30: The House of the Soulless
Joel poked the ball of light with a curious finger. As he did, it bulged to life, like a blob of alchemium receiving new identity, shifting to take the form of a floating head, long of face with a quiff of brown hair and lips that quivered half way between a welcoming smile and a sneer of discontent.
“Greetings, gentlemen,” it said, voice thick with theatrical overacting. “Allow me to personally welcome you to the Avalon Entertainment Arcade.”
Joel jabbed the avatar’s face, but his finger passed through it as if it were air. The avatar raised a quizzical eyebrow. If it wasn’t for the obvious fact that it was a floating head, Dante would have struggled to tell the difference between the projection and a real person. Such was the power of technology, sufficiently advanced.
“If you are quite finished, Mr Gibson,” it said, barely hiding its annoyance at the curious raven, “I would like to help you select your entertainment.”
“What’ve you got?”
“What haven’t we?” it replied with a genuine bask of pride. “Looking at your personal records, I see you are something of an action gamer, yes? Perhaps you would like to test your mettle against some of our organisation’s toughest warriors in ‘Seelie Fighter VX Ultimate’? Or would you like to engage in the ever-popular ‘War of the Apostles’?”
Joel looked to Dante for advice. It was clear he had never faced this level of choice before. “You got any ideas, Dant?”
Dante shrugged. Really, he couldn’t care less for such fabricated fantasies.
“Perhaps Mr Orpheus would prefer something a little more cerebral?” offered the avatar. “We have some classic mystery adventure scenarios, or perhaps you would like to engage in a modern recreation of the Old World classic, ‘Magnum P.I’?”
“’ere, you got anything we can both get on with?” asked Joel. “You know, something maybe a little action-y and a little cereal-bry? Something we can work together on, like?”
The avatar furrowed its brow in contemplation, then split its face with a rubbery grin. “Gentlemen, if you would follow me, I think I have the perfect solution.”
Dante stared at his reflection. The grey suit clung to his body like a second skin. It was almost as embarrassing as the clothes Joel had made him wear the night before.
“At least you’ve got the muscles to show off,” said Joel. “I’m all bones!”
It wasn’t much of a compliment. Compared to someone like Doyle or Theseus, Dante looked just as scrawny as Joel. He went to dig his hands into his pockets for comfort, then remembered his clothes were still in the changing cubicle. He felt more naked than ever.
“So, who d’you think we’ll be up against?” asked Joel as they headed for the simulation booths. “It best not be that bloody Shawty.”
The last they saw of Chris Shaw, he was slouched on the sofa reading from his old paperback book. Dante figured this was the last place he would be. “Could be Byron,” he offered. “Or Denny.” They were the only people he knew who played such games, besides Joel himself.
“Just our bloody luck, eh?” said Joel. “A ponce and a genius.”
A.J is played by a young Chris Barrie. Sadly, I ended up cutting a lot of his dialogue.