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.
The sounds of muted conversations and the slow rhythmic beat of footsteps grew in cadence the nearer Roake closed on Manchester street. Crowds of human form game pieces, or as Jàl so aptly referred to the computer generated avatars programmed into the game, extras, shuffled on the sidewalks and in and out of the businesses lining the long street. Watching the extras walk their designated routes, Roake found herself once again wondered if Jàl intentional added the game pieces to disguise the Verge. The monsters hidden among the human form pieces added a certain nerve clutching element of danger to the playing field. Was this on purpose? Was the clutter of extra bodies for the beasts to hide amongst useful in her training?
The fact that the two types of beings existed in the game, is that how Jàl pictured the Sky Dwellers ancestors as they lived their existences trapped forever on the planet’s poisoned surface? Roake stole glances at the heads of the passing crowd as if the answer waited in their faces.
The inhabitants of the game marched about with blank faces and unseeing eyes, the extra’s movements mechanical, zombiesque. Roake narrowed her gaze, focusing on the eyes of the oblivious pieces, alert for the tell-tale sign of yellowed tinged eyes betraying the disguised Verge. In the distance, the towering white clapboard exterior of the bank building stood signifying the end of the journey and the passage to level two.
A collection of the extras gathered at the corner of the sidewalk, the crowd growing in size. The traffic light signalled red. Roake’s head swivelled. She grabbed Jàl’s shoulder and stuffed him into the doorway of a department store. From there, she studied the parked cars, the shadows of other doorways leading from the businesses onto the sidewalk and back to the spattering of game pieces on the sidewalks and crossing from opposite sides of the street.
When first entering the game, passing the first level had been mostly obstruction free but she reminded herself that the game's parameters had changed. The Verge’s awareness of her and Jàl’s presence on each consecutive visit, increased, so she could take nothing for granted.
She calculated the timing of the traffic light to limit exposure while the two crossed the street. The doors of the bank loomed invitingly back at her, the double glass and wood entrance waiting down the block and across the intersection.
The light changed to green. The slow, mechanical movements of the extras waiting at the lights edged off the sidewalk. Roake motioned for Jàl to follow. Her foot settled on the concrete path, her back foot raised and lifted off the step, her upper body swung into action ready to leave the shelter of the doorway.
Flashes of numbers and pages of schematics overwhelmed her thoughts and highjacked her mind. Roake’s hand shot to the side of her head. The unfamiliar streams of information, unnerving. Lines of code passed behind her eyes blinding her sight and halting her movements. Roake shook her head violently in an attempt to halt the intrusion. Her eyes cleared. Free of the distraction, she glanced back at Jàl. He stood frozen, eyes open but unseeing as he stared blankly ahead.
“We have to move.” Roake shouted. Her words jolted Jàl from his trance. He blinked. She watched his eyes blink as he focused on her face.
“The Globe. It not on this level. I don't detect a signature.” He ignored Roake’s warning.
The shuffling extras walking past on the sidewalk stopped. The heads of the human zombies turned in the pair’s direction. Roake snorted a sharp intake of air. The breath caught in her chest stopped by a sickly feeling roiled in the pit of her stomach. The building of a warning niggled at the bottom of her spine.
“They know we’re here.” Her words of warning followed closely by a curse, the harsh words rasping in her throat. A spike of adrenaline brought forth learned instincts and fuelled her into action. Roake tugged at Jàl’s arm pulling him from the doorway and in the direction of the traffic light. The crowd on the sidewalk interfering with the route of escape. The extras impeding a fast dash for the green light. Featureless faces and uncomprehending eyes of the avatars gazed at the game’s main players. Roake felt Jàl’s breath on the back of her neck.
“There.” He pointed over her shoulder. Surfacing from the milling crowd, the tell-tale signs of yellow ringed eyes betrayed an alerted Verge. The monster’s wide eyes peered around from distorted faces. The camouflaged scourge of the 9th-dimensional game pushed past the empty husks of the program’s extras to gain ground on the players.
Roake swung the particle rifle from her back and fired at the nearing target. The heated particle of light smashed into the monster. The wounded Verge released an ear shattering squeal that roared above the din of the street. A halo of heated, shimmering air engulfed the monster as it’s body erupted in pieces.
The cry of the dying Verge signalled others. Soon a chorus of high pitched squeals rose from all around. The mournful, reverberating wailing building to an eery, surreal symphony. The random scattering of beasts hidden among the computer generated crowds walking the streets, revealed themselves. The human façades of the Verge melted, revealing pockets of the monsters in all directions.
Light glinted off the metallic antenna and the bald heads of the creatures. Large foreheads shone above bulging eyes nestled over round, protruding noses, the monster's enlarged heads perched on the grossly distorted bodies. Massive tumours disfigured the creature's backs while folds of yellowish brown skin hung from their legs and arms glimmering under the artificial lights of the game. Oversized legs propelled the beasts forward, the skin on their forearms rippling as they moved. Bulky hands with thick, knobby fingers gripped the beasts version of particle rifles.
An invisible beam of ionized particles heated the air inches above Roake’s head. The stream of energy from the particle blaster absorbed by the brick façade surrounding the building’s entrance. The disruptive shot of charged atoms rained chunks of shattered brick down onto the sidewalk. Roake shoved Jàl toward the doorway then calmly knelt on one knee. Timing her breaths, she lined her shots with the movements of the advancing Verge. Her nerves calm as hostile blasts of superheated particle rays searched for a target.
When the streams from her gun met with one of the enemies, she switched her angle and sighted a new target and squeezed the trigger. In her peripheral vision, the blinding pulses of Jàl’s weapon emoted streams of vapour into the air as he fired on the bug-headed monsters.
The added obstacles of game pieces milled about oblivious crowding the sidewalks and street. The extras neither helping nor hindering either side of the battling parties. Each pulse of the particle guns subtracting from the shrill screams of the enemy. The Verge advanced into the return fire. The game's programmed nemesis lacked the required lines of coding enabling them to seek shelter or retreat while under attack.
When the last Verge fell, Roake climbed to her feet and surveyed the carnage covering the street. Scattered pieces of human and Verge parts littered the sidewalks and leaked onto the road.
Roake gazed down at Jàl, still crouched on the step.
“Why bugs? Why did you design the Verge to resemble the ancient insects? They’re creepy.” She scowled. A shiver borne of the repulsive analogy ran the length of her spine.
Jàl kept his eyes focused on the street. “I never thought of the Verge quite like that.” He admitted. “I suppose. When I wrote the programming,” he tilted his head in thought, “for some reason this image stuck in my mind. I don’t know why.
Remember. As far as we know, the groundliers still occupy the surface of the planet. Think of the evolutionary changes they'd need to adapt in order to survive the poisoned atmosphere living on the surface.” He explained. “Besides. What do you know about bugs? That’s a word long lost to our civilization.”
“You think you’re the only one who knows how to work a search engine?” Roake replied over his shoulder. “I was curious after our first encounter with the Verge. I wondered how you came to fashion the beasts the way you did. Believe me. Finding a comparison in the few remaining archives relating to the old world wasn't easy.”
Jàl turned back to study the monsters with a new perspective. The bulging eyes and sizeable protruding snout of the faces along with the antenna and hardened skulls. Maybe Roake was right. Perhaps ancient bugs were his idea of what a monster could resemble.
“Let's get off the street.” Roake tugged at his sleeve, her arm lifted and a finger pointed down the block to the final obstacle between them and advancing past the first level. The old bank building sat across the lights of the intersection. The street remained busy with the hustle of the game extras. The myriad of human forms moving together in a sequenced choreography.
Jàl followed close behind Roake. The light hung above the intersection showed red, forcing the two to hold on the corner. A building crowd of bodies formed around them on the sidewalk. The game's progression depending on a change of colour to allow the programmed sequence to advance and complete the current loop before resetting.
Jàl glanced away from the crowd. His eyes busy scanning the two-lane street. Empty. He felt Roake tug on his arm.
“We shouldn’t wait." He heard her say as she turned and prepared to leave the curb and step onto the street. A panicked blare of a horn and the smell of hot rubber hard from braked tires startled her. The empty road transformed with racing cars filling the lanes. The line of vehicles rolling along with the green light. The car with the blaring horn barely missed striking Roake. Jàl’s panicked grip crushed her arm when he yanked her back onto the curb to safety.
“Where in the …” she muttered, glaring over at the cars buzzing by on the suddenly busy street.
Jàl breathed harshly, reeling from the close call of his friend. Trapped on the sidewalk, Roake stood high on her toes and glanced over the heads of the zombie human forms gathered on the corner. Shifting her eyes over the connecting streets, she breathed a sigh of relief in discovering the lack of further threats.
Pushing aside the crowd of oblivious game pieces, Roake pulled Jàl along. The pair rushed for the beckoning doors of the bank. The interior of the building the final obstacle of level one and the last time they'd spotted the globe. Roake studied the building’s doors before inching them open. Her blaster following her line of sight as she scanned the interior before stepping from the sidewalk.
“Clear.” She called. The inside, silent and deserted, unlike the previous time the two breached the doors and scant seconds before the Verge sprung their trap. Memories filled Roake's thoughts from the team's hasty retreat the last time they entered the building. She felt Jàl pass by, stirring her back to the present. She busied herself by scanning the few pieces of furniture scattered across the floor. The sparse furnishing of the single-story building due to a lack of actual information Jàl explained when she’d commented on the subject during the first visits.
Floor coverings of an unknown material led from the entrance to a line of rendered wood counters lining the far wall. The space across the room, empty, except for a single table that stood in the middle of the floor. The very table where the globe began its journey during the creation of the game. The table now sat deserted. The simple days of the game's existence had long passed. The cache of information the pair searched for now resided in one of the unexplored upper levels.
Roake swung her attention back to the street entrance while Jàl jogged to the far end of the building. From behind her back, she heard him walk to the back wall. The scuffed noise caused from the friction of his gloved hands rubbing across the wall’s rough materials created the only audible sounds in the room.
“Here. This section,” Jàl called. Roake backed away from the entrance. Her eyes locked on the front doors while she crossed the room. Sensing Jàl waiting close behind, she peeled her eyes from the entrance and followed his pointing finger.
“This brick. Notice the difference in texture and colour?” Jàl rubbed his hand over the brick to emphasize his words. The material, when one looked closer, stood apart from the remainder of the computer-generated wall. The surface in the area rough and better defined.
Roake watched Jàl run his finger, tracing the compound squeezed between the bricks. Leaning closer, he mumbled.
“Notice, there’s this very fine writing etched into the mortar.” He explained. Roake rolled her eyes. The same speech he used every time they arrived at this point. Her eyes flitted between the front door and Jàl as he focused his mind. For a second time, she felt a strange tingling touch the fringe of her brain.
Jàl’s concentrated his focus on the section of bricks ringed by the writing. When he connected with the programs mainframe, Roake found her mind venturing along. Her vision blurred then cleared along with his. Before she was able the wonder about the experience or mouth a question regarding what she had just felt, one of the bricks flickered before a brief flash of light exposed a metal panel.
No sooner did Jàl free his mind from the main Fram when loud shouts of angry excitement seeped into the building and echoed off the walls. Shrill, unnerving squeals, a fore warning of a new wave of hunting Verge descended on the building. The troubling emotions of being highjacked by Jàl’s thoughts vanished from Roake's mind at the racket created by the monsters. The military part of her brain picking up on a troubling coincidence. Was it possible that the Verge were also connected to the games workings and whenever Jàl connected with the mainframe, he unknowingly sent an alert to their position? A serious question that required immediate attention once the two were safely away.
She pushed the thoughts aside in time to watch Jàl raise his palm and lay his hand flat against the metallic surface. The air around the wall shimmered with vapours. The rigid makeup of the brick transformed. The solid composition of the brick, softened into a blur as the molecules melted into a milky wall of liquid and then dissipated, revealing the opening to level two.
“Ready,” Jàl called over his shoulder before lifting his foot and disappearing into the doorway.
Roake crouched close to the base of the brick wall and studied the deserted lane. The awkward caress of cloth rubbed against her shoulder as Jàl entered the game, stepping into the Mixed-Reality dimension close on her heals. His breathing harsh as he knelt by her side. A static charge caused the air to shimmered behind them. The digital closing of the doorway accompanied by a sucking vacuum sound, the noise created when the gateway morphed back into the brick façade.
Focused eyes peered between narrowed eyelids, shifting in grids, scanning the exposed walls of the quiet alley. She soothed the quicken pace of her heart adjusting to the heightened adrenaline coursing through her veins. Her fingers gently touched the bandage on her neck. A reminder of what can be.
Fighting to steady her nerves, she sucked in the heavy, stale air. Her lungs expanding, the slow rise of her chest stretching the pliable synthetic fibres of her drab, olive jump suit. Lungs filled to capacity, she began the practiced release of tension. The faint warm breeze ruffled the hairs on her arm as she slowly expelled the long, whispered breath. Her nerves settled. The apprehension of returning through the gateway and reengaging with the Verge, clawed at the back of her scalp, the memories faded but not forgotten.
Assuring that no danger waited their return to the game, her eyes retraced their circuitous route and stopped on the shadowed opening at the back of a building near the alleys mouth. The comforting square edges and smooth shapes of stacked boxes and assorted metal crates swam into focus. The merchandise appeared randomly stacked on the lip of a wooden shipping dock. The familiar pattern of the waiting packages eased her nerves further.
Roake flashed a hand signal and raised on her haunches. Keeping low to the ground, she left the relative security of the entrance and wormed across the barren, dusty alley for the boxes in the shadowed opening. Alert and focused, she took small comfort in the scrapes of Jàl’s footsteps as he crunched close behind. The noise of his movements mixed with the strange sounds emanating from the street on the front side of the buildings. The beginning of level one.
Pulling up tight into the dock’s shadows, Roake straightened along side the random crates. Her hands pushed the smaller boxes aside searching for the welcoming feel of the metal handles of a larger trunk. She pulled the heavy box closer, her fingers rushing to the clasps clamping the lid tight. The snap of the locks sounded frighteningly loud in her ears.
Relief swept across her face as she raised the lid. Particle rifles lay nestled in straw packing. The weapons lying in same configuration as every other time she’d opened the crate upon entering the game. Removing a rifle, she studied the contents in the bottom of the box. Smoke grenades snuggled in nests dug in the straw rested next to canvas cartridge belts and extra ammo clips for the rifles.
Roake passed one rifle behind her back then removed the secon. She laid it aside before digging back into the box for the belts. Sliding one to Jàl, she strapped a belt around her waist. Her fingers lifted the grenades from the straw. Fitting the small explosives in the loops on the canvas, her hands dove back into the box. She raised the slim plastic magazines, each carrying volatile charges of particle energy and stashed those in the pouch hanging on the side of the belt. Snapping the pouch closed, she turned and eyed Jàl.
The experience was new to him. On the previous trips to the Horizon she had been the one to carry the weapons. He, in his words, “was only along to explore and learn. She was the military expert.” This trip though, the situation required a concentrated armed presence. To exit the game without retrieving the Globe, downloading the stored information and then resolving the internal malfunction was not an option.
Two players meant two warriors ready to battle. Today, the novelty of scouring the Horizon for sport ended. Today, the game in 9-Dimension became a live version battlefield.
A chill ran the length of Roake’s spine as she considered the concept. Twitching against the curing bio-armour, she prayed that Jàl’s formula for the thin, transparent protective coating lived up to his expectations.
The memory of standing naked in the lab’s heated booth while jets of the sweet odoured, latex mist sprayed from the machine made her skin crawl.
The ring of nozzles rotated, spiralling from the floor to her chin and then reversed the pattern. Repeated applications, each with a short drying period in between, adhered to her skin, thickening with each pass. The final product only millimetres thick and translucent. The rubbery substance chafed and itched as it dried. The final cured product able to withstand short bursts of the Verge’s particle weapons before the molecules began breaking down. Or so Jàl calculated.
She tugged at her short red hair subconsciously. A red blush climbed her neck as she remember the shock of the cool spray on her bare skin, rising upward from her feet and then the involuntary sag of her body unused to the application of the slick substance. Her head and hair bowing below the cut off line for the spray nozzles. The first pass of the jets wet against her chin and clinging to the ends of the hair. She tugged at the few matted strands she was unable to free of the mixture.
Her vision traveled over the crates, the interior of the warehouse and the brick structure then 360 degrees back down to the wooden dock where the weapons crate rested. The games composite make-up hardened under her gaze. The building materials sharper, more defined beneath the grey luminescence of the games light.
Curious, she let her fingers slide along the platform of the loading dock. Her brain told her that the properties of the games components were merely faux renderings mimicking reality. But yet under her finger tips the surface felt rough and real.
She rubbed the edge of the weapons box. The metal cool to her touch. What was happening. Was her mind tricked or was the game morphing into reality.
A tap on her shoulder brought her focus back to the present.
“Are you alright?” Jàl queried.
“Yeah. I’m fine,” she glanced at Jàl and then back at the metal box on the wooden dock. “Am I going crazy or are these objects adopting the properties of our world?”
Jàl’s eyes followed Roake’s stare. “The algorithms are programmed to create. The better they understand the groundliers world, the closer to reality the mock-ups. The detail is so fine that our minds have difficulty differentiating between the 3D renderings contained in this dimension and reality.” He shrugged. “Or something along those lines. I could delve into long complex scientific jargon but actually I’m not certain how the transformation is taking place.
He stopped, scratching the back of his head and looked over the contents in the warehouse. “The program needs to closely replicate the groundlier’s level to find a suitable place to portal into their world.”
“What will that mean for us? And…” he paused. “I know what you’re thinking. Does this make the Verge deadlier? Well, I hope not,” Jàl stared into Roake’s face. “but none the less. We should try to avoid the beasts and their particle guns.”
Jàl stood transfixed. The air shimmered and darted with a brilliant display of shooting lights. A new building materialized from the dissipating digital material of the old rendering. High pitched shrills spilled over the street and overwhelmed his senses and warned of the monsters presence. His vision blinded by the bricks and mortar of the buildings façade. The composition of this building different than the others. The brick a size bigger and a brighter hue, the mortar imprinted with symbols.
Dust rode a faint breeze caused by the shifting of changing molecules. A waft of scorched air assaulted his nose. His breath balled at the back
of his throat making breathing difficult.
The slow lumber of the drab coloured monsters with their bulging eyes and protruding snouts crept into the edge of his peripheral vision. The creatures slow movements growing larger with each passing second.
A passage appeared within the brick wall. A doorway to be free of the Verge. Jàl willed his feet to move. His brain screamed demands but his muscles froze and refused to obey his panicked commands. The volume of the shrill screeches increased. The outstretched limbs of the monsters clawing at thin air trying to thwart his escape.
To add to the nightmare, a new tide of Verge appeared on the other side of the opening. Their cries loud and piercing but different. The combined voices of these Verge, a solid whipping sound.
Jàl viewed the arrival of the monsters blocking his route with a suddenly calmer demeaned. His line of sight shifted. Now he looked over the Verge’s backs and could see a replica of himself framed in the doorway.
Roake swung her feet off the bed. Pulling a robe around her pyjamas, she stepped lightly down the metal stairs and into the open confines of the lab. Jàl sat hunched over the array of computer monitors, his hands flashing in the air, traversing the spread of holographic keyboards.
“Have you slept?” She asked padding across the tiled floor for the small kitchen set to the side of the large open room. She paused at the old fashioned coffee stand, Jàl’s greatest possession that stood front and foremost, dividing the lab from the cooking area.
The luxury of untold wealth, she mused, sifting through the canisters of assorted coffees. The clear containers displaying the rare, organic grown, small, dark brown beans. A taste that she found peculiar and yet addictive compared to the simulated slug that dripped from the standard processing stations substituting for the hot, bitter drink.
Roake played a tune with her fingers on the counter while the antique pot gurgled and hissed. The smell of fresh coffee lifted her spirits.
“Would you like a cup,” she asked over her shoulder. Patiently tapping her foot, she waited for an answer. Cocking her head, she turned and stared at Jàl’s back. Lost in space once again, she mused.
When the second cup filled with the steaming hot drink, she collected the cups in her hand and walked to the work table aligned with the lighted monitors.
“What’s up? You sleeping with your eyes open?” she chided.
Now he sat behind a desk. Banks of computer monitors filled his vision. Jàl held his breath as he watched the monitors. The manifestation of himself frozen in the doorway, trapped on both sides by advancing monsters.
His fingers flew over the holographic keyboard. Line after line of code swam across the screens but all refused to allow his avatar to flee the approaching threats. Sweat beaded his forehead. The monsters clumped closer, their breathing sucking the air from the room. Each command typed by his fingers failed to penetrate the games programming.
A hand roughly shook his shoulder. Jàl twitched, startled by the interruption.
“Earth to Jàl,” Roake’s fingers dug roughly into the soft flesh covering his collar bone, freeing him from the dream.
Blinking away the nightmare, he re-focused on the screens. Lines of green code nestled against the black backgrounds. The dream was so real, Jàl thought, then on a hunch typed a new command. Nothing changed. Maybe it wasn’t a dream.
Jàl shifted his head and with eyes red from lack of sleep, he glanced up at her face, his hand combing back through his disheveled hair.
“You look like shit. What’s…happening?” Roake studied his face, concern crept into her voice.
Jàl shook his head and pushed back in his chair. “I’m locked out of the game. The algorithms have changed and my coding is being overridden.”
“I’m not sure I understand,” she replied.
“It’s…I…” Jàl stumbled to collect his thoughts. He glanced over at the monitors then reached for the offered coffee. “Some form of malware is blocking my access.”
“How is that possible? You designed the system. No one has the technology to corrupt your work.”
“Not out here…”
It took a few seconds for Roake to absorb the meaning of his words. She tilted her head and studied his face. “Not out here. So where? You can’t mean inside. It’s a bloody game that you programmed. How on earth can this be possible?”
“I don’t know. That’s what’s troubling. There is no reason for this to happen,” he pointed to the white lines of digits scrolling across the green screens. “But yet.”
“So what does this mean? Are we going into the Annex today?” Roake used the code name for the Mixed-Reality world waiting beyond the gateway.
“Later.” Jàl responded. “Plans have changed. Suddenly, I wish there were more of us to go inside." He laughed off his nervousness. "You get what I mean. A calvary of the General's finest to ride to our rescue incase we run afoul of the Verge.”
“I know. But there are no reinforcements.” Roake stated. Her hand unconsciously lifted to the bandage attached to her neck. “Without the neural implants, you and I are the only ones able to enter the Annex through the gateway.”
Roake’s eyes narrowed. “That leaves lucky us to go and save the world."
Jàl was slow to meet her gaze. An impish smile climbed onto his troubled face. “Yes.” His head nodding up and down. “I originally designed this as a two player game. Who’s better than the two of us.”
Roake chewed her lower lip. “Okay. How do we deal with the Verge. We’ve never taken the fight to them. Until now, our plan was to avoid them as we navigate the levels of the game. We’d need an arsenal to hold them off.”
“I know,” Jàl agreed.His mind quickly switching from one problem to the next. “We can’t carry extra weapons in with us. The gateway won’t allow metal to pass between realities so the weapon caches installed with the original programming will have to suffice.
The stash by the entrance should have been reset once the game rebooted. Each section after will have its own supply,” he paused. A crooked smile backed by unease crossed his face, “but we’ll have to be extra careful. We’ve never faced this type scenario so we’ll need to scour the levels throughly as we cross them. This may be the only chance left.”
“How long do you plan on being inside?”
“How long, I don’t know. Depends on the circumstances. If we are successful in crossing the different levels and we can retrieve the globe, our time inside will be limited.
Roake’s trained tactical mind shed the doubts she’d been feeling. “Do you know what the virus looks like?”
“No idea, actually. The virus can assume any shape and with the algorithms learning and adjusting, a meticulous sweep of each sector will be required. When we clear a level, access to the next block will need to be manually entered to allow us to continue. The first two blocks or levels, we’ve already been through…the next ones.” He shrugged and adverted his eyes to the computers. “We’ll see.”
Roake raised her shoulders, her brows knitted, her expression one of confusion. “Why, then, are we going? Given time, why can’t you fix the problems from there?” Her arm gestured to the bank of keyboards and screens.
“No.” His head swung side to side. “Whatever is causing the malfunction is growing inside the games parameters and hidden from my reach. I need to physically touch the globe before I can recalibrate the coding plus I need to recover the information archived on the globe’s hard drive. I believe the answer to finding a portal into the Groundliers world exists within the programs collective memory.”
Jàl turned back to Roake. He watched the colour drain from her face. Without her airing her concerns he imagined the dangers she was picturing. He let his eyes fall to the bandage on her neck. Proof that the two were not free from the perils of the Verge and the dangers of the 9th dimensional world.
Roake squeezed past Jàl. Her fingers flew over the keyboards. The lines of programming disappeared from the screens replaced by renderings and schematics of the games multi levels. After a few minutes a cursor blinked red. The globes last recorded position.
“Not good,” she mumbled under her breath. Her finger jabbing at the pulsing beacon. She lowered her gaze to the bottom of the screen. “Level 7.”
“That’s the last available coordinates before the game shut me out. The Globe’s purpose is to sift through the fragments of archived information inputed into the game and build realistic renderings while testing for possible portals to the Groundliers planet. Maybe that’s why it stopped.”
“What makes you think that we can best the Verge and contact the Globe.” Roake questioned.
Jàl studied the soldier while she arrived at the same conclusion he had earlier when he mapped the coordinates for the globes. His answer: the same both times. The existence of the Sky Dwellers city depended on their sacrifice.
“Because we have no choice,” Jàl stated. The nervous smile played again across his lips.
“Can the game reset while we’re inside? What will happen to us?”
“I don’t believe that will be possible. Probably find ourselves spit from the program and we’d have to try again but one crisis at a time. No use psyching yourself out before we give it a go.” Jàl cautioned. He pushed Roake's words from his thoughts. He’d wondered that himself but in honesty had no idea what would happen. Finding the globe was all that mattered for now. Naturally some risks had to be accepted.
He crossed the room and refilled his coffee. Stirring the sweetener into the cup, he leaned against a counter and watched while Roake busied herself memorizing the schematics of the games layers.
“I’ve had Doc working on some new equipment. Futuristic shit. None of it has been field tested.” He spoke to Roake’s back, changing the tone of the conversation. He waited until she looked over. “Would you like to see it?”
“Can we transport it across the portal?”
Jàl’s mood lightened. There was the Roake he had come to know. The worry in her voice chased away by her piqued interest.
“Bio-engineering.” He boasted. “Armour that literally fits like skin. The plating should absorb the effects of the Verge weapons. At least for a time. Come on.” He said pushing away from the counter.
Jàl carried his coffee and walked to the far end of the open loft. A metal staircase sank in the corner of the room leading down a floor beneath the massive loft. The best hope for the Sky Dwellers world lay in a distorted version of a video game. Like the rest of the mission, survival hinged on the optimism of an untested future.
Ree-al led to the far end of the room. A door materialized in the blank wall. Jàl strained under the weight of the injured Roake. The avatar disappeared through the opening. Jàl hurried behind. His breath caught. He teetered on the edge of the doors threshold. Three stories of wall fell away to the street below.
Sticking his head out, he looked to the sides. The Avatar had vanished.
“Step through the door. You will be alright.” Ree-al’s voice spoke behind him.
Jàl’s head spun around. “We’re three stories up. The fall will kill us.”
“Trust me.” Ree-al assured. “You will not.” She said while stepping to Roake’s side and settling under the injured soldier’s arm.
Jàl inched his foot past the edge of the opening testing Ree-al’s theory. Slowly sliding his foot past the floor and into empty space.
The high pitched squeal of the Verge reverberated loudly, echoing off the interior walls. The excitement in their wails grew louder. A sign that the monsters were closing in on their prey.
“This had better be a dream,” Jàl cursed under his breath, closed his eyes and took a step of faith. The surface under the soles of his shoes changed from particles of space to solid. Braced for the fall, Jàl willed his feet forward. His heart raced. Peeking from behind clamped eyelids, the familiar surroundings of Manchester street greeted him.
Jàl glanced up from the base of the old bank building. They had crossed back to the starting point of the games construction. He let his eyes roam the surroundings. Several blocks south he recognized the mouth of the alley that led to the hidden door.
“Wow.” He exclaimed. A rush of pent up breath blasted from his mouth. He glanced at the ground beneath his feet then up to where the trio exited the third floor room. How in the …His head swung back and forth at the constantly transforming recreation of Manchester street.
The city scape familiar yet somewhat different. Jàl looked on in fascination. The brush with the Verge momentarily forgotten. Sections of the previously blank voids of the streets appearance shimmered as the games algorithms forged to fill in missing details. Jàl’s mind reeled, overwhelmed by the changes. Could the program be close to completing this section of the groundlier’s world. Jàl locked his mind with the games mainframe to search for new additions to the program.
Excitement changed to horror. Clusters of Verge materialized at the evolving scenery. The monsters chewing and ripping at the budding foundations, eating the digital mass, slowing the buildings growth. The creatures paused in their feeding. As a collective, the heads of the monsters turned in his direction.
“You need to hurry,” Ree-al’s words reminded him of the dire situation. The Verge stopped their frenzied destructive ways and joined in a chorus of wails and shrieks. The creatures leaping from the buildings and gathering on the sidewalks before starting a slow amble in the direction of the escaping trio.
“Down the street is the alley you seek. Find your door,” she urged, pointing away from the bank and the materializing data forming the new building. “I will hold the beasts while you save your friend.”
“How?” Jàl asked. The fabric of Ree-al’s form grew translucent becoming absorbed into a blinding flash of light. Out of the brightness she stepped. Armour coating covered her body. In her hands a large bulbous gun. As the Verge closed the distance, Ree-al fired. Single flashes of red light pulsed toward the approaching horde. The guns ray tearing digital matter from the creatures. The Verge’s cries intensified.
Jàl clamped his free hand to his ear to block the noise. He gave the Avatar a fleeting glance then straightened under Roake’s weight. With Jàl’s support, Roake limped along to keep pace. The pair hustled for the brick wall containing the keypad and back door to reality.
Rusted metal automobiles littered the street. The scene different from the duos last time in the games construct when they raced away from bank and the waiting Verge. The sidewalks in this version were bare of people, but layered with building debris and garbage.
Jàl avoided the cluttered walkways opting for the spaces among the abandoned metal cars of centuries past. The shrill cries of the Verge became unbearable. Jàl let go of Roake. Both hands clamped to his ears before he collapsed to his knees.
Seconds passed. He concentrated to push the crippling noise from his head. Gritting his teeth, he forced his legs to lift his body. His hands tight to his ears, he spun and faced in the direction he left Ree-al. The cries and shrieks of the Verge faded. The avatar stood grounded in the street. The pulses of her gun beating back the virus attempts.
“Let me help you up.” He said, bending down to lift Roake. The effects of the Verge written over the Lieutenants face. Her skin pale and clammy. Her pupils tilted back revealing the whites of her eyes. Jàl pulled Roake to her feet, shot a fleeting glance in the avatar’s direction then clambered down the street for the alley and the doorway to safety.
Jàl watched the replay of the games last scenes moments before he and Roake stepped through the safety of the back door. The animation on the screen frighteningly real.
Ree-al prevailed in the fight. The threat by the Verge was pushed away. The shell of a new floor, an upper floor, Jàl judged from the layout of the structure, grew from digital matter. Fascinated, Jàl sat frozen in front of the bank of computers, his eyes glued to the monitors. His thoughts and hopes, buoyed by the mesmerizing details of the recreation. The computer’s algorithm calculated the degree of accuracy the new projection contained. The scale rose past 85 percent. This building, now the closest he’d come to replicating an actual component from the groundliers world, using the fragmented bits of information available.
His heart rate pumped. Another tool in his search for a doorway into the groundliers world was close at hand. The rate of the compilation increased. Walls shimmered then solidified, rendered windows digitally sketched into the exterior walls transformed from pixels to glass and steel. The image shimmered as the construction came together.
Seconds away from the completion of the building, the lab shook. The shock wave wormed into Jàl’s thoughts. The presence of the room’s vibrations searing his brain before his world went blank.
Roake groaned from the couch. Jàl’s eyes snapped open. His head resting on the desk of monitors. Shaking away the drowsiness, he fought to get a grasp on his surroundings. The monitors glared back at him silently. Slow recognition returned. He focused on the screens. There, he thought. The realistic 3-d rendering of a new building.
Noise from across the room grabbed his attention. The darkness outside the lofts windows registered. It had been early afternoon when he sat at the monitors. How long had he been out? He quickly glanced back at monitors. The time stamp on the computer screen told of evening. Hours had passed. Once again he had blacked out. The episodes grew in frequently. Time to have AILEN run a diagnostic on his implant.
“How you feeling?” He dismissed his problems for later, looking away from the array of computer screens. His eyes darted to the bandage covering the side of Roake’s neck. “The doc says you’ll be fine. The collision with the door rattled your brain. The resulting concussion plus the loss of blood led to your body shutting down. But, the good news. No lasting damage. Doc’s cleared you for duty.” He added.
Roake’s fingers instinctively sought out the bandage. “The implant. Was it… damaged?”
Jàl saw a flicker of fear ghost across her features. He mulled her question. She was astutely aware of the ramifications caused by a damaged implant. Days would be wasted if the faulty circuit needed to be replaced and additional time for her body to accept the foreign object. Time he projected that was growing short.
If the implant was destroyed, Roake’s help on the mission ended and no replacement waited. Rubbing his chin, Jàl regarded the young lieutenant. He choose his words carefully. Telling her the truth seemed like the less appealing option.
Yes, he said to himself, the implant had been damaged and should have been replaced but Jàl wasn’t certain he could beat the game on his own and selflessly wanted Roake by his side. So, by his own volition, he removed the option of waiting for Roake to undergo the intricate surgery and work through the adjustment period required for her brain to adapt to the new device.
While Roake lay unconscious and after the doc left, Jàl took matters into his hands. A rash decision but one clearly needed, he rationalized. With the tremors shaking the city in the clouds with increased frequency and the Verge growing more aggressive in their attempts to destroy the burgeoning program, what choice did he have. The modifications he preformed to save Roake’s implant cloned her consciousness by melding it with the computers mainframe. The changes were almost on par with the upgrades to his own circuits .
A few doubts weighed heavy. Would she suffer from the same headaches he now believed were the result of his modified implant, and what if she didn’t want to pursue the dangers of the 9-dimensional world waiting on the other side of his virtual doorway. A choice he made for her. How would she react?
“No. No damage to the implant. Everything is good,” he lied. The time for the truth could wait. Once inside the game, the changes to her programming would become obvious and he promised to come clean. Until then.
“We go back in tomorrow.” He swung back to the monitors. “You know where the good stuff is,” he said, referring to the black market soda squirrelled away in his loft, “Relax, clear your head and rest up. I’ve got to recode the programming and find a way to reverse the effects of the Verge. They have evolved past the safe limits in the games parameters. Our last skirmish proved how dangerous they have become.”
The Wolves of Satan.
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