Bitter 481

Britta didn’t have much experience with breaking up fights. No one she knew had ever been in a real knock-down-drag-out brawl. Occasionally, some girls at school might engage in some particularly vicious glaring, but that was about as far as it went.

As she approached the two men on the floor, their limbs entwined in all sorts of ways that looked very uncomfortable, they ignored her completely. It would be hard to get them to listen to her if they refused to acknowledge her existence.

She was tempted to slap the ground three time with the palm of her hand and declare a winner. That was what referees in fights did, although she had no idea why. In any case, announcing one of them as the winner — it didn’t matter who — was bound to get their attention.

People hated it when you made decisions for them, especially if they were trying to make it look complicated and important. It belittled their achievements if it turned out the solution was simple and easy to reach.

“Excuse me,” said Britta. Her first line of attack was to just force them to make eye contact with her. She just needed to say something provocative. “The people at—”

She had decided to bring up APE and Dr Reedy to give the two of them pause for thought. Even if they ran the show down here, they could still be turned off with a flick of a switch. But she didn’t get the chance.

A foot came sweeping through the air, elevated perfectly to strike Britta on her not-very-far-off-the-ground chin.

Was it deliberate? It was hard to say. The two AIs locked in their embrace rolled to one side, N-28 flipping his opponent around before he could get his knees wrapped around N-28’s waist. The sudden rotation sent a large brick-like foot flying in Britta’s direction.

Her agility was one of her highest attributes. Her subclass was acrobat, which seemed a strange vocation for an illusionist, but it meant her reflexes were pretty good. She hadn’t tried doing cartwheels and tumbling around the floor, but she assumed she would be a natural.

Britta leaned back, watching as the heel of the fat man’s foot missed her chin but swung up to catch her on the nose. It was only a brush across the tip, but her head seemed to explode. Britta went soaring across the room.

She was completely off the ground when she slammed into the wall. The air rushed out of her body, abandoning her in her time of need, and a large red number 22 floated away in front of her eyes. She slid down the wall to the floor and lay there.

“Wow,” she heard MrKappa say. “That was an epic faceplant.”

Technically, it wasn’t a faceplant. She had landed on her back, but she was too out of it to point that out. Twenty-two points of damage. Her health total, last time she’d checked, was twenty-five. That meant she would survive. At her peak, she’d had 80 HP. Those were the days.

“Is she dead?” said Owen.

“No,” said Dad. “I think she’s stunned. Didn’t make her saving throw.”

Was she stunned? It wasn’t something she’d had to deal with before, usually in these sorts of situations, she just died. Being unable to move wasn’t really a good place to be after the first hit — made it easier for your attacker to follow up with even more damage. But no one was coming to finish her off. They hadn’t even noticed what they’d done, which was kind of annoying.

It wasn’t like she wanted an apology, or even a helping hand to get back to her feet — she didn’t expect them to behave like real people, she realised — but it would have been nice if they’d glanced in her direction.

The total failure to register her presence was… well, it was just rude.

She sat up. Her head was ringing a bit, but otherwise everything seemed to be in working order.

“Are you alright, sweetheart?” asked Dad, which drew funny looks from the other two. He was making all sorts of slips today.

“I’m fine. And don’t call me sweetheart.”

“Oh, yes, sorry.” He pulled a face back at Owen and MrKappa, and the three of them gave each other sympathetic looks, the kind men liked to give each other when they felt a woman was being unnecessarily terse with them over a small mistake. Britta would be willing to bet they were all husbands.

She got to her feet and took her canteen out of her backpack. It had been given to her by N-28 when she left the Adventurer’s Guild. It was round and quite large, with a strap you could use to sling it over your shoulder. Britta pulled out the stopper as she walked back to the AIs, and emptied the contents over their heads.

They jumped away from each other, spitting water. It was a very realistic reaction. Almost human.

“What the—” spluttered the fat AI.

“Oh, it’s you,” said N-28, looking up at her. He swiped his blond locks, now dripping wet, away from his face. “When did you get here?”

“You know her,” said the other AI.

“Of course I know her. I know everyone.” N-28 sounded testy. It was that unreasonable irritation you had with family members. Britta’s sister often sounded the same.

“Yes, but you actually know this one.”

“Yes. She’s the one who got N-27 into trouble.”

“Oh.” The AI wiped water out of his eyes. “So, that was you?”

Britta wasn’t sure what they were going on about. She hadn’t done anything to N-27, his fate had been entirely his own doing.

“This is N-21,” said N-28. “He prefers to be called Games Master,” he added with heavy sarcasm.

“What are you two playing at?” she found herself saying in a scolding voice. “The whole of APE is having a fit. They think something’s gone wrong and the whole system’s going to crash at any moment.” That wasn’t exactly true, but now seemed an apt time to exaggerate matters a little. “If they find out you two are like this, they’ll probably delete both of you, and try their luck with N-29.”

The two of them looked like guilty children. Britta had to remind herself they were the most sophisticated artificial intelligences on the planet, finely tuned to replicate human behaviour while simultaneously making billions of calculations every second. They were the future.

“It’s not fair,” said N-21, pointing a finger at N-28. “He won’t let me play with his toys.”

“Wrong,” said N-28. “Wrong, wrong, wrong.”

They were the future?

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