Bitter 434

For all her determination to be the girl who had her act together, the moment Lin answered, Britta felt her resolve melt away. The constraints and self-doubts moulded over years weren’t going to vanish overnight.

“Hi, erm, I hope I’m not bothering, I mean, disturbing you.”

“No, Britta. I’m very happy to hear from you. How can I help?”

It just felt crass, asking for free stuff she would easily afford now. “There’s a number of things, actually.” It sounded less grubby if she made it one small item on a list, she decided. “First, the cash shop, I mean, the Players’ Store thingy.”

She was doing her best to keep her voice level, but it was hard. There was a slight tremor she could hear. She hoped Lin would put it down to a bad connection, even though she probably had crystal-clear reception on her wonder-phone.

“Yes?” said Lin. “You’d like access?”

“Um, yeah. I mean, it’s just that it would be easier if I could—”

“Can you hold for a second?”

“Sure.” The phone went quiet. Britta had an image of Lin in the middle of some meeting in a boardroom, dealing with multi-million dollar deals. Or maybe sitting on the side of a catwalk, making the models feel insecure as they strutted past her.

“Okay, that’s done. You can take whatever you like from the store. I wouldn’t recommend anything to outlandish, you don’t want to stand out too much in a peacock headdress.”

“No, I wasn’t going to.”

“And the level and class restrictions are still in place. I can remove them for you, if you think you need it.”

“No, no. I don’t want to break the, ur, that’s fine as it is.” It had all gone much more smoothly than she had feared. Lin had gone out of her way to ensure that.

“What else was there?”

Now that she had claimed there’d be a list of things to talk about, she had to come up with the goods, or look like an idiot. Lin would probably handle that just as gracefully.

“So, the last few times I’ve been in game… I don’t suppose you’ve seen any of my gameplay recently.”

“They send me videos of all your adventures, Britta.”

“Right. Of course. Well, if you get a chance to watch—”

“I’ve watched all of them, Britta.”

“You have? Oh.”

“I’m something of an expert, if I do say so myself. I’ve never known anyone to play the way you do.”

“Yes, I hear that a lot. I don’t think I do anything very remarkable.”

“No, it’s not remarkable. It’s quite the opposite. Very understated. I find watching you very interesting. Your run-in with the gnomes has been quietly gripping.”

“You’ve seen that already?” said Britta, a little surprised. That had only been a few minutes ago.

“That’s what I was watching when you called. Just me and a bucket of chicken.”

The image of Lin slouched on a sofa with a bucket of KFC was hard to picture. “Okay, so, are you getting the feeling the game isn’t treating me like other people? I mean, it seems to be going out of its way to make me take strange quests, and if I refuse, it tries from a different angle. Like it’s toying with me. Like when it knows I need two more XP to level up, so it gives me one.”

“Hmm. Well, I can’t experience events quite the way you do, but if you feel that’s happening it may well be true. The AI has full control of how it treats players. It also decides how the NPCs behave. I’m not sure why it would want to tease you, though.”

Was that what it was? Teasing?

“I don’t know either, but I wish it wouldn’t. I’m hoping I can use some of the items from the Players’ Store to avoid the problem. Assuming I’m not imagining it.”

“I don’t think you’re imagining it. Those 2 XP you’ve been needing for so long, any other player would have gone out of their way to quickly grab and move to the next level, but you haven’t done that. Watching you play, it’s almost like you make the game come to you. I’m not sure how you do it, and I’ve watched your footage back several times, but I think the AI might be curious about you for that reason.”

Britta wasn’t entirely sure what Lin meant. The game didn’t have to come to her, it was already all around her. But she was glad Lin hadn’t simply brushed her concerns away.

“I’ll keep an eye out for it, though. Now that you mention it, the game has been treating you oddly, but then, you also have a way of getting into some odd situations.”

Britta was getting the feeling the people who made the game weren’t the ones running it. Unfolding events were just as much a surprise to them as to the players, it almost seemed.

“Do you have a character in the game?” Britta wasn’t even sure why she asked, it just occurred to her.

“Yes, I have a character I use. I don’t really play the game very much, and the AI knows better than to toy with me.”

Britta smiled. She could imagine N-28 trying his luck with Lin, and getting himself deleted for his trouble.

“What level are you?”

“Level 1,” said Lin. “I haven’t tried to complete any tasks, although my character has a slider I can use to set my level to any I choose and as much health as I wish to have. It wouldn’t really be fair to use it seriously.”

Britta was taken aback. Lin’s character was full-on god mode.

“You just use it to look around?”

“Actually, I mostly use it to work on my garden. I’ve always had a fascination with botany, I would have probably pursued that if I hadn’t gone into medicine. The sex life of plants is just so much more elegant than that of animals. It’s probably got something to do with the lack of grunting. I have created some beautiful hybrids in my garden that would be impossible in the real world.”

Britta was at a bit of a loss how to continue. Plant sex was not where she had seen this conversation going.

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