Bitter 316

Britta overslept. She woke up feeling warm and comfortable, and definitely not in the mood to get out of bed. She turned on her side and saw her clock. It said it was half-past ten.

The shock of how late it was sent her leaping to her feet. She had never been late for school before. She’d been ill occasionally, but getting up in the morning had never been a problem. Ever. And she’d never slept through her alarm.

By the time she got ready and took the bus, it would nearly be lunchtime. For a moment, she was tempted to call in sick and go back to bed, but quickly dismissed the idea. She had too much to do.

There was no point panicking. She stopped trying to put on her uniform at full-speed and took a moment to calm herself.

It wasn’t a matter of life and death. There was no reason to act like she was in trouble. She could just borrow Rashida’s notes, like she did when she had a dentist’s appointment and missed a class. Double Maths had been her first lesson of the day, after that she had French and Geography. Geography wasn’t a big deal, but she would have preferred not to miss French. If she could get a lift off Dad instead of taking the bus, she could save half an hour.

Dad’s snoring suggested a lift wasn’t likely. He had probably gone back into the game after he’d spoken to her last night, and only just gone to bed. She considered knocking on the bedroom door and forcing him out of his slumber, but thought better of it. He would be grouchy and require a lot of cajoling to get him into the car.

Britta got changed and went downstairs. No point making breakfast, but she could eat one of Dad’s protein bars on the bus. They were part of his health and fitness program — the only part he actually stuck to. She had a pretty good idea of how the bus timetable was set out, and even if she rushed she would miss most of French, so she wasn’t running around like a mad thing.

As she left the kitchen, Dad wandered down the stairs, bleary-eyed and wearing only his dressing gown.

“Not like you to sleep in,” he mumbled. “Want me to drop you off?”

He was still half asleep, but it would save her a lot of time.

“Yeah, okay. If you’re up to it.”

“No problem.” He walked over to the hallway table and picked up the car keys.

“Erm, are you going to go out like that?”

He looked down at himself. “Oh. Ha. No, hold on.”

He jogged back upstairs, and then came back down almost immediately, still in the dressing gown, but now with large Pikachu slippers on his feet. “Let’s go!”

Normally, it would have been mortifying to be taken to school with Dad looking like that, but everyone would already be in class, so they wouldn’t see her shame. She still intended on making him drop her around the corner, though.

“I spent another couple hours in the game,” said Dad as they drove.

“Oh. Have fun?”

“Not really. It’s a bit boring once you’ve spent time with the real characters. The regular NPCs just don’t feel the same. Not as special.”

She knew what he meant, but Britta had no real interest in saving the world. If the world needed saving, then someone with the appropriate training should do it. Being chosen to be the hero everyone owes their lives to sounded nice, but in practice being chosen was not the same as being capable.

It would be like there was a nuclear bomb about to go off, and you walked into a room to find a radiation suit and a pair of wire cutters waiting for you. It would take more than simply finding the equipment to convince you to use it.

That was the trouble with trying to make games more like real life. Real life didn’t encourage you to take ridiculous risks. If you were dumb enough to think random chance might save you, real life would laugh in your face, and then watch you die.

In a game, you could just keep respawning and try again. Eventually you would cut the correct wire and the bomb wouldn’t detonate. You may have died three hundred times, repeatedly killing everyone in a five-mile radius, but no one would remember that as you finally stopped the countdown and saved them all.

Death didn’t work in a simulation. If they wanted to create a realistic experience inside virtual reality, they would have to come up with a way to address that.

Or not. It was a fantasy. No one believed it was real. No one thought they could defuse a bomb just because they’d been able to do it in a game. But Nigel was trying to blur the distinction, and he was making a bit of a mess doing it.

Which was fine. Perhaps he would figure it out and come up with some amazing alternative someone like her couldn’t even conceive of. A world where NPCs mattered and could interact with people as equals. Maybe.

She was happy to leave him to it.

She got to school in time for French, but received a detention for being late. She was the victim of a new zero-tolerance initiative towards tardiness.

For the rest of the week, Britta went to school, paid attention in class, and did her homework. She didn’t feel at all tempted to go back into the game. Dad carried on as before, spending every day in his rig, but he was back to playing the regular game, with scripted events and predictable NPCs.

New World hadn’t been destroyed. There was no war between the powers behind the scenes in New Town. Things carried on as normal.

She did still feel obligated to log back in. They were paying her. She wrote a report detailing her most recent adventure, and why she thought Nigel had bugged the game, but there wasn’t much she could tell them about what he had really been trying to do. They’d have to ask him.

The original deal had been to spend a few hours in-game on the weekend. She could still do that. There was plenty to do in New World that didn’t require her to interact with the main plot. She could just go for a ride on her goat.

On Saturday, she finally put the helmet back on. It felt strange. She logged in and woke up in the church as normal. Her clothes were a mess, badly damaged and covered in scorch marks, but they were just about hanging together. They would do for now.

Sister Florence was scrubbing the chapel floor, nothing seemed any different. As she headed for the doorway, the nun stood up and walked over to her.

“I read your report,” she said in a flat voice with no hint of her normal cod Irish accent.

“Hello, Nigel,” said Britta. “I was wondering if I’d see you here.”

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