Bitter 479

“What’s going on?” said Britta. “How did you do that?”

“New spell,” said Dad, eyebrows raised. He was being smug, which at least meant he wasn’t about to attack her. Smug people liked to get their money’s worth, basking in the envy of others. Well, that was what Dad liked to do.

“You levelled up?”

Dad looked over at MrKappa and OwnedbyOwen. “Friends of yours?”

Britta realised Dad didn’t want to reveal anything sensitive in front of other players, which was understandable. She introduced Dad to the other two. They seemed as wary of him as he was of them.

“Don’t mind us,” said MrKappa, “we just do what the boss tells us.” Owen added a curt nod to show he was the same.

It took a moment for Britta to realise the “boss” was here. She cringed at the pomposity of it. It was all very well rising to the top, it was another matter entirely feeling comfortable when you were up there.

“And how much have you told—” Dad was interrupted by the shouting and thumping heard from the other side of the stone slab. He went closer to the newly installed stone door and shouted, “Keep your hair on. I’m nearly there.” The commotion died down, but there was some intense grumbling continuing on the other side of the slab.

“Nearly where?” asked Britta. “What are you doing? Just a quick recap will do, I don’t really want to be here any longer than I have to.”

“You… didn’t volunteer?” asked Dad.

“They asked me to have a look, to make sure everything was okay. Is everything okay?”

Dad looked over at Owen and MrKappa again.

“We’ll be over here,” said MrKappa. He and Owen moved closer to the tablet, leaving Britta to speak more privately with Dad.

“Why are you fighting with your own party?” asked Britta.

“I’m not. We’re in negotiations about how to proceed, that’s all. Completely amicable.” Somebody shouted a rude word from the other side, which was followed by slightly more intense grumbling. “It’s a long story. Why are you with Empire soldiers?”

They both glanced over at the two Imperial troopers who were gawping at the tablet.

“I’m not with them. Dr Reedy wanted me to check on you without making a fuss, and the only way in was as part of the search party. They want to know why they can’t see what you’re doing.”

“Yeah, it’s all blocked off down here. I don’t suppose my stream is still up.”

“No. That was the first thing to go.”

“Drat. I got some lovely footage of the fighting, too.” He had a dreamy look in his eyes.

“Dad? Focus?”

“Mm, yeah, yeah. Look, there’s a bit of a situation down here.” He took another look over at the other two and lowered his voice even more. “It’s an AI issue.”

Britta had guessed it would be. “N-28?”

“Yes and no. How much can we say in front of these two? I don’t want to break the NDA.”

“I’ve sort of told them about the AI already.”

“Britta!” He sounded appalled, like it was his NDA she was breaking.

“What? They’re the ones who sent me down here with a regular party. There was another player who could tell I wasn’t the same as everyone else. What was I supposed to do? I only told them the bare minimum. I didn’t give away any company secrets.”

“Hmm. Well, we should still be careful. Need to know basis.”

Britta rolled her eyes. The whole industrial espionage side of playing the game was just ridiculous to her. Who cared? It wasn’t like people would sue or ask for a refund.

“What about the AI?” she said. “And what’s the writing on the wall about? And why can’t you let your teammates in?”

Dad raised his hands to fend off the barrage of questions. “Okay, okay, hold on. GIve me a chance. Let me start from the top. We came down here, nothing unusual, just dark tunnels and the threat of a monster around every corner. So far, so every day normal in New World. Then we were attacked by some sort of ghoul creatures — hard to tell, all the lights had gone out — and then we stumbled onto this.” He pointed at the tablet. “And that’s when things got weird.”

“What the—” said MrKappa.

“Oh my god,” said Owen. He and MrKappa were crouched, leaning forward slightly as they examined the writing.

“Just like that,” said Dad.

Britta went over to see what had made them exclaim so loudly. The writing wasn’t even legible, as far as she could tell. Except for the last line:

Reward: Unlock a secret passive ability.

“What passive ability?” said Britta. They all looked at Dad for an answer.

“We all have one, apparently,” he said. “I think it’s random, different for each player. Don’t get too excited, though, I don’t think it’s still active. This seems to be from a previous version of the game. As you can see, it’s not really in a ready-to-play condition. When we first found it, we triggered something, a message appeared, but that was it, nothing happened after that. We assumed it was broken or bugged out.”

“Then what’s the problem?” said Britta. “Why can’t you contact anyone?”

“That was when the AI turned up. A new one. Or an old one, I guess would be more accurate. He wanted us to try out his game, and he didn’t want to take no for an answer. I think he’d never got to test it, and he wanted us to be his guinea pigs. I mean, we didn’t mind, but it’s clearly not in working order. That’s when he started to get upset. And then the other AI stepped in, asked me to let him take care of it, and they’ve been fighting ever since. That’s why I sent the others off to guard the perimeter, keep them out of the way. Unfortunately, they think I might be trying to keep the good loot for myself. Especially Mark. He’s the main problem.”

It sort of made sense. If the ‘other AI’ was N-28, he might have locked off the area until he could deal with the older AI. If APE knew, they might come in all guns blazing and remove the AI’s code completely. As much as they were pieces of software, the AI seemed to value each other, like family.

“So you’re just waiting for them to finish arguing?” said Britta.

“Basically. They’re AI, locked in a battle of logic. Who knows how long it’ll take?”

She understood N-28 desire to sort it out himself, but what was she supposed to tell APE?

“Can I talk to them?” said Britta.

“You can try. They’re through there.” He pointed at the other tunnel.

Britta went through into another chamber and was met with the sight of an AI logic battle. Two naked men were wrestling on the ground.

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