Bitter 77

They went back to the lift and up again. According to the lift buttons—which were holographic and not really there—there were fifteen floors, even though the building hadn’t seemed that high from outside. Maybe the building was a hologram, too. They were headed for the fifteenth floor. Britta moved her head from side to side, making the lift buttons appear and disappear.

The lift doors opened into an open area. The whole floor was one, giant room with people sat behind a bank of computers, like mission control.

Giant screens covered the walls. There were lamps in the ceiling, but they were quite dim and gave off a slightly blue hue. The screens showed fields and lakes and mountains in ridiculously high definition.

No one paid attention to the new arrivals. They were all too busy, frantically talking on headsets and pointing and shouting at each other.

It seemed to be a bit much. “Is this all because of me?” Britta whispered to Dad.

“Oh no,” said Dr Reedy, spinning around to face them, “this is just a normal day in New World. This way.”

As they walked between the computer terminals, Britta could see various locations in New World. Most she didn’t recognise. A city, a crowd of people dancing, a castle under siege. It looked as real as any movie, starring real people. She hadn’t considered the world outside New Town. Was it all populated and fully operational? These couldn’t possibly be real players, they had to be NPCs.

They crossed to the far side where there was a gated off area with what looked like a porta potty in the corner. It was conical on top and had wheels. It looked familiar.

“This is the rig you’ll be using,” said Dr Reedy. She pressed something on the side and a door slid open.

Britta realised where she’d seen it before. It was the diagram Lewis had shown her of what he thought the pod looked like. Turned out he was right.

“It’s standing up,” said Britta.

“Yes, this model is more advanced than the one you’re used to, but not as comfortable. “This is linked directly to the mainframe, so no lag and no delay. We’ll see exactly what you’ll see. You’ll only be in here an hour or two, but if you feel any kind of cramp or stiffness, just say. We’ll be listening in.”

She was going to be watched the whole time. She hoped she wouldn’t do anything too embarrassing.

“Will I be the same character?” she asked.

“Yes. We want to try and replicate what you experienced before. Any NPCs you encounter, try to get them to talk off-script.”

“Have you tried, yourselves?” asked Dad.

Dr Reedy grimaced and rolled her shoulders awkwardly. “We did… try. The NPCs weren’t responsive.” She looked back at Britta. “If you can repeat what happened to you, it could be a very important development in AI. Not just for us as a company, but for the world at large.”

Great. No pressure, then. Britta looked at Dad. He nodded at her.

Hesitantly, she stepped forward. She’d wanted this so much but now she was here, she felt apprehensive. It was different to what she’d expected. All these people rushing around, making noise. She’d always entered the game quiet and alone. It helped, though, that they weren’t focused on her. They had their work to do, she was just a girl in the corner, climbing into a Tardis with wheels.

She positioned herself inside the upright pod. The back wall sloped so she could lean against it. There was nothing inside except the PVC padding, which was nowhere near as soft as the lining in Dad’s pod. She took a breath and tried to relax.

“Good luck,” said Dr Reedy as the door slid closed.

Good luck? Why would she need good luck? No, stop being paranoid, she told herself.

She was in darkness. There was a lot more room in here. She lifted her arms and waved them about, but it was eerie and she put them back by her side.

“Everything okay?” echoed Dr Reedy’s voice.

“Ah. Yes.” She didn’t have microphone or headset, but the voice seemed to be all around her. “Ready.”

There was a buzzing sound and a pinpoint of white light. Just like the pod. Then there was a rush like the floor had dropped away and she was falling.

She landed with a jerk and opened her eyes. She was in a field, the sun shining and a gentle breeze. Finally, she was back in the game.

There was a scream and a goblin came charging towards her holding a rusty sword.

“No, no, no, wait,” she yelled as the Goblin stabbed her in the stomach.

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