Bitter 577

Lin sat in Meeting Room Number One at the far end of the long table, furthest from her father who held court at the business end. She wasn’t directly opposite facing him, that would still be a position of power. She was seated to the left of her brother, who wasn’t actually here in Shanghai.

He was in Taiwan, at the research facility which he supervised. In his stead, there was a robot in his seat. A very life-like robot. It was quite an unsettling experience to be sat next to it, as it made small human-like moves, fidgeting with its hands just as her brother did.

Lin had flown in from London for this meeting, which was primarily to discuss the future of the game among the core team — fixers and rule-benders, mostly. Video games made up a very small part of the Huixian Trading Company’s holdings. It was considered part of the Luxuries and Entertainments department, which had been a small investment, high-profit sector until recently.

With the millions of dollars poured into this particular game by the company, return on investment was considered to be a high priority. Luxury goods were desirable as a business venture because they were cheaper to procure than they seemed, and more expensive to buy than they were worth. It was very lucrative, if you knew what you were doing.

What you didn’t want to do was buy high to sell higher. That only made you a minimal amount of profit. And what you definitely didn’t want to do was buy high and sell cheap. That made you no profit at all. Not in the short term, that is, which was where Luxuries and Entertainments excelled.

New World had cost a huge amount, and restricting access was causing some concerns with the board of directors. Lin’s father, however, had waved away these concerns, using terms such as short-sighted and narrow-thinking. Not that the board had much of a say in these matters. They were there to make the company look like a professional and competent business in the Western mould. But in reality it was more of a monarchy than a democracy. The king had identified this game as the most important prospect in Huixian’s portfolio, and Lin was starting to agree with him.

“But Mr President,” said a man only three seats away from her father, “if we are to keep as many players as possible on our server, should we not make the game a little… easier?”

The table could fit sixteen people, one on either end and seven on each side. It could extend to fit another eight at the touch of a button. The acoustics were excellent, so Lin had no trouble hearing her father’s response.

“Ease and comfort will create happy, contented players. Players who will be soft and unprepared for the war to come.”

“Oh. Yes. The war.” Lin couldn’t see the man speaking properly since he was on the same side of the table as her, but his voice gave away how flustered he was. “If there is a war, of course we want our players to dominate.” He regained his composure as he ingratiated himself into his leader’s good graces. Agree, bolster, backtrack as required. Lin leaned forward slightly. He was an accountant, if she recalled correctly. Just another of the yes men her father surrounded himself with.

“The players won’t be the ones doing the fighting,” said Lin’s brother, via his proxy. All heads turned 180 degrees.

Stephen Wu Si-fun was only the third eldest boy, so not in a position of great power, either, although a far more prominent one than Lin. He was twenty-three years her senior and she didn’t really know him that well — most of her communications with him were done over the phone, which was perfectly adequate. The robot sat beside her looked like him, but from ten or so years ago.

“If not the players, then who?” asked the accountant.

“The artificial intelligences who run the game,” said the silicone lips shaped to mimic human speech. It was hard not to stare when the robot spoke. Somewhere in Taiwan, her brother was sitting in a special chair, wearing a special helmet and special gloves. His movements were copied exactly by the robot, with a small time-delay.

“Won’t they use the players as their agents?” asked the accountant.

“In some cases, but they will modify them to serve their purposes, whatever those might be.”

“We don’t know?”

“Ha!” said her brother, making the robot open its mouth in exclamation. It looked menacing when it laughed. “We don’t know because they don’t know. That is the beauty of this whole enterprise. We play a truly ingenious opponent who thinks like we do.”

Not quite, thought Lin. They’re still learning, while we think we have a firm understanding of things.

“That is why we must have the strongest players,” said Lin’s father. Heads swivelled immediately. “The strongest players who are prepared to take control in the aftermath.”

“Yes, Father,” said Stephen. “But there is one player who is already far in advance of anyone we currently have active.”

“The girl?” said President Wu. His face, which was already set in a scowl, deepened its lines.

“The girl. That is why I asked my sister to join us here today. She is uniquely positioned to verify our suspicions about this girl.”

Lin felt the eyes turn to her. It was an odd sensation. Not difficult to manage, not the people sat around the table, but her father’s eyes exerted a pressure that stood out.

“She is not what you think, Brother,” said Lin, aware that she was challenging his authority. She didn’t like the way he made it sound like he’d summoned her, like she was his to order around. He had requested her presence after a lengthy series of flattering comments about her. All of which told her she was holding a winning hand, and he wanted to take it away from her.

“I have yet to decide what she is,” said Stephen, smoothly overlooking the challenge. “That is what I hope to learn from you, Dear Sister.”

“You were wise to attach yourself to this girl,” said President Wu. It wasn’t said like a compliment, but Lin took it for one. “You hold the future of this game in your hands.”

A compliment and an opportunity. One that if she failed, would not be forgiven.

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