Bitter 468

Britta wasn’t sure what to think of Gabba. She had a confident relaxed air about her, which would normally be a good thing. But when someone is completely nonchalant after they just killed a man by stabbing his foot with a poisoned knife, it tends to make the person look a bit like a psychopath.

“He’ll just come back, though, won’t he?” said Owen.

“He won’t be happy,” said MrKappa.

“Don’t worry,” said Gabba, still a picture of serenity, “he can’t log in again for six hours.”

“What do you mean?” said Britta. “Why can’t he log back in?”

“Poisons,” said Gabba. “Very intricate in this game. I’ve been finding all these really odd recipes that can do all sorts of wonderful things.”

“Like kill someone and stop them from respawning?” It sounded like what they had in closed beta, where dying meant you were locked out for twenty-four hours. APE had got rid of that, which felt like a good move — no one wants to play a game where the penalty for dying is not being able to play the game — but if what Gabba was saying was true, players now had the ability to inflict lock-outs on each other. It seemed like an idea rife for causing grief.

“You look like you don’t approve,” Gabba said to Britta. “Not really in a position to claim it’s unfair, though, are you?”

It was disconcerting how Gabba seemed to know so much about Britta, but she had a point. Britta had some unfair advantages herself, and while she did her best to not abuse them, it hadn’t always been possible. Making out it was wrong for others to hold unreasonable power while she held them herself was the sort of argument made by insane dictators and religious bigots. And also teenage girls who bitched about how awful other girls were for talking behind people’s backs, while talking about those girls behind their backs.

Britta didn’t want to be lumped in with the worst of humanity, or with dictators and bigots.

“The poisons must be hard to make,” said Britta. “You probably don’t have many that are that powerful.”

Gabba smiled. “Absolutely correct. I just wasted a week’s work on our friend, but I think it was worth it. I think the beauty of this place isn’t in the realistic graphics or immersive gameplay, it’s the subtle things they’ve woven into the fabric of the game. Whoever’s behind all that stuff is a real genius, if you ask me. I could spend forever hunting for the flowers and mushrooms I need to make my poisons. Some of the recipes… you wouldn’t even believe.” Gabba was practically glowing as she spoke about her passion for poisons.

“So, erm, what level are you?” asked Owen. “I mean, I’m still Level 1. Pretty handy with a sword, but that’s about it. I put most of my points into health for survivability. I can give you a list of my skills, if you’d like. I guess you’re a lot more powerful than me.”

He wasn’t coming across as prying, more like he was nervous he wouldn’t be of use to the party.

“It’s pretty obvious, though, isn’t it?” said MrKappa. “If she’s using a character from the beta, most likely it’s with the companies blessing, right? Test stuff out for them, look into bugs. Right?”

“I can’t really say,” said Britta. “I mean, I’m not allowed to talk about it.”

“See?” MrKappa seemed very pleased to hear Britta’s ambiguous answer, like it cleared up everything. “This whole thing felt a bit fishy from the start. Players disappearing, losing contact, no one knows what’s going on.”

Owen looked a bit confused. “Are you saying they’re trapped in the game?” His eyes widened. “Are you saying we’re trapped in the game?”

“No, no, this isn’t an anime. They probably got stuck and don’t want to log out in case they lose their progress. We’re being sent in to see if we can unstuck them. Right?”

It wasn’t a bad assessment. More or less the same conclusion Britta had come to, and she had a lot more information than he did.

“I can’t really say,” said Britta.

“Sure, sure. I get it. We should keep moving, though, shouldn’t we?”

“You’re fine with what I did to your boss, then?” said Gabba.

OwnedbyOwen and MrKappa looked at each other.

“Yeah,” said Owen. “He was a bit of a dick, really. Some people take the whole roleplaying thing far too seriously.” He put his helmet back on.

“Wanted us to salute him and call him Sir James,” said MrKappa. “Would have killed him myself if you hadn’t. So, what’s the plan?”

“I still think we should tell each other what we can do,” said Owen. “At least what class we are. Just so we know what to expect if we run into trouble.”

He was right. Despite wanting to keep her secrets to herself, it would make things easier if she was honest with them. But easier wasn’t always better, and a friend today could easily become an enemy tomorrow. If she could, Britta would have probably gone off on her own, but they were in a long straight tunnel with nowhere to sneak off to.

Britta looked at the three people in front of her. They seemed nice enough, but she was forever meeting people who eventually let her down or turned on her. She was beginning to suspect it was something to do with her. Maybe it wasn’t about relying on luck to introduce her to the right people, maybe it was up to her to convert them into the sort of people worth hanging around with.

“Look,” she said, “this game, it isn’t quite what you think it is. Gabba’s right, it has a lot of weird subtle things in it that can be more interesting than running around trying to kill monsters. I’ve encountered a few, I can see Gabba has too, but APE and their backers aren’t keen on too many people finding out, so I usually stick to do things by myself. People tend to get all pushy when they think there are secrets to find, but you have to be patient, which most people don’t have many points in.”

MrKappa laughed. “Very true. Well, you can count on me not to be pushy. Doesn’t match with my laissez-faire attitude. You do what you think is best, we’ll be okay.”

“I don’t really understand what you mean by secrets,” said Owen.

Britta summoned the shade.

“Oh,” said Owen, “that’s what you mean.”

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