They’re arguing in my bedroom when I get home, Ernie and Eva (Jan’s legs are slowly filling in—he’s still downloading). They don’t even notice me at first.
“I only downloaded,” Eva says, “to see what you were up to!”
“I was seeing why Jan was downloading,” Ernie replies. He gestures at Jan’s legs.
“Oh, right. Like you weren’t about to ransack Theo’s kitchen for pudding and cookies before I caught you.”
“Why you gotta bring fatness into this, huh?” Ernie spreads his arms; it just so happens he’s holding a freshly-stripped Popsicle stick in one of his hands.
“Ugh! I told you not to call me that—”
I clear my throat.
Ernie and Eva look at me, caught off guard.
Beside them, Jan’s crotch appears quietly out of thin air.
“Oh, hello, Theo,” Eva says after a moment. She smiles sheepishly, waves.
I set my backpack down, delighted by the fact that she’s downloaded into my bedroom, but confused as to why. I ask her, “What are you doing here?”
“I…need to talk to you.” She glares at Ernie. “Alone.”
I face Ernie. “Why are you here?”
He shrugs. “I just wanted to be included.”
I look at Jan’s slowly-materializing legs. “And him?”
Eva shrugs, looks embarrassed. “Who knows?”
“You should know, Eva,” Ernie says. “You know everything else about him. The layout of his room, whether he wears boxers or briefs—”
“What? All I’m saying is that you want to shag him into next Tuesday.”
My jaw drops. I can’t believe that I can’t believe he just said that.
“Ernie!” Eva cries.
Jan finishes downloading. He blinks at the three of us. He looks disappointed. “What’s everyone doing here?”
Ernie seems not to have noticed Jan’s arrival. Finishing where he left off, he folds his arms and fixes Eva with a knowing look. “Come on, we all know you like him. Nuts to what you told him earlier.”
“You were listening?” Eva squeals, acknowledging Jan with a flaring of her bug eyes, looking angrily ashamed, ashamedly angry.
“SuperMegaNet, babe,” Ernie replies. “Ultimate collaboration!”
Eva’s had enough. She lunges at him, going for the jugular—but she’s only managed to get a single surprised cough out of him before noticing that a fifth person has just appeared in the room with us: Beta. He’s got a couple of duffel bags with him.
Looking relieved by the distraction, Ernie wrestles Eva’s hands from his neck and rasps, “Who’s the metro dude?”
“Sorry to crash the party,” Beta says, setting down his bags, “but me and Theo have to talk.”
“Join the party,” I grumble.
Beta waits a moment. When no one moves, he barks, “Alone, kiddos.”
Jan looks even more disappointed. “But…but I just got here.”
Beta smiles at him. “Cute accent—now beat it.” He points at my computer. “Seriously, get a move on.”
“Who is this jerk?” Ernie asks me, point blank.
“My, er, uncle,” I say.
“Yeah? Well, I don’t like him.”
This is getting out of hand. “Just go,” I say, and rush over to lock my bedroom door. Then I go to my desk and click my SMN messenger, sending Ernie, Eva, and Jan home. “We’ll meet up again later, guys.”
Ernie and Eva wink out within a few seconds; Jan starts dissolving an inch at a time from the scalp down. I wait for his eyes and ears to upload before I turn to Beta and ask, “What’s the deal?”
“I need a place to stay,” he replies, and goes over to my bed, tosses his bags down. He unzips one, flips it over and dumps a pile of hard drives onto the blanket.
“But you’re not real. You said so yourself.”
“I’m real. I’m just not actual.”
I watch him for a moment. He’s pulling all sorts of electronic goodness from his bags: hard drive cables, speakers, webcam, a beefy-looking laptop. “What’s wrong with staying on the SMN server? I thought that’s where you lived.”
“Not anymore,” he says, plugging in the webcam, firing up the laptop.
“What are you doing?”
He pulls more wires from another of his bags. “I’m going to setup a RAID. I need storage.”
I run my hand through my hair. “Look, just because we played a few rounds of Super Smash Bros. doesn’t mean we’re, um, best buddies. If my parents catch me hiding some random guy in my room…”
“Hey, you’re not my first choice. But desperate times call for desperate measures.”
This sounds bad.