“Britta? Britta?” Dad was calling her from downstairs.
She took off her helmet and sat up on her bed. It was evening and the light was off in her room, so it took a moment for her eyes to adjust. When she could see properly she turned on the lamp beside her bed, and blinked rapidly trying to readjust to that.
“Hey,” said Dad, appearing at her door. “We died!” His face was sweaty and his hair was stuck to his glistening forehead.
“I know,” said Britta.
“That was amazing. I’ve never had a game like that. I mean, so different. That’s what it’s like for you all the time?”
“Those dwarves, the way they talked… It was so real. Nothing I’ve ever seen even comes close to that kind of AI naturalism. They’d destroy the Turing test, absolutely destroy it. And dwarf ninjas? Who would even think of that? I tell you what, though. They’d be great for merchandising.”
“They should make them the face of the game. They need some kind of branding.”
“They were always talking about how they wanted to give the game a solid identity, why not a—”
“Dad!” said Britta, raising her voice to get him to stop talking. “Did we kill all those people?”
Dad’s face fell out of its excited state into a confused droop. “What people?”
“All the people living in those shacks. We set off a giant bomb over their homes.” She had to struggle to keep her voice steady.
“Oh, sweetheart. They aren’t real people. It’s just a g—”
“No, Dad, it isn’t.” She knew he was right. They weren’t real. They were just numbers in a computer. They could be brought back and carry on as though nothing had happened. But it wasn’t just a game. Games didn’t make you feel like this.
Dad was standing with his hands on his hips, his head lowered, trying to think of the right thing to say.
“You’re right. I didn’t think of it like that. We must have created a lot of damage.”
“I should have known,” said Britta, grimly holding back her tears. “The Mayor told me it was dangerous. He said I should learn how to do it safely, but I ignored him. This is my fault.”
She was being stupid. Why was she getting upset about something that had only happened in a simulation?
Dad sat down next to her on the bed and put his arm around her. “It’s okay. We can fix it. If we hurt people, we can make them better. The important thing is to realise you haven’t killed anyone. What you’re feeling is guilt and shame. You did something you regret, and you’re not happy about it. Which is good. You aren’t a sociopath, and I’m very happy to know it. Your reaction is what any decent human being would feel.”
His soothing words calmed her. She still had a painful twinge in her chest, but it wasn’t quite so devastating. If something like this had happened in this world, there would be no going back. You couldn’t recover from something like that. Not unless you were dead inside.
She handed him a towel. “You stink, Dad.”
He took the towel and grinned at her. “You really are completely dry,” he said as he dried his hair. “I hope Dr Reedy can figure out why.” His head reappeared with his hair sticking up. “Look, we’ll go back and we’ll deal with whatever we find. We actually have the power to do something about it.”
“We can’t go back. Not for twenty-four hours.” There was almost a relief from having the consequences of her actions withheld from her. Although she had an appointment with Frau Magda she would miss now.
“Right, right,” said Dad. “But we’re seeing Dr Reedy tomorrow. She can show us. We could call her now, actually.”
Britta had mixed feelings about Dad’s suggestion. She knew she should find out what kind of devastation she had caused, to face it and start working on what to do about it, but on the other hand, she wanted to hide under her covers and never learn the truth. The dread sat in her stomach like a heavy meal eaten too quickly.
“Hey, come on. Don’t be so down on yourself. This is what life is like. Bad things happen to everyone and there’s nothing you can do about that—you can try to limit it, but you can’t prevent it a hundred percent. What makes you a successful person is how you handle yourself when things go wrong. Are you going to fall apart and give up? Or are you going to get off your backside and do something about it? It’s up to you.”
Britta considered his words. He was right. This sort of experience usually only came when it was for real and you had no way to prepare yourself. People didn’t usually get to practice it.
But knowing that didn’t stop her from feeling awful. She fell backwards onto the bed and pulled the pillow over her face.
Dad yanked the pillow away. “I lied. It isn’t up to you, it’s up to me. Let’s go downstairs and have something to eat. Then we’ll call Dr Reedy and see what war crimes we committed.”
He grabbed her hand and pulled her off the bed.