Bitter 553

For once, when Britta got home from school, Dad wasn’t in his shed. He was in his office talking to himself.

Britta heard him as she made her way to her room.

“Nice, nice. You’ll do. And you. Welcome to the team, boys.”

She couldn’t resist having a quick look. He was sitting at his desk with three screens all running various scenes from in the game.

“This is where the magic happens, is it?” said Britta.

“Ah, please, a little privacy,” said Dad, holding up a hand in mock refusal of entry. “This area isn’t open to the public.”

“You’re worried I might go to the press?” asked Britta. “Or post what you’re up to on a forum for internet points? Or are you just getting your own back because my laptop won’t let you see what it’s doing?”

“I’m more worried about what your laptop’s up to right now,” said Dad in hushed tones. “The less you know, the better for you. Can’t get in trouble if you don’t know what’s going on.”

He was right, up to a point, but Britta was fairly sure she could still be held accountable if he did something really bad. Then again, if it was really, really bad, there might not be a game left to worry about.

“You have your secrets and I have mine,” said Dad. “Let’s keep it that way. You’ll get a chance to see how it all pans out when I have my premiere.” He made it sound like there’d be a big gala with celebrities walking up and down a red carpet, rather than pressing a couple of buttons and waiting for a video to upload to the net.

“How are the auditions going?” Britta asked.

“They’re not auditions, they’re tryouts. Trial by combat. Thrilling stuff.” He turned the screen she couldn’t see so she could see even less of it.

“What about Rick? Is he one of the hopefuls?”

“He is,” said Dad. “Best to keep him where I can see him. Don’t worry, he’ll be far too busy to bother you.”

“Is he any good?” Britta couldn’t help but be a little curious.

“Very. Smart kid, just a bit odd. Nothing wrong with that. He should do well.”

“So, you think he has a chance against the Chinese team?”

Dad pulled a face. “I don’t know about that. They’re very well prepared, and super overgeared. Their AI likes to spoil them with top-ranking items. Not like some AI.”

“But isn’t that better for everyone?” said Britta. “Not much fun if only a few people have the best gear.”

“Depends if you’re one of the few,” said Dad. “But it is what it is. You play the hand you’re dealt, and bluff when your cards aren’t very good. There’s always a chance. Always.”

Britta stood in the doorway, edging her way out but finding it hard to resist the pull of curiosity. “Do you still need me to log in late?”

“Hey, hey, hey, let’s not discuss private matters in public.”

“It’s only us here, Dad.”

“You, me and your PC,” said Dad, “and who knows who else.” He looked around the room like he was expecting to see a hole in the wall with an eyeball peering in. “I don’t need anything. It would help, but any plan that relies on other people isn’t a very good plan. You need control over the situation if you want to be able to adapt to changes, and that means you have to be the one taking action. The Chinese won’t just let us do what we want. They’ll be fluid, and we will too. You were just one potentially unexpected move out of many. To be honest, we may well lose no matter what we try.”

“And you’re okay with that?”

“Don’t get me wrong, I still want to beat them, but they have the odds in their favour. We have to be realistic and be prepared to make the most of whatever the result. I still don’t have a full picture of their capabilities, but I will after this is over, which could prove to be even important than winning.”

He seemed to be working the whole arena fight from several angles, and loving every moment. Even if he lost, there would be an upside, and a better chance of beating them next time.

“What about all the players who’ll lose their XP?”

Dad sighed. “Yes, that would be a setback, but it’s not like anyone on our side is very high level. They’ll make it back. They want to take on as many of us as they can to make it worth their while, so we’ll be running several teams. Hopefully, we can produce an upset or two. If they lose just once…” Dad let out a low whistle.

“Do you really think that’s possible?” said Britta.

“Yes, it’s possible,” said Dad. “Just not very likely. But you saw what N-21 put together last time. At the very least there’s going to be surprises. They might be favourites, but they won’t have it all their own way.

Britta wasn’t so sure. If the Chinese team were Level 10 like Lewis had said, they were unlikely to lose even if all the other teams attacked them at once.

But Dad was right. This wasn’t supposed to be a direct confrontation. N-21 had something more interesting planned.

Britta had to force herself out of Dad’s office, even though she still had plenty of questions. She would no doubt get her answers soon enough.

She went back to her to her bedroom and got changed. The laptop was on her desk, innocently blank until she hit the spacebar. Then it blinked into instantaneous life as though it had never been asleep.

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