The plan on paper was very precise. It calculated the average speed of non-rush hour subway trains, measured the distance to be traveled, factored in the time to switch from southbound to northbound tracks and vice versa and even gave an allowance for train congestion caused by track workers and the occasional signal problems. It permitted us to estimate how many trips we could comfortably fit within the time allotted to us.
The number we mutually agreed was reasonable, even with the factoring in of unforeseen delays, didn’t even live in the same neighborhood as the reality of the situation. To make matters worse, it was only minutes before the start of the morning rush hour and already all the debates and conversations had wound down to a bored and impatient silence. We weren’t even halfway through the day when the R179 returned to the Jamaica Center Station and we each were not only in need of a bathroom break but a break from one another as well.
We reconvened in time to catch the 7:23 am rush hour J train after we confirmed there had been no unusual activity reported during our absence and decided to position ourselves in the fifth car along with the morning commuters. The harnesses and rope were no longer a viable option as our maneuverability was now limited so we relied solely on the use of the digital Geiger counter cradled in the palm of McKissick’s hand, the global needle compass Madi wore on a lanyard around her neck and line of sight visibility as we peered into adjoining cars and across the tracks out of the door windows. Legere attracted the majority of attention as commuters held up their camera phones to us attempting to puzzle out what we were filming, but she ignored them like a pro.
“We’re never going to get anywhere like this,” Madi said studying the number of people pushing their way onto the car at each stop and though DaVinci and Rodko attempted to act as a human barricade, we were beginning to feel the crush.
“You’re right, Madi. This is a foolish waste of time. We approached this the wrong way around—” I had no time to finish my thought.
In the midst of the general din of aggravated commuters and the clackety-clack roar of the subway speeding down the track, McKissick’s voice boomed over everything when he shouted:
“I’m picking up a reading!”
We turned to McKissick who held the Geiger counter out before him and pointed to the next car. I slid open the end door of the subway car, the Brooklyn tracks rushing vertiginously beneath me, gripped the black rubber straps that connected the cars with one hand and the handle of the adjoining car in the other, sliding the door open as I raced across, the car platforms shifting under my feet.
When Madi, McKissick, DaVinci and his crew cleared the door and pushed their way into the crowded car, I nudged my way past a man in a business suit, opened the cover of the wall-mounted compartment that housed the emergency brake which activated an alarm and I pulled the brake handle down. The train lurched to a stop with the squeal of metal on metal and the car was plunged into darkness.
It was early morning, the train was above ground on an elevated track, the forecast accurately predicted clear skies, yet our car was pitch black. But only for an instant. The lights flashed on again. But only for an instant. It was as if a recurring momentary vacuum sucked in all available light, creating a bizarre strobing effect. When I was able to see, my heart pounded like a jackhammer in my chest. McKissick hadn’t been mistaken and we all saw the object his Geiger counter detected.
In the center of the subway car was the rectangular void from the internet videos that stretched the length of the ceiling to floor that the public dubbed the subway shroud. It wasn’t a hoax or a mass hallucination. It was a terrifyingly beautiful object that emerged out of seemingly nowhere and brought with it light—all the light, within the car and from the outside sky—then disappeared, sucking all available light into a tiny pinprick that vanished. But it wasn’t only light. I actually felt the vibrations of its presence and absence pushing and pulling through my body—similar to the effect of standing directly in front of giant concert speakers during a live band performance—as it blinked in and out of existence and McKissick’s Geiger counter went from a series of beeps to one continuous ear-splitting tone whenever it appeared.
“Stay away from it! It’s highly radioactive!” I yelled into the cacophony of screams as passengers were standing up trying to get out of their seats, jamming themselves together and I wasn’t sure if it was my warning or the shroud itself that triggered the flight instinct but the commuters swarmed into a mob and all I could see were faces and hands. I put my arm out across Madi’s chest the way a parent does for their child in the front seat of a car during a sudden stop and tried to flatten ourselves against the wall while the tsunami of people clawed at us as they surged past. Through the rapids of terrified faces, when the strobing allowed visibility, I tried to spot McKissick and the others but it was impossible.
Then the car shuddered and the screams of the fleeing passengers were overpowered by a deafening clank and the grinding of steel. A pressure was building within the car, a pressure powerful enough to expand the subway sides outward. McKissick, DaVinci and his film crew came into view against the opposite wall when the crowd thinned. The astrophysicist gestured toward the middle of the car and his movement seemed to be in slow motion. When I turned my head to follow the place his finger pointed at, I found that I too was moving slower than expected.
In the center of the car, an old woman was on the floor apparently knocked down during the stampede for the exits and behind her, the subway shroud was advancing. The shroud was still winking in and out of reality but it too now moved at a decelerated pace.
I raced toward the old woman, that was to say I urged my body to run but just like during the REM stage of sleep when the brain disconnected all skeletal muscles from action to prevent dreams from being acted out, my movements were sluggish. The air felt so thick, it was like wading through molasses. I pushed against the resistance, forcing my body forward as the shroud faded out and reappeared ever closer to the woman. It was a race against time and the shroud was covering the distance in a plodding yet persistent way I was unable to match.
I struggled for breath. Anxiety overrode fear and made me drive myself through the dense atmosphere. The shroud gained on the woman, each teleportation creating sluggish waves that made my forward momentum just that much more difficult. But the closer I got to the shroud I could make out a luminescent aura that danced in the air like dust motes that left a phosphorescent trail in its wake reminiscent of ghosting, the appearance of a secondary image on a television screen.
Then all at once when the shroud evaporated, plunging the car into darkness, the air pressure normalized and I stumbled as the momentum I had forced upon the thickened air caught up with me, rushing me suddenly like a stiff wind on a blustery day. I managed to reach the woman but, in an attempt to correct my balance, I overstepped my mark and wound up tripping over her legs. I tumbled forward just as the shroud blossomed behind her with alarming rapidity. My arms reflexively flew to shield my face from a collision that did not occur. I slid into the inky void of the subway shroud as easily as stepping into a bathtub of water.
The last thing I remembered seeing was Madi and McKissick in a mid-air leap. Madi, rope wrapped around one wrist, tossed the other end of the rope in my direction, which I reached out to grab as the rectangular gateway to the reality I knew closed suddenly. A fearful shock followed when my arms flailed for purchase and found none. I fell into a sea of darkness.
To be continued…
Week 11 of my personal 2018 writing challenge to turn my daily tweeting habit into something productive… and now the story truly begins. No more floundering for ideas. I finally know where the story is heading. So, good on me! (Yes, I gave myself an attaboy pat on the back, deal with it)
As a recap to newcomers:
This story is an experiment to write a stream of consciousness book with no outline or plot in mind, just a year’s worth of whatever-pops-into-my-fragile-little-mind tweets without edits or the fancy flourishes that will come in the rewrite.
I always knew this story would either be in a speculative fiction, sci-fi or horror vein but I never anticipated it would be a time travel story as I’m not the biggest fan of those. Just goes to show you, a story can sometimes take you where it wants to go, not necessarily where you want to go. There are seven more characters that have yet to be introduced but I have a sneaking suspicion that at least one of them will make an appearance in the next installment. Don’t hold me to that, though. The characters are still in complete control of this (pardon the pun) train wreck.
I’m still lagging behind in my progess but you know what, I will persevere in my endeavor to either create something (hopefully coherent and good) from thin air. Falling flat on my writerly face is not an option at this point in time.
Previously I asked if you can spare a moment, I invited readers to either cheer me on or tell me what a colossal mistake I’m making. But I’m past that point now. I will gladly accept attaboys and constructive criticism, but if you’re on a negative vibe, you can keep that to yourself. I already own more than my share of that.
‘Til next week,
©2018 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys