Sitting quietly in the dark, Jàl wallowed in his thoughts. Theory and probabilities mixed with reason and formulated understanding scored the tracks of his mind. A fevered moan interrupted the computations swirling behind his unseeing eyes.
Jàl blinked the room into focus. Roake lay only feet away. The light of a new day chased the darkness into hiding. Unsure of what to do, Jàl lay the back of his hand across his friend’s forehead. Her skin warm and clammy. Bending close, he lay his ear next to Roake’s mouth. Shallow wheezing breaths whispered from her lips.
The excitement of the night’s discovery now distant as concern for his stricken partner tugged him crashing back to reality.
“I wish I knew what to tell you. How to reassure you that everything will turn out fine.” Jàl rested the palm of his hand on Roake’s shoulder. “I’ll have to leave you here while I continue our search for the globe. Now more then ever is the need to find my way to the groundliers home.” He turned and gazed toward the opposite end of the store. Silently he watched the light of day stream in through the grimy glass windows.
Details of the stores interior made his thoughts drift. Wherever his eyes touched, a sense of realism returned. The materials composing the interior were well past some random digital rendering. Knowing he currently existed inside the Mixed-Reality dimension was barely enough to convince his brain that what he was seeing wasn’t real. The level of the game had transformed completely. At least inside this building. But what about once he walked out the door?
Jàl scanned the area near the door. His and Roake’s weapons lay on the ground. One last look about the room and he knew what came next. Reluctantly he accepted the path he must take.
“You’ll be alright while I’m gone,” he said shaking his head to convince himself of his words. He stole one last glance down at the virus racked Roake to insure his decision was sound before he walked away. Near the door he knelt and slung the strap of Roake’s gun over his shoulder then cradled his rifle in his hand and gazed out the window next to the door.
The sidewalk remained barren with the slow beginning of the new day. The prospects of what he imagined he’d see blocked by the grime covered glass. Jàl mentally prepared for what he was certain came next. His finger caressed the trigger of the gun as he swung the door open and ventured into the light of morning. He paused in the shelter of the store’s entrance.
His view lay unobstructed. The fact the vicinity loomed bare failed to register as his eyes greedily ran the length of the sidewalk then the street before circling back to study the composition of the front wall of the store. A trick of the brain or…
A couple feet later and the game began filling in the missing pieces. Soon, the sidewalk choked with human forms. Scything his way past a standing huddle stalled in his way the puzzlement of the games realistic vista released the grip on his mind at the discovery of an unnerving surprise. Jàl took a step back, fitting into the group of bodies huddled on the sidewalk.
Out in the open, mixed among the human forms, a pair of Verge stood fully exposed on the opposite sidewalk. The creatures in the midst of the early crowd. Jàl puzzled at the different tactics adopted by the level’s programming. Until now, the creatures only revealed themselves when he melded with the mainframe and surrendered his position. The day was new and he’d been careful, so how had these two discover his location?
Jàl squeezed another peek past the stand of game pieces. The Verge remained across the street, motionless. Their eyes looked away from where he hid. Jàl’s breath caught in his throat as his eyes strayed from monsters. Scanning the morning crowds he picked out other Verge dotted amongst the crowds of random pieces. To his relief, none of the monsters had noticed him yet.
Careful, he matched the steps of the crowds lumbering down the sidewalk. Step for step he walked. His eyes darted between the locations of Verge. His heart raced with anticipation. Scared to stare too long at any of the monsters, he stuck with the crowd, bending his eyes forward and relying on a hidden sense to signal an alert.
Three quarters of the way to the corner, Jàl stepped around a pair of bodies slowing to a halt. Ahead, a red light glared overhead. Nervous twitches jerked his head in search of waiting enemies, his fingers white as they gripped the rifle tight. On one turn of his head, a view down an alley made him swing his eyes back for a double take.
At the edge of his vision, a splatter of unstable light yanked at his attention. Stopping full on in the opening his eyes strained under furrowed brows prying into the depths of the shadows painted across the brick walled tunnel. Then, caught by the corner of his sight, another fizzle of unstable matter flicked.
An overwhelming force tugged him forward. The curiosity too strong to ignore. Jàl left the relative security that came with hiding in the mass of bodies populating the sidewalks and crossed to the mouth of the alley.
Standing still in the entrance, a sense of familiarity teased his brain. The alley, with its real world appearance, and even the limited light cloaking the far end, all of this combined to create an unsettling feeling of Deja Vu.
Racked with indecision, Jàl wavered at the opening. He accepted the mission to locate the Globe and use the information gathered to create a gateway to the groundliers world and hopefully return with a cure, but the route spread before him demanded his attention. Why? Could these be the images from his dreams? And if they were, why now? Why tempt him when…
… the ground shook violently. Did the buildings nearest just flash? Probably not, he realized and clamped his eyes shut as his mind prepared to battle the inevitable journey into blackness that followed closely on the heels of these severe disruptions to his world. Seconds passed. Lifting one lid, he peeked out at the street. Everything stood remarkably peaceful.
In the eery quiet, a theory leaked from his subconscious. If this was indeed the spectre out of his dreams… then could the doorway possibly lie near. Did he need the Globe to locate the gateway to the lowest level of Earth? Maybe not.
Unable to resist the temptation any longer, Jàl twisted around and placed a tentative foot into the yawning mouth of the alley. Concern for Roake rallied to halt his progress. The thought of her, infected by the virus, unattended and vulnerable, the memory of her pale image as she lay stretched on the table back at the store, hammered against the curiosity to investigate the recesses of the brick tunnel. Still, one foot fell in front of the other.
Twenty steps into the alluring darkness, a sizzle of air and the fractured sparks of unstable molecules lit the air to Jàl’s side. A quick turn of his head revealed the building, or rather lack of building, perched ghostly on the corner as it fluctuated between dimensions of realities.
Through the foggy haze of displacement caused by the fluctuating matter of the structure, Jàl caught sight of a smattering of beastly figures. Grotesque silhouettes adorned with sagging brownish skin and bulbous eyes. The monsters pooled tight along the edge of the sidewalk. Their numbers increasing with each beating pulse of the building’s mass phasing in and out of reality. The creatures gazed into the depths of the foundation. Their heads cast down in a pose of mourning.
The panic in Jàl’s chest lifted after the initial sighting of the creatures. Fear and flight eased as his mind switched to studying the strange behaviour. Caught in mid step, he watched. The line of Verge stood still as statues, their growing numbers exposed each time the bulk of the building flitted from the current dimension. What about the fluctuations of the structure lured the monsters to this spot?