Sitting quietly in the dark, Jàl wallowed in his thoughts. Theory and probabilities mixed with reason and formulated understanding scored the tracks of his mind. A fevered moan interrupted the computations swirling behind his unseeing eyes.
Jàl blinked the room into focus. Roake lay only feet away. The light of a new day chased the darkness into hiding. Unsure of what to do, Jàl lay the back of his hand across his friend’s forehead. Her skin warm and clammy. Bending close, he lay his ear next to Roake’s mouth. Shallow wheezing breaths whispered from her lips.
The excitement of the night’s discovery now distant as concern for his stricken partner tugged him crashing back to reality.
“I wish I knew what to tell you. How to reassure you that everything will turn out fine.” Jàl rested the palm of his hand on Roake’s shoulder. “I’ll have to leave you here while I continue our search for the globe. Now more then ever is the need to find my way to the groundliers home.” He turned and gazed toward the opposite end of the store. Silently he watched the light of day stream in through the grimy glass windows.
Details of the stores interior made his thoughts drift. Wherever his eyes touched, a sense of realism returned. The materials composing the interior were well past some random digital rendering. Knowing he currently existed inside the Mixed-Reality dimension was barely enough to convince his brain that what he was seeing wasn’t real. The level of the game had transformed completely. At least inside this building. But what about once he walked out the door?
Jàl scanned the area near the door. His and Roake’s weapons lay on the ground. One last look about the room and he knew what came next. Reluctantly he accepted the path he must take.
“You’ll be alright while I’m gone,” he said shaking his head to convince himself of his words. He stole one last glance down at the virus racked Roake to insure his decision was sound before he walked away. Near the door he knelt and slung the strap of Roake’s gun over his shoulder then cradled his rifle in his hand and gazed out the window next to the door.
The sidewalk remained barren with the slow beginning of the new day. The prospects of what he imagined he’d see blocked by the grime covered glass. Jàl mentally prepared for what he was certain came next. His finger caressed the trigger of the gun as he swung the door open and ventured into the light of morning. He paused in the shelter of the store’s entrance.
His view lay unobstructed. The fact the vicinity loomed bare failed to register as his eyes greedily ran the length of the sidewalk then the street before circling back to study the composition of the front wall of the store. A trick of the brain or…
A couple feet later and the game began filling in the missing pieces. Soon, the sidewalk choked with human forms. Scything his way past a standing huddle stalled in his way the puzzlement of the games realistic vista released the grip on his mind at the discovery of an unnerving surprise. Jàl took a step back, fitting into the group of bodies huddled on the sidewalk.
Out in the open, mixed among the human forms, a pair of Verge stood fully exposed on the opposite sidewalk. The creatures in the midst of the early crowd. Jàl puzzled at the different tactics adopted by the level’s programming. Until now, the creatures only revealed themselves when he melded with the mainframe and surrendered his position. The day was new and he’d been careful, so how had these two discover his location?
Jàl squeezed another peek past the stand of game pieces. The Verge remained across the street, motionless. Their eyes looked away from where he hid. Jàl’s breath caught in his throat as his eyes strayed from monsters. Scanning the morning crowds he picked out other Verge dotted amongst the crowds of random pieces. To his relief, none of the monsters had noticed him yet.
Careful, he matched the steps of the crowds lumbering down the sidewalk. Step for step he walked. His eyes darted between the locations of Verge. His heart raced with anticipation. Scared to stare too long at any of the monsters, he stuck with the crowd, bending his eyes forward and relying on a hidden sense to signal an alert.
Three quarters of the way to the corner, Jàl stepped around a pair of bodies slowing to a halt. Ahead, a red light glared overhead. Nervous twitches jerked his head in search of waiting enemies, his fingers white as they gripped the rifle tight. On one turn of his head, a view down an alley made him swing his eyes back for a double take.
At the edge of his vision, a splatter of unstable light yanked at his attention. Stopping full on in the opening his eyes strained under furrowed brows prying into the depths of the shadows painted across the brick walled tunnel. Then, caught by the corner of his sight, another fizzle of unstable matter flicked.
An overwhelming force tugged him forward. The curiosity too strong to ignore. Jàl left the relative security that came with hiding in the mass of bodies populating the sidewalks and crossed to the mouth of the alley.
Standing still in the entrance, a sense of familiarity teased his brain. The alley, with its real world appearance, and even the limited light cloaking the far end, all of this combined to create an unsettling feeling of Deja Vu.
Racked with indecision, Jàl wavered at the opening. He accepted the mission to locate the Globe and use the information gathered to create a gateway to the groundliers world and hopefully return with a cure, but the route spread before him demanded his attention. Why? Could these be the images from his dreams? And if they were, why now? Why tempt him when…
… the ground shook violently. Did the buildings nearest just flash? Probably not, he realized and clamped his eyes shut as his mind prepared to battle the inevitable journey into blackness that followed closely on the heels of these severe disruptions to his world. Seconds passed. Lifting one lid, he peeked out at the street. Everything stood remarkably peaceful.
In the eery quiet, a theory leaked from his subconscious. If this was indeed the spectre out of his dreams… then could the doorway possibly lie near. Did he need the Globe to locate the gateway to the lowest level of Earth? Maybe not.
Unable to resist the temptation any longer, Jàl twisted around and placed a tentative foot into the yawning mouth of the alley. Concern for Roake rallied to halt his progress. The thought of her, infected by the virus, unattended and vulnerable, the memory of her pale image as she lay stretched on the table back at the store, hammered against the curiosity to investigate the recesses of the brick tunnel. Still, one foot fell in front of the other.
Twenty steps into the alluring darkness, a sizzle of air and the fractured sparks of unstable molecules lit the air to Jàl’s side. A quick turn of his head revealed the building, or rather lack of building, perched ghostly on the corner as it fluctuated between dimensions of realities.
Through the foggy haze of displacement caused by the fluctuating matter of the structure, Jàl caught sight of a smattering of beastly figures. Grotesque silhouettes adorned with sagging brownish skin and bulbous eyes. The monsters pooled tight along the edge of the sidewalk. Their numbers increasing with each beating pulse of the building’s mass phasing in and out of reality. The creatures gazed into the depths of the foundation. Their heads cast down in a pose of mourning.
The panic in Jàl’s chest lifted after the initial sighting of the creatures. Fear and flight eased as his mind switched to studying the strange behaviour. Caught in mid step, he watched. The line of Verge stood still as statues, their growing numbers exposed each time the bulk of the building flitted from the current dimension. What about the fluctuations of the structure lured the monsters to this spot?
Jàl’s fingers rubbed along the grained edge of the wooden chair. His hands kept busy while he perched on the edge of the seat. Bent at the waist, his upper body rocked back and forth, his eyes riveted on Roake’s face, studying the smallest quiver of her nostrils and the slight rise of her chest as she burned with fever.
The genius IQ setting him above all others created an array of fireworks inside his brain. Equations and formulas, practical thought and learned history all fought to the front of his thoughts leaving him a helpless prisoner of his own device.
The unfamiliar feelings caused by the sight of his friend suffering the dreadful illness railed against a mechanical, calculating logic. The result, in effect, a shutdown of the nervous system.
Strange visions pried his being free of its mortal vessel. His mind soared out of the dark room and floated on a phantom breeze. A strange sensation accompanied his ethereal voyage as the entrance of the store floated by underneath. The outside, welcoming in an anxious way.
A green mist mixed with the daylight greeted his arrival. Groups of game pieces populated the sidewalks, the human forms frozen in mid movement. Past the safety of the sidewalks, the paved streets cluttered with motionless cars. The vehicles static, but his mind noted the engine exhaust as it lifted on unseen wings of a breeze, climbing to meet him.
Faces in the crowds flitted by underneath. Some looking ahead, some staring across and a few, with a tinge of yellow ringing their eyes, tilted upward. Jàl’s passing captured in the frozen gaze of his enemy. The monsters unable to halt his progress, yet the large pupils of their bulbous eye tracked his movements.
The scene shifted. Buildings from past nightmares introduced a new street. One he’d never witnessed in his romp through the Mixed-Reality dimension, but by now, growing all too familiar because of the ghost of images loosed upon his thoughts from earlier in the game.
The buildings lay exposed in different stages of completion. The spirit of Jàl’s being floated close to the brick behemoths. High pitched cries and swirling whines clawed at the air and assaulted his mind. The building’s foundations sparkled and fizzled in a reality caught between alternating dimensions.
An image took form behind the veiling mist. The obstructed apparition hinted of the illusive Globe, the outline in the mist transforming into a translucent embodiment much like the avatar from a previous visit. Intrigued, Jàl studied the spirits face. Her lips moved but the words failed to span the distance between the two. The manifestation’s arm pointed down toward the forming buildings. The structures fluctuate between digital renderings and a version of reality. Jàl ’s mind soared while deciphering the meaning.
A vicious jerk yanked his trapped thoughts free. In his mind’s eye he witnessed the physical world threaten to shatter amidst the twisting and convulsing of a terrifying agony. A last, fleeting look revealed scores of Verge, large, bulbous faces pointed heaven ward, the monster’s faces gripped with disbelief as the reality of their world crumbled.
The result, in effect, the tortured cries of a nervous system on the edge of collapse. The imagined aftershocks sparked a twinkle of awareness in Jàl’s fracturing mind. The deeper Jàl sank into the trance, the faster he rocked, the tighter his grip on the wooden arms of the chair as they slid back and forth, his weight held precariously on the edge of the wooden seat.
The actions continued uninhibited by time or circumstance until the friction of gripping flesh wore past the lacquered finish of the chair’s arm. The disturbed material responded by freeing a thin sliver of wood, the loose element pressed deep into the flesh of Jàl’s finger.
The prick of pain altered the trajectory of Jàl’s downward spirall. The sliver of wood igniting nerves and wiring a response of discomfort that travelled the fibres in his arm and pinged his sensory receptors of the foreign anomaly. With a shift in paradigm, the rocking and rubbing shifted.
Jàl’s recovery started with the realization of the rough texture of the wood frame. Digital copies lacked all and any properties able to produce such a sensation. The minuscule fragment of reality stuck in his finger, a totally unrelated thought. He shook himself away from the edge of the mental abyss, straightening in his chair. With out attempting to remove the pain inducing prop, he glanced around the room.
The darkness of his mind opened to the dim lit interior, the poor lighting revealed little more than layers of shadows. Hidden along the back of the mostly deserted space, among the few pieces of sparse furnishings, Jàl glanced at the table supporting the feverish Roake.
Curiosity moved his hand. With the aid of the sensitive skin wrapping the tips of his fingers, he contemplated the unusual texture of the piece. The actual feel of wood not overly unusual, nor the arm of a chair, but put the two together in a world borne of digital reproductions and…
Jàl rubbed his finger tips together. The spark that flickered in his conscious sputtered. What had broke the trance? Like a great awakening waited just out of grasp. The haunting feeling of knowing something very important beckoned but a firewall surrounded his dulled mind and refused to take the final step to understanding.
The sharp throb of pain pulled his attention back to the sliver. Jàl raised his hand close to his face. The light left little hope of his eyes narrowing his search. Jàl placed the stuck finger in his mouth and ran his tongue over the hurt. The nub scratched across the nerves. Trial and error and minutes of probing, his teeth gripped the sliver as he pulled his finger away. Careful not to drop the minute piece of stray wood, he brought his hand close to his eye. The sliver melded with the light hiding the object from his brain but the action proved advantageous. Digital renderings lacked the composition to produce stray chunks of wood.
From the sliver trapped in his finger tips, Jàl pressed his other hand tight to the table top. The texture easily distinguished from a simple, one dimensional rendering. The two pieces radiated with a quality lacking in the digital frame work. Jàl’s fingers played across the surfaces, his brain trying for a conclusion it knew existed but remained just beyond reach.
Pushing away from the chair, he stumbled to his feet and walked the few steps toward a pile of furniture draped in thick plastic. Drawing the cover away, he bent low, tilting his head to take advantage of the weak light available.
Again his fingers relayed messages to his brain that his eyes were slow to detect. These pieces also reflected the multiple textures one would expect of products created in the real world. Jàl knelt and touched the floor. The concrete cold and coarse. Curiosity burned. The lack of light frustrating.
He glanced back where Roake lay. He picked out dull reflections where light highlighted small samples of her silhouette. They were still inside the Mixed-Reality dimension, of that he was certain, but his short reconnaissance of the room’s interior convinced him that the space would fit comfortably outside the games parameters. The pieces of furniture, with their cloth and wood finishes, obviously marked them as ancient artifacts but still…
Could the algorithms have reached the point where they were able to decipher the reality of the groundliers world? Jàl felt his heartbeat increase with anticipation. He was close to finding a portal to the earth’s surface? Perhaps the dreams and images that rocked his brain during the tremors were a map to follow? He needed more information then the few samples that sat close by. The blinding darkness annoyed him. A scan of the room might reveal more clues but he feared bringing a light source to bare. Touching the grid meant a visit by the Verge.
Jàl worked his way back to the chair. His eyes searched the shadows around Roake’s sleeping body as if an answer would appear. In his search, his eyes tripped upon the cartridge belt wrapped around her waist. Jàl stood in such a hurry his chair tipped back and banged off the floor.
Grabbing the stock of his rifle left leaning against the table, he moved into a cleared section of the room and dug a particle cartridge free of his belt. Placing the plastic capsule on the floor, he lined the butt of his rifle with the bullet, readied his arms, then lifted his face, staring past the dark toward a wall. A breath leaked from his lips as he steadied his rapidly beating heart and with a quick strike, slammed the butt of the gun down.
His breath froze in his throat. The brief light filled the room. The wall where he locked his gaze exploded into a vision that challenged his brain. Jàl gasped at the image. Even with the lack of time to capture more of the reveal, a conclusion settled on him. The level he and Roake had stepped into no longer resembled the game he had created all those years ago.
By no means could he have imagined the spectacle he witnessed. A second cartridge met the butt of his rifle. His eyes focused in a different direction. The flash of light returned the same result. The interior no longer favoured the digital world.
Excitement fuelled his growing curiosity. How did the program accomplish the realism? Could a possible gateway to the groundliers world be in sight? Jàl considered the snatches of proof he sat amongst, careful to restrain the threads of hope. The changes to the algorithms may confirm his theory but finding the globe remained crucial. The collected information gathered inside the memory banks would be paramount to the completion of the mission. How could he use this information to complete the game? A mission that became increasingly difficult by the illness consuming Roake.
A stab of light seeped under Roake’s sagging eyelids. Warped images swam in a surrealistic dream and poked at her brain. A disconcerted pattern of brick floated then stabilized. The reason she stood facing the wall, momentarily escaped her fragmented state of mind. Then the outline of a passage way bloomed with the cascade of ascending light. A guttural shrill warned from behind reminding of pending danger. The now familiar roar nudged past the fog shrouding her conscious and triggered an ingrained response.
A tilt of her head showed her supported by Jàl’s shoulder. His features relaxed as he stared blankly at the same wall. Instincts overruled thought. The light and the increasing racket, an unresponsive partner and the brick wall giving birth to a doorway.
A spike in her heart beat pushed a surge of adrenaline through her veins. Roake tightened her arm around Jàl and stretched her other hand for the protruding door knob. A twist of her wrist, then a shove to clear the newly summoned gateway and she pulled Jàl along as she dove for the opening.
The two spilled onto a sidewalk in a tangle of arms and legs. A sharp clap ruptured the air from behind. Roake rolled to her side and tensed. Her rifle swung around at ready. Her eyes locked on the building uncertain if something sinister followed them through the gap.
Jàl groaned and lifted his head. With his thoughts disrupted, the hole willed by his mind began to fade. Bricks floated in the space. Dozens of the small, rectangular orange blocks flashed and popped, fizzled and darted as the computer brain of the game regenerated the spoiled façade. Short seconds passed until the outline of the opening dissolved into nothing more than a memory.
From the mending wall to a quick check on Roake rising from the sidewalk to an unobstructed view of the new level across the barren streetscape, Jàl lay still, allowing his mind to update.
Behind his back, he missed the change settling over his partner. Roake’s facial features contorted from one of complete surprise to pain and confusion. Garbled words slipped from her throat. With a groan and twist, she recoiled and clutched her stomach. Her knees buckled dropping her to the hard surface of the concrete sidewalk.
The strange sounds from his partner captured his attention.
“What…” he began as his gaze settled on the downed soldier. Raising off the concrete, he knelt beside Roake. “Are you hit?” Fear crept into his voice as he scanned for wounds.
Past hooded eyelids, he noticed a film blanket her eyes as her gaze settled on his face. He watched Roake’s lips moved but the words fail. Colour drained from her face and the natural pink of her skin changed to a sickly, pale sheen. Beads of sweat formed on her forehead.
Silently, Roake’s lips formed segments of unfinished sentences while she pleaded with her eyes. Jàl failed to understand. Then, Roake bounded upright, left his side and quickly bent low over the curb. Behind her back, Jàl heard the retching sounds of bile as it escaped her stomach and flowed into the gutter.
“Oh my god,” Jàl’s voice choked. Emotions foreign to his psyche exposed unfamiliar feelings as he watched Roake spew the initial symptoms of the deadly virus. The very sickness that claimed the health of many Sky Dwellers and the very reason he and Roake had entered the game. A desperate effort of locating an alternate route to the groundliers lair and the promise of a chance to return home with a cure to end the horrible suffering.
Roake’s vision shimmered as she sank to her knees. Seconds, maybe minutes, passed before her consciousness registered Jàl’s voice.
“Roake. Can you hear me. Roake! We have to move.” Her body shook as his hands clamped onto her shoulders. “Take my arm.” She heard him plead. “You need to get to your feet. We can’t remain on the street. It’s imperative we find shelter.” Jàl’s words echoed across the mist soaking her conscious. She felt his hand under her arm. The desperate grip of his fingers while they pinched her skin as he fought to lift her.
Dizzy and depleted, she weakly sunk her fingers into the sleeve of his jacket. Her strength draining, she scrambled to maintain a tight grip as he stood and pulled her to her feet.
“Are you okay?” Jàl’s voice penetrated the fog swirling in her head as she stumbled along to his lead.
“I don’t know.” She replied. “Dizzy and nauseous.” She heard her own strained voice sound foreign to her own ears. What had just happened, she forced her brain to recalibrate and find an answer. Then from somewhere in the fog of uncertainty, surfaced the unthinkable.
“The virus. I think you have contracted the virus.” She railed against the fear in Jàl’s words. The rush from the Verge, the impact on her implant. There had to be several reasons for the way her body reacted. But the virus. No. That she refused to even entertain.
“This way,” Jàl’s words wormed into her head, knifing through her doubts. “We’ve got to get off the sidewalk.” Even without seeing, she sensed her partner frantically looking around.” Look. Over there.” She twisted her head following the sound of his voice. “That shop. The doorway looks passable. Maybe we can hide in there. We need someplace quiet and time to think.”
The beginnings of a smile climbed Roake’s lips despite the waves of nausea roiling in her gut. The genius known as Jàl Condor. Such a hero. The thought sent tingles down her body. The self-centred brainiac, all of a sudden taking charge and all.
Roake pried her eyelids apart. The light shining down on the street drove hot pokers of pain into her brain. Wincing, she raised a forearm to shade her eyes and looked past the ache. An outline of the streetscape morphed into focus. Her foot collided with a curb. Stumbling, she leaned heavier on Jàl. She stumbled along with his aide as they crossed the street. The entrance to the store only yards ahead.
“Come on, come on,” Jàl urged, his chest heaving under her weight, his lungs wheezing with each gasp of breath. The sidewalk, level under her dragging feet, reared up to trip her when the pair encounter the steps leading up into the building. Jàl’s grip tightened around her. Roake felt the strain in his body as he fought to lift her up the final step. Trying to help, she shuffled her feet. The added movement sent the pair stumbling. Her motor skills scrambled, her basic instincts off-line.
More grunting and cursing broke the barrier of her delirium. The skin on her face burnt from unknown heat. Drops of sweat wormed into her partially shuttered eyes. Stale air of the closed building greeted her as Jàl’s tight grip loosed and she melted, sliding to the floor. Footsteps retreated to a loud clang of the building’s doors as it closed and echoed.
Lumped onto the hard surface of the floor, Jàl’s breathing sounds loud in her ears. In the fog caused by her illness, she senses him kneeling nearby while he gulps air into his lungs. The sound grows louder as he crouches closer. His hand cool as it lightly caresses her forehead.
“There’s no one else here, but we’re still exposed. I’ll catch my breath and find us a better place to rest,” he promised.
Roake tried to answer. Tried to thank him for his quick thinking, but her words died in her throat, never crossing her lips. From the sitting puddle, she sank lower. All the muscles required to support her body failed as she sprawled out on the cold, faux concrete floor.
Roake’s eyelids fluttered. Jàl moved the chair closer and watched intently waiting for her to wake. A whispered moan hissed from her lips.
“Lay still,” Jàl soothed. “One hand pressed a corner of Roake’s vest gently against her forehead to absorb the rivulets of sweat forming to cool her fevered skin. He hoovered in the darkness of the nearly empty space. The pair sufficiently hidden behind remnants of furniture conjured by the assigned algorithms in creating the expanding program.
His thoughts floundered with unfamiliar feelings, rambled from one avenue of exploration before switching gears and side tracking in a completely random direction. The illness consuming Roake held the rational part of his brain hostage. Irrational thoughts weakened his resolve and threatened to expose the relative safety of the store by reaching out to the over-lying grid in search of much needed answers.
Jàl fought his addiction for knowledge he knew lay a minds whisper away, taunting from the memory contained in the banks of computers. A risk growing harder to resist as he sat worriedly hunched over Roake playing his best version of nurse maid. Several hours passed in silence while he stared down into the slick sheen spread across her pale skin. The strange feeling of empathy racked his soul with each tortured moan and unconscious roll of her infected body.
The longer she lay dormant and unconscious, the deeper his thoughts sank, weighed down by a form of doubt that could easily lead to crippling panic. What if she remained in this state? The thought of leaving Roake, sick and helpless, as he raced off to find the globe and best the digital reality presented a unique set of circumstances. Without leaving her side, it wasn’t possible to complete the mission and to complete the mission he’d have to leave her lying vulnerable to the dangerous elements of the game.
In a term derived from an long forgotten game of strategy he’d stumbled upon in the archives of ancient earth, check-mate.
The plan was to move fast. Attack and keep the enemy off balance long enough to traverse the hundred yard span of sidewalk between store fronts. Jàl watched the crowd in front of the store transition from preprogrammed game fillers to a combination of human replicates and bug eyed, snout breathing creatures. Nerves tightened observing the change of the crowd milling about aimlessly on the sidewalk yards from where he stood.
Through the grimy, film streaked glass the transformation occurring feet away outside of the window, Jàl felt his confidence wane. Soon, a notably higher percentage of Verge dotted the crowd the outside the shop, the creatures outnumbering the contingent of human pawns. Another new twist with the advanced level of the game, Jàl realized. A groan rumbled in his chest, his outlook matched by Roake.
“The odds are not good,” she commented. “Is there another way? Can we blast through the walls into the next space and so on? Stay undercover and off the sidewalk?”
“Not likely. Remember. We’re inside a digital world. While the program produces a full panoramic picture that tricks our senses on the outside, the interiors for the majority of these buildings do not exist. No amount of blasted particles will allow us to slip along silently and out of sight.”
Roake dropped her hand to the munitions belt wrapped around her waist. “Ready your rifle?” She ordered. “Once we walk through that door, we’ll need every ounce of luck we can muster.”
Jàl’ activated the long guns safety. The chamber flashed green. “Stay low and tight to the base of the store fronts. We need to cut the shortest, quickest line past the crowded sidewalk. Oh, move among the game pieces, use their bodies as shields. The beasts vastly out number our weapons so we’ll need the advantage.” She warned. “This is about to get messy.”
Roake features tightened as her eyes fell on Jàl’s face. With a nod she turned and placed her hand on the door. A blood curdling yell ripped from her throat. The barrel of the particle rifle in her arms lowered and ready, she left the safety of the store. Singed flesh and super-heated air moved along with the crowd, flowing along the sidewalk.
Jàl stepped close on Roake’s heals. Pulses of particle matter slashed the air around his head. Is the store where he remembered, the thought rode his mind. Self doubt gripped his shoulders as pieces of digital human husks fell against him. Digital bodies sizzled under the intense fire of the enemy. Jàl caught glances of Roake as she weaved among the oblivious sea of bodies. The pulses of her rifle, methodical, as she tracked and assaulted the bug headed creatures.
A blast of light pinged off of Jàl’s shoulder. The force pushed him off path. The bio suit absorbed the bulk of the beam, but he flinched at the stinging burn left by the incredible heat of contact. Ducking, he snaked forward, bending lower lose himself among legs the shuffling game pieces. With his rifle aimed sideways and up, he caught snippets of the monsters advancing to seal his escape.
All around, bodies flopped and crashed off of him and littered the ground. Tripping hazards forced him to concentrate more on stepping around or over the scattered obstacles and less time tracking the enemy. A quick glance to the right revealed the short distance they had travelled. A quick scan ahead failed to locate the building remembered from the dream.
“UGMM!” The painful exclamation echoed back to his ears. Jàl swung his head up and forward in time to witness Roake stumble. A mist of scorched air wafted from her side. Fibres of the blue jumpsuit Roake wore over her bio armour glowed red around the seared edges.
Roake faltered shoulder first into a forest of legs. Her weight forward knocking a swath of game pieces off balance. The disruptive action rippled outward hollowing an expanding circle cut at the edge of the busy walkway.
Jàl stepped over the splayed bodies. His concern for Roake yanked his focus off the merging Verge. A shower of particle blasts probed the bowl of writhing, tangled body parts of the human forms. Jàl’s free hand snatched at the cloth on Roake’s shoulder, lifting her free of the entanglement. Pushing her ahead, he tracked to the side away from the fallen pieces and tighter to the exteriors of the passing walls containing the businesses.
“Can you walk,” he shouted above the thundering din of the circling monsters. Roake shook her head and limped forward. Her arm outstretched and sliding along the store front for stability. Between pulses of his rifle, Jàl snuck glances at the passing shops. The words he spoke so surely about in knowing the globe’s location faded allowing doubt to filter into the cracks of his mind, eroding what confidence remained. Did he let an untested theory escort him and Roake to their end?
The drag of battle warped all concept of time. Fear wrestled to paralyze his mind. How far had they travelled? Had they gone too far and passed the opening? Did the recent appearance of the globe in his thoughts consist solely of wishful thinking rather than a route to escape the level. The growing enigma clouded all rational.
In protective mode, Jàl’s mind partitioned his brain from the raging battle. His left arm holding the blaster fell to his side as he lagged among the plodding bodies of the digital crowd. His head turned away from the carnage on the sidewalk, his eyes locked on the passing fronts of the chain of stores.
The sizzle of enemy fire gouged holes into the exterior of the buildings, the searing blasts ignored in his singular focus. Unfettered by the danger surrounding him, he matched pace with the blank shells of digital humans that to this point survived the Verge blasters. Basic instincts guided his feet as they avoided the obstacles of fallen bodies.
A sunken doorway containing a drab coloured door called an end to his hunt. The picture he had saved in his mind. A blast of air shot from his nostrils. Relief that he wasn’t wrong snatched him from his trance. The excitement bubbled as he turned.
“ROAKE,” he shouted as he searched around for his partner. Her name died in his throat as she flashed into view a micro-second before a ball of intense, blinding light erased everything. In stop framed motion he watched Roake’s body lift off the ground. An expanding surge of energy flung her into the narrow entrance. The impact of her body caught his and drove the pair back.
The sequence so fast that the rise of panic threatening to paralyze Jàl’s movements disappeared in the same instance as his breath stampeded from his chest when the weight of Roake’s body crunched against him. He remembered the odd sound of breaking and tearing lumber as the door frame gave way under the combination of their bodies.
Darkness flickered before his eyes. A desperate battle raged in the wounded tissues of his brain as the trauma of the injury threatened to shut things down and bring about a safe reboot. Slow seconds passed where he wallowed between light and dark. A final flutter of his eye lids returned his mind to the present.
The fire light of sparks danced and arced among the wispy smoke floating into the shop through the sudden opening. The spectacle filtered past his pupils and pinged his brain. Advancing past the light show, a more primitive worry clawed at his slowly wakening mind.
His lungs ached from the shortage of life sustaining oxygen. Jàl’s eyes flew open as he struggled to fill his lungs. A restricted gulp of foul air burned the back of his throat. His anxiety eased. Staring into the blackened void of the ceiling Jàl calmed his breathing. Then came the problem of lifting off his back. His heart rate built a second time before his mind re-focused and he realized Roake lay motionless across his chest, the weight of her body anchoring him to the floor.
Gently, he rolled from under. His hand protected her head from smashing against the floor as he wiggled free. Dragging a knee under, he crouched close. Fragmented thoughts bounced within the walls of his skull until a compromising order returned. Jàl stared into Roake’s face. The hairs on his hand held close to her nose fluttered with her shallow breaths.
Jàl gently pried her eyelid open. A milky film clouded the white of her eye. Still crouched low, he swivelled his head slowly recording the store’s interior before returning to the entrance and the smoke buffeting in from the street. A shudder ran the length of his spine. What caused the feeling, he failed to resolve until his ears provided the answer.
The lack of sound flooding into the interior from the street became almost as deafening was the curdling cries of the games nemesis. Why? And what type of new weapon did the Verge employ? Not one that he recalled coding into the game’s program. A brief, frightening thought of becoming a casualty of his own creation scratched at his conscious.
Jàl quieted his brain. His priorities returned to Roake lying dazed at his feet. Jàl stood and shook off the remnants of the concussive blast before bending down and gripping the cloth of Roake’s uniform. Pressure coloured his face purple as he strained to lift her to her feet. Looping her arm over his shoulder, he took a wobbly step away from the front of the shop.
In the centre of the floor stood a table like the one he pictured briefly in the flashes that invaded his thoughts a short time previous. Resting by the table, he searched the barren space with more earnest. The layout unfolded like his dream except for the doorway leading from the store and into the safety of the next level. Slowly, he studied the shadows blanketing the interior walls.
From the angle of his head, and with the help of a stray ray of light angling across the side wall, the hint of a possible escape peeked from the otherwise shadowed area. Bolstering his strength, Jàl straightened under Roake and limped toward the shard of light and the portion of hidden doorway.
Balancing Roake’s weight precariously on his shoulder, he stopped tight to the wall. The only hint of an opening exposed by the stray shaft of light falling across the wall. Jàl’s free hand swept along the smooth finish feeling for the rest of the outline. The lack of light refused to release the full extent of the doorway jealously protected by the dark shadows of the store’s interior.
It didn’t take a lot of brain power to realize the problem he faced. Without sufficient light, the gateway to the next level would remain hidden. To flood the interior with light and pry the door from the darkness, he had to again link with the computer, preform a neural-interface and force light into the space.
That part was all well and fine… except, when connected to the grid, his body waited in a state of inertia. One of the two he could accomplish under his own power, but no way to both call the light and continue through the door.
Puzzling over the conundrum ended abruptly as a loud resurgence of wails and bellowed cries of anger breeched the store entrance, spreading across the interior. Instinctively, Jàl felt his mind soar. Strings of blurred code, lines of dashes and dots transformed his thoughts to electrical impulses and meshed with the computer symbiont, the two surfing the digital reality.
A short prayer whispered across his lips. A false promise to a deity no longer relevant in his society, but oddly, the words calmed his thoughts. The solution lay in flooding the interior of the store with light, exposing the gateway to the next level. The second part, escaping with Roake once the void opened, well, perhaps a miracle or an angel would take pity.
Level three opened different then the previous levels. Confused, Jàl looked about. His first experience through the portal not at all like what greeted him this time through the doorway. The stark interior of the incomplete building and the computer avatar from his first trip were no where in sight. Instead, the pair found themselves in the middle of a street. The rude blare of car horns greeted them. The traffic separating as it passed by.
“Follow me,” Jàl heard Roake’s shouted instructions carry over the street noise. He followed her as she stepped over to the closest sidewalk, the barrel of her rifle used to carve a path into the herd of human forms walking the sidewalk. Braced against the surging crowd, she lifted on her toes and looked around. Tugging Jàl’s shoulder, she swam across the foot traffic, stopping tight to a pile of crates stacked outside a business.
Roake tested the stack’s stability before catching a foot on the bottom crate and raising above the obstacles on the busy sidewalk.
“Whoa. This is different,” she called down to Jàl. “Get up here.” She ordered.
Jàl found a step and lifted to Roake’s height. A view of the crowded game board unfolded. The customary stacked street scenario of the first two levels gave way to a combination of perpendicular avenues. Jàl studied the surrounding structures, his curiosity piqued by subtle changes. He puzzled over the emerging vividness captured in the panoramic view swept by his gaze. Added depth to the buildings employed consistencies of real world quality.
The game pieces walking the sidewalks appeared bland, washed out images of poor digital quality compared to the refined definition of the rendered buildings. Even the exposed patches of paved street emitted a fuller quality. A certain depth that messed with his sensory perception.
“A lot more doorknobs to rattle,” Roake’s words added credibility to Jàl’s musings. Jàl focused on the nearest doorway. Scrutinizing the entrance, he picked out the contrasting perspectives and minute shadowing that cast the imagery in a depth unavailable with one or two dimensional renderings.
From one business to the next, Jàl looked down the line of shops on the opposite block. Fifty percent contained doorways worth physical checks. So three blocks of walking door to door searching for the globe, time consuming at the best, playing into the Verge’s hands by remaining in the level for an extended length of time, at worst.
Roake stepped off her perch back down to the sidewalk. Without a word, she stepped a few feet to the side, stopping in the lit recess of the store’s doorway. The brick façade, porous and brittle, the aged patina of the steel door frame marked with dimples of rust and the door itself, streaked varnish finish, cracked and peeling. A pair of matching arched windows inlayed at the top of the wooden slab, dark from within.
Jàl stepped into view when Roake tried the door knob. The knob stood solid, frozen in place, the glass in the window simply a blank screen indicating the lack of a real opening.
“Next,” Roake called spinning to re-enter the foot traffic on the sidewalk. Standing her ground, she looked forward and then back to her left. A handful of shops remained in that direction. Jàl followed her lead as she clung tight to the buildings and walked against the flow of people.
The next store’s entrance consisted of a cheap digital rendering. This followed for the remainder of the stores on the back end of the block. At the intersection. The pair, hidden in the camouflage of the waiting crowd, crossed with the trudging pack of game pieces on the green light. The lanes of the street suspiciously empty.
Jàl walked along, his mind off mission as he marvelled at the realistic streetscape blooming from the perpetual learning of the programs algorithms .
Each footstep taken in absence. His only contact with the present, the hairs on the back of his neck tingled with a sixth sense type warning of untold danger lurking close by. With his head tilted down, he cast sideway glances at the passing faces in the crowds. From under furrowed eyebrows, he searched the blank faces as they passed for eyes ringed with a yellow hue, the markings of the camouflaged monsters.
Jàl paced his scrutiny of the game pieces with quick eyefuls of the surrounding structures. The expanding thought that each level deeper into the game the pair travelled, the line between reality and digital make belief became less defined. Questions piled onto his already burdened mind. Random foray’s in Roake’s direction revealed a similar uneasiness with each stride she travelled.
His thoughts cleared when, at the door of the third business on the block, she yanked him away from the stream of traffic into the shops entrance. The door opened into a retail space. The interior a surprise but somehow not unexpected. The interior smelled musty and stale. Dust particles drifted in streaks of light flowing into the store.
A strange layout of metal shelves divided the interior. The shelves stocked with a myriad of goods. Materials familiar, but yet, not of the 24th century. Jàl lifted a container off a shelve and blew a crown of dust from the can. The feel of the container, the first clue to the history of the merchandise.
Goods in the cloud city came packaged in carbon based containers. The rarity of tin or most any metal, foreign to the population living high above the clouds. Jàl twisted his head shifting memories learned of the middle class to the front of his mind. He searched his memory of the city caught between his home of Sky Dwellers and the groundliers. Could they possibly still have access to tin products.
The middle class did have limited access to some metals. That part he knew, but did they have the abundance to store food supplies in.
“You’ve moved among the middle class,” Jàl tossed the tin to Roake.
“Do you recall if their food was stored in these type of containers?”
“Nah. I wish. The middle class is slightly better than savages. Unclean barbarians if you want my take. No.” She answered. Her head shaking to back her words. “They use a type of pulp products. The materials recycled for so long that the packaging has a permanent grime built in.”
“So they had no sealed tins?” Jàl prodded. Roake shook her head a second time tossing the tin back.
“No. Nothing like that that I can recall. But remember the capacity I was down there on. Most of my time was in hiding. Working in the shadows. There is likely many things about that city that I missed.”
“Still.” Jàl mumbled, “How would the algorithms learn of this.” His knuckle tapped on the side of the container. A dull thudding echo replied to his fingers. So realistic. Jàl fumbled with his belt, retrieving a locked knife.
A flick of his wrist shook the carbon hardened blade free. Applied pressure from his thumb activated the a heating element chipped into the handle. The blade glowed red. Jàl sliced the blade over the top of the container. The upper portion of the can falling away.
Through the gloved material cloaking his fingers, he rubbed it along the sharp metal ridge of the exposed circular edge. “Incredible,” he mused. Jàl stared at the contents. Yellow slices inside a bath of syrupy liquid. Checking to see the edge of his knife cooled, he dug the tip of the blade into the can and lifted a mushy yellow wedge. Lowering his face, he sniffed the food item then rotated the can and studied the picture on the label.
The slice of “peach” on the end of his blade resembled the picture printed on the can. Shrugging, he raised the slice to his lips.
“Are you crazy! What are you planning on doing?” Roake exclaimed, returning to his side from a quick recon of the buildings interior. Her hand flashed to deflect the path of the knife’s blade.
“Just curious.” Jàl said reflexively. Shaking the slice of fruit free and watching it splat on the floor. “Smells pretty good for a digitally conjured prop.” He said, replacing the can on the shelf. “but the question remains. How is it possible for the algorithms…” He waved his arm indicating the stocked interior of the store, “to produce a interior scene of this detail?”
The question hung in the air, choked from his mouth as a paralyzing spasm rooted and spread from the base of Jàl’s skull. A fog revealing scattered images paraded behind glazed eyes. The assault accompanied by violent vibrations beginning under his feet and climbing his legs. The flashes of images growing familiar with their increased frequency. The beginning of the sequence, the implosion of a building, led back to the same flow of snippets that recently haunted his thoughts.
The severe shaking of the surroundings climaxed, easing his lapse of disconnection. In his minds eye, a vision panned across the interior of a second store. The promising sight of wooden ammunition crates. Then, he envisioned the elusive globe as it blinked into being, taunting, then within a heart beat, the image vanished through a door sitting askew at the rear of the store. The sequence of events inviting Jàl to join.
As the pain ebbed from his skull, the film rolled outside the store, hinting at the buildings location. The outside markings reminded him of the incident from the previous level, the façade familiar with the previous sighting stored in his conscious.
Reality arrived rudely with the high pitched screams of the hunting Verge. The brief, unwanted connection, laying exposed the pair’s location. Jàl blinked his eyes back the present. Roake moved from his side and walked toward the windows at the front of the shop. He watched her swing her blaster and cradle it in her hands. Vulgar curses muttered under her breath travelled back to his ears as she looked outside .
Jàl stood still and sorted his thoughts. The building that appeared in the fog, he took a second to locate in his memory.
“I know where to look for the globe,” he spoke to her back, “or at least clues to follow from where it rested a brief time ago. The place is only a few doors away.” He said stepping close to Roake and following her gaze out the front windows.
“How much do you weigh,” Roake ran her eyes over Jàl’s slight frame.
“A buck 70, maybe 180?” She guessed.
“With the equipment I carry, sure mid 170’s, I suppose.”
“These new bio suits. You said act as an exoskeleton. Correct?”
“Yesssss.” Jàl drew out the word. “What do you have in mind? You’re rather confusing.”
Roake shrugged away his query. Rising slightly, she peered past a crumpled fender. The Verge had ambled past the stack of rusted autos the pair had first used as shelter. The monsters continued marching. Particle beams of searching fire bled over the street. The herd's collective thoughts bound the creatures movements, restricting the Verge from separating and flanking their prey.
“What I need you to do is concentrate on manipulating the programming. Delete that bottom car leaving a tunnel to escape through.”
A puzzled look contorted Jàl’s face. “If I do that, I won’t be able to escape. I’m immobile while I link up, so I’m sorry, am I missing something?”
“I don’t have time to explain. You won’t be left behind, but you do have to hurry. If the Verge get any closer, our avenue of escape closes.”
Jàl glanced from Roake up the way the screams and shrills approached. “Okay.”
“One more thing. Stand up and face back down the street, first.” Roake ordered pointing in the direction of the advancing beasts.
Braced against the twinning of minds she fought free of the fingers of paralyzing light that ringed her conscious as she sensed Jàl’s conscious touch the grid. Violently shaking her head, she drove away the urge to follow him into the network. A loud roar rose from the pit of her stomach and rushed past her lips freeing her will and driving her to action. In her mind, she called forward the suit’s schematics. A few simple brain impulses adjusted the bio-skeleton, routing the power supply.
With the guttural cry dying on her lips, Roake leapt from the ground, locked her arms around Jàl and left the shelter of the dilapidated autos, running. The extra weight of her partner slowed her step. Shafts of super-heated molecules dazzled the air. Her lungs burned from the added exertion and the particle singed atmosphere.
Roake raced. Her vision fixed on the crushed junker she and Jàl had used on the previous run through the level. Each step closer she increased her prayers for Jàl’s success in altering the game’s code and giving them a slight advantage. If the algorithms, learning and creating of new layers to the coding could thwart the pair, then why couldn’t Jàl work the system to complete the mission.
These thoughts egged Roake and her cargo forward. The bulk of Jàl’s body blocked most of the view as the pair fled, but past the edge of his side, a thin sliver of the targeted car remained in a blurry focus. A loud raucousness of piercing screams and cries thundered down from behind. Maybe her calculations about the beasts was wrong. Was it possible the meeting of Jàl’s mind with the games mainframe brought forward even larger numbers of the Verge?
The racket flooding the street threatened to overwhelm her thoughts as the probing of the particle rifles grew closer and closer. A few more steps she urged her fatigued legs. Her arms protested and her back contorted with a numbing pain. Then from the corner of her eye, the target car flickered then evaporated from sight. A gaping black hole yawned back. Time slowed. She felt the even heartbeat in Jàl’s chest and the shallow relaxed breath circulating through his body.
He did it, she remembered thinking. A couple more yards and freedom. These notions jotted across her mind at the same time a flash of light stole her vision. Then in rapid fashion, her mind captured snippets of reality. Jàl exploded out of her arms. His body immobile as it lurched backward. Did her ears actually detect the sound of his skull smacking against the ground or did her mind build a soundtrack to what her eyes witnessed.
She felt her body react to the explosion, instinctively turning away to escape the force of the blast. The move left her face to face with the lumbering Verge. The bulky heads of the monsters bobbing as their slow gait brought them within reaching distance, rifles raised, searing streams of heat particles glowing from the end of the guns.
The soldier in Roake refused to accept defeat. Her chest rose as she gulped the hot air into her lungs before releasing a second, louder roar of defiance. The gaping hole created by Jàl’s will beckoned from mere feet away. Scooping Jàl’s limp body off the road, she risked a quick glance at his face. Fluttering eyelids warned of his struggle to remain coherent. Determined, her legs pumped and her arms trembled with a spike of adrenaline, the combination propelling her forward down the final stretch of barren street and into the digital tunnel.
Darkness clawed at the edges of her brain as she staggered under the arch of discarded metal. Her lungs burned with exertion and the muscles in her arms threatened to relieve themselves of their burden. One foot followed the other. Her eyes dropped to Jàl’s face. A sigh of air left his body as he submitted to the collision with the road.
The cries and wailing of the Verge suddenly ceased. Roake twisted her neck. The opening Jàl created with his mind, shimmered. The crumpled body of the car reclaimed the hole at the bottom of the junk pile.
Roake took one last stumbling step. The weight of J al’s body to much for her waning strength. She sank to her knees. The air in front of her face brightened to incredible hues. Blotches of light too intense for the human eye to register. Her arms ignored her wish to shield her eyes before an all encompassing darkness swooped in and swallowed her world.
Jàl peeked from closed eye lids. A blank screen welcomed his return to the living. Shapes began forming the blank canvas as electrical impulses stirred neurones inside his brain. The slow awakening bringing the digital world back into existence.
Roake swam into focus. She sat hunched over on her knees. Her head lulled and her eye lids fluttered before she pried them open. Her eyes focused above his head on something behind where he lay. Jàl lungs filled with shallow breaths. Mesmerized, he watched the reemergence of the digital world, a flourish of colours and properties, as it coincided with his revived awareness. The deafness of silence accompanied the reintroduction of the games programming.
“We can’t keep doing this,” Roake’s comment shattered the silence. Jàl watched her push off the ground and rise to her feet. A beam of light scorched the ground near her feet. Stunned, Jàl turned from her words lifting his eyes upward to the towering pile of scrap metal. The bulky profile of a Verge silhouetted against the digital sky.
His instincts lagged. Roake’s hand clamped onto his arm dragging him closer to the wall. She stopped at the base of a door. Her free hand gripped the knob. The door held fast.
“Huh,” a rhetorical laugh erupted from deep within Roake’s gut. “What next?” She cursed. Raising her rifle, she struck the protruding lock with the butt of the rifle. The door swung outward. Roake pulled the metal slab out of the way and motioned for Jàl to enter. She chanced one last look to the top of the scrap heap. The single Verge was joined by his mates. The air between the scrap pile and the building heated with competing blasts of energy.
Roake flung herself through the opening pulling the door shut behind.
The sidewalk crossing the mouth of the alley teamed with activity. Crowds whisked by on an endless loop programmed into the game’s operating system. The stream of bodies shortened the sight line to less than couple feet in every direction and shielded the second block of the level off completely. Two levels, two blocks. The games algorithms written to include a additional block corresponding with the level number.
Roake stood tight to the corner. She mapped out a strategy to carry the pair from the relative safety of the alley to the far end of the next street and thus ending at the discarded stacks of deserted autos marking the doorway to level three. In her search, she studied the buildings opposite for clues to the globes’s location. Traversing the level meant little if they left the globe behind.
The concept of defeating the game culminated in leaving with a prize. The globe was designated that prize. The vessel tasked with deciphering and assimilating the terra-bytes of information required to build a duplicate the ancient world of the Groundliers. Information pertinent to plotting a gateway from the Mixed-Reality dimension to the birth place of human life and the promise of a cure for the virus threatening the cloud city.
“Do you sense the globe? I mean, can you, without melding with the grid.” Roake quickly added. She remained focused on the surrounding buildings watching for signs of the prize or warnings of the enemy. Her eyes probed the sunken doorways leading off the sidewalks and into the individual stores.
“I got nothing.” Jàl confessed. “The closer the proximity, maybe, I’m not sure. We might have to rattle a few doorknobs or physically search each probable location.”
“Stick close,” Roake said. Her decision made. “We can use the crowd for cover and whatever you do, do not call upon the grid,” She threatened before slipping around the corner and blending into the foot traffic as it flowed away from the mouth of the alley. Roake halted at the first doorway, the width of a store away. A brief scan revealed the one dimensional rendering of the particular entrance.
Backing into the crowd, she moved a few steps further before pausing at a second doorway. Again, her eyes scanned the opening. The first couple entrances were digitally rendered similes. The faux wooden doors and painted on knobs, the faux glass windows and even the outline of the frames were poorly contrived similes, composites s never meant to open.
This discovery pushed the ends of Roake’s lips slightly upward. Pulling out of the plodding line of people, she gazed at the visible entrances with a fresh perspective. Her eyes passed over several openings before she noticed game pieces exiting from one particular shop.
“This way,” she tugged Jàl’s sleeve, pulling him toward the street. About to step off the curb, she recalled being deceived by the game’s circuitry from the previous level. Standing safely anchored on the sidewalk, her flipped her leg out, letting her foot cross the invisible plane of the curb and she waited. Her attempt failed to produce the sudden appearance of racing automobiles, her tactic broadened the smile infecting her lips.
“Come on,” she pulled Jàl. The two scrambled into the two lane road. A step later, the tinny blare of a car horn wiped the grin clear off her face. She turned at the sound. “Hurry,” she yelled, racing for the far side of the narrow street and the safety of the sidewalk.
Jàl ran one step behind. He watched Roake step off the street. He pushed off with his back leg. The angry grill of a car bore closer.
“Jàl. Watch …” Roake’s words hung in the air. Jàl felt his body freeze. He sensed the closeness of the auto but his head failed to respond, his eyes locked on Roake. Time stuttered as the street and buildings began to tremble. His body shook violently along with the digital surroundings. Roake’s features frozen in a twisted mask of concern.
The tremors brought flashes of images snapping across Jàl’s mind. Pictures of buildings, some destroyed, others reborn. Some crumbled to earth while terrified onlookers scrambled for safety, others in different stages of birth. Swaying lines of Verge surrounded exposed perimeters of concrete walls sunk deep in the ground. The monsters staring blindly into the abyss of the gaping foundations.
The walls and foundations faded. The images replaced by the sight of the globe. The surroundings, strange, unlike the levels of the game the pair had visited thus far. The prize sensed Jàl’s presence. It vanishes inside a strange structure. The buildings design peculiar, foreign, but yet, oddly familiar? The walls of the building vivid, the composition constructed with minute detail, the texture palpable. More real world than digital. Jàl stared after the globe, his mind storing details of the building into his memory.
The scream of the mechanical horn rode returned. The racket moments ahead of a nearing tide of loud cries and angry shrieks. Fingers dug into his collar bone, the painful grip breaking the spell holding his mind. His body lurched forward. The squeal of heated tires on the dark pavement whined from behind. The burning smell of rubber wafting upwards in clouds of black smoke.
“What just happened?” Roake’s face rested within inches of his face. Jàl cocked his head and caught a glimpse of the racing automobile behind his back. The call of the Verge climbed in crescendo, beating the stale air.
Jàl scrunched his face and shrugged. “The tremors. They seeped into this dimension. That…shouldn’t be …possible. An aberration of some form.” Sorting his scattered thoughts, Jàl shook free the troubling images.
Standing on tip toes, he swivelled his head looking for the unique building he saw in his mind. “The globe is not on this level. I can explain later, but first, the Verge.” He studied the crowds on the sidewalk. Random faces in the crowd turned and stared in their direction. The ring of yellow around the eyes betrayed the enemy walking among the human forms. At the detection of the beasts, the human disguises began to fall away revealing the wrinkled, sickly brown skin of the monsters. Large heads with the bulbous eyes and nose turned in his direction.
A blast from Roake’s particle rifle stirred Jàl into action. Her blasts cutting a swath into the mixed crowd filling the sidewalk. The pair knelt among the legs of the human decoys. Roake moved. Her body crouched over her knees, her feet shuffling, duck walking toward the entrance spotted earlier from the opposite street. The Verge lumbered closer. The monsters vision fixed on the two trying to escape. The Verge fired their weapons into the innocent game pieces. The sidewalk soon littered with shattered bodies.
Near the entrance, Roake spun on her feet and sprayed a stream of particle bursts outward to distract the monsters. “Get behind me,” she yelled over the curdling cries of the enemy. “I saw pieces exit from this entrance. The door could lead to safety.”
Jàl scootched up the low concrete steps. His hand reached up clasping on the knob. A half turn and he yanked the door outward. His heart dropped. The opening a false front. The digital rendition of the doorway incomplete. A false hope programmed into the video game.
“Nothing doing,” Jàl shouted down to Roake. He watched her cast a quick glance at his words. A shadow passed across her face.
“We’ll have to fight our way down the street. No choice,” she hollered back. “Stay low.” She instructed lifting from her crouched position. Pushing Jàl a head, the pair passed from the false entrance and waded deeper into the thinning crowds. Jàl followed Roake’s quickening pace. They approached the intersection on a green light. A stream of pieces continued onward to cross the road, the extra bodies shielding the pair as they fled from the heavy fire of the Verge.
Wrecked and discarded autos clogged the second street. Behind a tangle of damaged cars, Roake slipped from the tangle of bodies crowding the sidewalk and pressed her back tight to a metal bumper. Jàl breathed heavily from close by. Craning his neck to see farther down the block, he found his view negated by a clutter of obstacles.
Drawing on his previous experience, he recalled the stacks of discarded vehicles and the door to escape hidden behind. The was of course if the games algorithms hadn’t reconfigured the playing field, he reminded himself.
“Stay low,” Roake commanded. Jàl shifted his body looking over at her. Roake gingerly crept near the edge of the cluster of discarded wrecks. He watched while Roake stretched to her full height behind the protection of a mangled car hood and gazed toward the far end of the block.
“The stacks of junk look about the same as last time,” she called down to him. “The gutted body of the car we sheltered in the last time through is where I remember, but, how did we escaped? I don’t seem to recall?”
“Hidden behind those hills of rusted metal is a door.” Jàl explained.
“Inside. The interior is partially completed. A couple empty floors that… It doesn’t matter. The car at the bottom of the heap. That’s the immediate goal and that’s looking like a problem. Seems like the Verge have upped their firepower since we last ran this level?”
Roake rose to her feet again. She faced down the street watching the Verge slow march, then risked a fast look in the opposite direction before ducking back down behind the safety of the cars.
“There’s wrecks splayed all down the street. Easy enough to dodge from one pile to the next. The problem lies with the last few hundred yards. That we’ll have to cross in the open.”
“No alternate route leading behind those stacks of scrap metal. Our climb through the car didn’t produce the best results last time,” Jàl stated. Roake crept away, rose to her feet and used the protruding hood as cover once again. Jàl prayed for different route. The memory of Roake wounded again while they simply repeated the low percentage escape like previous attempt sent a shudder down his spine.
“I don’t see any other way.” Roake admitted upon her return. “Remember, we barely crawled into the interior before the Verge blasters found us. Those piles of junk aren’t all that high but I can’t see how we’d have the time to scramble over and if we failed, the attempt would leave us exposed for too long a time.”
The shelter of rusted cars rocked with blaster fire. The time for planning, over. Roake sprang to her feet. Bent over, she raced across a short span of exposed street then pulled up and motioned for Jàl to join. Sparks sprayed overhead and chunks of metal, sheared loose by the enemy fire, rained down over the trail the two ran.
At the final cluster of discarded autos, Jàl fought to control his heaving lungs while Roake peered up the street. The Verge continued forward in a slow, ambling pace. The stale air of the game grew warmer, the molecules heated by the probing beams of particle rifles.
“What if we blast our way into the car. Dissolve the metal door we near the pile? Save us time opening it, speed up our escape.” Jàl shouted above the sizzle of over-heated air and the screeching shrills approaching from down the street.
“I don’t know.” The tactical portion of Roake’s mind reviewed the consequences. “Might bring the pile down and complicate our exit, make our problem worse.” Stress lines frozen on Roake’s face softened as a glint of light twinkled in her eye. “How fast can you link up with the main frame?” She asked. “After all, we don’t need to worry about revealing our position. The bloody monsters are marching right towards us.”
“Why? What do you have in mind?” Jàl asked.
Jàl pried open his eyes. Light seeped under his fluttering lids. A throbbing pain on the side of his skull accompanied blurred vision. Ignoring muscles cramped from hours of being frozen in an uncomfortable position, he willed his joints to move, shaking free and sat upright. Numb fingers rubbed sleep away from his eyes before he passed his fingers across the side of his head. Pressing lightly, he probed at the centre of the pain radiating on the side of his head. His fingers discovering a tangle of hair matted by dried blood.
Still dazed, he lifted his head. Curiosity forced his vision to probe the strange surroundings. A world of white absorbed his probing before the void canvas melted under his gaze. As his awareness returned, he sat captivated by the hazy mirages materializing out of the re-booted digital world while it crept back into focus. The games programming refreshing and growing with detail.
Business signs flashed to being over sunken doorways. The glass of the windows tossed forward reflections of the street’s surroundings, and the concrete sidewalks bordering the buildings molded into shape. Lamp posts and garbage bins phased into existence, cars shimmered into the picture along with the curbs and medians separating the sidewalk from the road surface.
Watching the streetscape develop in conjunction of his building cognizance, confusion surrendered to a slide of images from his last waking memories. The dark alley and the calling of light. A well hidden opening that breached into existence as the darkness dissolved. How the pair broke through the opening at the alley mouth and finally the flashes in the darkness that searched for them on the other side. On this side?
The reel of memory from the previous night continued. The flash of Roake’s blaster flaring into the night. Verge lined the street, waiting. The monsters slow to return fire. The impact of Roake’s body as it crushed the air from his body at contact and the flitting of pain when his skull and the wall made contact.
He swivelled his head, stopping when he located Roake. Slight movements of her head suggested she lay awake. Her body scrunched on the sidewalk feet from where he sat. From the back of her skull, he slid his eyes along the sidewalk stopping at her side. Even from this position, he noticed her arm and the awkward angle it lay trapped beneath her body.
With the lifting fog, his mind cleared. He searched farther out. The street lay open and bright before his gaze. No Verge. In fact little of anything exciting. A line of buildings now filled the opposing sidewalk. The rendered businesses similar to the level before, except.
He strained his eyes. The exterior walls of the opposing buildings flickered with alternating details. Digital renderings blended with real world texture. From his seat against the wall, Jàl couldn’t be certain but his eyes roamed sections of the walls where the games program appeared to have broken the barrier from digital to real world properties. Could it be possible the algorithms had pieced together enough strands of information of the groundliers world that they were able to begin replicating an actual duplicate?
Excitement pried the darker thoughts from the previous evening away from Jàl’s mind until a pain evoked groan from Roake brought him back to the present. He studied the fallen soldier as she rolled onto her back and then climbed to her knees.
“What…happened?” Her voice scratchy and uncertain while her head swivelled back and forth across the barren street.
Roake’s question turned over in his mind. Other thoughts dropped while he considered different possibilities. The more he pursued the answer, the deeper he delved into the the past and present, the faster the rush of activity powering his brain sped up the re-booting of the game’s 2nd level. Human forms began repopulating the sidewalks and streets. A few here and there at first followed by larger clusters. Soon, people walked back and forth. The crowds closest, stepping around the section of sidewalk occupied by he and Roake. The game pieces followed their predetermined roles for the current level of play.
“You are doing this?” A tinge of awe and fright wrapped Roake’s words as they scraped at the edge of his being. The scene playing in the recesses of his mind consisted of lines of code while outside his head, his eyes witnessed the reawakening of the 2nd level street scene as it bloomed into digital life. Impulses sparked the enhanced neurones in his brain recreating the minute details of the preprogrammed coding fleshing out the Mixed-Reality world saved in the games memory board.
“Jàl.” Roake’s voice accompanied a shove to the shoulder. Jàl dropped the connection with the games circuits and looked up into Roake’s ashen face. She held her injured arm tight to her body.
“We have to move. We’ll talk about this later,” she said, referencing the paired awaking of the games operating system and Jàl’s conciousness. “You linked with mainframe. The Verge will be sure to follow.” Cries and shrieks whipped up the air in the distance underlining her hurried words.
“There.” She pointed. The outline of an alley showed between two lines of structures a half block down the street. The only discernible clue available to lead to the hidden stash of weaponry. Jàl shook free the cobwebs left from binding with the games electronic brain and staggered to his feet. One final gaze around before Roake’s hard grip pulled him along.
The two raced among the crowd of game pieces plugging the sidewalk and rounded the corner into the alley. Roake continued down the path. The high walls of the buildings throwing a vail of shadow to cover their movements.
Built into the side of a building. A similar niche to level one. A low concrete dock hidden in the darkest shadows supporting a host of wooden crates. Jàl leaned his back tight against a wall watching Roake run through her paces. The opening of the crate. The searching glove hand and the retrieval of fresh particle rifles.
Pushing off the wall, Jàl reached forward and grabbed the rifle extended from Roake’s hand. In the grip of his other hand, he accepted a bus of ammunition. With practiced familiarity, he jammed the spare cartridges into his belt. His actions completed without a single thought. His mind occupied with curiosity at the process that unfolded upon his waking.
The gist of his ruminations: how the electric pulse of the game’s system and his conciousness appeared locked in sync. At least from the small example of this mornings activities, that was the foundation he adopted to form his thesis.
“What happened once we exited from the alley?” He asked Roake.
“The Verge were waiting on us. Lines of them blocked the street when we crossed.”
“I seem to remember that. I must have passed out after you tackled me.” His fingers probed the welt on the side of his head. “What can you add? What happened with the Verge? How did you drive them off?”
“I don’t recall exactly.”
“Nothing? How did you stop the verge from finishing us off? We were short of ammunition?”
“I…I really don’t remember. I turned back to fight the Verge after pushing you from the line of fire. From the edge of my sight I noticed you collided with the wall and then…,” Roake paused turning away from the cache of weapons to stare into Jàl’s face. “I awoke, lying face down on the sidewalk, my arm twisted underneath my body. I think the pain woke me.” She sat back on the low concrete dock. Her good hand kneading the muscles of her injured arm.
“I don’t know what happened, but when my eyes first opened, the thought that we died crossed my mind. I remember seeing…a…a clean canvas free of all detail.” Roake struggled to put words to her unusual awaking. “I fully expected some ethereal vision to materialize.
I know I’m rambling and this sounds very unprofessional, but I was scared. Thankfully, when the landscape slowly shifted into sight, that feeling disappeared. It’s hard to explain.”
Roake studied Jàl’s face. “Is it possible that this program and your mind are fused together that when you lost conciousness, the game was forced to shut down? And if that’s true…as you woke, the program rebooted?”
“Anythings possible.” Jàl agreed. “And if we run with that theory. The update to your implant would shut you down as well.”
“So we don’t die caught inside this dimension when the game pauses. I guess that’s a plus.” Roake returned to sorting through the cache of weapons. “Allows us time to comb each level to discover the globe's whereabouts. But, we still have to track whatever is over-riding your commands and regain control of the program. Then we’ll be able to complete this part of the mission and return to our own reality.”
Like the previous two attempts to emerge from the alleys and gain entrance to the front streets, the walls and road looped on the same repeating sequence. Dark hovered close overhead when Roake turned her back to the closest wall and leaned back with frustration.
“This shit is hopeless.” She protested. “Another never ending circle. Maybe we stepped through the wrong opening back at the bank.”
“Yeah. I don’t know.” Jàl conceded. He extended his arm and joined Roake, bracing his palm against the building. Through the thin layer of his glove, an unfamiliar granular composition pricked through his glove. The hardened material scratching his skin. Bending his arm, he craned his neck, bringing his head closer.
“What?” He heard Roake ask.
Jàl rubbed his hand over the rough surface. His hands travelled away and then returned to the rougher section of wall. “This area,” he patted the brick with his hand, “same composition as the bricks in the bank. They have texture unlike the indistinguishable qualities of the program rendered materials. The feel is coarse. I can’t explain.” Jàl’s fingers searched his belt before he turned to Roake.
“A light. What do we have that can light this space?”
Roake lifted her rifle and ejected the cartridge of shots. “I can ignite one of these,” she dug a single shot from the plastic holder. “It will only last a few seconds and it might signal any Verge lurking close by.” The constant muted cries of the monsters accompanied the pair as they walked the never ending alley.
“We need to chance it. Set the blast off when I say I’m ready.” Jàl placed his nose millimetres from the wall. “Okay, light it.” he called from over his shoulder. Roake set the small casing on the ground and tapped it with the butt of her rifle. A bright flash bloomed in the alley. The light flared, fizzled and then faded back to dark.
In the flicker of light, Jàl caught an unexpected result from the corner of his eye. “Come over here and try that one more time,” He requested shuffling a few yards further down the length of the alley. His voice broke the silence when the second shell burnt out.
Jàl watched the seemingly solid wall reveal the skeletal outline of a large opening with the addition of light. He edged closer in the darkness and rubbed his hands over the brick wall. “The opening disappears with the darkness. What we need is a more permanent light source to freeze the opening and allow us to pass.” his hand patting the wall he watched disintegrate under the flare of the particle flash.
“How long long do you think it remained opened?” Roake asked.
“A millisecond. Maybe two.”
“If you leaned tight to the wall, would you pass through in that short of span?”
“I’m not certain. And if not, I don’t know what would happen if one was caught in the transformation?”
“Why didn’t we spot the opening as we walked? Darkness hadn’t completely fallen when we approached this section?”
“Good question.” Jàl raised his head and looked skyward. He measured the height of the wall and the angle the light flooded the alley. His mind churned with calculations. “The light came from over there.” He pointed to the top of the building. “This side was consumed in shadow when we arrived. So, no light to trigger the opening.”
“What made you think of using light to reveal the archway?”
“I didn’t.” He confessed. “I thought that maybe with the feel of the brick, words would be inscribed into the mortar. I hoped that it was the same as the bank. A hidden pad used to open a passage.”
“If I burn many more blasts, we’ll be in trouble if the Verge find us. And they don’t offer a long enough light.”
Jàl’s fingers played a muted rhythm on the wall while he worried over the problem. Pushing off the wall, he turned and studied Roake in the near absence of light.
“I need to connect with the main frame. I can reconfigure a light source to shine on the wall.”
“The second you do that we’ll be overwhelmed with those nasty beasts. Even with their poor aim we’ll be trapped and easy targets.”
“I know. What other choice. Remain stranded? We can’t complete the course from here.”
Roake stroked her jaw. “This is what we’ll do.” Her tactical training twisted the limited options the two faced into a simple, desperate plan. Facing down the alley, away from Jàl, Roake jammed the last, full clip of ionized particle blasts into the rifle and calmly knelt on one knee.
A quick glance back at Jàl assured her that he too stood ready. His hands held waist high, his finger caressing the trigger.
“Now or never,” she called. Fringes of soft white light edged into her conciousness. Jàl stood frozen. His eyes lost focus. His mind soared, travelling on invisible wave lengths connecting to the digital pulses of the game’s operating system.
Blood curdling shrieks hammered Roake’s thoughts free of Jàl’s mind. The spritzing of colourful flashes eased. Focusing her sight on the dark alley, the growing shrieks and winning of the Verge erupted into the night. A light flared from behind.
The bumbling forms of angry monsters swarmed her vision. Roake sucked a long breath deep into her gut. Tracking the beasts movements, she pressed the rifle’s trigger. A well placed beam of charged energy sliced through the leg of the lead Verge. The action toppling the beast to the ground. Others piled into the fallen leader.
The next creature to step past the tangled pile, Roake adjusted her aim and caught the monster centre mass. The searing blast exploding on contact sending spray of red matter back over the others.
“Clear in front.” Jàl’s voice sounded. Standing quickly, Roake launched one last glance at the monsters then turned and stepped the few short yards toward the mouth of the alley. Jàl fired back across her at the rumbling monsters.
“Hurry,” he urged. “I don’t know how long the opening will remain.”
Roake dove the last few feet. Lowering her shoulder, she caught Jàl flush in the back, driving him forward. The two tumbled past the entrance in the brick. The contact with Jàl shattered his concentration. No sooner did the pair smack into the road on the other side, the alley left behind plunged back into darkness. The opening sealed quickly by the faux brick of the digital rendering.
The solid barrier cut off the shrieks and whines of the Verge from behind but the monsters calls began lifting into the air from the near distance. Roake rolled to her knees. With eyes wide, she stared into the endless darkness, watching, waiting. The change of surroundings hidden completely from view. Not a single stray strand of light available to hint at the game’s approaching dangers.
With nerves on fire, she struggled to remain still. All around she could sense the night move. The uneasy breathing of her partner audible. Anxiety tickled the edge of her being then slowly began the climb up from the base of her spine. The mournful wails of the Verge, a ominous wall of sound that threatened to overtake the pair as they knelt in the night. The helpless feeling accompanied by short spikes of adrenaline and then cooled by equal doses of dread formed the realization that her and Jàl were not alone.
Braced on one knee, Roake swept the barrel of her rifle across the dark void. As the gun came back to centre, she squeezed the trigger. The micro-second flash of the particle beam exploded into the dark. Her breath caught in her throat with the picture revealed by the short blast of light.
A wall of Verge lined the street not 20 feet from where she and Jàl burst through the wall. The monsters silent and waiting. At the trigger of her shot, she witnessed large blasters raise toward her position. Borne of instinct and multiplied by panic, she rose sideways and dove for Jàl. Her movements swam under the heated air of searing beams. The immediate area lit up like day from the impulses of the monster’s fire.
Words tore from her throat as she yelled a warning at Jàl before bowling him over. Her sight followed his movements. She gasped in horror as his head collided heavily with the brick wall. The loud thud of skull bone mashing against an unforgiving obstacle echoed over the symphony of excitement voiced by the Verge. A cry of shock sounded from his lips. Roake’s vision fell from Jàl’s crumpling form as a blinding pain bit into her brain. Her arm bent awkwardly under the weight of her body as she bounced off the ground.
Dazed, she fought through the pain of her injury, twisting her head to locate Jàl in the trailing light of enemy fire. She watched him sag against the brick wall. His head lulled then sank. His eyes losing focus before they closed. Darkness and silence erased her thoughts.
Level two phased into life. Jàl stepped to the side allowing Roake access through the portal. The bleats and cries of the Verge died when the opening transformed back to solid form. Jàl remained close to the wall. His head on a swivel, he looked over the surroundings. The composition of the new level not much unlike the construct at the beginning of level one, but this time the scene opened with at least one noticeable change.
Instead of the portal hiding at the joint of a ninety degree corner, the walls of the buildings lining the alley created tunnels that ran away from the portal in three directions. The pair stood at the head of a T-intersection. Routes leading away from the spot in three identical walkways.
Jàl twisted his head to the right. His eyes picking at abstract spots along the dusty path. His eyes probed the rendered roadway and faux brick façades. To that direction lay one of the original routes leading away from the corner. The perpendicular path running straight away the portal the second means of escape, thus making the alley to the left somewhat of a conundrum. What did the added alley bring to the playing field?
The rustling movements of Roake from behind reminded Jàl of her presence. Flipping his head 180 degrees, his eyes met hers. Her brows dipped as she studied his face in return.
“I was wondering the same thing. Why would the algorithms add an additional route out of here?” He misinterpreted the discerning look shaping her face.
Roake shuffled. Her eyes locked on his face. “Yeah.” Her voice trailed off. “The thought did cross my mind.” She glanced up at the left hand alley then returned to study his face. “But, that’s not what’s troubling me the most. How is it possible that I can see your connection to the mainframe in my mind?”
The fingers in her left hand found the back of her neck and the fresh scar healed over the implant. “How much damage occurred?” she said in reference to the incident with the Verge and the car and the trauma to the back of her head.
“Is that the reason we re-entered the frame work at the very beginning and not started here or level three?”
Jàl thought about his response and the order to answer. “We had no choice but to start fresh at the beginning. The games commands are being over written, remember, thus locking me out. The only access back into the system was level 1.
I imagine the entry was still accessible because we’ve defeated the level so many times. But this level. You were injured here so we technically never advanced through and then our dash through level three to escape back to reality. Well. Let’s just say that our excursion failed to complete the mission. The exit the Avatar Re-al revealed to us was in fact the original exit from one.
The levels are changing. The addition of the third branch of the alley supports my theory. Even with out surfing the network, I can sense the algorithms busy in the back ground. While we sit here, the games parameters are adjusting to deal with our invasion.” He scrunched his brows and twisted his mouth in thought.
“Okay. That’s all fine, but you never answered my question, though. Did you?”
Jàl looked Roake. The time the two spent together bred familiarity. The cold, darkened scrutiny in her dark eyes reminded him of who she really was. A highly trained soldier of the general’s death-squads.
“Your implant did sustain some damage when you whacked your head,” he paused to pick his words. “When doc decided he needed to remove your implant to run a diagnostic, I switched it out for an upgraded model. You carry the same version I use.” His hand swung up and touched his neck.
“So. That means?”
“Your awareness while inside this realm of digitally rendered reality is expanded. The whole system, every bit and bite, every zero and one that comprises the games coding, is open to you. Well, I think so anyways. We never really had time to test the upgrade. Did we?”
“You never thought to ask my permission,” Roake’s brown eyes darkened to black. A blush of anger crept up her collar and climbed the exposed skin on her neck.
“Again. Short of time.” Jàl explained. His mind failed see the problem or the fact that she was angry. Why? He did her a colossal favour. The scope of her mind increased exponentially. Or it should have. Suddenly, he regretted not having time to test the implant and discovering her potential.
“You and I will be having a serious discussion once this mission is finished.” She promised. “I do not enjoy the fact that our thoughts are tied together. When you merge with the main frame, my thoughts are surrendered and I am left blind. This may prove dangerous once we advance further and the Verge and the game grow wiser.”
“Fair enough.” Jàl acquiesced. “But for now we can’t change things.” He shifted and began scouting the alleys. “Which way do you suggest?” He asked.
Roake lifted her gaze above Jàl’s head. Her eyes probed the empty entrances leading into the three separate routes of travel. She failed to locate the munition chests of hidden armaments. Roake worked the cartridge free of her rifle before answering. The only cartridge left. The ones in her belt burnt out fighting the Verge on the first level. The cartridge glowed orange. A few blasts from empty.
“Check your rounds?” She instructed. Her gaze falling on Jàl’s belt. The nose of one extra cartridge remained clipped in its leather pouch. Jàl lacked Roake’s grace with weapons. His fingers slippery while fumbling to eject the cartridge. A green glow indicated a full charge.
Roake calculated the remaining charges between the two. The need for a weapons cache decided the direction for her. The last time out, the right arm of the alley led to a hidden room containing the ornaments for the 2nd level. From there, the tunnel of exterior walls curved and led to opening with the decrepit street full of deserted cars.
The pair walked the familiar route. The artificial light of the game remained constant until it didn’t. The shadows in the allies grew longer with the passing of time. The first run down the alley and to the promise of the hidden guns dangled incentive but the carrot never surrendered. The alley replenished with each passing step. The scenery never changing. A feeling of confusion walked beside the two as they returned to the starting point.
The disgruntled pair left the familiar path and stepped into the alley shooting straight out from the portal. Time wasted on the first leg of their journey brought a discomforting nagging at the base of their spines. The two had never walked the fake streets of the Mixed-Reality program when the lights dropped.
The first two legs out of the alley and away from the intersection resulted in the disappointment of retreat sending the pair back to the starting point. Jàl bent over his knees and filled his lungs. He lowered his head letting the worry of the past hours drain so he could re-focus. Abruptly, he stood. His mind fresh, he opened his thoughts to welcome the connection with the main frame.
A flicker of neurones sparked in his brain at the initial log in. A jolting blow to his shoulder brought his mind rushing back to reality. His body twisted and collided with a wall.
“What the …” he stuttered, the contact with the computer’s brain fading. From the corner of his eye he watched Roake. Frustrated, she slammed her fist into the faux materials lining the building walls.
“What were you planning on doing,” she scowled.
“Searching for an overlay of the area and a way out of here. We need to reload and we are losing time,” he pointed skyward at the dimming light.
“Too risky,” Roake voiced her theory of the how she figured the Verge only became alerted to their position once Jàl connected with the games programming. “It’s the only reason I can think of that bring Verge to us. Right now we don’t have the fire power to stand any form of attack. I for one don’t feel like experimenting with defeat at the monster’s hands.”
Jàl stood frozen, his attention locked on Roake. His mind flooded with facts that backed her statement. How could he have missed something so obvious?
“You’re right. What should we do?” He asked. Without the guidance of the programs vast network the scope of completing each level required a different measure of understanding.
The briefest attempt to access the systems drives brought a distance howl drifting over the alley. The far off cries of hunting Verge carried in the stale air encompassing the programs reality.
“Pass me your extra cartridge,”Roake motioned to plastic casing attached to Jàl’s belt. Stuffing the cartridge into a pocket, she swallowed a deep breath then pushed off from from the intersection and began scanning the remaining route out. Each step taken with caution. Her eyes prying into the growing shadows accumulating in the fading light. The loud breathing from behind of Jàl as he followed closely on her heels mingled with the distant cries of the Verge.