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Aberrant: Infinite Earth - Fiction - [A&A] Grains of Sand


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Lee stumbled into sudden consciousness, guided by the sound of someone calling her name – her current one at any rate – repeatedly.

“Ms. Roman”, Lt. Mayne asked her yet again, “are ye alright?”

“Lee”, she muttered, sounding a lot less coherent than she meant or wanted to.

“What?”

“Just call me Lee”, said Lee. It sounded more like a moan than a sentence.

“Er… right”, Mayne responded noncommittally. He was still looking pretty worried, but that expression was steadily giving way to one of bemused confusion. After a pause he told her, “Yer ‘chute failed t’open an’ ya hit the ground savage like, aye but you know yerself. We were none too sure you’d be getting’ up again from a fall like that, but tankgodanisolymuther yer still amongst the living.”

“The others?” Lee asked, after her still-groggy mind managed to parse Mayne’s Irish accent into a form of English she could understand. She sat up then and started glancing about, taking stock of her situation now that her senses were returning to her and the shapes and colors all around her were starting to make sense again. Rake and Le Chêne were off to one side, standing behind Mayne, and nodded a greeting as she looked their way.

“They’re fine, ma’am. Lee”, Mayne answered her, “Plewman landed wrong on his ankle, but he’ll be alright.” There was Plewman, Lee saw, sitting low on a sand dune several yards away with O’Sullivan crouched next to him.

Lee nodded her understanding at Mayne, still taking stock, putting the pieces back together. There’d been the training in Egypt – completed only days ago now, but it seemed like years – followed by the rapid journey down to Darfur day before yesterday, the night-flight over Ubangi-Shari, a day of bouncing about in a jeep in Nigeria and, finally, a second night of flying, this time deep into French West Africa. They’d passed entirely over French Sudan and penetrated deep into Mauritania, at which point she and her team were to perform a parachute drop into the desert some 40 kilometers outside of Ouadane.

Right, the parachute drop….

Hers hadn’t opened – like parachutes were supposed to – leaving Lee to plummet to her death. Or so she’d thought up until her sudden return to consciousness a moment ago had proved her wrong. Not that she was complaining. Surviving a fall from an airplane. That was a new one she could add to her List of Stuff What Hasn’t Killed Me (yet). And one she wasn’t likely to have put to the test voluntarily, either, so she supposed she should consider the event both fortunate and educational.

Lee pulled herself to her feet, brushing aside Lt. Mayne’s attempts to stop her, and realized as she did so that while she may have ‘survived’ a fall from an airplane, she hadn’t done so ‘unscathed’. Yes, those were definitely some broken ribs she could feel scraping about in there, her right knee audibly popped back into joint as she struggled to stand, and she had a sneaking suspicion that there was something seriously wrong with her spine. She brushed at her temple and, upon seeing the clear fluid that was rapidly turning an inky black color clinging to the metal ‘skin’ of her hand when she pulled it away, realized she was also bleeding from a head wound.

A benefit of being dynamic: she would almost certainly have recovered mostly or entirely from all of these injuries by this time tomorrow. Which was good, because more than 30 kilometers lay between them and their first objective and they needed to cover it all before this time tomorrow. She would be sore enough without the injuries.

Lee accepted a strip of cloth from Mayne to clean her forehead with. She looked around at her five-man motley crew of British and Free French army as they watched her expectantly; Plewman was back up on his feet and appeared to have little or no limp, which was good. Spreading out around them on all sides as far as the eye could see under a night sky that blazed with stars, but no moon, were the low rolling sand dunes of the Sahara. To the east, the horizon was showing the first glimmerings of the rising dawn.

“Alright", she told them, turning so that the coming dawn was to her right. "Let's go."

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By kilometer 15 of their desert hike, Lee was certain that the phrase “two steps forward, one step back” had originally been coined in the desert. It almost perfectly described what hiking through sand dunes felt like – except that it was a little more like “a half-step backwards for every step forward” – the math was ultimately the same, though, so she supposed it didn’t really matter. In most other environments a 30km hike could’ve been completed in less than half of the nearly-twenty-four hours it was taking them, but other environments weren’t the Sahara; they were going to have to push extraordinarily hard to make their destination on schedule as it was.

,,

Lee’s injuries were healing steadily as they traveled, as she’d known they would, but that didn’t stop each one from complaining at her the entire way. Her broken ribs were particularly troublesome, at least until whatever it was she’d done to her spine started healing up and nerve connections she hadn’t realized had been damaged began to reknit themselves and promptly began sending raw, jagged, and irritatingly false signals all up and down her back, down her hips, and around to her chest and stomach. The shooting pains she could deal with well enough, but the itching was almost intolerable.

,,

The rest of Lee’s team, while highly trained and elite operatives, every one, were all mundanes, which meant that despite her injuries, the desert hike was far easier for her than it was for them. So Lee kept her physical complaints to herself and focused on staying on course and putting one booted foot in front of the other, repeating that process seemingly ad nauseam. Plewman’s limp eventually resurfaced, but he seemed to be managing; Lee kept one eye on him anyway.

,,

The dawn that had been threatening when Lee’d first returned to consciousness finally happened about an hour and a half after they’d set out; the newborn sun beautiful, but somehow inevitable and ominous in its rising. The stars overhead vanished almost immediately and were replaced with alarming rapidity by a brilliant blue and entirely cloudless sky. The sun itself quickly became far too bright to look upon, and with their faces aimed downward and hidden from its harsh glare the only real indication to Lee and her team that the day was progressing at all was the slow and interminable shortening, and then, after eons, the lengthening again of the shadows cast by the sand dunes all around them. Also, there was the heat. Hellish and baking, it seemed to greedily suck up every drop of sweat they offered to it and gave precisely nothing back – other than a soul-deep fatigue – and the effect only grew more intense as the day progressed.

,,

Dynamic or no, Lee was feeling their journey in her very bones by the time they were finished, and she could only imagine what it had been like for her non-Dynamic companions, her respect for whom had risen considerably from its already high level with each passing hour they’d traveled the Sahara together. Not a one of them complained.

,,

It was mid-afternoon by the time they reached the outer fringes of the region whose center was their destination. That being the Guelb er Richat. The Richat, as it had been explained to Lee, was a circular structure some 40km across at its widest point, formed by concentric rings of sedimentary rock, each one smaller than the last, and with an “eye” that was itself some 3km in area. The structure was entirely natural, and a complete geological mystery to all of the experts in such things (Le Chêne and O’Sullivan, who were among these experts, had made sure to tell her as much). Lee had been told that the Guelb er Richat was really something to see when viewed from the air. Like a ripple the size of a city frozen into the earth.

,,

Seen from the ground, though, there wasn’t anything particularly special about it except that it replaced the seemingly unending dunes of Saharan sand with rocks. Not interesting, exotic rocks, mind; just rocks. As they continued towards the structure’s center, there were even a few ridges – some of them were actually taller than 15m. Very exciting.

,,

After they’d passed the outermost of the Richat’s rings, however, the landscape changed, leaving the sand behind entirely. By this time the ridges had gotten taller – though not by much – and Lee had to admit that this Richat thing was perhaps not so dull after all. It wasn’t any one thing, really. There still weren’t any interesting rocks or mineral deposits lying about for her to admire or anything like that; it was more the sum total of what they were seeing – all of the pieces coming together to form a greater whole.

,,

Everything faced inwards towards the still-unseen heart of the structure. Every ridge formed a curve aligned around it; the jagged inner surfaces of every one of the smaller ridges of quartzite that jutted out of the ground between the larger ridges also faced in its direction; the branches of the sparse bushes and scrub that somehow managed to survive out here all reached out towards it. Even the skulls of dead animals that lay here and there amid the salt flats that crunched and crumbled under their boots faced towards the center, empty eye sockets staring blankly in the same direction Lee and her team were traveling. After they’d crossed over the first large ridge marking the border of the Richat’s outermost ring, anything and everything that could be said to have a direction of orientation was pointed in one direction only: towards the center. At the moment, that even included Lee and Lt. Mayne and the rest of her team.

,,

Taken altogether, the effect was eerie, strange, and unnatural.

,,

When they’d reached the top of the outermost ring, with the sun low on the horizon and off to their collective left, the next ring in had seemed deceptively close. It had turned out to be 5 or 6 kilometers distant, and by the time they’d reached it the sun had already long-since dipped below the tops of the mountains far to the west. This turned out to be to their advantage.

,,

Combien d’entre eux sont-ils?”, asked Rake, “How many?”

,,

He was looking, like the rest of them, at the lights blazing brightly and all out of place out on the very center of the mostly-flat plain that made up the inner-most circle of the Richat structure. This was still some 6 or more kilometers from their current position, and if it weren’t for the utter darkness of everything else around them, those tiny lights would likely have escaped their notice. If one used binoculars (or if one had dynamically-keen vision, like Lee did), one could make out little black shadows flickering about on the illuminated sand around those lights, each one caused by the equally tiny figure of a man in military garb. Not French Resistance or British military garb, though.

,,

There was a compound down there, where those little lights were shining; this much they’d known going in. It was their ultimate destination, in fact. But it wasn’t supposed to be shining and all lit-up like that. It was supposed to stay dark, to remain hidden. Clearly, there’d been a development….

,,

Paddy Mayne lowered his glasses a moment after Rake had asked his question and, turning to look at Lee, said, “I count ten o’ them.” The way he said it made it clear it was as much a question as an observation. He wanted to know what their team’s Dynamic leader was seeing.

,,

For her part, Lee had been gazing silently down at the lights 6 kilometers distant for longer than Mayne had. She used no binoculars, but then she didn’t need to. She blinked once and then turned her jade-green eyes to look at Mayne and the others gathered round. “There are at least fifteen of them down there”, she told them. Looking to Mayne, she added, “Sentries posted around the perimeter, out of the light. I almost missed them, myself.”

,,

“There’ll be more inside”, O’Sullivan pointed out. This prompted the exchanging of significant glances all around.

,,

Buried under the very heart of the Richat structure was a compound. Lee had never been there, but her superiors had shown her schematics; a series of tunnels and rooms, the purpose of most obscure to her and unimportant to her current mission. What they were there for was normally stored down deep, near the bottom of the compound. Whoever those men were down there, they were certainly there for the same thing as Lee and her team, and as many men as they had stationed outside the compound, they would likely have nearly as many more inside of it by now as well.

,,

“Think they’ve got any Oobers down there with ‘em?”, Plewman asked. ‘Oobers’ being a recent slang term for German dynamics, taken from the term Übermensch used by Nietzsche in his book ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’.

,,

All eyes turned to Lee, of course, but she only pursed her lips and said, “Hard to say. I don’t see any from here.”

,,

There was another moment’s silence, punctuated only by the wind blowing in from the south off of the greater Sahara, and then O’Sullivan spoke up again. “So what does this mean for us?”, he asked. “Do we proceed, ma’am?”

,,

Lee looked at O’Sullivan, then over to Mayne, and then back out to the darkness and the tiny little lights, so full of the promise of danger and violence if they approached them. She considered them for a long, silent moment and then sighed resignedly and stood up without a word. Shouldering her pack once more, she began walking down into the Richat’s heart. A moment after that the rest of her team followed after her.

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