The sidewalk crossing the mouth of the alley teamed with activity. Crowds whisked by on an endless loop programmed into the game’s operating system. The stream of bodies shortened the sight line to less than couple feet in every direction and shielded the second block of the level off completely. Two levels, two blocks. The games algorithms written to include a additional block corresponding with the level number.
Roake stood tight to the corner. She mapped out a strategy to carry the pair from the relative safety of the alley to the far end of the next street and thus ending at the discarded stacks of deserted autos marking the doorway to level three. In her search, she studied the buildings opposite for clues to the globes’s location. Traversing the level meant little if they left the globe behind.
The concept of defeating the game culminated in leaving with a prize. The globe was designated that prize. The vessel tasked with deciphering and assimilating the terra-bytes of information required to build a duplicate the ancient world of the Groundliers. Information pertinent to plotting a gateway from the Mixed-Reality dimension to the birth place of human life and the promise of a cure for the virus threatening the cloud city.
“Do you sense the globe? I mean, can you, without melding with the grid.” Roake quickly added. She remained focused on the surrounding buildings watching for signs of the prize or warnings of the enemy. Her eyes probed the sunken doorways leading off the sidewalks and into the individual stores.
“I got nothing.” Jàl confessed. “The closer the proximity, maybe, I’m not sure. We might have to rattle a few doorknobs or physically search each probable location.”
“Stick close,” Roake said. Her decision made. “We can use the crowd for cover and whatever you do, do not call upon the grid,” She threatened before slipping around the corner and blending into the foot traffic as it flowed away from the mouth of the alley. Roake halted at the first doorway, the width of a store away. A brief scan revealed the one dimensional rendering of the particular entrance.
Backing into the crowd, she moved a few steps further before pausing at a second doorway. Again, her eyes scanned the opening. The first couple entrances were digitally rendered similes. The faux wooden doors and painted on knobs, the faux glass windows and even the outline of the frames were poorly contrived similes, composites s never meant to open.
This discovery pushed the ends of Roake’s lips slightly upward. Pulling out of the plodding line of people, she gazed at the visible entrances with a fresh perspective. Her eyes passed over several openings before she noticed game pieces exiting from one particular shop.
“This way,” she tugged Jàl’s sleeve, pulling him toward the street. About to step off the curb, she recalled being deceived by the game’s circuitry from the previous level. Standing safely anchored on the sidewalk, her flipped her leg out, letting her foot cross the invisible plane of the curb and she waited. Her attempt failed to produce the sudden appearance of racing automobiles, her tactic broadened the smile infecting her lips.
“Come on,” she pulled Jàl. The two scrambled into the two lane road. A step later, the tinny blare of a car horn wiped the grin clear off her face. She turned at the sound. “Hurry,” she yelled, racing for the far side of the narrow street and the safety of the sidewalk.
Jàl ran one step behind. He watched Roake step off the street. He pushed off with his back leg. The angry grill of a car bore closer.
“Jàl. Watch …” Roake’s words hung in the air. Jàl felt his body freeze. He sensed the closeness of the auto but his head failed to respond, his eyes locked on Roake. Time stuttered as the street and buildings began to tremble. His body shook violently along with the digital surroundings. Roake’s features frozen in a twisted mask of concern.
The tremors brought flashes of images snapping across Jàl’s mind. Pictures of buildings, some destroyed, others reborn. Some crumbled to earth while terrified onlookers scrambled for safety, others in different stages of birth. Swaying lines of Verge surrounded exposed perimeters of concrete walls sunk deep in the ground. The monsters staring blindly into the abyss of the gaping foundations.
The walls and foundations faded. The images replaced by the sight of the globe. The surroundings, strange, unlike the levels of the game the pair had visited thus far. The prize sensed Jàl’s presence. It vanishes inside a strange structure. The buildings design peculiar, foreign, but yet, oddly familiar? The walls of the building vivid, the composition constructed with minute detail, the texture palpable. More real world than digital. Jàl stared after the globe, his mind storing details of the building into his memory.
The scream of the mechanical horn rode returned. The racket moments ahead of a nearing tide of loud cries and angry shrieks. Fingers dug into his collar bone, the painful grip breaking the spell holding his mind. His body lurched forward. The squeal of heated tires on the dark pavement whined from behind. The burning smell of rubber wafting upwards in clouds of black smoke.
“What just happened?” Roake’s face rested within inches of his face. Jàl cocked his head and caught a glimpse of the racing automobile behind his back. The call of the Verge climbed in crescendo, beating the stale air.
Jàl scrunched his face and shrugged. “The tremors. They seeped into this dimension. That…shouldn’t be …possible. An aberration of some form.” Sorting his scattered thoughts, Jàl shook free the troubling images.
Standing on tip toes, he swivelled his head looking for the unique building he saw in his mind. “The globe is not on this level. I can explain later, but first, the Verge.” He studied the crowds on the sidewalk. Random faces in the crowd turned and stared in their direction. The ring of yellow around the eyes betrayed the enemy walking among the human forms. At the detection of the beasts, the human disguises began to fall away revealing the wrinkled, sickly brown skin of the monsters. Large heads with the bulbous eyes and nose turned in his direction.
A blast from Roake’s particle rifle stirred Jàl into action. Her blasts cutting a swath into the mixed crowd filling the sidewalk. The pair knelt among the legs of the human decoys. Roake moved. Her body crouched over her knees, her feet shuffling, duck walking toward the entrance spotted earlier from the opposite street. The Verge lumbered closer. The monsters vision fixed on the two trying to escape. The Verge fired their weapons into the innocent game pieces. The sidewalk soon littered with shattered bodies.
Near the entrance, Roake spun on her feet and sprayed a stream of particle bursts outward to distract the monsters. “Get behind me,” she yelled over the curdling cries of the enemy. “I saw pieces exit from this entrance. The door could lead to safety.”
Jàl scootched up the low concrete steps. His hand reached up clasping on the knob. A half turn and he yanked the door outward. His heart dropped. The opening a false front. The digital rendition of the doorway incomplete. A false hope programmed into the video game.
“Nothing doing,” Jàl shouted down to Roake. He watched her cast a quick glance at his words. A shadow passed across her face.
“We’ll have to fight our way down the street. No choice,” she hollered back. “Stay low.” She instructed lifting from her crouched position. Pushing Jàl a head, the pair passed from the false entrance and waded deeper into the thinning crowds. Jàl followed Roake’s quickening pace. They approached the intersection on a green light. A stream of pieces continued onward to cross the road, the extra bodies shielding the pair as they fled from the heavy fire of the Verge.
Wrecked and discarded autos clogged the second street. Behind a tangle of damaged cars, Roake slipped from the tangle of bodies crowding the sidewalk and pressed her back tight to a metal bumper. Jàl breathed heavily from close by. Craning his neck to see farther down the block, he found his view negated by a clutter of obstacles.
Drawing on his previous experience, he recalled the stacks of discarded vehicles and the door to escape hidden behind. The was of course if the games algorithms hadn’t reconfigured the playing field, he reminded himself.
“Stay low,” Roake commanded. Jàl shifted his body looking over at her. Roake gingerly crept near the edge of the cluster of discarded wrecks. He watched while Roake stretched to her full height behind the protection of a mangled car hood and gazed toward the far end of the block.
“The stacks of junk look about the same as last time,” she called down to him. “The gutted body of the car we sheltered in the last time through is where I remember, but, how did we escaped? I don’t seem to recall?”
“Hidden behind those hills of rusted metal is a door.” Jàl explained.
“Inside. The interior is partially completed. A couple empty floors that… It doesn’t matter. The car at the bottom of the heap. That’s the immediate goal and that’s looking like a problem. Seems like the Verge have upped their firepower since we last ran this level?”
Roake rose to her feet again. She faced down the street watching the Verge slow march, then risked a fast look in the opposite direction before ducking back down behind the safety of the cars.
“There’s wrecks splayed all down the street. Easy enough to dodge from one pile to the next. The problem lies with the last few hundred yards. That we’ll have to cross in the open.”
“No alternate route leading behind those stacks of scrap metal. Our climb through the car didn’t produce the best results last time,” Jàl stated. Roake crept away, rose to her feet and used the protruding hood as cover once again. Jàl prayed for different route. The memory of Roake wounded again while they simply repeated the low percentage escape like previous attempt sent a shudder down his spine.
“I don’t see any other way.” Roake admitted upon her return. “Remember, we barely crawled into the interior before the Verge blasters found us. Those piles of junk aren’t all that high but I can’t see how we’d have the time to scramble over and if we failed, the attempt would leave us exposed for too long a time.”
The shelter of rusted cars rocked with blaster fire. The time for planning, over. Roake sprang to her feet. Bent over, she raced across a short span of exposed street then pulled up and motioned for Jàl to join. Sparks sprayed overhead and chunks of metal, sheared loose by the enemy fire, rained down over the trail the two ran.
At the final cluster of discarded autos, Jàl fought to control his heaving lungs while Roake peered up the street. The Verge continued forward in a slow, ambling pace. The stale air of the game grew warmer, the molecules heated by the probing beams of particle rifles.
“What if we blast our way into the car. Dissolve the metal door we near the pile? Save us time opening it, speed up our escape.” Jàl shouted above the sizzle of over-heated air and the screeching shrills approaching from down the street.
“I don’t know.” The tactical portion of Roake’s mind reviewed the consequences. “Might bring the pile down and complicate our exit, make our problem worse.” Stress lines frozen on Roake’s face softened as a glint of light twinkled in her eye. “How fast can you link up with the main frame?” She asked. “After all, we don’t need to worry about revealing our position. The bloody monsters are marching right towards us.”
“Why? What do you have in mind?” Jàl asked.