“Define ‘desperate,'” I say.
Beta continues to set up his equipment on my bed (in the back of my mind I wonder where I’m supposed to sleep tonight). “Desperate—as in nowhere else to go. As in I tried to log in to my home server at Taurus just now and I got a 403 error. So, I remembered my little pal Theo and his Zen garden bedroom, and here I am. You’re not on my buddy list. They won’t think to look here unless the feds get involved. Could be nothing, could be something. Bottom line: I need a place to lay low until I can figure out what the deal is.”
“Patent trolls, competing tech companies, church folk, human rights activists—you name it. They all want a piece of me to toss into their anti-Taurus, technology-will-kill-us-all pies.”
I do a little mental digesting. “I don’t get it. How can anyone get you? You’re virtual, a disembodied dude living on the SMN server.”
“I’m also a person, thank you very much,” Beta snorts. His appearance looks more finished than it was the last time I saw him. He’s filled out more, still dressed superhero-style in a skinsuit (now camouflage-patterned instead of dull blue) and boots, but more complete. This must be his gaming skin. He’s got a pistol strapped to one muscular thigh, a knife strapped to the other. I hope they’re for show.
I sit at my desk, waiting. Eva’s off doing her own thing; Jan’s still downloading into his living room; Ernie’s sitting glued to his computer screen, watching me. He sends me a text: “What the fuck is going on?”
I start to type back, but Beta, hearing my key presses, raises one of his arms and points squarely at me. “Hold off on the texts for a few minutes, little dude.”
“But I was just going to—”
“Let me get the firewall configured, then you can text your balls off, okay?”
I wait. After a few minutes tinkering with his laptop, Beta straightens and continues where he left off a few sentences ago: “Could be the activists again. They’re so obtuse. They’re treating this like an episode of Supernatural, like I’m some kind of spirit trapped in limbo, someone who doesn’t know he’s dead. They want to help me, to free me.” He shakes his head. “They say I died in the accident last year, that this is just a digital rendition you’re talking to, and not actually me. They want to pull the plug, end my ‘suffering.’ They want to trash the whole SuperMegaNet project, too. Well, you know what I have to say to that?”
I shake my head.
Beta bends over, spreads his butt cheeks, and pretends to fart loudly.
The sound of Ernie’s stifled laughter emanates from my PC speakers.
Beta straightens again, faces me. “My mom wants her little boy back. Taurus, they want to pretend their programmers didn’t screw up. The rest, they want to pretend things like this can’t happen. They all think virtual is wrong. Humans playing God and all that. They’d be perfectly happy to see me back in my original body, sitting crippled in my wheelchair and counting the days until the MS converts my nervous system to sludge.”
“That sucks,” I sigh. “Really, I sympathize—but why do you have to stay here?”
Beta winks. “Simple: You have a killer Internet connection. Who’s your ISP, by the way?”
I glance towards the bedroom door. “Beta…it’s been hard enough keeping SuperMegaNet a secret from my parents. How am I supposed to hide you for any length of time?”
“Look, you won’t even know I’m here. I’m virtual, remember? I’ll be on my laptop, behind a firewall. I’ll need you to take a few messages for me, but that’s all.” He smiles. “Maybe we can hit up the Wii every now and then. Give it a few weeks and this whole thing will have blown over, I promise.”
Silence passes between us. It’s not a matter of me accepting or denying Beta’s request; he’s already set himself up. I merely have to cooperate peacefully or else sulk quietly in my own corner.
“Look, Theo,” he says after watching me stew for a moment. “Lighten the fuck up. I’ve seen your schedule. You don’t do anything but sit and study. You need a little variety.”
“I’m not a hapless nerd, you know.”
“Okay, I’m sorry. That didn’t come out right. I’m just a little edgy right now. You’d be too if a human rights group was trying to kill you—”
Someone knocks on my door.
It’s my mom.
“Theo?” she calls.
I shoot Beta a freaked-out look.
“No worries,” he says, nodding, and clicks the “Enter” key on his laptop. Instantaneously he vanishes into thin air. I assume he’s transferred himself to his laptop.
I think quickly, darting over to my Wii and flicking it on, grabbing one of the Wiimotes and bringing it with me as I open the bedroom door.
My mom peers curiously over my shoulder. “Who were you talking to?”
I hold up the Wiimote. “Wii Speak.”
“Oh, wow. Did you get an upgrade or something? It sounded like there was actually someone else in the room with you.”
“Sorry. I’ll keep the volume turned down from now on.”
Mom gestures at my bed. “Who’s laptop is that?”
I glance over my shoulder. “Oh, I’m working on a server project for someone. It would’ve taken too long to download his files over the Internet, so he just loaned me his laptop.” It could be true. I design Web pages for paying clients in my spare time…although this would be the first server I ever built at home.
My mom seems to take my explanation in stride. “Oh? How’s it going?”
“Good. I’m learning a lot.” (Parents always like it when you say you’re learning.)
Mom smiles. “You never cease to amaze, Theo.” She leans in, kisses me on the cheek, straightens again. “I have Mr. Nakayoshi scheduled for a private session tonight, so I’ll be in the studio until eight. Your father’s going to start dinner. Sound okay?”
“Sounds good, mom.”
I close the door. With my back pressed against the wood, I take a deep breath and glance at all the junk cluttering my bed.
It’s going to suck sleeping on the floor tonight.