Bitter 332

“Hello?” called out Britta. No one replied. She tried again, louder. “Hello? Nigel?” The street outside the Church of Roha remained empty and unresponsive.

What was going on? Was it some kind of maintenance? Had they moved everyone to a different server?

Britta looked up at the blue sky. “Dr Reedy?” She waited, but no one answered.

The town had been abandoned, at least for now. By the way doors were left open and carts had been left in the middle of the street, it seemed they had vanished all of a sudden, as though somewhere a switch had been flicked, perhaps literally.

Britta had been the only player allowed into the game before, but the NPCs had been here as usual, going about their business. This time, there were no NPCs, no animals, no movement and no sounds of any kind.

The town looked perfectly fine otherwise. It was late afternoon, just as it was in the real world. There was a mild breeze, which suggested environmental controls were working. It was actually a bit chilly. Britta’s clothes had lots of holes in them from her adventures in the lava level, and she still didn’t have any shoes.

She had meant to grab some clothes from the Adventurer’s Guild, but she’d been distracted. Now there was no one to ask.

Did she need to ask, though? If no one was here, she could just take what she wanted from the charity box.

The reality of her situation hit her all at once. If no one was here, she didn’t have to settle for bloodstained hand-me-downs. She could take whatever she wanted from any shop she pleased.

No NPCs meant no guards. No one to arrest her. She could go on the shopping spree to end all shopping sprees. And she knew just where to start.

She trotted down the steps and took a right. The fanciest stores with the best (which is to say the most expensive) gear were all on the other side of the town square. Her funds were reasonably healthy, but she hadn’t even considered buying herself anything substantial, at least not until she had a regular income.

Her feeling was that there was no point spending money on something you liked, and then discovering you didn’t have enough money to buy something you needed. Of course, always saving for a rainy day meant you didn’t get to splash out on cool stuff, but Britta had never been one to go full fashionista. And here, clothes didn’t just go out of style, they became useless once you outlevelled them.

And you could always find gear as you played the game. Her own outfit had been a quest reward and the stats were far better than anything she could have afforded.

Britta stopped just as she entered the town square and quickly pulled up her status screen and checked her health bar. It was full, and she had assumed that meant it was back to the same level as before she took all that lava damage, but her outfit had heavily buffed her stats.

On closer inspection, she realised she no longer had 80 HP. Her maximum was down to 55 HP. What would happen when she switched clothes? All those lovely bonuses gone.

Could she repair her clothes? She suspected it would take more than her level of sewing skill to fix magic armour. Perhaps if she wore them under something else she could keep the buffs. Did they stack like that?

Most of the clothes you could buy from shops were cosmetic. They looked nice, but didn’t do much. Perhaps there were places that sold better items in the city, but around here even the really expensive stuff had fairly low-level enchantments.

She would be back to her old, vulnerable-self. The gnome who constantly got one-shotted by goblins.

It was a bit of an unnecessary concern, considering she was the only person here, but it was hard not to feel regret at the thought of ending up back where she started. Nobody liked being demoted.

The square was full of market stalls with their wares on display. The shops around the sides looked open for business like on any other day. Except for McDonald’s. Its doors were closed and the lights were off. No free cheeseburgers. She had been inside to check it out, but she had never eaten there because it cost real money, and she hadn’t considered it worth it. The smells had been very authentic, though.

If she had the opportunity to steal a virtual Big Mac, would it count as real stealing?

It occurred to her that she was just wasting her time being here. Whatever had happened, there was no point staying. It didn’t matter what state her clothes were in.

The sensible thing to do would be to log out. She could contact Dr Reedy the old fashioned way and just ask her what was going on.

But, what if it was a glitch or a temporary shutdown? If everything came back online just the same as before, she would have missed her chance to grab a bunch of stuff for free. It wasn’t even like she was trying to get an unfair advantage over other players. She would be barely back to where she’d been before her aborted Keystone adventure.

She’d just take some basic clothing so she didn’t look like a tramp. At least then she’d be able to walk around without worrying about being arrested for indecent exposure again. She could feel a draft on the back of her thighs she daren’t even check.

There was a clothing store she had seen during her time exploring the town that had a really impressive window display. She had earned a small amount of money and XP running errands for various shop owners and merchants to help familiarise herself with the town, so she had seen pretty much every place of business, but this store had been so grand she wasn’t even allowed in the front door, private guards in fancy uniforms had made sure of that.

Her errands had been given round the back by one of the tailors, and had been to do with fetching lunch from various stalls in the market. They wouldn’t have trusted her to deliver the actual garments, which cost a fortune.

There were no guards standing outside Mr Fez’s Enchanted Couture today, though. The mannequins in the window looked very dashing, and very tall. Would the clothes even fit her?

She hesitated in the wide-open doorway. She knew she wasn’t going to steal anything of real value — technically, she wasn’t even going to steal anything real — but she still felt a bit guilty. And also a bit of a thrill. It wasn’t exactly a heist, just some light shoplifting, but it still had an element of criminality to it that Britta had been brought up to steer away from. She was a good person. In the real world.

Here, however, she had a draft running up her backside and a new pair of magic pants would come in very handy.

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