Bitter 353

With the glasses on, the world looked very different to Britta. Everything was brighter and more colourful. And full of numbers.

It was more colourful because everyone around her was exuding red and green and blue. And lots of yellow. They were glowing yellow, surrounded by a throbbing and pulsing shield of yellow. President was the most yellow of all. He was golden.

She could still make out faces clearly, and most of their clothing, but everything was wrapped in an alien light.

Beside each person was a list of numbers, like they were standing next to a height chart. The numbers were labelled, probably defining their meaning, but the writing was in Chinese. The numbers were very small and hard to make out, but when Britta focused on one particular set, they enlarged. Not to take up her whole vision, but they seemed to jump a little closer to her.

She could guess at what the numbers represented — heat levels, blood pulse, electromagnetic readings — but it was just based on what science-fiction movies had told her. The reality was that she had no idea what it all meant, but the glasses were clearly more than a simple translating device.

“This is so cool,” she heard herself say, like a dork. She didn’t even know what she was looking at, but she couldn’t help but find it fascinating.

“Are you okay?” asked Mum.

“What are you seeing?” asked Dad.

She looked from side to side at her parents. They were coloured differently to the Chinese. Their yellow light was less bright, closer to the skin. Different hues of red, green and blue. She turned towards Dr Reedy, who was different again, but more similar to the Chinese than her parents. She wondered what she looked like through the glasses.

Then she caught sight of the driver who had brought them here. He was a solid block of blue. There was no variation in his colour at all, no yellow encasing. What did that mean? Was he a robot?

She knew she was among people working at the cutting edge of technology, but she was sure they hadn’t gotten that advanced. Not yet, anyway. And if they did have the ability to create a completely realistic android, she doubted they would use it to provide taxi rides.

It was more likely he had a way to mask his readings, which still suggested he was more than just a driver.

“Erm,” said Britta, aware that everyone was waiting for her to get over her astonishment. Dad most of all. “Kind of like the Terminator. Plus the Predator. With a bit of Geordie from Star Trek: TNG.”

It was actually like none of those, but she felt using Dad’s own lexicon was the easiest way to describe to answer his question.

“Gotcha,” he said, like he needed no further explanation.

“Young lady,” said President Wu. “Now you see the world the way we see it.”

His voice sounded slightly tinny, but very much in English. She could see his mouth move, and vaguely hear the alien sounds of his native tongue, but the words in her head were clear and fluent. Not an awkward machine-translation, substituting word for word, but an actual flow of meaningful sentences.

“You will see that I am not trying to deceive you. There is much at stake, and you have found yourself in the centre of this. I understand it is not of your doing, but none of us can refuse our part in history. It is up to you to navigate the path laid in front of you. Do not run from it. You will only regret not taking the opportunity when you had the chance.”

His words were so smooth and seductive, it was hard not feel lulled by them. The translator had done a good job, but it wasn’t anywhere close to this. It was also weird the way the words were almost appearing inside her head. Not like telepathy, but there was nothing inserted in her ears. The words seemed to vibrate into the side of her head.

“You are a child. It is not expected of you to bear the full burden of creating a new future for mankind. We will ask as little of you as possible, make your task as simple and untroubling as we can. In return, I only ask for you to do your best. I will never ask for more than that.”

It was hard to know if he was being very specific or very vague. He had an odd way of making it sound like he was asking her to do something incredibly difficult, but also not very difficult at all. And yet she sort of understood what he meant.

She also got the sense that he was being nice. As in, he could choose not to be. The thought of them giving up on that approach, and just taking what they wanted, was still there. The thought that it was better to have them as a benign employer than a ruthless opponent.

She looked over at Mum. Her colours had changed. She was getting less varied, everything sinking to a purplish tone. Almost blue, like the driver. Was she worried? That was the impression Britta was getting, but she couldn’t say exactly why. And what did that mean about the driver? Was he a solid block of concern?

Numbers flickered around everyone. It was very distracting. She took off the glasses and blinked. She had the start of a headache.

“I’ll do it.”

There was a sigh of relief that drifted around her. She should have kept the glasses on and seen what that looked like.

“But I want my old character.”

President Wu nodded.

“And I want an Anderson Cradle that can record gameplay.”

President Wu grunted, or at least that was what it sounded like with the glasses off. It may have sounded the same with them on. She put them back on for his reply.

“We would rather keep your involvement in the game private,” he said.

“It isn’t for me, it’s for my father,” said Britta. There was a strange squealing sound next to her.

There was some murmuring behind the President. Talk of cost and availability and power consumption all jumbled together.

President Wu silenced them with a small gesture of his hand.

“Agreed.”

“And one more thing. I want to meet N-28.”

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