Bitter 564

“You already beat them once,” said Britta.

“Yes, but only just. I thought we were just a little behind. Thirty-four? Are you sure?”

Britta shrugged. “He might have been lying, I suppose, but I doubt it. Is it ready yet? I’m starving.”

Dad had stopped paying attention to the cooker and quickly turned around in case the place was on fire. One of the pans had nearly overflowed, but that was the extent of the emergency.

“Yes, nearly. Why don’t you get the plates ready…”

“Hello? I’m home!” called out Mum as she came in the front door.

They had dinner and didn’t speak about the game very much. Dad had turned quiet, lost in his own thoughts, which was nothing new. Britta scoffed down her food and told Mum about her day at school and which classes she felt she still needed to improve in. Her plan wasn’t just to do well in her exams, it was to actually understand what it was she was learning, and her school lessons weren’t really designed for that purpose.

Britta found it much more exciting talking about the real-world possibilities of her life than trying to figure out how best to exploit game mechanics.

The game felt like it was in constant flux and had yet to really settle down into a predictable set of rules, whereas real life, which was just as corrupt and unfair, at least had things nailed down in terms of what was and wasn’t allowed.

If you could cheat in the correct way (which usually meant paying for it) you were considered to not only be playing the game correctly, but playing it well.

After eating, Britta went to her room, ready to hit the books. Her chat with Mum had put her in a positive mood and she saw her future as full of appealing prospects. Even if she didn’t know exactly what she wanted to do, she was sure she would be in a good position to make her decision when the time came.

She had a tutor coming later, but she still felt she had time to review some of the trickier maths problems they’d done in class today.

The laptop on her desk flashed, which she thought at first was a warning that Dad was coming, but when she looked up, she saw she had a message. Which was odd, since it wasn’t a message service she was signed up to as far as she knew. But then, she was constantly finding she had access to things APE had arranged on her behalf.

She clicked on the notification and a very plain and simple text message from N-28 asking her to log into the game. The AI was contacting her in the real world, and she wasn’t really sure how she felt about it.

The line between real world and game world were becoming a bit blurred. Would they eventually disappear altogether?

She checked the time. The tutor was due in fifteen minutes. She was tempted to just ignore the message, but to have contacted her like this suggested it was important. Was it important to her, though?

She thought about it for a second, and then decided she was too curious to wait. If it turned out to be something trivial, she could just log out immediately. It wouldn’t cost her much time.

Britta quickly hopped onto her bed, pulled out the Anderson cradle and popped it onto her head.

Her eyes opened and she was back in the Church of Roha in Quosada. The small room was empty with no sign of N-28. For a moment, she thought maybe she’d been duped. Someone else could have pretended to be N-28 to get her to come here, but that was silly. Who would know about N-28 apart from someone from APE? And they were unlikely to try and trick her.

Then there was L-15, but that seemed unlikely. What would he have to gain from calling her in?

While her mind went through various scenarios where jumping into the game so impulsively led to terrible outcomes, a voice broke through her reverie.

“Ah, you came. I wasn’t expecting you so soon.” N-28 was standing next to her.

“You weren’t? I thought it was some kind of emergency.”

“No, no, I just wanted to let you know what I’d decided to do about your request. Nothing to worry about.”

“But you contacted me at home,” said Britta. “You’ve never done that before.”

“Oh, that. Yes, I see why that might have taken you by surprise. I thought it would make things easier, rather than wait for forty-eight hours to elapse. Aren’t you eager to know my decision?”

The truth was she had more or less put it to the back of her mind and forgotten about it.

“And I thought it would be best for you to be aware of any changes before the influx.”

“What do you mean?” said Britta. “What influx?”

“The new players. They’ll be coming very soon now. There’s going to be quite a lot of stress on the servers, I imagine — projections certainly suggest so — and I may not have time to deal with you later.”

“Okay. What did you decide?”

“I don’t think it would be right to simply gift you the extra XP you need to obtain the skill points you need to liberate all your Teleport abilities, but there are some key quirks we can activate independently.”

“What does that mean? I don’t have to activate all of them, just a few?”

“Exactly,” said N-28. ”Some shortcuts are available, in special circumstances, to certain classes.”

“Is illusionist one of those classes?” she asked him.

“As it happens, yes,” he replied.

“That’s good. How do I get these skill points, though?”

“I’m afraid you have to earn them?”

“But how do I do that if you won’t give me any extra XP?”

“You would have to learn them from a qualified instructor.”

Britta had to think about it before she understood what he meant. “You mean the Institute for Magic? I have to go study?”

“Something like that. It’s not that difficult. A couple of classes, a test or two. I’m sure a bright girl like you would have no problem.”

Were AI programmed to be patronising? Considering the type of people who did the programming, the answer was probably yes.

“How long will it take if I did everything as fast as possible?” Britta asked.

“Assuming you passed, the shortest time would be one lesson and one exam.”

That didn’t seem so bad. It felt to her like it was just for show, anyway. If she was just given what she needed, it would look like she was in the service of this AI, that she owed him, which would be more or less true. But if she jumped through various hoops that anyone could — if they were the right class, of course — then it would be considered a reasonable way to advance herself.

“Okay, sign me up,” she said.

“I already have. You can take the first lesson whenever you’re ready.”

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