Bitter 554

Britta carried on as normal, focusing on her schoolwork and her private lessons. She felt more confident than ever that she would do well in her exams, and then it would be a matter of carrying that on so she gained entry into a good university. Even if the job with APE didn’t last — and she wasn’t expecting it to — she would be in a much better position than before. In addition to which, she would have a fair amount of money in her bank account.

If she didn’t get herself fired.

When the time came to log in for her requisite twelve minutes, she sat on her bed with the helmet on her lap.

She still had no real idea of what Dad was up to, but he had said it didn’t really matter if she helped him or not. The safest thing to do would be to carry out her duties as normal and leave the confrontation between competing teams to those involved.

But in truth, she wanted to help him. It was the underdog thing. Dad was trying to beat a team he was heavily outclassed by. There was no way he should be able to beat the Chinese, and the Chinese players knew it. The fight was so one-sided, they probably expected Dad to try something a bit sneaky, and didn’t even care.

She sat on the edge of her bed, her leg shaking nervously. There really was no benefit in helping Dad. And a large potential for shooting herself in the foot.

If she was a couple of minutes late, that wouldn’t really be something she’d be fired over, probably. She had always checked in with plenty of time to spare so she should have built up plenty of goodwill. If you came into work fifteen minutes early every day, no one would reprimand you for being five minutes late just once.

Her phone alarm went off again. It had gone off when she had thirty minutes to go. She hadn’t set the alarm, it had just been there, telling her she should be in the game. She hadn’t been all that surprised. Now it was telling her she had fifteen minutes before her time was up.

At five minutes, her laptop turned itself on. There was a message on the screen.

Warning. Log in required immediately.

There was a timer under it, counting down.

“What happens if I don’t log in?” asked Britta. “I mean, because I really need to go to the toilet or something?”

The laptop didn’t reply. The timer kept counting down. Britta went over and sat down at her desk and repeated the question while looking at the screen.

“Log in must occur within buffer or synchronisation will be lost.” The computer’s calm voice made it sound like not that big a deal.

“How long is the buffer?” she asked.

“Twelve minutes,” said the laptop.

She had twelve minutes to log in after her forty-eight hours expired. That was fine then. Dad only asked her to be a little late, he didn’t say he needed her to make it a very long delay. If she waited a couple of minutes, that should be enough.

Her phone began ringing. The ID said it was Dr Reedy. Britta went to the bathroom.

She didn’t need to go, but she sat on the toilet anyway. She felt like she should try. What if the laptop could tell if she’d been to the loo? It might compare her weight before and after. By the same token, if she did go to the toilet, she would have a corroborating witness.

Nothing came out. She started to feel like it wouldn’t be a good alibi unless she really went, so she focused and really tried. Just as she realised how stupid she was being and was about to pull her underwear back up, a dam broke and a torrent came out. And wouldn’t stop.

It was past the time she was meant to be in-game, and she was still in the bathroom, unable to leave. Now she started to panic because she might miss the twelve-minute deadline.

She made it back to her bedroom with nine of the twelve-minute buffer remaining. Her phone was still ringing. There were a bunch of texts, too. She ignored them and put the helmet on and logged in.

A few seconds later she was in the Church of Stan Lee.

The place was deserted, but other than that, things seemed the same as before. Nothing unusual, as far as she could tell. New World was still here.

Britta made her way to the exit and looked outside. The sky was green. At least, it was for a few seconds, and then it faded back to its regular black with a million tiny dots of light. She wasn’t sure if that had been something to do with the delay, or just her eyes adjusting.

She stepped out and headed down the street towards the main square where the arena was. Even though she was late, she assumed she needed to put in twelve minutes.

The street seemed quiet with no one about.

“Britta?” said Dr Reedy’s voice. “Britta, can you hear me?” She sounded panicked.


“Oh, thank God. What happened?”

“Sorry, I got caught short and was in the loo. Is everything okay?”

“Yes, yes. I understand sometimes you just have to go, but please, don’t cut it so close next time.”

“Ah, yes. Sorry.” It seemed like she’d gotten away with it. There was a roar from up ahead. Like a football crowd responding to a goal. “I think something’s going on.”

“That’s right,” said Dr Reedy. “There’s a contest going on between rival teams. It seems there’s been an upset. You wouldn’t have something to do with it, would you?”

Or maybe she hadn’t got away with it after all.

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