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Preface from Mooderino

Bitter 541

The realisation that Rick was not only stalking her in the real world but also the virtual one sent a cold chill through Britta. She wasn’t sure which was worse, but neither was welcome. At least he didn’t realise she was the gnome wizard he was looking for. Not yet, anyway.

The unpleasant shiver passed. While her heightened abilities in the game world didn’t translate into any super-skills in real life — she had tested whether she could run faster or react quicker, and she couldn’t — there was one benefit from facing danger and death on a regular basis. The level of panic she experienced had greatly reduced as she had become more familiar with the need to act and not just stand there gawping. A few deaths taught you that.

“What do you mean, she controls everything?” asked Britta. “How?”

“I’ve only seen her once,” said Rick, “but her stats are very different to everyone else’s.”

He could see her stats. Wait, did that mean he was Gabba?

He didn’t sound like her, although there could be many explanations for that. Her instinct was that it wasn’t him. Their attitudes were too different. But then that would mean Gabba had also found a way to hack her Anderson cradle. How many more people had done the same?

“So what?” said Britta, trying to affect a casual tone. Keeping the surging anxiety under control was much harder against Rick than it was when she faced a goblin. How were you supposed to act oblivious when you were in fact fully aware of the situation? It was a difficult thing to pull off. “Why does that make you think this gnome wizard controls the game?”

“It’s hard to explain,” said Rick, offhand and condescending. “The way she’s connected to the system… most people have a one-way connection, hers goes both ways.”

It was remarkable how much more confident and assured he sounded when he was talking about this stuff. The attraction of the game, of any online activity probably, would be huge to someone who found it hard to string two words together in normal company. In the game, Rick was a master in full control of his powers. In the game he had powers. She could see why it would be the more appealing world to live in.

Regardless, she didn’t want him to track her down in the game, and she certainly didn’t want him to work out her true identity.

“Maybe she’s different because she’s not a normal player. She could be an employee of APE. Or maybe she isn’t a player at all. She could be one of those computer controlled characters, whatever they’re called.”

“NPCs,” said Lewis, eager to provide information as Britta knew one of them would be. Obviously, she knew they were called NPCs. “Non-player character,” he added.

“I don’t think so,” said Rick. “Either way, we can ask her once we find her. That’s where your dad comes in.”

It was hard to process everything all at once. What was she supposed to do? She could just report Rick to APE and let them handle it, which felt a bit mean but also the only sensible choice. They would no doubt ban him, which would take away the one thing he treasured most. It would be his own fault, but he wouldn’t see it like that.

They all had eager looks on their faces. They saw nothing wrong in what they were doing, it was a big adventure to them, that was all. APE was some faceless corporate entity which had no interest in them, which was fairly accurate. Messing with helmets even though they had been warned not to wasn’t wrong, it was daring and cavalier. They were living out their dream of playing the swashbuckling hero in both worlds.

“I still don’t see what you expect to get from finding her. You’ll just start harassing her the way you did me.”

Rick’s face lost some of its boyish glee and dropped into mild offence. “I feel ‘harass’ is an extreme way to put it. You aren’t feeling threatened by us, are you?” He was right to some extent. It was more irritation than harassment. “And I very much doubt she’s even a girl.”

The casual sexism worked in her favour, but it was still annoying. The most powerful character in the game, therefore it had to be a boy behind it.

“Trust me,” said Rick, “when we tell her what we have in mind, she’s bound to be interested. She wouldn’t have hacked her rig if she didn’t have the same goals as us.”

“And what’s that?” asked Britta.

“Total domination of the game, of course.” Rick looked like he was surprised she even had to ask. “If we get control of the infrastructure now, we’ll be able to influence all aspects of New World in the future. The economy, the league tables, the quality of drops… the possibilities are endless, and very lucrative. This is just the start. Wait until the whole world’s playing, then you’ll see how important is to get an early foothold in the world.”

All four of them were getting visibly excited at their prospects. There was no way to talk them out of it, that was for sure.

“And you really think APE aren’t going to step in and shut you down?”

“Only if they find out what we’re up to. And they haven’t so far…”

It was hardly a winning argument. They don’t know yet so they never will. It was a big risk, but that was another thing about life online, you were more willing to take risks because the consequences seemed so much less severe. They wouldn’t feel like that when they were all permabanned and the rest of the world was off having virtual adventures they would only be able to watch in videos.

“So, will you tell your dad?” said Rick. Even if she said no, he would just find another way.

“I’ll ask him. It’s up to him if he wants to meet with you.”

There was a sense of relief and excitement from the four boys. Another quest completed.

“There is one thing I think you’ve overlooked, though,” said Britta.

“What’s that?” said Rick.

“If this gnome is as powerful as you think, I can see why you would want her working with you. But why would she want you working with her?” The excitement cooled a little. “She seems to have it all under control. Wouldn’t teaming up with you just mean her having to share the influence she could control on her own?”

“Um, yes,” said Rick, “that is a possibility, but I don’t think she can do it all on her own.”

“So you’d be willing to work for her? Be her subordinates?”

The boys exchanged unsure looks. They hadn’t considered this possibility, apparently. It would give them something to talk about at their next secret meeting.

“Anyway, I’ll ask him. No more signs outside windows, please.”

She would speak to Dad before making a decision. He would understand what they were doing better than anyone. He was a kindred spirit, and he’d found love and happiness outside of gaming, so it was possible. Even for Rick.


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Afterword from Mooderino
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