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.