Bitter 357

By the time they got back home, it was well past eleven o’clock. The car door slid open and everyone got out. The street was quiet and the most of the houses had their lights off.

The driver stood by the open door, staring ahead like he was on guard duty at Buckingham Palace. Lin had exited along with everyone else. The two of them were acting like they had no idea the other existed. The effort of it made the air hum.

“The cradle, please,” Dr Reedy said to the driver. He turned towards the front of the vehicle, and then walked all the way around the car to get to the back. It meant he didn’t have to pass in front of Lin.

“I have sent my details to your phone,” said Lin. “My residence is in town, but I should be able to deal with any problems you have remotely. If we do need to meet, I’ll come to you.”

Britta nodded. She checked her phone. There was no indication that she had received a message. She tapped on the screen to open her contacts, and found Lin’s details. Her flashy phone could access Britta’s, and leave her number there without permission. She wondered what else it could do.

“Here we are,” said Dr Reedy. The driver had walked all the way round again and given her a plain brown box. She held it out for Britta.

Dad took it from her. “We should go inside. People will wonder what we’re doing out here.”

“We’ll leave you to it,” said Dr Reedy. “You won’t have any trouble, it’s all self-explanatory.”

“You don’t have to show me how to use it?” asked Britta, looking at the box that revealed nothing. She suddenly felt unsure of herself.

“They’ve been designed to be as simple to use as possible,” said Dr Reedy. “You shouldn’t have a problem. Plug and play. We’ll be sending out quite a few tomorrow, so they better be.”

She gave Britta a confident look, but there was a little trepidation there. She was steeling herself for some sleepless nights as she monitored the roll-out, Britta was sure.

If there was a problem, it would be a pain to deal with. There was no chance they’d be taking the classic developer route of releasing a patch on Friday, and then taking the weekend off.

“Give it a couple of minutes after midnight,” said Dr Reedy, “and then pop on the helmet. Twelve minutes — we’ve added a timer especially for you, so you’ll know when you’re done. Ping! Like a roast chicken. Ha ha.” She was trying her best to make light of the situation, playing it off as a breezy conversation. Britta wondered if that was for her benefit, or for the boss’s daughter.  Maybe both. “You don’t have to go anywhere or do anything. You can, of course, stay longer if you wish.” She smiled, in what Britta considered a rather mechanical fashion.

“Okay,” said Britta. “Thank you for all your help. I’m glad you were here.” She looked over at Lin, making sure her words were being sent down the right channels. “You made it much easier.”

Dr Reedy smiled a little less mechanically, and nodded.

They all got back in their luxury minivan, and drove away. It almost felt like they were willing themselves not to be too overbearing. No pressure. Let the girl do the bare minimum and we’ll all be happy.

Britta was fine with it. Bare minimum was what she was aiming for, too.

Once they were back in the house, Mum let out a long sigh. Dad put the box on the kitchen table and tried to get it open. He failed to get the tape off with his short fingernails, and got a knife out of a drawer.

“What do you think happened between the driver and the Chinese girl?” Britta asked Mum.

“Not our business,” said Mum, which was what Dad had said. Britta was sure they would be talking about it as soon as they were alone in their bedroom.

“Wow,” said Dad. “Look at this.” He held up the helmet.

It was white, with a red zigzag that ran around the middle. On the bottom part, under the chin, it had her name in an italic font. Britta.

“Where’s the power supply?” asked Britta.

Dad took a cursory look inside the empty box. “Isn’t one. I guess it’s all built-in.” He held the helmet a bit higher, checking it for additional cables and wires. There weren’t any. “Looks like they’ve miniaturised everything. Try it on.”

Britta took it from him. She was expecting it to be quite heavy, but it was surprisingly light. There were no buttons to press.

“What time is it?” she asked.

“Quarter to,” said Dad. “No harm in trying it on, though. Just to see if it fits.”

She sat down and placed it over her head. It was comfortable. The padding was cool and soft.

“You look like a racing car driver,” said Dad. She was sure she didn’t.

She slid the visor down over her face and lights appeared around the edge of the screen.

“Congratulation,” said a soft, feminine voice. “You are the proud owner of the Mark 1 Anderson Cradle. Would you like to initialise set-up?”

The screen in front of her lit up. Yes and No buttons appeared within reach. It was like the white room when she logged in using her previous helmet. Now she could access it from here. Did that mean she’d be able to access her status screen when she wasn’t in-game? It didn’t matter though. She wasn’t a player, she was an employee. Twelve minutes.

“What time is it?” she asked. Her voice echoed in her own ears as she looked out from her goldfish bowl at her parents staring in.

Before they could answer, numbers appeared in front of her. 11:52.

Could she do the set-up before midnight? She didn’t really want to wait if she could do it now. She reached out and pressed the Yes button.

“Before set-up, please read the following information.”

Words began scrolling up the screen. Terms of service, safety features, maintenance and cleaning. And that was just the table of contents. She tried to swipe it away, but it kept crawling slowly upwards. They wanted you to read it, or at least pretend you had.

Britta raised the visor and the HUD vanished. If she looked up, she could see the bottom of the screen, with the words still scrolling.

“I’m hungry,” she said.

“Oh, I can make you a sandwich, if you like,” said Dad.

She put her hand up to her face, touching her mouth through the gap. “That would be perfect.”

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