Jàl lost track of direction in the pairs movements throughout the streets. All the twists and turns of the monster rushing in the lead kept him too busy to stop and snap images of landmarks for a return trip if needed. At last the pair bust out a side door and stepped into a side alley.
Towering brick walls created a tunnel effect and the lack of sunlight let a chill in the air. Jàl froze as he took in the familiarity. A twitch of his nostrils detected a difference in the air. The game’s environment was closed, stale. Now, the air seemed fuller, alive almost. Nothing he’d ever…yet he had. The memory surfaced from somewhere deep within his archived memory banks.
From the corner of his eye flashes of the monster transforming. The wrinkled brownish skin peeled away or more accurately, fell away. The Verge, calling himself Conners Lee, shuffled his feet, one at a time and left the empty shell fall to the dusty dirt covered road. Jàl stared. His curiosity refused to be contained.
“Excuse me.” He blurted. The Verge raised a finger silencing his request.
“Soon,” Conners Lee said and stepped quickly away from the door and hurried toward the sidewalk. Breaching the corner of the brick building, Jàl once again froze. Manchester street, his Manchester street, the very same, lay spread out in front of him.
Exhaust coughing automobiles snorted along the wide street. Their mechanical bodies separated from where he and the monster stood by only the width of the sidewalk. The grey smoke hovering over the street and adding a sting to the air Jàl breathed in. Things are different, his brain sent short nudges of warnings throughout his system.
Before Jàl had time to process the situation, his mind strayed in a new direction. Bodies swam into his vision. A smattering of… ‘human forms’ walked about their business. Instinctively, Jàl’s hand fell to his side. Of course the blaster was no longer there. He’d just been released from captivity. A nervous search of the game piece’s faces failed to reveal the yellow tinged eyes of the disguised Verge.
“This way,” Jàl felt a hand tug at his arm. Conners Lee sprang into the moving cluster of a small crowd. Jàl followed, reluctant but more intrigued then worried. What happened to make things change. Again his thoughts returned to the Globe’s warning. Is she in my head and leading forward to a trap of no return, he wondered.
A pain in his lungs brought all worries to a halt. Jàl collapsed to his knees. The air heavy and harsh. It clung to the roof of his mouth and clogged his nostrils. Feeble wisps of the air bled through his constricted airway scratching the lining of his throat and hurt his lungs. Jàl’s mouth pulsed, his teeth ground as he tried to squash the air and drag small chunks of it deep to ease the pressure squeezing his starving lungs.
“You alright pal,” Conners Lee rushed to his side. “You don’t look so well.”
Jàl lifted a finger delaying an answer while he sucked in the heavy air. “Altitude.” He mumbled. “Are we really…” Jàl ran his hand over the porous surface of the sidewalk then swivelled his head slowly, his eyes drinking in the details of the game pieces and then the buildings. All the while, the air so close to the ground, almost too thick for lungs long acclimated to breathing the wispy, thin sustaining atmosphere miles above Earths surface, switched the bodies senses to survival mode trying to draw one more breath of life.
The only place he could image that that would happen…a small smile lifted the edges of his mouth. Maybe he really did find a passageway to the Groundliers lair. For one, the air so thick at this altitude that besides feeling he had to chew before he breathed, the heavier molecules explained the harsh burning as his lungs struggled to fill.
“One second,” Jàl stalled further. A final deep breath and the oxygen in his bloodstream caught up with his racing heart. Standing, he extended an arm.
“Gad to meet you, Conners Lee.” He said. The smile on his face growing with relief on two fronts. He did it. He matched the game and found a portal. The smile continued as he thought of Roake and how he would return with a cure.
“Lead the way.” He conceded, his hand flourishing royally across his body, yielding to Lee’s instructions.
Darkness blotted out the sky by the time the two turned into a final alley. Conners Lee walked in silence. Jàl following blindly on the man’s heels. Lee walked half the length of the brick tunnel then stopped and faced a wall. Jàl watched the silhouette of the Groundlier move among the darker shadows erasing the details of the surrounding space.
Strained eyes followed the traces of a hand slide over the rough brick façade. Seconds of silence surrendered as an audible click sounded a half microsecond before a grimy lightbulb burned its glow against the night reclaiming a small portion of the immediate area. The scant ray of yellow revealed a doorway flushed from the shadows.
A nervous look about to see if any followed and Lee swung the door open and motioned Jàl inside.
“Home as it is,” he said following close on Jàl’s heels. The door snicked closed, the room sat quiet and still before a string of bare bulbs strung high in the ceiling chased away the darkness, adding life to a small room. Benches and shelves cluttered the floor leaving thin paths snaking across the floor. Reams of paper lay like a film of dust over every available space. Crammed in a corner, a tall chalk board stood sentinel, the writing area swarmed with calculations.
Jàl stood only feet inside the room. His eyes busy switching to and fro taking in every detail. Is this how people live on the lowest levels of Earth, he wondered. How, how was it possible to maintain any train of reasoning surrounded by this sea of untidiness?
“Over here.” A voice called from somewhere deep in the mess. Jàl left his trance and squinted into the chaos tracking Conners Lee. A hand waved from behind a cabinet stacked high with…books. Paper books no less, Jàl was quick to notice. Picking a path that seemed to meander in the right direction, he walked toward his new friend.
“Why are we here?” Jàl called above the towers of books and papers. “Is this where you work?”
“Oh, goodness no,” Conners Lee replied. “Of course not. This is my home. My lab is a complete disaster. You should see it. It is crammed to the rafters with my studies.”
Jàl looked about as he inched through the thin path toward the back of the room. Lee’s word causing a new layer of worry.
“Why are we here?” Jàl risked the question now that the pair were no longer racing down busy sidewalks and blind alley ways. The words dribbled from his lips as he stepped to the edge of the thin path. His next step carried him away from the clusters of shelves and papers to an open space at the far side of the building. Comfortable looking furniture spread across a colourful rug surrounded by antique viewing equipment separated this space from the stacks and closeness of the front of the room.
Conners Lee stood next to a counter with a sink and what Jàl surmised was an open fridge. The small square steel box emitted a light from its interior.
“You thirsty?” Lee held up a tin can in his hand. Jàl shrugged away the answer. His eyes busy adjusting to the sudden change in the rooms appearance.
“Yeah…I…is it good?” He finally answered pointing to Lee’s hand. The man tossed the container in Jàl’s direction. Fumbling the catch, he twisted it in his hand studying the odd cylindrical tube. Thin metal sealed the ends of the can. With a touch of pause, Jàl slipped his finger nail under a thin tab and pulled. A release of air and bubble squeezed from the opening. Curious, he lifted the liquid to his nose. Sweet smelling bubbles of air foamed. Jàl’s eyes searched across the short space to find Conners Lee. The man nodded toward the open can urging his consent.
A taste on the tongue then a dribble ran down Jàl’s throat. The liquid sparked the sensors at the back of his throat as the sirupy fluid raced to his stomach. The second swig was bigger. The texture, the bubbles similar to the contraband sodas of his Sky City.
“So. Where do we start.” Jàl said after emptying the remainder of the can. “This is the Groundliers world, is it not?”
Conners Lee returned Jàl’s stern look.
“We refer to it as Earth, but you can call it whatever you like, I suppose.”
A wide smile scooted across Jàl’s face. Bringing his brief period of joy under control the neurones in his brain sparked in all directions with the questions he wanted to ask. Instead, a simple statement left his lips.
“I knew it was possible. I made it.”
Conners Lee’s features twisted in a confused lilt. “Why wouldn’t you?” Conners Lee remarked. At his noting of the blank look on Jàl’s face, he added. “You don’t remember, do you?”
“What,” the single word shot from Jàl’s mouth, “Remember what?”
Conners Lee swept his arm to include the stacks and shelves of papers the two had walked through only moments earlier.
“One day, many years ago, we stood in this very place. All my notes, all my research, you are the cause of this.”