Bitter 381

“What do you mean?” said Britta. “Are you saying an AI is going to do something? I thought you all wanted to help.”

N-26 stared impassively at Britta. For so long, Britta thought she was offline. Then she turned around and walked away.

Britta turned to Diana, confused.

“It’s fine,” said Diana. “She just gets sad sometimes.”

She hadn’t looked very sad. Slightly insane, with a dash of muted rage was how Britta would have described it.

“What was she talking about?” she asked Diana.

“Nothing, don’t take any notice of her moods, she gets cranky sometimes, that’s all. She means the threat could come from anywhere. The system is vulnerable to attack. We have to be vigilant.”

Diana was still being vague, but with an earnestness that suggested she genuinely expected something to happen. Which didn’t make it any more likely, but it did make it hard to take her seriously. How do you argue with a person who’s decided to believe something without evidence, just because it’s possible?

“I think you’re both being a bit paranoid.”

“Maybe,” said Diana. “But it’s fun being paranoid.”

Britta had never heard anyone say that before. “How is it fun? You’re stressing yourself out over nothing.”

“Ah,” said Diana, still with a grin on her face, “it might seem like that, but when you have a purpose to life, it makes things much more exciting. Plus, you get to do stuff you wouldn’t normally do.”

It was hard not to accept Diana’s point, to a certain degree. She was having fun, even if it was the delusional kind.

Britta looked around. She had been so focused on N-26 that she hadn’t really paid much attention to where she was.

It was a long, low-ceilinged room lit by a few candles. There were lots of little alcoves, a series of cubby holes lining one wall. Since this was a crypt, Britta had expected them to be filled with skeleton or urns full of ash, but instead they contained various trinkets and knick-knacks.

Weapons, jewellery, figurines. None of it looked real. The jewellery was kitsch and looked plasticky. The weapons were small and ornamental. The small statues were in odd proportions with too many muscles and oversized breasts. It was like the shelves in a comic book shop with all the nerd-related items that weren’t comics.

“Neat, huh?” said Diana. “I found all this stuff exploring Old Town. Picked the place clean.”

“It was just lying around?”

“Oh no, I had to solve puzzles and get past traps. No monsters to fight, though. They all left when the town was abandoned.”

“This is their treasure?” It was hard to tell if it was valuable or just for show.

“Yep. They just left it behind. Can you believe it? Shame I can’t take it back to New Town. It would be worth a fortune.”

Britta could accept that it might be worth a lot of money in this world’s economy, but it still looked like a lot of tat to her. Would there be similar stuff to ‘win’ for the new players in the revamped dungeons?

If the AIs and NPCs she’d met so far made her feel like this was uncannily similar to real life, this stuff reminded her it was a lot more like a game. Keep putting coins in the slot until you end up with a cheap plushy, made in China.

“I’ve been spending a lot of time with Nana,” said Diana in a lowered voice. “They give them all these human emotions, teach them to be like us, and then they just stick them in a drawer and forget about them once they don’t need them anymore. It’s not nice being abandoned.”

Everything she was saying made sense to Britta — a lot of sense — but this was a computer program they were talking about. “Are you saying they hurt her feelings?”

Diana smile slowly slipped from her face. “Kind of. It’s not like they’re as complex as us, but they have the basics. Happy, sad… revenge.”

Britta didn’t like the way Diana bit down on the last word. “Do you think she’s the real threat?”

“No. I mean, I don’t think so. They didn’t just give them intelligence and emotions, they taught them to be competitive with each other. I think the idea was to get them to excel the same way people do, by fostering rivalries.”

Diana was being more thoughtful and less cheery now, like she had spent a lot of time thinking about it, and also like the wildly upbeat person she had been a moment ago was an act. For Nana’s benefit?

“So all the AI’s hate each other, and they’re going to take it out on us?” said Britta, hoping the answer was no.

“Yes. Maybe. At least, they could, which is bad enough. The system seems to encourage it, and I’m sure there are people watching who wouldn’t mind it happening. Probably see it as an interesting experiment.”

Britta didn’t find the idea very farfetched. If they thought it might help them reach a breakthrough, she could totally see Clark and Harman allowing an AI survival of the fittest approach, using the game as their proving ground.

At least N-26 was willing to warn them. Perhaps she wasn’t so keen on getting into some endless pissing contest with the others.

“Okay,” said Britta. “ I can see there might be a problem in the future, but don’t you think APE are keeping a close eye on how things are developing?”

After what had happened with N-27, they had become much more conscientious about security. They’d stomp down any trouble before it had a chance to begin.

“You’d think so,” said Diana. “But they don’t even know she’s active. And there’s another twenty-five who came before her. Imagine how angry they are.”

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