Bitter 572

Lin put a finger to her lips to indicate Britta shouldn’t say anything. With her other hand, she skewered a chunk of tofu on the end of a single chopstick, which she raised until it was pointing straight up like a little white flag. Then she looked past Britta, towards the table where the driver was seated. She waved the chopstick from side to side.

Britta turned to look. The driver had bent down to do something under the table; he sat up again.

Nothing else seemed to have changed. The other customers were carrying on enjoying their meals, chatting away as waiters bustled around them. Britta turned to face Lin with a questioning look.

“It would be best if our conversation wasn’t overheard,” said Lin. “Not that we are necessarily being monitored, but you can never be too careful.”

“He’s using some kind of jamming device?” Britta asked. It sounded ridiculous, like she was in some kind of spy movie where people had high-tech gadgets and guns. Although, Lin did have come very high-tech gadgets, Britta had seen them. But she didn’t have a gun. Did she?

“Something of that nature,” said Lin. “It’s very hard to be completely secure, there are ways around every precaution, but this restaurant is one of the few places in the city that has been made difficult to observe. Not for my benefit, but that doesn’t mean I can’t take advantage of this building’s special structural features.”

From outside, the restaurant had looked like any other building in the centre of London but apparently this place had been turned into a secure location of some sort. She wondered what kinds of deals had been made here, away from prying eyes and ears.

“As I was saying,” continued Lin, “I don’t deny my own personal interest in this matter. I hope to improve my position within our company by proving myself effective in the management of this game that I have no doubt will soon dominate our culture. It may seem like a rather expensive leisure activity at the moment, but that will soon change. And, to be perfectly frank, I think I can learn a thing or two by spending some time with you, in the game. I want to understand it the way you do. No one else can teach me what you can.”

Britta listened, tried her best to understand what Lin was saying, and also tried to work out what she was really saying.

She wanted to improve her standing inside her father’s company. Wasn’t she already a key person within it? Did her being a girl make a difference? Her sisters were relegated to second-class inheritors of the enormous wealth and fortune her family controlled, perhaps? But wasn’t that still a phenomenal amount of money? How much money did you need once you had billions?

“How many brothers and sisters do you have?” Britta looked at Mum to make sure she wasn’t overstepping the bounds of good manners. “If you don’t mind me asking,” she added, just in case.

“Not at all,” said Lin. “I have seven sisters and three brothers. I am the second youngest. So, as you would imagine, I am quite far down the pecking order.”

“And you think hanging out with me will help?” It was hard to keep the disbelief out of her voice. Even if the game was important enough to win Lin some brownie points, partying with Britta was unlikely to provide many opportunities for Lin to prove herself.

“I think, it will be an interesting adventure,” said Lin. “I’m not used to doing things somebody else’s way. My only role would be to make sure you weren’t unduly molested by the AI.”

“You think L-15 wouldn’t want to oppose you?”

“I believe,” said Lin, “he would be wary of attracting that kind of attention. Although we pit the AI against each other to identify the best of them, we also reserve the right to eliminate those deemed to have taken a less than desirable path to reach dominance. There are some ways of winning that aren’t acceptable.”

Britta took that to mean ways that threatened the dominance of the game’s true rulers. The AI were meant to make the game attractive to the customers, but they were still working for their creators.

“So, you would just go where I go and make sure we were left… unmolested.”

“Exactly.” Lin smiled and raised her chopstick again.

Britta looked around again. The driver had disappeared under the table once more.

“Are we back on the grid?” asked Britta.

“Yes. It isn’t wise to be invisible for too long. A dead spot can stand out even more than a highlighted one.”

“What do you think?” said Mum, who Britta could tell had been listening intently. “I quite like the idea of you having someone to watch over you.”

Britta understood the parental enthusiasm for keeping a child under observation. Mum liked Lin, Britta knew that. Britta liked her, too. And even if she had other reasons for wanting to do this that she hadn’t mentioned, there was no reason to think it would cause problems for Britta. She only wanted to pass her twelve minutes as comfortably as possible. She had other things to do.

“Okay,” said Britta. “I think we could try it. As long as you don’t mind doing things my way.”

“Of course,” said Lin.

“It might be a bit boring.”

“Not at all. You forget, I’ve been watching your feed for some time now. Frankly, I get quite impatient when I’m waiting for the next instalment to arrive. Sometimes you don’t do very much, but other times it’s better than a movie.”

“Really?” said Britta. “You enjoy watching me?”

“Oh, yes,” said Lin. “I can’t believe I’m finally going to get to play with you.” She sounded quite excited about the prospect. Britta was baffled.

Was it a good idea to party up with Lin? It was hard to say.

It couldn’t hurt, Britta decided, to try it out and see how it went. There was no reason it had to be permanent, and L-15 was definitely the bigger issue.

When you were faced with more than one problem, it was better to take care of the most pressing one first.

Then again, when you were distracted by a big problem, it gave the smaller ones a chance to sneak up on you without being noticed.

It was all very confusing. Britta had to remind herself it was just a game and none of it mattered. Not to her, anyway.

The rest of the dinner was very pleasant. After stuffing her face without stopping for about an hour, Britta suddenly felt very full and the minor complications of a video game didn’t seem all that important. They said their goodbyes and Britta and Mum waddled back to the car.

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