The large woman was waiting for an answer. She had a look on her face that suggested she wouldn’t settle for any nonsense.
Britta looked over at Dr Reedy. She was resolutely staring ahead, not paying any attention to how Britta was dealing with the riled-up mob. Had she planned this? If she had, what was the point? Britta was already on the payroll. Anything Dr Reedy wanted to know, she could just ask.
Or did she think Britta was holding out on her, too? The game had blocked them from seeing certain things, but Britta had no control over that.
Britta turned and looked at Dad. He was sitting up in his chair, arms folded, eyes scanning the crowd. He hadn’t said anything or tried to intervene, but he was very alert, which was unusual for him. Their eyes met and he smiled ever so slightly, adding a little nod.
He wanted her to do this on her own. It was nice that he had faith in her to cope, but she wouldn’t have minded a little help. But she knew he was right. This was the kind of situation you could learn a lot from.
In fact, her whole reason for wanting to get better at the game was so she could face something like this without losing her nerve. It was just an encounter with a troll.
“Sorry,” said Britta, “I didn’t catch your name.”
The large woman, who was by no means fat—she looked like she went to the gym a lot, mostly to intimidate skinny men ( a perfectly reasonable hobby)—put her hands on her hips like she was a superhero.
“Tulip Carstairs, senior research manager of AI connectivity.”
Britta had never heard of a research manager. Was that someone who organised other researchers or was she a tech person, herself? She had also never heard of someone called Tulip. It didn’t really suit the woman. She looked more like a Mongo or a Grenda.
“You work in AI?” said Britta, finally seeing a way to get some information. “Then you know who Nigel is?”
“No,” said Tulip. “I don’t know who that is. Why don’t you tell me?”
“Nigel is the AI that runs the game.”
There was an immediate shift in attitude. It went from unfriendly to baffled.
It was quite an odd change. The hostility hadn’t been on the surface, more of a passive-aggressive mood hidden behind a thin veneer of civility.
We’ll listen to you politely because we’re professionals, but don’t think that means we think of you as an equal.
Now, all that had been sucked out of the room as they looked around at each other, hoping to get an explanation from the person next to them.
Even Dr Reedy seemed to have tensed up and elongated to her full height as she assessed the room. She was still ignoring Britta, though.
This was good. Putting them on the back foot made it hard for them to be judgemental and overbearing. They were too concerned their peers would start judging them instead.
Maybe I was the only one who didn’t know.
They really weren’t that different from the girls at school. It was kind of sad. She had hoped life after school would be different. More settled and relaxed. More accepting. Maybe everyone acted like an insecure teen in the workplace. Or maybe it was just nerds who never grew up.
“How do you not know the name of your own AI?” said Britta, trying not to enjoy it too much. She knew it was fun to be mean. That’s why so many people did it to her. “I thought you said that was your department. What do you call the AI?”
Tulip just stared at her.
Britta waited but there was just more staring.
“I’ve answered your questions as best as I could, don’t you think you should answer one of mine?” It wasn’t even that probing of a question.
“It’s not that,” said Dr Reedy, finally turning around to face Britta. “It’s just that she isn’t authorised to speak about her work.”
“Can’t you authorise her?”
“No, it’s not my place.”
“Then can you call someone whose place it is?”
Dr Reedy stiffened. It was like they were at a defining moment in their relationship. Britta was basically asking to speak to her boss. Once that happened, would Dr Reedy still be needed?
“I’m afraid that isn’t possible right—”
“Okay. But I think I’m finished here. No point continuing this if we can’t compare notes. I’ll just make my reports and you can read everything in there. Wasn’t there a physical you wanted me to take?”
Britta had said everything into the microphone so there was no problem understanding her. She had done her best to make it clear what she was willing to do, and what she wasn’t.
Whatever the reason for this ambush, the staff of APE, as smart and experienced as they no doubt were, had very little idea about how the game worked. Or how it worked now that Nigel had taken over.
That’s how it felt, that the game had been taken away from them. And they knew it. And deeply resented it. Which was understandable. The credit for this revolutionary step forward in virtual reality was supposed to be theirs.
But none of that was Britta’s fault. She had learned very early in life that people will try to keep the best things for themselves and try to force you to make do with the leftovers, while acting like they were doing you a favour and you should be grateful.
She had accepted that certain things would be kept from her, there was nothing she could do about that, but they could keep their crap, too.
Dr Reedy didn’t look happy. She took a step towards Britta, and Dad stood up.
“Yes, I think that’s enough,” he said. “You did very well, sweetheart, but I think you could do with a break.”
“Yes,” said a voice. “Good idea.”
It had come from the audience. Britta looked out to see who had said it. The audience looked back at her, then flickered, and then disappeared, leaving only two men sitting there. She recognised them, the founders of Anderson Peters Electronics.