Rodrigo breathed in the stench of roasting human flesh, and grinned maniacally. This was fantastic, exceeding even the high expectations ImmersaCorp had long ago set for itself with its unbroken line of successful and ultra-realistic immersion scenarios. Rodrigo had grown up on those–skiing the Alps, piloting spacecraft, fighting Nazis in the Ardennes, rescuing maidens and he-damsels in fantasy settings. ImmersaCorp stayed ahead of the competition by supplying the best sense-replications on the market, but also through clever storytelling. Some founder of the monolithic corporation must have realized that effect meant nothing without substance.
Smoke blew across the shattered street. The sun was a smudge of sickly amber. In the distance broken towers leaned at improbable angles. This city had been devastated by a nuclear strike. It was so wonderfully…retro.
Rodrigo couldn’t keep the grin off his face as he stepped carefully through the rubble. Archaic gasoline-burning cars were scattered like toys. Nuggets of glass crunched under the soles of his shoes. He imagined radiation streaming over the scene, bringing a kind of forever death to this world.
It was gorgeous, every amazingly sharp detail of it. This was a period of history that had always enthralled Rodrigo. For nearly a full century, humankind had lived with a stockpile of weapons that could wreak unthinkable havoc just like this. Such madness had no analogue. You simply couldn’t compare it to anything. It was a death-wishing, self-destructive mind-set that belonged to an age which the human race, by rights, should not have survived.
But Rodrigo, despite his modern civilized veneer, found himself giddy at this display of horror. He hurried forward now, eager to engage the game.
Naturally, he felt nothing but the artificial sense stimulation. He retained no awareness of his real body as it lay in its reinforced immersion casket at the arcade.
The game unfolded, and he followed its prompts, discovering a clutch of survivors, some seriously wounded. Over the years, he had developed shorthand for playing, and so was occasionally able to second-guess the program, though this took nothing away from the excitement. He and his shell-shocked but hardy band set off through the hopeless, apocalyptic wasteland, seeking necessities, struggling to survive a day longer, an hour, a minute. The catastrophe overhung everything. Every thought and action was colored by what had befallen this city–and perhaps the entire planet. This, Rodrigo knew from his study of history, was what people had once genuinely feared. They had been right to dread an Armageddon like this, considering the hellish depths of the military nuclear stockpile at the time.
Only occasionally, these days, did an ancient missile turn up, usually part of a secret illegal cache that had been forgotten. The disposal of such weapons was now handled with great ceremony, as humanity paused to reflect on how it had evolved.
Certainly no political entity on Earth would ever use a nuke. (Nuke. Rodrigo found the blunt, obsolete nomenclature delicious.) There was, of course, the very remote chance that some single lunatic could dig up a bomb somehow, but that was the stuff of paranoid nightmares.
Rodrigo slogged on through the burning, corpse-strewn ruins. This appeared to be a no-win game, since he and these game-generated players would all eventually die of radiation poisoning. But ImmersaCorp was clever. You could almost count on a twist, even though most players would never see it coming. Rodrigo, with his long experience, watched for it.
When they found the lone soldier with half her face burned off, Rodrigo felt a rush of anticipation. From the soldier they obtained a radiation detector and a few enigmatic clues, which led, after some harrowing adventures, to an underground bunker. There a scientist explained that the strike had occurred just outside the lethal zone, which was why the city hadn’t been vaporized. Those of Rodrigo’s group who were still alive received doses of a radiation-resistant drug, and that was that. Game over.
He didn’t let himself feel disappointment. It had been an absolutely fantastic experience, lacking only a Serling-esque twist. Logging out, Rodrigo pushed the lid of the casket. It resisted. Shoving hard, he heard something clatter to the floor as he finally got the tube open.
This was not the arcade. Or it was–but not the one he’d entered several hours earlier. All the lights were out and only a mournful wind made any noise. The power wasn’t all that was dead; so were dozens and dozens of people, their bloody chunks sprayed all across the arcade, whose roof had been torn off. The smell of seared flesh was overpowering.
Rodrigo gaped and staggered and fell to his knees among the debris. In under a minute, however, the grin had returned to his face. “Fantastic,” he said aloud, awed by ImmersaCorp’s ingenuity. This was a site-specific scenario, added on to the regular game’s ending. Here was the twist.
Delighted, Rodrigo wandered out to explore the smoking ruins of the city. It wasn’t until much later, when the cramps in his stomach got bad and he vomited blood, that he accepted his new reality.
©Eric Del Carlo
Eric Del Carlo’s fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Futurismic, Necrotic Tissue, Brain Harvest, Talebones, and many other publications. He is the coauthor, with Robert Asprin, of the Wartorn fantasy novels published by Ace Books. More info is at ericdelcarlo.com.