I think I finally understand the expression “anger breeds action.” I didn’t mean to ditch the guys at lunchtime, it just sort of happened. I was upset—I was upset about being upset. It’s easy to get mad at Ernie. He’s loud-mouthed, opinionated, fat, vulgar…fat. But it’s not him, I know that. It’s me. I’m mad at myself for wanting something I can’t have.
Gym time with my mom helped. Usually I’m lukewarm to the whole idea of stretching, jogging, weights, calisthenics, and yoga because it was supposed to have cured my insomnia by now. Really, it only ensures a solid block of four or five hours’ sleep a night, with the rest coming in on / off forty-five-minute spurts. Maybe, on days like today, it helps me focus. I can’t say for sure. All I know is that I’m home now, jogging up the stairs and sort of seething in a laid-back kind of way, if that makes any sense. I want one thing as I breeze into my bedroom, close and lock the door behind me, toss my bags onto the floor: to stop being mad at myself.
Beta’s crap is still cluttering my bed. I sit beside his laptop, sliding my finger across the touchpad to wake the screen. He’s got an SMN window maximized; it frames a gigantic pool deck on which a dozen scantily-clad women are laughing, playing, bouncing all over the place. Beta’s in the middle of it all, sitting poolside with a wine cooler and a busty blond in his lap.
Oh, my God, I think to myself. This is so wrong. He’s gone and downloaded into some rich person’s backyard and is using the place as his own private Playboy Mansion.
He sees me and gives a thumbs-up. “Hey, little dude!” He nudges his friend; she looks at me, smiles, waves. “That’s my pal, Theo. Theo, this is Stephanie.”
“Hi, Theo,” Stephanie says, cheerily.
“Um…hi,” I say, trying not to stare at her boobs.
“What’s on your mind?” Beta asks.
I shake my head to clear my thoughts. “We need to talk.”
“Sure thing. Come on over.”
“I was thinking we could meet here, in private.”
“Oh, don’t worry, my girls don’t spread anyone’s business around.”
“Okay, but…whose pool is that?”
“Mine,” Beta says.
My sarcasm must ring through loud and clear, because Beta rolls his eyes, says, “No, I didn’t download my way into some Irvine yuppie’s mansion, if that’s what you’re thinking. This is my own personal chat room, 100% virtual.”
My eyes boggle. “But it looks so real.”
“I borrowed the game engine from Deader Than Ever 2, tweaked it a bit for display purposes. What you’re seeing is just the scaled-down, OpenGL output. If you want to really experience the goodness, you have to go virtual.”
“I’m happy being actual, thanks.”
“I’m not talking permanently,” Beta says. “Just for this session. You’re basically uploading into my chat room here on my server instead of, say, in my actual apartment or whatever. It works the same as any other SMN transfer.”
I lean in close, squinting, studying the screen. The textures look amazing. So do the women. I’m not sure if it’s the former or the latter that gets me clicking the “Visit” button, but I do, and in a few seconds the layers of my bedroom are stripped away, replaced by clear blue sky, warm sun on sparkling concrete, cheery smiles showcasing brilliant white teeth, perfect skin on perfect bodies. I look down at myself. Aside from my colors looking a little shinier than usual, I’m indistinguishable from my actual self.
Beta makes room for me on his lounger. “Have a seat, buddy.”
There are beautiful women everywhere, some tall, some short, some soft and curvaceous, others hard and athletic, some wearing string bikinis, others nothing but colorful necklaces or bracelets.
Feeling the blood surging to a certain specific part of my body I’d rather not describe here, I sit hastily, cross my legs.
Stephanie puts her arm around me, ruffles my hair. “Oh, he’s so much more darling in person!”
Beta beams, winking at me. “Can I get you a beer?”
“No thanks,” I say, trying politely to extract myself from Stephanie’s embrace.
Watching me, continuing to smile, Beta says, “Relax. She’s just a sprite, Theo—all of them are. And the booze, it’s all pixels. The effects disappear once you download back home. Are you sure you don’t want anything? I programmed Steph here with some wicked moves.”
Again, impressive, intriguing. But I’m not here for drinks or…Stephanie. “Beta, I need to talk to you about…about…” I trail off, freezing up, becoming a helpless doll in Stephanie’s clutches.
“Tense all the time, huh?” Beta sighs, sends Stephanie into the swimming pool. Then he turns to me. “What’s on your mind?”
“I want you out of my bedroom,” I tell him.
“I’m not in your bedroom, I’m here.”
“You know what I mean.”
Beta sighs, frowns. “May I ask why?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” I say. “How about all that stuff you told me about the feds trying to hunt you down?”
“Okay, first of all I never said anything about the feds. Church folk, activists, yeah, but no feds.”
“Still, you’ve got people after you, right?”
“I don’t want any of that coming down on me,” I say.
It looks like Beta’s having a hard time resisting the urge to tell me I’m overreacting. He manages it, though. “Does it really bother you? Is this why you were up so late last night?”
I blush. “Yeah.”
“Dude, I’m sorry. I…” He trails off, thinks for a moment. Over his shoulder a pair of naked chicks are nonchalantly having a conversation about some movie. “Look, I’m a Sagittarius. I tend to exaggerate. What I told you about the hunting thing, that’s me worrying about worst-case scenarios. I like to be two steps ahead. No one’s really hunting me right now, I’m just not interested in attracting any untoward attention. Now, if you don’t want my equipment in your room, fair enough. I’ll move out tonight. But I just want you to know I had a little brother once. He lost me twice, first when my MS really kicked in, and then when I went virtual. Fucked him up in the head. I figure hanging out with you gives me the chance to be the big brother I was never allowed to be. But like I said, if you want me out, I’ll leave tonight, find some other place to stay.”
“Hey, who was the girl?”
“The Marty Feldman-looking girl who was in your room yesterday when I first, ah, dropped by.”
“Oh. Her name’s Eva.”
Beta smiles suggestively.
“It’s not what you think,” I say. “She doesn’t like me. And anyway, I kind of made her cry.”
“I told my friend to break up with her—well, they’re not dating. She just has a crush on him, but he doesn’t like her, so I told him to tell her off in the hopes that she would get with me. Pretty low, huh?”
“Dude, that’s standard procedure. What you told your friend, it doesn’t sound like bad advice. Maybe the reason behind it was a little shady, but it’s true: If you don’t like someone back, you shouldn’t leave them guessing, getting their hopes up for nothing.”
“You want my advice?”
I shrug, not saying yes, but not saying no.
Beta leans forward, starts counting off on his fingers. “First, lose the glasses.”
“But I can’t see without them.”
“I’ll hook you up with some New Eyes.”
I blink. “I don’t want new eyes.” I don’t think I do.
Beta laughs. “‘New Eyes’ is a brand name for corrective eye drops. Little nanotech workers re-shape your eyeballs and clear away the unnecessary junk floating around in your vitreous so the light can reach your retinas properly. I did it—well, when I used to be actual.”
I squirm at the thought of little critters swimming around in my eyes.
“Second, new hairdo. Lose the part. Muss it up a bit with some gel in the mornings. Chicks like bedroom hair. Third, bulk up. Start jogging. Go to the gym.”
“I do. Every day.”
Beta looks surprised. “You got decent biceps? Pecs? A six-pack?”
I shrug, looking away.
“Well, let’s see.”
“I’m average, I guess.”
Beta rolls his eyes. “I don’t want photographs or anything. Just lift your shirt.”
I sigh. I lift my shirt.
Beta nods approvingly. He fingers my sleeve. “Stop wearing these ridiculously over-sized threads. You’re in great shape. Stop hiding.”
“I’m not hiding.” I’m not. Really. I just don’t see the point in showing off.
“Fourth: confidence. You have to start acting more assertive. Stop stepping out of everyone’s way or taking the smaller slice of pizza when you’re at a party. Also, women say they like sensitive men; this is a trick question. Don’t fall for it.”
I stand, putting on my best expression of casual indifference. “I should get going. I have homework, some Web site stuff to do, then bedtime.”
Beta shakes his head. “You worry too much about sleep. Personally, I didn’t get more than five hours a night when I was your age.”
“But sleep is when your body repairs itself,” I insist. “Less sleep means slower healing wounds, less digestive efficiency, a loss of elasticity of the skin—”
“All I’m saying is, there’s plenty of time for sleep when you’re old—or dead.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” I nod at Beta’s laptop. “Now, if you don’t mind…”
Beta shrugs, leans over and taps out a few commands before sending me back home. When I reappear in my bedroom, there’s something in my hand that wasn’t there before.
A bottle of New Eyes.