Breaking Curfew

“What’s worse than breaking curfew?”

Mini whips off his clothes. “Breaking curfew with your junk hanging out.”

SuperMegaNet, unborn episode

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Rock beats scissors, of course

Ernie: As humans, we laud our own superiority as the dominant species on the planet, we point out how civilized we are, how much more advanced we are than the animals and insects. But in matters of war we revert to the basic level of bacteria. Stronger defeats weaker, style over substance, beauty before wisdom. Why is that?

Theo: Simple. Rock beats scissors.

Ernie (scowling): Have you no philosophical depth at all??

SuperMegaNet, unborn episode

SuperMegaHiatus

For the next two months I’m going to be holed away in my office while I work to finish a certain specific project by a certain specific deadline. So, I thought I should explain why it’s been about the same amount of time since my last SuperMegaNet post. Firstly, the series isn’t going anywhere. It will be on hiatus until after the new year. There’s good news, though: I managed to find time this month to finish the script for the SuperMegaNet comic. The tentative title is “The Tape.” No word yet on whether it will be a book first, or a weekly-webcomic-to-book kind of thing. Heck, at this point it has a good chance of being debuted as subway graffiti. More on this as I figure out what the hell is going on.

Here’s an early version (drawn by the always-delightful Abbey Cardenas) of what Ernie may look like:

Abbey Cardenas' idea of what Ernie should look like

If all goes well, he will soon resemble the world’s biggest chat room fail. :p

Perceptive Flux from a Plush Doll’s Perspective

@theo

It’s less than an hour until dawn by the time I get home. I’m tired—I’m beyond tired. I’m in that fuzzy place where the mind refuses to shut off even though the brain is already out cold. I should probably go straight to bed, get a few hours’ sleep before facing down my parents.

“Well, well, look at you! No more big ol’ glasses!”

I look down. Mini-Theo is toddling over to where I’m standing. I give him a good, hard look. There’s got to be some trick to his consciousness, some magic to his motion.

“And that bedroom hair!” he continues, stopping, smiling, wrapping his arms around himself and pretending he’s making out with an invisible partner. “Your look is almost complete! All we need is a fish net tank top for you and the mass deflowering of Boca Linda’s eligible junior and senior girls can begin in earnest!”

“Never mind,” I say, frowning, “that I’ve lost my natural eyesight—”

“While gaining at least a pound of pimpness!”

“—and that I have to wear special contacts until I can get my parents to take me to the doctor.”

“You’re too negative! With your new lenses you can see 20/20—without the need for eyeglasses. Say what you will, but that’s way cool.”

I shake my head. “Who are you?”

Mini-Theo stops making out with himself. He blinks up at me. “I’m you, dork. Part of you, anyway.”

“Yeah, but are you real or imaginary?”

“I’m as real as you need me to be.”

That’s not an answer. “Meaning?”

Mini-Theo snorts, rolls his eyes. “Most people develop a voice in their head during adolescence. It’s part of the cognitive development process. You developed a plush doll version of yourself instead. Big deal. You’re not the first. It’s called personification. The application of human-like attributes to an inanimate object.”

“So, I am imagining you?”

“No, not at all. I totally exist. Now, whether I’m a walking, talking miniature or just a dirty sock you’ve personified is up for debate.”

Also up for debate: whether I’ve gone insane or am just majorly sleep-deprived.

Mini-Theo raises his arms; a translucent layer of celestial imagery—galaxies, stars, planets—is superimposed against the backdrop of my bedroom; Dom F. Scab’s “Fear to Void” starts playing. “See, I exist in a state of perceptive flux. Someone else might walk into the room and see you talking to a dirty sock because that’s what they expect to see, that’s what their brain is wired to think is possible. To that person I can only exist as a dirty sock. To you it’s entirely possible that I’m a walking, talking, super-sexy mini-me. Either of you would be correct in his assumption of my existence in a particular state. You’re both seeing the same thing. You’re just perceiving it differently.”

“Then…I’m the only one who can see you as a doll?”

“I prefer the term figure. And to answer your question, it depends on who’s looking and what their perceptive state is like.”

I shake my head, dodge a brilliant sun as it whizzes past. “Real or not, why do I need a plush doll version of myself?”

Mini-Theo darts forward, kicks me ineffectively in the shin. The whirling pyrotechnics go poof! in time with the impact. “Stop thinking of me as a separate entity! I’m your ego, your libido, your competitive edge—I’m you. Us. I help get things done. I prioritize when to be a dick and when not to be. I help us decide who to step on and who not to. When we’re older, I’ll make sure we get laid on our prom night.”

“Thanks,” I say, “but I think I can handle myself just fine without the likes of you.”

Mini-Theo laughs so hard he splits a seam along his neck.

“What’s so funny?”

“Before I came along, all you did was go to school and come home. It was all homework or PHP coding with you. You go to your mom’s gym everyday, but you’ve never been in a fight or arm-wrestled anyone or even walked around the house with your shirt off. You’ve never lived.”

Ignoring the fact that Mini-Theo’s gone back to using the first-person, I sigh and say, “Before you came along I had eyes that worked, I had safety, security, stability—”

Boring.”

“It’s my life, to live how I want—”

“Fail! That’s why your subconscious created me: because it was bored out of its ever-loving mind.”

“—and anyway, there’s something not right about believing in a little doll version of myself. People would think I’m nuts if they knew!”

“You shouldn’t care what people think,” Mini-Theo says. “Not if you sprout a plump, red zit on your nose, and not if you carry around your ego in plush figure form.”

This is ridiculous. It’s almost sunrise and I’m having an argument with a doll. I need to be in my bed right now. I crouch, grabbing Mini-Theo.

“Hey! What are you doing?” he squeals, flailing his little arms and legs like crazy.

“I’m putting you away,” I tell him, and head for the closet. “Then I’m going to sleep for a couple of hours.”

“Oh, I see how it is! Police state! Ignorance is bliss! Sweep the problem under the carpet! Silence the little guy!”

I’m not listening as I toss him inside the closet. I slam the door, back up a step, bump into the TV. It turns on. That old The Twilight Zone episode, “The Passersby,” is on. It’s the scene where they show the wounded soldier’s face. Out of reflex, I reach up to take off my glasses, like I usually do when there’s something on that I don’t like. Of course, I have no glasses. Just my fancy contacts, my crystal-clear, 20/20 vision that allows me to see the poor soldier’s face in all its glory.

I hate this episode.

The Smallest Cameras in the World

@theo

“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?”

“Yeah.”

“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?”

“Better.”

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?”

I nod.

“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.

“Goodnight, bro.”

“Don’t you mean ‘good morning?’”

“Whatever.”

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.

doctor_cracker

@theo

There are voices surrounding me. I can’t see a thing, but it sounds like I’m in a moderately-sized room full of people. A lobby or parlor, maybe. Beta’s got his hands on my shoulders and is guiding me into a chair.

“Where are we?” I ask, feeling for the arm rests, easing myself in. “Some kind of free clinic?”

“It’s a secure proxy,” Beta answers. “doctor_cracker is a little OCD with his privacy.”

doctor_cracker? “We’re going to see someone named doctor_cracker?”

“Chill. That’s just his screen name. Speaking of which, you should know it’s screen names only while we’re here. Okay, l33t_master?”

“Okay.”

“All right. Wait here. I’m going to get us in the queue.”

As if I’m in any position to be wandering around by myself.

I lean back in my chair, cross my fingers and pray that Beta remembers to come back. It doesn’t occur to me that someone might notice my condition and ask questions until I hear a soft, low whistle coming from beside me.

“You a Wes Borland fan?” asks a male voice.

I don’t know who that is. “Why do you say that?”

“The contacts. You look like Wes Borland from Limp Bizkit.”

“They’re not contacts,” I reply, immediately regretting my honesty, but unable to wrangle my tongue before the words are out. “I…I had a little accident. New Eyes.”

“Oh.” The guy beside me goes quiet for a moment. “Shit. Well, look on the bright side. It could be worse.”

“How’s that?” How could it possibly be worse?

“I had a friend who tried Big Dick. Got himself up to eight inches, went to try it out on his girlfriend and the damned thing fell off, left him with the nastiest pussy you ever saw. Turns out that particular batch of Big Dick had been infected with a computer virus.”

Wow. That’s truly horrific. And yet it does make me feel better to know my penis is tucked safely between my legs and not laying on the floor, covered in voracious nanobots. I’ll have to remember that the next time I run into trouble.

Momentarily, Beta returns.

“Yo, l33t. I got the doc out of bed. Let’s go.”

I stand. Beta leads me several steps in one direction, stops me, does something with his free hand. I hear a mouse click—and off we go, out of the proxy, into doctor_cracker’s domicile. I can’t tell you what the place looks like, but I can tell you what it smells like: pizza boxes. Leftover pizza boxes.

“What’s up, cracker?” Beta says. He pats me on the back. “This is my friend, l33t_master.”

doctor_cracker sighs, snorts grumpily. Without returning Beta’s greeting he asks me, “You’ve been playing with corrective eye drops, haven’t you?”

I nod.

“Yeah. Um, okay. Thanks but no thanks, Beta. You and your friend can show yourselves out—”

“Don’t be like that, Doc,” Beta interrupts. “We’re supposed to be old pals, remember?”

“Friends or not, this is messy business, this nanotech stuff.”

“Which is why l33t needs your help. I mean, he can’t very well waltz over to the ER, can he? Not unless he wants his parents fined, his Internet connection cut.”

“And I could go to jail. You could be deleted. Shit, you especially should know the risks involved in associating with a nano-junkie.”

“He’s not a junkie, he just had a bad reaction. And it’s a free country. I’m not out to hurt anyone or hack any government servers. Fuck living in fear.”

doctor_cracker is starting to get worked up. He whispers loudly, “That’s all fine and dandy for you, you’ve gone virtual. But I—” (I can practically hear him jabbing his finger in the direction of a nearby hallway or staircase.) “—still have a life to live and a family to take care of, thank you very much!”

“Do this for me and I’ll get you the new Steely Dan album.”

doctor_cracker pauses, then says, “You’re bluffing.”

“I’m not.”

“No one’s got that—not even Steely Dan’s got that.”

“I know one of the engineers. He got me the files. FLAC. None of that MP3 bullshit.”

doctor_cracker keeps quiet for a good long while. Then he sighs again, and I can hear him moving away. “All right. Bring him down to my workshop.”

It’s slow and precarious work, but Beta guides me across the room and down a flight of stairs. Here, it smells like spray cleaner and wood chips. I’m seated on a hard chair; I can hear another chair or stool being dragged towards me. Beta lets go. I swallow hard, considering that if he and the doc were to ditch me here, I’d be lost forever.

“Tilt your head back,” doctor_cracker says, and lifts my chin. He flips a switch, and suddenly I can see vague shapes, a bright light—like a street lamp through a very thick fog. “Okay,” he says after a moment. “You want the good news or the bad news first?”

“Good news,” I tell him.

“Your internal eye structures are intact. The bad news is that your vitreous—the fluid filling your eyes—is all gunked up with dead nanobots. Probably terminated prematurely, before they could do a proper cleanup. Sort of like when you try to uninstall a shitty Windows program from your computer. You’ve got registry keys and discarded files everywhere. In this case, the nanobots left themselves unpacked.”

“Oh.”

“Basically, you’re not getting enough light to the backs of your eyes. Normally I’d give you some drops that would go in and flush out the excess bots, but I’m hesitant to do that since I don’t have a decent medical history on you. I don’t know if this is an allergic reaction kind of thing or if the drops you used were defective or what.”

Beta clicks his tongue. “I’m disappointed, Doc. All this equipment down here and you can’t do anything?”

“You didn’t let me finish,” doctor_cracker says. “Now, l33t, it’s not a permanent solution, as your eyes are still fucked up, and, penalty or no penalty for using illegal eye drops, you should be seen by an actual doctor…but it just so happens I’m a tinkerer. I can give you special contact lenses that’ll beam the necessary light to the backs of your eyes.”

“Bravo!” Beta cheers, clapping lightly. “You see, l33t? This is why I love the doc.”

I want to tell him that no, I don’t see—I’m flippin’ blind! Instead, I smile and try not to hope for the best.

A Way Out of the Darkness

@theo

I didn’t mean to freak Ernie out. Usually he’s so nonchalant about everything I guess I thought he’d have some whimsical angle about me losing my eyesight. I thought he’d make light of my situation so that I’d end up feeling almost silly about the whole thing, so that I could relax enough to go wake my parents and tell them what’s happened. Instead I just feel worse. Ernie had sounded so…scared. Like when you’re horsing around with your friends at the mall and one of you falls down the stairs and starts bleeding all over the floor in front of GameStop. Everyone in your group takes off running because they don’t want to have to stay and listen to the crying. They don’t want to get in trouble. And even though you know better, you leave too, because you’d much rather hear the story later than try to stop the bleeding yourself, possibly fuck it up so that your friend has to get his leg amputated at the hospital afterward. You know what I mean, right? That’s how I feel right now.

Except I can’t run away from myself.

And I have absolutely no clue how to get rid of the darkness surrounding me.

They say your sense of hearing becomes sharper when you’re blind. It’s true. I can hear everything now, every rustle, every whisper, the muffled clicks of my computer’s hard drive, the creak of my office chair beneath me. These are things I’ve heard before but never noticed. Their meaning now is momentous.

I sit still for a few minutes, listening closely for Mini-Theo. He’s probably hiding from me because he knows he’s gotten me in big trouble. After all, he was the one who insisted I use the New Eyes in the first place. Oh, why did I listen to him? He’s not even real…is he? I mean, did Jan really see him that day I brought him to school with me, or was it me imagining that he did—

—I’m grasping at tangents. I’m trying not to notice that my hands are trembling and my heart is racing. I’m burning up and yet not sweating. This is ridiculous. Why can’t I simply get up and go tell my parents? I could let it all out, then. I could just cry and sob while they get dressed, find their keys, take me out to the car; I could fall asleep in the backseat as they whisper reassuringly that everything is going to be all right. On waking I’d be in good hands, surrounded by doctors, specialists, people to make me feel better.

“But what about what happens after?” Mini-Theo asks softly.

I swivel in my seat, frown in the direction of his voice. “There you are. Traitor.”

“Me? A traitor? Hardly!”

“This whole thing was your idea.”

“I was just trying to get you to think and act more proactively. And if you want to get technical, yes, it was my suggestion to try the New Eyes—and it would’ve worked, too, if you hadn’t pissed your pants a whole two days later. The Old Eyes were your doing, not mine. But let’s not get off task here. My original question is still valid: What happens after?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I lie.

“What happens when—if—the doctors fix your eyes and you’ve recovered well enough for your parents to ask you to explain yourself—”

“I don’t want to hear it.”

“They’ll pity you, that’s what. They’ll use your weakness to dig up all the dirt on you, expose all the cracks and crevices of your facade. They’ll treat you like the twelve-year-old you really are.”

I want to swat at him, but I can’t see exactly where he is. And besides, he’s right. I hate being the needy kid, the fragile only child who’s afraid of everything and everyone. Blowing my cover story now would be suicide. But how do I keep this a secret? And, besides the blindness thing, how can I maintain the illusion that my noggin is improving, that my sessions with Chandelier are working, that I’m once again getting a full eight hours of sleep each night?

Beta’s got to know something. I mean, he’s figured out how to store his entire self on a server. Maybe there’s a chance he also knows how to bring sight to the blind.

My instinct is to reach for the mouse—duh, I can’t see. I start hitting the Tab key, trying to visualize in my head what the layout of my desktop is. It’s wishful thinking, though. There’s no way to know which buttons are active in which windows. Getting to Ernie’s had been easy the last time because his window had already been active from when he’d downloaded into my room. Now it’s all chance.

Tab.

“Beta?”

No answer.

Tab.

“Beta?”

Fumbling. A pissed off voice (not Beta’s) asking, “What the fuck?”

Good! At least I know I’m tabbing through my SMN buddy list (and not just through the icons on my desktop)!

Tab.

“Beta?”

Snoring, followed by a quick cough, the rustle of a blanket, Summer’s sleepy voice— “Theo? Are you still awake—have you kicked Beta out yet?”

Tab.

(Summer snores!)

I’m about to call out Beta’s name again when suddenly I feel the keyboard slipping out from beneath my hands.

“For Christ’s sake,” Mini-Theo grunts. “Let me do it.”

I hear him moving the mouse and pounding a few keys with his fists. It must be tedious, considering his diminutive size, but worth the wait, as in a moment I hear Beta’s voice coming through my speakers:

“Yo, little dude, what’s—holy fuck.”

Holy eff is right. “Oh, Beta, thank goodness! I need your help. I…I think my Old Eyes messed up my original eyes.”

“Yeah, I can see that. I…holy fuck.”

I can hear it in his voice: He’s never seen this before. He’s never talked to someone in the Five Percent Side-Effects Club, of which I’m a member.

It takes all my willpower not to burst into tears as I ask, “Can you do anything for me?”

Beta sighs. “Shit, no way. I’m just a programmer—nanotech is programming and biology and, in your case, ophthalmology.”

“Oh.” Well, that settles it. Dark glasses and a cane for me—

“But I might know someone who can help you.”

My hopes do a cautious about turn. “Yeah?”

“I have to warn you, though, he’s an old dude. He gets grumpy when people wake him up in the middle of the night.”

“I’ll take that chance,” I say.

Of Cabaret Crackers and Hamster Eyes

@ernie

In case you haven’t noticed, I have a slight weight problem. No, it’s true. I’ve come to terms with it, I accept it—so why can’t my grandparents do the same? Why do they have to meddle? Why do they insist on trying to fit me into their own ridiculous set of standards? And after they’ve been doing so well these past few days, keeping off my back, living their own boring lives and letting me live mine. We had an unspoken truce—then we have dinner last night, and everything goes to hell just because I bust my shirt while reaching for the mashed potatoes. Just because, in said busting process, one of my shirt buttons happens to fly across the table and hit my gramps in the forehead.

(Don’t laugh. I’m sure at some point in your life you’ve busted a seam or lost a button at the dinner table while reaching for your second or third helping. It can happen to anyone!)

Anyway, my grandparents both set their forks down and give me the third degree in their quiet, restrained old-farts way. Gramps asks me if I think I’ve had a little too much to eat; Grams asks if I’ve taken a look at the gym brochure she left outside my bedroom door the other day; both give me dirty looks when I say, “Oh, my God. I’m fine. You’re both overreacting. Now, what’s for dessert?”

Grams quietly gets up from the table, goes into the kitchen, comes back a few minutes later with a plate of Cabaret crackers. Cabaret crackers! Have you ever had those? You need a whole box just to get the impression of flavor!

Naturally, I push the crackers aside and get up, heading for the kitchen. We bought a box of chocolate chip ice cream on Wednesday, and I plan on making a sizable dent in it.

“Don’t bother,” Grams says, in the coldest, quietest tone you ever heard. “I’ve put the lock back on the fridge.”

Can you believe that? She’s put the lock back on already! It’s only been off since Tuesday! What the hell? Fucking tease!

I yell at her that it’s unfair, but she just takes a sip of water, tells me I haven’t been excused from the table yet.

I sit back down. The three Cabarets are chilling there on their plate and looking as unappetizing as cardboard coasters. I try one, just to humor my grandparents, and let me tell you, they’re worse than they look. They’re so bad my eyes tear up. Throwing my head back, I scream, “It’s like biting into nothingness!” I down the rest of the crackers, each one dissolving almost as soon as it hits my tongue. “Nothingness!” I wail.

In spite of my pain, my grandparents ignore me and start to clear the table. Gramps tells me to finish my homework, take my shower—so I think fine, I’ll just hit up Becky later and we’ll share a bag of Doritos or half a pound cake or whatever. Turns out she’s in on it too. Either that, or she’s got the worst timing ever. When I message her with my suggestion, she smiles at me, scrunches up her freckled nose, and says, “I’m glad you messaged me, Ernie. I’ve decided that I’m going on a diet with you.”

“Wait, I’m not on a diet,” I say—and then it hits me: She wants me to go on a diet with her.

You’ve got to be jerking me off.

I sit there at my desk for a while, alone in my bedroom, isolated from everything and everyone I hold dear. No fridge, no food, no sugar to level my nerves—and Becky going on and on about how she thinks she can drop fifty pounds so that she can fit into some stupid pair of jeans. Eventually I just close her SMN window (though I can still hear her voice) and bring up Theo’s. Normally, he wouldn’t be my first choice as far as snacks are concerned, but Eva’s never at her computer anymore, and Jan’s too poor to afford any good treats. Lucky me, though: Theo’s in one of his moods, worried about beauty sleep or something.

That was yesterday night. Now it’s Saturday morning, five or six hours away from dawn, and I haven’t had my usual midnight snack. Hunger is a terrible thing. Psychological hunger is even worse. I’m all twitchy and hyper; I can’t think, I can’t game, I can’t fall asleep. Fucking grandparents.

I’m going to message Becky back. Maybe she’ll let me help her clear out her fridge to make space for all the carrots and broccoli she’s going to be starving herself on. I start to bring up her SMN window, but freeze in mid-click when something rustles behind me. I glance over my shoulder—and spot Theo, fully dressed, stumbling over a pile of my clothes. He goes down hard, landing face-first on the floor, arms and legs splayed every which way.

Hmf.

“Have you come to apologize?” I ask, swiveling around in my chair, folding my arms—and nearly shitting myself when Theo rolls onto all fours, looks in my direction.

He’s got black eyes.

Like, his pupils have enlarged and swallowed up his irises, which have, in turn, swallowed up his eye whites.

“Holy shit,” I breathe, jumping out of my chair. “Nice, er, contact lenses.”

“What do you mean?” he asks, whimpering, carefully getting to his feet and reaching out with his arms like he’s blind.

“Your eyes,” I say. “They’re all black…like a hamster’s.”

Theo starts feeling his face with his hands. “Oh, no! What else?”

“I don’t know. Look in the fucking mirror.”

“Damn it, Ernie! Don’t you think I would if I could?”

Oh, shit. He is blind.

And he’s just cussed for the second or third time in his whole life.

I step forward a little, wave my hand in front of his face. “Really? You can’t see at all?”

“Just…shapes. Lights, sometimes.”

“Does it hurt?”

He frowns, swallows. “No. See, I…I got New Eyes—”

“New Eyes? You got New Eyes?”

“Shut up and let me finish!”

I can’t believe Theo—little, adorable, innocent, straight-edge, New Age, vegetarian Theo—got New Eyes!

“I got some Old Eyes to remove them,” he continues, “because I didn’t tell my parents about the New ones, and I was worried about what they’d say when they found out. But instead of giving me back my old vision, the Old Eyes made me go blind.” He settles back down onto the floor, sitting cross-legged. He puts his head in his hands and starts crying. “What am I going to do, Ernie?”

“Well,” I say, trying to sound like I’m putting a helpful suggestion into words when really I’ve got absolutely nothing. “It’s Saturday morning. You, um, can probably sleep in a while. Maybe the effects will wear off.”

“And if they don’t? If I’m stuck like this for good?”

“Then…” I trail off. What the fuck am I supposed to say? I don’t know shit about New Eyes except that those old TV commercials had some seriously stacked babes in them. What can I possibly tell Theo that will make him feel the least bit better about going blind?

I look at him, and he’s crying and shaking all over. I guess I’m kind of flattered that he came to me for help, but now that he’s here I don’t know what the fuck to do. I’ve never seen this before in real life. On TV, yes, but never like this. I want to run from the room and hide in a closet or something; I want to cover my ears and hum really loud—I want to pretend I don’t know that my friend is in deep trouble and
I haven’t a clue how to help him.

Eventually I say, “You should go wake up your parents, get to a hospital or something.”

Theo looks up, looks totally spooked. “I can’t tell my parents. No way.”

“Why not?”

“Are you kidding? They trust me too much.”

“That doesn’t make any sense.”

“Come on, how many twelve-year-olds do you know who have their own business?” Theo shakes his head. “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. My parents let me make my own money, they give me total privacy because they trust me not to do stupid things with their trust. No hacking into government sites, no gambling, no porn or sex meet-ups or cybering. No giving in to those opposing pressures. If they find out I’ve lost my sight because of something I got off the Internet, that’ll be it. Everything will fall apart. They’ll treat me no better than your average brat.”

My sarcasm reflex goes off without warning. “You say that like you’re above all the rest of us poor pubescent slobs.”

“I didn’t mean it like that. I just meant I actually do something with myself after school—wait, no, I don’t mean it like that, either—damn it, Ernie, you know what I mean! I can’t let my parents know what’s happened because it means I’ll get in trouble!”

“Um, they’re kind of going to find out,” I say, “when you start running into walls and falling down stairs.”

“Ugh, I know.” Theo starts nibbling on his lower lip. He looks angry all of the sudden. “This is all Beta’s fault.”

“Beta? You mean the metro-Asian dude living in your bedroom?”

Theo nods in my general direction. “Yeah. He’s the one who gave me the New Eyes in the first place.”

“I hate to be the one to remind you of this, but you were the one who actually used them.”

“I know,” Theo says, looking like he’s about to start crying again.

“Why’d you want New Eyes, anyway?” I ask, hoping to catch him before he does.

“Um…no reason.”

“Oh, so you woke up one morning and thought to yourself, ‘Fuck it, I’m bored. I’m going to mess around with some eye drops?’”

Theo sighs. “This is going to sound stupid, but…I wanted Eva to notice me. I thought…I thought without my dumb ol’ glasses getting in the way she might stop paying so much attention to Jan and start paying more attention to me.”

I should’ve known. In retrospect it’s perfectly obvious why Theo would ever do something that might unsettle his perfectly meticulous little life: he has a hard-on for Eva.

“Oh, that,” I say nonchalantly.

Theo stops crying. He blinks at me, sightless. “You don’t sound surprised.”

“Well, it’s not like I didn’t know.”

“Really? You knew?”

Poor naïve Theo. It’s been written all over him since that first day in Thrill-Kill’s office. The way he looked at Eva, hung on her every word—if there’d been any chance of him not getting expelled, he so would’ve whipped out his dick and plowed the shit out of her right there on the desk. Repeatedly. “I’m very perceptive despite my fatness. You like ponytails, she’s got one. You like small and petite, she’s like a little pixie minus the fairy dust. Sure, she’s got the bug eyes, but she’s also got the firmest little handful-tight-bottom I’ve ever seen.”

Theo narrows his hamster eyes.

“Hey,” I say, spreading my hands, “I’m not the one you have to worry about. Bug Eyes is totally not my type from the neck up. Which would make things awkward before and after sex. No, it’s Jan you should be worrying about.”

“But Jan doesn’t like her—”

“Doesn’t matter! She likes him. Eva looks at him like you look at her.”

I think I’m getting through to him. For a sec something like recognition flashes across his face—but then he just shakes his head. “Why are we even having this conversation? I’m blind.”

“You never know,” I tell him. “Some chicks dig blind guys, or guys without legs, or guys—”

“Ernie, stop. You’re not making me feel any better.”

“Sorry.” Back to the awkwardness.

The two of us are quiet for a while. I think we’re trying feel the right way about what’s happened, if that makes any sense. I know my tangent on Eva is proof that I’m in some kind of shock. It’s a weird feeling, not knowing how you’re feeling.

After a while Theo gets to his feet, wobbles, reaches out with his arms. “Where’s your computer?”

“Over here,” I say, pointing (my gesture is, of course, completely useless under the circumstances). “Why?”

“I’m going home. Send me home.”

“What are you going to do?” I ask.

“I don’t know.”

I shrug. I know I should probably say something else to make him feel better, or maybe I should offer to go back to his place with him, offer my support—but, honestly, I just want him out and on his away. I know that sounds fucked up, but I’ve never had to watch someone suffer before.

There’s a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, and I don’t like it.

Going Dark

@theo

I have problems with anxiety. That’s why Mom has me see Dr. Chandelier every Friday. She’s hoping that, through a series of high-priced idle conversations, he’ll figure out what it is in my well-to-do life that has me so darned worried all the time. So far he seems to have his money on some sort of deep-seeded childhood memory. Me, I think my brain just likes to fret. I think it likes to make itself feel useful. If it doesn’t have anything to worry about it makes stuff up. Like right now: I’m sitting here in Chandelier’s office and waiting for him to arrive so that our session can begin; I’m surrounded by leather and mahogany and the faint smell of cigar smoke settling between the quiet ticks of this giant antique-looking grandfather clock that’s supposed to be steady, soothing. I feel perfectly fine, I can see perfectly fine—yet I’m worried that at any moment the too-good-to-be true nanobots swimming in my eyes will suddenly malfunction, leaving me blind. Or worse.

Wednesday morning, I’d gotten back from Beta’s Enterprise replica and, despite my newfound 20/20 vision, had found myself preoccupied with the notion of discovery, the possibility that if Mom realized I had New Eyes she’d find out that I’d gotten them from a stranger—and that the stranger had downloaded into my bedroom via a program that was going to keep me connected to the Internet whether or not I wanted to be. On the way out the door I’d hurriedly knocked the lenses out of my glasses. I’d then spent the entire car ride to school staring out the passenger window, sure, so absolutely sure that Mom was going to catch on, ask me what had happened to my lenses, ask me why I didn’t need them anymore. Somehow she’d ended up not noticing, which had made me feel slightly more confident—until Ernie had caught me at my locker and asked me point-blank where my “bottle-ends” were. I’d told him the lenses had fallen out when I’d accidentally dropped my glasses on the sidewalk; he’d shrugged, called me a klutz, and asked to borrow a dollar; I’d ignored him and gone on to first period. Again, my confidence had welled slightly. But during roll call it had occurred to me that the accident explanation was only going to be good for a few days, at which point people were sure to start asking why the heck I hadn’t stopped by LensCrafters.

By lunch my self-doubt had complete control. I’d decided to hole myself up in the library. I don’t feel too bad about pulling a disappearing act, though, because on the way into the library, I’d peeked across the quad and spotted Ernie sitting alone at our table. I may have been ditching him—but Jan had evidently ditched him first. That’s how it’s been for the rest of this week. Ernie, Eva, Jan, and myself: apart.

I squirm in my chair. Chandelier’s office enfolds me. All the leather and mahogany and faint cigar smoke is suspiciously comforting. I slip my hand into my pants pocket; I press the bottle of Old Eyes into my palm. I’m seriously thinking of restoring my defaults. The alternative is too risky. It’s already bad enough that I’m using SuperMegaNet behind my parents’ backs, and it doesn’t help that I’ve let Beta take over my bedroom.

Chandelier breezes into the office, closing the door behind him and seating himself across from me in his usual armchair.

“How was your week?” he asks, removing his wedding ring. There’s a small table beside his chair; he sets the ring down, then picks up a small portrait of his wife, gazes at it, frowning, sighing, frowning some more.

“Okay,” I say. I wonder if this is anything like a fortune-teller asking me my name—if he’s good at what he does, shouldn’t he already know? Shouldn’t he be able to tell from the bags under my eyes, the way I’m constantly nibbling on my lip that I’ve got major weight on my shoulders?

“I see your glasses are missing their lenses,” he says in an off-hand way.

Already my pulse is racing. “No, I…I got contacts. I…I’m just not used to, er, not wearing my glasses, you know?”

“Maybe you feel exposed without them? Vulnerable?”

“No…not really.”

Chandelier chuckles wistfully. He’s still looking at his wife’s picture. “That’s good. One less thing for us to have to work out. Any other news?”

I think back, grasping for something he’ll want to hear. Something cliche. “I made a girl cry,” I say.

Presto. His interest is piqued.

“Girl, you say?” he asks, setting down the portrait and looking at me.

“Yeah.”

“Well, do tell! What’s her name?”

“Eva.”

“Ah. Eva.” He leans forward in his chair, smiles. “Cute little thing?”

“I guess.”

“Bright eyes? Sweet smile?”

More like bug eyes and, as of late, broken smile. “Sure.”

“Mm-hm. Always having to politely remove your hands from her darling little bottom?”

Um, what?

Chandelier leans forward even further. “I don’t tell this to all my young male clients, but between you and me—and only between you and me, because I know you’re a sensible, responsible young man—you know what’s good for two-thirds of your everyday worries and anxieties?”

I shrug my shoulders, shake my head.

“Regular interaction with the Fairer Sex.”

Here we go…

“You’re in high school now, right?”

I nod.

“No doubt they’ve taught you the difference between a condom and a water balloon?”

I nod again, this time blushing.

“Superb. That’s the first step of many. You’re forging new relationships, exploring new territory, and, yes, engaging in certain specific kinds of experimentation. The beauty of it? No wedding ring. Why, you can get away with things during your adolescent years that you’d never ever be forgiven for during adulthood. Now, I’m by no means advocating casual physical intimacy outside of a monogamous relationship, but stick with this girl, this Eve, see where she’ll let you go—I’ll let you take that however you like, since you are a responsible young man—and chances are you’ll find yourself far more interested in her various aspects than in your silly little worries.” Chandelier leans back again, clasping his hands and looking satisfied. “In a mutually monogamous relationship, of course.”

You know…you’d think I’d be surprised, outraged, even, that my head doctor is recommending me and Eva explore the therapeutic effects of sex—but I’m not. My high school guidance counselor chain smokes in her office and says “shit” in front of students. She revels in the stereotype that all teenagers are delinquents who don’t give a damn. Consequently, she doesn’t give a damn. Dr. Freud, on the other hand, does give a damn because it bothers him that his clients’ problems aren’t so easily categorized. He’d rather I become sexually active at age twelve and therefore slip into a well-documented emotional dysfunction—it’d be easier for him to treat that than the generalized worries I’m throwing at him now.

“Actually,” I say, “it’s not going too well between me and Eva. I sort of upset her, and now she’s not talking to me or my friends.”

“Oh? Tell me about that.”

I explain the situation, outlining how I basically screwed Jan and Eva over. Naturally, I replace Jan with myself—and I make sure to leave out any mention of my plush mini-devil Theo doll. When I’m finished, Chandelier sighs, pays his wife’s portrait another glance. He looks tired.

“Welcome to the Paradigm of the Sexes,” he says. “The Great Joke, the never-ending struggle between male and female, see? We need it, women have it, and they’d rather lose a mammary than give it away for anything less than two kids, a house in the suburbs, two-car garage, joint bank account.”

Too much information. Way too much. I squirm in my chair, unsure of what to do or say. I want to politely excuse myself, but my hour isn’t up. Or maybe it’s Chandelier’s hour that isn’t up. Either way, I’ve reached a conclusion regarding doctors: they need more help than do their patients. I may need CBT, a highly-specialized diet, afterschool Yoga and calisthenics with Mom, bathtime aromatherapy, and chamomile tea before bed just to give me a fighting chance for sleep each night, but I still think I’m better off than the guy sitting across from me. At the very least, I’m better off than Thrill-Kill.

Freud eventually stirs in his chair, scribbles something on his clipboard, hands me a piece of paper. “I want you to start keeping a blog. Here are some links to get you started. Blogger, Facebook, WordPress—it’s all the same. I want you to post in your blog once a week. It can be about anything: school, friends, family, computers—your mother tells me you’re into computers?”

“I design web sites,” I say.

“Fantastic. Tell people what that’s like. Invite them to comment by posing a question of some sort at the end. Bring the URL for your new blog to our next session. Okay?”

I nod and look at the clock on the wall as Chandelier closes his eyes, settles deeply in his chair, and asks me to relate my earliest childhood memory.

* * *

It’s later than usual (half past nine) when I walk into my room and set down my gym bag, take off my backpack. It’s been a long day at the end of a long week. A sudden, unexpected dinner date with Mr. Nakayoshi at P.F. Chang’s only prolonged the suffering. He likes to do that, by the way: swing by the gym and insist on chauffeuring Mom and me to dinner. Really, he’s only after an excuse to ogle Mom in her sports bra and spandex boy cuts (has she no modesty?). This can be a good thing, though, as it usually means I get ignored. Mr. Nakayoshi is too busy ogling, my mom is too busy pretending not to notice, and all the while I’m keeping my head down, I’m working through my Buddha’s Feast with nary a peep.

I’m tired enough to actually get to sleep on time tonight. I grab a shower, return to my bedroom, spread my sleeping bag out on the floor. I lay there for a while staring at the ceiling, Beta’s bottle of Old Eyes clutched in my hand. I think to myself that the adult world is more dependent on make-believe than its inhabitants would care to admit. Dr. Chandelier makes believe that I’m four years older and in desperate need of carnal knowledge; Mom pretends she’s not an object in the eyes of her husband’s boss; Dad pretends he doesn’t care; I try to convince myself there’s a chance in hell Eva will notice me if I become less of a geek (do you suppose that’s an early warning sign of impending adulthood?).

I hold up the Old Eyes. There’s just enough light from the front LEDs of my computer that I can read the instructions. I place the drops in my eyes and settle in for the night. Just as I start to wonder if I’m going to fall asleep, I suddenly jolt awake, realize I’ve been out for at least a couple of hours—

—there’s someone kneeling beside me.

“Wake up, Theo.”

It’s dark, and my eyes have crusted over, so I can’t make out who it is at first, though there’s evidence of soft bulk, a beanie, the sound of an annoying coo.

Ernie.

“Wake up,” he says again, and jokingly tickles my nipples through my T-shirt.

I swat his hands away, sitting upright in my sleeping bag and trying to open my eyes.

I can’t.

“Hey,” Ernie hisses. “My grandparents locked our fridge again. Can I grab a midnight snack from yours?”

“I thought Becky was your supplier,” I say, offhandedly. I’m starting to freak out. It’s probably not the best thing to do, but I press my fingers against my eyelids and force them open. My vision is swimming with little squiggly flecks. I can make out the details of my room for a moment before everything goes black.

Ernie’s oblivious. “She’s being a bitch lately. Says I’m just with her for her snacks. Personally I think she’s letting her fat make her paranoid—”

“Get out,” I snap, stumbling to my feet.

“But—”

“Go home!”

It’s quiet. Then:

“If this is about the nipples thing, I was just playing around.”

“Ernie, leave. Now.”

He snorts, tells me off under his breath. I hear him go over to my desk, click the mouse. In a moment he’s gone, and I’m alone. I don’t know why I need to be, but I do. Maybe I can deny my worst fears if there’s no one in the room with me to confirm them. Oh, but the darkness is real.

It surrounds me.

Imminent Gold

@theo

My alarm clock goes off just as I’m getting back from Eva’s. Normally, I’d be waking up right about now, grabbing a shower, having breakfast, brushing my teeth and all that, but instead I go over to the bedroom door, make sure it’s locked. Then I sit at my computer again, scroll through my SMN buddy list. I highlight Beta’s name; I click “Visit.”

Off I go, from body to bytes, from Zen bedroom to poolside paradise—wait. Not quite. Oh, I’ve uploaded onto Beta’s server, all right, but the decor has been drastically altered. In fact, I’m standing on what appears to be the bridge of the starship Enterprise. Big-breasted babes in colorful miniskirt-uniforms abound. Beta, sporting a yellow shirt, too-tight black pants, and gogo boots, is seated in the captain’s chair.

“Ensign Smole!” he exclaims with a pleased look on his face. “Welcome aboard!”

I pay myself a cursory glance. My shirt is red. Crap. I’ve watched enough Star Trek episodes to know what that means.

“What’s on your mind, buddy?” Captain Beta asks.

“Real quick,” I say, “because I know you’re probably busy battling Romulans or Klingons or whatever—”

“Naw, we’re just getting ready to watch some South Park.” He points at the main view screen. Two of his officers are wrestling a couch into place in front of the command module. “You’re welcome to join us.”

“I’ve got school in half an hour,” I tell him.

“That’s too bad. What can I do for you?”

“Tell me how to uninstall SuperMegaNet.”

Beta frowns, looks slightly betrayed. “Is this about my living in your bedroom?”

“No, no,” I say. “My friend doesn’t want to use the program anymore. She tried uninstalling from the Control Panel, she tried turning off her computer—she even unplugged the thing. Nothing happened. It was still running as if she’d done nothing.”

“That would be your quantum technology at work.”

“Meaning?”

Beta crosses his leg, William-Shatner-as-1960s-Captain-Kirk style. “You can’t simply turn off or disconnect your neighbor, can you?”

“Well, no.” Not unless they’re on a respirator.

“That’s the concept behind SMN. Ultimate collaboration, all the time, 24/7. The entire network is supposed to be like one giant chat room, only it’s people’s bedrooms, offices, cubicles at work. Doesn’t matter if you have a hundred miles between you and the person you’re talking to. SMN means to make it synonymous with stepping from one room to another when you click that ‘Visit’ button. You can’t simply banish your bedroom door when you don’t want your parents to come barging in, and you can’t turn off your buddy list just because you’re not in the mood to chat.”

Stupid Ernie. Did he even read the fine print before he made us all install this stupid program? “Can they do that? Forcing everyone to be…connected?”

“It’s not a matter of ‘can they?’ They’ve already done it.” Beta smiles, leans back in his chair. At the rear of the bridge, the turbolift opens; a yeoman enters carrying a trayful of drinks. “The thing about SuperMegaNet is, it was an internal hobby project at Taurus, two groups of programmers trying to win a bet. ‘It can be done!’ was the motto. This was never supposed to be a public product. But it leaked out, and so Taurus went with it to prevent a PR nightmare. And to take advantage of the user base for testing purposes. They’re eventually going to release a dumbed-down version as the final gold code, something with your more standard VR features. Before then, all the ‘bugs’ have to be worked out. You know, all the interesting stuff like being able to upload and download yourself, storing yourself on different servers, et cetera.”

“That…sucks,” I say.

Beta puts his hand on my shoulder. Casually, he says, “Congratulations. You’re a guinea pig.”

“This is serious, Beta.”

“I know it is. This whole develop-in-the-wild, bleeding-edge thing is one of the reasons I left Taurus. I don’t agree with their philosophy of forcing togetherness on everyone as a way of covering up their mistake. And I don’t intend to give up my virtual freedom once the crippled 1.0 version hits the Web.”

Beta’s still smiling, but I can tell he’s serious. I guess I’d be too if I’d cheated death by going virtual.

After a moment I ask, “So, what are you supposed to do if you don’t want SMN anymore?”

“You could, I suppose, bash the shit out of your computer with a baseball bat. Your webcam, too—preferably when there’s no one downloading. Or you could wait a couple of years for your hardware to fail.”

“There’s no anti-SuperMegaNet program? No firewall setting to prevent uploads or downloads?”

“There you get into the quantum programming shit again. Part of the bet at Taurus was to come up with something that couldn’t be hacked or blocked. A true connection.” Beta laughs. “I think it was mostly the guys wanting to keep tabs on their girlfriends. Well, those who had girlfriends anyway.”

A mild cheer goes up as the South Park episode begins. The majority of Beta’s bridge crew are making their way over to the couch as Cartman’s face fills the screen. The quality looks amazing—better than Blu-ray. I watch for a moment before facing Beta again.

“Hey, how come you didn’t tell me about the downside to New Eyes?”

“What downside?”

“The optic nerve rot thing.”

Beta waves his hand dismissively. “That’s, like, five percent of people.”

Oh, God. “But what if I’m in the five percent?”

“You’re not.”

“How do you know?”

Beta shrugs. “Your eyes would’ve melted out of their sockets by now.”

“That’s nice to know.”

“Oh, for Christ’s sake.” Beta gets up from his chair, walks over to a console that’s been grafted between the communications and library computer stations.

Curious, I follow him over.

“If it’ll make you feel better…” Beta says, entering some sort of cryptic code via the keypad. Momentarily a bottle dropper materializes on a small platform above the console. He picks it up, tosses it to me. I barely catch it.

“What’s this?” I ask.

“Old Eyes,” Beta replies. “It restores your eyes to their natural default factory setting.”

Great. More eye drops.