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Preface from Mooderino

Bitter 526

Britta walked home with one eye to the rear. She no longer had the feeling she was being followed, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t. Where had that feeling even come from? It wasn’t like she had heightened senses all of a sudden.

If her encounter with Rick had been in a game, she would have had all sorts of special ways to track him and be aware of what he was doing. Symbols would light up and messages would appear on screen.

She stopped and scanned the road behind her, just to be sure. There was no sign of him.

If this was a game, there’d also be some point to him following her. She didn’t understand how he’d found out about Dad, or what he wanted with him. To swap tips and pointers about the game?

Dad would have probably liked that. Maybe she should have just taken Rick home and introduced them. An involuntary shudder went through her. It was unfair to judge Rick as creepy without really knowing him, but it was hard not to when he creeped her out so much.

When she got to her house, she had one last look down the street. Nothing. Would it even be that hard for him to find out where she lived? In the age of the internet, personal information wasn’t hard to get hold of. If Rick had been able to create an alt account on the school forum — where you needed a special registration number to join — surely he could have pulled up her home address.

It was a worry but at the same time it was a ridiculous thing to fret over. She could handle someone like Rick. He was weird but he wasn’t dangerous. Not in this world, anyway.

The house was quiet and she assumed Dad was in-game. She dragged her bag up to her room, feeling tired and relieved. Her encounter had been stressful and she wanted to fall onto her bed and lay there, face down on the pillow.

She was surprised to find her room wasn’t empty. There was a momentary sense of panic, and then mild annoyance.

“Dad, what are you doing?”

He was sitting at her desk with her laptop open. The screen was dark.

“I’m trying to develop a relationship with your computer,” said Dad. “I thought if we got to know each other a little better, it wouldn’t be so mean to me.”

The laptop always shut itself off when Dad was around, but it would do that whenever anyone was around, not just him.

“It isn’t personal,” she said. “It’s a computer, it’s programmed that way. It’s trying to protect sensitive information, that’s all.”

“Sure, sure,” said Dad, getting up from the chair. “But it’s not like I don’t have a relationship with APE. I’ve signed an NDA, I know about how the game operates. There’s no reason to shut me out.” He looked down at the blank screen. “Right?”

There was no response. Dad sighed and turned back to Britta.

“But I think it has room for discretion. I mean, it let me see when you told it to.” He looked like he wanted her to tell the laptop to be his friend, he just didn’t want to say it.

“I have to log in today,” she said, avoiding the whole matter. Everyone wanted her to do something for them today. Rick, Dad, and of course, APE. At least APE was paying her. Every forty-eight hours, she had to log in for twelve minutes, for which she received thousands of pounds. She saw it as a reasonable arrangement.

“Yes, right, of course,” said Dad. “Okay. Have fun.” He was sulking, but that was fine. She was used to it. Parents weren’t supposed to act like children, but then parents weren’t supposed to play video games all day and night, either.

“There’s a boy at school who has the game, too,” she said. She hadn’t meant to mention Rick, it felt unnecessary. She had generally kept uncomfortable school matters to herself. The idea her parents would go to her teacher to sort out a problem made her cringe just thinking about it. “He’s getting bullied because the other kids are jealous.”

“Oh,” said Dad. “Nobody’s bullying you, are they?”

“They don’t know I have the game. If they did… I don’t know.”

Dad’s eyes seemed to lose focus. He was thinking. “It’s not really surprising. It’s wrong, but if I was a kid at school and someone else had the greatest game ever, I’d be pretty upset. It’s definitely wrong, but I understand.”

She hadn’t expected him to take the side of the bullies. He wasn’t really taking their side, but he was being sympathetic. It made Britta a little annoyed at him.

“What good is beating him up going to do? It’s not like they get to play the game if he can’t.”

“Hey, now, take it easy. I said it was wrong, didn’t I? But it’s human nature. You can’t make everything better by acting like it doesn’t exist just because it shouldn’t. People get jealous when they see others happy or successful or having a good time. You have to deal with it, not simply wish it away.”

“And how do I deal with it?” He was giving her the sort of advice parents always gave kids about bullying — bad advice. Deal with it — as though confronting a bully or going to a teacher ever solved anything. She had the experience to back up her views, he only had a distant memory of a time when people got excited about a new iPhone. Those days were long gone.

“You deal with it by ignoring it,” said Dad. “Cut those people out. You have better things to do and more interesting places to go. You won’t lose anything by removing them from your life.”

To be fair, that was the conclusion she had come to. Rick would do well to do the same, but for some reason he had decided to provoke people, instead. He had gone after them when there was no need to. She didn’t understand him at all.

She sat down on her bed and reached under it to take out the Anderson cradle.

“Right, I’ll leave you to it.” Dad took a last look at the inert laptop and then left the room.

Britta lay down and put the helmet on. Twelve minutes and then she could go back to her real work. The French tutor would be here soon, no time to waste.

She opened her eyes in the small church. She was lying on the altar in the chapel. She sat up and Stan was in front of her.

“Finally,” he said. “What took you so long? Homework?”

She looked at him. “You’re a bully, aren’t you? Is it fun, is that why you do it?” Might as well ask an expert.


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Afterword from Mooderino
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