Bitter 317

Nigel took Britta to Sonny’s and bought her a drink. The cafe was full of NPCs, but they were all pointedly not paying attention to them, hardly making any noise. She wondered if he’d placed them here to make her feel at ease. He probably didn’t realise how eerie it was to have so many people staring into their soups. A cafe of lost souls.

“Have you considered putting hot chocolate on the menu?” asked Britta, feeling awkward as the nun watched her intently.

“I find food and drink hardest to make,” he said. “I’ve never tasted anything. I only have a very rudimentary idea of what it’s like, so it’s a bit hit and miss.”

“Some of it tastes pretty good,” said Britta, trying to be nice about it. Some of it tasted pretty awful.

“They brought people in to code the basic ingredients. It’s when you try cooking that things get tricky.”

Britta nodded and sipped on the hot beverage in front of her. It tasted like hot mud. She could feel Nigel was waiting for an explanation. She took another sip.

“Why did you stop?” he asked. The nun’s face was drawn and serious, not at all her usual expression.

“It was just getting a bit… messy. I couldn’t handle it.”

“Isn’t life supposed to be messy?”

She could understand what he meant. Things rarely worked out as smoothly in real life as they did in books and movies. Or games. He was right about that. So why had it seemed so unbearable to face something like that in what was supposed to be a simulation of real life?

“It didn’t feel the same. Like… Like something was missing. I’m sorry. I don’t know how to explain it.”

Nigel nodded, but he looked confused. She wanted to give him a better explanation, but she didn’t have one. If you wanted to make a game that was as close to reality as possible, you would make it full of inconsistencies and impossible-to-solve mysteries. Not knowing what was going on while you did your best to get by was what being human was. Whether you were a successful billionaire or a homeless person, you faced the same doubts and issues. No one had the answers to why we were here or what we were supposed to do. It was messy.

Britta put the mug down on the table. “Why did they think I had the keys to the Keystone?”

If she could understand what he’d been trying to do, perhaps she’d have a better idea of where it went wrong.

Nigel looked up, lips pursed. He had a drink in front of him, which he hadn’t touched. He tapped the table with his fingers. Sister Florence had surprisingly long nails for a nun. They made a sharp rat-tat-tat sound.

“King Kobold had all six keys,” said Nigel. “He told the other two you had stolen them last time you came to the mines. They thought he was too stupid to make up a lie like that, so they believed him.”

Britta put down her drink and reconsidered what she thought was going on in light of this revelation. “So the king was the one behind it all? He was using the fact everyone looked down on kobolds to play us off against each other?”

“He was tired of being attacked by everyone when his people just wanted to be left in peace. Derik came up with the plan.”

So Derik was in on it, too. “I suppose it would turn out King Kobold was the real final boss, after everyone else had killed each other.”

“That’s right,” said Nigel, perking up. “See? It would have made sense in the end. Not that hard to follow is it?”

“No. It could have worked. But then there was the dead dwarf, and the rivalry between the Mayor and Garbolum, and the Mayor’s wife. And let’s not forget the rest of the dwarves. And that was just what I had unearthed so far. There was probably even more, right?”

Nigel’s enthusiasm faded once more. “Yes. A lot more. I didn’t want it to be too obvious.”

“Yes, but if it’s too confusing, no one’s going to want to play.”

Nigel’s head shot up. “People like doing things that are hard, don’t they? That’s why they climb mountains and go to the moon. It’s part of what makes them human.”

She could see he’d thought a lot about it. More than she had. It was definitely an important human trait, just not for everyone.

“Yes, some people are like that. But you only ever hear about the ones who succeeded. A lot more don’t. And most don’t even try. That’s why we read books and watch movies, I guess.”

“So you can pretend you did those things?” said Nigel, a clear note of derision in his voice.

“Yes, Nigel. So we can pretend.” She hadn’t really thought about it like that until he’d said it, but it was true. The majority of people preferred to pretend they were special rather than having to prove it, and fail. It was a depressing thought. She was one of those people.

“Hmmph,” said Nigel, unimpressed. He was annoying her. People might have been less than what they purported to be, but even survival was an impressive achievement considering what they were given to begin with.

“I’m sorry if we disappoint you,” she said. “But there are exceptions. Like your dads. They’ve done something very few people could have done. They made you. Perhaps you should speak to them about how to balance New World. You shouldn’t make it a copy of what we already have. Make it something new.”

“They aren’t my dads,” said Nigel, sounding like the surly teen he’d been back at APE.

“But they are experts in what you’re trying to do. More than I am.” It was hard to believe she was counselling him to talk to his parents. She would never do that.

“No,” said Nigel obstinately. “I still have things I want to try. And I want you to help me.”

“Me? What can I do? I’m not even that good a gamer.”

“I know,” said Nigel. “But I don’t want your help as a player.”

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