Bitter 362

Mum’s face appeared on the screen of Dad’s phone. The image changed as she reached out and grabbed the phone, and turned it around. Now it was pointed at Britta, sitting at the kitchen table with the helmet on, looking vaguely ridiculous. Dad could be sort of seen standing behind her.

Britta didn’t like looking at herself. It was alright in a mirror, but for some reason photographs and videos made her look terrible. It might well have been that mirror images did her a favour, and the camera lens was trying to show her the truth, but it wasn’t very pleasant. The truth rarely was.

Her nose looked like it wasn’t properly in the middle of her face. Symmetry was what made people look good in pictures. Everything about her face was a little off-centre.  The gnome version of her might have been a hairy little beast, but at least it had things in the right place.

She continued to watch herself as Mum and Dad squabbled on the video about how to hold the phone so it was steady. The picture went in and out of focus.

Then she saw herself pull down the visor, hiding her face from view, and stick out her hands, miming playing the piano. She looked even more ridiculous.

“What am I supposed to be looking—” Britta cut herself off as the video showed her stiffen. Then she stood up. She didn’t remember doing that.

She could hear Mum and Dad expressing concern. Mainly Mum being concerned, and Dad insisting she keep filming, that this was normal, but sounding completely unconvincing. He was standing behind her, arms out to stop her falling over, or running off.

Britta didn’t move. Even though it was a small image on the phone, it was clear her body was very tense, every muscle tightened and strained.

Just as Mum was demanding they call someone, Britta’s body began to fall. There was no bend, no crumpling to the ground. She toppled backwards, completely stiff. Mum’s scream caught in her throat. Maybe she had put her hand to her mouth.

Dad caught Britta. He pivoted her around on her heels, and then lowered her onto the kitchen table. As he gently let her head come down, her feet went up at the other end. There was no give in her posture at all.

Once she was horizontal, they began arguing about what to do. Taking off the helmet, calling help, waiting twelve minutes to see what happened… the last one was Dad.

Mum was still pointing the phone at Britta, but she was just lying there. It had been a bit odd to see herself go so rigid, but it wasn’t that bad, really.

Maybe this was how she always reacted, but never knew because she was usually lying on her bed. That seemed unlikely, though. Surely they would have noticed during testing.

If it affected others like this, they’d be falling over and hurting themselves all over the place. There’d be a lot of lawsuits for injuries caused. Safety issues that cost money were always a high priority for companies, so they wouldn’t let something like this get out into the public.

It was more likely that this had something to do with the readings the game was taking from her. Which could mean it was a one-off thing, to get the sync done. Or maybe it would happen every time, since they needed to re-sync the game to her central nervous system every forty-eight hours.

She would have to make sure she was in bed whenever she logged in. With pillows on the floor in case she rolled off.

“I don’t think it’s that terrible,” said Britta.

“You look like you’re having a seizure,” said Mum. “It was only because you were breathing normally and your heartbeat seemed okay that I didn’t call an ambulance.”

“She was perfectly safe,” said Dad. “You’d get more obvious signs if she was in trouble. Shaking and frothing at the mouth.” Britta didn’t like the way he was trying to be reassuring. “And there’s an internal kill switch if her readings show something’s wrong. It’s the readings they want, so they’ll be the first to spot any danger signs.”

“How do you know it isn’t the danger signs they want to power their silly game?” said Mum.

“Now, let’s not get carried away,” said Dad. “It’s not a silly game, and Britta’s fine.”

Britta wasn’t sure which of those two statements he felt was more important, but he was right. She didn’t feel in the least bit hurt or harmed.

“It’s okay, Mum. I really don’t feel any different. I’m not even stiff. I’ll just make sure I’m lying down next time.”

“You really feel fine?” said Mum, her eyes scanning Britta’s face for signs of a problem.

“Yes, Mum. Really. Nothing’s happened. Don’t panic.”

“I’m not saying you have to stop,” said Mum, relaxing a little. “It was just a bit of a shock. But I think we should watch you next time, just to see if it happens again. And inform Dr Reedy.”

Britta didn’t want to do that. Yes, there was a chance something had gone wrong, but Britta genuinely felt like there was nothing wrong, and she really didn’t want to have to go in for a bunch of tests.

In any case, APE were probably more than likely already aware of how their cradle worked.

“Okay,” said Britta. “If you think so.” There wasn’t any point arguing. She carried on watching the video. Mum had closed in on Britta’s arm. All the hairs were standing up.

Britta didn’t like the hairs on her body. You were supposed to have soft, downy hairs that were almost invisible. Hers were dark and ugly. When they stood up, they were like tiny tentacles. She could still hear the audio of her parents arguing in the background of the video, just as they were arguing right now, behind her.

And then the tiny hairs on her arms began to glow.

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