Bitter 547

They left the church followed by a crowd of rebel students. Student rebels? Britta wasn’t sure what they were now.

It was nighttime, as it was in the real world, and Shona was lit up with torches and lanterns. Stan claimed to know where the best food carts were, and they wouldn’t have to pay since they were manned by his people. He had taken Britta’s advice to heart and put all his rebels to work.

It was fun being in a group that was in a good mood and out to have a fun time. Britta never went out to eat with friends. She imagined this was what it would be like at university, taking classes and discussing what you’d learned over a drink and meal. Only, without the magic.

As they strolled through the balmy night — the weather was not like at home — Stan told her about how he had negotiated the deal with the Dean of the Institute for Magic. As well as seeing it as good opportunity to curry favour with the NPCs, he had decided trying to learn from the books they’d stolen would be too time-consuming, and using them as leverage was by far the better option. The dean had been remarkably accommodating, which only cemented the idea that this was how you were supposed to play the game.

“The negotiations were hard and vigorous,” said Stan, “but in the end, I had the upper hand. They couldn’t open their doors without their books, so what choice did they have? None. But it all ended quite amicably in the end and we are now on friendly terms. Shouldn’t be a problem getting you in, although you could probably get in even without my help.”

It was certainly tempting to join a magic school and learn how to do spells properly, but it sounded a lot like a regular school. Did Britta really want to spend all day in a real class and then come to the game for more lectures and more homework. Although, admittedly, it would be lectures about magic.

“A lot’s changed since you were last here,” said Stan, as the group marched down the street. “Lots more people are finding their way to the city. This is where the action is, not out in the sticks.”

“I suppose you’ve heard about all the new cash shop stuff,” said Britta. “Should make levelling up a lot easier.”

Stan stopped, causing the whole train to come to a halt. “No, what do you mean?”

“The cash shop,” repeated Britta. “You know, all the new items they’re selling.”

“It’s all fancy hats and robes, isn’t it? Never use the place myself. What’s the point in playing if you can just buy whatever you want to make yourself look cool? Earn it.” He began walking again. The train followed.

“Isn’t it the same as the real world?” There didn’t seem to be much difference as far as Britta could tell. You didn’t hunt down and skin a cow to make trousers in the real world. “Anyway, they’re adding XP boosters. They give you a percentage increase — twenty-five percent, I think it is — for a limited time, so you can level up faster.”

“XP boosters?” said Stan with a sniff. “I don’t really think they’re a good idea for the game, but I can see the attraction. It was inevitable they would eventually start treating this place like an actual video game and try to fleece their customers.” He sighed. “Obviously they’ll sell like mad and make a lot of money, but there still needs to be a way to gain experience in the first place. A percentage boost of zero is still zero.”

“I thought you’d approve of their attempt at ‘fleecing their customers.’ Isn’t that good business?” said Britta.

Stan gave her a sideways glance. “I don’t know what kind of person you take me for, but mercenary business practices are not something I consider a reasonable way to behave. My father, on the other hand…”

“So, you’re rebelling against your dad? Are you a socialist now?”

Stan pulled a face like he’d been stung. “Socialist? Are you trying to offend me? People should be allowed to make money and keep as much of it as possible. The real difference between my father and I is that he was born poor and struggled to make something of himself, while I was born rich and have little regard for hard work. Something that is entirely his fault, as I’ve reminded him on more than one occasion.”

“Did he appreciate the reminder?”

Stan smiled. “No, not very much. But it’s very easy to get trapped in the idea that you need to make more money to prove you’re a person of value. When you’ve been surrounded by it since birth you realise it doesn’t really mean anything.”

“Are you going to tell me family and time spent with the people you love are the key to happiness?” said Britta.

“Certainly not. First a socialist and now a hippy — you really don’t have a very high opinion of me, do you? What you realise once you burn through enough cash and can’t think what you want to buy next, is that the important thing is to enjoy what you do.”

“You mean it’s the journey and not the destination?”

“I wouldn’t put it in quite such a prosaic manner but essentially yes. If you have a results-based mindset and rely on the success of your endeavours to experience satisfaction, you will feel disappointed a great deal of the time. If you find something that keeps you engaged and entertained during the process, the end result will only be a bonus, not your entire income.”

“What if the thing you enjoy is fleecing people of their money in the most brutal and unfair way possible?” said Britta.

“Then I imagine you will do very well in the current economy. In the real world, that is. Here, you might find it harder to capitalise on other people’s foolishness when they can stab you if you upset them.”

“Do you really think anything will be different here?” said Britta. “It’s the same people, won’t they end up falling for the same stupid tricks?”

“No,” said Stan, “because here they learn their lesson.”

“How?” said Britta.

“By suffering the correct penalty for their stupidity — death. People who make silly mistakes need to die. And then try again. It’s the only way they’ll learn.”

Stores and restaurants in the central square were open and full of customers, both NPCs and players. The city’s nightlife was thriving. They stopped by a cart and got kebabs for free, with a nod and a wink. The food smelled amazing and tasted even better.

“There,” said Stan,” that’s the new place I told you about.”

One side of the square was covered in scaffolding with workers everywhere, hammering and digging and putting up various bits of construction.

A sign read: Under Construction.

It was for the effect, of course. You didn’t need time to construct anything on a digital platform.

“I’ve got no idea what it’s for,” said Stan, “and they won’t hire any of my people. Any guesses?”

But Britta didn’t have to guess. Talking to the workers, giving them instructions, was a familiar face. N-21, the AI who had created the battle royale.

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