Bitter 349

“When you say ‘from China,’” said Dad, “do you mean they’re Chinese?”

Dr Reedy settled back into the plush chair that looked like it belonged in an aeroplane. “That is correct, yes.”

They were driving silently through the streets, or at least Britta assumed that’s what they were doing. It was impossible to see out of the tinted windows. For all she knew, the vehicle may have sprouted blades and flown into the air.

There were no engine noises, which wasn’t that unusual — Dad’s electric car was also a silent runner — but there were also no sounds from outside. They were in their own soundproofed bubble.

“So the people who own APE are Chinese?” asked Britta.

“I wouldn’t say the ‘own’ it. They’re more like the primary investors.”

Britta had no idea what that meant. “But they make the decisions.”

Dr Reedy shifted her mouth from one side of her face to the other, like she was trying to get her words into a shape they were resisting. “To some degree. They are… heavily involved in the company’s trajectory.”

That didn’t make it any clearer. But it was pretty obvious these were the people who called the shots. And chances were, if they had decided to come here personally, they intended to get what they wanted.

It also meant they weren’t happy with how the local team had handled things. Britta looked at Dr Reedy. She was smiling, and answering questions in a straightforward and direct manner. That wasn’t like her.

But since she was being so chatty, Britta decided it was the perfect time to get as much information out of her as possible.

“What is it they want?” she asked. It was a bit of a general question, but you had to start somewhere.

“They’re very keen to have you back in the game,” said Dr Reedy.

“Because Nigel synced the game to me?” she pressed.

“That’s right. We could set it up from scratch, of course, but it would save a lot of time to just recalibrate the new systems with your help.”

Was that true? Was it purely a matter of saving themselves a few hours?

“And N-28 can’t do that without me?”

Dr Reedy shifted in her seat, adjusting the seat belt across her chest. “N-28?”

Britta realised the only person who had mentioned N-28 to her was Nigel, in his email to her.

“Nigel was N-27, so I assumed the new AI must be N-28.” It sounded plausible.

“Yes, that’s right. Of course. No, it’s not really a matter of whether he can do it, it’s just that there’s so much to do, what with the launch being pushed forward like this. Time is at a premium.”

“The Chinese are insisting, are they?” asked Dad, joining in. They had Dr Reedy from all sides, now.

“Something like that. Would you like a drink or something to eat?” She opened a panel beside her to reveal a mini-fridge.

Britta felt a bit guilty. Whatever the tactics being employed here, it was clear Dr Reedy wasn’t the one responsible. Although that didn’t mean she wasn’t a fervent supporter. If it meant she could continue her research, no doubt Dr Reedy would do whatever was asked of her. Including playing hostess in a minivan.

“We should have brought coats,” said Mum. “If we’re meeting them on an airfield, it’s going to be freezing.”

“I don’t think they’ll want to meet on the runway,” said Dad.

“Actually, yes. They don’t have time for an extended visit. Entry visas haven’t been arranged, so it’ll be a flying visit. On the tarmac.”

Were they coming here illegally? That couldn’t be right.

“But we can’t stand on a runway dressed like this,” said Mum.

They weren’t exactly in summer wear. Britta had grabbed a jacket on the way out, and Mum had a thick cardigan on. Dad, on the other hand, was wearing flip-flops and a tee shirt. At least he had jeans on, and not just boxing shorts.

They would probably assume he had deliberately gone casual as a power move. Look how much I care about your business meeting, I’m not even wearing socks! But Britta knew better.

“No need to worry,” said Dr Reedy, “there’ll be outdoor air conditioning. It’ll probably be quite balmy.”

She wasn’t joking. When they arrived at on the runway, Britta was met with a faceful of warm air as the driver slid their door open. The tarmac was lit up by floodlights, and a sleek private jet sat a few metres away, its silver livery exactly the same as the van.

Britta stepped out, blinking. She had no idea where this was. It had taken about forty-five minutes to get here, and there seemed to be nothing but fields surrounding them. Admittedly, Britta’s knowledge of local airstrips was not comprehensive. There might have been dozens of them around the outskirts of the city.

As soon as they were out, a door in the side of the plane opened and steps extended to the ground. People began descending. Chinese people.

They were dressed in black, smart suits that reeked of money, six men of mixed ages. They lined up in front of Britta and her parents. Behind them, six women, young and attractive, emerged and took up position behind the men.

The men all reached into their jackets, and took out sunglasses, which they put on. It was like the opening to some terrible boy band music video.

One of the men stepped forward. He was easily the youngest of them, with slicked-back hair, and a very square jaw. He was the one who couldn’t really sing, but he was cute enough for it not to matter.

“Good evening.” He had a soft voice, and only a mild accent. “Please, I will translate into English. There will be no need to translate into Mandarin, the glasses will do that in real time, thank you. Please try not to talk to quickly, and do not cover your mouth, please. Thank you.”

He stepped aside, and the man in the middle started shouting furiously in Chinese.

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