Bitter 277

Britta looked at the squiggly line running around the room. There were numbers everywhere and meaningful-looking highs and lows that meant absolutely nothing to her.

There were two distinct lines, a blue one and a red one. They started off far apart, and gradually came together until they were on top of each other.

“He wants to become me?” she asked, not understanding what that entailed in practical terms, or why it would be a goal for anyone.

“He doesn’t want to turn into a sixteen year old girl,” said Harman. “He’s trying to match your engrams so that New World syncs with your natural biorhythms.”

“Mm, yes,” said Clark. “Yes, yes. This explains why you stopped having the standard glandular response.”

“You mean the sweating stopped because she’s in sync with Nigel?” asked Dad.

“It seems so,” said Clark. “Although why he specifically chose her, I couldn’t say.” He shrugged.

“Same here,” said Harman. “I would have thought a healthier subject would have been the more likely choice.” He looked at Britta in an analytic fashion. “Someone more robust.”

“It’s not dangerous, though, is it?” said Dad.

“Quite the contrary,” said Clark. “Britta is the least likely person to suffer any phase damage.”

While it was nice to know she wasn’t in any danger, it was somewhat disconcerting to learn that a danger did exist, apparently. Whatever phase damage was.

“Maybe he picked me at random,” said Britta.

Both men chortled condescendingly.

“No, no,” said Clark. “Nothing Nigel does happens without a reason.”

“The difficult part is uncovering what that reason is,” said Harman.

Considering how much they didn’t know about what Nigel was doing behind his locked bedroom door, they seemed remarkably sure of his methods. It seemed to Britta that if Nigel was trying to synchronise himself with an average person like her, then learning to be more spontaneous might be part of that process. But Britta wasn’t going to point that out. Very smart people didn’t like it when you suggested they were wrong. They liked it even less when you proved it.

The weird thing was that Britta wasn’t a very spontaneous person, at least not until recently.

She had made a concerted effort to change her way of thinking, and to face problems without preparation, but so far it wasn’t going that well. She had made little progress and still felt out of her depth most of the time. How was that of use to Nigel? As a learning curve it would be a very slow and gradual climb.

Harman was right, there had to be better candidates. Unless she truly had been picked at random. Nigel’s luck could just have been very bad.

“Isn’t he using me to perfect the glandular thingy so people don’t sweat so much?” said Britta. It was the most prosaic explanation, and also the most obvious. “Maybe he needed someone at the bottom end, physically speaking, so it would work on everyone.”

“Quite possibly,” said Clark. “The exact requirements remain a mystery.”

Dad put his arm around her shoulder. “It could be anything.” He sounded slightly annoyed. “What they’re telling you is that they have no idea. Which means it could be genetic, it could be something about your brain chemistry, it could even be your social conditioning. The way you observe and react when you encounter a social situation might fit the engagement pattern Nigel is most comfortable emulating. It’s all a mystery, isn’t it, Dr Tomani?”

She hadn’t heard him talk like this before. He seemed very sure of his terminology. He was always spouting technical jargon, but it was usually to do with the specs for the Starship Enterprise, not behavioural analysis. Then again, he had worked on this project for several years. He was bound to know a lot about it. Although she was still dubious about why he was ‘let go’ from his job.

“That’s right,” said Clark. “We’re entirely speculating. The only person who knows for sure is Nigel himself. And he isn’t a person at all.” He smiled thinly.

There seemed to be a tension between Dad and the two men. They had been his employers, but she wasn’t sure they’d ever met before. Dad had never mentioned them. It was a large company and he had worked at a different location. He hadn’t been particularly high up, either. As far as she knew, anyway.

“What about Stan?” asked Britta. “Nigel’s interested in him, too. Have their brain waves synced up as well?”

Clark and Harman looked at each other. Britta sensed they didn’t want to answer her, although their reaction made it obvious there was something worth hiding.

“They don’t match,” said Clark, hesitating as he spoke.

“There are some similarities,” said Harman, “but they only last for a few seconds at a time. He might have been the test run.”

It was hard not to get annoyed with these two men. They had a way of talking about people as though they weren’t real flesh and blood beings who mattered. They were just integers in an equation. It was like people were no different to NPCs, which made her wonder how they treated the actual NPCs.

“Is Nigel here?” asked Britta. “I mean, is there a big computer or something you keep him in?”

“Yes,” said Harman. “We have a mainframe in the basement. Well, it’s actually below the basement. Has to be kept cool. Very cool.”

“Can I see him?” She was in the neighbourhood, it’d be rude not to drop by and say hello.

“It’s merely a room full of data banks,” said Clark. “There’s not much to see.”

“I understand,” said Britta. “I’d still like to see him.”

Harman shrugged. “No harm in it, I suppose. Okay, let’s go see Nigel.”

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