When a hacker promises to help you find your missing bytes, you figure that means he’s going to spend the rest of the morning holed away in some darkened bedroom with an army of ThinkPads at his disposal—not sit outside a Mag’s Donuts and share a box of maple bacon bars with a gluttonous puppet and a pixel monster. Yes, Beta has his laptop with him, and he seems to have a lot of terminal windows (and one Photoshop window) open, but I can’t help wondering if his hacking would be more effective using both hands, and not just the donut-free one.
“So, this is where you do your computer work?” I ask.
“I like to get out occasionally,” Beta replies, keeping his eyes fixed on his laptop screen, his hand, on autopilot, hovering over the donut box, pulling out a maple bar, cramming a good third of it into his munching mouth.
Mini, sitting on the tabletop and lapping the icing off his own maple bar, scowls and says, “I don’t understand how you keep that LA Fitness ass of yours in business.” To me: “All this guy eats is tacos, Top Ramen, and donuts. I feel fat just talking to him.”
“I’m virtual, remember?” Beta says.
“And I’m wearing a skin. I don’t have to worry about what I eat.”
“So, what do you really look like, then?” Mini pauses. “Please don’t say Jeff Albertson.”
“Does it matter?”
“Who’s Jeff Albertson?” I ask.
“And isn’t that the point of the Internet? To express yourself when you’re virtual the way you can’t when you’re actual?”
“Comic Book Guy,” Mini says, answering my question. “You know, from The Simpsons?”
Beta looks floored. “That’s Comic Book Guy’s real name?”
“I believe you. It’s just that he looks so much more like a ‘Stuart Bloom’ rather than a ‘Jeff Albertson.’ If anything, Stuart should be called ‘Jeff,’ and Jeff should be called ‘Stuart.’”
“Don’t dodge the question.”
“Sorry, I’m just trying to wrap my head around—what was your question?”
“What manner of male pattern baldness and chronic eczema are you hiding behind that pretty-boy skin of yours?”
Beta shrugs. “Besides the need for a disguise, my real body bailed on me. Working with what I had didn’t work out, so I figure I’ll work with what suits me.”
“Ever worry about the whole ‘people only like me for my looks’ thing?”
“Nope, because people can also not like you for your looks.”
“So, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em?”
“I get the whole ‘be yourself’ thing,” Beta says. “But who’s really content just being himself or herself?”
“People who post those annoying ‘be yourself’ inspirational memes on Instagram, apparently—”
“Like it or not, we live in a very superficial society. We do judge books by their covers. All the time. We shave, we pluck, we change our hair, our clothes, we lose weight, we gain weight—we’re constantly changing ourselves to affect a certain image. Skinning’s no different.”
Mini waves a maple-covered mitt philosophically in the air. “I’m not saying it is. I just think there’s the risk of it becoming a cop-out. You—and Jan here, soon enough—playing into the whole ‘looks matter’ paradigm does nothing to solve the underlying issue—that modern society erroneously assigns social values based on physical appearance.”
“Society’s always going to do that. I’m neither adding to nor taking away from the problem. Realistically, what incentive do I have to be the only person in the entire world who, if given the choice, would pick being a cripple in a wheelchair instead of a hot piece of meat?”
“I don’t know. The Archduke of Self-Confidence?”
I fumble with my maple bar. I’ve been working on it for the last fifteen minutes, trying to get my pixelated hands to do what I want them to do, and only half succeeding. You don’t realize how complex a process it is manipulating and eating food until your fingers become giant blocks (breakfast at Ernie’s taqueria was a nightmare). But I guess I’m glad for the distraction. If you think about it, losing your bytes is scary. You kind of take it for granted that in today’s connected world, if you break your phone, you can just buy a new one and re-download all your stuff from the cloud. But what happens when your data doesn’t even make it to the cloud in the first place?
Yeah, I’m trying real hard not to think about it.
“I’m going to be late for school,” I say, more as a simple grouping of words to break the silence than a complaint about the speed or quality of Beta’s hacking.
“Better late than as a preteen pixel monster,” Mini says.
“Relax,” Beta assures me. “This is Newport Beach, not Anaheim. Truancy works differently when it’s assumed you’re affluent.”
I look down at my low-res scuffed jeans and tank. “I don’t feel very affluent.”
“You will in just a sec…” Beta types out a few more commands, hits Enter…and beams proudly at me.
“What?” I ask.
“Check out the bod, little dude.”
I look down at my hands, my arms, the rest of my torso. I’m no longer pixelated. “Did you find my bytes? Am I fixed?”
“I’m still working on finding your bytes. But that doesn’t mean you have to wait it out like as some eight-bit video game reject.”
I get to my feet, still checking myself out. “How’d you do that?”
“Custom skin,” Beta replies. “Regular SMN users can only install skins for video chat, or when they’re virtual, but I’ve got a hack that lets you keep your skin when you’re actual. I designed yours using a technique similar to the one that’s used to un-blur bank account or credit card numbers, only I applied it to you instead, with your Facebook and Instagram photos serving as visual references. Unfortunately, since you’ve never posted any nude selfies or dick pics online, I had to approximate the details of your ass and wang. I went with what I thought were reasonable defaults for your height and build—six inches and a Brad Pitt.”
“A measly six inches?” Mini scoffs. “Why don’t you restrict him to using just one leg while you’re at it? And is Brad Pitt’s ass even relevant anymore?”
Beta glares at him. “By all means, if you want to tweak anything, just let me know.” He reaches into his laptop bag and pulls out a smartphone, hands it to me. “This is a prepaid to get you started. Keep it handy, and you’ll be able to go actual wherever there’s a signal. Just watch your airtime, and switch over to Wi-Fi whenever you’re near a hotspot. That’ll cut down on your data usage. Oh, and for shit’s sake, keep the thing charged. You don’t want to wink out in the middle of some random street, because then you’ll have to go back and find your phone later—if someone doesn’t outright steal it the moment it hits the ground.”
I swipe through the phone’s app screen, spotting the familiar SuperMegaNet icon. “Do I have to use the phone all the time?”
“No,” Beta says. “It would only be for when you want to go actual in high-res. You can also do the same by downloading via any computer, tablet, or phone that’s got SuperMegaNet installed, but this lets you keep your resolution without having to stay within a Wi-Fi hotspot. Like, without the phone, you’re the Doc in Star Trek: Voyager before he was outfitted with his mobile emitter. Wander too far from a hotspot, and your signal will degrade until you’re dumped back onto the server. With the phone, well, that’s your emitter, so to speak. City-wide Wi-Fi is coming sooner rather than later. In a few more years you’ll be able to walk down the street like anyone else, with or without your phone.”
“Wait—a few years?” I look at Beta. “How long is it going to take to find my missing bytes?”
He gives me a sympathetic look. “Sooner rather than later, hopefully. In the meantime, there’s no reason you can’t lead an ordinary life. Well, nearly ordinary.”
“As a hologram.”
“Actually, SuperMegaNet doesn’t use holographic technology at all, but instead captures, compresses, and transmits matter as a data stream—”
“What I mean is, I’ll be a copy. I won’t be me.”
“Oh, you’re still you,” Beta says. “You’re just augmented by SMN tech.”
“I guess.” I pick up my maple bar without trouble, take a bite. It tastes so much better now that I’m high-res again. Everything feels better, in fact. Everything sounds better, everything smells better. But it’s still weird knowing I’m not entirely myself.
Beta seems to sense my uncertainty. “Hey, what if you went off to war and came back with an arm missing? Would you still be you?”
“Well, yeah,” I reply.
“What if you had two arms missing? What if you were just a torso?”
“Would he still have a dick?” Mini asks. “Or are we talking just a torso? Because that would make a huge difference.”
Beta ignores Mini. “You’re still you, Jan. Not to worry. It’s just that more of you is now represented digitally. It can be a little freaky—we get attached to our actual bodies. We identify with them, we rely on them as extensions of our personalities, our souls, and all that. Then something happens that makes you question how much of you is physical, how much isn’t, and how much you can shift from the physical to the mental before, well, you cease to be. For me it was MS. You, a botched download. The point is, it’s only when you lose some or all of your body’s functionality that you realize the possibility of being more than just the sum of your parts. You start to question whether you can interchange your parts without losing who you are. Glasses. Hearing aid. Wheelchair. Prostheses. SuperMegaNet.”
“Geez,” Mini says, shaking his head. “Who writes your dialogue?”
Beta grabs another maple bar, leans back in his chair, and stuffs his face. “I make it up as I go along.”