Bitter 548

“Is something wrong?” asked Stan.

“Um? No, it’s nothing.” Britta was on tiptoes trying to get a better look at what was going on, but the lighting wasn’t great and there were a lot of people on that side of the barriers separating the building work from the street. “I just recognise someone.” When she turned back to Stan, he was watching her closely. A bit too closely. “Stop staring, you’re making me uncomfortable.”

“I know that look,” said Stan, continuing to stare intently. “What is it? What have you seen? Is it this arena? Is it special?” His words were heavy with suspicion. “Out with it.”

She shook her head at his overeagerness. “It was just that foreman over there. I met him before in the Korlath Mine. Only it might not be him. It might just be the same computer model.”

Stan tried to see who she was talking about. There were a number of people over there.

“The stocky guy with the beard?”

“Um, yes. I think so.”

“And he was in the mines, was he? What was he doing?”

“Running a battle royale,” said Britta. “Just a test run. Maybe he’s setting up something similar here.” Stan was staring at her again. “Now what?”

“He’s an AI?” Stan had lowered his voice. The rest of their group were busy eating and enjoying the general ambience and atmosphere. There was plenty going on apart from construction work.

“Yes. An older one. N-21, I think.”

Stan’s eyes grew bigger. “Let’s go talk to him. Find out what he’s up to. Introduce me.”

“He probably doesn’t even remember who I am,” said Britta. She hadn’t planned to get involved in any more AI business. They tended to be a bit temperamental.

“Of course he remembers. You’re in his memory banks.”

That was true, but didn’t mean much. “Yeah, I’m sure he has my name filed away, but that doesn’t mean his personality will allow him to access it, does it?”

Now Stan was looking at her with a kind of bewilderment. “I don’t know, does it?”

Britta shrugged. “I don’t know either, but they take their personalities very seriously. We may find it hard to think of them as real people, but they have no problem believing in themselves.”

“I see,” said Stan. “We should really sit down and talk about it. I feel you have a lot more to say on the subject.”

“No, not really. I’m just guessing.”

“Well, I think we’re about to find out how good a guesser you are. He’s coming over.”

“What? Who?” Britta felt a surge of panic as she turned and saw N-21 headed towards them. She wasn’t in the right headspace for dealing with an AI. They always made everything so tricky. She hadn’t even meant to be out so long, just twelve minutes. That was twenty minutes ago.

“I wonder what he wants,” said Stan. He didn’t seem to be at all nervous at the prospect of facing an AI. He clearly lacked experience.

“Let me know how it turns out,” said Britta. “I have plans.”

“No, no, no,” said Stan, grabbing her by the shoulder and spinning her around. “You can’t leave me alone with one of them. You know how to handle these people.”

“I’m late for a thing,” said Britta, who very definitely did not know how to handle these people. “You’ll be fine.”

He wouldn’t let go of her, though.

“Excuse me,” said N-21 gruffly. “Excuse me, if you’d like to register for early access to the Games Palace, just put your name down on here.” He was holding out a clipboard with a pencil hanging from it on the end of a piece of string.

“Sign up for what?” asked Stan, his face the picture of innocent curiosity.

“The Games Palace, like I said.”

Britta detected the slightest hint of irritation. Here we go, she thought. Time to make for the exit.

“Yes, but what kind of games?” said Stan, not taking the hint at all. “Is it a battle royale?”

N-21 gave Stan a glance from feet to head. Then he looked at Britta with no hint that he recognised her. “No, not quite. More of a one on one, or party versus party.”

“I see,” said Stan. “Players, I mean, contestants battle each other. A fight to the death?”

“Every battle is different,” said N-21, his tone lifting as he went into some kind of sales mode. “No two fights are the same. Winner takes all. Try your luck, and your skill. No limits, no restrictions. Find out what you’re capable of.” He held out the clipboard for Stan to sign.

“But what is the prize?” said Stan. He took the clipboard but didn’t sign it.

“Experience. You earn it by winning. You lose it by losing. How much depends on how much you’re willing to risk.”

Stan nearly dropped the clipboard. “We bet our XP?”

N-21 maintained a blank look like he hadn’t heard Stan.

“Wow. This could be huge. A closed economy for transferring XP between players. Holy cow. This place is going to be massive.”

“Thank you,” said N-21. “We’ll try our best. Please sign and then pass it on to anyone else who would like to try their luck, and their skill. No limits, no restrictions. Find out what you’re capable of. More details soon. Don’t worry, once you’re on the mailing list, we’ll be sure to keep you updated.” He smiled genially.

“I wouldn’t,” said Britta, even though she had planned to say nothing. It wasn’t her business what Stan got up to.

Stan, who had been on the verge of signing, stopped. “No? Why not?”

N-21 was glaring at her, she could tell without looking. “No reason. Go ahead. Good luck.” She turned, no longer held by Stan who had his hands full, and was about to log out.

“Ah,” said a deep voice. “Nice to see you again. Thinking of having a flutter?”

She looked up at N-28, standing there with his golden locks billowing in the wind, even though there wasn’t even a breeze blowing.

“No. I was just leaving,” said Britta.

“Oh, but I’m sure you’d do very well in the arena,” said N-28.

“Games Palace,” said N-21.

“Not really my thing,” said Britta as she opened her status screen.

“Shame,” said N-28. “I think you’d do very well, as long as you believe in yourself.”

Britta stopped. “Are you saying I’d be allowed to take part?”

“Of course,” said N-28. “You could be the first champion.”

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