A stab of light seeped under Roake’s sagging eyelids. Warped images swam in a surrealistic dream and poked at her brain. A disconcerted pattern of brick floated then stabilized. The reason she stood facing the wall, momentarily escaped her fragmented state of mind. Then the outline of a passage way bloomed with the cascade of ascending light. A guttural shrill warned from behind reminding of pending danger. The now familiar roar nudged past the fog shrouding her conscious and triggered an ingrained response.
A tilt of her head showed her supported by Jàl’s shoulder. His features relaxed as he stared blankly at the same wall. Instincts overruled thought. The light and the increasing racket, an unresponsive partner and the brick wall giving birth to a doorway.
A spike in her heart beat pushed a surge of adrenaline through her veins. Roake tightened her arm around Jàl and stretched her other hand for the protruding door knob. A twist of her wrist, then a shove to clear the newly summoned gateway and she pulled Jàl along as she dove for the opening.
The two spilled onto a sidewalk in a tangle of arms and legs. A sharp clap ruptured the air from behind. Roake rolled to her side and tensed. Her rifle swung around at ready. Her eyes locked on the building uncertain if something sinister followed them through the gap.
Jàl groaned and lifted his head. With his thoughts disrupted, the hole willed by his mind began to fade. Bricks floated in the space. Dozens of the small, rectangular orange blocks flashed and popped, fizzled and darted as the computer brain of the game regenerated the spoiled façade. Short seconds passed until the outline of the opening dissolved into nothing more than a memory.
From the mending wall to a quick check on Roake rising from the sidewalk to an unobstructed view of the new level across the barren streetscape, Jàl lay still, allowing his mind to update.
Behind his back, he missed the change settling over his partner. Roake’s facial features contorted from one of complete surprise to pain and confusion. Garbled words slipped from her throat. With a groan and twist, she recoiled and clutched her stomach. Her knees buckled dropping her to the hard surface of the concrete sidewalk.
The strange sounds from his partner captured his attention.
“What…” he began as his gaze settled on the downed soldier. Raising off the concrete, he knelt beside Roake. “Are you hit?” Fear crept into his voice as he scanned for wounds.
Past hooded eyelids, he noticed a film blanket her eyes as her gaze settled on his face. He watched Roake’s lips moved but the words fail. Colour drained from her face and the natural pink of her skin changed to a sickly, pale sheen. Beads of sweat formed on her forehead.
Silently, Roake’s lips formed segments of unfinished sentences while she pleaded with her eyes. Jàl failed to understand. Then, Roake bounded upright, left his side and quickly bent low over the curb. Behind her back, Jàl heard the retching sounds of bile as it escaped her stomach and flowed into the gutter.
“Oh my god,” Jàl’s voice choked. Emotions foreign to his psyche exposed unfamiliar feelings as he watched Roake spew the initial symptoms of the deadly virus. The very sickness that claimed the health of many Sky Dwellers and the very reason he and Roake had entered the game. A desperate effort of locating an alternate route to the groundliers lair and the promise of a chance to return home with a cure to end the horrible suffering.
Roake’s vision shimmered as she sank to her knees. Seconds, maybe minutes, passed before her consciousness registered Jàl’s voice.
“Roake. Can you hear me. Roake! We have to move.” Her body shook as his hands clamped onto her shoulders. “Take my arm.” She heard him plead. “You need to get to your feet. We can’t remain on the street. It’s imperative we find shelter.” Jàl’s words echoed across the mist soaking her conscious. She felt his hand under her arm. The desperate grip of his fingers while they pinched her skin as he fought to lift her.
Dizzy and depleted, she weakly sunk her fingers into the sleeve of his jacket. Her strength draining, she scrambled to maintain a tight grip as he stood and pulled her to her feet.
“Are you okay?” Jàl’s voice penetrated the fog swirling in her head as she stumbled along to his lead.
“I don’t know.” She replied. “Dizzy and nauseous.” She heard her own strained voice sound foreign to her own ears. What had just happened, she forced her brain to recalibrate and find an answer. Then from somewhere in the fog of uncertainty, surfaced the unthinkable.
“The virus. I think you have contracted the virus.” She railed against the fear in Jàl’s words. The rush from the Verge, the impact on her implant. There had to be several reasons for the way her body reacted. But the virus. No. That she refused to even entertain.
“This way,” Jàl’s words wormed into her head, knifing through her doubts. “We’ve got to get off the sidewalk.” Even without seeing, she sensed her partner frantically looking around.” Look. Over there.” She twisted her head following the sound of his voice. “That shop. The doorway looks passable. Maybe we can hide in there. We need someplace quiet and time to think.”
The beginnings of a smile climbed Roake’s lips despite the waves of nausea roiling in her gut. The genius known as Jàl Condor. Such a hero. The thought sent tingles down her body. The self-centred brainiac, all of a sudden taking charge and all.
Roake pried her eyelids apart. The light shining down on the street drove hot pokers of pain into her brain. Wincing, she raised a forearm to shade her eyes and looked past the ache. An outline of the streetscape morphed into focus. Her foot collided with a curb. Stumbling, she leaned heavier on Jàl. She stumbled along with his aide as they crossed the street. The entrance to the store only yards ahead.
“Come on, come on,” Jàl urged, his chest heaving under her weight, his lungs wheezing with each gasp of breath. The sidewalk, level under her dragging feet, reared up to trip her when the pair encounter the steps leading up into the building. Jàl’s grip tightened around her. Roake felt the strain in his body as he fought to lift her up the final step. Trying to help, she shuffled her feet. The added movement sent the pair stumbling. Her motor skills scrambled, her basic instincts off-line.
More grunting and cursing broke the barrier of her delirium. The skin on her face burnt from unknown heat. Drops of sweat wormed into her partially shuttered eyes. Stale air of the closed building greeted her as Jàl’s tight grip loosed and she melted, sliding to the floor. Footsteps retreated to a loud clang of the building’s doors as it closed and echoed.
Lumped onto the hard surface of the floor, Jàl’s breathing sounds loud in her ears. In the fog caused by her illness, she senses him kneeling nearby while he gulps air into his lungs. The sound grows louder as he crouches closer. His hand cool as it lightly caresses her forehead.
“There’s no one else here, but we’re still exposed. I’ll catch my breath and find us a better place to rest,” he promised.
Roake tried to answer. Tried to thank him for his quick thinking, but her words died in her throat, never crossing her lips. From the sitting puddle, she sank lower. All the muscles required to support her body failed as she sprawled out on the cold, faux concrete floor.
Roake’s eyelids fluttered. Jàl moved the chair closer and watched intently waiting for her to wake. A whispered moan hissed from her lips.
“Lay still,” Jàl soothed. “One hand pressed a corner of Roake’s vest gently against her forehead to absorb the rivulets of sweat forming to cool her fevered skin. He hoovered in the darkness of the nearly empty space. The pair sufficiently hidden behind remnants of furniture conjured by the assigned algorithms in creating the expanding program.
His thoughts floundered with unfamiliar feelings, rambled from one avenue of exploration before switching gears and side tracking in a completely random direction. The illness consuming Roake held the rational part of his brain hostage. Irrational thoughts weakened his resolve and threatened to expose the relative safety of the store by reaching out to the over-lying grid in search of much needed answers.
Jàl fought his addiction for knowledge he knew lay a minds whisper away, taunting from the memory contained in the banks of computers. A risk growing harder to resist as he sat worriedly hunched over Roake playing his best version of nurse maid. Several hours passed in silence while he stared down into the slick sheen spread across her pale skin. The strange feeling of empathy racked his soul with each tortured moan and unconscious roll of her infected body.
The longer she lay dormant and unconscious, the deeper his thoughts sank, weighed down by a form of doubt that could easily lead to crippling panic. What if she remained in this state? The thought of leaving Roake, sick and helpless, as he raced off to find the globe and best the digital reality presented a unique set of circumstances. Without leaving her side, it wasn’t possible to complete the mission and to complete the mission he’d have to leave her lying vulnerable to the dangerous elements of the game.
In a term derived from an long forgotten game of strategy he’d stumbled upon in the archives of ancient earth, check-mate.