Bitter 450

“Me?” said Britta. “That’s not my job.”

“It’s not a job to raise a child, it’s a privilege,” said the guardvark. Quite smugly, Britta thought.

“Three children at the same time is not a privilege,” said Britta, “it’s a nightmare. I’m not even the same species as them. You are.”

“I don’t see what that has to do with anything,” said the guardvark, transitioning from smug to superior. “A child needs love and nurturing, it doesn’t matter where it comes from.”

“Then it can come from you, can’t it?”

“I’m not the maternal type,” said the guardvark.

“Neither am I!” said Britta a little too loudly. The baby in her arms woke with a startled look, hiccupped, and then snuggled back into the crook of Britta’s elbow.

“It seems you are. They’ve taken to you, in any case, so the point is moot, wouldn’t you say?”

“No, I would not,” said Britta, transitioning herself from dismayed to annoyed. It was like the game was trying to corner her into taking a quest, whether she wanted to or not. And this particular quest she definitely did not want. What was she supposed to do, carry three armour-plated babies with her wherever she went? It wasn’t practical.

She expected a quest screen to pop up, offering her the chance to raise the baby guardvarks as her loyal pets or something. She wanted the screen to pop up so she could hit the No button.

It didn’t matter how the game decided to punish her for not playing along, this was not tenable.

“How am I even supposed to take care of them? I don’t know what they eat or what they need, and I don’t live in a hole in the ground. You are clearly the better option for them.” And for me, Britta thought.

“It’s not so hard, just insects and small rodents. Catch them and leave them for them to find. They’ll think it’s a game.”

“What do you mean ‘catch them’. I don’t know how to catch small animals. And even if I did, I wouldn’t want to. I’m not a guardvark.”

Still no screen. If this wasn’t a quest, what was it? A bloody liberty, that’s what.

“I’ve had quite enough of this.” Britta turned to put the baby down but there wasn’t anywhere convenient. If she placed it on the ground, it would just wake up and start bawling again.

She would have liked to have put all of the young guardvarks back in their nursery, but it was too high, and she wasn’t about to throw them.

“Why did you make this so awkward? Couldn’t you have put in a door?”

The guardvark swished an arm at the mound of earth and sliced an opening into it. Her claws were very sharp.

Britta shuffled closer, babies clinging to both legs, and put down the one in her arms, quickly followed by scooping up the others one by one and pushing them in. The familiarity of their surroundings, and maybe the glinting gems in the walls, seemed to keep them calm.

The guardvark swatted a paw at the mound, and the gap disappeared.

Britta was free of her burden at last, but now she had the guardvark to deal with.

“How do I get out of here?” she said in the most forceful and confident manner possible. If she took the position of the person being wronged, maybe the guardvark would think that was the case. It was a long shot.

“Dig your way out,” said the guardvark. “Good luck.”

At least she wasn’t being threatened directly. But it would take a lot of work to crawl up one of the tunnels, even if she knew which one to take. She could log out, but she would have the same problem as before — she’d have to log back into the Church of Roha.

She really should have left the saving totem where it was. Britta took it out of her backpack and stuck it in the ground. It quickly grew to its full size. The guardvark didn’t react to it in any way, it just stood there, bathing Britta in the glow of its orange eyes.

“This isn’t fair,” said Britta. “You can’t force people to do what you want, the whole point of life is to be able to make your own choices. Some people are going to just go along with what you want, I know that. You’ll make it fun and rewarding and they won’t notice their being pushed along a track with no way to get off, but you’re just limiting what they can do because it’s easier to manage.” She wasn’t really talking to the guardvark at this point. She knew the person pulling the strings was N-28.

“The children need you,” said the guardvark. “Are you really going to let them down?”

How was this a fun gaming experience? She was being emotionally blackmailed by an AI.

“They need what’s best for them. You. If you find it hard, learn how to be better, don’t pass off responsibility onto someone else like it’s an old dress you don’t want taking up space in your wardrobe. You will take care of these babies and you’ll do it because raising a child isn’t something you should allow someone less capable than yourself to do if you can possibly help it. And also because if you don’t, I’m going to tell every adventurer I can find about all the treasure you have down here and how to get to it.”

The guardvark’s spotlight-eyes flickered.

Britta felt quite shaken. She’d spoken from the heart, driven not so much by the desire to see the young guardvarks taken care of — they weren’t even real — but by her frustration at being pushed around by the game AI. Even if she’d been offered a quest she found interesting, that didn’t make it okay to make it compulsory. This had to stop now.

“It doesn’t matter if you think it’s for the best, you don’t have the right to dictate how I act or the choices I make, even if it would turn out better for me. I decide, not you. Using bribery and blackmail might be effective, but it isn’t going to work on me. It’ll just make me think less of you.” She took a breath. “I’m going to log out, and when I come back I want you to have thought about what I said.” She didn’t bother to act like this wasn’t a game. She knew they were beyond that.

The guardvark didn’t say anything. Britta logged out. She woke up on her bed and burst into tears.

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