Jàl wondered the open floor of his lab. His train of thought locked in step with the computer manifolds. Human neurons and computer-generated breaks and dashes simultaneously linked. The wonder of this new way of surfing the net growing more familiar each day. The transitioning to this new way of powered thought more intriguing than frightening.
Jàl tested the conjoined computing power. One of the lines in the simulation he found troubling. At the end of the session, Roake’s comment on the Verge remaining by the games back door. Sniffing, examining the brick wall where he and Roake had escaped.
The program was designed to learn and adapt, but the Verge’s pursuit should have ended when the pair escaped the game. The program should have reset and resorted back to the default settings.
Jàl stood still in the middle of the floor. His eyes closed while he replayed the final sequence of the game. The Verge hoovered around the wall refusing to leave, the games program continuing past the shutdown command. Jàl’s hand unconsciously went to his neck. The area scarred over from the cerebral implant. Rubbing the slight mound under his skin, he dwelled on the computations to allow the game to readjust and change his codes.
A nanosecond of electricity traveled his nerves sparking in his brain. The rush of computing adrenaline, so swift and so unexpected, Jàl’s thoughts went dark.
The Verge stood transfixed, staring across the gap occupied by the shimmering outline of the building. The exterior walls wavering between solid and translucent. Jàl crouched beside a rendered park bench. The program’s simulated objects real to his touch but on closer inspection, he rubbed his hand against the faux wood seat, but not quite.
The visuals in the game began from minute shreds of information gleaned from a forgotten past and the renderings began with an incredible amount of artistic licence, this complete section, a product of Jàl’s imagination. His imagining of what the groundliers lair should look like.
The better the information, the more detailed the wall or building or street. Unfortunately, the lack of proper archives left little to build on. The algorithms learned with each new piece added, adjusted the outlines, refreshed the streets, rebuilt complete blocks, but everything was supposition until enough of the puzzle could completed to create a stable block with streets and buildings to allow for the installation of a door into the lowest level.
Movement showed across the wide gap, the building materials fluctuating between solid and ethereal, leaving short snatches of exposure across the lot. The Verge continued to monitor the street where Jàl crouched, but the monsters stalled. Their blank oversized eyes roamed back and forth. The broad flat snout of their noses tilted skyward, to sniff out his sent, he supposed, but the monsters failed to lock onto his location. Like they were blind to him?
Holding tight to the shelter offered by the bench, Jàl felt to his side for the automatic firearm. His fingers found only air. Puzzled, he risked a glance. No rifle. Panic forced him to swing his head searching for the weapon. He would never venture this far from the lab’s doorway without protection.
His chest thumped with an accelerating heartbeat. Sweat beaded beneath his cap. A second quick scan confirmed his fear. No rifle. Jàl returned his eyes to the Verge gathered across the block. The beasts hadn’t moved. Slowing his heartbeat, he closed his eyes and concentrated. Waves of dashes and zeros scrolled across the darkness of his mind. The code forming a picture in his mind. Before his brain tracked the weapon, the ear-shattering shriek of the Verge pounded against the outside of his head.
Jàl’s eyes flashed open. In the seconds that followed, he saw the outstretched arms of the Verge point across the gap toward him. Suddenly, the beasts acknowledged his presence. The building shimmered translucent. One of the beasts leaped in his direction attempting to cross the unstable space. Jàl lost sight of the creature as the building’s walls surged solid. A blood-curdling scream rose above the street.
When the walls of the building flickered translucent again, the sheared body of the beast lay half in, half out of the buildings foundation. The remaining Verge squealed at the sight of their fallen comrade before refocusing on Jàl. The intermittent flashes where the building faded showed the Verge lumbering away from the far side and following the sidewalk. The monster's eyes raised and locked on their prey.
Panic climbed Jàl’s body. He had no way to fight…that troubled thought led to another. What happened to Roake? Where did she disappear?
The shrieks of the Verge grew louder as the monsters trudged to the near corner. Jàl shook away the fear threatening to freeze his movements. He waited for a final glance of his enemies then twisted around and bent over his knees, scootched along the base of the building and away from the alley. Keeping his low to avoid further detection.
Jàl willed his bent legs to gather speed. When the hair on the back of his neck began to rise from the closing Verge, he jumped to his feet and ran. All thoughts of hiding forgotten. The edge of a second building rushed into view. Rounding the corner, he raced. Several steps in he realized his error. A brick wall sealed off his exit.
Fear began to rise with his heartbeat. Suddenly, his breathing became more natural. The wall he faced was different. The feeling and texture lacked the usual computer rendering. The edges of the brick were uneven, porous. Gaps showed where the mortar had crumbled. Jàl stood transfixed. His mind completely ignoring the threat chasing close behind.
Curiously he stretched a hand. His fingertips grazed the wall when a thundering cry from behind caused him to jump. A scream left Jàl’s mouth in anticipation of a collision with the bricks. The cry choked off when a void in the wall opened, and he fell to the other side, landing on his knees.
Jàl spun and prepared to be overrun by the Verge. Instead, a brick wall blocked his view. No sign or sound of the Verge followed. Jàl stood and brushed the dirt off his knees. Strange noises filtered to his ears. The loud buzz of anxious conversation and the…Jàl tried to place the other sounds. Mechanical, similar to the firing of combustible engines?
He slowly turned away from the wall. Crowds of people were gathering on the street facing him. The men and women dressed oddly. Several hands pointed in his direction. Rectangular boxes rolled past a gathering crowd. Strange noises overwhelmed his hearing. Rumbling sounds emanated from the glass and metal creations.
Jàl froze. His jaw hung open as he switched his gaze from the weird vehicles to the faces of the strange people. Their mouths moved in unison. He struggled to make out the words. The people’s voices seemed to be coming from far away.
The stilted, monotone voice of the AI leaked into corners of Jàl’s dream, chasing off the darkness.
“We have a visitor. Lieutenant Roake Engel has arrived.” AILEN’s voice announced. Jàl opened his eyes. His head lolled on his shoulder. Slow steps to awareness caused his fingers to grip the padded arm of the chair. Jàl remained seated and gazed about the loft. His brain fuzzy.
“Say again,” he ordered the AI.
“Lieutenant Roake Engel has arrived.” The AI repeated.
Something is not right. The thought filled Jàl's mind. Why he was just standing beside the…he glanced back down at the chair then up to the computer manifold.
And what happened to the people in the street? The image slipped from his mind.
A shake of his head sent the muddled thoughts away. So many long hours without sleep. He had plunged too deeply into the General’s project. The Upper Level’s plan, he corrected, to save the city of New Market. That must be it, he realized.
The mounting pressure he felt was immense, the challenge exacting a heavy toll on his body and mind. No doubt his consciousness was protecting his sanity and health. To avoid burn out. But what brought Roake at this late hour? The two weren’t scheduled to meet until morning.
Jàl shook his head again. Strange things were happening.
“AILEN. What time is it?”
“ O Seven Hundred, Jàl. Is something wrong?”
“You’re very funny AILEN. I only arrived home minutes ago. How can it be morning already?”
“You did not program me with a sense of humour. Therefore I do not joke. Jàl, are you okay? Your consciousness has been offline for the past 5 hours and 23 minutes.”
“Yeah. I’m fine. Just tired. Working too hard is all.” Jàl mumbled his response. “Open the hangar door and escort Miss Engel inside, please.”
“What exactly are we doing here?” Roake huffed out the words. Her breath raspy. The lieutenant and Jàl sat crunched behind a tangle of discarded gas-powered automobiles. The shrill of the Verge shattered the eery silence.
Jàl peered out from behind the cover of the rusted metal atrocities then back at Roake.
“I need a better understanding of the layout for the Groundliers world. The information I’ve gleaned from the archives is not good enough to replicate their world.” Jàl covered his ears as the Verge’s screeches grew in intensity. The pack of monsters closing in on their prey.
“Well, this is the crappiest route you’ve taken us down so far.” Roake bitched. “Why don’t you let those damn monsters have your playbook and save them time tracking us.”
“Who knew this led to a dead end. The problem with the bits of archived information is, it's not complete.” Jàl rebuked. He considered the sight at the end of the alley. Incomplete programming leaving the buildings and roads unfinished. A virtual dead end in every sense of the word. “Sorry.” He apologized. “I’ll be more careful next time.”
“Next time!” Roake exploded. “There won’t be a next time. I think we’re about to find out if this game can kill us.” The escalating shrill of the Verge echoed off the walls of the surrounding buildings, the screeching moans seeping into their skulls, drowning out all brain activity. Roake’s hands flew to cover her ears.
"I CAN’T TAKE THAT AWFUL NOISE ANY LONGER,” she hollered. “IF IT DOESN’T STOP, I MAY KILL MYSELF BEFORE THE DAMN MONSTERS HAVE THE CHANCE!”
Read the latest Brand Coldstream novel "The Wolves Of Satan" available at online book retailers.
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