Bitter 75

The result of Britta’s phone call was unexpected. They took away Dad’s pod. Dad was understandably upset about it, but they wanted to check it for faults. It should never have allowed Britta into the game, so there was a high probability there was a hardware issue.

Dad explained this to Britta as though he was trying to convince himself it was necessary. He had been promised they would bring it back as soon as they’d given it a check up. If there was some sort of failure, they would repair it free of charge, or give him a new one.

“They won’t actually give me a brand new one. It’ll be a refurbished model.” He shook his head bitterly.

Britta didn’t say anything, just listened to him ranting. They’d come to take it away and were dismantling it to fit through the door.

“Couldn’t they give you one while you wait?” asked Britta. “Like they do with cars?”

It seemed an obvious solution.

“Of course they could. But they won’t.” He let out a sigh. “They want to make sure we aren’t trying to pull something. You’ve made them very nervous, Britta. If there’s something wrong with their machinery, it’ll put the release back months. Maybe longer.”

Once the men had gone in their huge truck that made no noise (it was electric), Dad sat at the kitchen table looking lost. He had nowhere to go today.

Britta wasn’t about to stay here with him. She still had school to go to, and also, it was depressing being around him when he was like this. Dr Reedy had spoken to Dad and arranged for them both to go visit APE on Saturday. It was still three days away, but Britta was already excited. She would get to go back into the game one more time. And maybe it would lead to her getting her own pod, somehow. She knew it was unlikely, but she still couldn’t stop hoping.

Dad had been remarkably calm about the whole thing, not even telling her off for going into his phone. He wanted Britta to be tested. He was just as curious to find out how she’d managed to get into the game, past all the security that should have kept her out.

The next few days were torture. She tried to concentrate on her classes and the coursework that counted towards her exams, but she would find herself drifting off into daydreams in the middle of lessons.

Lewis attempted to get more information about the pod, pestering her with questions. She went from wanting to have someone to talk about it with, to hiding if she saw him coming. He was at least discreet about it, not asking her if there were people around. If the release of the pod was pushed back, he’d probably think she’d been lying about the whole thing.

On Saturday, Dad drove her out to the middle of nowhere, or so it seemed. A large building that could have been a factory, or possibly a crashed space station, ringed by tall linked fences and guards at the gate. Britta looked them over closely as Dad told them his name, and waited for them to check. They weren’t the usual, slightly portly guards you saw at a museum or wandering around a shopping centre. These guys were fit, like they were ex-army or something. They didn’t have guns though. Dad’s name was on the list, but he had to show his driving license before they lifted the barrier.

They parked in a huge car park that was almost entirely empty. It was a weekend, so most people were probably at home. They were met at the reception area by Dr Reedy. Her and Dad were very relaxed and friendly with each other. So much so that Britta felt a bit forgotten.

“And this is Britta,” said Dad.

“It’s very nice to meet you,” said Dr Reedy. She looked about the same age as Dad, but she was very thin and tall. Not in an attractive, model way. More like a gym teacher who used to play a lot of netball.

They went up to the third floor. Britta had had visions of taking the lift down, into a secret research facility deep underground. The third floor was mostly glass and very open. They were taken to a meeting room with a large table surrounded by chairs. The three of them sat down at one end.

“I just need to ask you a few questions, and then we’ll run a full medical.” She smiled, like a dentist telling you how painless everything was going to be.

Britta looked at Dad. He hadn’t mentioned anything about a medical.

“It’ll be fine," said Dad. "It’s just a basic health check to make sure you don’t have any conditions they need to be aware of. You don’t, do you?”

Why was he asking her? He was the parent. Technically.

“We have a fully qualified medical staff,” said Dr Reedy. “And then there’s some simple exercises to measure your lung capacity and exhaustion threshold. Nothing to worry about.”

Britta shot a more insistent look at Dad.

“This is all normal procedure,” said Dr Reedy, seeing the glares flying around.

“I’m not doing it,” said Britta. The one advantage of having been treated as an afterthought her whole life was that she didn’t seek to please people. They never wanted her help and she didn’t want their approval. Saying no came easy when you had stopped seeking validation from others.

“It’ll only take a couple of hours,” said Dr Reedy.

“No.” Britta stood up. “I’ll answer your questions and I’ll show you how I play the game, but that’s it. I’m not running on a treadmill for you like a lab rat.” The other thing that helped her stand her ground was her hatred of exercise. It was very motivating.

“It’s for your own safety,” said Dr Reedy in a calm voice that only annoyed Britta.

“I managed to play the game fine, before. I’m happy to sign a waiver or whatever.” She turned to Dad who had his mouth hanging open. “Dad?”

He snapped his mouth shut. “Oh, yes. I suppose.” He looked at Dr Reedy, smiling apologetically. “Sorry, there’s no talking to her when she’s like this. Takes after her—I mean, sorry.”

He rose and edged out from the table.

“Alright, fine. You can sign a waiver.” There was an edge to Dr Reedy's voice now.

Britta had to force herself to not smile. That was better.

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