My alarm clock goes off just as I’m getting back from Eva’s. Normally, I’d be waking up right about now, grabbing a shower, having breakfast, brushing my teeth and all that, but instead I go over to the bedroom door, make sure it’s locked. Then I sit at my computer again, scroll through my SMN buddy list. I highlight Beta’s name; I click “Visit.”
Off I go, from body to bytes, from Zen bedroom to poolside paradise—wait. Not quite. Oh, I’ve uploaded onto Beta’s server, all right, but the decor has been drastically altered. In fact, I’m standing on what appears to be the bridge of the starship Enterprise. Big-breasted babes in colorful miniskirt-uniforms abound. Beta, sporting a yellow shirt, too-tight black pants, and gogo boots, is seated in the captain’s chair.
“Ensign Smole!” he exclaims with a pleased look on his face. “Welcome aboard!”
I pay myself a cursory glance. My shirt is red. Crap. I’ve watched enough Star Trek episodes to know what that means.
“What’s on your mind, buddy?” Captain Beta asks.
“Real quick,” I say, “because I know you’re probably busy battling Romulans or Klingons or whatever—”
“Naw, we’re just getting ready to watch some South Park.” He points at the main view screen. Two of his officers are wrestling a couch into place in front of the command module. “You’re welcome to join us.”
“I’ve got school in half an hour,” I tell him.
“That’s too bad. What can I do for you?”
“Tell me how to uninstall SuperMegaNet.”
Beta frowns, looks slightly betrayed. “Is this about my living in your bedroom?”
“No, no,” I say. “My friend doesn’t want to use the program anymore. She tried uninstalling from the Control Panel, she tried turning off her computer—she even unplugged the thing. Nothing happened. It was still running as if she’d done nothing.”
“That would be your quantum technology at work.”
Beta crosses his leg, William-Shatner-as-1960s-Captain-Kirk style. “You can’t simply turn off or disconnect your neighbor, can you?”
“Well, no.” Not unless they’re on a respirator.
“That’s the concept behind SMN. Ultimate collaboration, all the time, 24/7. The entire network is supposed to be like one giant chat room, only it’s people’s bedrooms, offices, cubicles at work. Doesn’t matter if you have a hundred miles between you and the person you’re talking to. SMN means to make it synonymous with stepping from one room to another when you click that ‘Visit’ button. You can’t simply banish your bedroom door when you don’t want your parents to come barging in, and you can’t turn off your buddy list just because you’re not in the mood to chat.”
Stupid Ernie. Did he even read the fine print before he made us all install this stupid program? “Can they do that? Forcing everyone to be…connected?”
“It’s not a matter of ‘can they?’ They’ve already done it.” Beta smiles, leans back in his chair. At the rear of the bridge, the turbolift opens; a yeoman enters carrying a trayful of drinks. “The thing about SuperMegaNet is, it was an internal hobby project at Taurus, two groups of programmers trying to win a bet. ‘It can be done!’ was the motto. This was never supposed to be a public product. But it leaked out, and so Taurus went with it to prevent a PR nightmare. And to take advantage of the user base for testing purposes. They’re eventually going to release a dumbed-down version as the final gold code, something with your more standard VR features. Before then, all the ‘bugs’ have to be worked out. You know, all the interesting stuff like being able to upload and download yourself, storing yourself on different servers, et cetera.”
“That…sucks,” I say.
Beta puts his hand on my shoulder. Casually, he says, “Congratulations. You’re a guinea pig.”
“This is serious, Beta.”
“I know it is. This whole develop-in-the-wild, bleeding-edge thing is one of the reasons I left Taurus. I don’t agree with their philosophy of forcing togetherness on everyone as a way of covering up their mistake. And I don’t intend to give up my virtual freedom once the crippled 1.0 version hits the Web.”
Beta’s still smiling, but I can tell he’s serious. I guess I’d be too if I’d cheated death by going virtual.
After a moment I ask, “So, what are you supposed to do if you don’t want SMN anymore?”
“You could, I suppose, bash the shit out of your computer with a baseball bat. Your webcam, too—preferably when there’s no one downloading. Or you could wait a couple of years for your hardware to fail.”
“There’s no anti-SuperMegaNet program? No firewall setting to prevent uploads or downloads?”
“There you get into the quantum programming shit again. Part of the bet at Taurus was to come up with something that couldn’t be hacked or blocked. A true connection.” Beta laughs. “I think it was mostly the guys wanting to keep tabs on their girlfriends. Well, those who had girlfriends anyway.”
A mild cheer goes up as the South Park episode begins. The majority of Beta’s bridge crew are making their way over to the couch as Cartman’s face fills the screen. The quality looks amazing—better than Blu-ray. I watch for a moment before facing Beta again.
“Hey, how come you didn’t tell me about the downside to New Eyes?”
“The optic nerve rot thing.”
Beta waves his hand dismissively. “That’s, like, five percent of people.”
Oh, God. “But what if I’m in the five percent?”
“How do you know?”
Beta shrugs. “Your eyes would’ve melted out of their sockets by now.”
“That’s nice to know.”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake.” Beta gets up from his chair, walks over to a console that’s been grafted between the communications and library computer stations.
Curious, I follow him over.
“If it’ll make you feel better…” Beta says, entering some sort of cryptic code via the keypad. Momentarily a bottle dropper materializes on a small platform above the console. He picks it up, tosses it to me. I barely catch it.
“What’s this?” I ask.
“Old Eyes,” Beta replies. “It restores your eyes to their natural default factory setting.”
Great. More eye drops.