Bitter 88

“You are a special player, Britta,” said Dr Reedy. “There isn’t anyone who’s managed to do what you’ve done. I can tell you, you’ve got people very excited at APE. We feel like we could be on the verge of a major breakthrough, we’re just not sure how to get to the next level. That’s where we think you can help us.”

Britta hardly heard anything Dr Reedy said. She was looking at the helmet sticking out of the white polystyrene like it was half-buried in snow. Was it really the same as the VR pod, or was she missing something? What exactly was the doctor asking her to do?

“This helmet is a prototype,” said Dr Reedy. “One of only six. I won’t tell you what it’s worth, but it’s a lot.” She lifted it out of the box.

It was black and yellow and a bit like a bicycle helmet, but with a big visor across the front and a bunch of straps and buckles over the top.

“You fitted everything into there?” asked Britta.

“Not quite. There’s also this.” She put the helmet on the kitchen table and stood up. Dad came over and helped her lift a steel briefcase (almost a suitcase) off the floor and onto the table next to the helmet. She flicked the latches and opened it.

“You’ll only need to press this button here.” She lowered the lid to show Britta a green button on the top. She pushed it open again. Inside were a lot of knobs and sliders. Lights flashed and flickered. It looked very complicated.

The doctor ran her fingers over the controls affectionately, and then closed the lid and sat down again.

“Now, Britta, you have to understand this is all very confidential. The game is only a  small part of what we’re trying to do at APE, and if it takes off, hopefully it will fund all of our future research. We hope to make these helmets available to the public eventually, but that’s going to take time. First, we have to make sure they work flawlessly.”

She paused, like she was waiting for Britta to join in. Britta nodded.

“You are in a completely unique position. Your character doesn’t seem to obey any of the normal rules, and since you’re the only one who can access her, we’re relying on you to help us work out how that happened.”

“Wasn’t it Dad’s pod?” asked Britta.

“Possibly. Unfortunately, since we put it back together, we haven’t been able to make it work. At all. So whatever bug or hack or piece of magic it contained, we seem to have lost it. Never mind.” She said the last very flatly, like it was a sore point she in fact did very much mind.

Britta turned to look at her parents. She found it odd they had agreed to this, and even odder they weren’t saying anything now.

“There are three things I want to make clear with you,” said Dr Reedy. “One, this is entirely your choice. I’ve spoken with your parents and explained what APE is looking for from you, and they’re agreeable, up to a point. But it’s you who has the final say.”

Britta looked back at her parents. Mum was maintaining a very neutral face. Like she didn’t want to let Britta see how she felt about this. Dad was the opposite. He practically had the pompoms out and was ready to do a cheer spelling out her name.

“Second,” said Dr Reedy, “this has to be kept completely confidential. No one can know you’re in the game, and they certainly can’t know about the helmet. I should tell you, it has a number of tracking devices built into it, and can be turned off remotely. We would also be recording everything you did in-game.”

“You’d be watching me all the time?” It was hardly a surprising thing for them to do, but it still made Britta feel a little anxious.

“Yes. That’s the whole point of this. We need to see how you interact with the NPCs and where it takes you. We’ve got some of the footage from your previous adventures, but a lot of it got deleted. We think because there were two of you using the same machine.”

Dr Reedy picked up the helmet. “As you can see, this is fully adjustable and will be synced to your brain and no one else’s. You can try it on, if you like.”

“You said there were three things you wanted to tell me. What’s the third thing?”

“Yes. We’ll be paying you for your time. Initially £5,000 for the first six weeks, and then we’ll reassess the situation.”

“Five thousand? For six weeks?” Her voice was suddenly very small and quiet. They wanted to pay her to play? No wonder Dad was so happy.

“No. Five thousand a week, for six weeks. Initially.”

Britta felt dizzy. They wanted to give her 30K? Were they out of their minds?

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