Bitter 382

N-26 was doing something in the back. Britta couldn’t see what it was, but she felt like it was more an excuse to be alone, so she didn’t go any closer.

Diana seemed like a worried carer, looking after an aged relative.

“I think I should go now,” said Britta.

“Okay,” said Diana. “That’s probably a good idea. She gets tired if there’s too much stimulation.”

How did a computer program get tired? It was all a bit odd.

“I’m off then!” said Britta loudly, like she was talking to her slightly deaf grandma.

N-26 made a grunting noise, but didn’t turn around.

“Did I upset her?” Britta asked Diana.

“No, no. Not really. I think you just reminded her she’s on her own.”

“But she isn’t, is she? You’re here.” It was a bit feeble, a way to make herself feel a bit less guilty. Which made her wonder what she was feeling guilty about.

“I’m just seeing B out,” said Diana, also raising her voice, making it sound upbeat again. There was no response. They went back up.

Outside, it was still a lovely day. The non-existent sun shone down on them, making the graveyard seem almost cheerful. The shade was waiting for her. She must have forgotten to desummon it.

“Oh, hello,” said Diana. “Nice to see you again. You’ve grown.”

The shade didn’t say anything. Then it vanished.

“He’s a bit shy,” said Britta. She sighed. “I’m not really sure I’m the right person to deal with any of this. Even if something does happen, what can I do about it?”

Diana shrugged. “I have no idea, but it’s only a game.” The two of them stood there, neither believing it. In her head, she knew it was all ones and zeros masquerading as reality, but it felt much more than that. The thought made Britta feel a bit delusional herself.

“Let’s just keep in touch,” said Diana, “and see what happens. Might be nothing.”

Britta nodded. Then she logged out.

Her bedroom was dark, which it hadn’t been when she’d logged in. Britta sat up and took off the helmet. Mum was still sitting there.

“I’m back. Did you turn off the lights?” She turned on the lamp next to her bed.

“Yes,” said Mum. “I thought it would make it easier to see any glowing.”

“Oh.” That made sense. “And did it?”

“No. I mean, there wasn’t any.”

“Really?”

Mum shook her head.

“That’s good then.” Britta moved and felt the cold wetness of her shirt. She had been sweating. “Maybe it won’t happen anymore.”

“Let’s hope so,” said Mum. “Everything okay, then?”

“Yes. Fine.” Britta tried not to wince as she felt the chill of drying sweat on her back. “No problems.”

Mum got up and headed for the door. She stopped in the doorway and smiled. She looked less worried. “Night then.”

“Night.” Britta waited for her to close the door, and then slowly got up and took off her clothes.

Old Town wasn’t synced to her, so the old perspiration problem was back. It wasn’t really a big deal, though. She hadn’t mentioned it to Mum because she had finally lost the concern lines around her eyes, and Britta didn’t want to bring them back over nothing. She got changed into her sleeping clothes.

As she lay in bed, she wondered if the shade’s behaviour was also server-dependent. It had seemed okay in Old Town, but would it act differently in New World? She would have to wait and see.

She woke early on Saturday morning, still feeling a bit icky from her sweaty visit to Old Town. She had a shower before going down to breakfast.

Dad was sitting at the kitchen table, looking like he hadn’t slept, eating muesli. He never ate muesli.

“Cravings,” he said in response to her questioning look. “I’ve been eating a lot of meat recently, needed something to cleanse the palate.”

Britta didn’t recall many meaty dinners lately. No more than normal, anyway. “You mean in the game?”

“Yeah.” He slurped the milk out of the bowl. “It’s a lot harder to level up these days, I’ve been having to farm all sorts of low-level animals for the XP. Hunting and fishing. You have to eat them to get the full experience. Very ecologically responsible.”

“You can’t just kill a bunch of monsters?”

“Well, yes, I could, but they seem to have added a new mechanic. If the monsters are losing, they run away. You don’t get any XP if you don’t win, and you can’t win if they run. And they’re bloody fast. It’s quite a lot different to how it was before. Levelling is super hard. And the death penalty takes a massive chunk of XP back. Basically, if you go into battle, you better win.”

“That’s why you’re hunting and fishing?”

“I’m not going to waste hours trying to kill a troll, and get nothing because he throws dirt in my eyes and scarpers. Not worth it.”

Britta smiled. That was one way to add realism to the game.

She got some muesli for herself and sat down. “Dad, what if there were a bunch of AI trying to control New World? Do you think that could happen?”

Dad stopped eating and his eye shone. “An AI war? With NPCs and players as the troops. That would be terrible.” Which was an odd thing to say while smiling so much.

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