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Superwoman's Phone Booth by Mary Curtis Ratcliff, 1993
> It's a lot more rare now. But it can happen. We've got much better security programs now. And we've got CyberSpace Technicians watching out for these small anomalies from inside the cyberspace. It's virtually impossible to hurt anyone in one of these programs now.
For now, he would go fishing. He plucked a knife out of thin cyberspace and cut off a green branch. A hook and line appeared on the ground next to him. Within minutes, he was seated on a muddy bank, with a worm dangling into the crystal clear stream. The heat beat down around him and he felt drowsy and relaxed for the first time.
* * *
Jefferson walked up to the public Virtual terminal and inserted a CD. He placed his blackbox against the side of the terminal and put on the headgear while the blackbox generated a valid user code. His initiation into the Atse Hackees was nearly over. He had only to prove his hacking ability. Jeff shifted his weight slightly and tapped at the touchpad in front of him. The virus he was inserting would gradually take down the security parameters in MacNet and GoverNet. Anyone hooked up while the virus was entering these systems would be affected and Jeff could enter anybody's part of the cyberspace at will through either of these nets. And he had every intention of disrupting the pleasant dreams of President Perococa whether he was currently using GoverNet or his personal programs in MacNet. He looked behind him.
"Well, whatcha waiting for, Jefferson? We're ready to see some action."
Jefferson stared back at the black-clad leader of the Atse Hackees and nodded. "Remember all the things you wanted to do when you were first learning the nets?
The small knot of Atse Hackees nodded.
"Now you can do them." Jefferson turned back to the terminal. "Computer, begin Neverland."
* * *
Chris was contemplating learning to swim. His mudcaked jeans sat on the bank next to his Keds. He was content to listen to the babble of the creek and the wind in the trees.
Until he heard something moving in the trees across the creek. He sat up and stared into the small grove, willing himself to see what was moving there. A single coyote broke through the treeline and sat down on the bank opposite him, tongue lolling out of his mouth like an idiot dog.
And then Chris heard the footsteps.
"Computer, identify source of footsteps."
"Identify player two."
"No identification is offered."
Chris stood up quickly, dropping the fishing pole onto the bank as he grabbed his jeans and wiggled into them. He scrambled up another tree and rubbed his sweaty hands on the bark. He remembered the pictures of cyberpunks and was glad that there were no dragons in this program. He shifted his weight around until he was sitting on the branch, ready to drop and run if he had to.
A middle-aged man walked next to the creek. He paused at the fishing pole and looked around, barely glancing at the coyote across the creek from him.
"Christopher! You little shit, you get out of this program now! Your mother's been calling you to dinner for thirty minutes. Now get your butt out of here!"
Chris shifted in the tree a tiny amount. No cyberpunks. He almost wished it had been them. At least he could try to reason with them.
"Computer, show location of Chris," Michael Leary stared at the little creek, his blood-shot eyes zeroing in on the fishing pole.
"There is no Chris in the program."
"Damned literal minded machine. Computer, show location of Christopher Leary." He kicked the fishing pole into the creek and watched it float away. Put one hand up to shield his eyes and squinted, trying to see across the creek into the grove of trees.
"There is no Christopher Leary in the program."
Chris grinned. He hadn't signed onto the system, so the computer assumed he was "player one." His father had probably done the same thing, just put on a headset and walked into the program. Chris could hide in here forever, and his father would never find him. He would never think to ask for player one.
"Chris you get out here this minute. Before your mother takes it in her head to come looking for you."
Chris jumped out of the tree and stood fast as his father advanced slowly toward him.
"Boy, you better clean up and get outta this program, pronto. You hear me?"
Chris nodded and stared at the ground. "Yessir. I hear you."
His father walked over to him. "She's pretty upset at you right now. Thinks you should have gotten the kitchen scrubbed better than you did. And if she sees you like this . . . ." His voice trailed off.
"Chris! Michael! You two need to come to dinner right now!"
Across the creek, the coyote threw his head back and let out a long howl, high-pitched enough to make Chris's teeth ache as he grabbed his ears. When the sound stopped, Chris looked up slowly. The coyote was gone and his mother stood in front of him.
"My God," she whispered. "Look at you. Just look at you."
His father grabbed her by the arm. "Now, Tanya, he's all right. He's not really dirty---"
"Not really dirty?" She pulled her arm away from him and walked toward Chris. "Just look at him, Michael. How could you let him do this? Just look at him." She shook her head and sighed. "I can't believe this. I really can't. What got into you, Chris?"
"Mom, it's not real, this is just the program. When I quit, I'll be all clean still." He stared at her feet, unable to look her in the eye.
"You're filthy! Just a filthy little boy. And you've been swimming in that nasty water, too, haven't you? Haven't you?" Her voice raised an octave.
Chris glanced quickly at his father who was staring at the creek, refusing to witness the scene in front of him. He barely heard his father's muttered, "Computer, exit program." He didn't think his mother even noticed.
"I asked you a question, Christopher." Her hands were on her hips, elbows pointed sharply out.
"No ma'am." He said it even though he knew she wouldn't believe him. Once she noticed him, she never believed him. The amazing thing was that his father had even tried to warn him.
"Filthy little boy, telling me filthy little lies. Look at me!"
He looked up. Her eyes pinned him to the tree and he swallowed hard.
"How many times have I told you not to lie to me? Well?" she demanded.
"I'm sorry, Mom. I'm sorry." He wanted desperately to look away, to run away but he didn't dare. Not while she was in this mood. Never while she was in this mood.
"Well sorry's not enough this time, Christopher. Not by a long shot, little man." She reached up into the tree and snapped off one of the lower, thinner branches. "Drop your pants. Now." Her voice was quiet, firm.
Chris undid his jeans and scooted them down.
"Your underwear, Chris. Let's not make this difficult."
He shrugged them off and stared at the small pile around his ankles. You didn't step out of them. Not with this mood. You left them around your ankles so you couldn't run away. Hobbled, the westerns called it. He wondered briefly if that's why people called it a hobby horse, because it was hobbled and couldn't get away, just rock back and forth in one place. He bent over and grabbed his ankles. Heard the whistle of the branch through the air as she drew it back. And then it tapped him ever so lightly. He frowned and fought the impulse to look back at her.
"I thought you weren't going to make this difficult, Christopher. Now, hold still." Her voice was shaking with anger barely controlled.
Again the faint whistle. Silence. A tap.
The security parameters! Chris grinned. This was a Virtual program, not real, just a piece of the cyberspace and it was impossible to hurt someone in the cyberspace. His grin faded. Of course, eventually he'd have to leave the program. And then . . . .
He hadn't moved, but she couldn't think of any reason why she couldn't hit him, so she was blaming him as usual. Again the whistle, a bit louder this time.
And then he was on the ground, a part of the small branch laying on the ground a few feet away. He ground his teeth together and tried not to scream. His whole body quivered as he tensed every muscle.
"Stand up! You are getting so lazy, I just can't believe this. I thought you were going to scrub the kitchen today, but I come home and find you playing with this computer instead. Did you forget that we're having a party tomorrow? The house is filthy. Filthy!"
Chris struggled to his feet, not daring to look at her. He was shivering and longed to reach behind him and make sure there were no twigs sticking out of his behind. That had happened once, a long time ago. She hadn't had to do this in a long time.
He managed to keep his balance this time. She continued ranting at him, calling him filthy and lazy, nothing he hadn't heard a million times before but this time she was wound up, not slowing down, only speeding up, building to a crescendo he didn't want to hear. His eyes darted around, staring at the landscape, trying to figure out how to get out of this. He heard her draw the new stick back and it dawned on him.
"Computer, freeze player three," he whispered.
Silence. He waited for a minute, afraid to move, afraid to check. He could feel a small bead of blood trail down his leg. Bent his knees experimentally. Nothing. When he peered over his shoulder, he saw his mother standing like a statue, the stick raised high in the air. It had worked after all.
He pulled his underwear up carefully and then his jeans. His breath was coming in ragged gasps and he couldn't stop shivering. He was stuck. Temporarily saved, but as soon as he quit the program, he'd be worse off. He should have let her finish, get her mad out and then when they quit the program, he'd be all right and he wouldn't really be hurt. Now, as soon as he quit, she'd be all over him and he'd hurt for days. And cleaning the house over and over again for months. Maybe she'd even pull the plug on the computer like she did the time he flunked computer science.
Chris turned and walked toward the creek. He kicked at the water, splashing it, watching the ripples circle further and further away from him. "Computer, access CT James Maii." He had to find a way to make sure that this program would never end, because as soon as he left it, she'd be after him again. He bit his lip and wished he could freeze her in real life when she got like this.
"CT James Maii is not logged on to MacNet at this time."
"Computer, access hard net, Word Supply. Now access CT James Maii."
> This is CT Maii.
"If you had to actually enter cyberspace to repair a security parameter, how would you do it?"
"Yes, it's me. I'm in a program right now, but I need to figure out how to access the cyberspace and make some repairs."
> Well, there are maintenance holes, but you should have the droids come back to fix any problems, Chris. It's too easy to get lost in the cyberspace without the proper "ropes" to tie you to this reality. At least let me come help you.
"No, you can't." He glanced at his mother, swallowed and looked back at the creek. "It would take too long for you to get here. They might figure out a way around things by then." What if his father thought to turn the program off before Chris could do something?
> Who? Is it an Atse Hackee or some other hacker? I'll be right over, just tell me the program.
"I can't let you. I can fix this. Computer, exit Word Supply."
Chris rubbed his eyes. His mother still hadn't moved. If he could enter the cyberspace, he could dodge his mother by jumping from program to program without being constrained by that program. It would mean that he would probably never be able to return to the "real" world. The jump to the cyberspace often killed the physical body. That's why many Computer Techs refused to be promoted to CyberSpace Techs. But Chris had always wanted to be a CST.
"Computer, show maintenance holes."
The computer cycled for a moment and Chris was afraid that the security parameters would deny him access to the maintenance holes, but a square of swirling lights appeared right next to his mother. He walked over to the hole. Spots of light seemed to collide with splotches of dark, ricocheting off of each other in a chaotic kaleidoscope of reactions. Like a snow crashed computer in full color.
"Computer, allow player three to speak."
Her voice came out in a bare whisper. "You're going to be cleaning the kitchen, Christopher. Alone. Scrubbing the sink . . . and under it. Until it's spotless."
"Computer, freeze player three!" Chris's eyes were wide and unblinking. The pipes under the sink were broken, they leaked constantly, moldy slime growing under the sink because of it. He'd had to clean that out before. One weekend he spent locked under the sink, cleaning. He shook his head. It was just cleaning. Nothing bad. Lots of kids had it worse. Getting beat up all the time. This was the first beating Chris had had in years. And it wasn't even real, it was in a Virtual program.
Chris turned back to the hole. Until it's spotless. Scrubbing the sink . . . and under it. Until it's spotless.
He stepped through the hole. "Computer, close maintenance hole."
Lights flashed through him and darkness shifted over his face. He howled as he began falling through the cyberspace.
And then he flew.
* * *
President Perococa announced today his radical new plan to increase
As a result of the Neverland virus, the MacNet and GoverNet virtual reality nets will remain down for the next 24 hours. The recent collapse of all security parameters caused the accidental death of eleven-year-old Christopher Leary and the hospitalization of his parents, Michael and Tanya Leary, as they attempted to rescue their son from the dysfunctioning net.
The words slowly faded from his screen. James hit the monitor. The damned thing was always going out on the stories he wanted, needed to read. If he'd only reported Chris sooner, maybe. . . The screen came back up.
James's screen went
black. Slowly a picture of a young boy in a green T-shirt
and blue jeans appeared in the midst of the darkness.
Swirls of light and dark fired the pixels of his monitor.
The boy's head nodded.
It's me. Story?
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