It’s a joke. It’s got to be a joke. I’m the new guy, new in town, new to the States—do they think that means I’m flat-out dumb? Computers can’t just transport you to other people’s homes. But there they are, Theo and Ernest, in the same frame together, yelling at me and Eva to join in. Well, Ernest is doing all the yelling; Theo’s putting on this stunned-silent act. He’s standing frozen behind Ernest.
“Holy shit!” Ernest gasps, his bulk taking up most of the screen as he babbles away . “What are you guys waiting for? You have to try this out!”
Eva sends me a private text message: WTF?
I don’t know what to tell her. I don’t think I like Ernest. I don’t think he likes me, what with the way he keeps pronouncing my name with a “J” sound, the way he called me Czech earlier. And now this idiotic ploy to make a fool out of me in front of everyone else. It makes me wonder about the American socializing process. In Brno, people go about their business, not really talking to each other on the street. Tourists probably think we’re being rude, when really we’re just being efficient. In America, everyone’s always saying “hello,” or “good day,” or “how’s it going?” every few steps. Everything’s okay if you just nod or say “hi,” but if you actually talk to these people, they start looking flustered, glancing at their wristwatches and acting like they have to be somewhere else. So, I know there’s a trick to Americans—a do-but-don’t kind of thing. I just have to figure out the nuances.
Ernest yells at us again.
“Computers can’t do that,” I say.
Eva agrees, verbally and in text.
“Are you blind as well as Czech?” Ernest grabs Theo by the shoulders, rattles him like a rag doll. There’s a thin trail of drool trickling down Theo’s chin; he seems to have broken into a sweat. “Look! I’m in Theo’s bedroom!”
I want no part of the joke. “That just proves you brought over your laptop for your little sleepover.”
“I don’t have a laptop, goddamnit!”
“Fine.” I fold my arms. “Transport Eva.”
Eva frowns. “You guys are being stupid.”
She sounds like she’s on my side, but there’s still the chance she’s in on the scheme. I politely suggest that she go next, ladies first and all that. If she appears in Ernest’s video window, then I’ll know she’s in on it. They’re having a co-ed sleepover or something (how in the world did Theo get his parents to agree to that?), and they want to haze the new guy.
“Eva!” Ernest says. “Theo pissed himself—you’ve got to see this!”
“I did not!” Theo retorts, finally snapping out of his reverie and frowning. “I spilled my tea when your fat ass came tumbling into the room!”
“Your tea? You drink tea?”
“Guys,” Eva interrupts, “we should be working on our assignment—”
“This is the assignment!” Ernest screams.
“Dude!” Theo screams, equally as loud. “Lower your voice! If my parents see what’s going on…well, I don’t know what they’d say!”
Ernest waves him away, frames himself in an extreme close-up. “Okay, Eva, just stand up and click ‘Visit!’”
Eva sighs, standing. “Fine. Whatever. Jan, let’s just play along so that we can get this over with and do some actual work.”
“Agreed.” I stand, too. Me and Eva click the visit button at the same time—at least, I think we do. For a moment nothing happens, and I’m about to sit back down—but then I see her start to dissolve. And when I say dissolve, I mean she’s really dissolving! Disappearing! Vanishing from head to toe!
But that’s the least of my worries, for I’m slipping between myself, into an all-encompassing mosaic of pixels.
And it tickles.
And I’m laughing, shouting, crying: “Quit it, quit it, quit it!”
Or, more likely, for just a few minutes.
I don’t realize what’s happened until I’ve downloaded (from top to bottom, like a Web image) completely. I’m standing alongside the others in some kind of pristine Zen garden, a bedroom that’s not my own, a shrine to Asia (the band), Asia (the culture), feng shui, tapestries, bonsai—it’s the cleanest, most perfectly organized room I’ve ever been in.
“Můj bože!” I gasp, looking at Theo, Ernest, and Eva—all of whom suddenly grow quiet.
Someone has pulled down my pants.
But, again, that’s the least of my worries.
“Oh, Jan!” cries Eva.
“You’re…” Theo adds.
“…even frizzier than usual!” finishes Ernest. He laughs. “Fucking DSL. I told you your connection sucks.”
Panic grips me as I pull up my pants, and not just because everyone has seen my underwear. I hold out my hands, which are marred by artifacts. I look like a poorly-compressed JPEG. My voice sounds like a low-bitrate MP3. “Oh, no! What am I going to do? I can’t stay like this! What if somebody sees me? My parents—”
Ernest covers my mouth with his hand. “Relax. We’ll figure it out. Isn’t this cool though?”
I try to yell “No!” but Ernest’s hand muffles the sound.
“How do you feel?” Eva asks, poking my arm with her finger.
“How do you think I feel?”
“Like you’re made of dirty Legos?” suggests Ernest.
In the background, Theo has locked his bedroom door, and is pulling a beanbag out from the closet. He sets it on the floor and, smiling shyly, offers Eva a seat. Then he sits at his computer, says, “Let me check the help file. There’s probably something in here about, er, compression and all that.”
I can tell he’s worried.
Ernest, on the other hand, is making himself at home, questioning nothing and no one as he lets me go, thoroughly explores his new environment. He flips through Theo’s mangas, pokes through his CD racks, plays with his Chinese lamp. Maybe he’s trying to keep casual for my benefit—keep me calm by acting nonchalant. Or maybe it’s ADD. I mean, he just teleported across town, and yet he’s acting like…well, I guess he’s acting like someone who’s in shock after teleporting across town.
Eva comes to stand beside me. “This is so freaky!”
I grunt. “You mean me, or the overall SuperMegaNet concept?”
“Both.” She feels my arm again, as if she’s sampling a piece of fabric. “Does it hurt? Does everything sound fuzzy?”
Now that she mentions it, I do feel different. Soft. Thick. “Not really,” I say, shrugging, wishing she’d stop focusing solely on my predicament. I’m not worried just yet (my brain is still trying to separate fact from fantasy)—but I’m close.
Luckily, Theo seems to have found what he’s looking for.
“I see what’s happened,” he says as everyone gathers around his desk. “It says here that when you use SuperMegaNet a high quality, uncompressed version of yourself is stored on your computer, but to save bandwidth on computers with slow Internet connections—”
“Like Jan’s,” Ernest interrupts.
I frown at him.
“—the default setting is to upload a down-sampled version of yourself. However, pixelation and/or artifacting is only temporary and is reversed when you return to your home computer. ‘You can override this at any time via the Preferences dialog. If you have any questions, please contact our tech support using the provided feedback form, and we will get back to you as soon as possible.’”
“Oh, so that’s all it is,” sighs Ernest—as if he’s known all along.
Eva claps excitedly.
Theo nods, doing some more clicking. His SuperMegaNet window looks a little different than mine, with the addition of “Send Home” buttons next to his guests’ names. “So, I’ll just send you back home. You can fix your settings and re-upload again. Might take longer, but you should look and sound just like Ernest and Eva.”
I stand straight, realizing in the back of my mind that I’ve become a test subject for the SuperMegaNet company. Lucky me. “I’m ready—but don’t any of you touch my pants this time, okay?”
Ernest holds up his hands, takes a step back.
Theo sends me home. The trip tickles me just as badly as before, but I’m ready for it, and when I’m back in the soft glow of my parents’ living room, I stifle a triumphant shout. I’m whole again! On my computer screen, Ernest and Eva are cheering while Theo desperately calls for some kind of order—
“Oh, Jan, there you are.”
I quickly sober as my dad passes through the living room on his way into the kitchen. “Sure, tatínek. What’s up?”
“Nothing. Thought you’d gone out for a jog.”
“Ne. Just doing some homework.”
My dad nods, ruffles his thinning hair, which is prematurely salt-and-pepper. “That’s good. How’s the new school?”
“It’s okay,” I reply, scooting deftly over to my desk and minimizing the SuperMegaNet window. “I made some friends.”
“Yeah. They’re kind of weird, but…we’re managing.”
Smiling, my dad continues on into the kitchen. I stand still for a moment, listening to him talk about this and that as he rummage in the freezer. I don’t mean to be rude or anything, but I wish he’d just hole up in his room with mom for the night. The computer is out here, in the living room. So’s my bed, my things. My family lives in a single bedroom apartment; my parents get the bedroom, and I get the living room. It’s usually not a problem unless it’s summer and I want to sleep naked—or unless I’m uploading myself to friends’ houses via unbelievably cool freeware. Regardless, this is supposed to be my room.
I sigh, sitting at my computer and toying with the mouse. I wonder what would happen if my parents come out and I’m gone? If they turn the computer off while I’m at Theo’s, will I have to walk home? Would it be me walking home, or would it be a copy, so that the next time I upload myself I’ll be making a copy of a copy?
Thankfully, my dad’s only getting a glass of water. He heads back to the bedroom, waving to me and telling me goodnight. I return the favor, listen for the sound of the bedroom door closing—and then I spring into action, rummaging for a shirt and socks. I sit at my desk and open the SuperMegaNet preferences dialog. There are compression options there; I choose “lossless,” click “save,” and bring up my messenger window. Theo is still sitting at his desk, with Eva and Ernest standing behind him (Ernest has acquired a box of cookies and is snacking away; he gives me a thumbs-up). With one last glance over my shoulder, I click the visit button.
It takes a full ten minutes this time. However, when I’m done, I’m just like the others: no fuzz, no frizz. And instead of just chatting with the people on my buddy list, I’m actually visiting them.
Ernest high-fives me, offers me a cookie from his box of fat-free SnackWell’s. I wolf it down—SuperMegaNet has given me a voracious appetite!
“So…” says Theo, swiveling around in his chair and grinning ear to ear. “What now?”
“Friends!” exclaims Ernest. “Movie stars! Supermodels! Fluffs! We’re going to have the coolest buddy lists in the world!”
“What about our homework assignment?” asks Eva.
“Yeah, yeah,” says Ernest with a dismissive wave of his hand. He gathers everyone into a circle; there are crumbs in his hair (how the heck do you get cookie crumbs in your hair?). “We’ll get to that. First: a pact. With awesome power comes awesome responsibility. We must use our newfound beta freeware wisely and efficiently. Above all, we must not tell our parents.”
“Why not?” asks Theo.
Ernest scowls. “What happens when you find twenty dollars laying in the street? You’re told to donate it to charity. What happens when your dad catches you downloading MP3s off the Internet? He tells you not steal and switches you to a limited computer account. What happens when a nice man drives up alongside you in a van and asks if you want some candy? Your mom tells you to say no!”
Okay, so the candy analogy is stupid—Ernest nevertheless has a point. My parents are okay with me chatting online, as well as maintaining a MySpace profile, but I can just imagine what they would say if they knew I now had the ability to physically interact with my online friends: “Oh, I don’t know about this, Jan,” or, “You know how uninhibited those online folk can be.” Not that I have any intention of taking cyber-crime-and-or-sex to the next level. This is just a really, really cool development, and I don’t want it to end before it’s begun.
I excitedly place my hand atop the others’. I mean, as Ernest originally pointed out, this is super, it’s mega, and even though it’s been the strangest first day of school I’ve ever had, I’m loving every minute of it.