|By: Paul S. Cilwa||Viewed: 2/23/2020
||Topics/Keywords: #InTheAbodeOfAngels||Page Views: 1260|
|Chapter 1 of 'In The Abode Of Angels'.|
Chapter 1: A Near-Death Experience
The wheels of the commuter train clacked against the rails, but Joshua Best couldn't hear them. Endless rows of strip malls and shopping centers unreeled past the windows, and Joshua's fiancée stood directly in front of him; but his eyes saw neither stores nor Emmaline. Instead, the sounds of neo-swing filled his ears with music, and before his eyes images of news tickers, his favorite sit-com, an instant text message from Emmaline, and the name of the next stop of the train hung suspended in the air before him, all courtesy of his Visor. Thus distracted, he never noticed the face of the man who intended to kill him.
The train was crowded, and Joshua and Emmaline stood, clinging to a cool metal pole as they did most mornings. They shared the stanchion with perhaps four or five others, ignored as carefully as were those who couldn’t reach a pole or hanging loop but were kept upright by the press of swaying bodies. Joshua was accustomed, therefore, to ignoring the sensation of someone else’s elbow gently pressed into his side, a strange butt against his, an unknown shoe alongside his own.
However, a painful prick in his back caught his attention, made him jump. He spun around instinctively, but the Visor images obscured his view. Simultaneously he pulled his hand from the pole, clapped it against his back where the muscles were now contracting spasmodically. "Poker!" he cried, his voice hoarse. "Poker!"
Only a few people heard him over the webcast sounds of their own Visors, but those who did screamed, carrying on the cry. "Poker!" "Poker!" As if by magic, the crowd seemed to evaporate as each person in it withdrew into himself, taking up less room, terrified that the unknown poker might poke him, next. Meanwhile, as the train slowed for its next stop, Joshua felt a bitter cold descend upon him; his breathing became ragged and his vision began to darken, as if his Visor were shifting into sunglass mode. He could hear Emmaline screaming over the strains of "String of Pearls" even as his knees buckled and he collapsed onto the train’s carpeted floor. The doors opened and he was aware that everyone stampeded out of the confined space even as his breathing stopped entirely.
His heart pounded as if it were trying to break out of his chest. Hands lifted him; he felt himself placed on a padded, flat surface. Frantically he tried to breathe, to move, to do anything; he was engulfed by the paralysis. He couldn’t even cry. Jesus! He prayed. Let me live! I’m not ready to die!
Someone was pushing rhythmically against his chest; someone else was fitting a rubber mask over his mouth and nose. Dimly, he saw a third fiddling with a device. Joshua fought off a sensation of lowering peace. He would not die. He would not die! It wasn’t his time. He was going to be married in a few months. He was about to be promoted. Heck, he was just days away from his first trip to another planet! He couldn’t let it end, not now.
The man with the injector pressed it against Joshua’s neck and clicked the trigger. Almost immediately, Joshua gasped, drawing in a breath so painful it was like trying to inhale razor wire. His heart pounded as if trying to make up for lost beats.
"Relax," one of the techs said. "You were the victim of a poker. You’re lucky the train was so close to the station, and that you were able to warn everyone. That cleared them off the train so we could get to you on time."
The sweet sax of "New Orleans Lost" played in his ears. Joshua focused his eyes on the Close All button in his Visor field to shut down all windows. The music stopped, and in the resulting quiet he heard his fiancée weeping.
"I’m okay, Emmaline!" he gasped, reaching for her. She grasped his fingers, held tight.
"Did you see who did it?" A newcomer leaned over him, wearing the uniform of UniCorp Security.
Joshua shook his head. "No idea," he admitted, weakly. The guard turned to Emmaline.
She also shook her head. "There were several people around us," she said. "I could pick the people closest to Joshua out of a crowd, but I don’t know which one poked him."
The guard’s eyebrows rose in surprise. "You saw them that clearly?"
Emmaline looked sheepish. "I usually clear my Visor when I ride the train," she admitted. "I like to look at the people."
The guard frowned suspiciously. "We’ll have to search you, Miss," he said. "Just routine."
"I understand," Emmaline agreed. In a moment, a matronly guard entered the car and motioned for Emmaline to follow.
"Can I get up now?" Joshua asked. "I feel much better." The truth was, he felt drained and violated; he was still shaking and he knew this wasn’t a residual effect of the poison. But he felt more vulnerable lying on the gurney than he would standing, and right now that vulnerability was completely unbearable.
"Sure," one of the techs said, and helped Joshua to a sitting position.
"Damned pokers," the male guard muttered. "We’ll find him, I promise. We’ll identify every citizen who stood within five feet of you between the last station and this one. Odds are, this isn’t his first poke. The Cloud will search for his proximity to any other pokings in the past year, and I guarantee we’ll find a match."
"Then why are you searching Emmaline?" Joshua asked.
The guard shrugged. "In case it wasn’t a random poking," he replied. "Thirty-seven percent of these crimes turn out to be murders or attempted murders by a friend or family member who tries to mask it as random violence."
Emmaline returned, the female guard right behind her. "She’s clean," the guard announced.
"Nothing was dumped in here," the male guard agreed. "All right, let the passengers back in."
Joshua let the tech help him to his feet. "What station is this?" he asked.
"7th Avenue/McDowell," the guard replied, after a pause that meant he was referencing his own Visor.
Joshua took a deep breath. "I’m going to walk," he said. The idea of returning to the murderous arms of the crowd made him sick to his stomach.
"I’ll go with you," Emmaline assured him solicitously. The guard ushered them both to the platform, and directed the impatiently waiting passengers to re-board around them. By the time he’d accompanied them both to the turnstiles, the station was otherwise deserted and the train had rolled out of it.
"You’re free to leave," the guard assured them, adding politely, "Enjoy your day."