Bitter 86

Walking was difficult. Britta had expected the same sort of body dysmorphia as she’d had with the gnome, and a similar amount of time to adjust to her new size, but this was much worse. She had set the height-slider all the way to the maximum, so she was nearly seven foot tall. Being so high made the ground seem like she was looking down at it from the ledge of a skyscraper.

She was sweating and her skin tingled with anxiety after only a few steps. She felt like she was off-balance and about to fall. With her gnome character, it had taken a few seconds to get used to it. With this one, minutes had passed, and she still couldn’t get her head to stop spinning.

It was a bit like motion sickness and there was a strong possibility she would throw up. She got down on her knees. It was better when she wasn’t so far from the ground. She began crawling on all fours.

“Are you alright?” asked Dr Reedy.

“I’m… fine. A little dizzy.” They were all probably watching her on giant screens, wondering what the hell she was doing. Five seconds into the game, no enemies in sight, and she was on the floor. She should have chosen a normal sized character. Not much advantage in being so big and strong if you couldn’t walk upright.

“Don’t worry, it should pass in a minute,” said Dr Reedy.

What was she thinking? They knew why she was on the floor. It was their game.

By the time she reached the top of the rise, her head had started to clear and she was able to stand up. The town wasn’t too far away, she could see the taller buildings over the trees ahead of her. Maybe a half-hour walk.

She had long legs and a lot of stamina, so she decided to run. Even though her agility was low, once she built up some momentum, there was no stopping her. She jumped over ditches and vaulted fallen trees. She didn’t tire, and it was much easier to keep her balance when she was running. It was a warm day, but the wind rushing past her helped keep her cool. She’d always hated cross country running at school, but hurtling through the fields and forests was almost fun.

She reached the town in about ten minutes. Who needed a horse when you could run like the Flash? She threw up her arms in victory as she passed the first few houses and slowed until she came to a standstill, breathing hard. She checked her status screen—everything looked fine.

There were people all around her, going about their business. It was definitely New Town—unless all towns were identical. Which was a possibility.

A flashing light in the corner of her vision attracted her attention. She tapped the map with her finger and it opened up in front of her. There was a beacon on top of a building. When she pressed it, a tag appeared:

Adventurer’s Guild.

It was telling her where to go.

“This didn’t happen last time,” said Britta. “Am I supposed to go here first?”

“It’s what happens whenever you enter a town for the first time,” said Dr Reedy.

Britta followed the glittering trail towards the Adventurer’s Guild. It all looked very familiar, down to the NPCs going about their non-existent business. As she approached the guild building, she recognised a certain, dark alleyway. If she wanted to test her ability to trigger NPCs into alternative questlines, who better than her favourite hapless mugger?

She ducked into the alley and walked to the other end. No one bothered her. As expected, there was a stone wall blocking her way. Of course, last time she had been small and female. It made sense Big Freddy wouldn’t be so keen to pull his usual nonsense on a huge barbarian. Even in the real world, a criminal assessed the risk against the gain. Only an idiot would—

“Nice hammer you got there.”

Britta turned around. Big Freddy was standing in the middle of the alley, his dagger in his hand.

Britta smiled and slapped the hammer. “Hello, Freddy.”

“Hand over your valuables and I won’t hurt you too badly.”

He didn’t seem surprised to be called by name. “Why don’t you hand over your valuables, and I won’t hurt you too badly.”

“Hur hur hur. I’ve got a better idea. Hand over your valuables and I won’t hurt you too badly.”

It felt like she was caught in a never ending loop. “Freddy, let’s not fight. I want to join the Garbolum family, can you introduce me to your dad?”

“Hur hur,” chortled Freddy. “Hand over your valuables and I won’t hurt you too badly.”

Britta attempted to engage him in conversation a dozen different ways, but each time it ended the same. At no point was there the slightest indication that there was any other option but to fight or run.

“This isn’t working,” said Britta.

“He’s a very basic character. He wasn’t designed to activate any other storylines,” said Dr Reedy.

“Hand over your valuables and I won’t hurt you too badly,” said Freddy.

Britta took a swing at him with her hammer and knocked him out. Easy. It was the beginning of the game, so you would expect it to be easy, but it was just so disappointing. It didn’t feel like much of an achievement.

“Identify,” said Britta as she picked up Freddy's dagger. It was just a normal dagger, uncursed and unrelated to the Garbolum family, if they even existed.

“This character isn’t the same, is it?” said Dr Reedy.

“No,” said Britta.

There was a flash of white light and Britta was back in the VR rig. The door slid open.

Britta exited blinking. The change in height was disorienting but the vertigo wasn’t as extreme this time. It passed after a couple of seconds.

“Is that it?” Bitta asked the doctor.

“I think we have what we need. Your new character was behaving well within the normal parameters. I doubt you would experience anything different to our own testers. You don’t think it’s as fun, do you?”

“No,” said Britta. “Sorry.”

“Please, you’ve done us an immense favour. Really, you helped a lot. We’ll be sending you a gift to show our appreciation.”

There were a few more questions and some debate as to whether it was the VR pod that had caused Britta’s unexpected encounters in New World or just a random glitch, but other than that, Britta’s role as investigator into the unknown was at an end.

She had some hopes that the gift Dr Reedy had mentioned would be her own VR pod, but it was unlikely. There’d have been all sorts of paperwork to fill out if that were the case.

Dad did most of the talking on the way home, sharing his thoughts on bugs and computer AI, and how the different departments at APE didn’t get along. Britta felt oddly empty. She would probably never get to play again, but it wasn’t the game she’d miss, it was her little gnome.

The next day, the gift from APE arrived. It was a very expensive-looking basket of fruit.

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