Theo – I rub my eyes.
Jack blinks at me. His blue, vaporous torso wavers; he has no hair, no eyebrows, no nipples or bellybutton or fingernails—he looks like an in-progress sketch. I know he’s young for an adult, twenty-ish; I know he’s male because of his voice and name, and I’m sure he’s Asian because, well, he looks Asian. He’s wearing some kind of superhero skinsuit, or maybe he’s lost his clothes in an unfortunate game of strip poker. There aren’t enough details to tell one way or another.
Too much homework, I think to myself. Not enough sleep. I’ve always had trouble sleeping—this must be my brain’s way of saying, “That’s it, I’m out of here!” Nevertheless, I try to be rational. This isn’t a computer ghost standing before me, and I don’t feel far-gone enough to warrant a hallucination. More likely: Jack is a SuperMegaNet user wearing a custom skin. But the skins feature isn’t finished yet, is it? Unless the help file is outdated…
Yes, I tell myself that’s what this is: a misprint—though a lifetime of gorging on mangas and science fiction novels and Star Trek reruns has me believing otherwise.
“Nice skin,” I say.
Jack looks down at himself, brushes his hands over his abdomen. “Oh, this thing? It’s just a quick mock-up. I’m still working on the final version.”
“I thought skins hadn’t been implemented yet.”
“They haven’t. I’m privileged.”
“Yeah, so…” I clear my throat. “Where are you from?”
“/usr/bin/smn/jack…wait, no.” Jack laughs. “That’s my technical side jumping the gun again. It’s been so long since I went actual. I’m from southern California—Garden Grove, originally.”
I recall the street address listed on the SMN “About” screen. “Garden Grove, California? You work for the SuperMegaNet company? Taurus Labs?”
“Not so much these days. I was never officially laid off, but my position at Taurus is more an ‘associate’ kind of thing. You might say I’m on an extended vacation—geez, look at this place. A fucking Zen garden, huh?”
“Nothing wrong with that,” I snort.
“No, I like it. Very…conducive. What’s your name?”
I twiddle my thumbs.
“So, why’d you visit me?” I ask.
“Why not? They’re doing maintenance on the server for the next few hours, so I thought I’d drop in randomly.”
“And Jack SQL—that’s your real name?”
“No, that’s my SMN screen name. My real name is Simon. Simon Wong. You can call me Beta, though.”
“My gaming handle. Sort of an inside joke—multiple sclerosis. Before I stopped going actual, I told my friends that I was my mom’s beta baby. Nice CD collection.” Jack—Beta, I mean—has been casually examining my room. He pauses by my bookshelf, fingers a PHP manual. “Nice. How long have you been a programmer?”
I shrug. “Three years, almost. You?”
“Since my backpack and lunch box days.”
I smile. I kind of like this Simon—Beta—guy. The Semantic Web would’ve been more palatable if he’d been there. “I don’t have you on my buddy list. How’d you sidestep the rules?”
“It’s difficult to explain the details,” Beta says, “so I’ll just give you the basic version. In the early days of the SMN testing phase—that would be a year ago next week—my computer hard drive died while I was virtual. It took my real body with it. My virtual self is intact, but is stuck on the server. Essentially, I’m a copy of my former self.”
That sucks. I’ve been worried about my parents finding an empty room during one of my uploads, and here it’s dawning on me just how bad things can get when the technology goes poof!
Beta seems to sense my worries, and waves his hand dismissively. “This was, as I said, the early days. We now keep a backup copy of every SMN user on our servers, just in case.”
I ask, “So you live on the SuperMegaNet server?”
“It does and it doesn’t. In virtual, my MS is history. I can change my body type as it suits me. I’ll be twenty-one forever, until I choose to have myself deleted—or until we have a catastrophic hardware crash at Taurus. I can visit anyone around the world via SuperMegaNet. Of course, I don’t actually exist anymore, but there are new game rooms coming out all the time, new chat rooms, new people to meet, new players to frag. I get around.”
“That’s terrible,” I say softly, not meaning to bring Beta down or anything, but catching myself too late.
“You’re sort of a tightly-wound little dude, huh?” He’s reached the self-help section of my bookshelf; he takes a copy of The Feeling Good Handbook in his hands and flips through.
“I’ve always been like this,” I say.
“Like what, exactly?”
“Tense. Insomnia. Tired, but never able to fall asleep on time.”
“Ever tried warm milk at bedtime? Red wine? Explosive sex with a redhead?” Beta chuckles. “Oh, that’s right: your profile says you’re twelve.”
I sigh. “It doesn’t work like that for me.”
“Well, I can guarantee the sex would—but we’ll have to work around the technicalities. What about St John’s Wort?”
“Herbs, diet—” I gesture at the exercise mat rolled up beside my desk. “—yoga, daily trips to my mom’s fitness club, CBT…if any of this works, it’s coincidence. It’ll take more than an hour for me to fall asleep once you’ve gone.”
“Yeah?” Beta replaces the Handbook back on its shelf and turns to face me. He folds his arms. “Well, maybe you just think too much. Maybe you just need to keep your mind occupied. Got any video games?”
“I have a Wii.”
Beta makes a face, nods. “Okay. You’re a casual gamer. That’ll have to do. Set it up.”
I’m halfway to telling him I’d rather tackle my insomnia on my own, but already he’s gone over to my computer and is poking around. Quickly I switch on my TV, hoping I can distract him before—
“She’s cute,” he says. “Your girlfriend?”
I swallow, embarrassed. I know he’s talking about Eva. “She’s…my friend—don’t you have better things to do than look at other people’s buddy lists?”
“Yes, but until the server work is finished, my options are limited.”
“I have school tomorrow.”
“School schmool. You want to spend the next hour laying awake in bed? Or do you want to get in a couple of rounds of Super Smash Bros?”
“Shut up and let’s play, dude.”