Bitter 345

Dad didn’t look upset, which was surprising. His precious ticket to New World was being hauled away, and he was standing there, occasionally shouting out helpful instructions to the men so they didn’t bang into the garden gate.

His version of the Anderson cradle was a full-sized pod you had to climb inside of. They had taken it apart, but it was still in large unwieldy sections.

Britta stood on the street, waiting for them to make their way out of the front garden. The men were wearing plain grey overalls and their van had no markings on it. They could have been a regular delivery firm picking up the rig on behalf of APE, but Britta doubted it.

“Hey, sweetheart,” said Dad when he spotted her. “They’ll be gone in a second.” He didn’t just sound unperturbed by what was happening, he sounded quite cheerful.

“What’s going on?” asked Britta, as another sheet of the VR pod’s siding was carried past her.

“Nothing much. They wanted their machine back.”

“I thought it was your machine.”

“Technically, they can recall it for maintenance whenever they feel it’s necessary.”

“Don’t they have to give you a replacement while they sort this one out?”

After the last time they’d taken away his rig, and taken it apart, he’d made sure to get an agreement so next time he’d have a loaner.

“Yeah,” said Dad. “As long as they have one available. Apparently, they didn’t have one available.”

It sounded fishy to Britta. Like they were deliberately taking their ball back so he couldn’t play with it. It might have been a little presumptuous of her, but she suspected this was because she had said no to Dr Reedy.

Once the men had driven off, Britta voiced her suspicions to Dad.

“Yep. Could be,” was all he said. He stood in the living room, which felt a lot bigger now.

“You don’t seem upset about it.”

“No. I sort of expected it. I received a friendly call from Gillian — Dr Reedy — when I got back from dropping you off. Just a courtesy call, you know, to let me know she’d been in contact with you.”

The way he said it made it abundantly clear he didn’t consider it courteous at all.

“Oh. Did she try to get you to talk me round?”

“Yes. Well, not directly. Just suggested it might be worth considering, financially.”

“And you said no?”

“I said it was up to you. It was a very nice conversation. Hardly any threats.” He smiled. “They must be getting desperate to be so obvious about it.”

“And that’s a good thing?”

“It’s never a good thing to be too obvious. Makes it too easy to get countered.”

Britta didn’t really like the way Dad was acting. Like this was some kind of game. Still, now that they had taken away his toy, what else could they do?

Mum had mixed feelings about it, too.

She was happy the living room was back to being a nicely coordinated space they hardly ever used, but she was very aware that this was unlikely to be the end of the matter.

“Can’t they just find another way to do it?” she said over dinner. “Maybe ask this Nigel person to use someone else in Britta’s place.”

Trying to force Nigel to do what they wanted was probably the much harder option. What leverage could you use against a computer program?

“It’s fine,” said Dad, merrily shovelling ravioli into his mouth. “This is all going as predicted.”

“Predicted by who?” asked Mum.

“Look, I don’t just play RPGs. I’m also a dab hand at RTS.”

Mum looked at him with a blank expression. She turned to Britta, who had a vague recollection what RTS stood for, but it wasn’t coming to her.

“Real time strategy games,” said Dad in an off-hand manner, like it was pointless to go into any further detail. “Moves are being made, and I’m on top of it. It would take too long to explain if you’ve never played Starcraft. It’s all about the APM.”

“You’re enjoying yourself far too much,” said Mum. “We’re going to end up losing the house. Again.”

Britta’s ears perked up. They’d lost a house before?

“The house is in your name,” said Dad. “As you insisted. They can come after me all they want, but in the end they will have to bow down to my demands.”

She almost expected him to start laughing maniacally like a supervillain. Mum was right, he was enjoying this too much.

“Just wait and see. They’ll come crawling when they realise we hold all the cards.”

“And then what?” asked Britta. “I don’t want to go back into the game.”

“Now, now, sweetheart, don’t make any decisions yet. Wait and see what happens. And if Dr Reedy phones you again — and she will — reject the call.”

He did seem very sure of himself.

“Was Starcraft the one with the tiny creatures rushing all over the screen?” she asked him.

“Yes, I suppose you could describe it like that.”

“The one where you screamed a lot?”

“I didn’t scream. I harnessed my rage. It helps increase APM.” He wiggled his fingers at her. She had no idea why.

“They won’t play fair,” said Mum.

“Starcraft players never do.”

“I mean the people at APE.”

“Same thing. Bring it on, I say. You have to be able to handle the zerg.”

Mum and Britta just looked at each other and shrugged.

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