty-something unit that Yao Yuan hand-picked. They wear a black-star pin.
2. The original text was "at least the government's Chinese". Efforts have been made to filter out the nationalist sentiment.