Britta didn’t like it. Having all those eyes on her made her very uncomfortable. They seemed to be accusing her of something, which was enough to make her feel she might be guilty. She resisted the urge to deny she’d done anything, which would only make her seem defensive.
“What?” she asked, rather more aggressively than she intended.
“Do you know something?” asked one of them. He was tall, had a terrible bowl haircut, and the ridges on his square nose suggested he wasn’t entirely human. He looked fearsome, but his voice was soft and childlike.
“About what?” If they’d overheard her conversation with Stan, all they’d heard was her harping on about how she hated princes. Were they all staunch Royalists here?
“About the quest,” said a woman in leather with daggers everywhere. She was dressed a bit like Tal, the girl from Lord Jim’s party who had betrayed her. Maybe it was her. Everyone would be in new characters, they could look entirely different.
“No,” said Britta. She realised they weren’t picking on her, they were hungry for information. They’d heard someone talking like they had some insight into the game, and they wanted to know more. They were treating her like she was part of some quest. Like an NPC.
“But you know something, don’t you?” said someone else.
“Where did you get that armour? I haven’t seen anyone wearing anything like that,” said an elf. A real elf, with pointy ears and long hair in a ponytail. She had a bow strapped to her back, which maybe was a bit too much of a cosplay look. It screamed ‘based on the book by JRR Tolkien.’
As she was peppered with more and more questions, Britta began to notice that although they were quite a diverse bunch, they had very similar gear. The same sort of look, like they’d been shopping at the same place and picked their size off a rack.
It made sense for low-level characters to only have access to basic items. As they levelled up and made more money, they would be able to customise their look. Her own outfit, given to her by N-28, wasn’t particularly ostentatious. Quite the opposite. But it didn’t look like what they were wearing. It looked like she’d bought it at a much better store, where it had been made especially for her.
“What level are you?”
“Um…” Britta didn’t know how best to answer. She looked to Stan, but he was sitting back, enjoying her discomfort.
“Have you done the first dungeon? Is that the reward?”
“She’s completed the first dungeon,” said another elf. Everyone began chattering excitedly.
It was a bit overwhelming. She had gone from feeling they were all looking down at her with disdain, to feeling they were looking up at her with envy. Neither was very pleasant.
“No, I haven’t.” She said. “I haven’t been in any dungeon. We don’t know any more than you. We were just guessing. I think the end game boss is going to be an invulnerable dragon with one crucial weakness, but he says it’s going to be a Demon Lord who never takes off his helmet.” She thought if she made her ideas sound obvious and clichéd, they would lose interest. “He’s a massive weeb,” she added in for good measure.
“Demon Lord?” asked the big half-orc guy. “You think so?” He moved his chair around and jiggled himself closer. “I’m Maru. Want to team up?”
Everyone else leaned in, turning their attention on the corner Stan was ensconced in.
“I’m not a weeb,” said Stan, ignoring the audience. “What makes you think I’m a weeb?”
She could sense the focus shift towards Stan. Perfect. “He’s always going on about how Hinata and Naruto should never have ended up together. It should have been Sasuke.”
“He’s right,” said Maru. “Sasuke best waifu.” The others made sounds, equal parts agreement and confusion. “Let me send you a friend invite.”
“Let’s start a guild!”
It was all getting very enthusiastic. Stan looked panicked as his inbox became inundated with requests.
Britta got up, no longer the centre of attention. “I have to go. Good luck.”
She meant with his role as chief rebel, but he’d also need it to get out of here in one piece. His friend’s list would be full to bursting if he didn’t find a way to slip away. At least the rebellion wouldn’t be short of new members.
“Hey!” said Stan. “Let me know if anything… weird happens.”
“Sure,” she said as she headed for the door.
The change in air quality as she left the cafe was very noticeable. Cold, fresh air, flowing through her nose, into her chest. A plume of white smoke emerged from her mouth. She waved her hand through it, and it dissipated. Just like the real thing.
Her timer had run out already. Twelve minutes didn’t last very long, it wouldn’t be very hard to fulfil her obligation to APE. Pop in every couple of days, have a cup of horrible brown liquid, and carry on with her regular life. It really was a ridiculously easy gig, for which she was being handsomely rewarded. Although it was probably nothing to her employers. A few thousand a week? Small change. Lin’s expense account was probably bigger. Maybe she should have asked for more.
She waited for a gap in the flow of pedestrians. It was a thriving, bustling town, full of life and the promise of adventure. But then why did she feel like this place was a mere shadow of what it had been? Of what it could have been.
She shook her head as she walked back towards the church. It didn’t matter, it was just a game.
People wandered around aimlessly, getting in her way. She stopped. Why was she walking? She could just log out. She did.
She was lying on the kitchen table.
“Did it happen again?” she asked.
They were standing on either side, looking down at her with concern.
“Your arms,” said Dad. “They were glowing.”