28: An Illusion of Paradise
The film pulled against him, seemed at first as if it would resist, throw him back into the foyer, but then it fled, tracing its way along his skull and fixing, for the briefest of instants, on the back of his neck. Then, with a sharp snap, it released him into the passage beyond.
Emily was last to step through. Rubbing her neck, she put on a crescent-moon smile for those watching. Dante turned away. Even now, with the morning’s nausea behind him, he still felt the burn of embarrassment, the flash of scattered memories dancing around his head, images of things he would have rather forgotten, times he would rather erase.
Once again, he met Joel’s eye across the crowd, and once again his friend forced a smile.
And then they ascended the stairs into the daylight, and Dante saw Avalon for the first time.
Avalon, and the truth.
The doors opened on a stainless white hall leading into a stainless white lounge. Sunlight flooded into the apartment through a single long window, looking out across the streets below. In the distance, the blue ocean sparkled. There was no escaping it.
Oblivious to his friend’s turmoil, Joel slung his bags down and sauntered into the apartment. “Well, this is a bit dull, ain’t it?”
“What did you expect?” asked Chris. With a clear, commanding voice, he spoke to the room, “Computer, activate environment steam sure version three-point-two from my public directory.”
Before Joel could ask what the Malkuthian was talking about, the room shifted around them. The blank walls turned to polished planks of darkened wood topped with a veneer of flowered green wallpaper, while globules of Alchemium rose to form tables and chairs, inviting leather sofas, bookcases and fireplaces and clocks big and small, ticking and tocking even as their bodies moulded around them.
Visor aglow, John Smith ran his fingers along the wallpaper. “A near ninety-nine percent emulation,” he said. “There are even imperfections in the design. Fascinating.”
“I find people get disorientated if everything is perfect,” explained Chris, as he pulled up a footstool and sat down. “And besides, the standard designs that come with these places are always so uninspired. There’s no character in them, no imagination.”
Joel plucked a book from one of the shelves, flicked through its pages, then shoved it back with a grunt. “Gonna be party central in this place,” he mumbled to himself.
Although Seelie had assigned their rooms at random, Dante figured it wouldn’t be long until everyone had settled into the same old cliques and couples. The Veritas girls had already swapped themselves about so the four of them could share one of the apartments together, and it was only a matter of time before Joel snuck his things over to Kaori’s place. Not that it bothered Dante: the less company he had, the better.
In the meantime, Joel had discovered a vendor, whose sleek white alcove and sharp black lines stood out against the antiquated wallpaper like a Malkuthian at a raven party. “’ere, Shawty, this thing’ll give us anything we want, right?”
“Anything they have listed, yes,” he replied.
Joel jabbed at the vendor’s small interface. “What the fook is with all this exercise equipment?” he asked. “I don’t wanna start a gym, I wanna play some bass.”
Chris glanced up from the dog-eared paperback book he’d produced from the pocket of his neon-trimmed Malkuthian coat. “It’s important to keep the body fit and fresh. The ladies won’t look twice at an unhealthy slob of a man.”
“Whatever, mate. When was the last time you got laid?”
“I’ve more important things to worry about.”
It’s actually ‘SteamShaw 3.2‘, but Dante didn’t realise that.