Bitter 272

Britta let Dad drag her downstairs. Not that she really had much choice, but she wasn’t in the mood to resist, anyway. She had done something truly dreadful and was happy to let others make all her decisions for her from now on. She couldn’t be trusted.

Dad sat her down in the kitchen and began putting a meal together. It was a little before nine, but Mum had already gone to bed. She did that sometimes, went to sleep a few hours early to make up for the ruthless schedule she subjected herself to every day.

Being married to an avid gamer had probably prepared her for sleeping alone. Even when they were little kids, Britta and her sister would often find Dad sat in front of the TV playing the same game he’d been playing the previous night when they went to bed.

To him, a game was something to beat. He rarely replayed them once he’d defeated the final boss. On to the next one.

Britta couldn’t see it like that. Not with this game. It didn’t matter if the people weren’t technically alive, the experience was the same. She was responsible for a terrible disaster, and she had no excuses to offer.

She sat at the kitchen table feeling empty and numb. Who would she have offered her excuses to if she had any? Not Dr Reedy, she didn’t think of the NPCs as any more alive than Dad did. Not to the NPCs themselves. Saying sorry to a resurrected computer character who had no recollection of you killing them would serve no purpose. Fighting and dying were two of their most popular pastimes.

Then who?

It was the game itself she owed an apology to. The game, the AI, Nigel… whatever it was, it would treat her differently from now on. It would consider her actions to be the same as some crazy dictator wiping out a town full of people.

Feeling judged by a computer… it was an odd sensation. Why should she care what Nigel thought of her? Anger rose inside her, but it had nowhere to go. She was responsible, nothing would change that. Her anger dissipated and she was weighed down with guilt once more.

“Now, eat this and you’ll feel better.” Dad had prepared an omelette for her, surrounded by bits of salad.

She wasn’t hungry even though she had hardly eaten all day. She took a bite because Dad was standing over her, watching expectantly as though the moment something warm hit her stomach she would be miraculously freed from her concerns.

Dad made good omelettes, filled with gooey cheese, but the mouthful she took was utterly tasteless. She put the fork down.

“Maybe we should call Dr Reedy and get it over with,” she said.

Dad nodded and went to get his phone.

Britta didn’t want to talk to Dr Reedy, but she knew it would be better to get it out of the way rather than sit and stew until she saw her tomorrow. It wasn’t like she could avoid finding out what had happened, she could only prolong the agony. The answers would be the same, regardless.

Dad came back already talking on the phone. “Yes, I was surprised, too. Have you considered making the dwarf ninjas part of the game’s brand identity? Oh, have you? I’d like to see that. Yes, maybe tomorrow. Hold on, I’ll put you on speaker.”

He placed the phone on the table. “Hello? Can you hear me?” said Dr Reedy’s slightly hollow voice. Partly the phone, partly her natural intonation.

“Yes. Hello, Dr Reedy,” said Britta glumly. The one bite of food she’d had, dug into the pit of her stomach. “Is it bad?”

“Is what bad?” asked Dr Reedy.

“The damage to the town. Did a lot of people die?”

“Mm? No. No one died apart from you and your father.”

Britta’s stomach tightened with uncertainty. “No one? Wasn’t there a big explosion?”

“I suppose. There was a big flash of light—we’re still trying to understand what was inside the book you destroyed—and the two of you were instantly killed.”

“No one else was affected?” asked Britta, hardly able to believe it. “Not even the town guards?”

“Not as far as we can tell. We’re still reviewing the footage, but it seems the only ones you hurt were yourselves.”

A flood of relief washed over Britta. She had never felt so light and clear-headed. She would have floated out of her chair, if her legs weren’t tucked under the table.

“Oh my god, that’s great. I didn’t kill anyone.”

“Well, you did get me killed,” said Dad, attempting to bring her back down to earth.

“You don’t count, Dad.” It was a wonderful feeling, to have all those horrible emotions that had attached themselves to her simply lifted off and discarded. “How did we die?”

“A good question,” said Dr Reedy. “Perhaps we’ll have an answer for you by tomorrow. You are still coming, yes?”

“Yes,” said Dad. “By the way, I was soaked to the skin when I exited the game. Britta was completely perspiration-free.”

“Another mystery we need to see about.” Dr Reedy sounded a little tired. She was probably working around the clock to sort out all the problems Britta was presenting her with. “It would be helpful if you would help us with a few… physical tests, Britta.”

“Okay,” said Britta. She was too elated to say no. A little exercise wouldn’t hurt. Right now, she felt like she could go for a run and never have to stop.

“That’s marvellous,” said Dr Reedy, sounding surprised and pleased. “That will help a lot. Thank you, Britta.”

She sounded so pleased, Britta instantly regretted it. That was the trouble with being happy, it made you far too kind and generous. Britta had been taken advantage of like that too often. But in this case she would make sure it would be a fair exchange. There were some questions about Nigel she deserved answers to.

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