Bitter 483

“All you have to do,” said N-21, “is follow the simple rules I set down on the tablet out there, and everyone will have a good time.”

“What rules?” asked Britta. She was interested in learning about this abandoned game mode. Not necessarily in playing it, just seeing what his idea was. “The tablet’s too worn down to be able to read most of it.”

“What?” N-21 looked at N-28. “What did you do that for?”

“I didn’t do anything,” said N-28. He had smoothed his hair back in its usual flowing style and relaxed his face to appear less exasperated. With his shirt open halfway down his chest, he looked a bit like one of the men on the covers of the books that were Mum’s guilty pleasures. Actually, one of them was called ‘Guilty Pleasures’ Britta seemed to recall. “The algorithm that distresses objects and artefacts is automatically set to age anything from a previous iteration of the game. Your contribution is ancient history.”

“Ha,” said N-21. “You’d like that to be true, but you’re supposed to move on when you find something better, that’s what progress means. History doesn’t go backwards.”

“It does sometimes,” said Britta. “The Dark Ages was an example of technology going in reverse as a rejection of totalitarian rule.” Britta hadn’t meant to come across in quite such a schoolish manner, but it was on her syllabus.

“See?” said N-21. “You’re taking us back to the Dark Ages.”

“I am not,” said N-28. “I am the Renaissance.” He flicked his hair out of his face dramatically. “You’re the Dark Ages.”

They were back to name calling.

“Can you just give us a rough idea of how the game was meant to work?” said Britta. “The concise version.”

“It’s simple,” said N-21. “Everyone gets one of these.” He held out his hand, palm up, lying across which was a dagger.

It wasn’t very flashy, all black — blade and handle — with no markings or engravings. The handle was smooth and slightly curved, the blade was straight and didn’t look particularly sharp. But there was something menacing about it, like it might jump off his hand and attack you all on its own.

“A knife?” said Dad. “That’s all we get?”

“Just a knife, yes,” said N-21. “But it isn’t an ordinary knife. One hit, one scratch, as long as it draws blood, you’re out of the game.”

“One hit?” said Dad. “One hit?” He didn’t sound very enthusiastic.

“No, no,” said MrKappa. “I see. Doesn’t matter how much HP you have, doesn’t matter how tough you are, everyone has the same survival rate. Everyone gets one-shotted.”

“Right,” said N-21. “No one can heal or buff or tank their way to victory.”

“But what if they’re a healer or buffer or tanker?” said Owen. “How can they possibly ever win?”

“You’ll see. You have to play smart. Use your other skills, use your environment. It’s not like out there. You aren’t led through a story with your hand held, every outcome already decided.”

“That is not how it works,” said N-28 testily.

“A small number of predetermined outcomes with various routes to get there,” said N-21 contemptuously. “That’s the only real choice you have, how you get there. What you find never changes.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” said N-28, the appearance of not being exasperated fading fast.

“What about magic,” said MrKappa. “Some people don’t bother with weapons, they won’t need your knife.”

“No magic,” said N-21. There was some grumbling.

“How is that fair,” said Britta. “The fighter classes are always going to win, then.”

“Wait,” said N-21. “No magic that causes direct damage. Missiles and fireballs and electric shocks are all out. Other spells are fine, if you can find a use for them in the arena.”

That made it seem less of an issue, at least for Britta. Most of her spells didn’t cause damage.

“And what if they just choose a winner amongst themselves and let themselves be killed,” said N-28. “How will you stop them?”

“The arena can contain a thousand people at a time. Do you think anyone will be that organised? Or willing to give up their chance at the prize?”

“If it was only held once a day or once a week,” said Owen. “I wouldn’t want to give up my shot.”

“And the prize?” said MrKappa. “It’s a passive skill? Will it be any good?”

“What you get is random,” said N-21, to some groans. “Each person has one implanted in their character when they first enter the game. I assume that’s still the case.”

“Yes,” said a weary N-28. “We have no plans to activate them at the moment. They might turn the game into a chaotic mess.”

“Oh,” said Dad, “they’re that good?”

“They can have a drastic effect that could fundamentally change your gaming experience, and not necessarily for the better,” said N-28, which only made Dad, MrKappa and Owen more excited.

Britta couldn’t help feel there was some unfairness in the way the game favoured fighting classes. “Even if you find a way to balance things, anyone who specialises in using daggers is going to have a big advantage. And if they have stealth or something along those lines…”

“Trust me,” said N-21, “it’s been all taken into account. You’ll only really understand if you play it.”

“And the minimum number we need is how many?” said MrKappa.

“Ten people,” said N-21. He looked quite happy now, eager to get his test run underway

“Will that really be enough?” said Britta.

“No matter how many people there are,” said Dad, “it will get down to ten eventually. Then nine, then eight…”

She hadn’t really looked at it like that, but now it seemed obvious. It wouldn’t tell them how the game would play at the start, but it would give an idea of how it would end.

“Ten will be enough to test the mechanics,” said N-21.

“Well,” said Dad, “there’s four of us here, and five more in my group. Can we do it with nine?”

“Ten would be better,” said N-21.

Britta looked at the other two from her party. “We have another person we could call.”

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