The sounds of muted conversations and the slow rhythmic beat of footsteps grew in cadence the nearer Roake closed on Manchester street. Crowds of human form game pieces, or as Jàl so aptly referred to the computer generated avatars programmed into the game, extras, shuffled on the sidewalks and in and out of the businesses lining the long street. Watching the extras walk their designated routes, Roake found herself once again wondered if Jàl intentional added the game pieces to disguise the Verge. The monsters hidden among the human form pieces added a certain nerve clutching element of danger to the playing field. Was this on purpose? Was the clutter of extra bodies for the beasts to hide amongst useful in her training?
The fact that the two types of beings existed in the game, is that how Jàl pictured the Sky Dwellers ancestors as they lived their existences trapped forever on the planet’s poisoned surface? Roake stole glances at the heads of the passing crowd as if the answer waited in their faces.
The inhabitants of the game marched about with blank faces and unseeing eyes, the extra’s movements mechanical, zombiesque. Roake narrowed her gaze, focusing on the eyes of the oblivious pieces, alert for the tell-tale sign of yellowed tinged eyes betraying the disguised Verge. In the distance, the towering white clapboard exterior of the bank building stood signifying the end of the journey and the passage to level two.
A collection of the extras gathered at the corner of the sidewalk, the crowd growing in size. The traffic light signalled red. Roake’s head swivelled. She grabbed Jàl’s shoulder and stuffed him into the doorway of a department store. From there, she studied the parked cars, the shadows of other doorways leading from the businesses onto the sidewalk and back to the spattering of game pieces on the sidewalks and crossing from opposite sides of the street.
When first entering the game, passing the first level had been mostly obstruction free but she reminded herself that the game's parameters had changed. The Verge’s awareness of her and Jàl’s presence on each consecutive visit, increased, so she could take nothing for granted.
She calculated the timing of the traffic light to limit exposure while the two crossed the street. The doors of the bank loomed invitingly back at her, the double glass and wood entrance waiting down the block and across the intersection.
The light changed to green. The slow, mechanical movements of the extras waiting at the lights edged off the sidewalk. Roake motioned for Jàl to follow. Her foot settled on the concrete path, her back foot raised and lifted off the step, her upper body swung into action ready to leave the shelter of the doorway.
Flashes of numbers and pages of schematics overwhelmed her thoughts and highjacked her mind. Roake’s hand shot to the side of her head. The unfamiliar streams of information, unnerving. Lines of code passed behind her eyes blinding her sight and halting her movements. Roake shook her head violently in an attempt to halt the intrusion. Her eyes cleared. Free of the distraction, she glanced back at Jàl. He stood frozen, eyes open but unseeing as he stared blankly ahead.
“We have to move.” Roake shouted. Her words jolted Jàl from his trance. He blinked. She watched his eyes blink as he focused on her face.
“The Globe. It not on this level. I don't detect a signature.” He ignored Roake’s warning.
The shuffling extras walking past on the sidewalk stopped. The heads of the human zombies turned in the pair’s direction. Roake snorted a sharp intake of air. The breath caught in her chest stopped by a sickly feeling roiled in the pit of her stomach. The building of a warning niggled at the bottom of her spine.
“They know we’re here.” Her words of warning followed closely by a curse, the harsh words rasping in her throat. A spike of adrenaline brought forth learned instincts and fuelled her into action. Roake tugged at Jàl’s arm pulling him from the doorway and in the direction of the traffic light. The crowd on the sidewalk interfering with the route of escape. The extras impeding a fast dash for the green light. Featureless faces and uncomprehending eyes of the avatars gazed at the game’s main players. Roake felt Jàl’s breath on the back of her neck.
“There.” He pointed over her shoulder. Surfacing from the milling crowd, the tell-tale signs of yellow ringed eyes betrayed an alerted Verge. The monster’s wide eyes peered around from distorted faces. The camouflaged scourge of the 9th-dimensional game pushed past the empty husks of the program’s extras to gain ground on the players.
Roake swung the particle rifle from her back and fired at the nearing target. The heated particle of light smashed into the monster. The wounded Verge released an ear shattering squeal that roared above the din of the street. A halo of heated, shimmering air engulfed the monster as it’s body erupted in pieces.
The cry of the dying Verge signalled others. Soon a chorus of high pitched squeals rose from all around. The mournful, reverberating wailing building to an eery, surreal symphony. The random scattering of beasts hidden among the computer generated crowds walking the streets, revealed themselves. The human façades of the Verge melted, revealing pockets of the monsters in all directions.
Light glinted off the metallic antenna and the bald heads of the creatures. Large foreheads shone above bulging eyes nestled over round, protruding noses, the monster's enlarged heads perched on the grossly distorted bodies. Massive tumours disfigured the creature's backs while folds of yellowish brown skin hung from their legs and arms glimmering under the artificial lights of the game. Oversized legs propelled the beasts forward, the skin on their forearms rippling as they moved. Bulky hands with thick, knobby fingers gripped the beasts version of particle rifles.
An invisible beam of ionized particles heated the air inches above Roake’s head. The stream of energy from the particle blaster absorbed by the brick façade surrounding the building’s entrance. The disruptive shot of charged atoms rained chunks of shattered brick down onto the sidewalk. Roake shoved Jàl toward the doorway then calmly knelt on one knee. Timing her breaths, she lined her shots with the movements of the advancing Verge. Her nerves calm as hostile blasts of superheated particle rays searched for a target.
When the streams from her gun met with one of the enemies, she switched her angle and sighted a new target and squeezed the trigger. In her peripheral vision, the blinding pulses of Jàl’s weapon emoted streams of vapour into the air as he fired on the bug-headed monsters.
The added obstacles of game pieces milled about oblivious crowding the sidewalks and street. The extras neither helping nor hindering either side of the battling parties. Each pulse of the particle guns subtracting from the shrill screams of the enemy. The Verge advanced into the return fire. The game's programmed nemesis lacked the required lines of coding enabling them to seek shelter or retreat while under attack.
When the last Verge fell, Roake climbed to her feet and surveyed the carnage covering the street. Scattered pieces of human and Verge parts littered the sidewalks and leaked onto the road.
Roake gazed down at Jàl, still crouched on the step.
“Why bugs? Why did you design the Verge to resemble the ancient insects? They’re creepy.” She scowled. A shiver borne of the repulsive analogy ran the length of her spine.
Jàl kept his eyes focused on the street. “I never thought of the Verge quite like that.” He admitted. “I suppose. When I wrote the programming,” he tilted his head in thought, “for some reason this image stuck in my mind. I don’t know why.
Remember. As far as we know, the groundliers still occupy the surface of the planet. Think of the evolutionary changes they'd need to adapt in order to survive the poisoned atmosphere living on the surface.” He explained. “Besides. What do you know about bugs? That’s a word long lost to our civilization.”
“You think you’re the only one who knows how to work a search engine?” Roake replied over his shoulder. “I was curious after our first encounter with the Verge. I wondered how you came to fashion the beasts the way you did. Believe me. Finding a comparison in the few remaining archives relating to the old world wasn't easy.”
Jàl turned back to study the monsters with a new perspective. The bulging eyes and sizeable protruding snout of the faces along with the antenna and hardened skulls. Maybe Roake was right. Perhaps ancient bugs were his idea of what a monster could resemble.
“Let's get off the street.” Roake tugged at his sleeve, her arm lifted and a finger pointed down the block to the final obstacle between them and advancing past the first level. The old bank building sat across the lights of the intersection. The street remained busy with the hustle of the game extras. The myriad of human forms moving together in a sequenced choreography.
Jàl followed close behind Roake. The light hung above the intersection showed red, forcing the two to hold on the corner. A building crowd of bodies formed around them on the sidewalk. The game's progression depending on a change of colour to allow the programmed sequence to advance and complete the current loop before resetting.
Jàl glanced away from the crowd. His eyes busy scanning the two-lane street. Empty. He felt Roake tug on his arm.
“We shouldn’t wait." He heard her say as she turned and prepared to leave the curb and step onto the street. A panicked blare of a horn and the smell of hot rubber hard from braked tires startled her. The empty road transformed with racing cars filling the lanes. The line of vehicles rolling along with the green light. The car with the blaring horn barely missed striking Roake. Jàl’s panicked grip crushed her arm when he yanked her back onto the curb to safety.
“Where in the …” she muttered, glaring over at the cars buzzing by on the suddenly busy street.
Jàl breathed harshly, reeling from the close call of his friend. Trapped on the sidewalk, Roake stood high on her toes and glanced over the heads of the zombie human forms gathered on the corner. Shifting her eyes over the connecting streets, she breathed a sigh of relief in discovering the lack of further threats.
Pushing aside the crowd of oblivious game pieces, Roake pulled Jàl along. The pair rushed for the beckoning doors of the bank. The interior of the building the final obstacle of level one and the last time they'd spotted the globe. Roake studied the building’s doors before inching them open. Her blaster following her line of sight as she scanned the interior before stepping from the sidewalk.
“Clear.” She called. The inside, silent and deserted, unlike the previous time the two breached the doors and scant seconds before the Verge sprung their trap. Memories filled Roake's thoughts from the team's hasty retreat the last time they entered the building. She felt Jàl pass by, stirring her back to the present. She busied herself by scanning the few pieces of furniture scattered across the floor. The sparse furnishing of the single-story building due to a lack of actual information Jàl explained when she’d commented on the subject during the first visits.
Floor coverings of an unknown material led from the entrance to a line of rendered wood counters lining the far wall. The space across the room, empty, except for a single table that stood in the middle of the floor. The very table where the globe began its journey during the creation of the game. The table now sat deserted. The simple days of the game's existence had long passed. The cache of information the pair searched for now resided in one of the unexplored upper levels.
Roake swung her attention back to the street entrance while Jàl jogged to the far end of the building. From behind her back, she heard him walk to the back wall. The scuffed noise caused from the friction of his gloved hands rubbing across the wall’s rough materials created the only audible sounds in the room.
“Here. This section,” Jàl called. Roake backed away from the entrance. Her eyes locked on the front doors while she crossed the room. Sensing Jàl waiting close behind, she peeled her eyes from the entrance and followed his pointing finger.
“This brick. Notice the difference in texture and colour?” Jàl rubbed his hand over the brick to emphasize his words. The material, when one looked closer, stood apart from the remainder of the computer-generated wall. The surface in the area rough and better defined.
Roake watched Jàl run his finger, tracing the compound squeezed between the bricks. Leaning closer, he mumbled.
“Notice, there’s this very fine writing etched into the mortar.” He explained. Roake rolled her eyes. The same speech he used every time they arrived at this point. Her eyes flitted between the front door and Jàl as he focused his mind. For a second time, she felt a strange tingling touch the fringe of her brain.
Jàl’s concentrated his focus on the section of bricks ringed by the writing. When he connected with the programs mainframe, Roake found her mind venturing along. Her vision blurred then cleared along with his. Before she was able the wonder about the experience or mouth a question regarding what she had just felt, one of the bricks flickered before a brief flash of light exposed a metal panel.
No sooner did Jàl free his mind from the main Fram when loud shouts of angry excitement seeped into the building and echoed off the walls. Shrill, unnerving squeals, a fore warning of a new wave of hunting Verge descended on the building. The troubling emotions of being highjacked by Jàl’s thoughts vanished from Roake's mind at the racket created by the monsters. The military part of her brain picking up on a troubling coincidence. Was it possible that the Verge were also connected to the games workings and whenever Jàl connected with the mainframe, he unknowingly sent an alert to their position? A serious question that required immediate attention once the two were safely away.
She pushed the thoughts aside in time to watch Jàl raise his palm and lay his hand flat against the metallic surface. The air around the wall shimmered with vapours. The rigid makeup of the brick transformed. The solid composition of the brick, softened into a blur as the molecules melted into a milky wall of liquid and then dissipated, revealing the opening to level two.
“Ready,” Jàl called over his shoulder before lifting his foot and disappearing into the doorway.