Bitter 82

The lightning emerged from the tips of the two swords like electrified netting and arced past Britta on either side, making her hair stand on end. There was no pain or shock, but she felt Donald’s short hairs crackle under her fingers.

The lightning bolts kept going until they hit the first line of goblins. From there, small flashes of static jumped from one goblin to another. Wherever the lightning struck, the goblins were tossed into the air, their bodies wracked by convulsions. One by one, they went down.

Donald stopped running, nervously taking two or three steps forward and then the same number back, like he wasn’t sure which way to run next.

Britta patted him on the back of the neck. “It’s okay, they’re friendly.”

Donald didn’t seem convinced.

The goblins all lay on their backs now and the two knights started walking towards them. One lifted up the visor of his helmet and looked at Britta. He had a cat’s face, but blue. She wasn’t sure if this was the same race as the catman bandit she had encountered before, or an entirely new race.

“We’ll take it from here,” he said in a high-pitched voice that didn’t really suit his blue face. But then, what voice would?

The other knight ignored her completely and used his sword to poke some of the goblins. With a sword like that, you could easily dominate the game. If there was a weapon of that power available to regular players, people would definitely do whatever it took to get it.  Although, if she was any judge, there was probably a monetary expense required to obtain one.

More likely, though, it was something only devs had access to.

“Britta,” said Dr Reedy in her ear, “we’re going to put the game into maintenance mode for a few minutes, so now would be a good time to log out.”

Britta could use a break, and the way her hair was flying about, refusing to settle, was very annoying. She exited the game from her status screen after giving Donald one last pat, and found herself back in the vertical pod. The door slid open and Dr Reedy peered in.

“Everything okay?”

“Yes,” said Britta as she got out. Her legs felt wobbly.

“Excellent. Why don’t we grab some lunch while we wait for the patch to update?”

Britta was fine with that. She was famished.

Dr Reedy led them back through the crowded room to the lifts. If the people here had been watching her on the screens, they weren’t showing any reaction to the real her walking by. But then, she didn’t look much like her character.

There was a cafeteria on the third floor, one that could easily have been on the Death Star. There was lots of clear plastic furniture with LED lights flashing through them, creating colourful patterns. Music was playing, but it was hard to pin down the genre. New age trance drum and bass easy listening? It was pleasant but odd. The windows were giant screens, a bit like the ones upstairs, and showed similar vistas that may well have been from the game.

Britta put various sealed packets on her tray and sat down. She had some pasta and a salad. The pasta heated up by itself once you removed the lid. The salad looked strangely intense. She guessed it was either organic and locally sourced, or genetically modified and full of nanobots. Either way, she was hungry so she ate it.

“You really have helped us out here,” said Dr Reedy. She was eating a pot of plain yoghurt. “We’ve tried all sorts of ways to push the system to its limits, but we’ve never encountered anything like this.”

“When you said the goblin wasn’t made by you, what did you mean?” asked Britta. “Who else could have made it?”

“We don’t know yet,” said Dr Reedy. “But if someone on the outside has found a way to bypass our security, we’ll find them. It’ll just take a bit of time.”

“I can’t believe that would happen,” said Dad. “The security protocols aren’t easy to overcome. It would have to be someone from the inside. Or a disgruntled ex-employee.”

Dr Reedy gave Dad a sharp look and he went back to eating his toffee pudding. Britta was the only one eating a proper meal.

“Once you’ve eaten,” said Dr Reedy, “I’d like to try setting you up with a brand new character, and then we’ll go again. If it’s repeatable, we may be able to use that to help locate the cause.”

“Couldn’t it be something to do with the pod you gave Dad?” asked Britta.

“Possible, but unlikely. If it was the pod, why wasn’t your father affected? You both started new characters, but only you seem to be getting the strange results.”

“Actually,” said Dad, not looking up from his dessert, “I didn’t start my character in the pod, I used the one I already had.”

“Your APE character?” asked Dr Reedy. “The one you were supposed to leave behind?”

“Yes. I know what you’re thinking, and normally I would have just started again from scratch, but I’d have lost so much progression… It really didn’t seem like a big deal.”

“Excuse me, I need to speak to someone about this.” Dr Reedy rose from the table with her phone already at her ear.

“Dad, are you going to be in trouble?” He looked surprisingly calm.

“No, sweetie.” He smiled at her. “I would have been, but they need you too much to worry about me. They’ll probably agree to anything you ask, as long as you agree to help them.”

“Oh,” said Britta. They’d give her anything? “Oh, right.” She quickly finished eating.

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