Bitter 538

Britta’s bus ride to school was usually a very dull affair. She would stare out of the window, noticing which shops had closed down, which had just opened, and the general state of disrepair of the roads. There were always roadworks somewhere.

This morning, she hardly noticed the outside world. Her thoughts were preoccupied with one question: why wasn’t she getting experience points for her completed quests. Why wasn’t the game even recognising that a quest had been completed? Did she not count as a player?

If she wasn’t going to be allowed to level-up anymore, it would make it very hard to progress in the game. She didn’t want to be one of those lauded three-year-olds who could play the piano like they were sixteen, who grew to adulthood still playing the piano like a sixteen-year-old. There was no advantage to getting a head start if you just let people catch up to you later.

It was also impractical to stay stuck at a low level. There were bound to be areas that were too dangerous or just plain inaccessible to someone at Level 5. In addition to which, she wanted to find out what her class was capable of. There were a lot of spells that would only become available when she reached the appropriate level. The whole thing ticked her off no end.

Sending Lin an email, asking her to check if there was some problem or bug was an option, but Britta suspected this wasn’t something caused by the devs. Not directly, anyway. The person she really needed to check with was N-28. He would have a much better idea of what was going on. He was probably the one responsible for making it like this.

She arrived at school with all these distractions still swimming about in her mind. Her original intention had been to separate her school life and her job. She knew full well how easy it was to become obsessed with a game and end up absorbed by the minutiae of the digital world. So far, she had done very well and managed to keep to her forty-eight-hour obligation.

That was starting to slip after only a few weeks. No point getting a head start and then losing discipline, either. It would only waste her lead.

As she walked through the school gates, children of all ages swarmed around her and entered the main building chatting and laughing. The sudden shift back to the real world didn’t come when she took off her VR helmet, it came here when she was surrounded by kids of her own age. It reminded her about her encounter with Rick. The thought that he might be here, about to pounce on her from a hiding place, made her uncomfortable. What if he started saying things about her dad in front of others? What would she do?

She had all but forgotten about the weird boy who had followed her home until now. She should have come up with some sort of contingency plan. He might have learned his lesson, but obsessive boys were unlikely to be shooed away so easily.

The real problem was whoever had told him about Dad. Lewis was still her prime suspect and she planned to confront him next time they crossed paths, which would be in English later today. In the meantime, she kept an eye out for Rick, ready to run away if she spotted him.

“Why are you so jumpy?” Rashida asked her in geography. “Guilty conscience?”

“No. What do I have to feel guilty about?”

Rashida shrugged. “You tell me.”

The sudden accusation unsettled Britta. It was an odd assumption to jump to out of nowhere. Did she look guilty? Britta checked her face in the reflection on her phone.

“Don’t worry, you don’t look guilty,” said Rashida.

“Then why did you say it?” asked Britta.

“I sensed it. Woman’s intuition.”

It annoyed Britta when her friend used her religion as some sort of superiority card. Rashida very much believed a closeness to God allowed the faithful to have greater sensitivities, whereas non-believers were like muggles, clueless and unaware as they stumbled through their mundane lives. She was, to put it mildly, a condescending snob.

Britta had pointed this out to her before. Rashida hadn’t denied it, quite the opposite, in fact. “It’s got nothing to do with religion. It’s called being British.”

Britta couldn’t really dispute that.  

“Your senses are wrong,” she told Rashida, speaking under her breath. “I’ve got a lot of stuff going on at home, that’s all.”

“Because your Dad’s unemployed?” Rashida said without lowering her voice at all and drawing looks from the children around them.

“Rashida, please. And no, not that.”

“Hey,” said Rashida, dropping her volume this time and leaning closer, “what I want to know is why is that weird boy staring at you?”

Britta looked around but there was no one looking at her.

“Sir,” said one of the other kids with their arm raised.

“Yes, what is it?” said the teacher. Mr Drews didn’t like to be interrupted and didn’t really like children, as far as Britta could tell.

The raised hand pointed at the window. “What’s he doing?”

Everyone turned to look. Rick was standing outside, peering in through the window. He was looking in Britta’s direction.

There was a moment of confusion. Why was there a boy outside? Why wasn’t he in class? Why was he looking in the window?

People recognised him as the weird kid, which explained a lot, but it was still very strange.

It got stranger when he held up a sign.

Meet me at lunchtime. Your locker.

Everyone turned to see who the message was aimed at. Britta looked around, too, hoping it wouldn’t be obvious it was her.

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