Okay, so, if a plush manifestation of your spunk gets hit by a car, do you feel the impact?
Regardless of the answer, I brace myself, squeezing my eyes shut, gritting my teeth, and going rigid from head to toe. Just so I’ll be ready when it hits me. Which, it turns out, it doesn’t. There’s no physical pain or discomfort, only the social awkwardness of having just performed an impromptu constipation impression—for no reason—in front of Beta…and the fact that my butt crack has inadvertently swallowed the seat of my pants.
Which is what happens when you flex too hard.
Beta takes a step back. “Dude. I don’t know whether to ask if you came in your pants or just shit in them.”
“I’m fine,” I answer, relaxing. To Jan: “Are you still there?”
“Yes,” he replies. “I’m looking for Mini. Give me a second.”
A thought occurs to me. “Don’t worry about it if you can’t find him. He’s just a plush doll. I can always go by there tomorrow to pick him up.” Maybe, if there’s time. If.
“Nonesuch. He’s your duše. You don’t want to leave something like that out on the streets.”
“Um…what’s a duše?”
“Your heart and soul,” Beta replies. “Your spirit, your psyche—your spunk, for lack of a better term.”
“Since when do you speak Czech?”
Beta shrugs. “I’ve visited enough foreign porn sites to pick up a few key phrases here and there.”
“I can’t imagine the word duše being used anywhere on a porn site.”
“Then you’ve obviously never been to the All Night Long with Ivana Schlong college cam site. They’ve got a storyline and everything: nineteen-year-old foreign exchange student who also happens to be a succubus uses her webcam to chronicle her extracurricular activities. Lots of ‘soul’ sucking, if you get my drift…”
Beta trails off, catching the shimmer in the air as Jan uploads into my room. He’s got Mini, scuffed and dirty, draped across his upturned hands; a pair of X’s have been sewn into the dimples where Mini’s eyes would normally be.
I blink. “Is he…?”
“Alive? Dead?” Jan hands Mini to me. “How can you tell with a puppet?”
“I just thought of something,” Beta offers.
“What?” I ask.
“‘Soul Puppet’ would be a great name for a band.”
I glare at him, using my Asian half to create an exaggerated manga effect. “Any other thoughts you’d like to share?”
“Just that with me on guitar and you on bass and maybe Jan here on drums we could…” Beta trails off, no doubt alarmed by the intensity of my stare. “We’ll talk more later.”
Jan glances around my room, paying special attention to Skull Mountain. “Můj bože, your neighbor’s dog did this?”
“Yeah. He’s got, uh, anger issues.” I stumble over to the closet, toss Mini’s corpse inside. I close and lock the door.
Beta clears his throat. “Are you sure that’s a good idea, little dude? I mean, you locked him in the closet once before and look where it got you.”
I start to ask him if there isn’t somewhere else he has to be right now—but then something occurs to me, something so blatantly obvious I can’t believe I missed it before. “Wait, this isn’t going to work.”
Beta nods at me. “Exactly. You can’t just lock away your problems in a closet—”
“No, not that.” I make my way over to where he and Jan are standing. “I’m talking about you, Jan. You can’t stay here.”
Jan looks disappointed. “Is tonight a bad night after all?”
“No—yes. I mean, you can stay here, of course, but you can’t—” Slow down Theo. Think, speak, in that order. “What I mean is, you uploaded here just now. You’re not actual. You’re a copy. If you want to do more than just visit, you’ll have to come here for real.”
Beta nods at Jan. “It’s true. Copy. Quantum computing. Multiple yous existing on multiple planes, one on the server, the other here. Mind fuck. Etcetera.”
“Ugh,” Jan groans. “I have to go back?”
I shrug. “Just temporarily. I’ll ride out on my bike and pick you up.”
Jan sighs. “All right. But we’d better do it quickly—I left Robbie’s phone on the sidewalk outside a Verizon store.”
“Don’t worry, I’m a fast pedaler.” I want to say something more encouraging (ie, less stupid), but that’s the best I can come up with on such short notice. I pull out my phone and click the “Send Home” button—
—and something strange happens.
Instead of merely winking out, as is typical during an SMN upload, Jan starts, well, pixelating. It’s sort of like what happens whenever Jan uploads using his parents’ lousy DSL connection, except here and now the effect is much fuzzier and much slower.
I look down at my phone. A message box has popped up on the screen. It reads: Network error. Please try again later.
I show the phone to Beta. “Have you ever seen this before?”
“Oh, no,” Beta says, a look of alarm crossing his face.
I swallow. “What do you mean, ‘oh, no?’”
“I mean, ‘oh, no.’”
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