At first, the captain was concerned that Anthony’s death would throw the candidates into irrational fear and post-traumatic stress disorder. After the evaluation results were released, it seemed he might have just overthought the whole thing. Considering that time was of the essence, training resumed that afternoon itself. According to the original schedule, flight training was supposed to be slotted after the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle training. Nonetheless, this part was going to be different from all the other regimes that they were through so far. This time, the instructors would no longer be guiding them.

After a month of intensive training, this would be the players’ first solo flight. All the while, NASA had been paying a lot of attention to the Space Training Academy. Ordinary pilots and spacecraft commanders had many similarities, both required to continually monitor the aircraft, weather, fuel, flight path, and the all-important mission. With the enormous amount of information at hand, they would have to come up with different decisions in the shortest time possible.

Once a problem arose, the players were required to diagnose and deal with it accurately. At the same time, Concurrently, they would keep radio contact with ground control at all times, making their workload immense. Great focus and diligence would be required of the candidates, which was why flight training was the most crucial part of the entire course. Most players dedicated all their time and effort to make sure that they would ace their flight training.

Anthony had just died from an ‘accident’ not too long ago. Before the authorities hunted his killer down and NASA releasing the investigation results, one could only guess the reason behind his untimely death. The most important thing was that none of them knew how the mysterious killer killed him. Other than the young man accused of leaving his room last night, none of the players left their rooms. It was the same thing during lunch, where they all knew each others’ whereabouts. Technically, the suspect couldn’t have tampered with the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle without anyone noticing

When Anthony’s turn arrived, the other players were gathered around the captain. Since Zhang Heng knew that he would end up first place, he did not pay attention to the Lunar Landing Training Vehicle but observed the other players instead. He spotted nothing out of the ordinary at that time.

A supernatural force, perhaps?

Considering those who entered this quest were players themselves, there was a high chance that they carried powerful game items with them. For now, this was the most plausible explanation for Anthony’s death. This meant several new possibilities in the case. Zhang Heng could understand why the knowledgeable middle-aged man wanted to look for the murderer as soon as possible. As long as the case remained unsolved, everyone would be carrying a Damocles’ Sword on their heads. To complete their main quest, they would have no choice but to weed the killer out.

The severe accident that had just occurred caused a nervous and ominous atmosphere to hang over Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Everyone tiptoed around with a cautious tone about them, checking all the equipment thrice, just to be sure. For the next stint, the technicians had just done the second round of ground checks for the aircraft, making very sure everything was airworthy. After that, Zhang Heng put on his custom made flight suit, helmet, and oxygen mask. He then hopped into the cockpit. For the other players, this might be their first time flying a jet trainer, but during the transitional quest, Zhang Heng had flown this particular type many times himself. When he took the T-38 out for a spin earlier, the instructor was impressed by his performance, unable to stop complimenting him when he landed.

Zhang Heng’s Level 1 flying skills may not match up to that of professional pilots, but they were sufficient for him to pass the current quest. This was especially true after he spent a long time horning his airmanship, where all he needed right now was more flying experience. The young man and school kid in front of him had completed their sorties. As for the rest, they no longer seemed to be worried about their safety as well. Zhang Heng was third to get on the plane. Once the seatbelts were fastened, he pulled the safety pin of his ejection seat; for good measure, of course. He then turned on the flight display and flipped a row of switches. Subsequently, the radar and gauges came to life, and he did a radio check. The pre-flight checks were done, and he was ready to start the engines.

The moment he held the start button, the engine whirred to life, beginning from a low hum and increasing to an almost deafening high-pitched whine. The aircraft was now configured to fly, and after making sure that everything was in check, Zhang Heng signaled ground with his hand indicating that he was ready. Immediately, they ran to the plane, dismantling the ladder and removing the chocks. Once the ground power was disconnected, Zhang Heng released the brakes and gave it a little throttle. The T-38 rolled out of the hanger slowly, taxiing to the runway.It was still a windy afternoon, albeit a lot better than the morning’s gusty weather. More importantly, the skies had cleared, and it was the perfect time to fly. At 13:45 sharp, Zhang Heng requested to take-off from the tower. The moment he was cleared, he pushed the throttle on his left to full, and the airplane screamed and shuddered as the engine spun up. Then, the aircraft started barreling down the runway, pushing Zhang Heng back into his seat with massive force. The moment he reached 220 knots, he pulled the stick back, and the T-38 lifted its nose off the ground. Zhang Heng took a quick look at his instruments, making sure that he was on a steady climb and that the aircraft headed in the designated direction. He was required to fly out to sea and find a corvette named Miller. Once he spotted it, he would turn around and return home. The mission wasn’t all that complicated, really. All he needed to do was to ensure that he didn’t miss the target. All too soon, everything worked as intended, and Zhang Heng could relax a little. He looked outside the glass canopy, enjoying the stunning view earth had to offer from above.

He had to admit that this game changed him a lot. Half a year ago, he would never have thought that something insane like this would happen to him. Even second-generation rich kids could only imagine drifting like Takumi Fujiwara on a twisty mountain road. Now, Zhang Heng was speeding in a fighter jet over America’s territorial waters.

At 13.52, he contacted tower again, informing them of his altitude, speed, and heading, at the same time, checking the aircraft’s fuel consumption. All gauges were within their designated parameters, and nothing was out of ordinary so far. The sunlight outside the window was dazzling, bathing the cockpit in bright light. In less than ten minutes, the aspiring astronaut managed to locate the corvette. At 13:59, Zhang Heng communicated with the tower for the third time. He told them that the mission was complete, and he was now turning home.

Around four and a half minutes later, the jet aircraft suddenly jolted violently. There was, and a loud rattling and grinding, and through the glass canopy, he spotted the left engine in flames. Seconds later, a loud alarm started beeping on the instrument panel. At the same time, air traffic control could be heard over the radio. “David, what is going on?”

“I think it might be a bird strike; hit a seagull or something.”

Immediately, Zhang Heng killed the flaming engine. “David, can you make it back to the base?!”

“Let me try,” grunted Zhang Heng while glancing at the altimeter.

From the beginning, he managed to keep his calm through the frightening anomaly. All those long hours spent flying and training with Armstrong were precisely to prepare for situations like this. He still had one engine left, and if all went well, returning to base should be a textbook maneuver. Just when the jet began to stabilize itself, another loud explosion rocked Zhang Heng to the bone. It was the right engine this time, and now, except for the muffled sound of the wind, the cockpit was silent.