Bitter 350

The Chinese gentleman was the shortest person of the group, but also the widest. He reminded Britta of the dwarf in the Korlath Mines. He had a similar build, although without the red eyes. It didn’t make him appear any less scary.

He seemed to be very angry, but in a cold, dispassionate way, which didn’t really make sense. It might just have been a language thing. Perhaps this was him being warm and friendly, just very loudly. And without the need to breathe as he spoke in an endless stream. That might have been a language thing, too.

The rant eventually ended, and the translator took over.

“President George Wu is very happy to meet you. Thank you.” He smiled and nodded his head slightly.

For a moment Britta thought that was going to be the whole thing — a two-minute barrage reduced to a single line of greeting — but it was just the translator preparing himself for what was to follow.

“If you please, I will now speak directly for the President.” He rolled back his shoulders, taking in a deep breath, and closed his eyes. When he opened them again, he seemed to have grown older. And fatter. “I am President George Wu of the glorious Huixian Trading Company, now in its second millennium of existence.”

The translator’s voice was deeper now, and the tone was nothing like his own voice. He wasn’t just translating the words, he was doing an impression of the original speaker, and a very accurate one. Not just the voice, either. He had changed his body and even his face to better reflect what had been said.

It wasn’t like he had transformed through some technical chicanery, it was still the same young man with slick haircut and slender build, but he had somehow captured the way the man stood and how his face settled into his neck. It was fascinating to watch.

“I have come here with my colleagues to speak to you directly, to show you we take this matter very seriously, and we mean to resolve it today. In this place.”

Oddly, even though the tone matched what was said earlier, it didn’t seem angry now. It came across as firm and businesslike. Loudness for clarity, coldness to avoid misunderstandings.

“We will make our needs clear, and hope that you will do the same.” The translator turned his head, hands clasped just below his stomach, and nodded at President Wu, who began talking in Chinese again.

Britta took the opportunity to look over at Mum and Dad. They had slightly miffed looks on their faces as they listened. There was really no need to pay attention to this part — it was only when the translator took over that they would understand what was being said — but it felt impolite to talk amongst themselves while they waited for the President to finish speaking. It did give Britta time to think about what a weird situation she had ended up in.

The location itself was part of the weirdness. It was a cold night, but it was pleasantly warm here in the middle of an open field. If Britta leaned back, she could feel a chill on the back of her head as she moved out of the heated area. She had no idea how it was being heated. Dr Reedy had called it outdoor air conditioning, but there were no obvious contraptions blasting out hot air. She wondered how far up the effect went. Was the tall driver sweating from the neck down and freezing from the neck up?

President Wu stopped talking, and the translator turned to face them again.

“We will pay you more than double your original fee, an amount I am sure you will find acceptable. In return, the young lady will be required to enter the game world once every forty-eight hours, for not less than twelve minutes. There will be no other requirements, and you may do as you please inside the computer simulation. I believe this is a very small imposition on your time, for which you will be more than adequately compensated.”

Twelve minutes was an oddly specific amount of time she was required to be in-game, but it wasn’t really asking very much of her. She just had to pop in every couple of days, and get paid a stupid amount of money.

What was unnerving about it, though, was the way these ‘negotiations’ were basically her being told what she was going to do. If the translator’s interpretation of his boss’s words were accurate — and she had no reason to think they were anything but completely faithful to the original — she was being ordered to do as she was told.

“Thank you very much,” said Dad, bowing slightly. No one else had bowed, so it seemed a little odd. Fortunately the whole thing was odd, so perhaps it would go unnoticed. “We are very grateful for your very generous offer. Unfortunately, the issue is not one of, erm, compensation. My daughter” —his hand shifted slightly to indicate Britta— “has decided she no longer wishes to play the game. I realise you aren’t asking much of her, but it’s not as simple as that. As you know, the game is very, ah, consuming. Easy to become addicted. She would rather stay completely out, than find herself becoming slowly sucked back in. We must respectfully reject your proposal.”

It was a very reasonably put together argument. Not entirely true, but not altogether false. Britta caught Mum’s eye. She seemed to be impressed, too.

There was a murmur of Chinese as the men standing alongside President Wu quietly talked among themselves. It sounded like wind passing through leaves.

The translator waited, hands together, not translating what was being said.

Dad gave Britta a reassuring nod. Normally she wouldn’t feel very comfortable having Dad speak for her. She hated going to parent-teacher evenings with him, dreading him getting into some long-winded debate with one of his teachers about his theory on why schools were failing to prepare children for the modern world. But in this case, she actually felt reassured. He seemed uncowed by these people. He spoke their language, although not literally.

All this wealth and power on display, it was intimidating. They all knew what they were doing, had the wardrobe to prove it. She was only more convinced she wasn’t ready to be involved with these kinds of people.

You were meant to start at the bottom, but not at the bottom of Mount Everest.

It was one of those rare times she was glad Dad was there to stand in front of her. And if he got stuck, Mum was ready to take his place. She felt… protected. It was a warm feeling, although that might have had something to do with the outdoor air conditioning.

President Wu spoke again, aiming his words at them again. But only a few, short and sharp.

“I understand,” said the translator. “I now wish to hear from the young lady. We wish to hear her explanation.”

Everyone looked at Britta.


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