Before the others could protest, Xavus logged out of NEXUS. It felt so strange. Logging out of the game felt much different than logging into it, like he was leaving something behind. He lay in his bed for a while, wondering what could have happened to Ipsum. He sighed, knowing where to look first.
He typed in the address for REnerd, a social media site specifically designed for self-proclaimed nerds, geeks, otaku, and other marketable undesirables. Grant had joined the site in the beginning and it was fine for a while. He never posted much but he liked looking at the goofy videos Ipsum seemed to find out of nowhere. He had made 'friends' with many of the guild members but had soon grown disgusted by their ridiculous updates. Out-of-focus images of food, blurry pictures of shrieking girls holding drinks and meaningless quotes were bad enough, but he couldn't handle all the baby pictures. Even cockroaches can breed, Grant always thought, so your babies are nothing to be proud of.
The phone near his bed exploded with its cheerful ringtone. He answered it, forgetting to check who was calling.
“H...hello?” he stuttered.
“Is everything okay?” the caller asked. “You sound out of breath.”
Oh no, it's Aunt Doreen. Grant had to use all his willpower from sighing.
“Yeah, everything's fine,” he answered, his voice coming back to him.
“Good. Sorry, did I wake you up? It's kind of early, I guess.”
Grant glanced at the clock. It blared 9:13 AM at him.
“No, it's fine.”
“Good!” Aunt Doreen said. “I'm sorry, I just got so excited. The last time I talked to you, you said you were looking for a job. I think I found you the perfect one!”
“Oh.” Grant forgot he told her that. He hadn't been looking for a job; he hadn't even planned on it. If he was careful, he could make the settlement money last him decades, maybe even for the rest of his life. Sure, the crash had killed his mom, given him permanent back pain, constant nightmares, and a massive fear of driving, but at least he had been paid.
“It's at that video game store in the mall. You know, Press Start? They're looking for a part-timer and it turns out that the day manager is the son of Emily, a gal I go to church with and I said such good things about you and he...”
“I...uh...I already have a job lined up.”
“That's wonderful! We were worried about you for a while, you know, after everything that happened last year.”
“You just seemed so lost and withdrawn for a while, but I knew you just needed some time.”
“Your mom would be so proud with how strong you're being.”
“So where are you working at?”
His aunt didn't miss a beat. “That's right up your alley. What exactly are you doing?”
“Uh...I'm a board moderator.” It didn't make sense, mods weren't usually paid, but he bet that his aunt didn't know that.
“Good for you, sweetie! Good for you! I knew you were smart.”
“If you don't mind me asking, how much does it pay? I mean, I don't need numbers, really. Just...will you be okay?” she asked.
“I'll be comfortable.”
“Good. That's real good. Well, I'll let you go then. I just wanted to check up on you.”
“Thanks, Aunt Doreen. Well, bye.”
“Oh, just one more thing...” It was always one more thing when she called. “Will you be coming over for Memorial Day? We're having a great big cookout. The whole family will be there and...”
“I don't know. I think my job might keep me really busy.”
“Oh. Well, let me know, okay? Take care, sweetie. Bye!”
She hung up. He hadn't even wanted to get a phone, but Aunt Doreen insisted and even paid for it. It got practically no use except whenever she called. Grant sighed. He hadn't felt good about lying to her. He knew she was just worried, but he only wanted to be left alone. He sat for a moment in silence until he remembered Ipsum.
He logged into REnerd and he made his way to Ipsum's profile. 'Gregory Gionovetti' was his meatspace name and Grant had to remind himself every time that Ipsum had a life outside of NEXUS. He browsed through Ipsum's profile, looking for updates that might explain what happened back in the Nameless Tomb. He knew Ipsum wasn't a hermit like he was. He had other interests, other friends, even actual girl friends which baffled him. There he was, some Jewfro'ed dude who was even chubbier than Grant, standing next to a lean, lithe girl with a tan. She wrapped her arms around him like it was the most natural thing in the world.
Ipsum had friends, loads of them, and they had all posted things in his profile. Ipsum had so many friends that Grant didn't see the same one post twice.
DAKOTA VASQUEZ SAYS: Good luck, man!
KIMBERLY BROWN SAYS: Just stay positive! We're with you!!!
FRANCINE GIONOVETTI SAYS: You can do anything with Jesus.
Grant rolled his eyes. That last one was probably from a grandmother or something. They were always going on about Jesus or some other junk. He scrolled down to the last post that Ipsum himself had made. It looked like it went up twelve hours ago.
GREGORY GIONOVETTI SAYS: No matter what happens, I'll be thankful for what I was given. #psalm119:71
Grant blinked in surprise. Ipsum never spouted religious stuff in the game. He shrugged, scrolled further down the page and saw the inevitable 'suggested ad' that appeared whenever you did a search on certain things.
This time under the suggested ad, a single word glowed gently at him. Brainbacker. A video appeared with a generic Asian-looking man in a lab coat talking calmly at him while pointing to the NEXUS logo.
“After joining with the most popular MMO in the world, Brainbacker finally has the means and resources to preserve your consciousness and upload it into your avatar. Finally, you can really...play your way.”
A phony-looking presentation with an Asian woman in a nurse costume began to play. This is how a lot of porn starts, Grant snickered. She hooked some dude up to all sorts of diodes and asked him a bunch of dumb questions like ‘what do you think the color blue smells like?’. After a while, it didn't look like it going to be porn. Grant skipped ahead. The vaguely Asian labcoat man appeared again and smiled.
“Do not think you are limited to your NEXUS account. You can sign up for any number of online services. And, as always, we guarantee premium protection in our state-of-the-art servers. There is no danger of being deleted or corrupted when you are in Brainbacker's hands. Go to brainbacker.nrv and fill out an application for digital personhood. Secure the dream for tomorrow, today--Brainbacker.”
Grant found himself hovering over the popup link that appeared in the video. He was about to click on it when he yawned so hard, his eyes watered. Stupid body. He hadn't slept in a day and a half and already it was complaining. He set his alarm clock so that the next six hours were assigned to just sleeping. After that, he was going to get right back to NEXUS. Maybe Ipsum had returned.