Decker was in over his head. This was nothing novel, or even particularly new. As a result, he was almost comfortable as he watched Shen scurry like a termite beneath his boots. He tapped his foot against the deck as he looked through the one-way transparent decking of the chamber above the engineering deck. The sound echoed off the plastic, coming back as thin echoes off the opaque dome of the sim suite.
“Doesn’t he ever sleep?” Sixteen asked with a wry smile. The old man was draped in a floral-printed apron, and wore a white bonnet tied around his chin. His thigh-high leather boots rapped on the floor as he paced around Decker in a sort of lazy orbit. He smelled hotly metallic, as if Tobias had set fire to the kitchen again.
“Not when he has a new toy.” Decker said. The mechanic had been up for a solid seventeen hours, and as far as Decker knew, hadn’t eaten in that time. Shen flitted about below them like a bat shot up with amphetamines, pausing occasionally to fiddle with a holo-panel or touchscreen, hand twitching automatically for tools he didn’t need. The big man was not much for speeches, but Decker had had to mute the audio once Shen had discovered he could actually TALK to the machines. He looked up and fixed the old man with a tired gaze. “Do you?”
Sixteen inclined his head. “If required.” He gave a faint chuckle, which didn’t make it to the walls, roughly ten metres equidistant. The ceiling to the sim suite was another ten above their heads and studded with fist-sized black sensor nodules. “Shall we run it again?”
Decker sighed and tapped his temple. His new implants hastily accepted Sixteen’s program, filtering down from the sensors above. A red countdown began in the corner of his left eye. In the five seconds, he tried once again to focus on Sixteen, the way he had on Tobias’s mark on Hades. Tried to see what was underneath those clothes in a way he hadn’t been brave enough to try on Eldred. Maybe look inside that gleaming pink skull and show faint surprise at the cogs and gears inside. But the harder he looked, the mistier the picture became, as if he was trying to read through the bottom of a glass. Maybe it would come once he got over the headaches and the soreness in the mornings. He had no further time to ruminate on this before the sim sucked him back in.
Decker’ breath fogged the screen of his helmet. He could even imagine he was cold. He was holding a rifle, the moulded plastic light in his hands. It was dark, but his implants had kicked in with night vision, and the ground before him lit up a grainy green. The stone was covered in a thin layer of dirt and innumerable small bones. It shifted around his boots like disturbed soup as he started walking.
He was standing in a narrow chamber, wading through a shallow pit dug into the floor. Ahead of him was a raised dais, the type a tyrannical preacher might have cursed from. Beyond that, a dark doorway, laced with a wreathe of overgrown creepers. There was a faint dripping of something thick and viscous, far away. Dust motes glittered in a thin lance of sunlight from a crack running the length of the chamber’s ceiling.
A tall, faceless figure was on his right side, cradling a formless silver shape, the same colour as itself. Silver snakes danced on a light breeze. Decker had guessed on the first run that it was supposed to be Eldred. He sub-vocalised a command into his throat mic, and not-Eldred flowed smoothly up the steps to the right of the dais. A squat silver shape already at the doorway could only be Shen. Despite himself, Decker’s heart was palpitating in his virtual suit. A faint moaning sound crept down the tunnel ahead, and made his gut squirm. Just the wind.
The unit moved as one into the tunnel ahead. Not-Eldred had to duck her head to deal with the low ceiling. Decker took point, the rifle dancing in his hands in time with his pulse. There was a brief pulse of light around the gentle curve ahead, and Decker threw himself into a narrow alcove just in time as the dull moan built into a scream. Not-Eldred squashed in beside him, the thin bulk of the avatar making his flesh crawl. Not-Shen wasn’t fast enough. Decker just remembered to kill his NV before the entity burst around the bend in the corridor.
The light was blinding, a roaring wave of sound, like a supernova might sound down a gravity well. Decker saw the insides of his eyelids, hot pink for half a second. The utter blackness after the entity passed was almost as terrifying as the sonic boom that trembled the walls of the tomb around him. Decker held onto a pillar and his virtual lunch. When he looked up again, Not-Shen was gone.
“Don’t need him anyway, right babe?” Decker grinned shakily at Not-Eldred. The silver-skinned avatar turned a hollow face towards him, and he lost the smile.
They proceeded along the curved hallway, took a right at a T-junction, and crossed a narrow stone bridge over a yawning chasm, a dark liquid bubbling thirty metres below. The bridge creaked as they walked, and dust cascaded from the underside of the bridge into the depths. Decker disliked this almost as much as the way Not-Eldred held his shoulders with her not-hands. A sour, rank smell crept from the pit, like liquifying mushroom.
They passed the second lake, skirting the thin rim around the circumference of the chamber, sunlight glinting through a peppered ceiling. Decker had lost his footing on his fourth run. Apparently, the water was as deadly as the ghosts because it had ended there.
By the time he passed the sunken squares he’d designated the swimming baths, his hands were shaking again. He’d never made it this far. Not-Eldred was gone, taken three turns back by two entities that appeared to have been on a collision course. Decker had tripped in his fright and cracked his helmet open on the tiles. He hadn’t seen Not-Eldred go above him.
His helmet hissed away as his atmosphere gently escaped through a narrow spider-web in the right corner of his visor. His implants were still functioning, but he was becoming light-headed. The laser rifle was gone. He’d left it behind after he’d lost Not-Eldred, crawling on his elbows with his heart in his ears. The fucking things didn’t touch the entities anyhow.
He appeared to be in some sort of communal area. Rows of stone benches sat in a circle, around a dark obelisk that rose to meet the high ceiling. Recesses in the tower might have been windows. Perhaps some bizarre concert hall, where the performers could hide in their central building if they felt particularly shy. Decker’s footsteps echoed on the stone as he walked down the crumbling concentric platforms to the centre. Was it his imagination, or was there some kind of glow higher up? He held his breath and listened. Nothing but the faint susurrus of the subterranean winds, and the hiss of escaping air. Decker focused on the light, perhaps ten metres ahead and above him, and cautiously jerked his head to kill the NV.
A faint green light lit up the upper works of the tower, the only glimmer in the pitch dark. His heart leapt in his chest. Sixteen had said it would be green. “At least in-Sim.” Whatever what meant. He might only be virtual steps away, and logically, very solid ones towards his bed and a boast at breakfast. Not to mention a confidence boost for the genuine article. He felt his manufactured anxiety disperse as rapidly as his air as he flicked his NV back on and broke into a trot for the steps leading into the tower.
He immediately realised his mistake. The Sim wights were blind, apparently. They reacted to sound, smell, changes in air density. “In-Sim, of course.” Decker had the disturbing feeling Sixteen was guessing at this. But it was his program, and Decker’s footsteps were as loud as thunderclaps in the musty hall.
They seemed to burst from everywhere. Wispy trails of brilliant white, dripping from solid masses, like miniature suns. At least five of them, swirling around the tower, filling the hall with that maddening moan that shook his teeth. His NV cut out to save his eyes. He had time to raise his hands against the combined glare before they flew at him as one screaming fireball, and the shockwave obliterated Not-Decker.
Decker collapsed with a strangled yell, the motion of the attack seeming to translate for a second into reality. His boots squealed on the deck as he slid half a metre backwards. He landed on his elbow. Again.