“I need to make certain that my program is building a digital world at the expense of your structures?” Jàl questioned as his mood darkened. The words sounded hollow even to his ears. How could he refute the last scenes of the digital streets before he jumped realities. The mirror effect of the Verge in his world and the first responders in this reality all gathered around the exact same location. In both, the building had fluctuated in and out of being.
How though, he wracked his brain. The algorithms were fashioned to gather information and create a replica layout to provide a map, a means of passage from the Cloud City to the lowest level of earth. In a matter of speaking, a relatively far fetched but mundane approach in his desperate search for an antidote to end the deadly virus inflicting the Cloud City, but now, the damn thing only added to the city’s problems.
The melding of the different dimensions amounted to an enormous task to be demystified and all this distracted from the fear pressing at the back of his spine.
Jàl sank in his chair. His mind a tightly wound ball of worry about Roake as she lay in the digital world, helpless. A dimensional game, now thought to be devouring the real world and all the while she lay incapacitated by the virus. Grief coupled with guilt cramped his conscious. How was she, he wondered? Could she hang on?
Shaking loose of the dreadful thoughts, Jàl turned back to the plastic keyboards resting under his hands. How long would would it take to re-program these ancient artifacts to accept the implant at the base of his skull. If that was even possible.
The second of his problems, a type of biological container that could cross the gateway to the digital world and carry the antibiotics to save Roake and thus the Cloud City, he left with Conners Lee along with a list of components he’d need to infiltrate the main frame of the digital reality.
Sunlight streamed into a window high in the hidden lab of the Groundlier. Jàl sat bent over the rude plastic components that allowed his access to the ancient computing system. Hours earlier, Conners Lee returned with a list of possible substitutes of the needed equipment Jàl requested. The two spent a good part of the night retrofitting and increasing the abilities of the ancient and technologically challenged system.
A stream of green dashes and dots flowed from screen to screen as Jàl typed. His fingers, now adjusted to the raised plastic letters and numbers of the keyboard, typed with a single purpose. The lines of code crossing the grouping of L.E.D. screens merged to form a picture in his mind.
“At last,” Jàl shouted. The rapid flashes of coding slowed, then began to swirl.
Conners Lee stood off Jàl’s shoulder. A computer savant himself, he felt lost as he tried to follow the visitor from the digital world, or…Lee revised his thinking, a different version of earth. No. Both statements formed wrong answers. If Jàl Condor was to be believed, Lee was hosting a fellow human from a city miles above the one he presently stood. The possibility, though, would have to wait to be confirmed. A search for the foreigners home would have to wait until his own home was no longer in danger.
“Damn,” the shouted curse focused Lee back to their present problem.
“What’s wrong,” Lee asked.
“It’s as I feared,” Jàl pointed to the slashes of coding disappearing from the monitors as if a simple glance at the disappearing green lines of code explained everything.
“What? What am I looking at. Maybe I can help?” Lee offered.
“When I started this program,” Jàl lounged back in his chair and rubbed the tiredness from his eyes. “I created a program to accumulate and sort and piece together the information retrieved by the algorithms. I needed somewhere to contain the useful bits while the replicated city was being laid out. A Daemon, a computer…”
“I know what a Daemon is,” Lee cut into Jàl’s narrative. “A multitasking system that runs as a background process free of direct manipulation.”
“Thank you,” Jàl sarcastically replied. “My I continue.”
“The floor is yours,” Conners Lee ruffled at the rebuke.
“A few days ago, my friend and…,” Jàl paused thinking of Roake, “and colleague reentered the Mixed-Reality world because my lab computers were locked out of the system. The Daemon, I believe is responsible. I never got around to solving the problem. Roake became ill and I changed my priorities.
Unfortunately, I’ve come upon the same problem, again. My actions are locked out. I finally convinced your system to accept my transplant,” he said pointing to the scar on the side of his neck, “but after a short test run, the door was slammed shut. It seems that the only way to move forward is for me to reenter the digital world. There I can manually reboot the grid. Without control our efforts will be useless.”
“What about your memories? What if your mind is wiped?”
An eyebrow raised and Jàl’s cheek twitched as the question increased the complexity of his plan. “I guess we’d better find a way around that then, plus, I’ll need you to take back to the exact spot I entered your level. I imagine my gateway should still exist.”
Jàl sat back in the chair. His fingers intertwined, his thumbs spinning over each other.
“Are you certain this is the only way?” Conners Lee’s voice broke into the dream like state settled into Jàl’s consciousness.
“I’ve run countless computations. This is the only option left open.” His voice whispered and lazy, his eyelids too heavy to lift when he addressed the other man. The IV attacked to his arm continued its slow drip of sleep inducing drugs.
Roake stepped up to meet him. The digital jungle surrounding their reunion wavered. The sharp edges of the structures rounded and soft. The crowds on the sidewalks faceless and noiseless.
Jàl smiled to see Roake on her feet. As he stared into her eyes, she suddenly turned away, but not quick enough. The features on her face already fading. Roake ignored his outstretched hand and fled into the sea of bodies flooding onto the streets.
“Wait,” Jàl knew the voice pleading the words was his but his mouth remained sealed.
A flash of the side of Roake’s face straightened Jàl where he stood. Her eyes and mouth begged for his help as she continued running away. Elbowing into the faceless crowd, Jàl pushed aside the human forms in his effort to draw closer to Roake.
Through a tangle of bodies he watched in horror as she fell to the ground. Pushing and shoving to clear a path, when he reached the spot she’d fallen, the sidewalk lay bare. Confused, Jàl stared into the writhing crowd. A flash of sleeve from Roake’s uniform set him off in a new direction.
Again he forced his way into the jungle of arms and legs of the faceless human forms. The sleeve connected to a jacket. Soon Roake’s back waited only yards from where he stood. The crowd shifted. A second look and she was gone.
This game continued. Jàl so close and then nothing. He felt the sweat break on his forehead. From the humidity, he wondered, before disregarding the thought. The environment inside the game was stable, never changing. No. The beads of perspiration meant something worse. Fear. Fear that he’d be too late to help Roake and then a deeper fear that he couldn’t beat the Daemon and the real world would collapse.
All this because of him. A genius smart enough to program an alternate reality but not wise enough to follow the calculations through to the end. The end where reality could only exist on one level. Whichever level, the universe didn’t care. And now his mixed-reality world was somehow destroying the real world.
Still, the answer as to why, he failed to grasp but maybe if he could just talk to Roake. Maybe with her help, the two could figure this out. Now where had she disappeared, he wondered casting his head around to catch sight of her.
On cue, a flash of a hand waved to him from across the street. She stood outside the door to a small store. Jàl’s heart jumped as he waded past the limbs of the suffocating crowd. The thought of her lifted his spirits. The two could accomplish what he failed to do.
Stepping on the sidewalk outside the store, the entrance waited empty. Jàl tried the door handle. The door vanished. The store was different than any he’d witnessed thus far. Dusty shelves greeted him. On the shelves, different street scapes. Some in light and other in dark shadows. As Jàl stood in the doorway, a discernible popping sound echoed in the small space. The noise followed by small puffs of dusts.
Again, the noise. Jàl spun on his feet. His eyes traced the wisp of dust. A streetscape highlighted by sunlight stood quivering. On the corner of the street, an empty lot. No. The small remains of a foundation. Jàl crept closer. What the …?
This miniature layout resembled the streets of the Groundliers world. The building that disappeared, the same that he’d witnessed with Conners Lee. A second pop. Jàl spun again. Another building on another layout had vanished.
“This is on you,” the voice startled him. Glancing top, Roake stood off to the side. The features off her face scrubbed with a rash. The virus. Was he too late.
“Are you all right?” He asked.
“We’ll be fine,” Roake’s mouth moved to reply but the voice speaking the words were not of her. He watched her facial features quiver in the light. The details dulling. Mesmerized, Jàl locked his eyes on his friend’s face thinking he could stop what he feared may happen. Soon the face matched the voice.
The dream world brought on by state of unconsciousness switched to a dark room with an array of computer banks lit by a spotlighted. Jàl watched an image of himself bound before a large wall of monitors. Helpless, he watched swirling lines of code as they fused to form a picture.
Re-eal, the Daemon lurking in the background of his Mixed-Reality world, stared back from the other side of the glass screens. “Now what have you been up to?” the digital creature’s facial expression contorted to a twisted smile, “The game is far from over.”
Faces of curious human forms turned in Jàl’s direction as he raced past on the sidewalk. His quick strides matching those of the Groundlier’s lead. Store fronts, self enclosed, shaded entrances, stood silently a few feet from the edge of the sidewalk as the pair rushed by. The feeling familiar. For a second Jàl’s mind slipped back to when he and Roake employed the same actions escaping the Verge of his made up reality.
The same irritating whooping cry rang into the night and echoed over the strange glow of the overhead lights. Did he really escape to the Groundlier’s domain? The chase, the sounds all felt the same. The feelings too close to realize a difference. Could the Globe be disguised as the man called Conners Lee?
But then, why? To trick him into believing, but for what purpose? Then again, why not Jàl thought as he ran on the heels of the fleeing Groundlier, but the why clung to the fringes of his thoughts. For what purpose would the artificial intelligence part of his game sabotage the rest of the project? What was he missing?
“Quick. Over here,” the call shattered the conflicting thoughts pressing on Jàl’s mind. Focus swam back in front of his eyes. The Groundlier leapt off the sidewalk with two quick steps and pushed inside the darkened interior of a deserted store.
“Follow me,” Jàl heard the words as he twisted around crammed aisles. A dim bulb beckoned from the direction the voice headed.
“Whoa,” Jàl exclaimed, barely missing a collision with a stack of boxes laying in his path. The move deflected his body into a metal shelf. Round tin cans shuddered. Out of instinct, Jàl caught a can as it dislodged. A cursory glance at the label picture told of a particular sliced fruit contained inside. Jàl stared at the paper label. Can’t be, he muttered, remembering a familiar scene where he and Roake dashed through a store on an escape run from the Verge.
Shaking free of the memory, he looked about brushing aside a rising panic. In the faint light and close quarters he lost all sight of Conners Lee. Taking a breath, he stretched on his toes. The top of a head scooted past a shelve a couple aisles over. The silhouette close to a glowing red overhead sign.
Relief flooded over Jàl as he turned the last row of shelves and Conners Lee stood panting beside a door at the side of the room.
“Through here and we should be clear of them,” the Groundlier gasped pulling the door inward. More darkness greeted the pair. A inky dark void of even the poorest of light.
“To your left,” Lee instructed, “step left and you’ll feel the bricks of the wall. Keep your hand on the wall and walk straight ahead. We’re in a short back alley. Move carefully, but the way should be clear.”
Jàl did as told. A cautious side step and an outstretched hand welcomed the feel of the coarse brick wall. Shuffling his feet, he swung his right hand in front to detect unexpected obstacles. With his eyes pried wide open, the dark erased any sense of sight.
One careful footstep after the other. Seconds passed in near silence. A brushed snick sounded loud in the dark a heartbeat before a single bulb flared over a hidden doorway. A step away from bumping into Conners Lee, Jàl’s ears detected another more ominous sound. The opening of the door leading into the alley from the stores interior. A rushed turn of his head caught the sight of a brownish sleeve reaching into the new flow of light entering the dark space. The dull bulb above his head extinguished leaving the open doorway guiding the way from the alley. A rough hand grabbed the front of his jacket. Jàl stumbled forward as Conners Lee yanked him bodily through the doorway.
"The buggers are getting better. I’ll need to employ a different route next time.” The Groundlier swore as he snaked a route once more past stocked shelves. The run through the store interior ended at the doorway leading back to the street side of the building. Conners Lee searched outside the glass before opening the door and stepping onto the sidewalk.
“Act natural,” he whispered. Jàl tugged the hood of his cotton jacket over his head and shoved his hands into his pockets following along. The two moved in the opposite direction of the destroyed building and the gathering of first responders.
Despite the thick, heavy air, Jàl found the evening to his liking. The smells, unfamiliar yet welcoming. The human forms laughed and smiled as he passed them. Even the harsh, artificial light fighting off the darkness had a warm, easy feeling to it. In his wildest dreams, he never imagined the Groundliers world as anything but a sick, poisoned atmosphere with a population bereft of intellect.
A new smell twitched his nostrils. A man stood beside a wheeled cart. Steam use into the evening air.
“Those are hotdogs,” Conners Lee noticed Jàl quizzical look and pointed to the cart. “Meat, or at least bits go meat. You never had a hotdog?” The Groundlier shook his head at Jàl’s hesitation.
“Two dogs, Mac,” Conners Lee held two fingers in the air as he spoke to the vender. Jàl scrutinized the warm soft shell and the brown tube. “Ketchup, mustard.” Lee’s voice interrupted. Jàl turned to see the man squeezing coloured paste onto the object.
“Try this,” Lee insisted squeezing amounts of yellow and red paste onto Jàl’s dog. “Go ahead. It won’t kill you. Well not the one alone, maybe after a few years but you should be alright.”
Puzzled, Jàl regarded the “hotdog” in his hand suspiciously. “Why would I think it’ll kill me. What kind of games do you people play with your…foods?” He asked holding the bun away from his body.
“Kidding. It’s food. Eat it. Like this.” Lee lifted the hotdog to his mouth an clamped his teeth tight tearing a large portion off. Jàl watched the man chew then with a few seconds trepidation, he attacked the food the same way. Surprised at the texture and the pop of flavour, he made short work of the remainder.
“One more,” he flashed the vendor a solitary finger like Lee had done previously.
“Alright. Let me get this straight,” Conners Lee paced back across the floor. “Years back your city in the clouds saw its first taste of the flu. How all of a sudden did the virus arrive? When did this happen? Before of after you visited our level”
“Obviously, I can’t say because I don’t remember an earlier visit.” Jàl repeated his answer. The hairs on his arms stood with the Groundlier’s questioning of the timeline for the virus. If he had visited the lowest level before….was he responsible for the outbreak…could he have unknowingly carried the disease back to his home?
“I’ve got something you need to see,” Conners Lee’s words snuffed the anxiety building in his mind. Jàl watched the Groundlier leave the relative sanctum of furniture for the labyrinth of shelves and boxes that constituted the man’s work space. When Jàl lost track of his host, his thoughts switching back to Roake and how he imagined her suffering alone, fevered and helpless in a digital world of his making. A cure and a ticket home pressed his actions, the possibilities of him being the cause of all the Cloud City’s troubles would have to wait.
Footsteps out of the jungle of research material brought Conners Lee back into the small living area. “I think this is the recording,” he talked across his shoulder as he squatted beside a bank of electronic equipment.
Conners Lee stood and backed out of Jàl’s line of sight with the ancient video screen. A blurry picture swam into focus revealing a younger, visibly upset version of the Cloud City’s leading intellect.
“Not certain what you want me to do?” A tinny recording of Jàl’s voice projected from the video device.
“Well, first, tell me your name, where you claim you’re from and how you arrived here.”
"I…I don’t…am I in trouble?”
“No. Well, not from me. There are some government men who I imagine would like nothing better then to interrogate you but I think we’ll be safe here. So go on and tell your story. I want a record of this.” A much younger Conners Lee stepped into the video frame adjusting a small microphone placed in front of Jàl.
On screen Jàl watched himself clear his throat before responding to Lee’s instructions.
“My name is Jàl Condor. I,” a huge breath paused the tale, “am a resident of the Cloud City. My home sits high above where I presume…we are now.”
“Do you mean your city floats in space?”
“Floats in space. No.” Young Jàl’s voice sarcastically replied. “Built above your city is the home of the middle class. Do you not know of this?” A visibly stressed Jàl cocked his head as he stared into the camera. “My home exists hundreds of stories above your earth anchored city. Have you never wondered why your world only rises into the sky so far?”
“A safety shield built long before my time restricts our upward travel. A type of bio-shield protects us against threats entering our atmosphere. That’s why. Everyone knows that,” The younger Conners Lee haughtily replied.
The video captured Jàl shaking his head in disbelieve. “That’s quite a story. Let me tell you what holds your people back. This bio-shield. It as designed to keep you Groundliers in your place. Many millennial ago, my ancestors built the shield to shelter the newly rising Upper Class from intrusions by barbarians.” A finger pointed at the video version of Conners Lee. “Your people.
But even that is ancient history. Civilization surpassed the scourge that became of the Middle Class a few lifetimes ago. Now we tower high above earth and all its…its impediments. Free of the savagery and pettiness and diseases of the lower classes and your awful ways.”
The two men sat silent. Conners Lee absorbing Jàl’s discretion of a world he thought he knew while the video played and Jàl sat mesmerized by the younger version of him on the video and the break through he made so long ago, all the time wishing for the memories that his brain lacked, to return.
“When I first arrived. Were you the one who found me…” Jàl broke the silence.
“No. I was in University the first time you appeared. How we met was quite out of the ordinary. When you were found out, the authorities locked you in a hospital. One for crazy people. The stories you told, well, who in their right mind could believe something like that.”
“And this was how long ago?”
“Quite some time now. I haven’t been in school for many years and,” Conners Lee swung his hand to emphasis the stacks of papers and boxes, “I’ve done my own research into dimension bending. So maybe eight or ten years.”
Jàl fidgeted in his seat. Damn, the The time line seemed feasible. Some time around then the first signs of the virus were discovered. Why couldn’t he remember? Settling back in his chair he motioned Conners Lee to continue.
“I was a student. The news was filled with your story. The more I watched, the more I became enthralled until, I don’t know what, a feeling or some special power put us together. We hatched a plan for your escape and then shortly afterward you summoned…what did you call it…a horizon or gateway back to your digital world. You stepped through a doorway and that was the last anyone saw or heard of you.
Your short time here became the thesis for my final school papers. You became famous like Bigfoot or that sea serpent others have been searching for, for forever. I switched up my studies and learned advanced computer physics. I wanted to find out what happened to you. And now, bang, here you are.”
“And, this time. How did you know where to find me?”
“Easy,” Lee explained. “I once lead the division tasked with unravelling the mystery of our disappearing buildings. This area,” Conners Lee stood and grabbed a city map, “is where all the action is. I still had friends in the bureau. Your appearance was reported to me the instance you walked through the wall. The fact that I stole you from the study chamber at the hospital. Well. That will be a problem that I’ll have to deal with later.”
“This is your home. Are the others not aware where you live? And don’t they also want what we want?”
Conners Lee shrugged. His hand waffled in mid air. “ This is one of my places. So, yes and no. People in this city are scared. The sudden appearance of you and the area you made your entrance. The higher ups probably can’t wait to get their claws into you and make you answer for the lives and destruction caused. So we’ll hide. Eventually we will be discovered but for now we should be safe.”
Conners Lee set down the map and switched the video off before returning to his chair across from Jàl. “But this is getting us nowhere. The only thing I care about is putting an end to the collapse of our city. So, needless to say, I first must understand how your program is able to disrupt the integrity of the structures in this world and then, as you’ve told me, reconstruct them in your digital world. If, that is in fact what we are dealing with.”
Conners Lee let a long sigh escape his lips. “Things are bad and getting worse. I mean, how many more foundation buildings can we afford to lose before the whole city comes tumbling down around itself?”
Jàl’s mind spun at the impact of Conners words.
“If that’s true, why don’t I remember. Something that spectacular would surely be memorable.”
“The experiment you talked about. The one in, what did you call it…” Conners Lee fell silent searching his memory, “Mixed- Dimensions or something along those lines.”
“Mixed-Reality,” Jàl quickly corrected.
“Yes, yes,” Conners Lee continued his line of thinking. “You theorized the games main-frame might cause memory blips whenever it re-set. How has the game progressed over the years? Can you now interface with the main-frame? You had hoped to make the adjustments. How intertwined have you and the program grown?”
Jàl’s hand snuck up to the bump at the base of his skull feeling for the hard body of the in-plant. How many times over the course of his experiment had he replaced the tiny biotic circuit to gain better control over the games advancing algorithms. Too many to recall, he admitted to himself.
“Things have changed from the beginning,” he answered still unable to accept that he’d previously accessed the portal to the Groundliers level.
“You will have to fill me in then?” Jàl begged Conners Lee. “How did I first arrive? And, were you there when I crossed the portal?” A thousand questions swirled in Jàl’s teeming mind. Before his host had the chance to begin divulging information, a horrific vibration rocked the very floor the two stood.
Blood drained from Jàl’s face. He never thought the quakes were anywhere other then the sky city.“What was that?” He hoped for a different answer then the one already hammering at his brain.
“I’ve something to show you.” Conners Lee admitted. “Something that maybe only you can make sense of.”
Jàl changed into the clothes Lee set out for his disguise, flipped up the cotton hood on the sweater as advised and followed the Groundlier back out into the alley. Lee stopped at the corner of the building and gazed out onto the exposed sidewalk. For several seconds he watched the crowds pass in under the flickering street lights before signalling Jàl to follow.
The pair mingled with the small groups of human forms moving about, stopping and waiting when they came to the end of the sidewalk and faced a red light. On green, the two walked on, blending with different clusters as they made their way away from the safety of the room hidden in the alley.
A grand case of deja-vu stopped Jàl in mid stride. A half block ahead and diagonally across the next corner stood the brick bank building from his program. The similarity uncanny. Jàl felt a bump in his back as the flow of foot traffic became interrupted by his sudden stop.
“What?” Conners Lee stepped to his side. The Groundlier swung his head around for unforeseen dangers.
“The building,” Jàl started. “The algorithms set about creating the game.” His words fell silent as he stood in the middle of the sidewalk and cast his eyes about. Wonder sparked his senses leaving him mobile while he gawked at the familiar streetscape. One he’d recognize anywhere, even in the gathering darkness under rows of yellow burning bulbs. “These streets are the layout of the Mixed-Reality dimension, the foundation my game is built on. Incredible.”
“We must hurry,” Jàl felt a tug on his arm at Conners’ words. “We can’t let anyone see you.”
Suddenly, a loud cry filled the air. The all too familiar whines and shrieks of the Verge. Jàl’ looked about puzzled then toward Conners Lee for an explanation.
“Warning alarms,” The look on the Groundliers face was grave. “The collapse of another building.” The Groundlier searched in turn for the alarms origin.
“This way,” Conners Lee urged.
The pair jogged down the sidewalk. Shortly past the bank building, an early evening crowd began clustering. Following Conners Lee, Jàl busted past the ranks of onlookers and froze. Lined on the sidewalk, a row of Verge stood at the edge of a crumbled building. The structure little more than a ring of concrete left to mark the building’s footprint.
Jàl pulled back for a place to hide. Glancing at Conners Lee’s face, he caught the confusion shaping the Groundlier’s expression.
“What is the matter?” Lee glanced from Jàl back toward the brownish, hooded figures.
“The Verge. They’re real.”
“Verge. What the hell are Verge?”
Jàl lifted his arm, his finger pointing to the line of monsters staring into the open excavation. The muscles forming contorting Conners Lee’s face relaxed.
“I’m not certain what you mean by Verge, but those people are are emergency workers, first responders. Their job is to secure and cordon off the area for safety plus they’ll search for survivors trapped when the building collapsed,” the last three words faded from Lee’s mouth. “The rumble we felt. This must be where it originated. This office tower has shown signs of deterioration. Over the last few days, the pace has increased but no one thought,” Lee spun back to gaze over the open pit.
“This is not the only one.” He paused and gulped the dusty air. "Over the past several years, a series of structures have been…I don’t know…dissolved, I guess. The materials constructing the building…have slowly faded over time. The greatest minds of our city are left dumb founded. No one can explain exactly how this happens.”
Forgetting about being discreet, Conners Lee pulled Jàl into the midst of the Verge protecting the open foundation. “When the process is finished, there will be very little debris remaining. It’s like… the structure is sucked from our reality.” The Groundlier stopped and noisily sucked another disturbed breath into his heaving lungs. “Do you understand what I’m saying? Does this make any sense to you? What about from where you come from. Are the occurrences the same?”
“When did this happened? Do you recall? The timing is very important.” Jàl emphasized. His worry of the brownish skinned Verge and their bulbous eyes and protruding snouts all but ignored. His curiosity piqued by the odd disappearance of the earth anchored buildings. A curiosity that soon sent a shiver of fear running the length of his spine. Did he not witness the same…he stepped back of the crowd of Verge and studied the street. The nearest corner of the building in question led into an brick walled alley. One he was certain he’d visited before.
Holy shit. The words set alarm bells clattering in his head. This chunk of streetscape, the alley and corner he stood, all matched the images in his mind of the building he witnessed the Verge moping over moments before he stepped through the hidden gateway to this level.
How could that be possible? The Mixed-Reality program merely rendered facsimiles of the ancient buildings. Or did it? How could he be certain, he found himself wondering. The transference of materials over dimensions. Is that even such a thing and if it was, could his program be stealing the buildings from the Groundliers to reproduce his dimension and thus be the cause the aftershocks.
Another holy shit rumbled under his breath as reality reached down and slapped him. Small clouds of dust floated over the empty hole. The bits of flotsam, the only particles remaining of the towering building that occupied the empty space short moments before. Still, were these the same aftershocks that rattled his Cloud City? His home rested miles above all the problems of the Groundliers and hundreds of stories above even the barbaric middle class.
Jàl backed a few steps from the edge of the foundation and tilted his head skyward. The dark and dust mixed with a thin haze and floated high above the street erasing the top of the surrounding buildings. Squinting, he focused on the wall of the nearest structure and ran his eyes up the length of the exterior. The haze played tricks with his vision until the focus of his sight broke through the wisps of altering air.
From one building to the next he peered to the top of the structures. Well, not really the tops because all the buildings continued unabated until he could not longer see the edges of each structure. The buildings were all intertwined. The ones on the ground, support columns for those built above.
If he could follow these structures as they travelled miles into the air, he imagined that he’d eventually come upon the bottom of the Cloud City. Each time a building on the bottom suffered a similar fate as the one he stood beside, the aftershocks climbed the length of the towering structures and shook the massive city on all three levels, in theory anyways, he admitted. Nd if his program kept snatching the supporting foundations, what then?
But he needed more information. A moment of lucidity crowded Jàl’s brain. Good, he thought, this may well explain the quakes that shook his city. What did any of this have to do with the virus, became the second question he put to himself? In the back of his mind some lost thought intertwined the two problems.
In his haste to capture a glimpse of the uppermost part of the structures, gravity tugged at the cloth hood pulled tight over his hair. The material slipped away. Reams of harsh light from ancient light posts lit his head and exposed his face.
One of the brownish skinned Verge standing nearby noticed and pointed in his direction. Warning shouts lifted through the layer of dust hovering above the sidewalk. With a target in sight, the creatures left their stations and moved as one.
“This way,” Conners Lee yanked Jàl out of his ruminations.
Jàl lost track of direction in the pairs movements throughout the streets. All the twists and turns of the monster rushing in the lead kept him too busy to stop and snap images of landmarks for a return trip if needed. At last the pair bust out a side door and stepped into a side alley.
Towering brick walls created a tunnel effect and the lack of sunlight let a chill in the air. Jàl froze as he took in the familiarity. A twitch of his nostrils detected a difference in the air. The game’s environment was closed, stale. Now, the air seemed fuller, alive almost. Nothing he’d ever…yet he had. The memory surfaced from somewhere deep within his archived memory banks.
From the corner of his eye flashes of the monster transforming. The wrinkled brownish skin peeled away or more accurately, fell away. The Verge, calling himself Conners Lee, shuffled his feet, one at a time and left the empty shell fall to the dusty dirt covered road. Jàl stared. His curiosity refused to be contained.
“Excuse me.” He blurted. The Verge raised a finger silencing his request.
“Soon,” Conners Lee said and stepped quickly away from the door and hurried toward the sidewalk. Breaching the corner of the brick building, Jàl once again froze. Manchester street, his Manchester street, the very same, lay spread out in front of him.
Exhaust coughing automobiles snorted along the wide street. Their mechanical bodies separated from where he and the monster stood by only the width of the sidewalk. The grey smoke hovering over the street and adding a sting to the air Jàl breathed in. Things are different, his brain sent short nudges of warnings throughout his system.
Before Jàl had time to process the situation, his mind strayed in a new direction. Bodies swam into his vision. A smattering of… ‘human forms’ walked about their business. Instinctively, Jàl’s hand fell to his side. Of course the blaster was no longer there. He’d just been released from captivity. A nervous search of the game piece’s faces failed to reveal the yellow tinged eyes of the disguised Verge.
“This way,” Jàl felt a hand tug at his arm. Conners Lee sprang into the moving cluster of a small crowd. Jàl followed, reluctant but more intrigued then worried. What happened to make things change. Again his thoughts returned to the Globe’s warning. Is she in my head and leading forward to a trap of no return, he wondered.
A pain in his lungs brought all worries to a halt. Jàl collapsed to his knees. The air heavy and harsh. It clung to the roof of his mouth and clogged his nostrils. Feeble wisps of the air bled through his constricted airway scratching the lining of his throat and hurt his lungs. Jàl’s mouth pulsed, his teeth ground as he tried to squash the air and drag small chunks of it deep to ease the pressure squeezing his starving lungs.
“You alright pal,” Conners Lee rushed to his side. “You don’t look so well.”
Jàl lifted a finger delaying an answer while he sucked in the heavy air. “Altitude.” He mumbled. “Are we really…” Jàl ran his hand over the porous surface of the sidewalk then swivelled his head slowly, his eyes drinking in the details of the game pieces and then the buildings. All the while, the air so close to the ground, almost too thick for lungs long acclimated to breathing the wispy, thin sustaining atmosphere miles above Earths surface, switched the bodies senses to survival mode trying to draw one more breath of life.
The only place he could image that that would happen…a small smile lifted the edges of his mouth. Maybe he really did find a passageway to the Groundliers lair. For one, the air so thick at this altitude that besides feeling he had to chew before he breathed, the heavier molecules explained the harsh burning as his lungs struggled to fill.
“One second,” Jàl stalled further. A final deep breath and the oxygen in his bloodstream caught up with his racing heart. Standing, he extended an arm.
“Gad to meet you, Conners Lee.” He said. The smile on his face growing with relief on two fronts. He did it. He matched the game and found a portal. The smile continued as he thought of Roake and how he would return with a cure.
“Lead the way.” He conceded, his hand flourishing royally across his body, yielding to Lee’s instructions.
Darkness blotted out the sky by the time the two turned into a final alley. Conners Lee walked in silence. Jàl following blindly on the man’s heels. Lee walked half the length of the brick tunnel then stopped and faced a wall. Jàl watched the silhouette of the Groundlier move among the darker shadows erasing the details of the surrounding space.
Strained eyes followed the traces of a hand slide over the rough brick façade. Seconds of silence surrendered as an audible click sounded a half microsecond before a grimy lightbulb burned its glow against the night reclaiming a small portion of the immediate area. The scant ray of yellow revealed a doorway flushed from the shadows.
A nervous look about to see if any followed and Lee swung the door open and motioned Jàl inside.
“Home as it is,” he said following close on Jàl’s heels. The door snicked closed, the room sat quiet and still before a string of bare bulbs strung high in the ceiling chased away the darkness, adding life to a small room. Benches and shelves cluttered the floor leaving thin paths snaking across the floor. Reams of paper lay like a film of dust over every available space. Crammed in a corner, a tall chalk board stood sentinel, the writing area swarmed with calculations.
Jàl stood only feet inside the room. His eyes busy switching to and fro taking in every detail. Is this how people live on the lowest levels of Earth, he wondered. How, how was it possible to maintain any train of reasoning surrounded by this sea of untidiness?
“Over here.” A voice called from somewhere deep in the mess. Jàl left his trance and squinted into the chaos tracking Conners Lee. A hand waved from behind a cabinet stacked high with…books. Paper books no less, Jàl was quick to notice. Picking a path that seemed to meander in the right direction, he walked toward his new friend.
“Why are we here?” Jàl called above the towers of books and papers. “Is this where you work?”
“Oh, goodness no,” Conners Lee replied. “Of course not. This is my home. My lab is a complete disaster. You should see it. It is crammed to the rafters with my studies.”
Jàl looked about as he inched through the thin path toward the back of the room. Lee’s word causing a new layer of worry.
“Why are we here?” Jàl risked the question now that the pair were no longer racing down busy sidewalks and blind alley ways. The words dribbled from his lips as he stepped to the edge of the thin path. His next step carried him away from the clusters of shelves and papers to an open space at the far side of the building. Comfortable looking furniture spread across a colourful rug surrounded by antique viewing equipment separated this space from the stacks and closeness of the front of the room.
Conners Lee stood next to a counter with a sink and what Jàl surmised was an open fridge. The small square steel box emitted a light from its interior.
“You thirsty?” Lee held up a tin can in his hand. Jàl shrugged away the answer. His eyes busy adjusting to the sudden change in the rooms appearance.
“Yeah…I…is it good?” He finally answered pointing to Lee’s hand. The man tossed the container in Jàl’s direction. Fumbling the catch, he twisted it in his hand studying the odd cylindrical tube. Thin metal sealed the ends of the can. With a touch of pause, Jàl slipped his finger nail under a thin tab and pulled. A release of air and bubble squeezed from the opening. Curious, he lifted the liquid to his nose. Sweet smelling bubbles of air foamed. Jàl’s eyes searched across the short space to find Conners Lee. The man nodded toward the open can urging his consent.
A taste on the tongue then a dribble ran down Jàl’s throat. The liquid sparked the sensors at the back of his throat as the sirupy fluid raced to his stomach. The second swig was bigger. The texture, the bubbles similar to the contraband sodas of his Sky City.
“So. Where do we start.” Jàl said after emptying the remainder of the can. “This is the Groundliers world, is it not?”
Conners Lee returned Jàl’s stern look.
“We refer to it as Earth, but you can call it whatever you like, I suppose.”
A wide smile scooted across Jàl’s face. Bringing his brief period of joy under control the neurones in his brain sparked in all directions with the questions he wanted to ask. Instead, a simple statement left his lips.
“I knew it was possible. I made it.”
Conners Lee’s features twisted in a confused lilt. “Why wouldn’t you?” Conners Lee remarked. At his noting of the blank look on Jàl’s face, he added. “You don’t remember, do you?”
“What,” the single word shot from Jàl’s mouth, “Remember what?”
Conners Lee swept his arm to include the stacks and shelves of papers the two had walked through only moments earlier.
“One day, many years ago, we stood in this very place. All my notes, all my research, you are the cause of this.”
The bulky heads of the monsters floated above. His mind screamed move, but his body lay still, locked in a horizontal position, his arms pinned, his legs immobile. Details rushed unobstructed into his head assaulting his senses as the fog covering his eyes cleared.
The room glowed bright. A brightness he’d never witnessed before. Harsh but yet unyielding. And the monsters. A quick flick of his eyes revealed the awkward shells of the Verge crowed close. Too close. The beasts bulbous snouts bent low in his direction and their bulging eyes pinning him to who knew what.
An extra beat of his heart began his heart rate escalating. A film of sweat coated his skin. The beads of water from the warmth in the room…or from fear. Jàl analyses the feelings racing through his veins. Maybe not so much fear as an innate curiosity.
The lumbering beasts stood placidly along side the bench he lay secured. Not a word or yet…a shriek, broke the silence, the guttural screams known of the Verge as a usual means of communication. Could he not summon the grid from such a position, the thought rolled amongst the myriad of theories his mind rallied up to normalize his predicament.
The constraints clamping his head refused to ease. His face blushing red from exertion but failed to connect with the programs mainframe.
“Clear the room.” The soft spoken words drove like a hammer into Jàl’s busy mind. I can understand the Verge, he thought. Since when or why not before? The words wrenched his world of reasoning askew. The whole game and not a clue as to the monsters way of reasoning and now…
The sagging brownish skinned beasts pulled from his sight while another entered into his limited vision. The eyes of the monster, an opaque black as they stared down into his face. A flinch of fear shivered through his curiosity as the beast raised its hands and gripped its bulky head. Then the unexpected. The monster’s transformation swooned in reverse. Instead of a human form evolving into the crumpled skinned beast, the bulky head lifted, revealing…
“You gave us quite the fright,” the beast lowered one hand in a friendly fashion. “How do you feel?”
“I..I…” Jàl stuttered. His eyes drank in the altered actions of the beast, his mind numbed, taken aback by the words and manner of his nemesis.
“Conners Lee,” the monster continued its diatribe. “When the wall glowed and you came through, we knew little of what to expect. The good news is you’re cleared. No known contagions.” The beast continued removing its outer skin.
His head held tight by constraints, Jàl shifted his eyes to the side to watch the beasts movements. “I…you…speak…in English?” The question tripped across his lips.
“Yes, as do you, it appears.” The beast replied.
“Where are we? What level? Well, this is new.” Jàl jabbered. His mind raced to update and rationalize his thought process. The threat by the Globe, the scrubbing of the digital alley and the reveal of the doorway on the rebuild. He sighed. He truly believed the doorway to the groundliers lay within his grasp…but instead, some perverted version of a new level.
Disappointment sapped his hope. Poor Roake, his mind touched upon “What do we do now? Where does this go?” The muscles in his neck grew taut and his arms tugged against the table straps holding him prone. Relaxing, he tore his eyes away from the monster and shifted them to capture the interior of the bright room. The silence was interrupted when he realized the monster spoke a name.
“How is it you are called by name? You are but a digital reproduction, a figment of my programming.” Jàl returned his gaze to the exposed face of his captor. Under the glaring lights, the beasts feature were awash with reality. How, what…Jàl closed his eyes and his mind scrubbed the latest images imprinted on his brain before he slowly peeled open his eyelids. The monster remained and the room sat bathed in the same harsh lighting.
Conners Lee scrubbed the stubble on his chin. “What game? What exactly do you believe happened?”
“The game. My Mixed-Reality dimension. You must know, you’re a part of it.” Then Jàl fell silent. He was trying to communicate with a pre-programmed entity. Did the Verge disrupt his escape with their blasters? Was he now seriously injured and his mind brought him to this place as a form of safety?
Then a second more abrupt thought seized his thoughts. Was this the Globe’s way of dealing with him. Did she not say that his journey ended in the alley? Could she be in his mind at this time dishing out her own version of reality to keep him off balance?
Jàl squeezed his lids shut once more. He released all stray thoughts and freed his mind to soar and connect with the main-frame. Nothing. Nervous shivers ran the length of his body as he tried harder. Finally exhausted, he blinked open his eyes. The Verge remained posted as before.
“Is this the Globe’s doing?” he asked, near defeat.
“You don’t make a lot of sense, buddy.” The monster replied.
“How is it you can remove your head?” Jàl wondered through his building trepidation.
“What. This?” The monster lifted the bulky covering with the bulging eyes and flat, protruding snout. “This is simply a part of my suit. For the past few days your body has been fighting off a very deadly strain of disease. That, I am happy to report, is no longer the case. The suit is no longer needed. Looks like you’ll be fine.”
“Seriously, Verge, what level is this. How advanced has the program evolved? Oh,” as an after thought, Jàl tugged again at his restraints. “If everything is as you say, why am I held prisoner?”
“What exactly do you recall?” The monster quizzed.
Jàl stared at the Verge, “Alright I’ll play along. The alley where you attacked. I rebuilt it and found the door to…” Jàl pictured in his mind the appearance of the doorway in the brick wall and his hand pulling the door open, then the powerful light.
“I made it through, didn’t I? This is the Groundlier’s lair?”
The monster scrunched its face. “We like to call it Earth or home or…well, I’m sure you get it. What door did you make it through? You burst through a wall in an obscure alley. Lucky too, the disease had ravaged your system. Much longer and I think we would not be having this conversation.”
Fear and doubt slipped from Jàl’s body. “How long have I been like this?”
“Since Monday at least. And the restraints. They were for your safety. The disease, it had you in its grasp. At first, we didn’t think you’d make it. For endless hours you tossed so violently that we feared you’d breathed your last, but here you are.”
‘Where I was found…can you tell me?”
The monster raised a finger to his lips then nodded toward a camera in the back corner of the room with a tilt of his head. “I think delirium may have gotten the better of you, friend. There is no game or secret doorway. No, probably just the hangover of a deadly virus. Don’t you worry, all will be fine now.”
The monster bent low. Busy fingers loosening the straps tightly secured to Jàl’s arms and legs. For the first time, Jàl noticed the monster’s hands. Fingers of flesh, long and slender not the stubby appendages he’d associated with the Verge of earlier. Maybe, he thought…
“Where are we? You aren’t…” he let the sentence hang as the monster swept around the table. The last of the restrictions holding him to the table loosened and Jàl stretched his neck. A quick glance snuck back up at the Verge. Conners Lee stepped next to a metal door motioning Jàl to follow.
How long Jàl stood mesmerized by the strange habits of his enemies and the perpetual fluttering of a stories tall building, became irrelevant. Time suddenly refused to advance. The gathering of Verge spread across the street side of the fluctuating structure stretching several deep. Jàl wanted to retrace his steps and peer into the exposed depths of the foundation to see what held the monster’s interest but found his feet refused to obey.
A trance like state settled over the proceedings. The Verge numbers multiplied, exposed by the on again, off again veiling of the high-rise under siege. A repeating loop that grew more oblique with each rotation. This thought challenged Jàl’s mind. And to escape it…
A gust of cold wind from the closed end of the alley ruffled his hair. The drop in pressure broke Jàl from his trance. He spun around. A spectre of white danced in the shadows. A ghostly hand beckoned while haunting whispers rode the breeze closing the receptors of his mind to the strange goings on behind.
Jàl blinked. The fluttering of eyelids relieved the strain of burning eyes. The fingers of the breeze ransomed a release from the hypnotic transitions of the building’s stasis and the hold it held over him. With muscles freed, one step bled into the next.
At the feathered edge of transition blending daylight and shadows, the semblance of a face floated at eye level and mimicked Jàl’s searching advances. The illusive globe stood within a fingers reach, the slip of a spirit teased with a glimpse of the coveted prize. The indecipherable coding masking the globe’s features melted away revealing a face Jàl recognized.
A pair of appraising eyes peered back from the avatar he’d met but days ago, on an earlier visit to this dreamt up reality. Ree-al, the Daemon accosted while escaping from a previous level with an injured Roake, stood not more than a couple feet away. Jàl shook the confusion from his over-compensating brain.
“Am I missing something,” the words dribbled from his mouth. “If you are the globe, why did you not reveal this when we met the last time?”
“The information I am tasked with gathering, my job, is not complete. At that time I did not fully understand the ramifications the usage of such knowledge would bring. Now, I am fully versed.” The Wraith answered in a tone void of feeling and inflection.
“Understandable,” Jàl agreed then waved an arm over the walls and streets looming only a short distance from the alleys walls. The realistic renderings leading to the alley, now an almost complete imitation of what he believed the ancient world to resemble. “It seems you’ve completed your mission. The information I loosed the algorithms to retrieve… it waits out there.” He pointed back up the alley. “Your part of the programming is full filled.”
“Perhaps,” the avatar stated. “Unforeseen errors have complicated matters. A virus has invaded this dimension and until it is rectified I must remain relevant. You must also remain until I can determine a solution to the conundrum that now exists.”
“What? The Verge? They’re not a virus,” A snort of laughter borne of pent up tension spurted from Jàl’s lips at the preposterous assumption. He found it difficult to believe the Globe mistook the programmed annoyances as anything more than they were, an obstacle of training.
“You are wrong,” the Globe retorted. “Open your mind and I will show you the truth.”
A trickle of worry leaked into Jàl’s head worming past the wash of whispered promises from the Globe. The Globe was one with the mainframe and in the past, whenever his mind surfed the grid….
The pull to join the Globe increased. Jàl closed his eyes in an effort to block the Avatar’s control of his mind. Lights dazzled in the darkness behind his sealed eyelids. A film of sweat built on his forehead. The tickle of a drop being pulled downward by gravity lighted the minute nerve endings hidden below his skin. The itch, cast of the bead of perspiration, opened the sliver of worry wider.
Overlaid by the spell of ethereal whispers, an unsettling clamour echoed into the narrow opening leading from the street. Jàl shook off the Globe’s mystical power, willing his head to swing around toward the roar of sound. His heart rate increased. In-between the mist filled void left by the fluctuating structure, he caught snatches of movement as the Verge pulled free of the bind connecting them to the wonder of the open foundation. With each heart beat he saw the monsters shuffle toward the mouth of the alley and slowly march in his direction.
“The Verge are not the virus. They are not the threat of which I speak. Your journey ends here, now. Your way back may not follow your path forward.” A chill ran the length of Jàl’s spine at the Daemon’s icy warning. Precious time needed to decipher the Daemon’s words elapsed as the tentacles of the apparition’s hold on his mind severed. When he turned back, the Wraith had vanished. A multitude of questions crashed his mind for the meaning left behind by the Globe.
A thundering echo of shrill cries and guttural wails re-focused his thoughts. His reason for entering the alley came soaring back. The gamble of a doorway into the groundliers lair hiding within this brick tunnel surfaced more as a prayer than a curiosity. A quick last glance at the approaching horde of Verge sent Jàl scampering deeper into the shadows blanketing the bricked end of the alley.
Standing at the sealed end of the tunnel, he rubbed his hands across the coarse surface of brick and mortar with little expectation. Again, the darkness refused to reveal the doorway Jàl believed existed. He turned his head for a quick scan of the surroundings before raising his eyes to search the tops of the buildings. The light source lit the back of a building to his right. Jàl calmed his mind and reviewed his options.
The first was a no starter. He could summon a light to release the door but the actions would leave him at the mercy of the Verge. This time Roake was not around to rush him through the open gateway. Jàl’s foot began a slow tapping on the road. The rhythm increased in tempo as he surfed the recesses of his mind.
The growing cantations of the slow marching beasts caused the hairs on his body to stand. With each closing shriek, he felt the blood in his veins thicken. The beat of his heart thumped louder. Withdrawing inward, Jàl sensed the blood at his feet warm as it started its journey upward. The cells pulsed in rhythm with his heart, the two increasing in tempo as his mind fought off panic from the threat entering the mouth of the alley.
Jàl welcomed the adrenaline using the rising courage to push away the web of fear. He brought forward the strength required to recode the outcome. Calculations flooded his thoughts while his eyes drank in the myriad of details impeded in the walled tunnel. Tilting his head upward, he studied the angle of light blocked by the protruding buildings.
A stream of bits and bytes washed over his mind. Their intensity climbing along side his concern for Roake and his rage at being cornered by the Verge. The need for light and also the ability to move when the gateway appeared produced answers that ran parallel to one another. Then a third option scraped across the front of his brain. It was so obvious that he wondered why it never surfaced earlier.
The immense heat from a particle rifle tickled at the boundary of his conscious. The super heated air of the blasters beam burned deep into his lungs. Jàl squeezed his lids tighter in concentration. Drifting into the labyrinths of his mind, off-shoots of his thoughts sorted screens of passing codes and departmentalized his brain activity while he mentally slowed the march of time. His breathing eased, relaxed and faint.
An explosion of white light flared behind his sealed eyelids. A cleansing light called upon to erase the last images captured and trapped on the front of his brain moments before his eyes locked out the threatening world. Jàl imagined a blank screen, clean and scrubbed of all distractions from the darkest corners of his mind. The further he submersed, the quieter the cries of the Verge became until their threat dissolved with the digital environment.
When the screen was wiped clean, Jàl lay the seeds for a new foundation born of his imagination. The alley re-materialized with the compilation of a single edifice at first. Bricks and mortar stacked on one another, rising row upon row until they stretched the length and height of the old tunnel. The exception this time, the artificial light overhead caressed the crevices forced into shadow by the previous rendering.
On one wall, a cascade of light flushed the minute details from the brick façade. Slowly, inch by inch, the outline of a door tugged at the digital structure as the alley slowly re-bloomed. The opening worked free of his thoughts. The faux wood rearranging the previous configuration of the supporting materials.
While the alley reformed to the image Jàl held in his mind, the beasts, in their brownish sagging skin and large bulging eyes, awoke with the returning program. Along with the digital reproduction came the other entities of the games program. The building over Jàl’s left shoulder shuddered as it took its place on the waiting foundation. The structure shorter now by several stories. The result, the artificial light produced by the games conception shone brightly on the wall facing Jàl.
Cries of anger and…fright. The roar of the Verge rose to thundering volumes in the close confines of the walled alley, the blasts of anger carried a…softer, more subtle tone if such a thing was possible. The cries and shrieks assaulting Jàl’s ears sounded more like pleas of distress. Again, if digital characters had the ability to such feelings.
Curiosity forced Jàl around to face the oncoming squad of lumbering beasts. The awkward bodies swayed in a mismatched rhythm. The Verge downcast faces portraying a somber…pleading. To Jàl’s ears the cries begged for him to understand. The sprouts of a knowing smile lifted the edge of his lips. A clever trick by the Verge, he reasoned. Change tactics to confuse him while they regained the upper hand.
Jàl forced his mind back to the mission. The outline of the doorway stared back. Several moments hesitation passed until he imagined the warm breath of the monster on the back of his neck. A thoughtless gesture swung his hand to the back of his neck to swat away the imagined warmth while the rest of his brain worked to calm his breathing but yet allow him the courage to place a hand forward and test the door knob.
A flash of light burst past his head and scorched the bricks. The return to reality jumped his nerves. Jàl’s hand shot forward and twisted. The knob moved easily. The door swung inwards. A brief glimpse of the other side overwhelmed his senses. One step brought him close to the opening. The second step moved him across the dimension. Oddly, he remembered hearing the wooden door slam shut before a wash of liquid light stole his consciousness.
Sitting quietly in the dark, Jàl wallowed in his thoughts. Theory and probabilities mixed with reason and formulated understanding scored the tracks of his mind. A fevered moan interrupted the computations swirling behind his unseeing eyes.
Jàl blinked the room into focus. Roake lay only feet away. The light of a new day chased the darkness into hiding. Unsure of what to do, Jàl lay the back of his hand across his friend’s forehead. Her skin warm and clammy. Bending close, he lay his ear next to Roake’s mouth. Shallow wheezing breaths whispered from her lips.
The excitement of the night’s discovery now distant as concern for his stricken partner tugged him crashing back to reality.
“I wish I knew what to tell you. How to reassure you that everything will turn out fine.” Jàl rested the palm of his hand on Roake’s shoulder. “I’ll have to leave you here while I continue our search for the globe. Now more then ever is the need to find my way to the groundliers home.” He turned and gazed toward the opposite end of the store. Silently he watched the light of day stream in through the grimy glass windows.
Details of the stores interior made his thoughts drift. Wherever his eyes touched, a sense of realism returned. The materials composing the interior were well past some random digital rendering. Knowing he currently existed inside the Mixed-Reality dimension was barely enough to convince his brain that what he was seeing wasn’t real. The level of the game had transformed completely. At least inside this building. But what about once he walked out the door?
Jàl scanned the area near the door. His and Roake’s weapons lay on the ground. One last look about the room and he knew what came next. Reluctantly he accepted the path he must take.
“You’ll be alright while I’m gone,” he said shaking his head to convince himself of his words. He stole one last glance down at the virus racked Roake to insure his decision was sound before he walked away. Near the door he knelt and slung the strap of Roake’s gun over his shoulder then cradled his rifle in his hand and gazed out the window next to the door.
The sidewalk remained barren with the slow beginning of the new day. The prospects of what he imagined he’d see blocked by the grime covered glass. Jàl mentally prepared for what he was certain came next. His finger caressed the trigger of the gun as he swung the door open and ventured into the light of morning. He paused in the shelter of the store’s entrance.
His view lay unobstructed. The fact the vicinity loomed bare failed to register as his eyes greedily ran the length of the sidewalk then the street before circling back to study the composition of the front wall of the store. A trick of the brain or…
A couple feet later and the game began filling in the missing pieces. Soon, the sidewalk choked with human forms. Scything his way past a standing huddle stalled in his way the puzzlement of the games realistic vista released the grip on his mind at the discovery of an unnerving surprise. Jàl took a step back, fitting into the group of bodies huddled on the sidewalk.
Out in the open, mixed among the human forms, a pair of Verge stood fully exposed on the opposite sidewalk. The creatures in the midst of the early crowd. Jàl puzzled at the different tactics adopted by the level’s programming. Until now, the creatures only revealed themselves when he melded with the mainframe and surrendered his position. The day was new and he’d been careful, so how had these two discover his location?
Jàl squeezed another peek past the stand of game pieces. The Verge remained across the street, motionless. Their eyes looked away from where he hid. Jàl’s breath caught in his throat as his eyes strayed from monsters. Scanning the morning crowds he picked out other Verge dotted amongst the crowds of random pieces. To his relief, none of the monsters had noticed him yet.
Careful, he matched the steps of the crowds lumbering down the sidewalk. Step for step he walked. His eyes darted between the locations of Verge. His heart raced with anticipation. Scared to stare too long at any of the monsters, he stuck with the crowd, bending his eyes forward and relying on a hidden sense to signal an alert.
Three quarters of the way to the corner, Jàl stepped around a pair of bodies slowing to a halt. Ahead, a red light glared overhead. Nervous twitches jerked his head in search of waiting enemies, his fingers white as they gripped the rifle tight. On one turn of his head, a view down an alley made him swing his eyes back for a double take.
At the edge of his vision, a splatter of unstable light yanked at his attention. Stopping full on in the opening his eyes strained under furrowed brows prying into the depths of the shadows painted across the brick walled tunnel. Then, caught by the corner of his sight, another fizzle of unstable matter flicked.
An overwhelming force tugged him forward. The curiosity too strong to ignore. Jàl left the relative security that came with hiding in the mass of bodies populating the sidewalks and crossed to the mouth of the alley.
Standing still in the entrance, a sense of familiarity teased his brain. The alley, with its real world appearance, and even the limited light cloaking the far end, all of this combined to create an unsettling feeling of Deja Vu.
Racked with indecision, Jàl wavered at the opening. He accepted the mission to locate the Globe and use the information gathered to create a gateway to the groundliers world and hopefully return with a cure, but the route spread before him demanded his attention. Why? Could these be the images from his dreams? And if they were, why now? Why tempt him when…
… the ground shook violently. Did the buildings nearest just flash? Probably not, he realized and clamped his eyes shut as his mind prepared to battle the inevitable journey into blackness that followed closely on the heels of these severe disruptions to his world. Seconds passed. Lifting one lid, he peeked out at the street. Everything stood remarkably peaceful.
In the eery quiet, a theory leaked from his subconscious. If this was indeed the spectre out of his dreams… then could the doorway possibly lie near. Did he need the Globe to locate the gateway to the lowest level of Earth? Maybe not.
Unable to resist the temptation any longer, Jàl twisted around and placed a tentative foot into the yawning mouth of the alley. Concern for Roake rallied to halt his progress. The thought of her, infected by the virus, unattended and vulnerable, the memory of her pale image as she lay stretched on the table back at the store, hammered against the curiosity to investigate the recesses of the brick tunnel. Still, one foot fell in front of the other.
Twenty steps into the alluring darkness, a sizzle of air and the fractured sparks of unstable molecules lit the air to Jàl’s side. A quick turn of his head revealed the building, or rather lack of building, perched ghostly on the corner as it fluctuated between dimensions of realities.
Through the foggy haze of displacement caused by the fluctuating matter of the structure, Jàl caught sight of a smattering of beastly figures. Grotesque silhouettes adorned with sagging brownish skin and bulbous eyes. The monsters pooled tight along the edge of the sidewalk. Their numbers increasing with each beating pulse of the building’s mass phasing in and out of reality. The creatures gazed into the depths of the foundation. Their heads cast down in a pose of mourning.
The panic in Jàl’s chest lifted after the initial sighting of the creatures. Fear and flight eased as his mind switched to studying the strange behaviour. Caught in mid step, he watched. The line of Verge stood still as statues, their growing numbers exposed each time the bulk of the building flitted from the current dimension. What about the fluctuations of the structure lured the monsters to this spot?
Jàl’s fingers rubbed along the grained edge of the wooden chair. His hands kept busy while he perched on the edge of the seat. Bent at the waist, his upper body rocked back and forth, his eyes riveted on Roake’s face, studying the smallest quiver of her nostrils and the slight rise of her chest as she burned with fever.
The genius IQ setting him above all others created an array of fireworks inside his brain. Equations and formulas, practical thought and learned history all fought to the front of his thoughts leaving him a helpless prisoner of his own device.
The unfamiliar feelings caused by the sight of his friend suffering the dreadful illness railed against a mechanical, calculating logic. The result, in effect, a shutdown of the nervous system.
Strange visions pried his being free of its mortal vessel. His mind soared out of the dark room and floated on a phantom breeze. A strange sensation accompanied his ethereal voyage as the entrance of the store floated by underneath. The outside, welcoming in an anxious way.
A green mist mixed with the daylight greeted his arrival. Groups of game pieces populated the sidewalks, the human forms frozen in mid movement. Past the safety of the sidewalks, the paved streets cluttered with motionless cars. The vehicles static, but his mind noted the engine exhaust as it lifted on unseen wings of a breeze, climbing to meet him.
Faces in the crowds flitted by underneath. Some looking ahead, some staring across and a few, with a tinge of yellow ringing their eyes, tilted upward. Jàl’s passing captured in the frozen gaze of his enemy. The monsters unable to halt his progress, yet the large pupils of their bulbous eye tracked his movements.
The scene shifted. Buildings from past nightmares introduced a new street. One he’d never witnessed in his romp through the Mixed-Reality dimension, but by now, growing all too familiar because of the ghost of images loosed upon his thoughts from earlier in the game.
The buildings lay exposed in different stages of completion. The spirit of Jàl’s being floated close to the brick behemoths. High pitched cries and swirling whines clawed at the air and assaulted his mind. The building’s foundations sparkled and fizzled in a reality caught between alternating dimensions.
An image took form behind the veiling mist. The obstructed apparition hinted of the illusive Globe, the outline in the mist transforming into a translucent embodiment much like the avatar from a previous visit. Intrigued, Jàl studied the spirits face. Her lips moved but the words failed to span the distance between the two. The manifestation’s arm pointed down toward the forming buildings. The structures fluctuate between digital renderings and a version of reality. Jàl ’s mind soared while deciphering the meaning.
A vicious jerk yanked his trapped thoughts free. In his mind’s eye he witnessed the physical world threaten to shatter amidst the twisting and convulsing of a terrifying agony. A last, fleeting look revealed scores of Verge, large, bulbous faces pointed heaven ward, the monster’s faces gripped with disbelief as the reality of their world crumbled.
The result, in effect, the tortured cries of a nervous system on the edge of collapse. The imagined aftershocks sparked a twinkle of awareness in Jàl’s fracturing mind. The deeper Jàl sank into the trance, the faster he rocked, the tighter his grip on the wooden arms of the chair as they slid back and forth, his weight held precariously on the edge of the wooden seat.
The actions continued uninhibited by time or circumstance until the friction of gripping flesh wore past the lacquered finish of the chair’s arm. The disturbed material responded by freeing a thin sliver of wood, the loose element pressed deep into the flesh of Jàl’s finger.
The prick of pain altered the trajectory of Jàl’s downward spirall. The sliver of wood igniting nerves and wiring a response of discomfort that travelled the fibres in his arm and pinged his sensory receptors of the foreign anomaly. With a shift in paradigm, the rocking and rubbing shifted.
Jàl’s recovery started with the realization of the rough texture of the wood frame. Digital copies lacked all and any properties able to produce such a sensation. The minuscule fragment of reality stuck in his finger, a totally unrelated thought. He shook himself away from the edge of the mental abyss, straightening in his chair. With out attempting to remove the pain inducing prop, he glanced around the room.
The darkness of his mind opened to the dim lit interior, the poor lighting revealed little more than layers of shadows. Hidden along the back of the mostly deserted space, among the few pieces of sparse furnishings, Jàl glanced at the table supporting the feverish Roake.
Curiosity moved his hand. With the aid of the sensitive skin wrapping the tips of his fingers, he contemplated the unusual texture of the piece. The actual feel of wood not overly unusual, nor the arm of a chair, but put the two together in a world borne of digital reproductions and…
Jàl rubbed his finger tips together. The spark that flickered in his conscious sputtered. What had broke the trance? Like a great awakening waited just out of grasp. The haunting feeling of knowing something very important beckoned but a firewall surrounded his dulled mind and refused to take the final step to understanding.
The sharp throb of pain pulled his attention back to the sliver. Jàl raised his hand close to his face. The light left little hope of his eyes narrowing his search. Jàl placed the stuck finger in his mouth and ran his tongue over the hurt. The nub scratched across the nerves. Trial and error and minutes of probing, his teeth gripped the sliver as he pulled his finger away. Careful not to drop the minute piece of stray wood, he brought his hand close to his eye. The sliver melded with the light hiding the object from his brain but the action proved advantageous. Digital renderings lacked the composition to produce stray chunks of wood.
From the sliver trapped in his finger tips, Jàl pressed his other hand tight to the table top. The texture easily distinguished from a simple, one dimensional rendering. The two pieces radiated with a quality lacking in the digital frame work. Jàl’s fingers played across the surfaces, his brain trying for a conclusion it knew existed but remained just beyond reach.
Pushing away from the chair, he stumbled to his feet and walked the few steps toward a pile of furniture draped in thick plastic. Drawing the cover away, he bent low, tilting his head to take advantage of the weak light available.
Again his fingers relayed messages to his brain that his eyes were slow to detect. These pieces also reflected the multiple textures one would expect of products created in the real world. Jàl knelt and touched the floor. The concrete cold and coarse. Curiosity burned. The lack of light frustrating.
He glanced back where Roake lay. He picked out dull reflections where light highlighted small samples of her silhouette. They were still inside the Mixed-Reality dimension, of that he was certain, but his short reconnaissance of the room’s interior convinced him that the space would fit comfortably outside the games parameters. The pieces of furniture, with their cloth and wood finishes, obviously marked them as ancient artifacts but still…
Could the algorithms have reached the point where they were able to decipher the reality of the groundliers world? Jàl felt his heartbeat increase with anticipation. He was close to finding a portal to the earth’s surface? Perhaps the dreams and images that rocked his brain during the tremors were a map to follow? He needed more information then the few samples that sat close by. The blinding darkness annoyed him. A scan of the room might reveal more clues but he feared bringing a light source to bare. Touching the grid meant a visit by the Verge.
Jàl worked his way back to the chair. His eyes searched the shadows around Roake’s sleeping body as if an answer would appear. In his search, his eyes tripped upon the cartridge belt wrapped around her waist. Jàl stood in such a hurry his chair tipped back and banged off the floor.
Grabbing the stock of his rifle left leaning against the table, he moved into a cleared section of the room and dug a particle cartridge free of his belt. Placing the plastic capsule on the floor, he lined the butt of his rifle with the bullet, readied his arms, then lifted his face, staring past the dark toward a wall. A breath leaked from his lips as he steadied his rapidly beating heart and with a quick strike, slammed the butt of the gun down.
His breath froze in his throat. The brief light filled the room. The wall where he locked his gaze exploded into a vision that challenged his brain. Jàl gasped at the image. Even with the lack of time to capture more of the reveal, a conclusion settled on him. The level he and Roake had stepped into no longer resembled the game he had created all those years ago.
By no means could he have imagined the spectacle he witnessed. A second cartridge met the butt of his rifle. His eyes focused in a different direction. The flash of light returned the same result. The interior no longer favoured the digital world.
Excitement fuelled his growing curiosity. How did the program accomplish the realism? Could a possible gateway to the groundliers world be in sight? Jàl considered the snatches of proof he sat amongst, careful to restrain the threads of hope. The changes to the algorithms may confirm his theory but finding the globe remained crucial. The collected information gathered inside the memory banks would be paramount to the completion of the mission. How could he use this information to complete the game? A mission that became increasingly difficult by the illness consuming Roake.
A stab of light seeped under Roake’s sagging eyelids. Warped images swam in a surrealistic dream and poked at her brain. A disconcerted pattern of brick floated then stabilized. The reason she stood facing the wall, momentarily escaped her fragmented state of mind. Then the outline of a passage way bloomed with the cascade of ascending light. A guttural shrill warned from behind reminding of pending danger. The now familiar roar nudged past the fog shrouding her conscious and triggered an ingrained response.
A tilt of her head showed her supported by Jàl’s shoulder. His features relaxed as he stared blankly at the same wall. Instincts overruled thought. The light and the increasing racket, an unresponsive partner and the brick wall giving birth to a doorway.
A spike in her heart beat pushed a surge of adrenaline through her veins. Roake tightened her arm around Jàl and stretched her other hand for the protruding door knob. A twist of her wrist, then a shove to clear the newly summoned gateway and she pulled Jàl along as she dove for the opening.
The two spilled onto a sidewalk in a tangle of arms and legs. A sharp clap ruptured the air from behind. Roake rolled to her side and tensed. Her rifle swung around at ready. Her eyes locked on the building uncertain if something sinister followed them through the gap.
Jàl groaned and lifted his head. With his thoughts disrupted, the hole willed by his mind began to fade. Bricks floated in the space. Dozens of the small, rectangular orange blocks flashed and popped, fizzled and darted as the computer brain of the game regenerated the spoiled façade. Short seconds passed until the outline of the opening dissolved into nothing more than a memory.
From the mending wall to a quick check on Roake rising from the sidewalk to an unobstructed view of the new level across the barren streetscape, Jàl lay still, allowing his mind to update.
Behind his back, he missed the change settling over his partner. Roake’s facial features contorted from one of complete surprise to pain and confusion. Garbled words slipped from her throat. With a groan and twist, she recoiled and clutched her stomach. Her knees buckled dropping her to the hard surface of the concrete sidewalk.
The strange sounds from his partner captured his attention.
“What…” he began as his gaze settled on the downed soldier. Raising off the concrete, he knelt beside Roake. “Are you hit?” Fear crept into his voice as he scanned for wounds.
Past hooded eyelids, he noticed a film blanket her eyes as her gaze settled on his face. He watched Roake’s lips moved but the words fail. Colour drained from her face and the natural pink of her skin changed to a sickly, pale sheen. Beads of sweat formed on her forehead.
Silently, Roake’s lips formed segments of unfinished sentences while she pleaded with her eyes. Jàl failed to understand. Then, Roake bounded upright, left his side and quickly bent low over the curb. Behind her back, Jàl heard the retching sounds of bile as it escaped her stomach and flowed into the gutter.
“Oh my god,” Jàl’s voice choked. Emotions foreign to his psyche exposed unfamiliar feelings as he watched Roake spew the initial symptoms of the deadly virus. The very sickness that claimed the health of many Sky Dwellers and the very reason he and Roake had entered the game. A desperate effort of locating an alternate route to the groundliers lair and the promise of a chance to return home with a cure to end the horrible suffering.
Roake’s vision shimmered as she sank to her knees. Seconds, maybe minutes, passed before her consciousness registered Jàl’s voice.
“Roake. Can you hear me. Roake! We have to move.” Her body shook as his hands clamped onto her shoulders. “Take my arm.” She heard him plead. “You need to get to your feet. We can’t remain on the street. It’s imperative we find shelter.” Jàl’s words echoed across the mist soaking her conscious. She felt his hand under her arm. The desperate grip of his fingers while they pinched her skin as he fought to lift her.
Dizzy and depleted, she weakly sunk her fingers into the sleeve of his jacket. Her strength draining, she scrambled to maintain a tight grip as he stood and pulled her to her feet.
“Are you okay?” Jàl’s voice penetrated the fog swirling in her head as she stumbled along to his lead.
“I don’t know.” She replied. “Dizzy and nauseous.” She heard her own strained voice sound foreign to her own ears. What had just happened, she forced her brain to recalibrate and find an answer. Then from somewhere in the fog of uncertainty, surfaced the unthinkable.
“The virus. I think you have contracted the virus.” She railed against the fear in Jàl’s words. The rush from the Verge, the impact on her implant. There had to be several reasons for the way her body reacted. But the virus. No. That she refused to even entertain.
“This way,” Jàl’s words wormed into her head, knifing through her doubts. “We’ve got to get off the sidewalk.” Even without seeing, she sensed her partner frantically looking around.” Look. Over there.” She twisted her head following the sound of his voice. “That shop. The doorway looks passable. Maybe we can hide in there. We need someplace quiet and time to think.”
The beginnings of a smile climbed Roake’s lips despite the waves of nausea roiling in her gut. The genius known as Jàl Condor. Such a hero. The thought sent tingles down her body. The self-centred brainiac, all of a sudden taking charge and all.
Roake pried her eyelids apart. The light shining down on the street drove hot pokers of pain into her brain. Wincing, she raised a forearm to shade her eyes and looked past the ache. An outline of the streetscape morphed into focus. Her foot collided with a curb. Stumbling, she leaned heavier on Jàl. She stumbled along with his aide as they crossed the street. The entrance to the store only yards ahead.
“Come on, come on,” Jàl urged, his chest heaving under her weight, his lungs wheezing with each gasp of breath. The sidewalk, level under her dragging feet, reared up to trip her when the pair encounter the steps leading up into the building. Jàl’s grip tightened around her. Roake felt the strain in his body as he fought to lift her up the final step. Trying to help, she shuffled her feet. The added movement sent the pair stumbling. Her motor skills scrambled, her basic instincts off-line.
More grunting and cursing broke the barrier of her delirium. The skin on her face burnt from unknown heat. Drops of sweat wormed into her partially shuttered eyes. Stale air of the closed building greeted her as Jàl’s tight grip loosed and she melted, sliding to the floor. Footsteps retreated to a loud clang of the building’s doors as it closed and echoed.
Lumped onto the hard surface of the floor, Jàl’s breathing sounds loud in her ears. In the fog caused by her illness, she senses him kneeling nearby while he gulps air into his lungs. The sound grows louder as he crouches closer. His hand cool as it lightly caresses her forehead.
“There’s no one else here, but we’re still exposed. I’ll catch my breath and find us a better place to rest,” he promised.
Roake tried to answer. Tried to thank him for his quick thinking, but her words died in her throat, never crossing her lips. From the sitting puddle, she sank lower. All the muscles required to support her body failed as she sprawled out on the cold, faux concrete floor.
Roake’s eyelids fluttered. Jàl moved the chair closer and watched intently waiting for her to wake. A whispered moan hissed from her lips.
“Lay still,” Jàl soothed. “One hand pressed a corner of Roake’s vest gently against her forehead to absorb the rivulets of sweat forming to cool her fevered skin. He hoovered in the darkness of the nearly empty space. The pair sufficiently hidden behind remnants of furniture conjured by the assigned algorithms in creating the expanding program.
His thoughts floundered with unfamiliar feelings, rambled from one avenue of exploration before switching gears and side tracking in a completely random direction. The illness consuming Roake held the rational part of his brain hostage. Irrational thoughts weakened his resolve and threatened to expose the relative safety of the store by reaching out to the over-lying grid in search of much needed answers.
Jàl fought his addiction for knowledge he knew lay a minds whisper away, taunting from the memory contained in the banks of computers. A risk growing harder to resist as he sat worriedly hunched over Roake playing his best version of nurse maid. Several hours passed in silence while he stared down into the slick sheen spread across her pale skin. The strange feeling of empathy racked his soul with each tortured moan and unconscious roll of her infected body.
The longer she lay dormant and unconscious, the deeper his thoughts sank, weighed down by a form of doubt that could easily lead to crippling panic. What if she remained in this state? The thought of leaving Roake, sick and helpless, as he raced off to find the globe and best the digital reality presented a unique set of circumstances. Without leaving her side, it wasn’t possible to complete the mission and to complete the mission he’d have to leave her lying vulnerable to the dangerous elements of the game.
In a term derived from an long forgotten game of strategy he’d stumbled upon in the archives of ancient earth, check-mate.
The plan was to move fast. Attack and keep the enemy off balance long enough to traverse the hundred yard span of sidewalk between store fronts. Jàl watched the crowd in front of the store transition from preprogrammed game fillers to a combination of human replicates and bug eyed, snout breathing creatures. Nerves tightened observing the change of the crowd milling about aimlessly on the sidewalk yards from where he stood.
Through the grimy, film streaked glass the transformation occurring feet away outside of the window, Jàl felt his confidence wane. Soon, a notably higher percentage of Verge dotted the crowd the outside the shop, the creatures outnumbering the contingent of human pawns. Another new twist with the advanced level of the game, Jàl realized. A groan rumbled in his chest, his outlook matched by Roake.
“The odds are not good,” she commented. “Is there another way? Can we blast through the walls into the next space and so on? Stay undercover and off the sidewalk?”
“Not likely. Remember. We’re inside a digital world. While the program produces a full panoramic picture that tricks our senses on the outside, the interiors for the majority of these buildings do not exist. No amount of blasted particles will allow us to slip along silently and out of sight.”
Roake dropped her hand to the munitions belt wrapped around her waist. “Ready your rifle?” She ordered. “Once we walk through that door, we’ll need every ounce of luck we can muster.”
Jàl’ activated the long guns safety. The chamber flashed green. “Stay low and tight to the base of the store fronts. We need to cut the shortest, quickest line past the crowded sidewalk. Oh, move among the game pieces, use their bodies as shields. The beasts vastly out number our weapons so we’ll need the advantage.” She warned. “This is about to get messy.”
Roake features tightened as her eyes fell on Jàl’s face. With a nod she turned and placed her hand on the door. A blood curdling yell ripped from her throat. The barrel of the particle rifle in her arms lowered and ready, she left the safety of the store. Singed flesh and super-heated air moved along with the crowd, flowing along the sidewalk.
Jàl stepped close on Roake’s heals. Pulses of particle matter slashed the air around his head. Is the store where he remembered, the thought rode his mind. Self doubt gripped his shoulders as pieces of digital human husks fell against him. Digital bodies sizzled under the intense fire of the enemy. Jàl caught glances of Roake as she weaved among the oblivious sea of bodies. The pulses of her rifle, methodical, as she tracked and assaulted the bug headed creatures.
A blast of light pinged off of Jàl’s shoulder. The force pushed him off path. The bio suit absorbed the bulk of the beam, but he flinched at the stinging burn left by the incredible heat of contact. Ducking, he snaked forward, bending lower lose himself among legs the shuffling game pieces. With his rifle aimed sideways and up, he caught snippets of the monsters advancing to seal his escape.
All around, bodies flopped and crashed off of him and littered the ground. Tripping hazards forced him to concentrate more on stepping around or over the scattered obstacles and less time tracking the enemy. A quick glance to the right revealed the short distance they had travelled. A quick scan ahead failed to locate the building remembered from the dream.
“UGMM!” The painful exclamation echoed back to his ears. Jàl swung his head up and forward in time to witness Roake stumble. A mist of scorched air wafted from her side. Fibres of the blue jumpsuit Roake wore over her bio armour glowed red around the seared edges.
Roake faltered shoulder first into a forest of legs. Her weight forward knocking a swath of game pieces off balance. The disruptive action rippled outward hollowing an expanding circle cut at the edge of the busy walkway.
Jàl stepped over the splayed bodies. His concern for Roake yanked his focus off the merging Verge. A shower of particle blasts probed the bowl of writhing, tangled body parts of the human forms. Jàl’s free hand snatched at the cloth on Roake’s shoulder, lifting her free of the entanglement. Pushing her ahead, he tracked to the side away from the fallen pieces and tighter to the exteriors of the passing walls containing the businesses.
“Can you walk,” he shouted above the thundering din of the circling monsters. Roake shook her head and limped forward. Her arm outstretched and sliding along the store front for stability. Between pulses of his rifle, Jàl snuck glances at the passing shops. The words he spoke so surely about in knowing the globe’s location faded allowing doubt to filter into the cracks of his mind, eroding what confidence remained. Did he let an untested theory escort him and Roake to their end?
The drag of battle warped all concept of time. Fear wrestled to paralyze his mind. How far had they travelled? Had they gone too far and passed the opening? Did the recent appearance of the globe in his thoughts consist solely of wishful thinking rather than a route to escape the level. The growing enigma clouded all rational.
In protective mode, Jàl’s mind partitioned his brain from the raging battle. His left arm holding the blaster fell to his side as he lagged among the plodding bodies of the digital crowd. His head turned away from the carnage on the sidewalk, his eyes locked on the passing fronts of the chain of stores.
The sizzle of enemy fire gouged holes into the exterior of the buildings, the searing blasts ignored in his singular focus. Unfettered by the danger surrounding him, he matched pace with the blank shells of digital humans that to this point survived the Verge blasters. Basic instincts guided his feet as they avoided the obstacles of fallen bodies.
A sunken doorway containing a drab coloured door called an end to his hunt. The picture he had saved in his mind. A blast of air shot from his nostrils. Relief that he wasn’t wrong snatched him from his trance. The excitement bubbled as he turned.
“ROAKE,” he shouted as he searched around for his partner. Her name died in his throat as she flashed into view a micro-second before a ball of intense, blinding light erased everything. In stop framed motion he watched Roake’s body lift off the ground. An expanding surge of energy flung her into the narrow entrance. The impact of her body caught his and drove the pair back.
The sequence so fast that the rise of panic threatening to paralyze Jàl’s movements disappeared in the same instance as his breath stampeded from his chest when the weight of Roake’s body crunched against him. He remembered the odd sound of breaking and tearing lumber as the door frame gave way under the combination of their bodies.
Darkness flickered before his eyes. A desperate battle raged in the wounded tissues of his brain as the trauma of the injury threatened to shut things down and bring about a safe reboot. Slow seconds passed where he wallowed between light and dark. A final flutter of his eye lids returned his mind to the present.
The fire light of sparks danced and arced among the wispy smoke floating into the shop through the sudden opening. The spectacle filtered past his pupils and pinged his brain. Advancing past the light show, a more primitive worry clawed at his slowly wakening mind.
His lungs ached from the shortage of life sustaining oxygen. Jàl’s eyes flew open as he struggled to fill his lungs. A restricted gulp of foul air burned the back of his throat. His anxiety eased. Staring into the blackened void of the ceiling Jàl calmed his breathing. Then came the problem of lifting off his back. His heart rate built a second time before his mind re-focused and he realized Roake lay motionless across his chest, the weight of her body anchoring him to the floor.
Gently, he rolled from under. His hand protected her head from smashing against the floor as he wiggled free. Dragging a knee under, he crouched close. Fragmented thoughts bounced within the walls of his skull until a compromising order returned. Jàl stared into Roake’s face. The hairs on his hand held close to her nose fluttered with her shallow breaths.
Jàl gently pried her eyelid open. A milky film clouded the white of her eye. Still crouched low, he swivelled his head slowly recording the store’s interior before returning to the entrance and the smoke buffeting in from the street. A shudder ran the length of his spine. What caused the feeling, he failed to resolve until his ears provided the answer.
The lack of sound flooding into the interior from the street became almost as deafening was the curdling cries of the games nemesis. Why? And what type of new weapon did the Verge employ? Not one that he recalled coding into the game’s program. A brief, frightening thought of becoming a casualty of his own creation scratched at his conscious.
Jàl quieted his brain. His priorities returned to Roake lying dazed at his feet. Jàl stood and shook off the remnants of the concussive blast before bending down and gripping the cloth of Roake’s uniform. Pressure coloured his face purple as he strained to lift her to her feet. Looping her arm over his shoulder, he took a wobbly step away from the front of the shop.
In the centre of the floor stood a table like the one he pictured briefly in the flashes that invaded his thoughts a short time previous. Resting by the table, he searched the barren space with more earnest. The layout unfolded like his dream except for the doorway leading from the store and into the safety of the next level. Slowly, he studied the shadows blanketing the interior walls.
From the angle of his head, and with the help of a stray ray of light angling across the side wall, the hint of a possible escape peeked from the otherwise shadowed area. Bolstering his strength, Jàl straightened under Roake and limped toward the shard of light and the portion of hidden doorway.
Balancing Roake’s weight precariously on his shoulder, he stopped tight to the wall. The only hint of an opening exposed by the stray shaft of light falling across the wall. Jàl’s free hand swept along the smooth finish feeling for the rest of the outline. The lack of light refused to release the full extent of the doorway jealously protected by the dark shadows of the store’s interior.
It didn’t take a lot of brain power to realize the problem he faced. Without sufficient light, the gateway to the next level would remain hidden. To flood the interior with light and pry the door from the darkness, he had to again link with the computer, preform a neural-interface and force light into the space.
That part was all well and fine… except, when connected to the grid, his body waited in a state of inertia. One of the two he could accomplish under his own power, but no way to both call the light and continue through the door.
Puzzling over the conundrum ended abruptly as a loud resurgence of wails and bellowed cries of anger breeched the store entrance, spreading across the interior. Instinctively, Jàl felt his mind soar. Strings of blurred code, lines of dashes and dots transformed his thoughts to electrical impulses and meshed with the computer symbiont, the two surfing the digital reality.
A short prayer whispered across his lips. A false promise to a deity no longer relevant in his society, but oddly, the words calmed his thoughts. The solution lay in flooding the interior of the store with light, exposing the gateway to the next level. The second part, escaping with Roake once the void opened, well, perhaps a miracle or an angel would take pity.