Bitter 274

It was very strange standing on the stage with so many people staring at her. They seemed quite pleased to see her, but it was still quite a shock. Britta stood there, unsure what she was supposed to do or how she got there. Her mind had gone blank.

Dad grabbed her arms from behind and guided her to the seats on one side of the stage. They were very modern-looking armchairs covered in a shiny blue material. He had to fold her over and push her back to make her sit.

There was a lectern with a microphone near the front of the stage and Dr Reedy stood behind it.

“Yes, okay, good,” said Dr Reedy into the microphone. “Everyone, I’d like to introduce Britta.” She twisted and held out a hand to indicate Britta. Dad was sitting next to her and helpfully pointed a finger at Britta to avoid any confusion.

The audience began clapping. It wasn’t wild applause, just a polite welcome. It was still very strange. Bitta was finding it hard to think clearly.

“As you know,” said Dr Reedy to her colleagues, “this young lady is the reason we’ve been able to progress so quickly with Project N-27. Remarkable strides have been made in the last few weeks, and there’s no doubt Britta’s contribution has been key.”

Dr Reedy paused to turn around and smile at Britta.

Britta had no idea what she was expected to do. She smiled back and hoped she didn’t look as awkward as she felt.

“Now,” said Dr Reedy as she readdressed the audience with a more businesslike tone. “We don’t want to take up too much time, so please keep your questions brief and to the point. Britta, why don’t you come up here, it’ll be easier for everyone to hear you.”

Britta looked at Dad as she rose to her feet on what felt like a surge of panic. Dad pulled a concerned face which was of no help whatsoever.

The pressure of just going along with things was too great to resist. She hadn’t agreed to this, had no idea she’d be put on display for so many people, but what could she do now? If she refused to cooperate, it would just be too embarrassing.

She walked up to the lectern and Dr Reedy stepped to the side.

“Okay, first question. Yes, Dr Gillespie.”

A man rose to his feet in the middle of the seating. He was tall and heavy set, and he was wearing a very wrinkled white lab coat.

“Niall Gillespie, Head of Character Development. Hello.” He was bald and had a scruffy beard. He kept twitching and jerking his head, which made Britta feel anxious.

“Erm, hello,” she said, trying her best to act like this was all fine.

“Into the microphone, please,” said Dr Reedy.

“Sorry. Hello,” said Britta into the microphone that was too high for her to reach.

Dr Gillespie nodded, or possibly he was having a minor spasm. “We’ve all been watching your tapes with great interest, wonderful stuff, but the one thing we haven’t been able to work out is how you know which NPCs are going to react to you normally, and which are going to be… special?”

Britta thought the answer would have been obvious if they had watched the tapes like he said. “I don’t. I have no idea.” There was a murmur around the hall. “I try to engage with whoever I’m talking to, but I’m not even sure how to trigger them to talk to me like a normal person. My guess is that it’s possible with all of them, but they each have their own trigger.”

It wasn’t so bad once she got going. It helped that the question hadn’t been technical. She wouldn't have had any idea how to answer something that required her to understand programming.

“So it’s just trial and error?” the Head of Character Development asked, sounding disappointed.

“Yes.” She was slightly annoyed by his change in attitude. She had still managed to achieve something no one else here had.

“And what about the gnome character drew you to it?”

“Nothing. It was random.”

“Completely random?”

“Yes.”

“You didn’t put any thought into it?”

“No.”

“Same with the illusionist class?”

“Yes.”

He sat down. She could tell he wasn’t happy with her answers, but what had he expected?

Dr Reedy pointed at someone else who had their hand up. “Geeta, yes?”

A short Indian woman stood up. “Hello, there. I lead the languages team.” Her accent was so thick Britta had a hard time understanding her. From somewhere in deepest, darkest Yorkshire, it sounded like. “We were wondering if you could give us an insight into how you maintain a continuous dialogue over three minutes. That’s what was set as the maximum to avoid memory depletion, but you seem to be able to override the protocol.”

Britta had no idea what she was talking about. “I don’t know. I just talk to them.”

There was some follow-up questions along the same lines, how she managed conversations with NPCs, what flags she watched out for, how she funnelled dialogue into particular directions. Britta couldn’t understand why she was being asked things she couldn’t possibly know the answers to. They had seen how she played the game.

More questions were asked by other department heads. The man from the environmental team wanted to know how she had enabled night mode. The woman from combat systems wanted to know how she knew to attack the giant zombie’s heel. The lead animal designer wanted a list of modifications she’d made to Donald.

Her answers were becoming repetitive. She didn’t know, she hadn’t changed anything, it wasn’t anything to do with her.

The mood in the auditorium shifted to something more unfriendly. The looks were colder, the atmosphere more tense. They seemed to think she wasn’t being completely truthful, or hiding something.

It wasn’t her fault they hadn’t been able to figure out what was going on, but it was clear this whole thing was a waste of time. And the way it was set up meant she couldn’t even ask questions back. If there’s been only a few of them, in a small room, at least then she might get the chance to ask them what she wanted to know.

“What really happened between you and the god of gnomes?” asked a large woman whose name Britta had missed. “The truth.” She wasn’t even trying to be polite anymore, she was downright hostile.

But rather than feel intimidated, Britta relaxed. This felt familiar. They didn’t like her. They wanted her to tell them what they wanted to know, and then go away. Just like the kids at school. Now this she could handle.

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