Jàl limped around the corner. His breathing laboured, mouthfuls of stagnate air flowing past his lips in rasping gulps. Stupid, he chastised himself. One little lapse in judgment and now the whole city is out searching for him. How could he be so careless?
“Get a move on,” Roake shouted over her shoulder.
“Yeah. Give me a minute to catch my breath,” Jàl panted his reply.
“We don’t have a minute. The Verge are closing in. Can’t say for sure what will happen if they catch us.” She shouted.
“I think I can stop them. I need some time to concentrate. And I can’t do that while I’m gasping for air.”
“The magnificent Jàl Condor.” Roake stretched the emphasize of his first name, pronouncing it Yell. “Whoo. Those monsters are probably shaking in their boots.” Roake mocked. “A couple more steps. That’s all. Get your ass in gear soldier.”
Jàl let his argument die with Roake’s words. He refilled his aching lungs, then sprinted. He followed Roake into the alley. The crowded noise of Manchester street faded as they moved deeper into the walled tunnel.
“There.” She pointed toward the brick facade. “This has to be close to where we entered. We need to hurry.”
The relative quiet of the alley behind the pair exploded in mind-numbing shrills. Jàl spun on his feet. His hands thrown up and clamped over his ears to block the grating, high pitched squeals as he peered back at the mouth of the alley where it parted from the busy street.
Two women and a man approached from the corner. The trio’s human disguises shimmered in and out of view with the fluctuating shadows in the alley interrupting the flow of light beaming from the sunlit street.
Jàl studied the creatures. The carefully detailed shells the beasts created to mimic the form of human avatars populating the game, exposed in the fractured sunlight. Even from a distance, the yellow tinge surrounding the irises of the Verge’s eyes was apparent to Jàl. And the slight, odd mannerisms, the only other tell-tale signs betraying the alien intruders. But now, in the consuming shade of the alley, the Verge’s facades melted, the monster’s human forms evaporating as they stepped farther away from the lighted street.
Lucky for him and Roake that she noticed the Verge lurking in the old bank building blocks north of the alley. The cluster of the creatures hidden throughout the interior of the building where Jàl and Roake believed free of the games monstrosities, and home to the prize needed to complete this level of the game.
His mind refocused as the lead Verge snaked its heads farther around the corner. The abominations joined in a chorus of high pitched squeals, the noise rising in tempo as their combined excitement settled on the trapped prey.
Jàl stood dumbfounded. The number of times he had witnessed the mind retching noise the Verge used to communicate, he had yet to figure out how the abominations understood each other with the screechy language spewing from their mouths. His curiosity overruled his need for flight.
“Jàl. We’ve got to move.” Roake’s voice broke into his trance.
Wide-eyed, Jàl stood fixed to the ground as one of the creatures lumbered in his direction. The trio of ugliness trudged closer. The trio walked shoulder to shoulder. Loud, shrill exchanges emanated from the beasts. Jàl turned in Roake’s direction. His injured leg slowing his escape.
Roake leaned close to the section of the wall. Her hands busily searching the rough brick material looking for a way to open the hidden door and escape this latest nightmare.
Jàl limped closer. “Over there.” He pointed. “Up. To your right.” The upgraded transplant in his skull locking on the metal box hidden in the wall.
Roake scrambled for the keypad disguised in the brick pattern. Her hand rubbing along the surface, feeling for the smooth plate of the sensor. Spittle began to rain down on the two. The Verge awkwardly rumbled closer. The shrill screams of their voices overwhelming, filling the void created by the rising walls of the buildings lining the alley.
Jàl pushed Roake’s hand aside and jammed his hand on the smooth panel. The sensor beeped. The impenetrable wall of brick and mortar shimmered. A black passage opened. With a shove, Jàl pushed Roake through the opening before diving after her. He landed on his hands. His palms pressing on the safety of the familiar metal floor. A womb of darkness welcoming the fleeing pair.
Jàl flipped on his backside, his eyes travelling back to the opening. The opening dissolved first. The view, from his side of the wall flashed transparent. He remained on the floor, frozen. The Verge continued onward. Their momentum carried them into the now solid wall. The beasts recoiled and stared at the brick where seconds earlier the door materialized.
“That was too close. You would think that the number of times we’ve played this game, we would be familiar with the habits of the Verge. It’s like they adapt and change each time we restart the program.” He sat on the ground watching the monsters scratch and hammer the wall. Puzzled, he remained on the floor, his intrigue matching his confusion. “Impossible,” he mumbled in the dark. “This is not an expected part of the programming.”
The transparent opening faded to darkness and the room's lights brightened. Turning from the source of their ordeal, Jàl nervously laughed at his fatal mistake. His head tilted upward in a sheepish glance over at Roake. Her face left little doubt how amusing she found the proceedings.
“You’re an asshole,” she grumbled. “If the Verge catch us, I doubt we’ll make it out of the game.”
“We were so close,” he said in defence. A grin brightened his boyish features while his fingers combed through his shaggy hair. “The globe was within reach. Damn. Seconds longer. That’s all I needed.”
Jàl stood and dusted off his khakis. Roake climbed to her knees. Reaching down, Jàl extended his hand to assist Roake to her feet.
“One of these days you’ll go too far,” she slapped his hand away.
“Why must you insist on pushing our luck.” She turned her back to the wall.
“It’s only a game. Don’t be overdramatic.”
“The consequences are real when we’re in the framework. We could still die. Don’t you realize that.”
“Come on. We don’t know that for certain. Besides, we always manage to escape before the Verge tag us.”
“Have I said that you are an asshole.” Roake stormed away. “Computer. Replay the last 5 minutes of the Mixed Reality session.” She instructed.
“When the Verge are close to me.” Jàl hesitated. “It’s like I can see inside their heads.” He recalled the first appearance by the Verge in the bank. How, when they startled him, he unexpectedly held the Verge frozen with his thoughts. The showdown was brief, but still?
“If I concentrate, I believe it may be possible to change their actions with my mind. Yes,” he shook his head confirming words. “I know I can.” Then Jàl retreated to his thoughts not bothering to tell Roake about the adaptations he made to his implant. He snapped out of his self-imposed trance with a sudden burst of excited energy, expanding on his formulations. “If I’m right, which I probably am. With the proper training, I might be able to render the Verge helpless or at least slow them.” He walked to the mini fridge in his lab and grabbed an energy drink.
“You want one.” He held the can high, waiting for Roake’s answer.
Carrying the drinks, he walked behind the station with the computer manifolds. Finding his favourite cushion, he plopped down. His train of thought returned to the unusual powers he accidentally discovered within the walls of the game. Hard to explain the changes to Roake. He needed time to test the abilities of his new found mental agility. The next time they entered the game, he had to find a safe place to probe the extent of his mental prowess.
“I wonder how this could happen? What’s the cause?” he thought out loud. “I never programmed any type of…” he looked over at Roake, wiggling his fingers to make his point. “special powers or unfair advantages for us. The program is only supposed to be a simulated training program.
Okay. I will modestly admit, the Verge are a nice compliment to the training exercise. Ingenious, I might add. My idea of programming the enemy to resemble hideous creatures and all. It does stimulate one's desire not to lose. But in the same breath, the advantage of a cognizant interface with the games program while inside the realm of the game won’t benefit us in this reality.”
Roake rubbed the base of her neck. The implant began irritating her again.
“What do you suppose General Dimitri will say once he discovers that you’re using his funds to make Holo games.”
“What?” Jàl asked. “The devices I promised, work. Maybe not exactly as promised, but the potential is there. My research is still a ways from mass development, but the basics are fundamentally sound. And besides. The game is fun and vital. The information we are collecting while in the mainframe will help me find a portal to the lowest level,” he smiled over at her. “You’re the best agent he has and the training will only better your instincts. In time I can expand its use.”
Jàl fell silent. A disturbing and annoying habit to everyone who knew him. His ability to zone everyone out in mid-conversation while he became lost to a new flow of ideas.
Roake’s hand returned to the red rash at the base of her neck. Regret on her part for agreeing to the implant and the participation in Jàl’s trials. The damn thing was driving her crazy. She turned her eyes to the bank of computer monitors. The screens showed the Verge still sniffing around the wall. Odd, she realized. The monsters only existed in the game's coding. The program should have reverted back to the beginning once her and Jàl escaped.
Unless he tweaked the code and found a way to hold the timeline. Even still. Why would the Verge remain at the wall? Freaky. And eerily, too real.
“The implant still giving you problems.” Roake flinched at Jàl’s comment. His returned awareness jolting her from her concerns. “Is that why you had problems locating the keypad at the exit?”
“No. I don’t think so.” Roake hesitated. Her hand subconsciously touched the inflamed redness on her neck. “I don’t know. Maybe.” Her eyes jumped back to the computer monitors. A more pressing concern lay before her.
“Have you modified the programming on the stimulation?”
Jàl fixed Roake with a confused stare. “No. Why. Did you find something wrong with the replay?”
Roake glanced back at the screens. The alley was empty. The Verge, gone. The game paused.
“Noooo.” She let the word hang in the air. Her confusion apparent. “I think we pushed too hard today that’s all. I’m tired. I’m going to take a nap before the party tonight.” Roake gave the screens a quick second look. “We have to be at the Generals by eight. Wake me in a couple of hours.” Her words trailed off as she crossed the lab and climbed the stairs to the loft.