Jàl’s mind spun at the impact of Conners words.
“If that’s true, why don’t I remember. Something that spectacular would surely be memorable.”
“The experiment you talked about. The one in, what did you call it…” Conners Lee fell silent searching his memory, “Mixed- Dimensions or something along those lines.”
“Mixed-Reality,” Jàl quickly corrected.
“Yes, yes,” Conners Lee continued his line of thinking. “You theorized the games main-frame might cause memory blips whenever it re-set. How has the game progressed over the years? Can you now interface with the main-frame? You had hoped to make the adjustments. How intertwined have you and the program grown?”
Jàl’s hand snuck up to the bump at the base of his skull feeling for the hard body of the in-plant. How many times over the course of his experiment had he replaced the tiny biotic circuit to gain better control over the games advancing algorithms. Too many to recall, he admitted to himself.
“Things have changed from the beginning,” he answered still unable to accept that he’d previously accessed the portal to the Groundliers level.
“You will have to fill me in then?” Jàl begged Conners Lee. “How did I first arrive? And, were you there when I crossed the portal?” A thousand questions swirled in Jàl’s teeming mind. Before his host had the chance to begin divulging information, a horrific vibration rocked the very floor the two stood.
Blood drained from Jàl’s face. He never thought the quakes were anywhere other then the sky city.“What was that?” He hoped for a different answer then the one already hammering at his brain.
“I’ve something to show you.” Conners Lee admitted. “Something that maybe only you can make sense of.”
Jàl changed into the clothes Lee set out for his disguise, flipped up the cotton hood on the sweater as advised and followed the Groundlier back out into the alley. Lee stopped at the corner of the building and gazed out onto the exposed sidewalk. For several seconds he watched the crowds pass in under the flickering street lights before signalling Jàl to follow.
The pair mingled with the small groups of human forms moving about, stopping and waiting when they came to the end of the sidewalk and faced a red light. On green, the two walked on, blending with different clusters as they made their way away from the safety of the room hidden in the alley.
A grand case of deja-vu stopped Jàl in mid stride. A half block ahead and diagonally across the next corner stood the brick bank building from his program. The similarity uncanny. Jàl felt a bump in his back as the flow of foot traffic became interrupted by his sudden stop.
“What?” Conners Lee stepped to his side. The Groundlier swung his head around for unforeseen dangers.
“The building,” Jàl started. “The algorithms set about creating the game.” His words fell silent as he stood in the middle of the sidewalk and cast his eyes about. Wonder sparked his senses leaving him mobile while he gawked at the familiar streetscape. One he’d recognize anywhere, even in the gathering darkness under rows of yellow burning bulbs. “These streets are the layout of the Mixed-Reality dimension, the foundation my game is built on. Incredible.”
“We must hurry,” Jàl felt a tug on his arm at Conners’ words. “We can’t let anyone see you.”
Suddenly, a loud cry filled the air. The all too familiar whines and shrieks of the Verge. Jàl’ looked about puzzled then toward Conners Lee for an explanation.
“Warning alarms,” The look on the Groundliers face was grave. “The collapse of another building.” The Groundlier searched in turn for the alarms origin.
“This way,” Conners Lee urged.
The pair jogged down the sidewalk. Shortly past the bank building, an early evening crowd began clustering. Following Conners Lee, Jàl busted past the ranks of onlookers and froze. Lined on the sidewalk, a row of Verge stood at the edge of a crumbled building. The structure little more than a ring of concrete left to mark the building’s footprint.
Jàl pulled back for a place to hide. Glancing at Conners Lee’s face, he caught the confusion shaping the Groundlier’s expression.
“What is the matter?” Lee glanced from Jàl back toward the brownish, hooded figures.
“The Verge. They’re real.”
“Verge. What the hell are Verge?”
Jàl lifted his arm, his finger pointing to the line of monsters staring into the open excavation. The muscles forming contorting Conners Lee’s face relaxed.
“I’m not certain what you mean by Verge, but those people are are emergency workers, first responders. Their job is to secure and cordon off the area for safety plus they’ll search for survivors trapped when the building collapsed,” the last three words faded from Lee’s mouth. “The rumble we felt. This must be where it originated. This office tower has shown signs of deterioration. Over the last few days, the pace has increased but no one thought,” Lee spun back to gaze over the open pit.
“This is not the only one.” He paused and gulped the dusty air. "Over the past several years, a series of structures have been…I don’t know…dissolved, I guess. The materials constructing the building…have slowly faded over time. The greatest minds of our city are left dumb founded. No one can explain exactly how this happens.”
Forgetting about being discreet, Conners Lee pulled Jàl into the midst of the Verge protecting the open foundation. “When the process is finished, there will be very little debris remaining. It’s like… the structure is sucked from our reality.” The Groundlier stopped and noisily sucked another disturbed breath into his heaving lungs. “Do you understand what I’m saying? Does this make any sense to you? What about from where you come from. Are the occurrences the same?”
“When did this happened? Do you recall? The timing is very important.” Jàl emphasized. His worry of the brownish skinned Verge and their bulbous eyes and protruding snouts all but ignored. His curiosity piqued by the odd disappearance of the earth anchored buildings. A curiosity that soon sent a shiver of fear running the length of his spine. Did he not witness the same…he stepped back of the crowd of Verge and studied the street. The nearest corner of the building in question led into an brick walled alley. One he was certain he’d visited before.
Holy shit. The words set alarm bells clattering in his head. This chunk of streetscape, the alley and corner he stood, all matched the images in his mind of the building he witnessed the Verge moping over moments before he stepped through the hidden gateway to this level.
How could that be possible? The Mixed-Reality program merely rendered facsimiles of the ancient buildings. Or did it? How could he be certain, he found himself wondering. The transference of materials over dimensions. Is that even such a thing and if it was, could his program be stealing the buildings from the Groundliers to reproduce his dimension and thus be the cause the aftershocks.
Another holy shit rumbled under his breath as reality reached down and slapped him. Small clouds of dust floated over the empty hole. The bits of flotsam, the only particles remaining of the towering building that occupied the empty space short moments before. Still, were these the same aftershocks that rattled his Cloud City? His home rested miles above all the problems of the Groundliers and hundreds of stories above even the barbaric middle class.
Jàl backed a few steps from the edge of the foundation and tilted his head skyward. The dark and dust mixed with a thin haze and floated high above the street erasing the top of the surrounding buildings. Squinting, he focused on the wall of the nearest structure and ran his eyes up the length of the exterior. The haze played tricks with his vision until the focus of his sight broke through the wisps of altering air.
From one building to the next he peered to the top of the structures. Well, not really the tops because all the buildings continued unabated until he could not longer see the edges of each structure. The buildings were all intertwined. The ones on the ground, support columns for those built above.
If he could follow these structures as they travelled miles into the air, he imagined that he’d eventually come upon the bottom of the Cloud City. Each time a building on the bottom suffered a similar fate as the one he stood beside, the aftershocks climbed the length of the towering structures and shook the massive city on all three levels, in theory anyways, he admitted. Nd if his program kept snatching the supporting foundations, what then?
But he needed more information. A moment of lucidity crowded Jàl’s brain. Good, he thought, this may well explain the quakes that shook his city. What did any of this have to do with the virus, became the second question he put to himself? In the back of his mind some lost thought intertwined the two problems.
In his haste to capture a glimpse of the uppermost part of the structures, gravity tugged at the cloth hood pulled tight over his hair. The material slipped away. Reams of harsh light from ancient light posts lit his head and exposed his face.
One of the brownish skinned Verge standing nearby noticed and pointed in his direction. Warning shouts lifted through the layer of dust hovering above the sidewalk. With a target in sight, the creatures left their stations and moved as one.
“This way,” Conners Lee yanked Jàl out of his ruminations.