“I’m going to raid your fridge,” Beta says.
“You’re not actual,” doctor_cracker says. “You can’t eat.”
“I can eat. I just can’t digest.”
“You should talk to my sister-in-law, then. She’d kill for a deal like that.”
Beta laughs and, assuring me that he’ll be right back, skedaddles away. I listen to him go. I want dearly for him to stay with me, but, more than that, I want to look like I’m taking this whole thing like a man—even though I don’t understand why he and the good doctor are joking like it’s Super Bowl Sunday. Maybe they’re doing it for my benefit, maybe they’re just as scared as I am and this is their way of keeping cool. Or maybe they see corrective eye drop mishaps like this all the time and there’s really nothing to worry about. I hope.
I can hear doctor_cracker working beside me, tinkering. I let him be for a few minutes before I clear my throat and ask, “So, how is it you’re qualified to be working on eyes?”
“Because,” doctor_cracker replies, slowly and between bursts of concentration, “back in the day, I used to work with your good friend Beta over at Taurus Labs. They’re the company behind the lovely little bit of SuperMegaNet technology which brought you here this morning.”
I knew that.
“Beta was the shit back then, had his grubby little paws in a dozen different projects, one of which involved restoring sight to the blind. I was part of the ophthalmology team.”
“Sounds kind of fancy for just a video chat program.”
“Kiddo, SuperMegaNet is much more than video chat.” doctor_cracker chuckles. “The chat client is one of many nanotech-based features developed off our various government contracts. You think your average store-bought PC can teleport whole people on just a Core 2 Duo and a gig or two of RAM?”
Now that he mentions it…no. “I figured the software had really good compression.” Or something along those lines.
“Yeah, but how do you turn physical matter into light patterns that an ordinary three-megapixel webcam can scan and transmit over the Internet? How do you tell a computer where human DNA ends and background particulates—dust, pollen, dander—begin?”
Huh. “I guess you have a point.”
“Computers are dumb. They’re drones for processing input and output. When it comes to SMN, we need something that thinks, something that intuitively manages its resources in faster-than-real-time.” doctor_cracker shifts beside me, lifts my chin with his hand. “But I don’t need to tell you more. You’re in enough trouble already.”
I want to ask him what he means by that, but I get the feeling I’d be treading into delicate territory. So I shrug, trying not to flinch as he shines the light in my eyes again. It doesn’t hurt, it just feels weird keeping my eyes wide open while someone shines a bright light inside.
“I take it,” doctor_cracker says, “since you came here unsupervised you’re keeping your parents out of the loop?”
“I’d rather not worry them if I don’t have to,” I say.
“You get along with them?”
“Then why the secrecy?”
“They…they wouldn’t understand.”
“How do you know?”
“I just do,” I say. Which is a lie. I really don’t know exactly how my parents would react if I told them what’s happened. Mom and Dad are the most trusting people in the world. They’re not grossly naïve or anything; they simply trust me implicitly. They trust me to turn in my homework on time, they trust me to take a shower every day, to stick to my diet, to always tell the truth. They trust me to say no to drugs, to save my virginity for my wedding night. They truly believe I’m worthy and capable of minding my own affairs. But am I? Look at how I’ve handled this whole SuperMegaNet thing so far. I’ve kept secrets, told lies—I’ve eroded my own self-control. I had total reign over my thoughts and actions until SuperMegaNet—until Eva. She makes me want to do wild, strange things. She makes me have R-rated dreams in which I’m either running around and hacking her prospective boyfriends to bits, or I’m deflowering her in all the worst ways. She’s pitched me head-first into puberty. And she doesn’t even like me.
“Seems to me,” doctor_cracker says, “you’re making a big deal out of nothing.”
“I don’t think I am,” I tell him. I go on to quote myself: “Everything in the world works because of constant pressure between forces that balance themselves out. My world exists because I’m careful about everything I do. I plan ahead, I follow through on promises—”
doctor_cracker snorts, cutting me off. “Kids these days. You all over-analyze entirely too much. Look at the ceiling.”
I look up. doctor_cracker pulls open the eyelids of my right eye and drops in the first contact lens, tells me to blink. He repeats the process for my left eye. I’ve never worn contacts before, so I don’t know if these are bigger or smaller than the norm. They feel big.
“You really should be seen by a doctor,” he says, and pulls my head forward slightly, slips what feels like a necklace over my head.
“I know,” I murmur.
A sigh. “Okay, I’m switching the lenses on.”
There’s a sudden flash of light—it catches me off guard, causes me to flinch. However, the discomfort is only momentary as the room around me solidifies. I realize I’m in a basement. There’s a row of shelves to my right, a work bench with a laptop on it; to my left, stacks of boxes beside a doorway, beyond which a flight of stairs leads upward. Above me, haloed by a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling, is doctor_cracker. He’s got thinning brown hair, wild and unkempt, a shaggy beard, and there are circles under his eyes, as if he doesn’t sleep much.
He nods at me, steps back and gestures at the far end of the room, where he’s got an eye chart hanging on the wall. “Read me the letters from the smallest line you can see clearly.”
I squint. My vision’s a little blurry. “P…E…G…F…D.”
He has me cover my left eye. He turns to his laptop, punches a few keys. My right eye now focuses more clearly. “Better or worse?”
“Better,” I say.
He hits a few more keys. “Better or worse?”
And so we proceed, on down the line until both of my eyes are seeing crystal-clear. It’s not unlike a visit to the optometrist.
We’re just about wrapped up when Beta, Pringles can in hand, steps back into the room. I hadn’t been able to see him before—I’d had no idea he’s been sporting a ridiculous-looking Hawaiian shirt and khaki shorts combo all this time.
“So, what’s the deal, Doc?” he asks. “Amputation? Castration? Lobotomy?”
doctor_cracker ignores him and fingers my new necklace (it’s nothing special, just a piece of what looks like silver shaped into, appropriately, a tiny pair of eyeglasses). “This is your power source, l33t. Wireless. It’s got a limited range, a few feet, give or take. It’s the same kind of tech a person gets when they have, say, a modern pacemaker installed. Some people prefer bracelets, earrings, or novelty pins, but this is all I have on hand at the moment. Now, it takes an ordinary button cell. You should get about a week of juice before you have to change the battery, longer if you take the necklace off at night when you sleep. Keep an extra battery or two on you, just to be safe. Your lenses have a power-off memory of about five minutes, meaning you won’t lose your settings if you replace the battery within that time. If you fuck it up, you’ll have to have a tune-up to give you your 20/20 back. I may or may not be available for another 2:00 AM appointment.” He glares at Beta for a moment before looking back at me. “Clear? Good to go?”
“All right, then.” doctor_cracker ruffles his hair, rubs his face, start
s out of the room. As he brushes past Beta, he reclaims the Pringles can and says, “I’ll expect those Steely Dan files in my inbox by lunchtime.”
“I’ll get them to you by breakfast,” Beta promises.
“Don’t you mean ‘good morning?’”
Beta waits until the doc is up the stairs before winking at me. “Like I said, he gets grumpy without his beauty sleep.”
“He didn’t seem that bad,” I say, standing, blinking, rolling my eyes slightly. I have to consciously resist the urge to push my nonexistent glasses up the bridge of my nose.
I follow Beta up into doctor_cracker’s cluttered living room. It’s all rickety-looking dinner trays, empty pizza boxes, kids’ schoolbooks and backpacks. We go over by the darkened window, where a battered PC sits on a patchwork desk—the family computer, I’m guessing. SuperMegaNet is up and ready to go. I step beside Beta and he uploads us back to the proxy, which is nothing like the plain, white waiting room I’d imagined. There are two-dozen tall, circular tables—no chairs—set throughout. On each table is a webcam and a simple keypad. Everything’s sparse, minimalist, functional. The walls are made of glass; beyond is a panoramic angel’s eye view of a bed of clouds. (In the back of my mind I’m wondering if it’s an actual floating lobby or just a virtual chat room on a server.)
Beta gestures for me to follow him over to one of the webcams. “You know your IP address?”
“I do,” I say.
“Cool. Punch it in here and press Enter when you’re ready. That’s it.”
“You’re not coming back with me?”
“Naw. I’ve got some errands to run.”
I nod. “Okay, then. See you when I see you, I guess.”
Beta shrugs, looks away for a moment. “I’m really sorry things turned out the way they did, little dude.”
“It’s not your fault,” I say. “You didn’t know I was in the five percent.”
“Still…I feel like I should’ve known better. I’ll understand if you want me to leave.”
There’s my in, my chance to finally kick him out. I consider running with it. Summer would be pleased—but now that I think about it, I’ve grown accustomed to having a roommate. True, if it wasn’t for Beta I’d never have tried New Eyes (or Old Eyes). But if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have gotten my sight back, either.
“Do you want to leave?” I ask him, pretending to be interested in a long-haired, guitar-carrying, troubadour-looking guy who’s just appeared one table over.
Beta shrugs. “I don’t know. I mean, you’ve got a great Internet connection. And it’s nice playing Super Smash Bros. with someone who knows his special moves.”
That’s code for, “I want to stay friends with you.” (See, guys can’t really admit that they like each other in a friendly kind of way—but they can admit that there’s no reason not to. If that’s the case. And I think it is.)
“See you later, then,” I say, and I step back, watch Beta key in his IP. He winks at me and hits Enter, uploads (or downloads, depending on whether we’re virtual or actual at the moment) away.
I linger in the proxy for a few minutes. People come and go quietly, minding their own business. I watch them, trying to discern the differences between contact lenses and ordinary glasses. I wonder if I might go for the rest of my life with doctor_cracker’s quick fix providing visuals—but no, that’s not an option. It can’t be. I’d be doing it for the wrong reason. I have to face my fears.
I have to tell my parents.