Britta’s vision returned with her staring at the other players. They were standing in the small chamber with the stone tablet, crowded into the middle of the room, looking right back at her. Their faces were a mixture of curiosity and something else Britta couldn’t quite place. Respect?
“Well done,” said someone.
“Yeah, good job.”
They all offered her their congratulations for coming second. There was no prize for second place, not even a leaderboard to put her name on, but she had lasted longer than them. They were all veterans of the same battle now.
Dad pushed through them to come closer to her. “Nice try. Almost had him.”
There was a sharp ping and a bright light in the opposite corner of the room. The others turned around as the light faded to reveal James standing there. The group moved closer to the new arrival to congratulate him, too, but louder and more enthusiastically.
“You lost on purpose,” said Dad.
“Yes, I had to,” said Britta. “How did you know?”
“We were watching.” He pointed at the tablet, which was now just a slab of stone with hard to read carvings once more, and N-21 standing next to it like a statue. “The door doubled as a TV screen. It was like watching the game down the pub.”
Dad never went down the pub to watch ‘the game.’ He was far too irritable and fussy when he wanted to watch something and people kept talking and having a good time around him. As his child, she was only too familiar with his viewing habits — she and Marisa were never allowed to talk when he watched Scooby-Doo with them. It would have disturbed his note-taking as he tried to work out who was behind the mask.
“It was all a bit quick,” said Britta. “I barely had time to figure out what was going on before everyone was dead.”
“Yeah,” said Dad. “That James guy was all over the map. I wonder how he did it.”
“He also turned his dagger into a sword, somehow.”
“Oh, that’s just a swordsman skill.”
“You know it?” Britta was surprised by how casually Dad accepted what was clearly an unfair advantage in the game.
“It’s a really low-level ability no one hardly ever bothers with. You can convert any bladed weapon into a sword with the same stats and effects. Not really worth it since swords are already the most common weapon in the game.”
“Pretty useful in there, though,” said Britta. “Lucky he had it.” She could see why it wouldn’t be that popular. A sword-user could convert a cool knife or axe into a sword they could use, but how often would you come across something like that? Not often enough to give up a valuable slot for some other more frequently used ability.
It was the sort of thing you would only learn after you found a really good weapon you wanted to convert, and that would probably only happen at a much higher level. If you got hold of a legendary spear but specialised in swords, then you might want to use it. Perhaps James had encountered something like that already.
There was quite a commotion going on in the other corner. They were asking James how he was able to kill people so quickly at the start, and he was enjoying holding court.
“At least now he’s beaten me he’ll leave me alone.”
“That’s not always how it works,” said Dad.
“No? Why not? He’s got his revenge.”
“Yeah, sure, but some people, once they think they’ve got the better of you, they like to keep pushing their advantage. If you beat someone once, it means your chances of beating them again are pretty good. Finding an easy victim to endlessly harass makes them feel good about themselves.” Dad frowned as he looked over at the others. He clearly thought James was one of those people.
Britta was a little disappointed. She had hoped by making it look as much like a genuine victory as possible for James, he would be satisfied with his revenge and move on. She didn’t want him trying to ambush her in the future, but from what Dad was saying, she might have accomplished the opposite. Now he knew he could beat her, he might decide he wanted to repeat the experience. He certainly seemed to have enjoyed himself. She may have given him a taste for it.
James finished telling everyone how great he was and came over to Britta.
“Not so easy when you don’t have a massive advantage is it?” he sneered at her.
It was an odd thing to say when he had had a sword while everyone else only had a dagger.
“Congratulations,” said Britta. “You should get your reward before it’s too late.”
James looked like he had plenty more to say, but the suggestion he might lose out on his deserved prize made him lose interest in her. There was no reason to think the game would bug out and not give him his due, but Britta knew how paranoid gamers were about missing out on loot. They had all experienced completing some horribly difficult task, and then getting nothing in return. Hearing Dad complain about devs refusing to compensate him for lost loot made up a large part of her childhood.
James made his way to N-21, the others following him like his personal guard.
“Jubilations,” said N-21. “You have proved victorious and may now claim your prize.”
A small point of light appeared on his raised finger. It flowed into the air and crossed over to James, who grabbed it in his gloved hand. The light dissipated and a glow spread over his body, accompanied by oohs and ahs from the envious crowd. It seemed a bit much for a single attribute point.
James was happy for now, at least.
“Until next time.” N-21 disappeared.
“Wait,” said James, “can’t we go again?” He clearly fancied his chances at defending his title. There was no reply, and the stone tablet remained stony silent.
There was some confusion as the players questioned each other on what they were supposed to do now. They had no answers, so their focus slowly shifted towards the only people who hadn’t admitted to having no idea what their next step should be, Britta and Guildford Underpass.
Britta also had no idea but her job here was done. She had found the missing party and also appeased the rogue AI. Whatever happened next, it had nothing to do with her. She was going to leave and go back to—
Raid has started. Please prepare yourselves for battle. In 3…
The message had appeared on everyone’s screens as it was simultaneously read out loud by a soft feminine voice. The countdown had begun. The countdown to what?