Faces of curious human forms turned in Jàl’s direction as he raced past on the sidewalk. His quick strides matching those of the Groundlier’s lead. Store fronts, self enclosed, shaded entrances, stood silently a few feet from the edge of the sidewalk as the pair rushed by. The feeling familiar. For a second Jàl’s mind slipped back to when he and Roake employed the same actions escaping the Verge of his made up reality.
The same irritating whooping cry rang into the night and echoed over the strange glow of the overhead lights. Did he really escape to the Groundlier’s domain? The chase, the sounds all felt the same. The feelings too close to realize a difference. Could the Globe be disguised as the man called Conners Lee?
But then, why? To trick him into believing, but for what purpose? Then again, why not Jàl thought as he ran on the heels of the fleeing Groundlier, but the why clung to the fringes of his thoughts. For what purpose would the artificial intelligence part of his game sabotage the rest of the project? What was he missing?
“Quick. Over here,” the call shattered the conflicting thoughts pressing on Jàl’s mind. Focus swam back in front of his eyes. The Groundlier leapt off the sidewalk with two quick steps and pushed inside the darkened interior of a deserted store.
“Follow me,” Jàl heard the words as he twisted around crammed aisles. A dim bulb beckoned from the direction the voice headed.
“Whoa,” Jàl exclaimed, barely missing a collision with a stack of boxes laying in his path. The move deflected his body into a metal shelf. Round tin cans shuddered. Out of instinct, Jàl caught a can as it dislodged. A cursory glance at the label picture told of a particular sliced fruit contained inside. Jàl stared at the paper label. Can’t be, he muttered, remembering a familiar scene where he and Roake dashed through a store on an escape run from the Verge.
Shaking free of the memory, he looked about brushing aside a rising panic. In the faint light and close quarters he lost all sight of Conners Lee. Taking a breath, he stretched on his toes. The top of a head scooted past a shelve a couple aisles over. The silhouette close to a glowing red overhead sign.
Relief flooded over Jàl as he turned the last row of shelves and Conners Lee stood panting beside a door at the side of the room.
“Through here and we should be clear of them,” the Groundlier gasped pulling the door inward. More darkness greeted the pair. A inky dark void of even the poorest of light.
“To your left,” Lee instructed, “step left and you’ll feel the bricks of the wall. Keep your hand on the wall and walk straight ahead. We’re in a short back alley. Move carefully, but the way should be clear.”
Jàl did as told. A cautious side step and an outstretched hand welcomed the feel of the coarse brick wall. Shuffling his feet, he swung his right hand in front to detect unexpected obstacles. With his eyes pried wide open, the dark erased any sense of sight.
One careful footstep after the other. Seconds passed in near silence. A brushed snick sounded loud in the dark a heartbeat before a single bulb flared over a hidden doorway. A step away from bumping into Conners Lee, Jàl’s ears detected another more ominous sound. The opening of the door leading into the alley from the stores interior. A rushed turn of his head caught the sight of a brownish sleeve reaching into the new flow of light entering the dark space. The dull bulb above his head extinguished leaving the open doorway guiding the way from the alley. A rough hand grabbed the front of his jacket. Jàl stumbled forward as Conners Lee yanked him bodily through the doorway.
"The buggers are getting better. I’ll need to employ a different route next time.” The Groundlier swore as he snaked a route once more past stocked shelves. The run through the store interior ended at the doorway leading back to the street side of the building. Conners Lee searched outside the glass before opening the door and stepping onto the sidewalk.
“Act natural,” he whispered. Jàl tugged the hood of his cotton jacket over his head and shoved his hands into his pockets following along. The two moved in the opposite direction of the destroyed building and the gathering of first responders.
Despite the thick, heavy air, Jàl found the evening to his liking. The smells, unfamiliar yet welcoming. The human forms laughed and smiled as he passed them. Even the harsh, artificial light fighting off the darkness had a warm, easy feeling to it. In his wildest dreams, he never imagined the Groundliers world as anything but a sick, poisoned atmosphere with a population bereft of intellect.
A new smell twitched his nostrils. A man stood beside a wheeled cart. Steam use into the evening air.
“Those are hotdogs,” Conners Lee noticed Jàl quizzical look and pointed to the cart. “Meat, or at least bits go meat. You never had a hotdog?” The Groundlier shook his head at Jàl’s hesitation.
“Two dogs, Mac,” Conners Lee held two fingers in the air as he spoke to the vender. Jàl scrutinized the warm soft shell and the brown tube. “Ketchup, mustard.” Lee’s voice interrupted. Jàl turned to see the man squeezing coloured paste onto the object.
“Try this,” Lee insisted squeezing amounts of yellow and red paste onto Jàl’s dog. “Go ahead. It won’t kill you. Well not the one alone, maybe after a few years but you should be alright.”
Puzzled, Jàl regarded the “hotdog” in his hand suspiciously. “Why would I think it’ll kill me. What kind of games do you people play with your…foods?” He asked holding the bun away from his body.
“Kidding. It’s food. Eat it. Like this.” Lee lifted the hotdog to his mouth an clamped his teeth tight tearing a large portion off. Jàl watched the man chew then with a few seconds trepidation, he attacked the food the same way. Surprised at the texture and the pop of flavour, he made short work of the remainder.
“One more,” he flashed the vendor a solitary finger like Lee had done previously.
“Alright. Let me get this straight,” Conners Lee paced back across the floor. “Years back your city in the clouds saw its first taste of the flu. How all of a sudden did the virus arrive? When did this happen? Before of after you visited our level”
“Obviously, I can’t say because I don’t remember an earlier visit.” Jàl repeated his answer. The hairs on his arms stood with the Groundlier’s questioning of the timeline for the virus. If he had visited the lowest level before….was he responsible for the outbreak…could he have unknowingly carried the disease back to his home?
“I’ve got something you need to see,” Conners Lee’s words snuffed the anxiety building in his mind. Jàl watched the Groundlier leave the relative sanctum of furniture for the labyrinth of shelves and boxes that constituted the man’s work space. When Jàl lost track of his host, his thoughts switching back to Roake and how he imagined her suffering alone, fevered and helpless in a digital world of his making. A cure and a ticket home pressed his actions, the possibilities of him being the cause of all the Cloud City’s troubles would have to wait.
Footsteps out of the jungle of research material brought Conners Lee back into the small living area. “I think this is the recording,” he talked across his shoulder as he squatted beside a bank of electronic equipment.
Conners Lee stood and backed out of Jàl’s line of sight with the ancient video screen. A blurry picture swam into focus revealing a younger, visibly upset version of the Cloud City’s leading intellect.
“Not certain what you want me to do?” A tinny recording of Jàl’s voice projected from the video device.
“Well, first, tell me your name, where you claim you’re from and how you arrived here.”
"I…I don’t…am I in trouble?”
“No. Well, not from me. There are some government men who I imagine would like nothing better then to interrogate you but I think we’ll be safe here. So go on and tell your story. I want a record of this.” A much younger Conners Lee stepped into the video frame adjusting a small microphone placed in front of Jàl.
On screen Jàl watched himself clear his throat before responding to Lee’s instructions.
“My name is Jàl Condor. I,” a huge breath paused the tale, “am a resident of the Cloud City. My home sits high above where I presume…we are now.”
“Do you mean your city floats in space?”
“Floats in space. No.” Young Jàl’s voice sarcastically replied. “Built above your city is the home of the middle class. Do you not know of this?” A visibly stressed Jàl cocked his head as he stared into the camera. “My home exists hundreds of stories above your earth anchored city. Have you never wondered why your world only rises into the sky so far?”
“A safety shield built long before my time restricts our upward travel. A type of bio-shield protects us against threats entering our atmosphere. That’s why. Everyone knows that,” The younger Conners Lee haughtily replied.
The video captured Jàl shaking his head in disbelieve. “That’s quite a story. Let me tell you what holds your people back. This bio-shield. It as designed to keep you Groundliers in your place. Many millennial ago, my ancestors built the shield to shelter the newly rising Upper Class from intrusions by barbarians.” A finger pointed at the video version of Conners Lee. “Your people.
But even that is ancient history. Civilization surpassed the scourge that became of the Middle Class a few lifetimes ago. Now we tower high above earth and all its…its impediments. Free of the savagery and pettiness and diseases of the lower classes and your awful ways.”
The two men sat silent. Conners Lee absorbing Jàl’s discretion of a world he thought he knew while the video played and Jàl sat mesmerized by the younger version of him on the video and the break through he made so long ago, all the time wishing for the memories that his brain lacked, to return.
“When I first arrived. Were you the one who found me…” Jàl broke the silence.
“No. I was in University the first time you appeared. How we met was quite out of the ordinary. When you were found out, the authorities locked you in a hospital. One for crazy people. The stories you told, well, who in their right mind could believe something like that.”
“And this was how long ago?”
“Quite some time now. I haven’t been in school for many years and,” Conners Lee swung his hand to emphasis the stacks of papers and boxes, “I’ve done my own research into dimension bending. So maybe eight or ten years.”
Jàl fidgeted in his seat. Damn, the The time line seemed feasible. Some time around then the first signs of the virus were discovered. Why couldn’t he remember? Settling back in his chair he motioned Conners Lee to continue.
“I was a student. The news was filled with your story. The more I watched, the more I became enthralled until, I don’t know what, a feeling or some special power put us together. We hatched a plan for your escape and then shortly afterward you summoned…what did you call it…a horizon or gateway back to your digital world. You stepped through a doorway and that was the last anyone saw or heard of you.
Your short time here became the thesis for my final school papers. You became famous like Bigfoot or that sea serpent others have been searching for, for forever. I switched up my studies and learned advanced computer physics. I wanted to find out what happened to you. And now, bang, here you are.”
“And, this time. How did you know where to find me?”
“Easy,” Lee explained. “I once lead the division tasked with unravelling the mystery of our disappearing buildings. This area,” Conners Lee stood and grabbed a city map, “is where all the action is. I still had friends in the bureau. Your appearance was reported to me the instance you walked through the wall. The fact that I stole you from the study chamber at the hospital. Well. That will be a problem that I’ll have to deal with later.”
“This is your home. Are the others not aware where you live? And don’t they also want what we want?”
Conners Lee shrugged. His hand waffled in mid air. “ This is one of my places. So, yes and no. People in this city are scared. The sudden appearance of you and the area you made your entrance. The higher ups probably can’t wait to get their claws into you and make you answer for the lives and destruction caused. So we’ll hide. Eventually we will be discovered but for now we should be safe.”
Conners Lee set down the map and switched the video off before returning to his chair across from Jàl. “But this is getting us nowhere. The only thing I care about is putting an end to the collapse of our city. So, needless to say, I first must understand how your program is able to disrupt the integrity of the structures in this world and then, as you’ve told me, reconstruct them in your digital world. If, that is in fact what we are dealing with.”
Conners Lee let a long sigh escape his lips. “Things are bad and getting worse. I mean, how many more foundation buildings can we afford to lose before the whole city comes tumbling down around itself?”