Bitter 369

It was a surreal moment. The man was winched into the helicopter pretty quickly, so he wasn’t dangling for long, but it was still an unlikely thing to see happen in your back garden. The helicopter fell sideways, and then turned and rose over the house so it was out of view. The blades made no sound.

“That was weird,” said Britta.

“Mm,” said Dad. He was reading a message on his phone, hardly reacting to what had just happened. “They say I have to leave it for five minutes to let the smoke clear.” He tapped his phone. “There we go, T minus five and counting.”

“Why is there smoke coming out of the shed?” she asked. The door was open and fumes were wafting out. Not as much as there was a moment ago, but more than you’d reasonably expect of a garden shed.

“They have to make sure there are no bugs,” said Dad.

She wasn’t sure if he meant bacteria or listening devices. She was quite curious to see what was in there, though.

“Now, remember,” said Dad, “Dr Reedy will be coming later to get you to sign stuff.”

“Is she?”

“Didn’t I tell you? Oh, sorry. She said she’d be here around eight. Nothing big, just sign some papers, should be fine. Mum’s seen a copy and made sure it’s okay. Just give it a quick look over before you sign.”

“Won’t you be there?”

“Me? You don’t need me there.” He looked out of the window. “Just some papers to sign.”

“Dad, I need an adult with me, don’t I?”

“Do you?”


“But I’ve got the, you know, game…” He looked out of the window again. “Your mum will probably be back by then.”

“You can’t leave me to do this alone. Mum will be mad at you.”

That brought his attention back to her. “I suppose you’re right. I’m already half a day behind everyone else…” He wanted to get in there and catch up with the rest of them. Which was understandable, just not acceptable.

“A couple of hours aren’t going to make much of a difference, Dad.”

“They could make all the difference. You forget, I know how to level up super quick. I’ve done it twice already.” He looked at his watch. “We’ve got a few hours, how about this? I’ll go in, have a quick look-see, be back before Dr Reedy turns up. Then I can go back in later.”

Britta didn’t like it, but it was hard to argue against. And she could see how desperate he was to check out the new iteration of the game.

“Okay, but you have to be back by half seven at the latest.”

“Yeah, yeah, sure. Of course. I’ll be back well before that. Well before.”

Britta liked it even less when he was so casual and dismissive about it. But he was already edging towards the garden door.

The alarm on his phone went off. “Ooh, it’s ready. Be back at eight.”

“Half seven.”

“Yep, yep, half seven. Got it.” He rushed out to the shed and ran in even though there were still the last wispy trails of smoke emerging, slamming the door behind him.

Britta went upstairs and got changed. She checked her homework, but didn’t feel like doing it. Instead, she checked the web for the latest news on the game. Even if she hadn’t been a player, she would have kept an eye on developments. People had recognised it as a cultural phenomenon, even though most of them didn’t really know what it was. People were taking notice.

There were stories about how people had skipped work to stay home for the arrival of their Anderson cradle. And also reports of thefts, cradles going missing or boxes turning up empty. A statement from APE advised people to return the stolen helmets or face severe consequences.

The helmets were all individually tailored for their intended recipients, and could be tracked by satellite. You couldn’t hide one under your floorboards and think no one would ever know.

Interviews with new players before and after they tried logging in were everywhere. The sheer awe on their faces was enough to tell you what they thought of the game. In many cases, journalists were left waiting for them to emerge from the game at the prearranged time. It made her more concerned about Dad. He was less than reliable at the best of times.

She was glad to see no one else was suffering from the physical side effects her body had undergone. Something else she needed to talk to Dr Reedy about. They just lay there, slight smiles on their faces.

Eventually, they took off the helmet, smiles expanding into laughter, only slightly sweaty because of the helmet, with outrageous tales of what they’d done.

Mostly it was physical feats of strength and speed. None of them had encountered big monsters yet. They were still doing tutorials and learning the ropes.

The video interviews would show them talking a mile a minute, relating their experiences in wild, unintelligible rants full of wide-eyed enthusiasm. Even if it wasn’t very clear what they were going on about, their excitement was infectious.

What struck Britta was how different they all were. Lots of young men, of course, but also women, old people, rich people, people living on council estates. From all over the world, tales were being told by the first people to land on New World.

Of course, they weren’t really first, and they couldn’t show anyone what they’d seen or done, couldn’t bring back chocolate and potatoes for people to gawk at. But they were leading the way, slowly increasing the anticipation. Britta could feel it coming through her screen. The sense that this might actually live up to expectations.

She checked the time. It was already past seven. She’d been browsing for hours and hadn’t noticed the time fly by. She went downstairs to have something to eat. The shed in the garden was dark and quiet. At least it had stopped smoking.

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