Age Of Cosmic Exploration - Chapter 1
Chapter 1: Chaos!
Yao Yuan had been straining his ears for hours trying to discern any would-be commotion from beyond the shutters1, but try as he might, he couldn't hear anything. Even under broad daylight there was nary a squeak;the street outside was as silent as a ghost town, and the eerie calm was a stark contrast to the erratic chaos just days before.
The reason was probably because enemy troops had already pillaged the area. The sorry state the room Yao Yuan found himself in was strong support for this supposition. The room was part of a once bustling shop that belonged to his friend, but one could barely discern that fact from the condition it was in. The place was utterly trashed and all valuables were gone;only dirt and debris was strewn all over the floor now.
Long before the insurgence, that friend and his family moved away from the city to seek refuge by the countryside, and as an afterthought, he left the key to his business with Yao Yuan. Anticipating the impending chaos, Yao Yuan made a brash yet strategic decision: he ransacked the place and un-deployed the shutters, leaving the space in plain view, before retreating into its basement. The hope was for the dilapidated scene to deter possible pillagers, and thus preventing the discovery of his hiding spot.
Later, when the pandemonium reached its height due to confrontations between the lawless army and the anarchic populace, thanks to his ingenuity, the spot Yao Yuan was in was left relatively unchecked. There were a few incidents of course, but none of them were of note. The worst was a case of arson that only managed to scorch the outer walls due to a lack of incendiary materials. Incidentally, that made the place look even more like a deserted ruin.
Just like that, while the world above raged on, Yao Yuan had spent the past five days underground in relative peace. On the morning of the sixth day, he slunk up to the surface to survey his surroundings. His immediate area was clear of human activity, but it was not until he dropped the shutters that he let out a sigh of relief.
A few hours had passed since then and the situation remained unchanged;he seemed to be the only human around, though he still kept his ears up to listen for others.
The massive riots appeared to have culled the human populace. Most of the civilians lied around in lifeless husks while the few fortunate ones were either in hiding or were far away enough from the city to have survived the onslaught. The army, on the other hand, had either succumbed to their bloodlust and turned on each other or had gone off on their own in vigilante groups. The number of people alive by then, Yao Yuan deduced, could barely reach a thousandth of this place's normal populace.
Yao Yuan could have easily joined the deserters. His years of war experience as a veteran had greatly tuned his sensitivity to signs of pre-war preparations. He knew something was off about half a month ago when important personnel such as heads-of-states, military agency directors, special task forces, business moguls, celebrated scientists, and other people of noteworthy accomplishments started to drop off the radar without any seemingly plausible explanation. That was when he knew that the world was going to experience a cataclysmic change;no place on Earth was going to be completely safe, so he decided to simply bunker down where he was.
Nevertheless, foretelling it was dissimilar to understanding it or preventing it. Until now, Yao Yuan could not figure out the reason behind all of those mysterious disappearances.
That alone was worrying enough, but added on to that were the discomforting rumors that circulated alongside these disappearances. If those were more than hearsay...
These worrisome thoughts had Yao Yuan's mind up in a twist. As he turned over these speculations, he detected a small rustle of footsteps. Like a wary tiger, he instantly tensed up and prepared to pounce.
As Yao Yuan prepared to face the new danger, a crisp, quail's birdsong drifted from beyond the shutters. Its melody caught Yao Yuan's attention immediately and he started to reply with the same song. Despite being in birdsong, the two seemed to be able to communicate their intentions perfectly. A sense of relief washed over Yao Yuan because that confirmed that it was an ally. He quickly unlatched the shutters, and as the light streamed in from the few open inches, he spotted a figure squatting by a garbage pile a few yards away.
The figure went into action instantaneously. As Yao Yuan lifted the shutters, the person crossed the distance between them in a few lithe movements like a feline on the prowl. The individual leaped into the room with an acrobatic roll and Yao Yuan dropped the shutter immediately after. As the lock clicked into place, one could also hear two great sighs of relief.
’’Lee2! Why are you leading the way now? Where are Ol'Wong and the rest of the crew?’’ Yao Yuan asked with much urgency while grabbing the fellow.
This guy beside Yao Yuan was an eighteen or nineteen-year-old, but instead of the indifference and brazenness that accompanied his age, he exuded a sense of calmness and stability that came with the sophistication of age. With a warm chuckle, he replied, ’’Ol'Cap'n', if I do say so, your jabs are always so peculiar. I've been a scout for more than a year now, so it has been decided that I alone shall scout ahead while the gang waits outside the city walls. There are still small troops of soldiers in the area, and while the team could easily dispatch of them, the sound of gunfire would inadvertently draws nearby forces. That would result in unnecessary complications, so they'll only move at night. If I don't to return by then, they will know that you're safe and will come here together.’’
Yao Yuan nodded along to Lee's explanation. The contingency where Lee couldn't have made it back to the group because he had died did not even cross his mind. That was the strength of the faith that the members of the Black Star Unit had in each other. Despite being only a fresh recruit, Lee was a part of this elite group. He was right when he said that they could handle the leaderless soldiers with ease. In fact, every single of them could. Even if Lee were to fail in direct combat, he could lose them effortlessly with his unmatched ability at stealth operations. If Lee did not return on time, the only logical conclusion was that he had found refuge with Yao Yuan and not because he had landed himself in trouble.
At that moment, Yao Yuan couldn't help but lament the obscurity that had stubbornly shrouded the Black Star Unit. He was certain that the team could evenly match or perhaps be better than other special forces around the world, but because of political reasons, their fame could never rival those of other local units that had ’’Dragon’’ in their names. Those names seem to suggest greatness, while ours...
Yao Yuan shook his head to snap out of his reverie. He then suggested, ’’Lee, please don't refer to me as Captain anymore;I stopped holding that title when I left the army two years ago. Now that I think about it, I have never even been your superior officer, so please refer to me by my name, or Brother Yao if you prefer.’’
At that suggestion, the usually calm Lee became uncharacteristically flustered. ’’How can you suggest such a thing, Captain?! If Captain Wong hears about this, I'll be dead meat! Also, many times when the members were in trouble, it was you who came to our rescue! In any case, you'll forever be our Ol'Captain, Cap'n!’’
Hearing this, Yao Yuan could only let out a few dry laughs. He knew that arguing further would be pointless;the members were as stubborn as they were good. It was at this time that he could give Lee a good look. The fella's clothes could barely qualify as rags;there were still spots where the mud hadn't even dried yet. After giving Lee a good-natured slap on the shoulder, Yao Yuan led him inside. ’’Why don't we go down to the basement first? We'll find you a clean change of clothes and some food to fill your belly. After that, you can rest until the rest of them arrive, then I'll give a briefing on why I've issued the order for the team to come here.’’
The prospect of rest appeared to lull Lee's demeanor as he was led into what would be the base of operations. The pair passed through rooms in various stages of destitution before reaching the stairs that led down to the basement. At the end of the steep decline there was a dark, enclosed space;its state of disrepair was not unlike the ones they had just passed. Yao Yuan moved to a corner and lifted up the floor in one mighty pull. A light source from beneath revealed an opening in the ground. The lifted ’’flooring’’ was a giant sheet of steel that acted as the hatch. Yao Yuan deftly squirmed through the gap and Lee quickly followed.
The surprise of finding a vast, bright space hit Lee almost instantly. Before things started falling apart, Yao Yuan had spent quite a bit of resources modifying the 100 square meters space underneath the basement. The place was well stocked with food and water, several boxes of clothes, an array of weaponry, and most impressively, it was well wired, thus making it capable of supporting light sources, a working computer, and other miscellaneous machinery.
Seeing all of this, Lee displayed an out-of-character burst of youthful excitement. He even went so far as to doing a somersault before digging in voraciously into the ample supply of food and drinks. ’’Now this is the life! Ol'Cap'n sure is something else! A few months ago during troop field training, the team got into an altercation with the Dragon Prosper Unit at some godforsaken desert. If weren't for overall vigilance, we would all be beneath the sand by now. Added on to that was the need to trek out of the desert, the need to stay on the move to avoid the army, and also the need to rush here... it was truly a hell on earth. And to think that Ol'Cap'n was enjoying himself all this time,’’ Lee mumbled jokingly between bites.
There was not much Yao Yuan could say in response to that. He figured a shoulder pat would be a better interaction to signal solidarity, and as he did so, Lee collapsed under his touch as if he was hit by a punch instead of a light pat. The shocked Yao Yuan directly went into application of emergency aid. Luckily, Lee's heart rate and pulse were fine and he also did not seem to have suffered any physical trauma. It appeared that the kid had fallen asleep due to extreme exhaustion. To be able to doze off while chomping down food told Yao Yuan that the last few days must have indeed been awful for Lee. Factoring in Lee's standing as the junior of the Black Star Unit, his journey surely had been more arduous than the rest's. As Yao Yuan's heart was going out to the kid, he also intuitively understood why Lee was given the solo scouting detail;it was a covert kindness on Ol'Wong's part that Lee would reach him first and could earn some rest before breaking under exertion.
Yao Yuan proceeded to move the lugging form of Lee's sleeping body onto one of the makeshift beds. As Lee snored away peacefully, Yao Yuan's fingers went flying across the keyboard. A set of numbers and a few lines of sentences in English appeared on the monitor screen. He then stared intently at the random sets of writing as if willing them to move into a more comprehensible arrangement. Nevertheless, as day turned into night, there wasn't a discernable difference.
As night descended, Yao Yuan found himself back at his perch by the shutters. Maybe it was his encounter with the Black Star Unit, but sitting there looking out over the barren wasteland reminded him much of his days as the unit's captain. It was a job that demanded a lot of concentration and composure. On several occasions, he would be able to hear sounds of screams, of crying, and of gunshots from varying distances away.
They were the human civilization's swansong. They represented man's desperation and despair;the animalistic nature from which humankind had spent ages to evolve from. It seemed oddly fitting that this was the form man reverted to before the end, clawing at each other like some feral beasts.
As time slowly moved to midnight, a celestial appeared in the inky sky. Its luster paled even that of the moon, and under its silvery light, a group of men, about ten in number moved mutedly through the city streets. Their movements made no sounds and awakened no one as they moved toward the ruined shop. They moved through the rooms and later down to the basement as hushed silhouettes of the night.
In the basement's better light, one could see that each of these men had their faces creased with lines, stories of the vicissitudes of life. The eldest of them all was about thirty of age and went by the name of Wong Guang Zhen. He was the leader of the group. Despite his position and seniority in age, he still referred to Yao Yuan with much admiration and respect.
The rest of them, no matter their age, were also men of substance. This was evidenced through the restraint they showed at meal time. In spite of their gnawing hunger, they only allowed themselves the bare necessities, not one bite more. As they settled quietly in place after the hasty meal, one by one they slowly trained their attention at Yao Yuan. Finally, Guang Zhen asked, ’’Ol'Cap'n, surely you didn't invite us here just for a meal, right? Plus, I give this humanity business at most eight more months, so now is not the time to be reticent. Do you need us to clear this city of those armies? Consider it done!’’
A few others started howling at what would appear to be the simplicity of the task. The worst offender was an African American man that was built like a tank. His size and physique lent him an appearance that was more akin to a machine than a human being. He rasped, in a deep baritone, ’’On the way here, we spotted quite a number of those filth. Ol'Cap'n, you say the word and tomorrow I'll gladly give them a taste of their own medicine!’’
With a head-shake and a sigh, Yao Yuan lamented, ’’Those are indeed some damnable nuisances, but that's what they are, nuisances. The reason I've called you all here isn't to handle those slim pickings and then wait eight months for the arrival of the rapture. There's a bigger problem at hand here and IT IS ... THIS!’’
While saying that, Yao Yuan flipped over the monitor to face the group. The whole team, other than Guang Zhen, who seemed to have caught a familiar glimpse of something, was understandably confounded by the series of numbers and words displayed on the screen.
Without missing a beat, Yao Yuan announced, ’’This series of numbers represents geographical coordinates, and the paragraphs under it describes a well-known story, a story that is titled...’’
1. The room, as the front part of the shop house, was is designed in such a way that one side of its wall is completely open to the streets. Therefore, the space utilized a wall of steel shutters that could be dropped down or rolled up according to business hours over doors.
2. Full name Lee Hai Yun. But since he's the junior of the group, he's often referred to by others as simply Lee.