Author’s Note—ie, “What the fresh hell happened to SMN, Volume 6?!?”: The ol’ day job kept me pretty busy in 2013. Consequently, I only had enough free time for seven SuperMegaNet episodes—and that’s certainly not enough to make up a proper volume. So, I’ve decided to switch to an intricate annual volume numbering system in which episodes published in any given year will be assigned to that year’s “volume.” As 2014 is the seventh year of the series’ run (holy fuck, where does the time go?), any new episodes appearing in 2014 will be part of Vol. 7; any new episodes appearing in 2015 will be part of Vol. 8, etc. Scrumtrulescent ingenuity or blatant cop-out? You decide.
* * *
“You made it!” the pixel monster says, jogging over to where I’ve stopped and am now gawking, open-mouthed. “Thank goodness! I wasn’t sure if you could track me with some kind of geek-phone thing, but I figured if I stayed put you’d be able to find me easier than if I started wandering around…Theo? What’s the matter?”
“Um…do I know you?” I start to ask, but the question dies in my mouth as the truth hits me: the pixel monster didn’t eat Jan, the pixel monster is Jan (I’d recognize that thick Czech accent anywhere). He’s become a low-quality JPEG; his clothes, his body are riddled with unsightly compression artifacts, and his eyes are nothing more than indiscriminate dots.
Not knowing what to say, I default to fumbling my cell phone out of my pocket, taking a picture of him, and then handing him the phone so that he can see for himself.
“Můj bože!” He touches his pixelated face with his pixelated hands; his voice sounds like a poorly-encoded MP3. “What’s happened to me? I look like some kind of classic Nintendo character!”
I hem and haw, trying to articulate at least a smidgen of what Beta told me back in my bedroom. “Uh…Taurus server crash…that is, network congestion…low battery glitch on Robbie’s phone…”
Mini stands, kicks the knuckles of one of my hands. “Dude, how in the world have you managed to run your own Web design company for the last year with such shitty communication skills?”
“Oh, I have a really well laid-out Web site,” I say, “with an extensive FAQ section. Most of the time I don’t even have to talk to a client on the phone—” I cut myself off mid-sentence, aware, yes, that by offsetting one of my shortcomings with a self-proclaimed strength, I’ve actually made myself out to be incredibly naïve. Or incredibly douche-like. Or both.
Mini waves his hand impatiently. “Spare me the insight into your tangled web of anti-social protocols and hold me up.”
“Um…okay.” I lift him from the handlebars and hold him above my head.
“Lower, please. This isn’t a ritual sacrifice.”
I lower him.
“For fuck’s sake!”
“It’s like I’m talking to a toddler!”
“You said, ‘Hold me up.’ You didn’t say how high or low or—”
Mini jabs his mitts at Jan’s fuzzy form. “Closer to Jan! Hold me closer to Jan! Pretend he’s the boy of your dreams and I’m your booty call appetizer and hold me closer to Jan!”
Making a face, I move Mini closer so that he’s able to lean forward and pat Jan on the shoulder—and I try not to worry that, from across the way, it indeed looks like at least one of us is some kind of precocious, sexually liberated preteen from Beverly Hills who’s fallen head over heels for his middle school sweetheart.
“There’s good news and bad news,” Mini says to Jan. “The good news is that you’re not dead. Thankfully Robbie’s pedophone had progressive downloading enabled. Your whole body was downloaded in multiple passes of increasing resolution instead of at full-res from top to bottom. Otherwise, you might have materialized on this end a lifeless torso with a smoldering stump where your head should be. Or an upper torso without legs. Or—”
I cut Mini off with a squeeze. “I think he gets the idea.”
Mini winces, continues: “The bad news is that from here on out you’ll only be able to date women who are Minecraftian or made of Lego. Your download was interrupted, and Beta thinks a bunch of your bytes are, well, gone.”
“Gone?” Jan asks.
“Gone,” Mini and I reply, in unison.
Mini adds, “Forever.”
Jan frowns, a subtle rearranging of the pixels of his face. “This is bad.” He sits slumped on the curb and stares at his hands, transfixed.
I get off my bike, flipping down the kickstand. I sit beside Jan with Mini cradled in my arms and stare out across the empty parking lot, a shell-shocked expression on my face. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think I was the one who’d lost his bytes. I’m not trying to make this about me or anything; it’s just…well, it’s like when a friend tells you something bad has happened to them. Your immediate reaction is to relate, to reply with something like, “I hear you, brah. I once [insert relatable anecdote here].” Only losing your bytes isn’t something that’s ever happened to me or anyone I’ve ever known. The closest I can come up with is the hamster eyes thing. I wonder if it was like this for Ernie when I came stumbling into his room that night I went blind. I wonder what I’m supposed to say, what I’m supposed to do, how I’m supposed to act—
—I wonder what time it is.
I know what you’re thinking: Jan’s been Atarified, and here I am fretting over the time. But I can’t help it. It’s late. Like, super late. The average adult male needs only seven to eight hours of sleep per day. The average adolescent male, however, needs eight to nine. I usually top out at eight, if I’m lucky, if I’ve had a really long day, or if I go the extra mile at Mom’s gym. And that’s if I’m in bed half an hour early. Tonight, though, I’m screwed. Even if I leave for home right now, I’m going to get something closer to five or six hours total, once all is said and done. I’m going to be worthless in class tomorrow—to say nothing of the impact on my health: lethargy, impaired thinking, possible hair loss, erectile dysfunction—
CBT. CBT. CBT.
“What’s CBT?” Jan asks.
I blink, coming out of a reverie I didn’t even know I was in. “What? Why?”
“You were mumbling it over and over just now.”
Crap. I’m already starting to fall apart. “Oh. It stands for ‘cognitive behavior therapy.’ It’s something my therapist taught me.”
A car passes on the street.
I clear my throat. “In a stressful situation, you’re supposed to counter any negative thoughts you might have with positive ones. Or you can visualize your worries being squashed, stomped, vaporized. I like to imagine the cargo bay from Star Trek: The Next Generation. There’s a scene in “Disaster” where Geordi and Beverly have to depressurize the bay in order to put out a plasma fire. There are these drums of quaratum that are at risk of reacting to the plasma fire and exploding—only instead of quaratum, I imagine that they contain all my worries. When the cargo bay depressurizes, the drums get blown out into space, taking my worries with them.”
Jan blinks at me incredulously.
“I have another mantra for you,” Mini murmurs. “TMI. TMI. TMI.”
I toss him over my shoulder; he lands on the concrete with a soft thud and a hard swear.
More awkward silence.
Another clearing of my throat. “You know, the Dark Energy Survey has this super-powerful camera that can detect light from parts of the universe that were around only a few billion years after the Big Bang.”
Again, Jan blinks at me.
I shrug. “I’m just saying that if light from eight billion years ago still exists somewhere, your missing bytes must, too.”
“More like megabytes, you mean,” Mini offers, dusting himself off in the background. “Gigabytes, even. And if we do get them back, there’s still the matter of how in the hell we reintegrate them back into Jan—”
“Mini,” I say.
“Not helpful.” I face forward again—and go wide-eyed as a brightly-colored, eight-bit, distinctly Donkey Kong-ish barrel rolls down the street.
“Theo?” asks Jan.
“Yeah?” I reply.
“Did you just see an old-timey Donkey Kong barrel roll by?”
I think I did.