Bitter 580

Britta hurried home after school, ready to log in and get her skill points. The only other issue was Lin. Having told her they could go around together, Britta didn’t particularly want her tagging along in this case.

She could just not tell her, but she was bound to find out. Lin had recordings sent to her of all of Britta’s escapades, no matter how dull. How would Britta explain it? Especially after Lin had taken the knockback from L-15 so poorly.

No, she would have to call her and tell her directly. It wasn’t like there was any danger from the AI while she was in New World. And it was just a quick lesson, at a school Lin wasn’t enrolled at.

That would sound reasonable, Britta told herself. It wasn’t that she didn’t want Lin tagging along, it was just a matter of membership. Lin wouldn’t be allowed in, so probably best to meet up for the next one.

It was an odd feeling being the one to decide who could come and who couldn’t. Britta was usually the one being denied entry, not that it felt any better from this end.

The only minor issue was that Lin might be able to get herself enrolled with a quick phone call. Although that was more likely if the Institute had been in the Legendary World. On this server, her influence was a lot less, Britta hoped.

She sent Lin a text on the bus ride home. It felt safer to not have to use her voice. Cowardly, was what it was.

Just need to pop into New World to get something from the Institute for Magic. I got enrolled in a class and I want to get it out of the way and get a skill point. Is it okay if we party up next time?

To her great relief, Lin’s reply was short and with no indication that she was upset.

That’s fine. I’ve just got back from China and am a little tired anyway. Have fun.

It was silly, really. Why would she have been upset? Hanging out with Britta was hardly the hottest ticket in town. She was probably relieved to get some time to herself in her multi-million-pound penthouse suite.

Britta opened her front door to silence. Dad was probably in game and Mum was at work. She went upstairs and got changed. She had been enrolled in night classes, but she didn’t know exactly what that meant. After dark? She looked out of her window — it was already getting there.

She would go in now, try to get into the Institute on some pretext or other, and then wait inside until the class started. Rick wouldn’t see her if she was already inside. If she could get hold of whoever was teaching the class, maybe she could even get the information she needed without having to sit through the actual class. That was definitely the best-case scenario.

She logged in and found herself in the Church of Stan Lee. It was empty and quiet, the light from the setting sun sending colourful rays through the stained glass windows. There was no sign of Stan, but he was probably at the Institute already.

Britta left the building and set off down the road towards the main square. There was an odd feeling to the city, and a strange smell in the air. She didn’t see many people about, either. Not until she neared the square.

Then she saw the crowds, and the flames. Something was on fire, and judging by the general location, it was the Institute. She couldn’t be sure, but where else would it be? Nowhere else would be an inconvenience to her.

By the time she reached the crowds, her suspicion turned out to be wrong, sort of. It wasn’t the building itself, there was a giant bonfire outside the Institute.

“What’s going on?” she asked a nearby NPC.

“Book burning,” said the woman. “King’s orders.”

The King had decided the books had to be destroyed? That seemed a strange order. Weren’t the books an important resource to make players stronger and more capable of defending the city and the empire?

She did her best to get through the crowds. Her size made it hard to see what was going on, but it also helped her slip through small gaps.

Uniformed men, dressed in the Empire’s colours, were stoking the flames and tossing in more books. And standing slightly apart from them on top of an open-topped cart, shouting instructions, was Rick.

She recognised him from the last time she’d seen him (and he’d seen her) even though he was dressed in rather more flamboyant manner. There was no mistaking the empire’s colours, though. He was working for the King. Or the King was working for him.

She could also see the Dean of the Institute pleading with Rick. It wasn’t too hard to guess what she was saying; probably begging him to stop. He wasn’t listening.

“Came to watch, did you?”

Britta turned to find Stan behind her. He looked glum, which was the first time she’d seen him like that.

“Why doesn’t someone stop him?” she said. “Why don’t you?”

“Wouldn’t do any good,” he said. “No one left.”

“What do you mean? Where are your rebels?”

“They rebelled,” said Stan, “against me!” He threw his arms wide in utter disbelief, like he was just learning about it as the words came out of his own mouth. “Either they joined the Empire or decided to stick with their NPC jobs. With a steady income and contacts in the NPC world, they found it more rewarding. Can you believe it?” He shook his head. “It really is a lot easier to get things done when you have the support of someone with a great deal of money.”

“You just figured that out?”

“Don’t act like you’re some kind of class warrior. You’re a trust fund kid now, too. With APE bankrolling you, you’ll soon get a taste for the easy life.” He didn’t say it with any kind of malice, just a resigned air. “I really wanted to make something of myself without the old man’s help. Guess I’m not quite up to it.”

“You could still—”

“No, no. I’m a spoilt brat too used to his privilege to lead anyone anywhere. It’s good to know your limitations. Being a self-made man sounds good, but we only hear about the success stories. The other ninety-five percent are like me.”

Britta rolled her eyes. Self-pitying spoilt brat would have been more accurate. “Why are they burning the Institute’s books?”

“Reducing the options. Now, if you want to advance your character, you have to join the Empire. No other choice, unless you want to level-up at a crawl. Clever, really. The benefits are really good, too.”

“You sound like you’re tempted to join.”

“Never,” said Stan. “Not yet, anyway. I haven’t entirely given up, just need to regroup. What I should have done was kept a few of those books back. Might have still gotten something useful from them.”

“Oh, you think so? I’ve still got the ones I took from the vault.”

“You do?” said a voice from behind them. “That doesn’t seem very fair.” They both turned to find N-28 standing with them in the crowd. “You really should hand them back.”

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Afterword from Mooderino
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