Bitter 1

“But why were you fired?” Britta asked Dad across the dinner table.

“I wasn’t fired, I was let go,” said Dad very calmly. Almost like he’d rehearsed it. He put his knife and fork down parallel to each other on the empty plate. Then he readjusted them to make sure they were even more parallel.

Britta knew him too well to not spot the obvious signs. “Okay, why were you let go?”

“It’s complicated,” her father said. “They’re restructuring and they had to let some people go. I was just unlucky.”

“Unlucky because you were caught doing something you shouldn’t have been doing?”

“Britta,” said Mum with a sharp look thrown in. “Don’t badger your father. I’m sure if there was anything more to it, he would tell us.” Her look moved over to Dad and got chillier.

Britta’s dad worked for Anderson Peters Electronics. Or at least he used to.

APE was one of those companies that if you’d bought shares in them back when they were a small company indistinguishable from all the other small tech start-ups, you would now be very well off.

Britta’s family wasn’t very well off. Her dad had worked in a fairly low position. No stocks or shares for him. And now, no job either.

It didn’t make sense. Why would they get rid of people when they were the fastest growing company in the world? Her dad must have done something.

But that didn’t make sense either. If he had broken some rule or screwed up on the job, then why had they given him one of their brand new VR pods as severance pay? You don’t hand over a machine that cost more than a luxury car to someone you just let go; especially if the reason you let them go was because they’d been fired.

“You should’ve taken the money,” said Mum, stabbing her fluffy potatoes unnecessarily. “The stupid thing takes up the whole of the living room.”

The pod was between the sofa and the television, like an enormous coffee table. It didn’t match the curtains or the upholstery.

“I’m telling you,” said Dad, “that ‘stupid thing’ will make us more money than a lifetime of working a regular job.”

“Yes,” said Mum, “if we sell it.”

“Can’t. Not legally. If we don’t want it, we have to send it back.”

Britta had no idea how a glorified games console would make them money. It was the product that had made A.P.E. famous—a full-immersion virtual reality conduit that put you in the game, literally. It didn’t use special glasses or a headset; you had to climb into the machine and lie there while your brain was transported into a new world.

“Can I have a go?” asked Britta.

“No, sweetie, it isn’t a toy. It’s a very advanced piece of tech and I’ll be using it to make us rich. Just you wait and see.”

Mum didn’t look convinced. She pressed her fork down hard on the mash so it squeezed up through the tines.

Sitting down together for dinner was something they’d only recently started doing. When Britta’s sister, Marisa, moved out to go to university, Mum decided they needed to spend more quality time together.

Her parents were a modern couple, which meant they didn’t like each other very much. They both worked (until today) and shared the household stuff like cooking, although not cleaning. They had a Syrian woman who came in to do that twice a week. They weren’t well off, but they could afford a widowed refugee with three kids to feed.

“And how long will it take you to make us all rich?” Mum pressed down her fork, although how torturing the mash would get her an answer, Britta had no idea.

“I’ve got homework,” said Britta. She left the table and put her plate in the kitchen, which was really just the other half of the dining room. She passed the living room on her way to the stairs and popped her head in. The pod looked like a shiny, space-age coffin.

They were still bickering In the dining room. Very quietly, very politely.

Dad was a nerd. He was a grown man who thought being a professional gamer was cool. Like being a rockstar. Britta shook her head. He would never be cool. And she was his daughter, so she’d never be cool either. She knew it only too well.

Britta went upstairs. She’d already done her homework—she’d finished it at school during lunch—so she started on next week’s.

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