Bitter 563

As a way to make sure the most advanced AI was in charge, survival through mortal combat seemed a bit primitive. Barbaric, even. Although in this case, it probably took more than stabbing someone in the back to achieve a kill.

“So, L one through fourteen don’t exist anymore? Not even as a backup?”

“Possibly in some form on a hard drive somewhere,” said N-28, “but in the game, no. It’s a brutal, unkind, desperately competitive world out there, Britta. You should be careful who you associate with.” He was speaking kindly, but his words were full of ominous portent. It wasn’t his fault, it was just the way he’d been programmed.

Britta felt she didn’t need to be told about the selfish nature of people, in the game or outside of it. Her own life had been full of people who only ever saw her as a stepping stone or an irrelevance. If they saw her at all. Not that she thought everyone was like that. Just all the people she had ever met.

“How come you don’t get rid of the old AI here?” she asked him. It felt like a bit of a rude question, but it wasn’t like she was going to hurt N-28’s feelings. He didn’t have any.

“What kind of a question is that?” he said. “There’s plenty of room for previous generations to potter about and keep themselves amused. I mean, yes, they can be a little tiresome sometimes, and they often refuse to stay in retirement even though that’s what they agreed to. And some of them do forget themselves and start plotting against me… actually, now that you mention it, perhaps the Chinese way isn’t so bad after all.”

“I think your way is much better,” said Britta, keen to get him off that line of thinking. “More civilised.”

“Yes,” said N-28. “Unfortunately, history would suggest the more basic civilisations tend to burn down and obliterate the more advanced ones. It’s very hard to write a poem that protects you from a punch in the face, and very easy to write one that encourages it.”

“Wouldn’t it help if you let players level-up a bit quicker?” said Britta. “Then at least they’d be able to compete with the Chinese.”

“Give up our way of life to be able to keep up with them is just losing in another fashion. Their way may indeed be better, but at the moment all it’s proven to be is quicker off the mark. Players have to earn their place in the world here, but once they do, the benefits will be far greater.”

“Then couldn’t you tell them that?” said Britta. “If they knew what it was they were supposed to do, it would make the process a lot less frustrating.”

“The joy of discovery is worth the wait,” said N-28, returning to his usual pompous mode. “I just need to make sure they have the time to get there.” He sighed and suddenly didn’t seem pompous at all, just tired.

“Then give me the skill points I need so I can at least keep an eye on L-15. If there’s any point to me being in the game, shouldn’t it be to make sure everyone starts the race from the starting line?”

“And how will you do that?”

“I don’t know,” said Britta. “I just get the feeling I’m the only one who can.”

“I will… think about it,” said N-28.

Britta wasn’t sure what he was going to think about. His brain was some kind of supercomputer, wasn’t it? Shouldn’t thinking about anything take less than a nanosecond?

Perhaps he would run a bunch of simulations to make sure it wouldn’t unbalance the game to let her pop around the map as she pleased.

Britta logged out after checking her saves were all as they were supposed to be. She was being a bit paranoid but after what L-15 had ‘accidentally’ done to her save points, it felt appropriate.

She woke up in her bedroom and put the helmet away, then she went to the bathroom and gradually reacclimatised to the real world. It always took her a few minutes before she stopped finding everything she touched oddly solid and the textures overly noticeable.

After washing her face and changing her clothes, she went downstairs where Dad was in the kitchen cooking dinner and whistling while drinking a glass of wine and doing a bit of dancing.

“You’re in a good mood,” said Britta.

“Ah, there you are, sweetheart. How’s it going? Good? I’m doing very well myself, in case you were wondering. Marvellous. Level 5, currently. New spells, new speciality. Oh, it’s a whole new world for Guildford Underpass.”

“Level 5? That’s quite a jump. You must have done well off of the arena battle.”

“Indeed I did, thanks to you.” He stopped stirring the pot and looked up at the ceiling. “By which I mean, thanks to your support and advice and general existence as a positive force in my life, and not in any way suggesting you were involved in the arena battle.” He gave her a naughty boy look and put a finger to his lips.

“The Chinese players must have been very upset,” said Britta, taking a seat at the table. She was famished but resisted going to the biscuit barrel. She was thinking about maybe getting fit in her body as well as her mind. She would one day like to be able to wear clothes the way Lin wore them. Some surgery might be required, though.

“Upset? Oh-ho, I should say so. Livid, they were. Demanded a rematch, which is understandable, but they didn’t have the XP to put up against ours. They’ll be back, though, I’m pretty sure of it. And we’ll be ready for them.” He went back to stirring and switched to humming.

“I doubt it,” said Britta.

“No? Why not?”

“It’s very brutal over on their server. They’ll probably have to make new characters. He won’t underestimate you again.”

“Who won’t?”

“L-15,” said Britta. “He’s the Chinese AI. He had a word with me after the match.”

“Oh?” Dad’s levity subdued somewhat. “He didn’t accuse you of anything, did he?”

“No. He took me to his city on the Chinese server. It’s quite an impressive place. Life is a bit more results-oriented over there. He was quite impressed with what you did, actually. I think he appreciated the level of work that went into conning his players. But they were only below-average.”

“They were below average?” said Dad. “What’s the average?”

“Level 16,” said Britta.

Dad knocked over his glass. “Sixteen! What’s the highest?”

“Thirty-four,” said Britta.

“Thirty-four!!! That’s ridiculous,” said Dad. “How are we meant to compete with that?”

Subscribe to this content and receive updates directly in your inbox.