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?”
“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?”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
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