Three days after that, at about three in the afternoon, a prototype of the mining airship was assembled. After that, it was sent to the Workshop to be fitted with simple AI and an autopilot system.
It was already nine at night when all the necessary components were added. However, with the exception of internet cafes, which normal citizens couldn't afford and specialists had no time to visit, the Hope did not have much of a night life. Therefore, even though testing of the prototype could very well go deep into the night, everyone on the team was in support of working late.
While being remotely piloted by an experienced engineer, the prototype took its first shaky steps into space.
Looking at the surveillance monitor, Yao Yuan nodded approvingly. "This remote control system is working brilliantly. Is it possible to have all the airships be remotely controlled so that we can cut the risk of having people inside?"
The engineer shook his head, explaining, "Major, I'm sorry to report, but this remote control system is only usable within a short distance. Due to interference, like radioactive and intergalactic waves, control will be lost after ten kilometers…
"Furthermore, the meteorite cluster has a complicated landscape. I doubt a remote-controlled airship will be able to traverse it well."
Yao Yuan debated before ceding to the engineer's argument. His days in the military had introduced him to the usage of drones. He had learned how complex terrain could prove fatal to remotely controlled devices.
Then, a soldier walked into the room. He was summoned because he used to be an operator for military drones.
On the monitor, the prototype could be seen slowly wading out from the Hope. It had a slow waddle, but it appeared to be extremely receptive. Whenever the operator issued a command, the prototype would instantly follow.
"Next, let us increase its speed to 70 percent," suggested the engineer.
After the operator pressed on a button on the remote control, a burst of flame came out of the prototype's combustion engine. The prototype, propelled by the flame, gained a burst of speed, exposing its weaknesses in the process. It showed signs of delayed reaction when it was ordered to brake or turn under high speeds.
Test driving took almost an hour, and Yao Yuan left with another stack of reports.
Experts unanimously agreed that the prototype was relatively stable. It had the quality of a 21st century product.
Nevertheless, its propulsion system, especially in terms of its lack of speed increase and negative influence on dexterity, left much to be desired. This was, however, the nature of a rocket-based propulsion system. Without a magnetic propulsion system, which man's technology at the time didn't allow, these issues weren't going to be easily fixed.
This, however, did not mean that the experts didn't give it their best shot. Right after the test drive was wrapped up, an emergency meeting was held to improve and modify the propulsion system. An agreement was made to decrease the power of the system since the small airship would not require such powerful propulsion. This in turn preserved the airship's natural dexterity…
With that, another series of tests was implemented…
Zhang Heng could be found in the simulation chamber. He was practicing his piloting skills because he was personally ordered by Yao Yuan to pilot the official mining airship. It was an honor, but to be frank, he was quite miffed. "Why has an important, and not to mention deadly, mission fallen on my shoulders again" was the question he was struggling with.
A question to which Yao Yuan answered, "Because you're the only Diviner we have on the Hope. Having access to visions of incoming danger allows you enough time to push the airship's ejector button, which will propel you out into space. Its life support will keep you alive for about another hour while the Hope moves to rescue you. In other words, you're our safest bet."
That was why Zhang Heng was miffed. It was all in all a solid argument, one that he couldn't refute. That was also the explanation as to why he had been lugging his long face around the Hope for the past two days.
"Hey, Zhang Heng, where's the meal you promised you were going to treat us to today?"
A female voice asked. He turned to see Ning Xue and Mao Miao staring at him. Ning Xue folded her arms, looking at him accusingly, while Mao Miao stared innocently.
Zhang Heng was stumped before finally remembering his promise to the ladies when they dropped by his house to have dinner a few days ago. The topic of discussion was about how their monthly allowance of 120 H-coins as students could barely afford them anything beyond the basics.
Ever since boarding the Hope, Zhang Heng had gotten much closer to both Ning Xue and Mao Miao. For one, they were in each other's debt, and for another, all three of them were around the age of seventeen to eighteen.
In a weak bout of machismo, Zhang Heng boasted about his considerable salary as a lieutenant and the many benefits that were accorded to him. One thing led to another, and dinner ended with him promising the two ladies a scrumptious meal at the Barracks' Restaurant the coming Saturday.
And today was a Saturday…
Laughing awkwardly, Zhang Heng hedged, "Right, today is a Saturday… Okay, a promise is a promise."
The two girls squealed in delight as Zhang Heng led the way to the restaurant.
The Barracks' Restaurant was only a name since its clientele was beyond the members of the Barracks. Its name and location was such because it was directly owned by the government. Nevertheless, it was the best eatery there was on the Hope. It was staffed with the best chefs and freshest ingredients. It was the place people visited when they had an occasion to splurge on.
When they were seated, the two girls wasted no time with their orders. Their orders included caviar, steak, wine, fruit salads, and desserts. It was obvious that both girls came from an affluent background. In fact, Zhang Heng could recall Ning Xue saying they had both previously attended Ivy League schools.
As the night progressed, Zhang Heng could feel his pressure shedding away. The food was delicious and he was in good company. He got increasingly relaxed as conversations moved to topics that reminded him of his previous life, topics like designer drugs, race cars, and nightly clubbing. Lost in the haze of nostalgia, they were unaware that their voices had gone beyond their little party of three.
"Look at what we have here… A good-for-nothing rich kid and his two little stuck-up princesses. What a party… I will never understand why the Hope would admit people like you three. You sure you didn't buy your way in…?"
A brash voice asked condescendingly, and it was followed by a chorus of patronizing laughs. Simultaneously, a hand clamped down hard on Zhang Heng's shoulder.
Zhang Heng quickly recovered from his shock. Based on the different voices he heard, he could tell that there were about three or four men. Needless to say, they didn't respond kindly to the rich…
However, Zhang Heng knew that he couldn't back down in the company of his two lady friends. Furthermore, after his experience on Planet Sahara, he was no longer the witless kid. After swiping the hand off his shoulder, he stood to turn and face the offenders.
The group comprised of a soldier and a few civilian militia. They were all about 20 years old. The eldest among them looked about 22 or 23, and he was the one who clamped down on Zhang Heng's shoulder. Scowling with derision and condescension, they obviously meant harm.
Zhang Heng was in his civilian clothes because he had taken off his Black Star Unit uniform after military hours. However, recognition instantly dawned on the soldier after he stood up to face them… After all, the Hope had only so many lieutenants, so it was pretty impossible for him to not get recognized. Instantly, the soldier stammered, "Lie… Lieutenant Zhang, I did not realize it was you…"
Zhang Heng was secretly relieved that the confrontation was to be avoided, but on the surface, he smirked. "So this is how the military treats its citizens… I will see all of you at the disciplinary unit first thing tomorrow!"
The soldier immediately stood at the ready, replying, "Yes, sir!" After that, he stood dazed, rooted to the ground. His friends were even more flustered, especially the one who clapped Zhang Heng on the shoulder; his face was completely blanched.
Unwilling to attract more unnecessary attention, Zhang Heng dismissed them. As he sat back down, both Ning Xue and Mao Miao gazed at him with admiration.
Zhang Heng was flattered but unsure as to how to respond. He had had these looks directed his way before, but those were through flaunting of his cash; he had never impressed girls with his stature before. Gulping his glass of wine, he offered, "Ning Xue, Mao Miao, we aren't who we used to be anymore. This is no longer Earth, and we no longer have our families to back us up. I'm now a soldier and you're students… So study hard. You might not notice the difference now, but sooner or later, you'll see that times have changed…"
That night, Zhang Heng had gained a new understanding of his post.
He had a renewed appreciation of the phrase "with great power comes great responsibility." He had to act in a way that befitted his name and rank, as he was no longer the rich kid, and for the first time, he no longer wanted to return to those days…
Because he was his own man now, he was Zhang Heng, a Black Star Unit member!
Hidden from their view at the corner of the restaurant sat Yao Yuan. He witnessed everything, and after hearing Zhang Heng's lecture, he couldn't help but wear a proud smile on his face…
The next Monday at 10 AM, the mining airship departed from the Hope. It was piloted by Zhang Heng…
An hour later, the first manual test drive had proved successful. Its data fitted The Academy's prediction and analysis. Next, the Hope started mass producing these airships. On Friday, a 20-sized fleet departed from the Hope. They returned with more than fifty tons of minerals, and one of them had a radioactive deposit that was predicted to be able to provide more than 8,000 grams worth of yield…