The sounds of muted conversations and the slow rhythmic beat of footsteps grew in cadence the nearer Roake closed on Manchester street. Crowds of human form game pieces, or as Jàl so aptly referred to the computer generated avatars programmed into the game, extras, shuffled on the sidewalks and in and out of the businesses lining the long street. Watching the extras walk their designated routes, Roake found herself once again wondered if Jàl intentional added the game pieces to disguise the Verge. The monsters hidden among the human form pieces added a certain nerve clutching element of danger to the playing field. Was this on purpose? Was the clutter of extra bodies for the beasts to hide amongst useful in her training?
The fact that the two types of beings existed in the game, is that how Jàl pictured the Sky Dwellers ancestors as they lived their existences trapped forever on the planet’s poisoned surface? Roake stole glances at the heads of the passing crowd as if the answer waited in their faces.
The inhabitants of the game marched about with blank faces and unseeing eyes, the extra’s movements mechanical, zombiesque. Roake narrowed her gaze, focusing on the eyes of the oblivious pieces, alert for the tell-tale sign of yellowed tinged eyes betraying the disguised Verge. In the distance, the towering white clapboard exterior of the bank building stood signifying the end of the journey and the passage to level two.
A collection of the extras gathered at the corner of the sidewalk, the crowd growing in size. The traffic light signalled red. Roake’s head swivelled. She grabbed Jàl’s shoulder and stuffed him into the doorway of a department store. From there, she studied the parked cars, the shadows of other doorways leading from the businesses onto the sidewalk and back to the spattering of game pieces on the sidewalks and crossing from opposite sides of the street.
When first entering the game, passing the first level had been mostly obstruction free but she reminded herself that the game's parameters had changed. The Verge’s awareness of her and Jàl’s presence on each consecutive visit, increased, so she could take nothing for granted.
She calculated the timing of the traffic light to limit exposure while the two crossed the street. The doors of the bank loomed invitingly back at her, the double glass and wood entrance waiting down the block and across the intersection.
The light changed to green. The slow, mechanical movements of the extras waiting at the lights edged off the sidewalk. Roake motioned for Jàl to follow. Her foot settled on the concrete path, her back foot raised and lifted off the step, her upper body swung into action ready to leave the shelter of the doorway.
Flashes of numbers and pages of schematics overwhelmed her thoughts and highjacked her mind. Roake’s hand shot to the side of her head. The unfamiliar streams of information, unnerving. Lines of code passed behind her eyes blinding her sight and halting her movements. Roake shook her head violently in an attempt to halt the intrusion. Her eyes cleared. Free of the distraction, she glanced back at Jàl. He stood frozen, eyes open but unseeing as he stared blankly ahead.
“We have to move.” Roake shouted. Her words jolted Jàl from his trance. He blinked. She watched his eyes blink as he focused on her face.
“The Globe. It not on this level. I don't detect a signature.” He ignored Roake’s warning.
The shuffling extras walking past on the sidewalk stopped. The heads of the human zombies turned in the pair’s direction. Roake snorted a sharp intake of air. The breath caught in her chest stopped by a sickly feeling roiled in the pit of her stomach. The building of a warning niggled at the bottom of her spine.
“They know we’re here.” Her words of warning followed closely by a curse, the harsh words rasping in her throat. A spike of adrenaline brought forth learned instincts and fuelled her into action. Roake tugged at Jàl’s arm pulling him from the doorway and in the direction of the traffic light. The crowd on the sidewalk interfering with the route of escape. The extras impeding a fast dash for the green light. Featureless faces and uncomprehending eyes of the avatars gazed at the game’s main players. Roake felt Jàl’s breath on the back of her neck.
“There.” He pointed over her shoulder. Surfacing from the milling crowd, the tell-tale signs of yellow ringed eyes betrayed an alerted Verge. The monster’s wide eyes peered around from distorted faces. The camouflaged scourge of the 9th-dimensional game pushed past the empty husks of the program’s extras to gain ground on the players.
Roake swung the particle rifle from her back and fired at the nearing target. The heated particle of light smashed into the monster. The wounded Verge released an ear shattering squeal that roared above the din of the street. A halo of heated, shimmering air engulfed the monster as it’s body erupted in pieces.
The cry of the dying Verge signalled others. Soon a chorus of high pitched squeals rose from all around. The mournful, reverberating wailing building to an eery, surreal symphony. The random scattering of beasts hidden among the computer generated crowds walking the streets, revealed themselves. The human façades of the Verge melted, revealing pockets of the monsters in all directions.
Light glinted off the metallic antenna and the bald heads of the creatures. Large foreheads shone above bulging eyes nestled over round, protruding noses, the monster's enlarged heads perched on the grossly distorted bodies. Massive tumours disfigured the creature's backs while folds of yellowish brown skin hung from their legs and arms glimmering under the artificial lights of the game. Oversized legs propelled the beasts forward, the skin on their forearms rippling as they moved. Bulky hands with thick, knobby fingers gripped the beasts version of particle rifles.
An invisible beam of ionized particles heated the air inches above Roake’s head. The stream of energy from the particle blaster absorbed by the brick façade surrounding the building’s entrance. The disruptive shot of charged atoms rained chunks of shattered brick down onto the sidewalk. Roake shoved Jàl toward the doorway then calmly knelt on one knee. Timing her breaths, she lined her shots with the movements of the advancing Verge. Her nerves calm as hostile blasts of superheated particle rays searched for a target.
When the streams from her gun met with one of the enemies, she switched her angle and sighted a new target and squeezed the trigger. In her peripheral vision, the blinding pulses of Jàl’s weapon emoted streams of vapour into the air as he fired on the bug-headed monsters.
The added obstacles of game pieces milled about oblivious crowding the sidewalks and street. The extras neither helping nor hindering either side of the battling parties. Each pulse of the particle guns subtracting from the shrill screams of the enemy. The Verge advanced into the return fire. The game's programmed nemesis lacked the required lines of coding enabling them to seek shelter or retreat while under attack.
When the last Verge fell, Roake climbed to her feet and surveyed the carnage covering the street. Scattered pieces of human and Verge parts littered the sidewalks and leaked onto the road.
Roake gazed down at Jàl, still crouched on the step.
“Why bugs? Why did you design the Verge to resemble the ancient insects? They’re creepy.” She scowled. A shiver borne of the repulsive analogy ran the length of her spine.
Jàl kept his eyes focused on the street. “I never thought of the Verge quite like that.” He admitted. “I suppose. When I wrote the programming,” he tilted his head in thought, “for some reason this image stuck in my mind. I don’t know why.
Remember. As far as we know, the groundliers still occupy the surface of the planet. Think of the evolutionary changes they'd need to adapt in order to survive the poisoned atmosphere living on the surface.” He explained. “Besides. What do you know about bugs? That’s a word long lost to our civilization.”
“You think you’re the only one who knows how to work a search engine?” Roake replied over his shoulder. “I was curious after our first encounter with the Verge. I wondered how you came to fashion the beasts the way you did. Believe me. Finding a comparison in the few remaining archives relating to the old world wasn't easy.”
Jàl turned back to study the monsters with a new perspective. The bulging eyes and sizeable protruding snout of the faces along with the antenna and hardened skulls. Maybe Roake was right. Perhaps ancient bugs were his idea of what a monster could resemble.
“Let's get off the street.” Roake tugged at his sleeve, her arm lifted and a finger pointed down the block to the final obstacle between them and advancing past the first level. The old bank building sat across the lights of the intersection. The street remained busy with the hustle of the game extras. The myriad of human forms moving together in a sequenced choreography.
Jàl followed close behind Roake. The light hung above the intersection showed red, forcing the two to hold on the corner. A building crowd of bodies formed around them on the sidewalk. The game's progression depending on a change of colour to allow the programmed sequence to advance and complete the current loop before resetting.
Jàl glanced away from the crowd. His eyes busy scanning the two-lane street. Empty. He felt Roake tug on his arm.
“We shouldn’t wait." He heard her say as she turned and prepared to leave the curb and step onto the street. A panicked blare of a horn and the smell of hot rubber hard from braked tires startled her. The empty road transformed with racing cars filling the lanes. The line of vehicles rolling along with the green light. The car with the blaring horn barely missed striking Roake. Jàl’s panicked grip crushed her arm when he yanked her back onto the curb to safety.
“Where in the …” she muttered, glaring over at the cars buzzing by on the suddenly busy street.
Jàl breathed harshly, reeling from the close call of his friend. Trapped on the sidewalk, Roake stood high on her toes and glanced over the heads of the zombie human forms gathered on the corner. Shifting her eyes over the connecting streets, she breathed a sigh of relief in discovering the lack of further threats.
Pushing aside the crowd of oblivious game pieces, Roake pulled Jàl along. The pair rushed for the beckoning doors of the bank. The interior of the building the final obstacle of level one and the last time they'd spotted the globe. Roake studied the building’s doors before inching them open. Her blaster following her line of sight as she scanned the interior before stepping from the sidewalk.
“Clear.” She called. The inside, silent and deserted, unlike the previous time the two breached the doors and scant seconds before the Verge sprung their trap. Memories filled Roake's thoughts from the team's hasty retreat the last time they entered the building. She felt Jàl pass by, stirring her back to the present. She busied herself by scanning the few pieces of furniture scattered across the floor. The sparse furnishing of the single-story building due to a lack of actual information Jàl explained when she’d commented on the subject during the first visits.
Floor coverings of an unknown material led from the entrance to a line of rendered wood counters lining the far wall. The space across the room, empty, except for a single table that stood in the middle of the floor. The very table where the globe began its journey during the creation of the game. The table now sat deserted. The simple days of the game's existence had long passed. The cache of information the pair searched for now resided in one of the unexplored upper levels.
Roake swung her attention back to the street entrance while Jàl jogged to the far end of the building. From behind her back, she heard him walk to the back wall. The scuffed noise caused from the friction of his gloved hands rubbing across the wall’s rough materials created the only audible sounds in the room.
“Here. This section,” Jàl called. Roake backed away from the entrance. Her eyes locked on the front doors while she crossed the room. Sensing Jàl waiting close behind, she peeled her eyes from the entrance and followed his pointing finger.
“This brick. Notice the difference in texture and colour?” Jàl rubbed his hand over the brick to emphasize his words. The material, when one looked closer, stood apart from the remainder of the computer-generated wall. The surface in the area rough and better defined.
Roake watched Jàl run his finger, tracing the compound squeezed between the bricks. Leaning closer, he mumbled.
“Notice, there’s this very fine writing etched into the mortar.” He explained. Roake rolled her eyes. The same speech he used every time they arrived at this point. Her eyes flitted between the front door and Jàl as he focused his mind. For a second time, she felt a strange tingling touch the fringe of her brain.
Jàl’s concentrated his focus on the section of bricks ringed by the writing. When he connected with the programs mainframe, Roake found her mind venturing along. Her vision blurred then cleared along with his. Before she was able the wonder about the experience or mouth a question regarding what she had just felt, one of the bricks flickered before a brief flash of light exposed a metal panel.
No sooner did Jàl free his mind from the main Fram when loud shouts of angry excitement seeped into the building and echoed off the walls. Shrill, unnerving squeals, a fore warning of a new wave of hunting Verge descended on the building. The troubling emotions of being highjacked by Jàl’s thoughts vanished from Roake's mind at the racket created by the monsters. The military part of her brain picking up on a troubling coincidence. Was it possible that the Verge were also connected to the games workings and whenever Jàl connected with the mainframe, he unknowingly sent an alert to their position? A serious question that required immediate attention once the two were safely away.
She pushed the thoughts aside in time to watch Jàl raise his palm and lay his hand flat against the metallic surface. The air around the wall shimmered with vapours. The rigid makeup of the brick transformed. The solid composition of the brick, softened into a blur as the molecules melted into a milky wall of liquid and then dissipated, revealing the opening to level two.
“Ready,” Jàl called over his shoulder before lifting his foot and disappearing into the doorway.
Roake crouched close to the base of the brick wall and studied the deserted lane. The awkward caress of cloth rubbed against her shoulder as Jàl entered the game, stepping into the Mixed-Reality dimension close on her heals. His breathing harsh as he knelt by her side. A static charge caused the air to shimmered behind them. The digital closing of the doorway accompanied by a sucking vacuum sound, the noise created when the gateway morphed back into the brick façade.
Focused eyes peered between narrowed eyelids, shifting in grids, scanning the exposed walls of the quiet alley. She soothed the quicken pace of her heart adjusting to the heightened adrenaline coursing through her veins. Her fingers gently touched the bandage on her neck. A reminder of what can be.
Fighting to steady her nerves, she sucked in the heavy, stale air. Her lungs expanding, the slow rise of her chest stretching the pliable synthetic fibres of her drab, olive jump suit. Lungs filled to capacity, she began the practiced release of tension. The faint warm breeze ruffled the hairs on her arm as she slowly expelled the long, whispered breath. Her nerves settled. The apprehension of returning through the gateway and reengaging with the Verge, clawed at the back of her scalp, the memories faded but not forgotten.
Assuring that no danger waited their return to the game, her eyes retraced their circuitous route and stopped on the shadowed opening at the back of a building near the alleys mouth. The comforting square edges and smooth shapes of stacked boxes and assorted metal crates swam into focus. The merchandise appeared randomly stacked on the lip of a wooden shipping dock. The familiar pattern of the waiting packages eased her nerves further.
Roake flashed a hand signal and raised on her haunches. Keeping low to the ground, she left the relative security of the entrance and wormed across the barren, dusty alley for the boxes in the shadowed opening. Alert and focused, she took small comfort in the scrapes of Jàl’s footsteps as he crunched close behind. The noise of his movements mixed with the strange sounds emanating from the street on the front side of the buildings. The beginning of level one.
Pulling up tight into the dock’s shadows, Roake straightened along side the random crates. Her hands pushed the smaller boxes aside searching for the welcoming feel of the metal handles of a larger trunk. She pulled the heavy box closer, her fingers rushing to the clasps clamping the lid tight. The snap of the locks sounded frighteningly loud in her ears.
Relief swept across her face as she raised the lid. Particle rifles lay nestled in straw packing. The weapons lying in same configuration as every other time she’d opened the crate upon entering the game. Removing a rifle, she studied the contents in the bottom of the box. Smoke grenades snuggled in nests dug in the straw rested next to canvas cartridge belts and extra ammo clips for the rifles.
Roake passed one rifle behind her back then removed the secon. She laid it aside before digging back into the box for the belts. Sliding one to Jàl, she strapped a belt around her waist. Her fingers lifted the grenades from the straw. Fitting the small explosives in the loops on the canvas, her hands dove back into the box. She raised the slim plastic magazines, each carrying volatile charges of particle energy and stashed those in the pouch hanging on the side of the belt. Snapping the pouch closed, she turned and eyed Jàl.
The experience was new to him. On the previous trips to the Horizon she had been the one to carry the weapons. He, in his words, “was only along to explore and learn. She was the military expert.” This trip though, the situation required a concentrated armed presence. To exit the game without retrieving the Globe, downloading the stored information and then resolving the internal malfunction was not an option.
Two players meant two warriors ready to battle. Today, the novelty of scouring the Horizon for sport ended. Today, the game in 9-Dimension became a live version battlefield.
A chill ran the length of Roake’s spine as she considered the concept. Twitching against the curing bio-armour, she prayed that Jàl’s formula for the thin, transparent protective coating lived up to his expectations.
The memory of standing naked in the lab’s heated booth while jets of the sweet odoured, latex mist sprayed from the machine made her skin crawl.
The ring of nozzles rotated, spiralling from the floor to her chin and then reversed the pattern. Repeated applications, each with a short drying period in between, adhered to her skin, thickening with each pass. The final product only millimetres thick and translucent. The rubbery substance chafed and itched as it dried. The final cured product able to withstand short bursts of the Verge’s particle weapons before the molecules began breaking down. Or so Jàl calculated.
She tugged at her short red hair subconsciously. A red blush climbed her neck as she remember the shock of the cool spray on her bare skin, rising upward from her feet and then the involuntary sag of her body unused to the application of the slick substance. Her head and hair bowing below the cut off line for the spray nozzles. The first pass of the jets wet against her chin and clinging to the ends of the hair. She tugged at the few matted strands she was unable to free of the mixture.
Her vision traveled over the crates, the interior of the warehouse and the brick structure then 360 degrees back down to the wooden dock where the weapons crate rested. The games composite make-up hardened under her gaze. The building materials sharper, more defined beneath the grey luminescence of the games light.
Curious, she let her fingers slide along the platform of the loading dock. Her brain told her that the properties of the games components were merely faux renderings mimicking reality. But yet under her finger tips the surface felt rough and real.
She rubbed the edge of the weapons box. The metal cool to her touch. What was happening. Was her mind tricked or was the game morphing into reality.
A tap on her shoulder brought her focus back to the present.
“Are you alright?” Jàl queried.
“Yeah. I’m fine,” she glanced at Jàl and then back at the metal box on the wooden dock. “Am I going crazy or are these objects adopting the properties of our world?”
Jàl’s eyes followed Roake’s stare. “The algorithms are programmed to create. The better they understand the groundliers world, the closer to reality the mock-ups. The detail is so fine that our minds have difficulty differentiating between the 3D renderings contained in this dimension and reality.” He shrugged. “Or something along those lines. I could delve into long complex scientific jargon but actually I’m not certain how the transformation is taking place.
He stopped, scratching the back of his head and looked over the contents in the warehouse. “The program needs to closely replicate the groundlier’s level to find a suitable place to portal into their world.”
“What will that mean for us? And…” he paused. “I know what you’re thinking. Does this make the Verge deadlier? Well, I hope not,” Jàl stared into Roake’s face. “but none the less. We should try to avoid the beasts and their particle guns.”
Jàl stood transfixed. The air shimmered and darted with a brilliant display of shooting lights. A new building materialized from the dissipating digital material of the old rendering. High pitched shrills spilled over the street and overwhelmed his senses and warned of the monsters presence. His vision blinded by the bricks and mortar of the buildings façade. The composition of this building different than the others. The brick a size bigger and a brighter hue, the mortar imprinted with symbols.
Dust rode a faint breeze caused by the shifting of changing molecules. A waft of scorched air assaulted his nose. His breath balled at the back
of his throat making breathing difficult.
The slow lumber of the drab coloured monsters with their bulging eyes and protruding snouts crept into the edge of his peripheral vision. The creatures slow movements growing larger with each passing second.
A passage appeared within the brick wall. A doorway to be free of the Verge. Jàl willed his feet to move. His brain screamed demands but his muscles froze and refused to obey his panicked commands. The volume of the shrill screeches increased. The outstretched limbs of the monsters clawing at thin air trying to thwart his escape.
To add to the nightmare, a new tide of Verge appeared on the other side of the opening. Their cries loud and piercing but different. The combined voices of these Verge, a solid whipping sound.
Jàl viewed the arrival of the monsters blocking his route with a suddenly calmer demeaned. His line of sight shifted. Now he looked over the Verge’s backs and could see a replica of himself framed in the doorway.
Roake swung her feet off the bed. Pulling a robe around her pyjamas, she stepped lightly down the metal stairs and into the open confines of the lab. Jàl sat hunched over the array of computer monitors, his hands flashing in the air, traversing the spread of holographic keyboards.
“Have you slept?” She asked padding across the tiled floor for the small kitchen set to the side of the large open room. She paused at the old fashioned coffee stand, Jàl’s greatest possession that stood front and foremost, dividing the lab from the cooking area.
The luxury of untold wealth, she mused, sifting through the canisters of assorted coffees. The clear containers displaying the rare, organic grown, small, dark brown beans. A taste that she found peculiar and yet addictive compared to the simulated slug that dripped from the standard processing stations substituting for the hot, bitter drink.
Roake played a tune with her fingers on the counter while the antique pot gurgled and hissed. The smell of fresh coffee lifted her spirits.
“Would you like a cup,” she asked over her shoulder. Patiently tapping her foot, she waited for an answer. Cocking her head, she turned and stared at Jàl’s back. Lost in space once again, she mused.
When the second cup filled with the steaming hot drink, she collected the cups in her hand and walked to the work table aligned with the lighted monitors.
“What’s up? You sleeping with your eyes open?” she chided.
Now he sat behind a desk. Banks of computer monitors filled his vision. Jàl held his breath as he watched the monitors. The manifestation of himself frozen in the doorway, trapped on both sides by advancing monsters.
His fingers flew over the holographic keyboard. Line after line of code swam across the screens but all refused to allow his avatar to flee the approaching threats. Sweat beaded his forehead. The monsters clumped closer, their breathing sucking the air from the room. Each command typed by his fingers failed to penetrate the games programming.
A hand roughly shook his shoulder. Jàl twitched, startled by the interruption.
“Earth to Jàl,” Roake’s fingers dug roughly into the soft flesh covering his collar bone, freeing him from the dream.
Blinking away the nightmare, he re-focused on the screens. Lines of green code nestled against the black backgrounds. The dream was so real, Jàl thought, then on a hunch typed a new command. Nothing changed. Maybe it wasn’t a dream.
Jàl shifted his head and with eyes red from lack of sleep, he glanced up at her face, his hand combing back through his disheveled hair.
“You look like shit. What’s…happening?” Roake studied his face, concern crept into her voice.
Jàl shook his head and pushed back in his chair. “I’m locked out of the game. The algorithms have changed and my coding is being overridden.”
“I’m not sure I understand,” she replied.
“It’s…I…” Jàl stumbled to collect his thoughts. He glanced over at the monitors then reached for the offered coffee. “Some form of malware is blocking my access.”
“How is that possible? You designed the system. No one has the technology to corrupt your work.”
“Not out here…”
It took a few seconds for Roake to absorb the meaning of his words. She tilted her head and studied his face. “Not out here. So where? You can’t mean inside. It’s a bloody game that you programmed. How on earth can this be possible?”
“I don’t know. That’s what’s troubling. There is no reason for this to happen,” he pointed to the white lines of digits scrolling across the green screens. “But yet.”
“So what does this mean? Are we going into the Annex today?” Roake used the code name for the Mixed-Reality world waiting beyond the gateway.
“Later.” Jàl responded. “Plans have changed. Suddenly, I wish there were more of us to go inside." He laughed off his nervousness. "You get what I mean. A calvary of the General's finest to ride to our rescue incase we run afoul of the Verge.”
“I know. But there are no reinforcements.” Roake stated. Her hand unconsciously lifted to the bandage attached to her neck. “Without the neural implants, you and I are the only ones able to enter the Annex through the gateway.”
Roake’s eyes narrowed. “That leaves lucky us to go and save the world."
Jàl was slow to meet her gaze. An impish smile climbed onto his troubled face. “Yes.” His head nodding up and down. “I originally designed this as a two player game. Who’s better than the two of us.”
Roake chewed her lower lip. “Okay. How do we deal with the Verge. We’ve never taken the fight to them. Until now, our plan was to avoid them as we navigate the levels of the game. We’d need an arsenal to hold them off.”
“I know,” Jàl agreed.His mind quickly switching from one problem to the next. “We can’t carry extra weapons in with us. The gateway won’t allow metal to pass between realities so the weapon caches installed with the original programming will have to suffice.
The stash by the entrance should have been reset once the game rebooted. Each section after will have its own supply,” he paused. A crooked smile backed by unease crossed his face, “but we’ll have to be extra careful. We’ve never faced this type scenario so we’ll need to scour the levels throughly as we cross them. This may be the only chance left.”
“How long do you plan on being inside?”
“How long, I don’t know. Depends on the circumstances. If we are successful in crossing the different levels and we can retrieve the globe, our time inside will be limited.
Roake’s trained tactical mind shed the doubts she’d been feeling. “Do you know what the virus looks like?”
“No idea, actually. The virus can assume any shape and with the algorithms learning and adjusting, a meticulous sweep of each sector will be required. When we clear a level, access to the next block will need to be manually entered to allow us to continue. The first two blocks or levels, we’ve already been through…the next ones.” He shrugged and adverted his eyes to the computers. “We’ll see.”
Roake raised her shoulders, her brows knitted, her expression one of confusion. “Why, then, are we going? Given time, why can’t you fix the problems from there?” Her arm gestured to the bank of keyboards and screens.
“No.” His head swung side to side. “Whatever is causing the malfunction is growing inside the games parameters and hidden from my reach. I need to physically touch the globe before I can recalibrate the coding plus I need to recover the information archived on the globe’s hard drive. I believe the answer to finding a portal into the Groundliers world exists within the programs collective memory.”
Jàl turned back to Roake. He watched the colour drain from her face. Without her airing her concerns he imagined the dangers she was picturing. He let his eyes fall to the bandage on her neck. Proof that the two were not free from the perils of the Verge and the dangers of the 9th dimensional world.
Roake squeezed past Jàl. Her fingers flew over the keyboards. The lines of programming disappeared from the screens replaced by renderings and schematics of the games multi levels. After a few minutes a cursor blinked red. The globes last recorded position.
“Not good,” she mumbled under her breath. Her finger jabbing at the pulsing beacon. She lowered her gaze to the bottom of the screen. “Level 7.”
“That’s the last available coordinates before the game shut me out. The Globe’s purpose is to sift through the fragments of archived information inputed into the game and build realistic renderings while testing for possible portals to the Groundliers planet. Maybe that’s why it stopped.”
“What makes you think that we can best the Verge and contact the Globe.” Roake questioned.
Jàl studied the soldier while she arrived at the same conclusion he had earlier when he mapped the coordinates for the globes. His answer: the same both times. The existence of the Sky Dwellers city depended on their sacrifice.
“Because we have no choice,” Jàl stated. The nervous smile played again across his lips.
“Can the game reset while we’re inside? What will happen to us?”
“I don’t believe that will be possible. Probably find ourselves spit from the program and we’d have to try again but one crisis at a time. No use psyching yourself out before we give it a go.” Jàl cautioned. He pushed Roake's words from his thoughts. He’d wondered that himself but in honesty had no idea what would happen. Finding the globe was all that mattered for now. Naturally some risks had to be accepted.
He crossed the room and refilled his coffee. Stirring the sweetener into the cup, he leaned against a counter and watched while Roake busied herself memorizing the schematics of the games layers.
“I’ve had Doc working on some new equipment. Futuristic shit. None of it has been field tested.” He spoke to Roake’s back, changing the tone of the conversation. He waited until she looked over. “Would you like to see it?”
“Can we transport it across the portal?”
Jàl’s mood lightened. There was the Roake he had come to know. The worry in her voice chased away by her piqued interest.
“Bio-engineering.” He boasted. “Armour that literally fits like skin. The plating should absorb the effects of the Verge weapons. At least for a time. Come on.” He said pushing away from the counter.
Jàl carried his coffee and walked to the far end of the open loft. A metal staircase sank in the corner of the room leading down a floor beneath the massive loft. The best hope for the Sky Dwellers world lay in a distorted version of a video game. Like the rest of the mission, survival hinged on the optimism of an untested future.
Ree-al led to the far end of the room. A door materialized in the blank wall. Jàl strained under the weight of the injured Roake. The avatar disappeared through the opening. Jàl hurried behind. His breath caught. He teetered on the edge of the doors threshold. Three stories of wall fell away to the street below.
Sticking his head out, he looked to the sides. The Avatar had vanished.
“Step through the door. You will be alright.” Ree-al’s voice spoke behind him.
Jàl’s head spun around. “We’re three stories up. The fall will kill us.”
“Trust me.” Ree-al assured. “You will not.” She said while stepping to Roake’s side and settling under the injured soldier’s arm.
Jàl inched his foot past the edge of the opening testing Ree-al’s theory. Slowly sliding his foot past the floor and into empty space.
The high pitched squeal of the Verge reverberated loudly, echoing off the interior walls. The excitement in their wails grew louder. A sign that the monsters were closing in on their prey.
“This had better be a dream,” Jàl cursed under his breath, closed his eyes and took a step of faith. The surface under the soles of his shoes changed from particles of space to solid. Braced for the fall, Jàl willed his feet forward. His heart raced. Peeking from behind clamped eyelids, the familiar surroundings of Manchester street greeted him.
Jàl glanced up from the base of the old bank building. They had crossed back to the starting point of the games construction. He let his eyes roam the surroundings. Several blocks south he recognized the mouth of the alley that led to the hidden door.
“Wow.” He exclaimed. A rush of pent up breath blasted from his mouth. He glanced at the ground beneath his feet then up to where the trio exited the third floor room. How in the …His head swung back and forth at the constantly transforming recreation of Manchester street.
The city scape familiar yet somewhat different. Jàl looked on in fascination. The brush with the Verge momentarily forgotten. Sections of the previously blank voids of the streets appearance shimmered as the games algorithms forged to fill in missing details. Jàl’s mind reeled, overwhelmed by the changes. Could the program be close to completing this section of the groundlier’s world. Jàl locked his mind with the games mainframe to search for new additions to the program.
Excitement changed to horror. Clusters of Verge materialized at the evolving scenery. The monsters chewing and ripping at the budding foundations, eating the digital mass, slowing the buildings growth. The creatures paused in their feeding. As a collective, the heads of the monsters turned in his direction.
“You need to hurry,” Ree-al’s words reminded him of the dire situation. The Verge stopped their frenzied destructive ways and joined in a chorus of wails and shrieks. The creatures leaping from the buildings and gathering on the sidewalks before starting a slow amble in the direction of the escaping trio.
“Down the street is the alley you seek. Find your door,” she urged, pointing away from the bank and the materializing data forming the new building. “I will hold the beasts while you save your friend.”
“How?” Jàl asked. The fabric of Ree-al’s form grew translucent becoming absorbed into a blinding flash of light. Out of the brightness she stepped. Armour coating covered her body. In her hands a large bulbous gun. As the Verge closed the distance, Ree-al fired. Single flashes of red light pulsed toward the approaching horde. The guns ray tearing digital matter from the creatures. The Verge’s cries intensified.
Jàl clamped his free hand to his ear to block the noise. He gave the Avatar a fleeting glance then straightened under Roake’s weight. With Jàl’s support, Roake limped along to keep pace. The pair hustled for the brick wall containing the keypad and back door to reality.
Rusted metal automobiles littered the street. The scene different from the duos last time in the games construct when they raced away from bank and the waiting Verge. The sidewalks in this version were bare of people, but layered with building debris and garbage.
Jàl avoided the cluttered walkways opting for the spaces among the abandoned metal cars of centuries past. The shrill cries of the Verge became unbearable. Jàl let go of Roake. Both hands clamped to his ears before he collapsed to his knees.
Seconds passed. He concentrated to push the crippling noise from his head. Gritting his teeth, he forced his legs to lift his body. His hands tight to his ears, he spun and faced in the direction he left Ree-al. The cries and shrieks of the Verge faded. The avatar stood grounded in the street. The pulses of her gun beating back the virus attempts.
“Let me help you up.” He said, bending down to lift Roake. The effects of the Verge written over the Lieutenants face. Her skin pale and clammy. Her pupils tilted back revealing the whites of her eyes. Jàl pulled Roake to her feet, shot a fleeting glance in the avatar’s direction then clambered down the street for the alley and the doorway to safety.
Jàl watched the replay of the games last scenes moments before he and Roake stepped through the safety of the back door. The animation on the screen frighteningly real.
Ree-al prevailed in the fight. The threat by the Verge was pushed away. The shell of a new floor, an upper floor, Jàl judged from the layout of the structure, grew from digital matter. Fascinated, Jàl sat frozen in front of the bank of computers, his eyes glued to the monitors. His thoughts and hopes, buoyed by the mesmerizing details of the recreation. The computer’s algorithm calculated the degree of accuracy the new projection contained. The scale rose past 85 percent. This building, now the closest he’d come to replicating an actual component from the groundliers world, using the fragmented bits of information available.
His heart rate pumped. Another tool in his search for a doorway into the groundliers world was close at hand. The rate of the compilation increased. Walls shimmered then solidified, rendered windows digitally sketched into the exterior walls transformed from pixels to glass and steel. The image shimmered as the construction came together.
Seconds away from the completion of the building, the lab shook. The shock wave wormed into Jàl’s thoughts. The presence of the room’s vibrations searing his brain before his world went blank.
Roake groaned from the couch. Jàl’s eyes snapped open. His head resting on the desk of monitors. Shaking away the drowsiness, he fought to get a grasp on his surroundings. The monitors glared back at him silently. Slow recognition returned. He focused on the screens. There, he thought. The realistic 3-d rendering of a new building.
Noise from across the room grabbed his attention. The darkness outside the lofts windows registered. It had been early afternoon when he sat at the monitors. How long had he been out? He quickly glanced back at monitors. The time stamp on the computer screen told of evening. Hours had passed. Once again he had blacked out. The episodes grew in frequently. Time to have AILEN run a diagnostic on his implant.
“How you feeling?” He dismissed his problems for later, looking away from the array of computer screens. His eyes darted to the bandage covering the side of Roake’s neck. “The doc says you’ll be fine. The collision with the door rattled your brain. The resulting concussion plus the loss of blood led to your body shutting down. But, the good news. No lasting damage. Doc’s cleared you for duty.” He added.
Roake’s fingers instinctively sought out the bandage. “The implant. Was it… damaged?”
Jàl saw a flicker of fear ghost across her features. He mulled her question. She was astutely aware of the ramifications caused by a damaged implant. Days would be wasted if the faulty circuit needed to be replaced and additional time for her body to accept the foreign object. Time he projected that was growing short.
If the implant was destroyed, Roake’s help on the mission ended and no replacement waited. Rubbing his chin, Jàl regarded the young lieutenant. He choose his words carefully. Telling her the truth seemed like the less appealing option.
Yes, he said to himself, the implant had been damaged and should have been replaced but Jàl wasn’t certain he could beat the game on his own and selflessly wanted Roake by his side. So, by his own volition, he removed the option of waiting for Roake to undergo the intricate surgery and work through the adjustment period required for her brain to adapt to the new device.
While Roake lay unconscious and after the doc left, Jàl took matters into his hands. A rash decision but one clearly needed, he rationalized. With the tremors shaking the city in the clouds with increased frequency and the Verge growing more aggressive in their attempts to destroy the burgeoning program, what choice did he have. The modifications he preformed to save Roake’s implant cloned her consciousness by melding it with the computers mainframe. The changes were almost on par with the upgrades to his own circuits .
A few doubts weighed heavy. Would she suffer from the same headaches he now believed were the result of his modified implant, and what if she didn’t want to pursue the dangers of the 9-dimensional world waiting on the other side of his virtual doorway. A choice he made for her. How would she react?
“No. No damage to the implant. Everything is good,” he lied. The time for the truth could wait. Once inside the game, the changes to her programming would become obvious and he promised to come clean. Until then.
“We go back in tomorrow.” He swung back to the monitors. “You know where the good stuff is,” he said, referring to the black market soda squirrelled away in his loft, “Relax, clear your head and rest up. I’ve got to recode the programming and find a way to reverse the effects of the Verge. They have evolved past the safe limits in the games parameters. Our last skirmish proved how dangerous they have become.”
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Jàl supported one side of the injured Roake and the strange woman climbed under Roake’s free arm. The three threaded their way through dilapidated buildings, most digitally incomplete. Others, computer renderings of blank facades towering above the nondescript streets. The structures lacking the depth or details of real world buildings. Jàl took note of the changes to the rising street scape while he and the games avatar struggled under the weight of Roake’s semi-conscious body.
“Do you have a name?” Jàl asked when the pair stopped so he could catch his breath.
“No.” The avatar replied. “We must continue. The beasts are close.”
The trio crept across deserted alleys and turned at dead ends of nothingness. Routes left impassable by the lack of information yet to be acquired for the program to complete the groundlier’s world. All the while, the screeches of the Verge echoed around them. Several blocks passed. The Avatar stopped at the entrance to a glass and concrete tower. The buildings upper floors fluctuating in and out of spacial time. Another building waiting in limbo due to the shortage of archived files. The words on the building blurred and unreadable.
Jàl plodded silently. The numerous questions he had for his lucky angel bitten off at the tip of his tongue. The temptation to grill the woman eating at his thoughts, but Roake’s safety came first, so he moved silently as the two carried his friend away from the threat of the games monsters.
Inside the building, the woman led them to a long set of stairs. When their feet touched the first step, the treads began moving upward. Jàl stared around fascinated by the new discoveries he had seen on the trip. His brain busy absorbing the workings of the games intricate program. A game he designed to replicate a long forgotten history.
Rare snippets of unearthed information he continuously fed into the program to aid in developing the base for the lowest level of New Market. But how all the pieces fit together was something new to him.
The lair of the Groundliers. Truly a world of mystery.
The long forgotten city that was deemed unimportant over the millenniums and lost from memory with by the ever rising population as it soared skyward. The bottom levels becoming less relevant over time. Now, most of the archives were destroyed. The old computer files long since garnered obsolete by the ever evolving technology of the city’s inhabitants. The files deemed useless and discarded.
Until now. Vital information that could possibly save the Upper Level, lost over advancing generations. With each new piece of history discovered, Jàl adjusted the games programs setting the algorithms to design a close approximation of the Groundliers home at the base of the towering city.
If time allowed. How quickly could he reconstruct a detailed layout of a city built more than two millennium ago with the limited information. And did he really need the full layout of the lower level? Maybe a small grouping of buildings along a solitary street might suffice. The section would have to be factually complete, but still. A starting block that he could work with to open a doorway and elude the field of energy that restricted movement to the lower level. This might allow the General’s squads to by-pass the barrier and prevent the destruction of his own world.
The back door into the game should work. If he had a detailed schematic to show exactly where to place the portal, then he might well be able to open a second back door and gain access to the bottom level thus avoiding the impenetrable shield of the barrier. The logic made sense. If he can enter the 9-dimensional game through a programmed opening in his lab, then he should be able to work within the games framework to open a portal to the lower level?
That brought his thoughts back to the ongoing and expanding game. As the computer simulation grew, the bits of floating data were gathered and collected in a sphere shaped hard drive. The drive hidden somewhere in the reemerging city. A plan he had come to realize was a bad idea. And the reason he and Roake kept traveling the levels of the game. The end prize. The sphere of information he christened the globe.
A powerful search engine he introduced into the game to gather and sort the infinite number of floating fragments of bytes needed to reconstruct a virtual copy of the groundliers world in Mixed Reality. And with the globes knowledge, hopefully a second doorway and a route past the Verge. The games mainframe ground endlessly, building then changing and rebuilding the city with each morsel of new information to compose the unknown city.
When he started the program, the globe was set at the centre of the program busily snatching passing bits and bytes, but with the constantly changing and updating parameters, the centre shifted. And then came the idea for the Verge. A design he initially added to test the Generals death squads and prepare them for the day the Sky Dwellers confronted the Groundliers.
The concept of the Verge, a sketchy caricature composed of humans and monsters borne from fractured pictures he had found on decomposing antique hard drives. Hideous aberrations of humanity on the verge of an evolution gone awry. His beliefs of what the lower level inhabitants now resembled.
Another bad idea, he now realized. As the games programming expanded and rebooted, the monster’s scope of comprehension grew. A form of accidental artificial intelligence derived from the globes shifting algorithms. At first the Verge were easy to avoid. Dumb and slow. Now. Shortly after he and Roake enter the back door into the game, the monsters become alert and hunted for them. Not very amusing but an unavoidable product of his 9-dimensional experiment.
Jàl’s feet quit moving as the escalator crested the next floor. He stumbled out of his reverie. He blinked back to awareness and glanced down at his feet. The moving stair case had stopped. Lost in the vast universe of his thoughts, he had ascended three floors of the building in a trance. Should he be worried, he wondered. The events of his glitching consciousness were becoming more frequent.
“This way,” he caught the words of the strange woman. Jàl cast his eyes about. This level of the building was sparse. Barren. No furnishing, no colours, nothing. The games program hadn’t enough information to complete the buildings interior.
“In here.” The women instructed, swinging open a nondescript door. Lights flared, brightening the room. An accumulation of random objects lay scattered about.
“Where do find you this stuff?” Jàl asked. The lack of furnishing outside the room making him curious.
“I collect them on my travels throughout the city.” The women returned a puzzled look. “How do you come by your possessions?”
“I…” Jàl fell silent. He helped lower Roake onto a long bench then moved about the confined space sifting through the woman’s collection.
Jàl rummaged, watching from the corner of his eye while the woman scurried about the stacks of items. With expert hands, the stranger tended to Roake’s wound. Jàl sat out of the way catching his breath. When the woman finished, he decided his questions could wait no longer.
“How long have you been here?” He asked.
The avatar looked at him. Her face a mask of confusion. “Since the beginning, I guess.”
“The beginning of what?”
“The beginning. I have no memory of a time before that. Why?” The avatar eyed him suspiciously.
“Okay, okay.” Jàl raised his palms. “Curious. That’s all.” He marvelled at the digital avatar. Her appearance unlike the Verge or computer generated bodies of the population of the game. “You’re different then the other entities in the game. You look so…real,” he mouthed the words in way of an apology for staring so blatantly at the avatar.
“Do you have a name?” He asked.
The avatar furrowed her brow and shook her head in confusion. “Who is here to call me by name?” She countered.
“Good point,” Jàl conceded. “None the less. I will need to refer to you somehow.” His earlier description of the avatar clinging to his thoughts.
“Ree-al.” He pronounced the name out loud. Dragging out the word and leaning heavier on the first syllable to give the name an exotic flair to match the avatar’s looks. The games particles glowing ethereal, shimmer surrounding the avatar’s body reminding Jàl of ancient Greek goddesses.
“Ree-al,” He repeated. “Why are you here?”
“I observe and record the changes to the data on this section. After every dark period, I scour the city. The new additions to the program are added to the level’s cache.”
“A dark period?” Jàl inquired. His understanding of the intricate workings inside the mainframe familiar but yet suddenly foreign to the expanding layers of programming used to control the task of building the layout for the groundliers forgotten world.
“The level grows dark and still. Frozen. An eternity of blackness. When the lights return, I wonder the city recording the changes.”
“So you’re like a daemon.” Jàl explained the ancient terminology. “You hoover in the background and collect and sort bytes of information.”
“I do what I do.” The avatar answered.
“Are there other beings living in the city?”
“Not on this level. The beasts are the only other travelers in this section.”
“Do the beasts have another name?”
The avatar shrugged. “Beasts is the only name that comes to mind. Until I overheard you refer to them as beasts, they were nameless. I do not need titles to identify them.”
“Why are they here? What’s their purpose?” Jàl asked.
“They just are. They arrive when ever new streams of data enter this section. I stop the beasts from corrupting or destroying the updates.”
Jàl thought of her description. The avatar described the Verge as if they were a virus or maybe even a malware program. The thought gave him pause. The Verge were designed to replicate groundliers. Their sole purpose in the game to use for training purposes. What aberrations in the algorithms could cause them seek out and destroy certain additions to the expanding data base.
Then reality gripped Jàl thoughts. He was physically inside a 9-dimensional game talking to a digital avatar. Perhaps her understanding and his differed.
Then a second, more interesting possibility occurred. In the games involving artificial intelligence, could the algorithms adjust as the program grew and adapt from the original programming and if they did, why? To what end. Questions for a later time.
“How do you avoid the hordes of beasts when you travel the city?” J al’s curiosity grew. How did the woman survive locked in this game with the Verge?
“I am online with their thoughts. I know what they think so I can avoid them. I was alerted to their presence once you entered this cluster.” Ree-al arched an eyebrow. “You don’t sense them?” She asked.
Jàl considered her words. Maybe he did. His senses tensed seconds before the monsters became visible. Could this be what she meant.
“I never thought about that.” He admitted. Roake moaned diverting his interest.
“Do they not appear to you like the rest of the people in this city?”
“No. They look instinctively different. You are not from around here, are you?” The computer avatar asked suspiciously.
Jàl thought on his answer. His hand rocked side to side. “Yes and no. Not from here but not very far away.”
“Can you help us escape? I need to get my friend medical attention.” Jàl motioned to the dazed Roake. A mask of confusion settled over Ree-al’s features.
“Where would you escape? The city fluctuates. The streets change but there are limits. There is no where to run that the Verge will not find you. They are dangerous. They want to destroy what is built. And even if you can bypass them, the streets are incomplete and trail off into the abyss. So where would you go?”
Jàl chewed his lip. How could he explain. This entity was obviously a creation of the system’s evolving database. An avatar watching the program expand and fighting to protect the new creation from the destruction of the Verge. A type of anti-virus if one thought of the Verge as a virus. An important string in the ever changing parameters of dots and dashes on the computer's mainframe.
Jàl regarded the computer simulation intently. An interesting by product of the evolving intelligence he programmed into the frame work.
“There’s a doorway. An opening that lets me cross from this world back to mine.” He watched Ree-al’s face while she assimilated the information.
“An outside world. Interesting. What happens in this other world?”
“I don’t have time to explain, I need to get my friend to a doctor. We can talk about it when I return.”
“You have a funny way with words. What is a doctor? There are no doctor’s here.”
“Not yet. Although it may be a necessity that needs to be added to the program.” Jàl conceded.
“Where is this door?” Ree-al asked. Jàl closed his eyes. The map of the city shimmered into view. He searched the data, screens of overviews passed behind his closed eyelids. He focused on the brick wall. Nano seconds passed. A red beacon flashed on the overview of the map then the screens of bytes reconfigured. The map zoomed to the location of the door forming a picture in Jàl’s mind.
“I know where this lays.” Ree-al interrupted. “Not far from here.”
Jàl opened one eye and peered at the computer simulation. “You can read my mind.”
“Of course not,” Ree-al stated in her monotone voice. Her tone even, neither judging nor condescending. “But you momentarily connected with the mainframe for your search.” She left the rest unsaid.
As if on cue, shrill cries of Verge echoed from lower in the building and rose among the empty floors. Jàl shot a confused glance at Ree-al.
“How did they find us. I thought…” The question trailed off.
“This space is hidden. I block my movements from the Beasts searching pulses, but you and your friend are new to this section. When you searched for the door, your thoughts emit a stream of data the beasts track, so the percentage of them locating us was greatly increased.
Jàl scrambled to lift Roake to her feet. “You said you know where the doorway exists. That it is close. Take us.” He grunted under the weight of Roake’s body.
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Jàl closed his eyes against the deafening screams of the games protagonists. A map of the city materialized in the blackness. Behind closed eye lids, a partial map of the area materialized. Pieces of vital information gathered from this latest escapade were quickly added to the incomplete street view. The digital map shimmered then refreshed. Jàl computed alternative routes to escape the Verge.
“Now is not the time to zone out.” He heard Roake’s anxious cries.
“Damn it Jàl. We need to move.”
“Follow me.” Jàl’s eyes shot open. He tugged on the sleeve of Roake’s armoured vest. The new route led deeper among the tangle of ancient, discarded metal atrocities. Stopping at the base of a tower of precariously stacked scrap metal, Jàl swung open a long rusted door and pushed Roake inside. He clambered in behind, bumping into Roake in the process.
“Through there,” he said pointed across her body at the opposite side of the multi seated auto. The tower of refuse shook. Jàl glanced over his shoulder. The monstrous bulk of a Verge slammed into the closed door. The monster’s foaming mouth covering the glass petitioning the two parties with slobber.
“The door’s stuck,” The sound of Roake’s voice strained as she pushed against the opposite door handle. J al felt her body crush against his as she braced her back, raised her leg and grunted. Jàl turned to watch. The tower of rusted autos stacked precariously above rattled as Roake’s foot collided with the door. The dull creak of breaking glass from behind caused the hairs on the back of Jàl’s neck to stand. Ignoring his curiosity to look behind, Jàl leaned tight to Roake.
“We really need to move,” he urged the Lieutenant. The sickening odour from the monsters drifting into the broken window.
The Death Squad Lieutenant leaned harder into his body fighting for leverage. Roake’s efforts forced Jàl closer to the broken window and the threatening Verge. Claw like fingers raked across his scalp. A shiver ran the length of his spine.
“Now would be a good time to bust open that door.” Jàl spoke rapidly trying to fight down the rush of adrenaline he felt from creeping into his voice.
A loud roar escaped Roake’s lungs. Her foot shot forward. The rusted hinges holding the door protested as they gave way. The door inched open. Roake rolled off her feet, launching her body, shoulder first into the bare metal frame. The door scraped open and sagged.
The sharp claws swiped at the side of Jàl’s head. The contact forcing him to dive into Roake. Roake’s head collided with the partially closed door. The weight of Jàl’s body crushing her into the rusted metal. The combination of bodies crumpled into the partial opening.
“Shit,” Roake started. She untangled from the mix of limbs and climbed to her feet. A stone wall covered with weird painted pictographs confronted the pair. Roake swayed, facing the wall, her hand clamped to the side of her neck. Blood seeped between her fingers from a wound opened near her implant.
“You alright?” Jàl asked scooting past the Lieutenant. His hand grabbed for a tarnished knob protruding from the frame of a wooden door set in the wall. The knob twisted. Jàl yanked on the handle pushing the door inward.
“After you,” he barked at Roake, literally throwing her through the opening. The darkness on the interior of the building cut into slices by shafts of stray sunlight leaking down from a patch work roof. Jàl grabbed Roake’s hand and pulled her across the room and away from the screeching Verge waiting on the out side of the wooden door.
Pausing for a brief moment, he closed his eyes and probed his mind for a layout of the building. His attempt failed. His knowledge of the world he was trying to recreate too minimal. Swinging his head he surveyed the interior with the help of the beams of light. Doors studded the exterior walls on all sides. In a effort to out distance the Verge, he set a course for the door farthest away from the alley where the pair entered.
Splintering wood indicated the arrival of the Verge into the dark interior of the building. Jàl pulled harder on Roake’s arm. The two stumbled across the floor. Digital dust floated up from their movements adding to the darkness filling the air.
The next door consisted of rust streaked metal. Jàl tried the handle. The door swung out. Shoving Roake ahead, he paused and turned to look back. Dark silhouettes flitted among the dark and dust. The high pitched noise of the Verge tore at his eardrums.
Jàl stood in the doorway. He pushed past the piercing screams and forced his mind to concentrate. His brows furrowed while he locked his eyes and his thoughts on the approaching Verge while a trio of the monsters sulked through the dust.
Jàl clenched his fists. His face reddening as he narrowed his thoughts to stopping the monsters. A clawed hand sliced the dust inches above his face. Jàl stood his ground, his body rigid, his mind focused. The large flat jaw of a monster with its glassy round eyes materialized from the dust inches from his face.
Staring into the Verge’s eyes, Jàl noticed a twitch in the monster’s features. The raised claw paused in the air. A growl of frustration joined the eery cries of the trio, their movements stopped. Jàl held his concentration. From the corner of his eye he caught the raised claw slowly start to descend toward his head.
The sizzle of ions proceeded a red hole that appeared in the lead Verge. The air tingled. A second monster fell. Then the third toppled to the dust covered floor. A hand yanked Jàl’s shoulder pulling him clumsily backwards. His footing failed as the floor raised up to catch him. A plume of dust puffed outward. His vision obscured, his ears recording the sounds of the creaking metal of the rusted hinges of the door closing followed by a loud scraping of metal on metal.
He sat crumpled in the pile of dust waiting for the air to settle. His breathing deep as he struggled to slow his rapidly heart.
“Thanks Roake,” he finally muttered. “I did it. Did you see. I stopped them. Mind you it was only for a second, but…”
“That certainly was impressive. You were almost beast bait.” An unfamiliar voice answered.
Jàl jumped to his feet. His head spun, his eyes probed into the settling dust seeking out the strange voice. The dust settled enough revealing an oddly clad woman bent over Roake. The woman’s hands on the open wound on his friend’s neck.
Jàl bent near the woman. His fingers touching the blood leaking from Roake’s wound. Rubbing the sticky liquid between his fingers he pondered the scary reality. The blood was real. Tangible. Roake may be right. They could possibly die in this computer generated world.
His gaze settled on the woman who shot the Verge. “Who are you?” Jàl asked when the surprise wore off.
“Your lucky angel, it would seem,” the woman replied. “This is one nasty cut your friend has. Help me get her to her feet. We need to move. More of the beasts will be sure to come.”
Jàl grabbed Roake and with the help of the stranger, she rose to her feet. A dazed film clouded her eyes. Blinking away the confusion, she glanced at the new woman and then Jàl.
“Who is this?” Roake asked.
Jàl shrugged his shoulders. His confusion as apparent as hers.
“My lucky angel, it would seem.”
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Jàl wondered the open floor of his lab. His train of thought locked in step with the computer manifolds. Human neurons and computer-generated breaks and dashes simultaneously linked. The wonder of this new way of surfing the net growing more familiar each day. The transitioning to this new way of powered thought more intriguing than frightening.
Jàl tested the conjoined computing power. One of the lines in the simulation he found troubling. At the end of the session, Roake’s comment on the Verge remaining by the games back door. Sniffing, examining the brick wall where he and Roake had escaped.
The program was designed to learn and adapt, but the Verge’s pursuit should have ended when the pair escaped the game. The program should have reset and resorted back to the default settings.
Jàl stood still in the middle of the floor. His eyes closed while he replayed the final sequence of the game. The Verge hoovered around the wall refusing to leave, the games program continuing past the shutdown command. Jàl’s hand unconsciously went to his neck. The area scarred over from the cerebral implant. Rubbing the slight mound under his skin, he dwelled on the computations to allow the game to readjust and change his codes.
A nanosecond of electricity traveled his nerves sparking in his brain. The rush of computing adrenaline, so swift and so unexpected, Jàl’s thoughts went dark.
The Verge stood transfixed, staring across the gap occupied by the shimmering outline of the building. The exterior walls wavering between solid and translucent. Jàl crouched beside a rendered park bench. The program’s simulated objects real to his touch but on closer inspection, he rubbed his hand against the faux wood seat, but not quite.
The visuals in the game began from minute shreds of information gleaned from a forgotten past and the renderings began with an incredible amount of artistic licence, this complete section, a product of Jàl’s imagination. His imagining of what the groundliers lair should look like.
The better the information, the more detailed the wall or building or street. Unfortunately, the lack of proper archives left little to build on. The algorithms learned with each new piece added, adjusted the outlines, refreshed the streets, rebuilt complete blocks, but everything was supposition until enough of the puzzle could completed to create a stable block with streets and buildings to allow for the installation of a door into the lowest level.
Movement showed across the wide gap, the building materials fluctuating between solid and ethereal, leaving short snatches of exposure across the lot. The Verge continued to monitor the street where Jàl crouched, but the monsters stalled. Their blank oversized eyes roamed back and forth. The broad flat snout of their noses tilted skyward, to sniff out his sent, he supposed, but the monsters failed to lock onto his location. Like they were blind to him?
Holding tight to the shelter offered by the bench, Jàl felt to his side for the automatic firearm. His fingers found only air. Puzzled, he risked a glance. No rifle. Panic forced him to swing his head searching for the weapon. He would never venture this far from the lab’s doorway without protection.
His chest thumped with an accelerating heartbeat. Sweat beaded beneath his cap. A second quick scan confirmed his fear. No rifle. Jàl returned his eyes to the Verge gathered across the block. The beasts hadn’t moved. Slowing his heartbeat, he closed his eyes and concentrated. Waves of dashes and zeros scrolled across the darkness of his mind. The code forming a picture in his mind. Before his brain tracked the weapon, the ear-shattering shriek of the Verge pounded against the outside of his head.
Jàl’s eyes flashed open. In the seconds that followed, he saw the outstretched arms of the Verge point across the gap toward him. Suddenly, the beasts acknowledged his presence. The building shimmered translucent. One of the beasts leaped in his direction attempting to cross the unstable space. Jàl lost sight of the creature as the building’s walls surged solid. A blood-curdling scream rose above the street.
When the walls of the building flickered translucent again, the sheared body of the beast lay half in, half out of the buildings foundation. The remaining Verge squealed at the sight of their fallen comrade before refocusing on Jàl. The intermittent flashes where the building faded showed the Verge lumbering away from the far side and following the sidewalk. The monster's eyes raised and locked on their prey.
Panic climbed Jàl’s body. He had no way to fight…that troubled thought led to another. What happened to Roake? Where did she disappear?
The shrieks of the Verge grew louder as the monsters trudged to the near corner. Jàl shook away the fear threatening to freeze his movements. He waited for a final glance of his enemies then twisted around and bent over his knees, scootched along the base of the building and away from the alley. Keeping his low to avoid further detection.
Jàl willed his bent legs to gather speed. When the hair on the back of his neck began to rise from the closing Verge, he jumped to his feet and ran. All thoughts of hiding forgotten. The edge of a second building rushed into view. Rounding the corner, he raced. Several steps in he realized his error. A brick wall sealed off his exit.
Fear began to rise with his heartbeat. Suddenly, his breathing became more natural. The wall he faced was different. The feeling and texture lacked the usual computer rendering. The edges of the brick were uneven, porous. Gaps showed where the mortar had crumbled. Jàl stood transfixed. His mind completely ignoring the threat chasing close behind.
Curiously he stretched a hand. His fingertips grazed the wall when a thundering cry from behind caused him to jump. A scream left Jàl’s mouth in anticipation of a collision with the bricks. The cry choked off when a void in the wall opened, and he fell to the other side, landing on his knees.
Jàl spun and prepared to be overrun by the Verge. Instead, a brick wall blocked his view. No sign or sound of the Verge followed. Jàl stood and brushed the dirt off his knees. Strange noises filtered to his ears. The loud buzz of anxious conversation and the…Jàl tried to place the other sounds. Mechanical, similar to the firing of combustible engines?
He slowly turned away from the wall. Crowds of people were gathering on the street facing him. The men and women dressed oddly. Several hands pointed in his direction. Rectangular boxes rolled past a gathering crowd. Strange noises overwhelmed his hearing. Rumbling sounds emanated from the glass and metal creations.
Jàl froze. His jaw hung open as he switched his gaze from the weird vehicles to the faces of the strange people. Their mouths moved in unison. He struggled to make out the words. The people’s voices seemed to be coming from far away.
The stilted, monotone voice of the AI leaked into corners of Jàl’s dream, chasing off the darkness.
“We have a visitor. Lieutenant Roake Engel has arrived.” AILEN’s voice announced. Jàl opened his eyes. His head lolled on his shoulder. Slow steps to awareness caused his fingers to grip the padded arm of the chair. Jàl remained seated and gazed about the loft. His brain fuzzy.
“Say again,” he ordered the AI.
“Lieutenant Roake Engel has arrived.” The AI repeated.
Something is not right. The thought filled Jàl's mind. Why he was just standing beside the…he glanced back down at the chair then up to the computer manifold.
And what happened to the people in the street? The image slipped from his mind.
A shake of his head sent the muddled thoughts away. So many long hours without sleep. He had plunged too deeply into the General’s project. The Upper Level’s plan, he corrected, to save the city of New Market. That must be it, he realized.
The mounting pressure he felt was immense, the challenge exacting a heavy toll on his body and mind. No doubt his consciousness was protecting his sanity and health. To avoid burn out. But what brought Roake at this late hour? The two weren’t scheduled to meet until morning.
Jàl shook his head again. Strange things were happening.
“AILEN. What time is it?”
“ O Seven Hundred, Jàl. Is something wrong?”
“You’re very funny AILEN. I only arrived home minutes ago. How can it be morning already?”
“You did not program me with a sense of humour. Therefore I do not joke. Jàl, are you okay? Your consciousness has been offline for the past 5 hours and 23 minutes.”
“Yeah. I’m fine. Just tired. Working too hard is all.” Jàl mumbled his response. “Open the hangar door and escort Miss Engel inside, please.”
“What exactly are we doing here?” Roake huffed out the words. Her breath raspy. The lieutenant and Jàl sat crunched behind a tangle of discarded gas-powered automobiles. The shrill of the Verge shattered the eery silence.
Jàl peered out from behind the cover of the rusted metal atrocities then back at Roake.
“I need a better understanding of the layout for the Groundliers world. The information I’ve gleaned from the archives is not good enough to replicate their world.” Jàl covered his ears as the Verge’s screeches grew in intensity. The pack of monsters closing in on their prey.
“Well, this is the crappiest route you’ve taken us down so far.” Roake bitched. “Why don’t you let those damn monsters have your playbook and save them time tracking us.”
“Who knew this led to a dead end. The problem with the bits of archived information is, it's not complete.” Jàl rebuked. He considered the sight at the end of the alley. Incomplete programming leaving the buildings and roads unfinished. A virtual dead end in every sense of the word. “Sorry.” He apologized. “I’ll be more careful next time.”
“Next time!” Roake exploded. “There won’t be a next time. I think we’re about to find out if this game can kill us.” The escalating shrill of the Verge echoed off the walls of the surrounding buildings, the screeching moans seeping into their skulls, drowning out all brain activity. Roake’s hands flew to cover her ears.
"I CAN’T TAKE THAT AWFUL NOISE ANY LONGER,” she hollered. “IF IT DOESN’T STOP, I MAY KILL MYSELF BEFORE THE DAMN MONSTERS HAVE THE CHANCE!”
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The tremor resided. Jàl’s headache eased. His world remained dark behind closed eyes while he retreated inside his mind. Ribbons of numbers and ensuing calculations scrolled past the backside of his eye lids while he reviewed new theories and endless possibilities. The trajectory of his thoughts, ignoring the pain ringing in his skull and instead chasing the tremors as they withdrew. In the accidental darkness, he searched for an explanation.
The abrupt shaking of his shoulder broke into his trance. Roake stood by his side, levels of concern etched into the wrinkles of her forehead. His eyes swept across her face then shifted to scour the room.
Blinking back to awareness, the fear laid bare on the faces of the visiting socialites settled into focus. Ashen skin surrounded fear filled eyes, the gathered silently pleading for him to act, to save their way of life before it was too late.
Jàl lips formed a nervous smile. The gesture obscured by the bright blue cloth mask draped from the tip of his nose to the underside of his chin. “I’m worried too,” his words sounding muffled through the mask, and then with a dash of confidence, he cleared his throat.
“But, I’m close,” he said louder, projecting his words outward. “Roake Engel. The finest of General Dimitri’s special forces can attest. She’s witnessed the ground breaking program I’m developing. With her guidance, we’ve run a series of trials in mock ups of streets programmed to duplicate the pit where the groundliers live.”
Jàl glanced toward the General. Dimitri nodded. The cloth shielding the General’s lower face wrinkled upward as he returned the smile. Jàl switched gears. “And with your help…and money. Lets not forget, that,” he said to round of nervous laughter. “We will reach beneath the barrier and stop these attacks. Life as we know it will continue.”
Alone in his autonomous car, Jàl sat rigid in the back seat. The worried looks cast his way after the tremor, tugged at his conscious. What had he promised. The breakthrough he spoke of was far from a solution. A twisted version of quantum engineering with an overlap of computer programming coupled with the hybrid implant that allowed him to enter the holographic Mixed Reality game he programmed.
Did he physically enter the 9th-dimensional program or was the overload with the implant forcing his mind to believe in the impossible. And what about Roake. She traveled the holographic game with him, did she not?
“I’m close.” What the hell made him think that he could solve the unsolvable and find a doorway to the groundlier’s city? The question quickly dismissed by his over-sized ego.
Jàl Condor. That’s who. His spirits lifted high above the burden that weighed on his shoulders. The General had sought him out because he was who he was. In the latter part of the 23 century, Jàl failed to think of any one person even lightyears close to his intelligence. But would that be enough? Is this where he failed?
He strongly believed that a person would be able to enter the gateway on the upper level and then transgress through the streets of framework and find a similar programmed gateway exiting onto the Groundliers planet. If possible, one would thus bypass the bio-shield and prevent being incinerated. He began to test the theory by entering the Gateway and exploring the virtual world. With this thinking, a new problem arose. With out actual specs of the groundliers world to built into the program, he lacked real-time coordinates to program a second doorway.
This began the rush to collect shards of information required to replicate the ancient world or at least portions for the algorithms to render streets and buildings. The lack of information was daunting. The archives from the first inhabitants of the planet failed to rise with the influx of progression as the world raced toward the sky.
General Dimitri’s squads ran sorties scouring information depots of the mid-level and bit by bit the information was fed into Jàl’s massive manifold of computers. The program ran day and night to sort and fit and build the pieces of the forgotten civilization needed to develop a working schematic.
That was when the headaches and the tremors began. The fierce pain hammered Jàl’s brain and the towering city of the Sky Dwellers shook. Leaving Jàl and the members of the elite ruling families to believe that the Groundliers had uncovered the Sky Dwellers plans and began measures to stop the intrusion.
The simple fact that any form of contagion survived outside of the earthly levels of the city was unthinkable. The bio-shield’s sole purpose was to eradicate all types of organic molecules to rise above the lower hundreds of ground floors of the Groundliers world. A provision put in place by the Mid-level to eradicate human disease and suffering.
Yet something did. The Mid-Level developed symptoms years earlier and of course no cure was available. The virus climbed to the exalted heights of the Upper-Level of New Market with no known defences to fight the airborne spores, the disease spread. How had the groundliers bypassed the impenetrable shield and set the contagion free? History told of their lack of knowledge, but centuries can bring advances. And why would the Groundliers attempt such an attack?
“AILEN,” Jàl spoke to his Artificial Intelligence Learning Entity. “replay the codes for our last adventure into the Annex mainframe.” He commanded the AI operating system in the car. Jàl closed his eyes. In the dark recess of his mind, a screen flashed to life. Attentively he studied line after line of the passing code. The breaks and dashes forming a life like video of Roake moving about the streets played out in the computers memory.
Jàl marvelled at the sight of the complex screening. The game unfolding vividly behind his closed eyes. The process refined with his latest update to his neural implant. Somehow the combination of neural pulses and his human mind melded. Why hadn’t Roake experienced the same sensation.? He held back from out right asking her but he could tell when they participated in the mock ups, she lacked the ability to focus her mind in the same fashion.
And nor would he tell her. At least not until he figured out why the twinning of the labs computer and his mind synced together. But that was a problem for another day. The question at hand was how far could he travel once he entered the realm of the 9-dimensional substrate. The exit to his lab was programmed but could he also program an exit anywhere he chose?
Jàl’s car docked. The AI interrupted his ruminations. “You’re home Jàl,” the car’s AI pinged his thoughts.
“Thanks AILEN,” Jàl replied as he climbed from the car. The docks lights lit his path to his loft. Jàl’s mind dwelled on the communication with his personal AI. Had he spoken out loud in answering the AI or was the response a projection of his thoughts? He stood gazing down at the car. He hadn’t, had he.
Another by product of the implant, he supposed. A seamless non-verbal connection to his computer. Any lesser person would worry to death about mind poisoning from an errant implant. Not his style. Instead he computed the possibilities and calculated ways to take advantage of the odd situation. How far would his mind control go?
Another question to be answered privately. Not with Roake and certainly not with the General. Too much information in the wrong hands could cause him to suffer unbearable restraints. Something he had no intentions of doing. He had to tread carefully around Roake as he played with the limitations of his new found power.
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Jàl mingled between the groups of socialites, each preening for his attention. A room full of the ultra rich vying for even seconds of conversation with the reclusive genius, Jàl Condor. The reason so many of New Market’s elites ventured out at this late hour. Risking the possibilities of running afoul of the bands of societies castaways that roamed the night skies, or worse, the possibility of contracting the debilitating illness by exposing one's self to crowds.
And all this to meet an intellectual giant such as Jàl Condor. Jàl shrank at the thought, but apparently, others felt this opportunity worth the extra precautions warranted by leaving the sanitized environs of their homes to tempt the gods and travel the distance once the sun gave way to dark.
That, and the fact the General requested their attendance, or, more so, the donations each would make to the cause. General Dimitri Orgov. The man relegated by the ruling families to protect the health and structure in the cloud city from the warring middle class and the lowly scourge of groundliers occupying the bottom stories of the towering city of New Market. And now, the man chosen to find an end to the plague set upon the city.
Jàl worked the room. The party’s guests greeting each other with the simple nod of acknowledgment. Since the arrival of the air-borne disease, handshakes or close contact with another person became socially unacceptable lead to the latest custom requiring a 3-foot buffer between acquaintances.
The nouveau rich adherently stuck to these restrictions. Money served no purpose to the dead or to the growing number of castaways inflicted with the illness and shunned by society. The rich valued their wealth over everything. Designer masks, a recent addition for socialites, blended with the extravagant gowns and tuxedos on display. The eloquent face coverings shielded the lower portion of the guest's faces.
Jàl withdrew inward, the loud buzz of excited talk filling the room, overwhelming. His focus centred on the glass of contraband soda clutched in his hand and the hypocrisy it represented. The clear carbonated drink, a favourite at these parties. Jàl sipped at the remaining ounce of the precious liquid. Tilting the glass, he watched the liquid slide along the interior of the glass. The bubbles clinging to the side before evaporating. His thoughts following the carbonated bubbles around the glass surface as he raised his head and scanned the faces of the lavish partygoers.
A funny world, he mused. The drinking of a prohibited substance meant a harsh penalty, if. In today’s society, there was always an ‘If’, if one was not a part of the upper echelon ruling the massive cloud city. Here the law was what you could afford, the more riches one controlled, the fewer restrictions. Most city laws were created to restrict the less wealthy. The ones serving at gatherings like this banquet or those who toiled on the lower levels. The same people who rarely if ever ventured above the 200th floor to the rising heights of elites.
That being said, the crowd enjoying tonights soirée would never dream of venturing below the very same line. A civilization separated by concrete and steel. Oh. And lasers and death patrols and on and on. Movement between castes was tightly restricted, but still, money had its privileges, for instance, the fizzing soda in his glass. He doubted the manufacturing of the illegal product occurred above the cut line; the sky dwellers lacked the necessary resources required. One of the ruling families used their ties to the middle class to smuggle the substance for the delight of the party goers.
And since the emergence of the unknown virus, a crime that had been deemed punishable by death if not for the General’s people determining the contagion originated far below the jumble of floors occupied by the inferior society. No. The intellects determined the virus originated in the very depths of New Market. The levels occupied by the groundliers.
Jàl wondered away from the admiring flocks of finely dressed couples and stood in front of the window. His eyes pointed downward as if his sight could span miles and gaze into the grimy, polluted barrens deserted by distance ancestors. A harsh landscape left behind, and only groundliers remained to eke a living on the planet's surface.
His vision tracked a few lights twinkling across the abyss but the span between towers consumed by darkness. He shrugged. The view during daylight hours was not altogether different. Clouds of grey and brown obscured all sight of the lower regions. And from where he stood, on the clearest of days, even the heavily protected division line some 60 odd floors down would be impossible to see.
Jàl lived all of his 37 years at this altitude. Like everyone else, he heard the rumours of life on the lower levels but had little association with any who had ventured below. Why. Could the middle class, or even the groundliers be that much different than the people in this room? Unlikely, he reasoned. They were known to be filthy savages, but really. Did they not also have two arms and two legs and care about the same things his fellow dwellers found important. He shrugged, pushing his reflective mood for another time.
The thought forgotten, replaced by blinding pain. The drink in his hand began to tremble, the glass slipping from his grip as his hands shot to his head. The pain gripped the base of his skull before inching up and spreading into his brain. His vision faded to dark then exploded into a searing light. In a semi-comatose state, he felt the floor shake. Small vibrations crept upwards, from the soles of his feet, passing along his legs through his upper body before buzzing past his head. A massive tremor shook the building.
The shaking of the room and the headache ceased as quickly as they arrived. At least this time the attack was brief. The buzzing left a ringing in Jàl's ears. And what was with the sudden band of headaches, anyway? He cursed, his hand massaging the base of his neck.
And why did they seem to accompany the tremors? He chewed his lip fighting off the remnants of pain. The Mixed Reality program was finally gaining traction. Could that be the clue? Did the groundliers have the ability to troll his movements.? Where the attacks a means of slowing his progress?
He mopped at the drops of sweat beaded on his forehead. His mind swirled with questions. The first time the pain gripped his head, he feared it might be the onslaught of the virus. But that was weeks ago, and each one a precursor to the tremors that shook the city. He suffered several episodes since, but none of the debilitating symptoms of the sickness followed.
A sliver of good news in an avalanche of bad news. The severe pain of the headaches a precursor to the bad tremors that rattled the city. Another unwanted attack from the very pit of the city, the lair of the groundliers. Where else could these disasters originate?
General Dimitri’s spies spent countless hours scouring the hostile regions at the middle of the towering city, the levels inhabited by the Middle Class, in search of answers. The deadly covert missions run behind enemy lines failed to expose a single thread of evidence linking the warring faction beneath as the cause of the problem.
The conclusion arrived upon by the leaders. The Middle Class lacked both the means to revive a long extinct epidemic nor the want to construct a weapon powerful enough to shake the city towering above them, the highest levels on New Market. The home of the Cloud Dwellers.
All avenues lead to a singular conclusion. The only answer possible. But what type of technology did the groundliers possess that would enable the lowest realm of human existence the power to bypass the bio-bio-shield and attack the upper levels?
The collective sound of people gasping in fear snapped Jàl from his reverie. Glasses rattled and somewhere in the building an alarm sounded. Through the fog of pain, he swivelled away from the undulating glass window and surveyed the room. Worried, frightened faces stared about. Exposed patches of skin showing past the protective masks, drained of colour. Nervous eyes wildly cast about the shaking room.
The tremors were increasing in frequency. Why? And could the cause really rise from hundreds of floors beneath where he stood? On a surface that not even a long line of ancestors had set foot.
Blocking out the guests as they scurried about, Jàl’s mind circled back to the reason for the gala. Money desperately needed to support a massive project. A means to bypass the bio-shield and transport the General’s death squads to the depths of the city, down to the very surface of the planet to retrieve a cure for the debilitating and deadly disease and bring an end to the tremors before steel and glass collapsed upon itself, finishing what the contagion started.
While the pain in his skull subsided, the fear in the room triggered memories of the initial discovery of the virus to resurface. The shock and disbelief among the dwellers above the clouds. How previous generations had come and gone without a single recorded illness.
History taught that, not since the middle class rose above the pits of the groundliers and installed the bio-shield to prevent further outbreaks, had anyone suffered from an illness. And now, in a time of great wealth and prosperity, the arrival of a deadly virus to the quarantined heights of the upper levels. The terror spreading among the unprepared Sky Dwellers for a problem that modern technology no longer had a cure.
The answers, miles below, on the alien planet occupied by the Groundliers where some unexplainable evil was at work. All remaining solutions relied on the success of Jàl’s project. General Dimitri had sought out Jàl because of whispered rumours of a breakthrough in a quantum field Jàl developed. The intriguing possibilities behind the Mixed Reality project attracted the General’s attention.
After failed attempts to bypass the impenetrable barrier dividing the levels, the General sought out Jàl. The Mixed Reality theory, his last hope. Within the confines of the virtual world, certain laws of physics no longer applied. The General, extrapolating Jàl's theory, surmised that a person entering the virtual world could exit into the groundliers levels, the bio-shield, theoretically, would no longer enter the equation.
This new angle of thought focused Jàl on a journey to turn theory into practicality and elevated his standing in the public arena. The survival of the Sky Dwellers counted on his genius.
His first order of business, find a route past the barrier separating the lowest hundred floors from the towering cities above, the second order, program a routine to train the General’s death squads, preparing them to fight in a foreign environment.
The experiments were costly. The Sky-Dwellers lacked the rare materials to expand the project. Backroom deals brokered with sworn enemies, levels below, procured the lacking resources but cost excessive amounts, the price of the project rocketed into the trillions of dollars. As wealthy as the ruling classes were, that amount was simply beyond their reach. Thus the risked gatherings and extravagant banquets. A means to solicit funds from the other elite families of New Market.
As repayment to all those who contributed, promises of unparalleled wealth, the best motivator for people living above the clouds, for one could never have enough riches. Once the General and his death squads reached the surface, brought an end to the virus and stabilized the structural threat, wealth in both rare materials and exotic foods awaited those who participated.
Failure was not an option. Survival of the Cloud Dwellers and possibly, even the despised Middle Class, depended on a solution. The entire civilization as the sky people knew it, rested in one man’s hands.
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Jàl limped around the corner. His breathing laboured, mouthfuls of stagnate air flowing past his lips in rasping gulps. Stupid, he chastised himself. One little lapse in judgment and now the whole city is out searching for him. How could he be so careless?
“Get a move on,” Roake shouted over her shoulder.
“Yeah. Give me a minute to catch my breath,” Jàl panted his reply.
“We don’t have a minute. The Verge are closing in. Can’t say for sure what will happen if they catch us.” She shouted.
“I think I can stop them. I need some time to concentrate. And I can’t do that while I’m gasping for air.”
“The magnificent Jàl Condor.” Roake stretched the emphasize of his first name, pronouncing it Yell. “Whoo. Those monsters are probably shaking in their boots.” Roake mocked. “A couple more steps. That’s all. Get your ass in gear soldier.”
Jàl let his argument die with Roake’s words. He refilled his aching lungs, then sprinted. He followed Roake into the alley. The crowded noise of Manchester street faded as they moved deeper into the walled tunnel.
“There.” She pointed toward the brick facade. “This has to be close to where we entered. We need to hurry.”
The relative quiet of the alley behind the pair exploded in mind-numbing shrills. Jàl spun on his feet. His hands thrown up and clamped over his ears to block the grating, high pitched squeals as he peered back at the mouth of the alley where it parted from the busy street.
Two women and a man approached from the corner. The trio’s human disguises shimmered in and out of view with the fluctuating shadows in the alley interrupting the flow of light beaming from the sunlit street.
Jàl studied the creatures. The carefully detailed shells the beasts created to mimic the form of human avatars populating the game, exposed in the fractured sunlight. Even from a distance, the yellow tinge surrounding the irises of the Verge’s eyes was apparent to Jàl. And the slight, odd mannerisms, the only other tell-tale signs betraying the alien intruders. But now, in the consuming shade of the alley, the Verge’s facades melted, the monster’s human forms evaporating as they stepped farther away from the lighted street.
Lucky for him and Roake that she noticed the Verge lurking in the old bank building blocks north of the alley. The cluster of the creatures hidden throughout the interior of the building where Jàl and Roake believed free of the games monstrosities, and home to the prize needed to complete this level of the game.
His mind refocused as the lead Verge snaked its heads farther around the corner. The abominations joined in a chorus of high pitched squeals, the noise rising in tempo as their combined excitement settled on the trapped prey.
Jàl stood dumbfounded. The number of times he had witnessed the mind retching noise the Verge used to communicate, he had yet to figure out how the abominations understood each other with the screechy language spewing from their mouths. His curiosity overruled his need for flight.
“Jàl. We’ve got to move.” Roake’s voice broke into his trance.
Wide-eyed, Jàl stood fixed to the ground as one of the creatures lumbered in his direction. The trio of ugliness trudged closer. The trio walked shoulder to shoulder. Loud, shrill exchanges emanated from the beasts. Jàl turned in Roake’s direction. His injured leg slowing his escape.
Roake leaned close to the section of the wall. Her hands busily searching the rough brick material looking for a way to open the hidden door and escape this latest nightmare.
Jàl limped closer. “Over there.” He pointed. “Up. To your right.” The upgraded transplant in his skull locking on the metal box hidden in the wall.
Roake scrambled for the keypad disguised in the brick pattern. Her hand rubbing along the surface, feeling for the smooth plate of the sensor. Spittle began to rain down on the two. The Verge awkwardly rumbled closer. The shrill screams of their voices overwhelming, filling the void created by the rising walls of the buildings lining the alley.
Jàl pushed Roake’s hand aside and jammed his hand on the smooth panel. The sensor beeped. The impenetrable wall of brick and mortar shimmered. A black passage opened. With a shove, Jàl pushed Roake through the opening before diving after her. He landed on his hands. His palms pressing on the safety of the familiar metal floor. A womb of darkness welcoming the fleeing pair.
Jàl flipped on his backside, his eyes travelling back to the opening. The opening dissolved first. The view, from his side of the wall flashed transparent. He remained on the floor, frozen. The Verge continued onward. Their momentum carried them into the now solid wall. The beasts recoiled and stared at the brick where seconds earlier the door materialized.
“That was too close. You would think that the number of times we’ve played this game, we would be familiar with the habits of the Verge. It’s like they adapt and change each time we restart the program.” He sat on the ground watching the monsters scratch and hammer the wall. Puzzled, he remained on the floor, his intrigue matching his confusion. “Impossible,” he mumbled in the dark. “This is not an expected part of the programming.”
The transparent opening faded to darkness and the room's lights brightened. Turning from the source of their ordeal, Jàl nervously laughed at his fatal mistake. His head tilted upward in a sheepish glance over at Roake. Her face left little doubt how amusing she found the proceedings.
“You’re an asshole,” she grumbled. “If the Verge catch us, I doubt we’ll make it out of the game.”
“We were so close,” he said in defence. A grin brightened his boyish features while his fingers combed through his shaggy hair. “The globe was within reach. Damn. Seconds longer. That’s all I needed.”
Jàl stood and dusted off his khakis. Roake climbed to her knees. Reaching down, Jàl extended his hand to assist Roake to her feet.
“One of these days you’ll go too far,” she slapped his hand away.
“Why must you insist on pushing our luck.” She turned her back to the wall.
“It’s only a game. Don’t be overdramatic.”
“The consequences are real when we’re in the framework. We could still die. Don’t you realize that.”
“Come on. We don’t know that for certain. Besides, we always manage to escape before the Verge tag us.”
“Have I said that you are an asshole.” Roake stormed away. “Computer. Replay the last 5 minutes of the Mixed Reality session.” She instructed.
“When the Verge are close to me.” Jàl hesitated. “It’s like I can see inside their heads.” He recalled the first appearance by the Verge in the bank. How, when they startled him, he unexpectedly held the Verge frozen with his thoughts. The showdown was brief, but still?
“If I concentrate, I believe it may be possible to change their actions with my mind. Yes,” he shook his head confirming words. “I know I can.” Then Jàl retreated to his thoughts not bothering to tell Roake about the adaptations he made to his implant. He snapped out of his self-imposed trance with a sudden burst of excited energy, expanding on his formulations. “If I’m right, which I probably am. With the proper training, I might be able to render the Verge helpless or at least slow them.” He walked to the mini fridge in his lab and grabbed an energy drink.
“You want one.” He held the can high, waiting for Roake’s answer.
Carrying the drinks, he walked behind the station with the computer manifolds. Finding his favourite cushion, he plopped down. His train of thought returned to the unusual powers he accidentally discovered within the walls of the game. Hard to explain the changes to Roake. He needed time to test the abilities of his new found mental agility. The next time they entered the game, he had to find a safe place to probe the extent of his mental prowess.
“I wonder how this could happen? What’s the cause?” he thought out loud. “I never programmed any type of…” he looked over at Roake, wiggling his fingers to make his point. “special powers or unfair advantages for us. The program is only supposed to be a simulated training program.
Okay. I will modestly admit, the Verge are a nice compliment to the training exercise. Ingenious, I might add. My idea of programming the enemy to resemble hideous creatures and all. It does stimulate one's desire not to lose. But in the same breath, the advantage of a cognizant interface with the games program while inside the realm of the game won’t benefit us in this reality.”
Roake rubbed the base of her neck. The implant began irritating her again.
“What do you suppose General Dimitri will say once he discovers that you’re using his funds to make Holo games.”
“What?” Jàl asked. “The devices I promised, work. Maybe not exactly as promised, but the potential is there. My research is still a ways from mass development, but the basics are fundamentally sound. And besides. The game is fun and vital. The information we are collecting while in the mainframe will help me find a portal to the lowest level,” he smiled over at her. “You’re the best agent he has and the training will only better your instincts. In time I can expand its use.”
Jàl fell silent. A disturbing and annoying habit to everyone who knew him. His ability to zone everyone out in mid-conversation while he became lost to a new flow of ideas.
Roake’s hand returned to the red rash at the base of her neck. Regret on her part for agreeing to the implant and the participation in Jàl’s trials. The damn thing was driving her crazy. She turned her eyes to the bank of computer monitors. The screens showed the Verge still sniffing around the wall. Odd, she realized. The monsters only existed in the game's coding. The program should have reverted back to the beginning once her and Jàl escaped.
Unless he tweaked the code and found a way to hold the timeline. Even still. Why would the Verge remain at the wall? Freaky. And eerily, too real.
“The implant still giving you problems.” Roake flinched at Jàl’s comment. His returned awareness jolting her from her concerns. “Is that why you had problems locating the keypad at the exit?”
“No. I don’t think so.” Roake hesitated. Her hand subconsciously touched the inflamed redness on her neck. “I don’t know. Maybe.” Her eyes jumped back to the computer monitors. A more pressing concern lay before her.
“Have you modified the programming on the stimulation?”
Jàl fixed Roake with a confused stare. “No. Why. Did you find something wrong with the replay?”
Roake glanced back at the screens. The alley was empty. The Verge, gone. The game paused.
“Noooo.” She let the word hang in the air. Her confusion apparent. “I think we pushed too hard today that’s all. I’m tired. I’m going to take a nap before the party tonight.” Roake gave the screens a quick second look. “We have to be at the Generals by eight. Wake me in a couple of hours.” Her words trailed off as she crossed the lab and climbed the stairs to the loft.