Dad drove himself and Britta to the APE facility the next morning. It was Sunday and the roads were fairly quiet. Britta stared out of the window, compiling questions in her mind and choosing which order would be best to ask them in.
It was an electric car—Dad’s choice, and very little to do with being environmentally responsible, despite his insistence that it was—so there was hardly any sound to disturb her thoughts. The radio was playing the ancient music he liked, but she’d had a lifetime of practice tuning that out.
She was wearing a tracksuit in case she had to do some running on a treadmill, like some kind of lab rat, and she had another set of clothes with her. She had considered backing out of her agreement to take the medical, but thinking it over, she decided it would probably be best to make sure there weren’t some weird side effects to being hooked up to the helmet.
It was the kind of thinking she was trying to overcome. The belief that not knowing was the same as there being nothing to know. If there was a problem, it would be better to be aware of it, and deal with it as best she could, rather than stick her head in the sand.
She kept thinking about Stan and his condition. If she were to be diagnosed with something like that, her instinctive response would be to hide from the truth and delay as much as possible before she had to face the reality of the situation. Which was exactly why she had to force herself to find out. Her instincts had never been very good.
“Don’t often see you looking so sporty,” said Dad.
The tracksuit was school issue, with the school’s shield on the breast. It looked almost new because she didn’t like exercise and was very creative about getting out of doing it.
“No. I’m not a big fan of getting tired and aching in every muscle in my body. At least in the game you can buff your stats and do stuff properly.”
“Yeah,” said Dad with a grin. “First time I climbed a rope in the game, I felt like I’d reached the top of a mountain. Never even got close when I used to do PE. Sometimes makes real life feel a bit disappointing, though.”
They both fell silent for a time.
“Dad, what if I decide I don’t want to play the game anymore?”
“Completely your choice, sweetheart. Why? Are you thinking of quitting.”
“No. I just don’t want to end up trapped in there. Because it’s so much better than out here.”
“It isn’t better. You just haven’t had a chance to see what there is out here, yet. That’s going to change. You’re almost a woman, now.”
“No, hear me out. I’m not trying to embarrass you. You’re a young woman, and you have a lot of things still to discover. A lot of very good things. And some bad, but mostly good. It’s other people who make it bearable when things seem a bit dull and pointless, you just have to find them.”
“What if I don’t?”
“You will. Look at your sister, she’s not that different to you.”
“She’s a lot different.”
“Trust me, she was just as uncertain of herself when she was your age. Look at her now with whasisface.”
“Sure. I mean, obviously I wish she had better taste in men, but she’s happy, mostly, which is the important thing.”
“You don’t like Dan?”
“Of course I like him. He seems very nice. And I can see the physical attraction—he’s got that six-pack he keeps showing me, but I sometimes wonder what they talk about when he isn’t doing pushups.”
“What they need when they go shopping,” said Britta.
“Ha! Yeah, probably.”
“No, I’m not joking. That’s what they talk about. He’s very particular about what he eats. Lots of superfoods.”
“Oh? What are superfoods? Like a really nice curry?”
“I don’t know, wheatgrass and broccoli, and things like that, I think.”
“Right, right. Kale, hehehe.” He sniggered like a kid saying a naughty word. “Is that why she always begs me to make her a fry up whenever she comes round?”
“Probably. She’s lost a lot of weight since she’s been with him.”
“Has she? She was never fat though, was she?”
Britta smiled. She wondered what he saw when he looked at her. Not what everyone else saw.
They arrived at the facility half an hour later. The guard at the gate was standing outside his little hut as they drove up. He came to the window and handed Dad a security pass for each of them, and directed him where to go. Not the general car park, this time. They were assigned their own parking bay, next to the main entrance.
“Looks like we’re going up in the world,” said Dad, speaking with his pass held between his teeth.
As he pulled into the bay, which had an electronic sign with their name on it, Britta spotted Dr Reedy waiting for them. She was just inside the building, standing by the large plate glass wall. She came out when she saw them.
“Hello, welcome. You made it. Not too much traffic, I hope.” She seemed much more energetic than normal. Practically bouncing on her feet. “This way. Now, there are a few people who’d like to meet you. Heads of department, research scientists, that sort of thing. I hope that’s okay. Nice outfit by the way. Very sporty.”
Britta was beginning to think maybe the tracksuit wasn’t such a good idea. She hadn’t expected to have to meet anyone new. But then, maybe these were the people who could answer her questions.
Dr Reedy led them through the building, not up to the top floor this time. They went through a door into an auditorium with a small stage at one end, and a bank of seats filling the rest of the room. There had to be over a hundred people sitting there, staring at her as she was led onto the stage.
Actually, the tracksuit was fine. Perfect for running away.