Bitter 543

“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” said Rick. “Britta told you—”

“Please, let’s stick to in-game names and details. I’m Guildford Underpass, you’re… Nasty McNice. Interesting name.”

“Just a way to stay anonymous. It’s the kind of name that doesn’t stand out in an online environment.”

Britta had described this boy as shy and awkward. He didn’t seem like that at all. He was dressed in flamboyant colours — green and yellow, mostly — and his robes suggested he was some sort of magic class.

“Very well,” said Nasty. He looked around the cafe full of NPCs and a couple of other players. “You’re right, we don’t know who might be listening. Or watching. Perhaps we should go somewhere a little more private.”

Guildford Underpass nodded and they both rose and made their way out onto the street. NPCs passed by on their way to and from whatever activity the devs had allotted them. The people of Quosada were in constant movement, always with somewhere to go but never allowed to get there.

Nasty McNice led the way. He seemed to know where he was going and moved with an easy determination. He seemed very confident in general, no sign of nervousness, no pause to consider his next move.

They went down a small alley to a door that was covered in filth and hard to see if you didn’t know it was there.

“This is the back door to the Roffle Hotel,” said Nasty. “It’s a service entrance. They usually leave it open.” He grabbed the handle and pulled. The door remained closed, seemingly locked. “One moment.” Nasty grabbed the handle with both hands and pulled harder, leaning back.

The door continued to remain closed, rattling slightly in the frame, and then opened with a suddenness that almost sent Nasty tumbling onto the ground. He managed to hang onto the door and remain upright.

“There we are. This way.”

On the other side of the door was a small hallway with doors every few metres in both directions. Guildford followed Nasty feeling a bit uneasy. They had just broken into a hotel, he wasn’t sure why. It looked fairly rundown, a fleabag joint where you could get a dirty room inexpensively. If they’d needed a room, they could have just rented one.

“Nobody uses this place,” said Nice, trying doors as he went, twisting the handles and giving each a tug. “Staying in a hotel doesn’t really serve a purpose when you can log out when you’re tired.”

A door clicked when he turned the handle and Nasty opened it.

“Why here?” said Guildford. “And why did we have to break in? Can’t be that expensive  to just rent a room.”

They entered the room which had a rickety single bed in it. The linen didn’t look like it had been changed in a long time. There was a chest of drawers, a bedside cabinet with a lamp, a chest at the foot of the bed and wooden blinds on the window, which was so dirty you couldn’t see what was outside. It looked like any small bedroom in an RPG, with an additional layer of dust and grime.

“It isn’t, but it’s shut off from the main system. It’s in a blind spot, the devs can’t see or hear what goes on in here.”

“Are you sure?” How could there be an area in a game that the game was unaware of?

“Yes, trust me. It’s not that they don’t know the hotel is here, it’s just that the connections to audio and video detection are broken. There are quite a few places like this dotted around. I think they were created accidentally, but who knows. Maybe someone wanted a few dead zones in the game for privacy. Are you recording this?”

“No,” said Guildford. “Now, what is it you want exactly, Mr McNice?”

“Please, call me Nasty. And to answer your question, nothing. Not really. That is, I think we can help each other.” He casually opened and shut drawers as he spoke. “I can see that your character is nothing special. No offence, I just mean you don’t have any augmentation, apart from the video feed.”

Britta had said he could see character stats and personal details. Apparently, he could see other connections to the game as well, from buildings as well as people. Could he see that he wasn’t being recorded? Had he asked as a test? It would be wise to assume so.

“No, I’m a normal player,” said Guildford. “Unmodified equipment. If you’ve made changes to your Anderson cradle, you’ve probably put yourself at risk.”

“Of voiding my warranty? It’s fine. I know what I’m doing.”

He wasn’t just confident, he was cocky. It was disconcerting. This was a boy who could convince himself just about anything was acceptable if it pleased him to do so. Guildford opened the bedside cabinet out of habit. They were in an RPG after all, you had to be prepared to loot everything.

“You want my help finding someone.”

“Yes. A gnome called B. She’s a mage of some sort, that’s all I know for sure. Her connection to the game is unlike anyone I’ve ever seen. She is the key to controlling this world.”

“And that’s what you want, is it? To control this world?”

Nasty McNice stopped checking under the lumpy pillow. “Mr… Guildford, I think you’re familiar with how games work. I know this place doesn’t look like your typical RPG, but underneath it still has the same issues. It is riddled with bugs and holes waiting to be exploited. Someone is going to come along and take advantage of that, and the rest of us are going to be at their mercy. Or we can be the ones to take advantage.”

“You could always report the bugs you find and get them fixed,” said Guildford.

Nasty smiled and shook his head condescendingly. “Ha! We both know how effective that would be. The problem with this game is the same as any other video game. The technology may have advanced but the people making the game are the same. They make mistakes. They try to avoid responsibility for those mistakes. They pretend it is working as intended so they don’t have to put in any extra effort. In short, the devs are our real opponents, and they have a massive advantage. Don’t you think we should try to make things fairer?”

“By cheating?”

“Oh, it isn’t cheating when the rules have been made unreasonably set to no-win. You have to do whatever you can to save the Kobayashi Maru.”

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