The tremors lasted for three to five minutes. The room shook violently in the first few minutes before petering off.
People started collecting themselves when some of the lights came back on.
The second level they were in was in total shambles. There were multiple cave-ins, and wall installments littered the floor in pieces. Simple constructions collapsed under the pressure, and most worryingly, cracks began appearing on the floor.
This was not the cave's natural flooring. It was reinforced cement flooring that had passed stringent quality control. The fact that it started cracking was an alarming testament to how strong the earthquake was.
When debris fell from the cave ceiling, Yao Yuan was unfortunately hit on his head by one of the bigger pieces. Trapped in a throng of panicked crowd, even though he could sense the danger, he couldn't timely avoid it. The concussion knocked him out cold for several minutes. Even as people around him started rousing themselves, Yao Yuan was still drifting in and out of consciousness.
His Black Star Unit members were the first to notice the blood streaming down Yao Yuan's forehead. Lifting his leader and friend up into a seated position, Ebon yelled for medical attention. "Doctor! We need a doctor here! Liu Bai! Where in the world are you? Get over here!"
Hearing his name, Liu Bai quickly rushed to Yao Yuan's side, uttering hurriedly, "Ebon, would you stop with the yelling! It's not helping the situation…. Let me see…. Thankfully it's just blood. Damn, I don't have my medical kit on me. And people, move out of the way, you're blocking the light!" He then proceeded to take Yao Yuan's pulse and check his iris for eye movement.
Ebon seemed ready to scream something else but was stopped by a firm pat on his shoulder. He turned to meet Ying's piercing glare. "Didn't you hear what Liu Bai just said? Move out of the way, you're blocking the light!"
Ebon swallowed his retort and sluggishly moved his giant body out of the way, but his eyes remained firmly fixed on Yao Yuan.
By then, Yao Yuan was gradually regaining his sensibility. However, in reality, even though he was unconscious, he could sense clearly what was happening around him. He just couldn't seem to command his body. As he woke up, he shook his head at Liu Bai, signaling that he was fine, carried himself up with his friends' help, and surveyed the surroundings.
The devastation aside, Yao Yuan also frowned at the group of scientists that was in the room with them when tragedy hit. About 10 of them were also victims of falling debris, and some were still unconscious. Most soldiers and Homo Evolutis also suffered light abrasions. It was, in one word, chaotic.
"Ying, bring Zhang Heng and a small unit to check on whether the ceiling of the first floor has opened to space. This is most important, so go now," Yao Yuan issued.
Ying saluted, wrangled up seven trained men, and marched towards the first floor.
Without missing a beat, Yao Yuan turned to Liu Bai. "Liu Bai, I want you to head another team to take care of all the wounded. Record any and all deaths and serious injuries. I will send extra medical supplies and personnel to join you in about 10 minutes."
Liu Bai saluted and then quickly led his team to the group of scientists. He understood what was left unsaid in Yao Yuan's orders. It seemed cruel, but the lives of these scientists were the most important, even more important than the Homo Evolutis…
"Ol' Wong, and the rest of Black Star Unit, your job is the heaviest of all. I want you to gather all the remaining soldiers and escort the civilians on this floor up to the first floor.
"This quake came too suddenly, so the people must have been spooked. I want you to go up there and maintain order. Ol' Wong, I give you the power to terminate any and all dissidents that attempt to foment ensuing chaos. Show them no mercy! And this includes executing any resisting military, public servants, or sc… scientists!"
Yao Yuan gritted out his last few syllables. The sense of dread and rancor in his order was so acute that it had Jay, who stood several feet away, shivering.
With a grim façade, Guang Zhen saluted his leader. He then turned to gather the rest of his team members and moved to complete his assigned mission objective. Instead of moving towards the residential areas though, his team first made their way to the direction of the arms storage area.
Yao Yuan silently nodded his head. He had full faith in his second-in-command, and he knew that this important mission was left in capable hands. Then he turned towards the group of Homo Evolutis.
"Follow and keep up with Lieutenant Wong's team. You'll be safest with him, so please move," Yao Yuan advised them.
Yao Yuan tried to keep his words light, but his intonation betrayed the severity of the situation. They knew that refusing this order would result in disciplinary action and possibly execution. So they nodded obediently and waited for Guang Zhen's team to return.
Jay made to join this group, but Yao Yuan grabbed him by his shoulder and said, "Jay, you're with me!" With that, Yao Yuan sprinted towards a long corridor.
After a slight hesitation, Jay ran to catch up with Yao Yuan. In between breaths of air, he asked, "Hasn't everything been properly assigned? What else is there for us to do?"
"The third level…"
Yao Yuan continued with much difficulty, "I've been hearing voices coming from the first floor ever since the quake. This means that there's probably chaos up there, but it also meant that the passageways between our level and theirs are clear enough to allow the sound waves to pass through. But the third floor… There is supposed to be at least 3,000 workers and 200 soldiers stationed there. There're several industrial machines as well, but I haven't heard a peep coming from the third floor…. I fear… The passageway to the third level has completely collapsed."
Jay recovered from his shock and asked hurriedly, "Does this mean that the third floor itself has collapsed… But what about all those people in there? It's impossible that they're all dead, right?"
"I have faith in the experts' analysis of the base's structural integrity. Their environmental report says that the base could withstand up to magnitude 9 earthquake, so this small tremor should do it no harm. The level itself should be safe, but it's the getting there that I'm worried about…. Anyway, let's go take a look first," Yao Yuan added.
Jay went silent to digest the information. After a moment, he asked carefully, "But why didn't you pick one of the Black Stars to join you? I don't have Zhang Heng's divining ability nor the others' weapon skills. Are you expecting me to dig the passageway with my bare hands, or intend to use me as a meat shield?"
Yao Yuan turned to face Jay and looked him in the eye, saying, "Jay, you are part of the military and a reserved member of the Black Star Unit now. Remember that you belong to this 'others' you speak of… In any case, I had a fit of inspiration to bring you along. It was as if something was telling me that the lives of these 120,000 people will depend on you…"
Shocked by the revelation, Jay quickly added, "Don't tell me the shuttle's nuclear missiles stockpile are on the third floor! I'm not a hacker or bomb diffusion expert, I can't handle those!"
Yao Yuan laughed bitterly, "No, it's something worse…"
"Something worse? What could be worse than bombs?" questioned Jay incredulously.
"…The alien plant!
"The energy of this base is supplied by the three crystal reactors situated on the third floor. According to protocol, the acid and potion bath has to be recycled every eight hours to ensure that the output of the plant remains constant…
"If the way to third floor really has collapsed, it will be impossible for us to dig our way through in under eight hours. This is because we have to take care of the majority first. This means assigning most of the workforce to the top two levels to ensure order and security…
"Only after that can resources be relegated to opening the pathway to the industrial floor. Do you know what this means? We'll need at least 18 to 24 hours to clear the pathway, but currently there are only two changes of potion available down there, because all the potion stock was stored on the second floor…"
Yao Yuan swallowed the lump that had formed in his throat, adding, "This means we might be losing power to this base soon. Do you know how long man can survive in space without the support of the life preservation system? The most is 30 minutes!
"I could send the people on the first two floors back onto the Hope, but Jay, what about the people down there?!"
In an uncharacteristically fragile moment, Yao Yuan pleaded with tears in his eyes, "There are at least 3,000 people down there, Jay. Do you hear me, 3,000 people! These are people that we've shared tears, laughter, and sweat with; you want me to sit idly and give them up?! I'm sorry, but I can't!
"So, Jay, please, I beg of you. Please listen to my desperate and only plea…
"Use your mental manipulation power! Trick the plants into believing the potion has been changed even though it hasn't! Please!"