Bitter 377

Britta went up to her room, taking the helmet with her. There were no leads or cables. No big battery pack. No way to recharge it. She would have to look up how it was powered.

It was late and Mum had gone to bed. Dad would probably be in-game for the rest of the night, and most of tomorrow. Now that he had no inconvenient parental responsibilities holding him back, he would be spending most of his days finding every hack, exploit and unethical farming opportunity to get an edge over other players.

All the hardcore players would be no-lifing it to get to endgame as fast as they could. Britta didn’t even know what the level cap was. Fifty? A hundred? Some meaningless round number.

She hadn’t experienced any of what a character could do once they had their full range of powers. Even an illusionist was probably fairly decent once you had all your spells.

She had a small advantage of being slightly ahead of everyone else, but they would hit Level 4 by tomorrow, probably. She would be just another casual player trying to find their way in a world full of deadly monsters.

It didn’t really excite her very much. If she was going to spend more than twelve minutes at a time in the game, she would have to figure out something more interesting to do.

She felt a bit like that about her real life, too. She’d never had money before. It wasn’t like she’d ever gone without — her family weren’t poor — but they couldn’t throw money away. And things like university had to be budgeted for.

Not anymore, though. Was it even necessary for her to go to university? The whole point was to get a degree that would net you a decent paying job. It was unlikely she would find a more decent pay packet as a graduate than her current one, whatever her degree was in.

Instead of applying for things she thought were going to be of practical use, she could pursue whatever she felt most passionate about. Whatever that was.

As she sat on her bed, thinking about what she would choose to do with her life now that there wasn’t the pressure to make sure she could support herself, she felt a twinge of doubt.

It was all very well having this vast sum of money in her future, but the future wasn’t the present. They could easily decide to end the arrangement for any number of reasons, and that would be the end of that.

Admittedly, even one week of employment would be a huge windfall, and would make things financially much easier for her, but she was reluctant to believe she’d be a millionaire anytime soon.

Getting her hopes up, about anything, was a sore subject with her. Back when she was still trying to make friends and be a ‘normal’ girl, there would be times when it looked like she was turning a corner.

A party she got invited to, a boy who flirted with her, a girl who wanted her to come over to study. They always ended badly. It was never the act of friendship she had spent the night before dreaming it was going to be. The disappointment would be gutting.

Of course, everyone has their moments of unpleasantness in life. But for Britta, they had started at five, and kept chugging along like a never-ending train until fourteen, when she finally decided to take herself out of the race.

Once she stopped responding to bait, she didn’t get that hook ripping into her mouth. Maybe it was cowardly of her to just give up, but she had never regretted her decision. It was a lot easier to deal with a constant low-level ache than the agony of having her fairly humble expectations smashed to pieces over and over.

It wasn’t like she was ostracised or didn’t have people to talk to. Rashida certainly provided an outlet for normal social interactions. Well, maybe not that normal, but it helped. Her view had been that once she got to uni and met people interested in the same thing as her, it would be much easier to make friends.

Having developed such a heightened sense of pessimism, it was hard to now take her sudden good fortune at face value.

It was bound to get snatched away from her, but only after she became reliant on it. Allow herself to think she had received what she deserved, and the harsh reality of her situation would come tumbling down on top of her.

The longer she thought about it, the more maudlin she became. It was exactly this sort of feeling she had sought to escape by separating herself from her classmates. And now it was back to hang over her when any normal person would be overjoyed, and excited about what they would buy first.

Britta hadn’t even considered going on a shopping spree. She could imagine how they would laugh at her if she turned up at school with a new hairstyle from some expensive salon. Just thinking about it made her blood chill.

No, she had to keep a level head. If she wanted this money, she would have to be conscientious about how she went about her obligations. Provide APE with whatever they needed. Don’t get carried away with some notion of being a special player who had access to all the games secrets. No showing off.

Be sensible, keep her head down and collect the money so when she did figure out what she wanted from her life, she would have the ability to pay for it.

That was the quest she had to work towards. Finding a purpose to her life by the time she hit eighteen and was on her own.

She had to loosen her fists which had grown clenched as she made her plans. She felt better, though. Like she knew what she was doing. And just at that moment, out of nowhere, she wondered what had happened to her shade.

The Shadow Agent spell that had acted so temperamental, what had become of it? She hadn’t tried to summon it when she’d been in-game. It hadn’t even occurred to her, which made her feel slightly guilty.

She could wait until her next sessions to check, of course. But she wasn’t tired, and the urge to quickly find out was quite strong. The game didn’t hold much appeal for her, but the NPCs she had met in there, that was a different matter. They were the only people to have treated her like she meant something. And they weren’t even real people. She felt dreadfully alone. She picked up the helmet.

“Britta?” said Mum, making Britta jump. “I thought we agreed you wouldn’t use it on your own.” She was standing in the doorway. How had she known?

“I was just—”

“It’s okay.” She came in and sat down on the chair by Britta’s desk. “Go ahead. I’ll watch you.”

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