A touch of Atlas Atlas.

PROLOGUE

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 bacon sound that always brought him happiness. I had better not be on fire. That was the only logical explanation for the massive volume of pain he was experiencing.

How much longer could this possibly 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 will 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. Maybe more. Don't breathe Troop Sergeant. Hold your breath for as long as possible. They could not explain why he should not breathe, but the scientist were very adamant that breathing was not on the list of things he should do. 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. There were some very skilled men and women working 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. Repeatedly. I am sure the safety officer said something about dizziness. Which the scientist insisted would lead to breathing. And breathing would lead to terrible things. Don't breath. 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 you won't be able to complete your mission 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 someone else. 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 and 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 a spending seventy-two hours 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 while the feeling of his skin burning off his body was proving more difficult than anything he had ever experienced. Just hold still for this torture to end. Wait for the end. Whatever, where ever 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 fifty foot training tower. After the agonizing sensation of free fall he hit what felt like solid ground. Going faster than he thought possible. Musty wet dirt crashing into his face. Into his nose. Over his eyes.

Every bone in his body felt broken. Felt shattered. His skin simultaneously on fire and pierced by a million needles. His head became the breaks 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.

It took less than a heartbeat for the regret to overcome him and then, without thinking, without controlling it, he was up on all fours vomiting. Retching what felt like everything he had ever eaten. Like every flu he had ever had rolled into one. Every drunk night he ever tried to sleep off. All rolled into one. It came up so violently and so fast that he lost complete control of his body. His thoughts were out of his control. And then 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.



Slowly 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. Opening his eyes, cautiously, slowly. Gently moving his head from side to side. He was face down in the dirt and grass. Cold, frosted dirt and grass. It was night time. Darkness stood lurking in the distance. The dark shadows of trees stared back at him. Not a wall of trees, but not a copse. They were spread around in a loose formation. Silently watching. And waiting.

Slowly 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.

Satisfied that he was the same aged mocha brown color he was when he stepped onto the platform, Roger stood and looked himself over. Naked. Just as he remembered. 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. Just him and whatever skills he had. And whatever he could find where he was going that could be used to 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. He was not where he was supposed to be.

You'll be transported onto a grassy plain Troop Sergeant. Roger was not on a grassy plain. He found himself surrounded by phalanxes of spruce and fir trees. They were spaced evenly, as if they were planted by loggers needing room for their future harvesting. He dusted himself off, watching spruce needles fall onto the moss and lichen covered ground. This was not the promised land of grassy plenty. This might take a while.

Before the mission Roger memorized the map the scientist had put together based on their research. He had an idea of where he was. They found evidence of light woods east of the grassy plain and the river bank. Looks like they were off a little in their calculations. The open spacing of the trees allowed him a clear view of the night sky. The stars easily identifiable. Now to find my reference constellations.

Roger also memorized the night sky as part of his pre-mission work up. 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 and 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. He felt his body weakening. The drugs they gave him were supposed to help him make it another twenty-four hours were wearing off. If you accept this mission Troop Sergeant, you understand it's the one way variety? We need you to acknowledge that. He acknowledged it. Signed all the paper work. His family would be taken care of. What was left of it. Estranged wife and son. But Charles would get money for college. Linda would get money for bills. It would be presented as a one-time life insurance payment from the company. The cover story would be a plane crash. Those things are experimental to begin with. They fall out of the sky all the time. The company would claim that all hands were lost. Remote location and all that. We'll have to wait for the snow to thaw before we can recover the bodies. A one-time insurance payment, one way trip. One way trip indeed. He was the most qualified in that category to. Troop Sergeant Roger Wade knew he wasn't returning. He knew that it mattered very little 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 that they were more than happy with that limitation. He was the perfect candidate for this mission. The only candidate out of the available pool who could accomplish this mission. He was the only one that cancer was going to kill in less than forty-eight hours.

Retired Troop Sergeant Roger Wade, age thirty-four, recently of the Second Special Troop Battalion, Texas Rangers and veteran of three wars put his impending death out of his mind and put one foot in front of the other, like he had done so many times over the years, and put the mission first and moved out.

Now to find those rocks by the river and get this over with.