Jàl stood transfixed. The air shimmered and darted with a brilliant display of shooting lights. A new building materialized from the dissipating digital material of the old rendering. High pitched shrills spilled over the street and overwhelmed his senses and warned of the monsters presence. His vision blinded by the bricks and mortar of the buildings façade. The composition of this building different than the others. The brick a size bigger and a brighter hue, the mortar imprinted with symbols.
Dust rode a faint breeze caused by the shifting of changing molecules. A waft of scorched air assaulted his nose. His breath balled at the back
of his throat making breathing difficult.
The slow lumber of the drab coloured monsters with their bulging eyes and protruding snouts crept into the edge of his peripheral vision. The creatures slow movements growing larger with each passing second.
A passage appeared within the brick wall. A doorway to be free of the Verge. Jàl willed his feet to move. His brain screamed demands but his muscles froze and refused to obey his panicked commands. The volume of the shrill screeches increased. The outstretched limbs of the monsters clawing at thin air trying to thwart his escape.
To add to the nightmare, a new tide of Verge appeared on the other side of the opening. Their cries loud and piercing but different. The combined voices of these Verge, a solid whipping sound.
Jàl viewed the arrival of the monsters blocking his route with a suddenly calmer demeaned. His line of sight shifted. Now he looked over the Verge’s backs and could see a replica of himself framed in the doorway.
Roake swung her feet off the bed. Pulling a robe around her pyjamas, she stepped lightly down the metal stairs and into the open confines of the lab. Jàl sat hunched over the array of computer monitors, his hands flashing in the air, traversing the spread of holographic keyboards.
“Have you slept?” She asked padding across the tiled floor for the small kitchen set to the side of the large open room. She paused at the old fashioned coffee stand, Jàl’s greatest possession that stood front and foremost, dividing the lab from the cooking area.
The luxury of untold wealth, she mused, sifting through the canisters of assorted coffees. The clear containers displaying the rare, organic grown, small, dark brown beans. A taste that she found peculiar and yet addictive compared to the simulated slug that dripped from the standard processing stations substituting for the hot, bitter drink.
Roake played a tune with her fingers on the counter while the antique pot gurgled and hissed. The smell of fresh coffee lifted her spirits.
“Would you like a cup,” she asked over her shoulder. Patiently tapping her foot, she waited for an answer. Cocking her head, she turned and stared at Jàl’s back. Lost in space once again, she mused.
When the second cup filled with the steaming hot drink, she collected the cups in her hand and walked to the work table aligned with the lighted monitors.
“What’s up? You sleeping with your eyes open?” she chided.
Now he sat behind a desk. Banks of computer monitors filled his vision. Jàl held his breath as he watched the monitors. The manifestation of himself frozen in the doorway, trapped on both sides by advancing monsters.
His fingers flew over the holographic keyboard. Line after line of code swam across the screens but all refused to allow his avatar to flee the approaching threats. Sweat beaded his forehead. The monsters clumped closer, their breathing sucking the air from the room. Each command typed by his fingers failed to penetrate the games programming.
A hand roughly shook his shoulder. Jàl twitched, startled by the interruption.
“Earth to Jàl,” Roake’s fingers dug roughly into the soft flesh covering his collar bone, freeing him from the dream.
Blinking away the nightmare, he re-focused on the screens. Lines of green code nestled against the black backgrounds. The dream was so real, Jàl thought, then on a hunch typed a new command. Nothing changed. Maybe it wasn’t a dream.
Jàl shifted his head and with eyes red from lack of sleep, he glanced up at her face, his hand combing back through his disheveled hair.
“You look like shit. What’s…happening?” Roake studied his face, concern crept into her voice.
Jàl shook his head and pushed back in his chair. “I’m locked out of the game. The algorithms have changed and my coding is being overridden.”
“I’m not sure I understand,” she replied.
“It’s…I…” Jàl stumbled to collect his thoughts. He glanced over at the monitors then reached for the offered coffee. “Some form of malware is blocking my access.”
“How is that possible? You designed the system. No one has the technology to corrupt your work.”
“Not out here…”
It took a few seconds for Roake to absorb the meaning of his words. She tilted her head and studied his face. “Not out here. So where? You can’t mean inside. It’s a bloody game that you programmed. How on earth can this be possible?”
“I don’t know. That’s what’s troubling. There is no reason for this to happen,” he pointed to the white lines of digits scrolling across the green screens. “But yet.”
“So what does this mean? Are we going into the Annex today?” Roake used the code name for the Mixed-Reality world waiting beyond the gateway.
“Later.” Jàl responded. “Plans have changed. Suddenly, I wish there were more of us to go inside." He laughed off his nervousness. "You get what I mean. A calvary of the General's finest to ride to our rescue incase we run afoul of the Verge.”
“I know. But there are no reinforcements.” Roake stated. Her hand unconsciously lifted to the bandage attached to her neck. “Without the neural implants, you and I are the only ones able to enter the Annex through the gateway.”
Roake’s eyes narrowed. “That leaves lucky us to go and save the world."
Jàl was slow to meet her gaze. An impish smile climbed onto his troubled face. “Yes.” His head nodding up and down. “I originally designed this as a two player game. Who’s better than the two of us.”
Roake chewed her lower lip. “Okay. How do we deal with the Verge. We’ve never taken the fight to them. Until now, our plan was to avoid them as we navigate the levels of the game. We’d need an arsenal to hold them off.”
“I know,” Jàl agreed.His mind quickly switching from one problem to the next. “We can’t carry extra weapons in with us. The gateway won’t allow metal to pass between realities so the weapon caches installed with the original programming will have to suffice.
The stash by the entrance should have been reset once the game rebooted. Each section after will have its own supply,” he paused. A crooked smile backed by unease crossed his face, “but we’ll have to be extra careful. We’ve never faced this type scenario so we’ll need to scour the levels throughly as we cross them. This may be the only chance left.”
“How long do you plan on being inside?”
“How long, I don’t know. Depends on the circumstances. If we are successful in crossing the different levels and we can retrieve the globe, our time inside will be limited.
Roake’s trained tactical mind shed the doubts she’d been feeling. “Do you know what the virus looks like?”
“No idea, actually. The virus can assume any shape and with the algorithms learning and adjusting, a meticulous sweep of each sector will be required. When we clear a level, access to the next block will need to be manually entered to allow us to continue. The first two blocks or levels, we’ve already been through…the next ones.” He shrugged and adverted his eyes to the computers. “We’ll see.”
Roake raised her shoulders, her brows knitted, her expression one of confusion. “Why, then, are we going? Given time, why can’t you fix the problems from there?” Her arm gestured to the bank of keyboards and screens.
“No.” His head swung side to side. “Whatever is causing the malfunction is growing inside the games parameters and hidden from my reach. I need to physically touch the globe before I can recalibrate the coding plus I need to recover the information archived on the globe’s hard drive. I believe the answer to finding a portal into the Groundliers world exists within the programs collective memory.”
Jàl turned back to Roake. He watched the colour drain from her face. Without her airing her concerns he imagined the dangers she was picturing. He let his eyes fall to the bandage on her neck. Proof that the two were not free from the perils of the Verge and the dangers of the 9th dimensional world.
Roake squeezed past Jàl. Her fingers flew over the keyboards. The lines of programming disappeared from the screens replaced by renderings and schematics of the games multi levels. After a few minutes a cursor blinked red. The globes last recorded position.
“Not good,” she mumbled under her breath. Her finger jabbing at the pulsing beacon. She lowered her gaze to the bottom of the screen. “Level 7.”
“That’s the last available coordinates before the game shut me out. The Globe’s purpose is to sift through the fragments of archived information inputed into the game and build realistic renderings while testing for possible portals to the Groundliers planet. Maybe that’s why it stopped.”
“What makes you think that we can best the Verge and contact the Globe.” Roake questioned.
Jàl studied the soldier while she arrived at the same conclusion he had earlier when he mapped the coordinates for the globes. His answer: the same both times. The existence of the Sky Dwellers city depended on their sacrifice.
“Because we have no choice,” Jàl stated. The nervous smile played again across his lips.
“Can the game reset while we’re inside? What will happen to us?”
“I don’t believe that will be possible. Probably find ourselves spit from the program and we’d have to try again but one crisis at a time. No use psyching yourself out before we give it a go.” Jàl cautioned. He pushed Roake's words from his thoughts. He’d wondered that himself but in honesty had no idea what would happen. Finding the globe was all that mattered for now. Naturally some risks had to be accepted.
He crossed the room and refilled his coffee. Stirring the sweetener into the cup, he leaned against a counter and watched while Roake busied herself memorizing the schematics of the games layers.
“I’ve had Doc working on some new equipment. Futuristic shit. None of it has been field tested.” He spoke to Roake’s back, changing the tone of the conversation. He waited until she looked over. “Would you like to see it?”
“Can we transport it across the portal?”
Jàl’s mood lightened. There was the Roake he had come to know. The worry in her voice chased away by her piqued interest.
“Bio-engineering.” He boasted. “Armour that literally fits like skin. The plating should absorb the effects of the Verge weapons. At least for a time. Come on.” He said pushing away from the counter.
Jàl carried his coffee and walked to the far end of the open loft. A metal staircase sank in the corner of the room leading down a floor beneath the massive loft. The best hope for the Sky Dwellers world lay in a distorted version of a video game. Like the rest of the mission, survival hinged on the optimism of an untested future.