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.