“First of all, I’d like to apologise,” said Sir Kenneth, standing. “I know my son overstepped his bounds. I hope you can forgive his unfortunate transgressions. I’m afraid I find it hard to curb some of his more questionable exploits, for reasons I think will become clear shortly.”
Britta sat down on the sofa next to Dad and Sir Kenneth lowered himself into the armchair.
“I’d also like to thank you for not forcing him out of the game. It is something of a refuge for him.”
“A refuge?” said Britta. “What do you mean?”
Sir Kenneth interlaced his fingers like he was at the head of a conference table, meeting with board members. “My son suffers from a rather terrible degenerative condition called fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva. It’s a genetic disease that causes his body tissue to ossify over time. His flesh turns into bone. We can keep him alive for now, but he has lost the use of his body, which is slowly turning as hard as stone.”
Britta had never heard of the disease and couldn’t really imagine what it meant to have tissue turn to bone, but it sounded painful.
“It took a while for the disease to fully manifest. His childhood was relatively normal. But now he is permanently bedbound, requiring constant care. As you can imagine, it’s a very frustrating existence.”
“I’m sorry.” Britta didn’t really know what else to say.
“I’m not asking you to excuse his behaviour. Whatever his personal situation, there’s no justification for treating others poorly. I tried to raise him to be better than that, but it’s hard to be firm with someone who’s already suffering so much. He has become quite bitter over the last few years, not really caring about anything. That was until I managed to enroll him in APE’s revolutionary new virtual reality system. My son has been a tester since near the beginning of the project. It’s been a whole new lease of life for him.”
Britta began to understand the situation. Stan was able to live a relatively normal life in the fantasy world, able to walk and run and all the other things everyone else took for granted. Fighting monsters was probably the least fantastic part of it for him. However, the loss of his body had not been pleasant and his reaction had been to become a mean and horrible person. Which was understandable. If you couldn’t be an arsehole under those conditions, then when?
The only real question she had was why did someone who couldn’t get out of bed have a two and a half million pound car?
“In the game,” continued Sir Kenneth, “he is able to function as a near normal person. The only times he is reminded of his condition is when he is logged out, which is less and less frequently. There is a danger he will never want to leave that world, but then, there isn’t really anything left for him in this one.”
“There isn’t a cure?” asked Britta.
“I’m afraid not. He isn’t in any immediate danger, the process is glacial. But it cannot be stopped or reversed.”
Britta considered what the point was of telling her. Did he expect her to treat Stan differently? Be more forgiving of his dubious behaviour? She understood why Stan had ended up as such a spoilt brat, but she would still rather not have to deal with someone used to getting things their way all the time.
“He seems to be okay at the moment,” she said. “I mean, he’s been quite reasonable.”
“Yes,” said Sir Kenneth, his mood brightening. “Which is why I wanted to speak with you. Since you agreed to partner with him, there’s been a marked difference in his attitude. Even when he’s back in his real body, as terrible as that is for him, his mood has been greatly improved. He has something to look forward to, something that engages his mind and stops him dwelling on his unenviable future. I wanted to thank you for that.”
“He probably wouldn’t want you telling me all this,” said Britta.
“No, certainly not. I would ask you not to reveal that you know anything, but I know what a… fragile relationship the two of you have. He could easily provoke you again, he tends to be self-destructive in that way, so I wanted to take this opportunity to brief you on the reality of his situation. Not that I expect you to make allowances for him if you feel he has crossed a line, but for minor infractions…”
Britta nodded. Basically, he was relying on her to feel sorry for Stan to give him a pass next time he pissed her off. The fact he would do this now suggested he knew his son well enough to consider it more than likely to happen. She’d only known Stan a little while, but she also considered it more than likely to happen.
The question was, did she really want to be held hostage by pity? If she was in Stan’s position and found out people were being forced to be nice to her because they felt sorry for her, she would probably not take it well.
Sir Kenneth was looking at her with anxious expectation. He was probably a very hardened businessman. Maybe something more important than that, even. Certainly used to ordering people to do what he wanted. But here he was on bended knee.
“I can’t promise you I won’t fall out with him,” said Britta. “He can be very annoying.”
“Yes,” said Sir Kenneth. “There’s no denying that. All I ask is that if there is a problem, if there’s anything that goes beyond what you’re willing to put up with, please contact me, directly, before making a final decision.” He placed a business card on the coffee table. “I won’t necessarily be able to solve the issue, but I will certainly try. I hope you can see how important this is to me, and to my son.”
An alarm bell was ringing somewhere in Britta’s head. She felt there was something familiar about the way Sir Kenneth was talking to her, so kindly, with such sincerity...
The nub of sympathy for another human being who was suffering that had been growing inside Britta stopped growing. And shrank. This man had come all the way to her house from whatever swanky city mansion he lived in just to manipulate her into doing what he wanted. She didn’t think Stan was the way he was because he had been struck down by a vicious illness—he was a conniving, devious bully because he took after dear old dad.
“I’m happy to treat Stan as a friend,” said Britta. Sir Kenneth smiled. “As long as he behaves himself. I don’t think he’d want any special treatment from me.”
Sir Kenneth seemed a little taken aback by her change in tone.
Britta picked up the business card. “I don’t think you have anything to worry about. For now.”