Bitter 331

Throughout the day there was a lot of chatter about the brand new game that was going to be a literal game changer. Like most tech product releases, people were acting like it was going to revolutionise their daily lives. And in this case, they might actually be right.

A lot of what the other kids were saying sounded wrong. Judging from the snippets Britta overheard, most people seemed to be under the impression they’d be superheroes in a world where they could do anything they wanted.

Which may have been because people didn’t get what the game was, or it could be that things were no longer the way Britta had experienced them. Perhaps you could be a ridiculously powerful magical being who could do whatever you wanted.

The only definite way to find out what had been promised was to watch the announcement herself. Fortunately she had plenty of data allowance on her phone. One of the perks of having a limited social life.

She watched the video of the presentation during lunch. She had thought she would recognise whoever was handling the announcement, but it wasn’t anyone she’d ever seen before.

In her mind, it had seemed likely it would be Dr Reedy, but now that she thought about it, she could see that was just silly. There was no reason to think it would be her, or even Clark and Harman. They were just the people she had met. APE was much bigger than that, and no doubt had a whole department devoted to PR and making announcements. For all she knew, the handsome man on stage was an actor. Or a hologram.

He was talking to a large audience and had a screen behind him showing images of the game’s stunning scenery. It was impressive, but it wasn’t a very good way to convey the experience. It was like trying to sell a television’s fantastic picture quality in a television advert. How could you see how much better it looked than the TV you were seeing the advert on?

The man spoke very fluently, no stuttering, no ums or ahs. Even more likely he wasn’t a tech guy dragged out from APE’s research labs. He showed off the helmet, which drew lots of impressed sounds from the crowd. It didn’t look like a bicycle helmet anymore, it was more like something an astronaut would wear. Bulkier than hers, but there was no mention of a suitcase to keep all the electronics in. Had they managed to squeeze the whole Anderson Cradle into the helmet?

There was some explanation of how it accessed the brain through the eyes, but it was quite vague, with lots of scientific-sounding words Britta had never heard before. Was bio-imprint in any dictionary? She doubted it.

The images on the screen behind him were swooping shots of trees and fields from the air at first. Then there were towns and cities. And castles. People and creatures and monsters. The audience responded with enthusiastic applause. Then cheers. Even though they weren’t getting the full, mind-blowing, first-hand taste of what it was like to be inserted into this fantasy world, it was everything they had imagined VR to be. Everything VR had promised and failed to deliver.

The helmets, which were called Cradles, were going on sale a week on Friday. £1000, just as Rashida had said. The game, though, wasn’t going to be available until Christmas.

That was how they were going to buy themselves some time. Let people have the helmet and get used to it, wander around some pretty, unpopulated environments, and meanwhile keep working on the game.

It was quite a reasonable compromise. If the investors were pushing for some kind of return on their investment, this would bring in some money. And they could always push the other release date back if needed. Once people saw what it was like to be in a world that felt completely real, they’d be hooked.

At least, that’s what she assumed the plan was.

The people at APE knew what they were doing. They were going to sort out the game, make a deal with Nigel, have thousands of people itching to start playing, and keep their investors happy. Someone like Britta couldn’t possibly grasp what was going on behind the scenes to make all this come together. Hundreds of people were probably working around the clock, and she was quite happy to leave it to them.

She got home a little after half-past four and found Dad in the kitchen. He looked upset.

“I’m locked out of the game.”

“For how long?” asked Britta.

“I don’t know. No one’s answering my calls. I think it might be permanent.”

“Are you sure they aren’t running maintenance? Or preparing for the launch. Did you see the livestream?”

“Yeah, I saw it,” said Dad. “Doesn’t look good. This kind of rushing can only mean pressure from above.”

Britta told Dad her theory about a staggered release, but he was hardly listening. He just muttered to himself.

Britta was curious to see if she was locked out, too. Had they decided to dispense with both of them? She had never quite understood why they had given Dad a rig, and she knew she was expendable.

She went upstairs, leaving Dad to his fretting, and tried to log in.

There was no problem, everything worked as normal. She woke up in the same small room as normal. When she entered the chapel, there was a slight difference. No sign of Sister Florence, but that had happened before. Still, something felt a bit off.

She exited the church and stood there, looking up and down the main street. The place was deserted. In fact the whole town was empty, and totally silent. It was like everyone in the world was gone.

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