The Storyline for the
TeamTNT Total Conversion
The Search for Aasgard
Coming eventually
The project that
wouldn't die...

Chapter Seven - Sands of Time

Stinging, choking, blinding, hot flying sand met Steve, swirling about him like a dry hurricane. He threw his arm up over his head, blocking some of it with the robe, but his exposed legs felt like they were being sandblasted. He huddled down into the sand, trying to enclose himself completely in his robe, but wherever there was a tiny gap the sand and hot air got underneath. This most certainly wasn't the fountain he had been headed for.

About an hour of this misery passed, and finally the wind died down a bit. The sandstorm had virtually blocked out all light when it was in its fury, but now the sun was beating down mercilessly. Steve had heard of parts of the world that were jokingly referred to as "ten miles from the sun" before, but hadn't experienced one. The air was suffocating, like a blast of heat from a furnace. He could feel the moisture being drained from his skin and lips. Even shielded from the direct light by his robe, the glare reflected up from his feet was blinding. The sun was a palpable weight on his shoulders and back.

With no idea where to go, Steve set off with his back to the wind, at least determined to keep from fighting that force, and found he could almost breathe again. His shoes sank into the sand almost to their tops, and without them he knew he would have blistered soles on his feet almost immediately. He had to find some relief, or this would be a short trip. To add insult to injury, he had been thirsty before he warped here.

A layer of sand stayed in motion about an inch from the surface, blown by the incessant wind like a low ground fog. He was getting used to that, but there seemed to be a spot ahead where the moving sand sprayed up, as if it had hit a speed bump. Steve didn't know what was there, but it was at least a variation in the surface, and that was better than endless walking. With more determination than before, he pushed on toward the spot.

As he got closer, it was evident that there was a rocky outcropping in the middle of this desert, and the sand was rushing over it like sea water over a shoreline boulder, spraying up into the air. Once airborne, it blasted into a cloud beyond the rock. Steve did recognize that this meant the far side of the rock would be a shelter from both the sand and wind, and was pleased to find that the sand cloud above it even blocked some sun. Not quite a shady tree to sit under, but if the wind kept up it would suffice.

Steve sat in the protection of the rock, and for a moment had time to think back about what had happened over the last day or so. He had been in what was supposed to be Norway, found a village, ended up in a strange building at the end of the town square, discovered an ultramodern lab, warped to a garden and now here. He knew that one of the anomalies being tracked was in Egypt, but hadn't expected to leave Norway so soon. He felt unsuccessful so far, having only defeated a couple of enemies and having developed more questions than answers about what was going on. He hadn't planned to do a greatly scientific expedition, but still, he hadn't spent enough time analyzing what he had been fighting to be able to make a decent report back.

With no obvious way back, though, he was going to have to make the best of it. If only there were some weapons. He kicked himself mentally for leaving those orange vials, but he certainly hadn't expected to warp out, never to return. He had his home-grown sling, and now no rocks to sling with it. Oh, and he still had a pointed stick. Great.

o o o

Han "Solo" Gerbrecht sat in front of a console, and suddenly snapped to full alertness. "He's in Egypt, for cryin' out loud!" he exclaimed to no one. Jumping up from his seat, he ran over to a wall phone and picked it up. A few seconds later he was jabbering frantically to someone on the other end about Norway, Egypt and how unexpected something was.

"What are we going to do about it?" yelled Han. "We just sent everything to Norway and he's not there. We've got to retrieve that package. Hello?"

Han stared at the receiver in his hand, realizing that he had been hung up on. Whether because it wasn't possible to carry on the conversation on the other end, or because he had just been shut out of the process, he couldn't tell. All he knew was that he had never felt so helpless in his life.

Rushing over to the console, he quickly typed in a few codes and sat back, looking not at the monitor but at a strange glass cage to the left. The cage began to glow iridescently and was suddenly gone. Han reached out to the console once again, and after a few more keystrokes the cage reappeared, this time with a pile of rags in it. Going over to the cage, Han reached out and pressed a hidden switch, and one side of the cage moved silently out of the way.

Grabbing the pile of rags, Han began to unwrap the layers of Croytex, finally exposing a tiny sphere only 4 millimeters in diameter. The sphere glowed and pulsated but could be handled with bare hands. Han took it over to a small module next to his console, and dropped it into a slot. Immediately a hologram of words appeared in mid-air, echoing the contents of a window now visible on his console.

Han quickly began to type, and was pleased to see his input start replacing the words that were still hovering in the air. Hendrickson's message wouldn't be quite what Steve would see after all, and Steve would never know how glad he'd be. The message formed much more slowly than Han was typing, so when he finished he sat back and watched as the message changed.

"I see you got it in time," came the words from behind Han. Spinning around, he came face to face with Todson, who was reading over the short message.

"You startled me!" complained Han, more reacting to his own inattentiveness than her sudden appearance. "The drones upstairs probably still think he's in Norway."

"Well, I'm glad you noticed, because it's obvious that Steve isn't getting what they're sending him. You'd never have been able to retrieve that message unless Steve hadn't opened the pod yet, and that's a bad sign. I'm beginning to worry about the supply transfers as well."

"We can send him a replacement for supplies and the crossbow, now that we know where he is. And I feel a bit better about the matter-transporter gun now. It should work with sand or rocks equally well."

"Yes, go ahead," nodded Dr. Todson. "I'll be very impressed if he didn't have any problems in Norway without some weapons, but it's best to be sure now that we're in control. We just needed to let the first phase go untouched so the guys upstairs wouldn't get suspicious."

"OK, consider it done," assured Han. "I'll get a pack together and get it to him in about an hour. Do you want to be involved?"

"No, just let me know when it's there. If I can't talk when you call, I'll just say 'OK' and hang up--Hendrickson was in my office just now when you called."

"I figured as much, but was sort of in a panic at the time," grinned Han. "I think it all worked out pretty well though. Now if we could get the psychic link to work, we could hear back from him too. Still, one-way is better than no-way."

"All right. I'll be in my office. Good luck," called Dr. Todson over her shoulder, already halfway out the door.

Han set about gathering some leather straps, wooden braces and other parts and placed them in the glass cage. The message now complete, he hit the eject button on the read/write module and the sphere popped out. He rewrapped that in the Croytex layers and pushed that wad of material into the cage as well. He'd have to wait for the next cycle to send the other gun and some supplies, but that would leave time for one more test.

A few more taps on the console keyboard, and the cage disappeared, along with its contents. Han gazed contentedly at the monitor, which showed four vectors converging on a single point in space and time. A green dot suddenly came to life on all four vectors, and he pressed a single key. The cage reappeared, now empty, its contents hopefully near Steve this time.

o o o

Steve opened his eyes, and realized that he had been asleep in the protection of the rocky outcropping for what must have been hours. It was dusk now, and only a vague orangish glow could be seen at the horizon behind him, a remnant of the day's heat and torture, silhouetting his savior rock. The moon was nearly full, and Steve thought of a moonlit snowy field as he looked out across the sand. That was the beauty of dim light--everything faded into shades of gray, making it somehow cleaner. Maybe that's why the old black and white movies still held a charm for Steve. They even had to put lines in the script to refer to Red Skelton's hair as being red, or no one would have known.

That was enough of that, thought Steve. This mind wandering thing was fine in its place, but he was in the middle of a rapidly cooling desert and still had no idea where he was going. He could see stars above, so he could figure out direction, but without knowing where he was to begin with, that wasn't going to help much. He had been walking with his back to the wind earlier, but that could have been dead wrong. Let's see... Polaris that way, right is east, so he had been heading east all this time. He should continue to do that, so at least he wouldn't be retracing his steps.

Setting off in what might be the right direction, Steve tripped over a pile of sticks and a big wad of rags. Reaching down to see what had tripped him, he felt what was by now the familiar texture of Croytex and was elated. Like a kid at camp with a box of cookies from home, he unrolled the material, finding at its core the glowing orb. Unfortunately, he mumbled to himself, he had no reader to put it in, but he did at least recognize it as a message unit, and was eager to see what they had to tell him.

The rest of the pile was made up of fashioned wooden pieces and leather strapping, and Steve pretty quickly discovered that it assembled neatly into a crossbow. Great, he thought, a crossbow without arrows. Now that was something you could get lots of use out of in the desert. Still, having had no weapon at all for a long time, this was a nice change. He took his stick, which after all was almost six feet long, and began splitting it up into smaller sticks. They weren't arrows, exactly, but the crossbow could launch them, at considerably more velocity than he could throw them and at a greater distance from the enemy.

Steve found that the extra Croytex in the bundle allowed him to wrap it around himself such as to make a couple of large pouches, so for the first time he didn't have to worry about how to carry things. The glowing sphere still in his hand, Steve marched forward, feeling better that PDARC at least knew where he was, even if he didn't.

The moonlight made travel pretty easy, but he felt that it was a good idea to keep a sharp eye out, having just tripped over the IOITP (he even knew what that stood for, today). The landscape still looked more like an open snowy plain, but the heat of the air and the unsteady feeling underfoot of the sand brought back the reality of his predicament. A few coffee berries from the branch he had brought with him had helped stimulate him and curb his hunger, but he still could easily die of thirst before finding civilization.

Having settled into a good pace for travel, Steve became an automaton, trudging forward with his head down and just interested in progress. The sounds of the desert were eerie and almost subliminal, and more than anything he heard his own footsteps. His mind began to go numb, and he just concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. That's probably why the scraping, shuffling sandy sound didn't register at first.

The noise came from the left, went behind him and disappeared off to the right. It was an odd sound, like something dragging quickly through the sand. It reappeared, again from the left, this time going in front of him and on to the right. Twice more this happened, both times passing behind him again. Then one came from the right, stopped when it got to him, and sand sprayed up in a geyser right in Steve's face.

It looked in the moonlight like the sand had taken form and become a large cylindrical entity, with a bulbous end facing right at Steve. The end seemed to have no eyes, but it certainly knew where he was. The end opened up, showing row after row of spines down a gullet. It didn't look big enough to swallow him whole, but that only meant that it would have to bite off chunks first, and that wasn't a bit better.

Steve wheeled around and began to run, and another of the sand worms reared up in front of him. Then a third one, as he tried to turn. With three of them surrounding him, he was in real trouble. He darted quickly between two of them, diving like he was scoring the winning touchdown. He felt something grab his hood and pull him to the right, then let go. The two worms he had gone between had apparently bumped heads going after him, and were now mad at each other. Steve heard roars and sandy explosions, but was back up on his feet and running and had no interest in being a spectator for now.

Running as fast as he could, he seemed to be getting away, though he heard the sliding sandy noise again as one of the worms came after him. An image came to Steve's mind of someone trying to outrun an oncoming car by running straight ahead down the road in front of it. He had always yelled at the screen when he saw that in a movie, to tell the idiot to go at a right angle because he'd never outrun the car on the straightaway.  And now here he was doing it himself.  A quick right turn, and the rapidly closing worm went right by, spraying Steve with sand as it went. 

It didn't keep going past him, but apparently quick turns weren't its forté either, so a new plan formed in Steve's mind.  He started running again, this time in a square pattern, just dodging the worm at each corner.  Meanwhile, he was busily assembling sticks into his crossbow, glad for now that he had taken the time to break apart his spear earlier. 

As he turned each corner, there was a moment that he had a broadside view of the worm, although it was just a hump in the sand while moving.  A shot with the crossbow as fairly easy at that moment, and after three misses and four hits, the experience was over, the sand worm sinking slowly into the sand until it was gone.  Not bad, but with only two more sticks left to feed his crossbow, Steve needed something better or to be far from worms.

During all this running around, he had become hopelessly confused about which direction he was going, but looking once again to Polaris for help, he was soon headed back to the east.  He had just beaten back an enemy and was feeling euphoric about that, so it was just as well that he didn't know he was going to have to walk until dawn before getting out of the sand, and it was much better that he didn't know what he was to find there.

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