30: The House of the Soulless
The simulation booths gave little clue as to whom their opponents would be, save that there was two of them. A Seelie cadet, her brooch a dull tin with no flourishes of achievement, helped them to climb into the pods.
“Good luck,” she said, as the world closed around them.
Dante lay there, disconnected from the outside world, wondering just what he had gotten himself into. It was one thing to play out a fantasy on a screen, but to actually live it, as if you were there? All he could think of were his dreams, his nightmares of dying forests and falling moons. How would he even know the difference? How would he even know what was real and what was not?
He felt his eyelids flutter and his body drift away, falling into the Dark.
The door burst open and gunfire filled the hallway. As a shower of brain matter spewed across his face, Dante stumbled back and ducked for cover behind a mahogany cabinet. When one headless body fell twitching, two more staggered forward. The smell of rotting flesh reached into Dante’s nose and down his throat, threatening to yank out his insides across the carpet. His gun lay at his side, fully loaded, its barrel caked in blood.
Joel loosed three more rounds, each one loud enough to leave Dante’s head ringing, then tossed his empty weapon aside and reached for a nearby vase. After a battering of blows from a chair, its broken legs, then a painting, telephone and grandfather clock, the third of the walking corpses collapsed in a bloody mass of pulped flesh and cracked bone.
Joel turned to Dante, still hiding behind the cabinet. A streak of blood ran down the raven’s face like a splattering of misapplied war paint. “You outta ammo too?” he asked, bending to scoop up Dante’s discarded weapon. Realising it was still loaded, he cocked a quizzical eyebrow and slipped it into his own holster, then reached down to help his friend up. “Guess you’re more of a melee kinda guy, yeah? Don’t worry, mate, I know the feeling. If I had RagnaRock, those things wouldn’t have stood a chance.”
Dante mumbled an agreement. The truth was, despite those odd lessons where Ms James taught physics using a variety of projectile weapons and explosives, he had little experience with firearms, and even less when it came to firing them at moving, living targets. Not that the reanimated corpses that attacked them were technically alive—in fact, they were little more than lines of digital code, fed into his brain by the simulation program—but it was hard to tell the difference when they were shambling towards you, dirty nails reaching out to claw the flesh from your bones.
In fact, it was difficult to tell the difference between any of this simulation and the real world. The mahogany cabinet behind which Dante took shelter had details down to the slightest of scuffs, scratches and fingerprints, and the ornaments inside looked like they could fetch a good price on a collector’s market, unlike the usual replications. It was enough to make Dante wonder if this was ‘simulation’ was actually a combination of technical effects, actors and automatons, rather than a stream of computerised data hijacking his perceptions.
What is it with zombies and abandoned mansions??