“I’m going to need a little more than, ‘oh, no,’” I tell Beta.
“This is bad,” he says, and grabs my phone, checking my network status. “This is very, very bad.”
“I get that part. How is it bad?”
“Jan’s download was interrupted.”
“But I thought SMN is ‘always on,’ even if you unplug your computer or your battery dies or whatever.”
“Power’s no problem. This is a network issue. The data physically had nowhere to go, meaning Jan’s phone was either crushed in an elephant stampede, or there’s a major server glitch going on over at Taurus.”
I’m starting to dread something terrible. “What does all this mean? Is Jan in trouble?”
Beta hands back my phone and fixes me with an uncharacteristically somber stare. “Look, I know you’re the uppity type, what with all the therapy, CBT, calming teas, and excessive gym time, but you should know the truth. The last time I saw an error like this was when I went virtual.”
Oh, no indeed.
“But that’s just a worst-case scenario. In the event of a network bottleneck, it’s normal for audio, video, and text to be dropped and priority to be given to any pending data transfers.” He adds, unnecessarily: “Well, if this is just normal network congestion.”
I glance at my phone. My SuperMegaNet buddy list is empty. In its place: the word “disconnected,” accompanied by a suicidal-looking emoticon wearing the saddest frown you ever saw. Pushing the app into the background, I try calling Jan, try texting him via good ol’ fashioned SMS—because I want to know if he’s all right, and because I can’t pick him up if I don’t know where he is.
I look at Beta. “Isn’t there something you can do?”
“I could do a search for ‘GPS hacking’ on YouTube,” he suggests.
I frown. “Not helpful.”
A shuffling sounds from inside the closet. I pretend not to hear, but Mini’s voice carries through the crack beneath the door: “You need me! You so need me! I know where Jan is—I checked Google Maps when I was using Robbie’s phone for some selfies!”
“Okay,” I say, folding my arms. “Where is he?”
“Take me with you, then I’ll tell you where he is!”
“How can I take you with me if I don’t know where I’m going?”
“Okay, I’ll give you directions to get you a third of the way there, then—”
“Well, if I’ve already brought you with me a third of the way, it would be kind of counterproductive not to just keep you with me for the remaining two-thirds.”
“You’re right. This is silly.”
“Take me with you.”
“Tell me where Jan is.”
“Take me with you—”
“Enough!” Beta interrupts. “You two sound like an old hard drive stuck in a CRC loop! Now, you—” He points at me. “Take the little-little dude and go pick up your friend. And you—” He points at the closet door. “—cough up the directions so that we can get this show on the road. Meanwhile, I’ll—” He points at himself. “—stay here and tidy up.”
I give Beta a genuinely surprised look. “Tidy up?”
“Sure. It’s the least I can do, what with you letting me crash here rent-free and all.”
I glance at the mountain of skulls. “This room? In the state it’s in?”
Beta glances warily at the mountain of skulls. “Piece of cake.”
The uncertainty in Beta’s voice is hardly reassuring, but I figure whatever, let him have at it if he wants to. He could hardly make things worse, even if he tried.
I stumble over to the closet, opening it, grabbing Mini in one hand, my bike helmet in the other.
Mini coos at me. “Missed ya’, sweets,”
“Shut up,” I say, and stuff him into my pants pocket.
I leave the room and creep down the hallway. On a normal occasion, my initial instinct would be to interrupt my parents’ dinner banter with Mr. Nakayoshi and ask for a ride, but I press on, keeping quiet as I descend the stairs, keeping focused until I’m out the door, on my bike, and down the street. I’ve got to keep this together on my own. Asking Mom and Dad to go pick up a friend put in harm’s way because of a poor buddy list choice on fat Ernie’s part would be revealing yet another crack in the precarious dam of my autonomy. No, I can take care of this myself. I’m an honors student, for crying out loud—I’m in high school. High school kids don’t go running to mommy and daddy unless there’s a ruptured appendix involved. Or a shattered pelvis. Blood or broken bones, basically.
It’s kind of difficult taking direction from Mini with him in my pocket, so I take him out and set him on the handlebars. He’s reasonably placid for the first five minutes or so of the trip, but the instant I work up to a decent speed along a direct, gently sloping length of road, he straightens, stretches grandly, his head thrown back, his arms spread wide.
“Dude!” he shouts. “I totally feel like Kate Winslet in Titanic right now!”
“Just pay attention to the road,” I tell him.
“Seriously. You’ve got your phone on you, right? We should do a YouTube video! We’d get so many hits!”
“You know what we should totally do?”
Mini looks hopeful.
“Find Jan and get back home before we’re busted for breaking curfew.”
Mini slouches, pouts. “You know, if the Web design thing doesn’t pan out, you should seriously consider work as a door-to-door salesman in the let-me-down industry. Turn left here.”
The rest of the way, Mini makes a point of being overtly mechanical with his directions—which is fine by me. The last thing I need right now is to draw unwanted attention by arguing with a plush doll in public.
“This is the place,” Mini says when we at last arrive at the shopping plaza. He points across the way. “There’s the Verizon store.”
And there’s Jan, sitting at the edge of the sidewalk. At least, I’m guessing that’s him. I’m still too far away to tell; the combination of distance and sparse street lighting has given him the appearance of a fuzzy, pixelated blob.
I pedal toward him, through the empty parking lot—and it dawns on me that something is very, very wrong here. The closer I get to the store, the more focused it becomes, the more detail I can make out. But the pixelated blob person, well, it stays a pixelated blob person. I hit the brakes a handful of yards from the curb, wondering if my contacts are malfunctioning, or if maybe this isn’t Jan at all but some kind of escaped circus freak who’s just finished ingesting Jan and who’s now primed for some geek-boy dessert—
The pixel monster gets to its feet.
Starts walking toward me.