Bitter 379

Britta carefully examined the shade, while pretending she wasn’t. It looked similar to how it used to look, but there were some subtle changes.

“So, er, you look taller.”

“Really?” said the shade. “I didn’t think anyone would notice.”

“Any other changes? Last time I saw you, you were—”

“No, no. Everything’s fine now.”

Britta didn’t want to push it. Whatever the problem had been, it seemed to have resolved itself. Or the shade had it under control. There was no reason to pry.

She looked around the ruins. There was no obvious door leading down. There were, in fact, no doors at all.

“This player you detected, is it Diana?” The shade had encountered Diana in the New Town auction house, but Britta wasn’t sure if they had been introduced. She was about to describe what Diana looked like, but then realised she would have created a new character since the wipe. She might not even be called Diana anymore.

“Yes,” said the shade.

“It is? How do you know?”

“That’s what her name tag says.”

Fair enough. “Could you look around for a door, please?”

The top of the pillar of smoke nodded, or at least that’s what it appeared to do from her perspective. Then it drifted off, smoothly gliding past the crumbling church walls.

Britta opened her status screen. Diana was on her friends list; she could send her a message. It was a short list, but all the names were greyed out and marked as offline. Even Stan, who had nowhere offline to be.

There was something odd about this place.

Britta checked her map again. The outskirts of the town formed a line all the way around, but outside of that there was just black. Maybe she should go take a look to see what was out there.

“I found it,” said the shade.

Britta jumped. She hadn’t expected it to sneak up behind her. “Oh, okay. A way down?”

The shade led her out the back way, into a graveyard. It was overgrown with weeds and tall grass. The tombstones were cracked and broken. Some had tipped over. There was a small crypt with steps leading down to an iron gate hanging off its hinges.

Beyond that was a door. Wooden and covered in cobwebs.

It would be locked, she was sure. She’d have to find a key up here somewhere. There’d be puzzles, perhaps clues on the tombstones. The effort required was making her tired just thinking about it. Maybe if she knocked really loudly—

The door burst open and Diana was standing there, filling the doorway. Really filling it.

“Hey, B! You made it!”

She looked the same. Had she made a new character that was exactly like her old one? It was certainly possible; some people just liked a particular look. But it was more than that. Even her outfit and gear were identical.

“Hi. You’re not a Level 1 character, are you?”

“Nope. Same old me.”

“How come? I thought everyone had to start from scratch.”

“Did you?” said Diana

“No, but I’m…” She was about to say she was special, but the words stuck in her throat. “I’m a special case.”

“Sure, sure. Can’t argue with you there. No, this place isn’t on the main server. Not affected by what happens over there.”

“I thought there was only one server,” said Britta.

“Only one open to the public. This one’s more of a test server. Or it used to be before they closed it down.”

“So we can’t get into New World from here?”

“Not directly. You have to log out and back in again. Don’t worry, you aren’t stuck here!” She grinned. Whatever was going on, it didn’t seem to be stopping her from having a good time.

“And you brought me here?”

“Yes. Well, not me personally. I don’t have that sort of juice. Nana did it. Snuck you out right under their noses.”

“Their noses?”

“Yeah, you know, the devs at APE. We can only do it when you log in more than once a day. The first log in, they’re locked in on you, taking all your readings. You know this already, of course. But after that, they don’t need to watch you so closely.”

She was right, there was no twelve-minute clock in the corner of her vision. They weren’t syncing her to the game. They had said the minimum they needed was once every forty-eight hours, but apparently once every twenty-four hours was the maximum.

“They don’t know I’m here? But won’t they wonder what happened to me when I didn’t appear in-game?”

“Ah, that’s where Nana comes in. She sent a bot in your place. Looks just like you — I helped with some of the fine-tuning — used their own readings to fake it. They’ll never know.”

Back in New World, there was an NPC that looked just like her wandering around, probably doing better than her at the game. But surely they would be able to tell with all their equipment.

“Come on,” said Diana. “I want you to meet Nana. Only don’t call her that. Not to her face.” She turned around and started walking down more steps into a gloomy interior.

“Is Nana the one you came here to kill?”

“Yep. The Old Alchemist. You can’t really call her that, either. ‘Hello, Old Alchemist.’ Just sounds weird.”

“So what should I call her?”

“She says her proper name’s N-26, but that’s not much better.”

“Oh,” said Britta. “She’s the old AI.” N-26, the one before Nigel. She was still active. Why? What did she want? More specifically, what did she want from Britta? And why had the other alchemist wanted her dead?

She reached the bottom of the stairs and Diana was standing next to an old hag with crazy hair who didn’t look very pleased to see her.

Diana grinned again. “Welcome to the real rebellion.”

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