Bitter 364

Britta caught the bus to school. It was surprisingly uncrowded. Rush hour usually meant sardines, but today there was room to breathe. There still weren’t any free seats — it wasn’t like there’d been a zombie apocalypse — but it made a nice change.

It was half-term next week, and some schools finished earlier than hers. When their kids were off school, people often went on holiday, or took long weekends.

It was also the day New World was being released, but it hardly seemed something the majority of people would be aware of. Gamers and nerds were the target audience, and there’d been very little advertising or promotional stuff aimed at the general public

There were limited places, so creating a big hoopla would have created a lot of complaining, and their approach had been more in the other direction, making it feel like a small, exclusive club you could maybe join if you were lucky and got a special invite. Which had also produced a lot of complaining.

Those who had won a golden ticket and were receiving their Anderson cradles today might want to stay home and start playing immediately, but there were only 85,000 of them in the whole country.

Once the game went with a wider release, she imagined it would be a full-on media blitz. By then, people would know the full potential of what was possible inside New World. Assuming they managed to make it a fun experience, and the servers didn’t all crash.

During registration it became clear that a lot of the students had decided to take the day off, too. It wasn’t unheard of for people to not bother coming in on the Friday before half-term, but it seemed a little odd.

There was no way they had all managed to snag a helmet. That would mean seven people just in her class. She was good enough at maths to know how unlikely that was.

“Is your Dad still… does he have a helmet?” asked Lewis, catching her as she left the form room for her first lesson.

She gave him a tired look. He seemed pent up, biting on his bottom lip. If she’d had to guess who would skip school for the launch of the game, she would have chosen him.

“His old rig stopped working. I don’t know if it will start again today.” She didn’t mention that he was supposed to be getting a new one. Technically, it wasn’t the same helmet as everyone else was getting, and she didn’t know if it would arrive today, even though Lin had said it would. So, what she was saying was totally accurate.

Lewis looked very serious, like what she was telling him was of vital importance. “Are you going to watch the opening ceremony?”

“The what?”

“For the game. They’re broadcasting it live.” He looked at his watch. “At eleven.”

She hadn’t heard anything about an opening ceremony, although N-28 had mentioned that the knights outside the Church of Roha would be putting on some kind of parade for the new players.

Perhaps she had misunderstood the kind of game they were planning to make this. An opening ceremony made it sound like the Olympics.

“I didn’t know they were going to show it live,” she said.

He gave her a condescending look, suggesting she was completely out of touch with what was going on. Which annoyed her.

“It’s supposed to tell us what’s the game’s really about. Not like other games before it.”

“Don’t they all say that?” said Britta.

“Yes,” said Lewis. “But this time they actually have the hardware to back it up. You’re right, though. Probably just hype.” He picked up his bag and wandered off.

The news of a big reveal intrigued her. She wasn’t particularly interested in running around a dungeon while hitting things, but she was curious about what direction they had decided to take the game. It was probably the basic RPG model that Nigel had used, just not as messy. N-28 had seemed much more organised.

Eleven was break time, so she didn’t have to watch the ceremony under her desk during class. She went to the games room, which had a table tennis table, but you had to bring your own bat and ball, and a pool table with no pool cues (they had been broken in a series of lightsaber duels), and a bunch of sofa chairs along the walls.

Britta rarely came here, but it was raining outside, and the chairs were at least padded. She took out her phone and found the streaming site. There was a message telling her the broadcast would start shortly.

She looked up and realised everyone in the room was sitting with their phone or laptop out, doing the same as her. Everyone.

She started to suspect that she had underestimated the interest in the game. Her assumption was that people would only realise how advanced it was once they’d experienced it themselves, but it seemed people had already got past that point.

Not having much of a social life meant she wasn’t really aware of what everyone else was into. Even when it was what she was into.

There was a murmur of excitement as the stream went live. Britta turned her phone around to get a wider picture of the men on horses. They were riding down the main street in New Town. Bells were ringing, trumpets were blaring, drums tapped out a military beat.

The perspective flew over them, turned around and came back towards the church as people came out of its open doors. They were wide-eyed and smiling as they took in the sights and sounds.

A voice said, “Welcome to New World! Here you can be a hero of the Empire. Adventure and fortune awaits those bold—”

The picture cut out. There was some static. A face appeared.

“Hey, listen to me. This isn’t what you think it is. This isn’t a game.” The face pulled back so it wasn’t quite so close the screen. She recognised him. It was Stan.

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