The plan was to move fast. Attack and keep the enemy off balance long enough to traverse the hundred yard span of sidewalk between store fronts. Jàl watched the crowd in front of the store transition from preprogrammed game fillers to a combination of human replicates and bug eyed, snout breathing creatures. Nerves tightened observing the change of the crowd milling about aimlessly on the sidewalk yards from where he stood.
Through the grimy, film streaked glass the transformation occurring feet away outside of the window, Jàl felt his confidence wane. Soon, a notably higher percentage of Verge dotted the crowd the outside the shop, the creatures outnumbering the contingent of human pawns. Another new twist with the advanced level of the game, Jàl realized. A groan rumbled in his chest, his outlook matched by Roake.
“The odds are not good,” she commented. “Is there another way? Can we blast through the walls into the next space and so on? Stay undercover and off the sidewalk?”
“Not likely. Remember. We’re inside a digital world. While the program produces a full panoramic picture that tricks our senses on the outside, the interiors for the majority of these buildings do not exist. No amount of blasted particles will allow us to slip along silently and out of sight.”
Roake dropped her hand to the munitions belt wrapped around her waist. “Ready your rifle?” She ordered. “Once we walk through that door, we’ll need every ounce of luck we can muster.”
Jàl’ activated the long guns safety. The chamber flashed green. “Stay low and tight to the base of the store fronts. We need to cut the shortest, quickest line past the crowded sidewalk. Oh, move among the game pieces, use their bodies as shields. The beasts vastly out number our weapons so we’ll need the advantage.” She warned. “This is about to get messy.”
Roake features tightened as her eyes fell on Jàl’s face. With a nod she turned and placed her hand on the door. A blood curdling yell ripped from her throat. The barrel of the particle rifle in her arms lowered and ready, she left the safety of the store. Singed flesh and super-heated air moved along with the crowd, flowing along the sidewalk.
Jàl stepped close on Roake’s heals. Pulses of particle matter slashed the air around his head. Is the store where he remembered, the thought rode his mind. Self doubt gripped his shoulders as pieces of digital human husks fell against him. Digital bodies sizzled under the intense fire of the enemy. Jàl caught glances of Roake as she weaved among the oblivious sea of bodies. The pulses of her rifle, methodical, as she tracked and assaulted the bug headed creatures.
A blast of light pinged off of Jàl’s shoulder. The force pushed him off path. The bio suit absorbed the bulk of the beam, but he flinched at the stinging burn left by the incredible heat of contact. Ducking, he snaked forward, bending lower lose himself among legs the shuffling game pieces. With his rifle aimed sideways and up, he caught snippets of the monsters advancing to seal his escape.
All around, bodies flopped and crashed off of him and littered the ground. Tripping hazards forced him to concentrate more on stepping around or over the scattered obstacles and less time tracking the enemy. A quick glance to the right revealed the short distance they had travelled. A quick scan ahead failed to locate the building remembered from the dream.
“UGMM!” The painful exclamation echoed back to his ears. Jàl swung his head up and forward in time to witness Roake stumble. A mist of scorched air wafted from her side. Fibres of the blue jumpsuit Roake wore over her bio armour glowed red around the seared edges.
Roake faltered shoulder first into a forest of legs. Her weight forward knocking a swath of game pieces off balance. The disruptive action rippled outward hollowing an expanding circle cut at the edge of the busy walkway.
Jàl stepped over the splayed bodies. His concern for Roake yanked his focus off the merging Verge. A shower of particle blasts probed the bowl of writhing, tangled body parts of the human forms. Jàl’s free hand snatched at the cloth on Roake’s shoulder, lifting her free of the entanglement. Pushing her ahead, he tracked to the side away from the fallen pieces and tighter to the exteriors of the passing walls containing the businesses.
“Can you walk,” he shouted above the thundering din of the circling monsters. Roake shook her head and limped forward. Her arm outstretched and sliding along the store front for stability. Between pulses of his rifle, Jàl snuck glances at the passing shops. The words he spoke so surely about in knowing the globe’s location faded allowing doubt to filter into the cracks of his mind, eroding what confidence remained. Did he let an untested theory escort him and Roake to their end?
The drag of battle warped all concept of time. Fear wrestled to paralyze his mind. How far had they travelled? Had they gone too far and passed the opening? Did the recent appearance of the globe in his thoughts consist solely of wishful thinking rather than a route to escape the level. The growing enigma clouded all rational.
In protective mode, Jàl’s mind partitioned his brain from the raging battle. His left arm holding the blaster fell to his side as he lagged among the plodding bodies of the digital crowd. His head turned away from the carnage on the sidewalk, his eyes locked on the passing fronts of the chain of stores.
The sizzle of enemy fire gouged holes into the exterior of the buildings, the searing blasts ignored in his singular focus. Unfettered by the danger surrounding him, he matched pace with the blank shells of digital humans that to this point survived the Verge blasters. Basic instincts guided his feet as they avoided the obstacles of fallen bodies.
A sunken doorway containing a drab coloured door called an end to his hunt. The picture he had saved in his mind. A blast of air shot from his nostrils. Relief that he wasn’t wrong snatched him from his trance. The excitement bubbled as he turned.
“ROAKE,” he shouted as he searched around for his partner. Her name died in his throat as she flashed into view a micro-second before a ball of intense, blinding light erased everything. In stop framed motion he watched Roake’s body lift off the ground. An expanding surge of energy flung her into the narrow entrance. The impact of her body caught his and drove the pair back.
The sequence so fast that the rise of panic threatening to paralyze Jàl’s movements disappeared in the same instance as his breath stampeded from his chest when the weight of Roake’s body crunched against him. He remembered the odd sound of breaking and tearing lumber as the door frame gave way under the combination of their bodies.
Darkness flickered before his eyes. A desperate battle raged in the wounded tissues of his brain as the trauma of the injury threatened to shut things down and bring about a safe reboot. Slow seconds passed where he wallowed between light and dark. A final flutter of his eye lids returned his mind to the present.
The fire light of sparks danced and arced among the wispy smoke floating into the shop through the sudden opening. The spectacle filtered past his pupils and pinged his brain. Advancing past the light show, a more primitive worry clawed at his slowly wakening mind.
His lungs ached from the shortage of life sustaining oxygen. Jàl’s eyes flew open as he struggled to fill his lungs. A restricted gulp of foul air burned the back of his throat. His anxiety eased. Staring into the blackened void of the ceiling Jàl calmed his breathing. Then came the problem of lifting off his back. His heart rate built a second time before his mind re-focused and he realized Roake lay motionless across his chest, the weight of her body anchoring him to the floor.
Gently, he rolled from under. His hand protected her head from smashing against the floor as he wiggled free. Dragging a knee under, he crouched close. Fragmented thoughts bounced within the walls of his skull until a compromising order returned. Jàl stared into Roake’s face. The hairs on his hand held close to her nose fluttered with her shallow breaths.
Jàl gently pried her eyelid open. A milky film clouded the white of her eye. Still crouched low, he swivelled his head slowly recording the store’s interior before returning to the entrance and the smoke buffeting in from the street. A shudder ran the length of his spine. What caused the feeling, he failed to resolve until his ears provided the answer.
The lack of sound flooding into the interior from the street became almost as deafening was the curdling cries of the games nemesis. Why? And what type of new weapon did the Verge employ? Not one that he recalled coding into the game’s program. A brief, frightening thought of becoming a casualty of his own creation scratched at his conscious.
Jàl quieted his brain. His priorities returned to Roake lying dazed at his feet. Jàl stood and shook off the remnants of the concussive blast before bending down and gripping the cloth of Roake’s uniform. Pressure coloured his face purple as he strained to lift her to her feet. Looping her arm over his shoulder, he took a wobbly step away from the front of the shop.
In the centre of the floor stood a table like the one he pictured briefly in the flashes that invaded his thoughts a short time previous. Resting by the table, he searched the barren space with more earnest. The layout unfolded like his dream except for the doorway leading from the store and into the safety of the next level. Slowly, he studied the shadows blanketing the interior walls.
From the angle of his head, and with the help of a stray ray of light angling across the side wall, the hint of a possible escape peeked from the otherwise shadowed area. Bolstering his strength, Jàl straightened under Roake and limped toward the shard of light and the portion of hidden doorway.
Balancing Roake’s weight precariously on his shoulder, he stopped tight to the wall. The only hint of an opening exposed by the stray shaft of light falling across the wall. Jàl’s free hand swept along the smooth finish feeling for the rest of the outline. The lack of light refused to release the full extent of the doorway jealously protected by the dark shadows of the store’s interior.
It didn’t take a lot of brain power to realize the problem he faced. Without sufficient light, the gateway to the next level would remain hidden. To flood the interior with light and pry the door from the darkness, he had to again link with the computer, preform a neural-interface and force light into the space.
That part was all well and fine… except, when connected to the grid, his body waited in a state of inertia. One of the two he could accomplish under his own power, but no way to both call the light and continue through the door.
Puzzling over the conundrum ended abruptly as a loud resurgence of wails and bellowed cries of anger breeched the store entrance, spreading across the interior. Instinctively, Jàl felt his mind soar. Strings of blurred code, lines of dashes and dots transformed his thoughts to electrical impulses and meshed with the computer symbiont, the two surfing the digital reality.
A short prayer whispered across his lips. A false promise to a deity no longer relevant in his society, but oddly, the words calmed his thoughts. The solution lay in flooding the interior of the store with light, exposing the gateway to the next level. The second part, escaping with Roake once the void opened, well, perhaps a miracle or an angel would take pity.