The Long Road Ahead
rating: +10+x

Atlas woke up with a start. A figure had been stalking him in his dreams. Like a distortion of space in the shape of a person. No matter where he went- he could see it watching. With some relief, he found himself in the back of the van with the rest of Broken Dagger. After some consulting with the others, he found out they were taking a detour to Fort Carson, right outside of Colorado Springs. An Army unit had been broadcasting support requests from there as recent as last week.

"Now, we do have a slight problem."

Fox admitted. The visor of her red suit clouding with her breath.

"We don't know what we're getting into here. Not only have they stopped broadcasting, but the area around the base is pretty heavily wooded. Convoy command is sending us up first, as a scouting party. We'll be there in about 30 minutes, so load your blue rounds, check your seals, and get ready to move."

The rest of the trip was agonizingly slow. While the prospect of investigating a military base that more than likely was completely overrun seemed foolish, Atlas understood. They couldn't just leave the survivors to die if they hadn't already. As the convoy ground to a halt in a rocky patch of road, away from them, Atlas found himself dreading the thought of further combat. Nonetheless, he and his team disembarked and began walking towards a hill that overlooked the base.

"So, Polygraph. This boyfriend, you sure he's alive? Site-19's supposed to be compromised."

Atlas wasn't sure what to say in response to Arsegike's question. He couldn't just tell them that he was chasing a corpse.

"I don't know."

His brisk, cold response was enough for the man. The rest of the walk towards the hill was silent, and extremely uneasy. Thankfully, no trouble befell the group on their way to the base.

"Poly. You're up first. Jackal, keep watch until we're all up."

Following fox's orders, Atlas begins scaling the steep incline. His heart beating louder with apprehension with every step. As he stood upon the top of the hill, his heart dropped. A mutter escaped his lips.

"For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable."

Fox was soon at his side. She too fell silent at the sight. The base's watchtowers had crumbled into deep sinkholes. The eastern side was a charred wreck, the result of a clearly recent fire. In the trees around the base, several helicopters lay suspended, their broken wrecks tangled in the malignant tendrils of what used to be trees. As Arsegike mounted the hill, and the clamber of Jackal's ascent followed, a deafening series of cracks came out from the base. Gunshots. Without a second thought, Fox and Arsegike skidded down the hill towards the base. Atlas followed, with Jackal right behind him.

The scene at Fort Carson was no better up close. The team made their way through a breach in the fence, entering the fort proper. Another helicopter was buried halfway into a nearby building, a large mass of infected pulling it apart to get out and towards the newcomers. Even with their blue rounds ripping through the horde, Broken Dagger was still quickly overwhelmed. As Atlas dispatched the nearest blob, he heard a shout from an unfamiliar voice.


Four soldiers dashed out of the building that had been half collapsed by the helicopter. As they did, the one in the rear pressed down on a detonator. A loud boom rang out and flames burst out from every window in the building. The unmistakable screech of the melted people inside indicated that they were likely engaged with the men in the building. The soldiers provided a good boost to the fighting power of the team, though within seconds of joining the fight, the man with the detonator was caught off guard by his assailants. A horrified scream signalled the removal of his glove. The cancerous wax crawled up his arm before disappearing under his coat. Without hesitation, Fox loaded her underbarrel grenade launcher, firing it and practically vaporizing the poor man. Atlas tried his best to keep up, quickly expending three full magazines. As one of them dashed up on his left, he instinctively went to kick it. Atlas' foot sank into the mass. He could swear he saw what passed for the thing's mouth twist into a wicked smile.


Atlas' frightened cries drew the attention of Arsegike, who unleashed the rest of his magazine at Atlas' attacker. The entire top half of the being flew apart, freeing Atlas' foot. He finished it off, before turning to thank his savior.

When Atlas' eyes met Arsegike's, it took him a second to realize what was wrong. Then it hit him. He could see the man's eye. One of the endless forms of wax was latched onto the man's back. The armor panel covering the left side of his face had been pried off. Arsegike's one visible eye stared at Atlas' face with a look of pure terror. His head caved in, melting into itself with a sickening squelch. His body fell limp, with his killer still pulling pieces of armor off the body with fervor.

Atlas had seen plenty of people die. He had killed several himself. But this man had died not only saving the soldiers, but Atlas as well. The liquid of Arsegike's body flowed out of the hole in his helmet, coalescing with that of the one which killed him. The being began shuffling towards Atlas, who again found himself paralyzed by fear.

"Atlas, love. Come join me. It's so beautiful here."

The way they used Kyle's voice filled Atlas' with enough rage that he managed to put the death of his teammate on the wayside, and instilled in him enough confidence to ask it a simple question.

"Where are you, Kyle?"

Like clockwork, the shape responded.

"You know where, love."

Without another word, Atlas turned the poorly formed figure into a smoldering pile of sludge. With his minor burst of grit now passing, Atlas again felt extremely overwhelmed. All around him, the remainder of Broken Dagger and the three soldiers fought hard against the horde. In the middle of the fort's courtyard, Atlas stood dazed.

Snapping back to reality, Atlas felt a firm tug at his shoulder. It was Fox.


Atlas opened his mouth, yet no words came out. He could only muster enough strength to point at the discarded white suit lying on the ground. Fox sighed.


The run back to the convoy was frantic and exhausting. As Atlas shut the van's door behind him, he heard the soldier in the passenger seat speak to fox.

"Staff Sergeant Cassidy Harper. Thanks for the help back there. I'm sorry about your friend."

Atlas froze at the mention of Arsegike. The man had died to save him. As one of the soldiers in the back with Atlas' went to introduce himself, Atlas screamed.


He ripped off the helmet of his red suit and pitched it at the floor of the van. Atlas clutched his head in his hands, pulling at his sweat-soaked hair. Jackal and the other two survivors stared at him in shock. In the sealed rear of the van, he was afforded safety from the sunlight. So, Atlas tore off the grime-caked face wrappings and slid his glasses back out of his pocket, and onto his face. Pulling his lighter and a cigarette out of his bag, Atlas lit the Marlboro with trembling hands.

"Poly- Atlas. It wasn't your f-"

"Shut the fuck up Jackal."

"Atlas. Calm the fuck down, kid. People die. It isn't your fault."

"He died saving ME! I got HIM killed!"

Atlas took a drag of the cigarette, coughing lightly.

"God, I'm fucking pathetic."

He took another long drag of the cigarette, failing to stop sobs from welling up in him. Everyone sat in silence as Atlas smoked and cried.

Atlas had live thousands of lives. Died thousands of deaths. Yet after all that, he sat in the back of a van traveling through Kansas, unable to forgive himself. The others chatted amongst themselves. Trying to ignore the mess that was their teammate. Atlas wasn't the best under pressure. That much he knew. But this was different.

Atlas was asleep. But he didn't know that. The weathered young man walked through a labyrinthine mockery of Site-19's greenhouse. Always stalked by that that shape. Anytime he got too close, he'd hear that grinding sound again. And the sigil on his hand burned with a searing pain that left him a sobbing mess on the floor. Faint words could be heard from underneath the cacophony of crushing metal.

"I have seen your burdens. I have felt your burdens."

Atlas wanted nothing more than for this to stop. To just wake up in bed with Kyle next to him. He fucking hated this. He'd hated every second of his life since he lost Kyle. But he couldn't wake up. No surprises there, since when could he have anything nice?

He found himself falling. Or at least he felt it. That ubiquitous feeling of your stomach dropping. But he was seeing something else. Memories of his past. Possible futures. And then they shifted to things so indescribable. Colors he had never seen before. Senses he never had. The stimulation was so intense that he felt sick.

When Atlas woke up, he was in a ditch on the side of the road. The convoy was nowhere to be seen.

Atlas didn't hold it against them. In his mind, not only had he fallen apart after the fight at Fort Carson, but he had gotten Arsegike killed as well. To their credit, the convoy hadn't just left him out to dry. Besides him were his duffle bag, several magazines of blue rounds, his rifle, a note, a marked map, and enough food and water for the next day or so. First inspecting the map, he noticed with great relief that he had been left near the Iowa-Illinois border. Only 4 or so days of walking away from Site-19. Several safer routes were highlighted to get to the Site. He couldn't help but thank Broken Dagger out loud, despite the fact they were likely nearing the border to Canada by now. They had even left him in his red suit. Stuffing the map into a side pocket of his bag, Atlas picked up the note.

Atlas. We're really sorry to do this to you. But you just aren't cut out for this. Seeing as how you were getting off for 19 soon regardless, we decided to drop you off with some supplies here. I advise you to take the marked routes, and not travel along the major roads. We made sure to avoid forests when plotting this route, at least where we could. Arsegike didn't die for you to end up a pile of melted wax after all. I just want you to know that what happened at Fort Carson wasn't your fault. Arsegike made a choice to save you. I'm confident that whatever he saw in you will get you to your destination.
Best of luck. And godspeed. -Fox

Atlas folded the note, and placed it into his pocket. Putting the excess supplies into his bag, he slung it around his back before standing up. He had a lot of walking to do. Beginning his trek across the backroads of the midwest, he soon found himself approaching and eventually passing a sign that proudly read "Welcome to Illinois!". Several hours later, and with the blood red sun now approaching day's end, Atlas spotted a small collection of buildings in the distance. His map noted the small township of Argo Fay. Deciding that it would be a nice place to rest for the night, Atlas double checked the condition of his rifle as he continued his sojourn.

The town was thankfully empty. Having cleared each building individually before declaring it safe, Atlas finally settled down in the storm cellar of an older house. After devouring one of his MREs, and drinking an entire bottle of water, he locked the cellar door and stripped off his red suit. After completing the surprisingly long task of removing a GOC-Issue bodysuit, he also unwrapped and discarded the adhesive bandages he had been using as a makeshift face cover. Using the rest of his clothes as a cot and blanket, Atlas set his bag down for use as a pillow. Now clad in his boxers and binder, he enjoyed another cigarette before settling in for the night.

Atlas realized with great dismay that he was back in the mockery of 19's greenhouse. Not waiting for confirmation of his stalker's presence, he dashed through the endless gardens for as long as he could. Though as always happened, he eventually grew tired and stopped. Within moments, the figure was upon him again. Once more, the searing pain in his hand and immensely loud noise of the entity had him doubled over in agony. And once again, he heard the creatures faint words under the chorus of grinding rock.

"I have seen you cast yourself into the fire. I have felt the flames."

And with the entity's words, he was back in that smothering realm. Every sensation he'd ever had was flooding over him at once. Memories flashed first. His first kiss, his stolen virginity, he and his father's last hunting trip. And again, unintelligible glimpses of the future. Burning flesh casting smoke in a glass room. The desecrated remains of Site-19. And then, for the first time, something clear. Atlas was stood in an endless white void. Kyle was there with him. Two thresholds were in front of them. Atlas didn't have time to ponder this scene's meaning however, as mere seconds later he was ripped back out of sleep in the old cellar.

After a further 2 hours of walking, Atlas' legs ached with gentle yet ever present protest. Ignoring the exhaustion that was slowly building within him, Atlas continued along the back roads of Illinois. Although Fox had plotted a route that missed most of the woodlands, he noticed a sunken treeline off in the distance, realizing with some dismay that his route brought him through it. A while later as he approached the edge of the treeline, he double-checked his armaments.

Atlas had the M4 the GOC had given him, five magazines of blue rounds, two white phosphorus grenades, and his hairspray and lighter. Making sure the grenades were easily accessible, he began his walk through the melted forest. It wasn't long before one of the trees bent down with a squelch, attempting to wrap its tentacle-like branches around him. A short burst of fire blew these branches apart. Though as he fired, it seemed the entire forest woke up around him. Shrieks of dozens of converted animals rang out from around the forest. Taking this as a sign he wasn't welcome, or perhaps too much so, Atlas began moving at a full sprint in order to get through the forest.

His heart beat fast in his chest. Ahead of him he could see the end of the treeline. Much too far for his liking. As he continued dashing, several figures burst out of the treeline on either side. Atlas skidded to a halt, raising his rifle and firing four shots at the closest figure. The first two bullets whizz past, impacting in a melted tree and setting it ablaze. The second two impact, hitting what seemed to have been a deer in its body and head. The contorted animal was torn apart, falling down in a smoldering heap as it retreated to the forest. He fired another five shots at the next animal, some indistinguishable form that fell apart just as easily as the deer. Spending twelve more rounds on the next three figures, Atlas took note that he would soon be overwhelmed.

As he finished off the last of the attackers blocking his escape, a large beast rammed him to the ground from behind. The signature roar of a bear came from its mouth, yet it sounded like it was drowning as it did. Pure panic gripped the young man's mind as the creature picked him up, and began tearing into his red suit. In the split second before he made his next move, one that felt like an eternity, Atlas contemplated his next choice. The red suit advertised itself, amongst other things, as safe for use in areas with undetonated explosives. That fact settled it for Atlas.

As the disfigured bear picked Atlas up in the air, ripping off the red suit's poncho, he waited for his chance. When the creature opened its mouth and roared he took it. Shoving his arm halfway down its throat, Atlas withdrew it before the orifice could close around him. Casting the pin of the white phosphorus grenade aside, he did his best to shield himself before it went off. The bear blew apart in a blinding white ball of flame. Atlas saw the red suit's HUD flash a dozen warnings over his vision as he was violently thrown off the now immolated wreck that was once a bear.

He was on fire. That was obvious. But he didn't have time to address that. Patting out the flames on his precious bag first, he sprinted out of the forest, hearing the remaining woodland creatures shrieking after him. The flames were cooking him alive. Throwing himself into a ditch once he was sure his pursuers had given up, atlas quickly threw off the red suit. Scrambling away on his hands as he finally got out, he watched the gear burn as he thanked whatever powers that be for his luck.

Several hours later, and with the ache of his legs reaching its height, Atlas settled down in a boarded up bar in the town of Mt Carroll. After ensuring no sunlight broke in, Atlas set up a small light before taking a seat at the bar. Casting his face wrappings to the ground, he realized with some trepidation that he was bleeding. Tenderly following the leak of blood in order to find the wound, he came to a large gash in his forehead. Using the discarded bandages to temporarily halt the blood flow, he began searching around the building for any medical supplies.

Finding a first aid kit positioned on a wall, untouched, Atlas thanked what was left of OSHA for their helpful regulations. SItting back down at the bar and propping open the kit, he began the painful process of manually stitching his wound shut. After using the mirror behind the bar to get an adequate view for this procedure, he winced as the needle spun through his flesh, pulling the thread behind it. Almost forty minutes later, he was done.

Finally stripping off his smothering layers, he grabbed a bottle of bourbon from behind the bar before sitting back down on a stool. Not bothering to locate a glass, he drank the entire container- ignoring the fact that the inevitable hangover would hinder his journey even further. He knew what awaited him when he slept, and just wanted to bury the thought. Atlas stared at himself in the bar's mirror. He hadn't caught a look at himself since before he hopped through SCP-1437. He didn't like what he was seeing. His curly, strawberry blonde hair was caked with dirt and soaked with sweat, weighing itself down so it formed a filthy sheet around his head. His lips were cracked, his suture work providing an ugly view over his forehead. There were bags under his eyes as well. This trip was taking its toll.

Staring at the nearly unrecognizable figure in the mirror, Atlas couldn't help but bury his face in his hands and begin to cry. In truth, he had massive doubts about his goal. What if he couldn't make it? What if he died on the way, or worse, got taken as one of those things? What if Kyle wasn't there? What if he didn't come back, even after Atlas had freed him from the sun's torturing grasp. A low groan escaped Atlas' lips. He still had over two days of walking before he reached 19, and that was assuming he didn't run into any more delays.

In his mind, he divided the remainder of his journey into three separate blocks. The first leg would be from where he was in Mt Carroll, Illinois to Monroe, Wisconsin. This would take about 17 straight hours. Second, and most daunting, was from Monroe to Sauk City. A 20 hour trek through sparsely populated back roads. After planning a rest in Sauk City to recuperate, he counted on hopefully locating a bike before taking on the remaining 8 hour ride to Site-19. If he couldn't find a bike, a further 30 hours of walking awaited him. With the voyage to come in the back of his mind, he pried the ever-constricting binder off of his chest and settled down again to sleep.

The visions plagued him again.The voice of his pursuer once more slithered out from under the deafening cacophony of noise. The words, again, offered sympathy. A sympathy that filled Atlas with immense rage.

"You are not alone. You never have been."

Struggling to stand up from under the pain of the encounter, every nerve in Atlas' body commanded him to curl up and submit. But a dogged determination rose within him. With trembling legs and an aching head, he rose. The landscape seemed to curl around him, almost flinching away from his newfound resilience. Words escaped his hoarse throat.

"I am not afraid of you anymore. Do you understand?"

A staunch flatness was present in his voice. The figure just stared at him, clearly watching despite its lack of features. The noise had stopped The figure spoke back in Atlas' own voice.

"I think I do."

Atlas expected the ground to drop below him, again cursing him to that realm of memories and visions. But it never happened. After a moment of hesitation, he again spoke to this figure.

"Who are you? What are you?"

It responded almost the second his words left his mouth.

"In time, you will come to understand these things. You have been chosen for these trials for a reason, Tessa."

Atlas' cold, neutral expression snapped into an angered scowl. With venom, he immediately corrected the phantom.

"That's not my fucking name. Do you get it? It never has been. It never will be. You can't make me fold just by spitting that shit at me. Not anymore."

The figure stood motionless again.

"Perhaps. You have much work yet to do, Keyestone. It is time for me to leave you to it."

The trip to Monroe felt faster than anticipated, and not a single encounter occurred along the way. Sitting himself down in a now abandoned church, he attempted to stomach one of his two remaining MRE's and more water. Despite the hours of walking, he found himself full after only a few bites and a single sip of water. Judging himself as still being energized enough to walk, he decided that a few hours of traveling through the night couldn't hurt.

Stepping outside, he was greeted by the shining rays of the sun. Checking his watch again, Atlas confirmed that it was indeed 10 PM. After ensuring the working condition of his watch, he again stared in disbelief at the sun. Nonetheless, he kept moving. Atlas had visited Wisconsin before. He'd visited most places, in fact. It was nothing special. Despite this, he couldn't help but feel melancholic as he trudged again through the back roads of the desolate state.

Every hour or so, Atlas checked the sun. No matter how long he had been traveling, it still seemed to hang in the same spot in the sky. An oppressive heat emanating from it. Pushing his many questions surrounding the apparent breakdown of time to the wayside, he continued on. Almost robotic in his trek at this point, he barely noticed a respectable collection of figures ahead of him.

Wasting no time, he pulled out his rifle and began unloading at the unaware silhouettes. One of the human shapes burst into flame and collapsed. It took Atlas several seconds to realize they were shooting back. A rifle round slammed into the pavement next to him. Stunned, Atlas stood staring at the new hole in the asphalt until another round slammed straight into his chest and threw him onto the ground. Rolling behind a half-rusted car, he took note of the agonizing sting and warm blood in his chest as he sat up behind the vehicle. Seeing how he had already ambushed and killed one of them, Atlas recognized he would have to finish what he mistakenly started.

A woman rushed up from the left side of the car, shotgun at the ready. Before she even noticed Atlas, he pumped a three round burst into her torso that sent her careening to the ground in a blaze. Peeking his head up from cover, he could see a further three people still standing. Setting down the M4 and its precious blue bullets, he lifted his lever-action from his duffle bag and waited. As the melted body of their former comrade rose and tackled one of the men out of cover, Atlas took aim and fired. The round pierced straight through the survivor's jaw, and he let out a disgusting, gurgling scream.

Two more shots punched straight through the car Atlas was hiding behind, missing their mark and flying off in the background. Dashing over the woman's smoldering corpse to get behind a van, he topped off his rifle's ammunition before sneaking up around the side.

The man at the front of the van greeted Atlas with a punch to the face. Staggering back, he quickly leveraged the small distance between them and fired a shot. It went straight through the man's stomach, and he fell to the ground in pain. The last survivor turned and ran at the sight. Instinctively, Atlas raised his rifle.

He steadied his breath, drew the sights to his eyes, and took aim. The panicked woman was dashing at an impressive speed. Without a moment's thought, Atlas pulled the trigger. The bullet cracked through her neck with a thud, and she fell to the ground.

Atlas took a second look at the van he had been hiding behind. With joy, he noticed it was running. Immediately hopping in and setting off, the realization of what he just did set in. Halting the van and practically falling out, Atlas had to stop himself from throwing up into his mask. He had just killed five, random, innocent strangers. One of which was actively running from him. Slamming his head down onto the pavement, he recoiled at the dull throbbing pain it caused. Screaming at the ground and smacking himself in the face, he managed to eventually distract himself with the bullet wound he had sustained. Yet as he looked for the impact, he didn't find it.

Atlas knew he had been shot. He had felt it. Yet just like the his complete lack of fatigue after what was ostensibly hours of walking, it was as if nothing had happened. Atlas looked up from the road, and what he saw made his heart drop.

It was impossible. His watch read 8 AM. He had travelled further. But not far enough to be where he was. Despite the distance he had traveled, despite the even longer way left to go, there it was. At the edge of the lake, lie Site-19. Atlas couldn't help but feel sick.

With the sun still hanging in the same spot in the sky, Atlas walked. First through the perimeter checkpoint, then the inner wall, and then at last, right up to the gate. He knew the way to the greenhouse from here by heart. Sliding himself through the slightly-opened blast doors, he walked through the abandoned halls. First a left turn, then two rights. Still, no melted figures stood in his way.

Every step closer he came, Atlas' dread grew. He knew what he'd find when he crossed the last corner. And as he did, he was proven right. The light of the sun cast itself around what was once Kyle Hill. The distorted, brick red figure stood slumped against the doorframe.

"Atlas, baby. You came."

Atlas set down the duffle bag. cast aside his coat and jacket. And stepped towards his lover.

"I'm here Kyle."

Atlas dropped to his knees, and the wax mockery of his one true love dragged itself towards him in the shady halls.

"Come into the light, Atlas. Join me."

Atlas felt the figures gelatinous arms wrap around him. Pulling him out into the greenhouse.

"Just like that, baby. The light is so beautiful, isn't it?"

The figure was soothing him. Thinking that he was joining it. With one sudden movement, Atlas yanked the pin off of the white phosphorus grenade, and hugged Kyle tight.

"Whatever happens next, honey."

Tears sprung from his eyes as his face wrappings were pulled off.

"I love you."

With a blinding flash, the two were consumed by a blinding fireball. The last thing Atlas felt was the warm grip of his lover.

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