Bitter 540

The whole scene had a surreal feel to it. Why were these three all together? Why were they together and laughing?

It wasn’t like they were laughing at Rick, or making fun of him. They were all matey and relaxed in each other’s company. What was going on? And what was Lewis’ involvement in all this?

“Oh,” said Toby, noticing them at the door. “You convinced her to come.”

“Actually, she asked,” said Lewis.

“I told you it would work,” said Rick.

Britta felt like she’d been set-up. They were all in it together, whatever it was.

“You swore on your mother’s life,” she said to Lewis.

“My mum died of cancer when I was six,” said Lewis.

Britta’s anger at being lied to was tempered by pity, and a begrudging acceptance that technically he had found a loophole. “Oh, sorry.”

“It’s okay,” said Lewis.

“Are you all friends now?” Britta said, trying her best to sound casual. Her heart was beating very fast and she couldn’t help but feel they were going to try to pull something on her. They wouldn’t have gone to these lengths if there wasn’t some ulterior motive behind it. One that she wasn’t going to like.

Rick stood up and pushed his glasses up his nose. “Extraordinary times call for reevaluating of old rivalries.”

Britta stood blinking, wondering what the hell he was talking about.

“What he means,” said Lucas, “is that there’s no point squabbling over trivialities when the world is undergoing a seismic shift.”

Britta blinked again, and then looked at Toby, hoping for a clearer explanation from the dummy in the room. If he knew what was going on, maybe he’d be able to word it in a clearer manner.

“We’ve seen the future,” said Toby. “It’s time to switch gears, you know?”

“No,” said Britta. “Not really.” She looked to the side, where Lewis was standing.

“Look, I’m sorry about all this,” said Lewis. “We need to make sure no one knows what we’re doing. No one we aren’t sure of.”

Britta nodded slowly. “What are you doing?”

“Something very important,” said Rick, adjusting his glasses again. “Something so important, it’s brought the four of us together. The brains, the brawn, the money, and Lewis.”

“I’m the analyst,” said Lewis, sounding peeved.

They had formed some sort of group, like superheroes. That, at least made sense. It was exactly the sort of puerile thing boys would do. It might seem they were a bit old for this sort of thing, but she had only to look at Dad to know boys were never too old for this sort of thing. They probably had a name for their team. That was probably what their first meeting was about, all six hours of it.

Britta still didn’t know what they were up to, but she could easily believe they would put aside their differences if they could pretend to be part of the Justice League of North London.

“That’s great,” said Britta, glad to be close enough to the door to make a break for it. “I’m glad you managed to settle your differences.” She took a step towards the exit. “I just don’t know what it has to do with me.”

“Your father,” said Rick. “Guildford Underpass, yes?”

Britta stopped and stared at him. “How do you know that?”

There was murmuring and looks between the boys, as though something had been confirmed. Was it a guess? Had she inadvertently outed Dad?

“We’ll get to that. First, let me ask you, have you ever played the game? Have you ever been to New World?”

Britta didn’t say anything. She didn’t want to get tricked into admitting anything else. She looked from one expectant face to another, trying to decide how best to answer.   

“Would you like to?” said Rick.

“What do you mean?” said Britta. “You can get hold of a helmet?”

“I have one. At home.”

“Okay,” said Britta. “How would that let me play the game? Only you can use it.”

“No, anyone can,” said Lewis. “We all have.”

Britta looked at the others, giving her looks that confirmed that they had all visited New World. Now it made a lot more sense why they were so chummy with Rick. He had let them play with his new toy, and they were ready to put all grievances aside. “How?”

“It’s like any piece of electronic kit,” said Rick. “It can be hacked.”

Britta was inclined to believe him. She knew from her own experience it was possible, it was how she had first got into the game, using Dad’s old cradle. If it could happen by accident, it could happen by someone fiddling around on purpose.

“You hacked your helmet?” Rick nodded. “And you can let anyone into the game?” He nodded again. “Isn’t that dangerous? The helmet links to your mind. You could give yourselves brain damage.”

“That’s why I tried it on Toby first,” said Rick. “Brain damage wouldn’t really make much of a difference to him.”

Toby looked shocked, and then burst out laughing, followed by the others. It was clearly a joke, but one made by someone with status in the group. Rick had come a long way in a short time.

“Why are you doing this?” said Britta. “If APE find out, they’ll take the helmet back and ban you.”

“For sure,” said Rick. “Which is why you can’t tell anyone about this.” His voice took on a serious edge. Not quite menacing. Not yet.

“Then why tell me at all?” This was the thing that was unsettling her the most. “And you still haven’t told me how you know about my dad.”

“Once I unlocked the helmet’s potential, it enabled me to see far more than just the game. I have access to a lot more information than a regular player. Your father obviously has connections with APE. I heard that he was fired by them. I’ve seen his videos. I think he would be the ideal person to join forces with us. Together we could dominate the game.”

“It’s amazing,” said Lewis. “Even better than I imagined. You’ll understand when you see it for yourself.”

Hacking the cradle had done something similar for Rick as it had for her. She could interact with the game on a deeper level and, apparently, he could see player information, and who knew what else? It was worrying.

“I still don’t see why you think you need Dad. They didn’t fire him, they let him go. He has no problems with them. They’re the ones who gave him his rig.”

“Yes, I know,” said Rick. “But he has an enquiring mind. He’ll want to get to the bottom of the mystery, same as us.

“What mystery?”

“The gnome wizard,” said Rick.

What had he got to do with any of this? Dad was looking for him, too, but that was for purely gamer reasons. He wanted cool loot. She could see how Rick might think Dad could lead them to the wizard, but then what?”

“Why do you want to find this gnome wizard?”

“Because the whole game revolves around her. She’s the one who controls everything.”

Britta realised he wasn’t talking about the gnome wizard who ran the magic shop, he was talking about another gnome wizard. He was talking about her.

 

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Afterword from Mooderino
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