Dad was very excited when Britta arrived home, unable to keep still as he rearranged the chairs around the kitchen table for no reason. There was no way he was that worked up because his second daughter was home from school.
“They sent your new cradle, then?” she asked.
“Yep.” He was grinning from ear to ear.
“Where is it?”
Dad pointed out of the kitchen window, at the garden shed. Which was odd because they didn’t have a garden shed this morning.
Britta had asked President Wu to give Dad a cradle that could record and stream video. She knew it wouldn’t be like the helmets everyone else had. She hadn’t realised it would need its own address.
“They’re doing the final checks now.” He grabbed the counter and bounced up and down.
“It’s in the shed?”
“They built a shed to put it in?” It was hard to take in. It wasn’t some tiny wooden thing you could keep a lawnmower in. This was a tiny house at the bottom of the garden. “Don’t they need planning permission?”
“No,” said Dad. Then he thought about it. “I don’t think they do… No, I’m sure it’ll be fine. They delivered it by helicopter.”
“The shed or the Anderson cradle?”
“Both. The top opened up so they could lower it in. It was amazing to watch. The neighbours were very impressed.”
The neighbours on both sides were very old and grumpy, and frightened of modern technology. They had probably called up the council straight away. Unless Dad was pulling her leg. A helicopter in a suburban street? Really?
He probably expected her to ask lots of questions about it, so she didn’t.
“I suppose you saw the opening ceremony,” she said.
“I thought it was okay. Empire versus rebels. Been done before.”
She wasn’t surprised his view was the same as Lewis’. She told him Lewis’ theory of different worlds that would eventually come into competition with each other.
“Oh, I doubt it. Why create whole new worlds? Just make new countries next to each other. Not like you need to make space for them. They might still fight, but you don’t need to reinvent all your assets. It takes a lot of time and effort to build a dragon or a castle. But once you’ve got the basic model, you can churn out any number of variations very quickly, and you’re basically reducing the cost with every additional use. That’s why you always get terrible sequels to animated movies.”
The sudden shift into movies threw her a bit, but she sort of understood what he meant. Once you spent all that time and money producing an entire digital world, you could make cheap knock-offs very easily. And it had seemed strange to have a king for a whole planet. It made more sense that they planned to introduce neighbouring kingdoms.
“Do you think the king is the bad guy?”
Dad shook his head. “Too obvious. We’re in a post-Snape landscape nowadays. You can’t assume who’s doing what for what reason. You have to figure out their true intentions.”
Britta hadn’t realised they were in a post-Snape anything, but she wasn’t going to argue Harry Potter tropes with Dad. She would lose.
“And the rebels…” continued Dad, “it’s a bit of a cliche to consider them all noble and fighting for the right cause. Rebels tend to attract lots of dubious people, too. Rebellious types. I mean, just look at their leader.”
“That was Stan. The rebel guy? That was Sir Kenneth’s son.”
Sir Kenneth had come round to apologise for Stan’s behaviour, back when he was being a bit of an ass.
“Oh, that’s him, is it? He’s playing for the other team now?”
“Don’t you think that’s a bit weird? Having a human run one faction, and an AI play the other? And what do they do when they open more servers? Hire more people like him to run the rebel side? Do people really want to live inside a computer, 24/7?”
Dad considered it. He considered it a bit too much. Britta realised she’d asked the question of the wrong person.
“Mum wouldn’t let you apply for the job.
“I suppose not,” he said wistfully. “I doubt it’s a permanent post, anyway. I guess they want to see how the two sides differ. Pretty smart, really. They get to measure the effectiveness of their AI, plus they can see how close to human they can make it look.”
“I’m not sure Stan is a typical human,” said Britta. “I don’t really see him as being sympathetic to any cause. Actually, what is the cause they’re fighting for?” Now that she thought about it, Stan’s short broadcasts hadn’t revealed very much about the goals of his faction, other than to not work for the Empire. “Do you know?”
“No idea,” said Dad, looking out of the window to see if the cradle was ready. There was no sign of anyone out there. No people, no helicopters. “You could always ask him.”
“Go in the game and send him a message.”
He was right. She could just call him up and ask him about his new job. She hadn’t planned to go back in the game until she had to, sometime tomorrow evening, but it wouldn’t hurt to pop in for a few minutes.
Dad clapped his hands together. “Ah, they’re ready, they’re ready.”
In the garden, the shed door had opened, releasing what looked like smoke or steam. A man came out in full-body HAZMAT suit, his face visible through the clear visor in a big square headpiece. He looked like an astronaut in a spacesuit that was a couple of sizes too big for him. He gave them a thumbs up through the kitchen window, and then looked up.
Britta leaned over the sink and looked up to follow his gaze into the sky. A helicopter, its whirling rotors spinning silently, was hovering above. It let down a rope and the man caught it and hooked it onto his suit. And then he flew up into the sky.