“Did you know about me the first time we met?” Britta asked Stan. “Is that why you wanted to party up?”
Stan smiled the smile of someone utterly at peace with their own despicableness. “Kind of. I knew there was something odd about the way the the game reacted to you, but I didn’t know exactly what. I don’t think they’d figured it out at that point. I don’t think they still have. I wasn’t expecting the dwarf and all that, though. I’m guessing, neither were you.”
Listening to him, she could tell he was more interested in the unusual game interaction than wanting to mess with her. She was nothing but a button to push to see what happened.
“Why do you even care? Why can’t you just leave me alone and read the reports or whatever?”
He snorted, like she’d said something ridiculous. “Don’t you see what this is? Or at least what it could be?”
“It’s probably just a bug or some hacker messing with APE.”
“Oh, no,” said Stan. “No, no. This is so much more than that. There’s no hacker. They’ve searched the whole system looking for a breach. They found nothing.”
“That doesn’t mean—”
“Okay,” he cut in. “Sure, it could be some genius twelve year old on his home made super computer like in some shitty Hollywood movie, but think about this. People are willing to send spacecraft to Mars and beyond, hoping to find some fossilised remains of an ancient bacteria or microbe. The idea of life somewhere other than on Earth consumes us, and intelligent life is even more of an obsession. Wouldn’t you want to meet a thinking, sentient being that wasn’t a human with dumb human concerns? Wouldn’t you want to know what that life form thought was important? What they thought the meaning of life was? How they saw existence?”
He was so absorbed by his own ideas, Britta felt like he’d forgotten she was here until he stopped talking and looked at her.
“It’s just a game,” she said.
“Is it? This whole project was never meant to be some imaginary playground, it was much more than that. But they needed a framework for people to experience it in and the system was built by nerds.” He looked up at the sky. “Nerds!” he yelled. “So obviously they came up with this Dungeons and Dragons theme park. But that’s just the skin on top of the frame. It’s not just a game. It’s a living thing. With a mind of its own. And you’re the only one it wants to talk to, for some reason.”
His eyes were positively glowing. He looked half-mad, half-high on drugs.
“I can help. I don’t want to take anything away from you, I don’t want to take over. This is your show, you’re the lead character. But I can be your wingman. Watch your six. Keep an eye out for trouble.”
“You are the trouble!” said Britta. She didn’t disagree it would help to have someone to back her up, she just disagreed with who he thought that should be. “You already tried to take over and push me out.”
Stan pulled a face and tilted his head from side to side. “Yes, I admit that’s true, but I was reacting in the moment. Yes, my decisions weren’t the best, and maybe my self-serving nature kicked in and tried to take charge, but that’s only because I didn’t understand what was happening and it seemed like the best course of action at the time. You were new and inexperienced, I thought I would do a better job. It was only after I went back and talked to my father that I realised how wrong I’d been. I apologise.”
Britta considered him no more sincere than Dr Reedy. He was just saying whatever he thought would win her over and make her trust him. But she would never trust him. Even if he played along at first, eventually he would try to take over. It was his self-serving nature.
“You don’t have anything to say?” he asked after a long pause she refused to fill.
She crossed her arms and stared straight ahead. “I’m waiting for Dr Reedy to come back and kick you out.”
He shook his head. “That’s never going to happen. It just isn’t. And they won’t let you leave, either. You’re too important to the project. They’ll set their lawyers on you and threaten to take everything you have. Your house, your job, your savings…”
From what he said, he seemed to think she was older, an adult, which meant he didn’t have full information on her, which was some small comfort.
“Just give me a chance. A probationary period. You won’t regret it, and I’ll do a much better job than that dullard Lord Jim. He may seem like a nice guy, but it’s all an act. He’ll stab you in the back the first chance he gets.”
If he’d said that earlier, she would have thought he was just being malicious, but recent events had already proven his words to be true.
“He already stabbed me in the back,” said Britta, unable to hide her bitterness.
Stan looked a little confused. “Wait, you’re out here because they kicked you?”
She glared at him. He started laughing.
“It isn’t funny.”
“No, no. He’s a scumbag.” He carried on laughing regardless. “What did he want?”
“They took my cloak. The Cloak of the Dorf.”
“Oh, is that the special item Dr Reedy made for you? To help you take down the dwarf?”
He seemed to know about it already so there was no point denying it. “It won’t help. The game won’t let me meet the dwarf while I have the cloak.” She knew she shouldn’t tell him anything, but the need to complain about Lord Jim’s behaviour was too great and she had no one else to bitch to.
“Then it isn’t too bad a loss.”
“It’s my cloak!” shouted Britta.
There was a shimmering at the exit. Lord Jim and the rest of his party emerged. They looked extremely pleased with themselves. Lord Jim wore the cloak around his shoulders. Her cloak.
“Hey, how about this,” said Stan, “how about I get your cloak back for you? Think of it as my audition.” He raised his bow and pulled an arrow out of the quiver on his belt.
There were four of them, five including the fairy, and only one of him. She had no intention of teaming up with him, but she was curious how he planned to defeat all of them on his own.