Bitter 201

Britta took off the helmet and blinked, waiting for her eyes to become accustomed to the darkness. She was in her bedroom. She had made it out with no problems. The game wasn’t holding her captive the way it was Stan. But it could.

She sat up, the back of her tee-shirt clinging to her skin. It was dark in her room, but there was enough light creeping in under the curtains and from the clock on her bedside table to give the room its familiar shape. 11:34 PM. Not all that late. It was Friday, so it wasn’t like she needed to wake up early. She reached out and turned on her bedside lamp.

After towelling herself off and putting on some fresh clothes, she considered going back into the game. She felt hesitant. What if next time the game decided to keep her in there? Dr Reedy and her team had no idea how it happened, which meant they had no idea how to stop it from happening again. The smart thing to do would be to stay out until they fixed the bug.

She knew for sure if she told her parents what had happened, they would bar her from playing. It wouldn’t be them overreacting, either. It was clearly the sensible thing to do.

And yet, Britta didn’t believe the game was acting out of malice. She couldn’t prove it, and certainly the evidence suggested even if it was accidental, it was very dangerous. But Stan being stuck in prison felt like part of the story. There were things happening that were all connected somehow, and he was just one part of a big moving machine. As was she.

She lay down again and turned off the lamp. There was no need to rush back. She needed to sleep, too. She lay there thinking about what to do. Stan definitely needed her help. He may have been annoying and of questionable morality, but he was still a real person stuck inside a computer. He wouldn’t die, not with all the focus already on his health. He probably had numerous healthcare professionals with him around the clock. In fact, he was the ideal person to take hostage. His body was just as much a prison as an actual prison. Had the game known that?

It seemed a bit far-fetched, but then what part of all this wasn’t? From what she had experienced so far, nothing worked how she expected it to. All the elements were from familiar sources—books and films and the like—but how they played out was anything but familiar.

In a movie, you always knew things would turn out for the best, or at least they would make sense. The detective would catch the killer. Or if it was one of those edgy films where the twist was the detective got it wrong, it would tell you that before the closing credits. Your curiosity would be satisfied.

In this case, that wasn’t guaranteed. If she didn’t figure out what was going on, she wouldn’t just bump into the correct answer. There was no voiceover to fill in the blanks. There was only Dr Reedy to apologise for not knowing what had happened.

Britta drifted off to sleep and had weird dreams about being in a movie where she was chased endlessly by some madman she never saw. When she woke up, she had the irritating feeling she had forgotten something important. Although how she knew it was important when she didn’t know what it was, eluded her.

She went downstairs and found both parents in the kitchen, Mum dressed and ready for the day, Dad in a bathrobe, droopy-eyed as he poked at his cereal, sniffling and looking like he needed to go back to bed.

“Your father isn’t feeling well,” said Mum. “Try to be nice to him.”

It was a tall order, but it wasn’t like she planned to spend much time with him. She had decided she would go back into the game. And that it was probably best not to tell her parents any more than necessary.

“How’s it going?” asked Dad. “Kill any interesting monsters recently?”

“No. I try not to kill unless I have to. I’m involved in a murder mystery at the moment. One of my friends got killed.”

Dad perked up. “A player?”

“No, an NPC. He got thrown out of a window. By the mayor. Only he denies it.”

Dad began eating his cereal with more interest. “Never heard of a quest like that. Is it one of your special narratives?”

“I think so. Hard to know when I haven’t played the game normally. It’s quite interesting, though. I have to hunt for clues, not monsters.”

“Well,” said Mum. “I suppose that’s a bit better. Less violent.”

“Not for the one who got murdered,” said Dad.

“I think the mayor’s hiding something. I just don’t know what it is, or where he keeps it.”

“That’s an easy one,” said Dad. “You make out you’ve already found it, then the suspect rushes to wherever he’s hidden it to make sure it’s still there, and you follow him. The old bait and bluff—a classic detective drama trope.”

It was actually not a bad idea. If she could get to talk with the mayor, she could give him the impression she knew more than she did, and then wait for him to check his safe or vault or whatever secret hiding place he kept whatever it was he was holding over Gabriel Garbolum’s head. Then she’d be in a much stronger position.

She liked the idea so much, it made her less concerned about what the game might have in store for her, and eager to get back in. She quickly finished her breakfast and headed back upstairs. She still had the niggling feeling she was missing something, though.

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