Bitter 335

Dad always told her nothing was future proof. Everything could become obsolete when the next gen came out. The only reason it didn’t was because companies only made small advances available to the public at regular intervals so they could squeeze as much money as possible out of their loyal customers.

In fact, not only was nothing future proof, they made sure to have obsolescence built in so you were forced to upgrade. Strong build quality and easily replaceable parts did not make for the kind of profits shareholders wanted to see.

Dad was not a big fan of this business model. He blamed Apple for pioneering the way, which Britta always felt was a bit harsh. Every large tech company was happy to drip feed its innovations to the public in order to maximise profits. Admittedly, Apple were the masters.

According to Dad, the real cutting edge was way ahead of anything available in the shops. Only the lucky few had access to the true power of modern technology.

Britta was one of those people. She had access to New World that practically no one else had, not even the people who had built it. And now it was coming down around her ears.

There was a horrible metallic scream as the world was pulled apart. The falling masonry was localised into a very limited space as a tear appeared in the fabric of the universe. It looked like an actual tear in actual fabric, as though someone had decided to rip the guardhouse in two.

Britta was on the floor with her hands over her head. She had opened her status screen, ready to log out, but the stone and brick only fell around the gash that had appeared. It had been loud and there was plenty of dust, but the area around her didn’t seem to be in danger of plummeting brickwork.

She looked up from behind the reception counter. There was a black space where the wall with the tubes had been, and across the other side was Stan backed into the far side of a cell that had a wall missing.

The blackness was like a river cutting through the guardhouse, but it didn’t flow with any sort of substance. It was pure void. It was also strangely menacing, like it would dissolve your hand if you tried to touch it.

“Hey,” called out Stan. He was a good twenty or so metres away, but his voice was a lot easier to hear without any matter to get in the way. “You okay?”

Britta stood up and nodded. “What happened?”

“I think there was a glitch in the Matrix,” said Stan.

It looked like more than a glitch. Was it Nigel helping or just the world falling apart? Or maybe a bit of both?

“Do you think it’s safe?” Britta called out. The black rent in space could have been completely inert as far as she knew. She looked around for something to throw at it.

“No,” said Stan. “Of course it’s not safe. Look at it. It’s probably instant death if you touch it.”

He was being melodramatic again. Probably. She picked up one of the stones that now littered the floor and raised it to toss at the blackness.

“No, no, no,” Stan cried out in rising panic. “What are you doing? Don’t just try random stuff. I have to live here, you know?”

Britta lowered her hand. “Because of your condition?” It slipped out before she remembered she wasn’t supposed to let on his father had told her.

Stan’s posture changed. Even at this distance Britta could tell he had gotten more tense. “What do you know about my condition?”

“Just some stuff I overheard. You’re in a hospital or something.” She tried to make it sound vague and easy to deny. She didn’t want to make things awkward.

“Yeah. Something like that. I’m not sure when I’ll be able to go back. I’m stuck in here until they can fix me.”

From what his father had said, there was no fixing him. But if he was, as she suspected, the first attempt at putting a person’s mind in this place on a permanent basis, surely they would want to take better care of him. His value as a test subject had to be enormous.

“You should get out of here,” he said. “We don’t know what’s happening, and it could get worse. The whole place might collapse.”

“What about you?” She already had her status screen open and the exit button under her finger, but it seemed only polite to ask.

“I don’t know. At least there’s a way out now.”

Britta couldn’t see how he intended to leave his cell. The outer wall was gone, but there was an abyss blocking his way. Did he mean to YOLO it and hope for the best?

Stan ran forward, like he intended to jump the gap. But the distance to her side was far greater than anything a normal person could manage, and magic wasn’t working.

Stan didn’t jump across, he jumped up. He grabbed the ceiling, or rather, the floor of the cell above his which also had its walled ripped away, and pulled himself up and over. His legs curled around and he ended up lying on his stomach. All that working out in the prison gym was really paying off.

“Log out and try to get hold of Dr Reedy, if you can,” he said as he got into a crouch. He leaned over to look down at the abyss. “I’ll try to find somewhere safe to hang out.”

The ground started shaking again and Britta decided not to wait to see what it would bring this time. She logged out.

It wasn’t like the usual log out sequence. She was yanked forcefully like someone had grabbed her necklace from behind and pulled as hard as they could. She made a retching sound that left her throat feeling raw and she sat up in bed, running her fingers across the front of her neck to make sure it was still intact.

She took off the helmet, and for the first time in a long while her face was bathed in sweat. She didn’t have time to wonder what the implication of that was. She grabbed her phone and called Dr Reedy.

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