It was painful. Far more painful than the scientist had told him it would be. The burning. The stinging. The blistering. Heat unlike he had ever felt. Like he was being burned at the stake. He could almost smell smoke and hear the crackle of burning wood. Of meat cooking. That sizzling sound always brought him happiness. I had better not be on fire. That was the only logical explanation for the volume of pain he was experiencing. That he was on fire.
How much longer could this take? The same sentence flashed over and over in his mind for what felt like hours, but he knew that that was not possible. I’ll be unconscious in six minutes if I keep holding my breath. They did not tell him how long the transition would take. They did not know. Smartest guys in the room my ass. They only knew it would take a few minutes. Or more. “Don't breathe Troop Sergeant. Hold your breath for as long as possible.” They could not explain why he should not breathe, only that doing so was not on his list of approved actions. That is one of the reasons he was selected. He could hold his breath longer than anyone else in the pool of candidates. That was saying something, he thought. Some very skilled men and women worked with me on this project.
“Keep your eyes closed.” That was also on their list of things he should not consider doing. “Don't open them until it's over.” Something about getting dizzy during transit was said. Many times. Which the scientist insisted would lead to breathing. And breathing would lead to terrible things. Don't breathe. Don't move. Don't open your eyes. “Or you risk becoming unstable during transit Troop Sergeant. No, we don't know what instability will cause, but not completing your mission will be the result. And we'll have to send someone else." He knew he would not be able to live with himself if he failed and they had to send another person. Live with myself. Now that's funny right there.
The good news was that those thoughts were helping to keep his mind off the pain. Helping to refocus his attention. The bad news was that he did not know how much longer he could wait. How much longer he could keep his eyes closed. Hold his breath. Keep still.
Keeping still was the easy part. He had years of experience being patient, statue-like while wet and cold. He had fond memories of spending days in a hide-covered in feces and insects he did not want to identify. But I never felt like I was on fire. Being cooked alive. This is new. Holding still was proving to be more difficult than anything he had ever experienced. You have to hold still for this torture to end. Wait for the end. Whatever, wherever that would be.
It was over in seconds and Roger Wade felt his body fall. Fall as if he was back at parachutist school and jumping off the fifteen-meter training tower.
After the agonizing sensation of free fall, he hit the ground. Harder than he thought possible. Musty wet dirt crashed into his face. Into his nose. Over his eyes.
Every bone in his body felt broken or worse, shattered. His skin felt like it was on fire and pierced by a million needles. His head became the brakes of a freight train. Before he could stop himself, he opened his mouth and grabbed as much oxygen as his lungs could hold. Filling up every cubic centimeter as if he would never get to breathe again. He opened his eyes at the apex of his long-drawn breath.
In less than a heartbeat, he regretted it. Without thinking or controlling himself, he was up on all fours vomiting. Retching what felt like everything he had ever eaten. Like every flu, he ever had rolled into one. Every drunk night he ever tried to sleep off came back up. He lost complete control of his body. His thoughts along with it. Thinking at all was the last thing on his mind. A mind that went blank as he crashed back down to the ground, face first. Passing out.
He had what could have only been thoughts. His mind was grasping for something. Anything. Wake up. Open your eyes. Open your fucking eyes now God damn it!
He listened and opened his eyes with caution. Taking his time, moving his head from side to side. He was face down in the dirt and grass. Cold, frosted dirt and grass.
It was nighttime. Darkness stood lurking in the distance. The dark shadows of trees stared back at him. Not a wall of trees, but not quite a copse. They stood around in a loose formation. Watching and waiting.
He pushed himself up to his knees. Patting down his body, making sure all the parts were still in place. And if he had to admit it, he had an overwhelming urge to make sure he was not burnt or blistered. He succumbed to the need to know and ran his eyes and hands over his body, looking for any damage. For blisters. Burned skin. Marks.
Roger stood and looked himself over. He was the same aged mocha brown he had always been and as naked as he remembered before transit. “You can't wear any clothes Troop Sergeant. Nothing inorganic can pass through the event horizon. Nothing dead. Nothing processed. Nothing man-made.” That meant everything to him. No weapons. No tools. No clothing. Nothing. Only himself and whatever skills he had. And whatever he could find where he was going that could help him complete his mission. That's another reason they chose me. Skills. The skills to survive. To win. At any cost. That was what he and the others had in common. A life of service. A life of winning. A life of putting the mission first.
Roger knew what was next. The mission. Time for phase one. Time to get my bearings. That was going to be difficult.
“We’ll transport you onto a grassy plain Troop Sergeant.” Roger was not on a grassy plain. He found himself surrounded by phalanxes of spruce and fir trees. The light forest they mentioned?
Standing, he dusted himself off. Spruce needles fell onto the moss and lichen-covered ground. This was not the promised land of grassy plenty. This might take a while.
The open spacing of the trees allowed him a clear view of the night sky and the stars it contained. Now to find my reference constellations.
He was far from an astronomer, but land navigation was a specialty and required the use of the stars at times. “It is vital that you verify both time and location.” Yeah, very vital.
Roger found the Big Dipper, Orion, and Leo, his three primary constellations. He gave himself a few minutes to compare what he was seeing to his memory. The Big Dipper's cup was smaller. Orion's bow was more pronounced. Leo's head was less curved or structured. Bingo.
Satisfied he had the right place, Roger moved west toward his target area. Toward the completion of his mission. He did not have much time left and he felt his body weakening. The drugs they had given him should have helped him make it another twenty-four hours. I don’t think I have half that.
“If you accept this mission Troop Sergeant, you understand it's the one-way variety? We need you to acknowledge that.” He had signed all their papers and made a deal for his family. At least Charles would get money for college and Linda could pay the bills. The company would present it as a one-time life insurance payment. The cover story would be a plane crash. Those things are experimental, to begin with. They fall out of the sky all the time. All hands lost, remote location, and all that. We'll have to wait for the snow to thaw before we can recover the bodies.
One-time insurance payment and a one-way trip. One way trip indeed. He was the most qualified in that category too. Troop Sergeant Roger Wade knew he would not be returning. It did not matter to him that the scientist on the project could not provide a two-way transition. One way journey was all the laws of physics would allow they said. He understood. He was the perfect candidate for this mission. The only one that cancer was going to kill in less than forty-eight hours.
Medically retired Troop Sergeant Roger Wade put his impending death out of his mind. Started walking, putting one foot in front of the other. Like he had done so many times over the years. And moved out. Putting the mission above everything else.
Now to find those rocks by the river and get this over with.
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