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Virtual Child

Robin MacRorie

Superwoman's Phone Booth by Mary Curtis Ratcliff, 1993


The computer monitor darkened and the message Work satisfactorily completed walked across the screen. Chris looked across the comproom. The other students were still busy over their keyboards. He typed end and then board.
> Name of addressee? the computer prompted.
> CT James Maii.
> Hi, squirt, the screen replied in purple letters.
> Hi, hacker. Story?
> I thought you were getting your cyberspace net this afternoon. Don't you want to use it before your folks get home?
> Dad's already home. And the delivery's not due until 4. Story?
Computer Tech James Maii smiled at the monitor. He wasn't supposed to talk with the kids, but Chris had figured out a way around the security parameters by the second week of the session. Computer techs were supposed to encourage and report bright students, and James loved encouraging Chris, so much that he hadn't gotten around to telling his supervisor about him yet.
> Well, story? Please, CT Maii?
> Since you put it that way. . .I guess so. How about a story that happened to a kid in my rank when cybernets were new?
> Sonic!
The letters had changed shades of green. The kid had already broken the elementary security parameters around his desk and accessed the command level of the system. James would have to report him soon. The boy couldn't stay in Rank Four much longer. In fact, James thought Chris could be a computer tech when he graduated. And at the rate he was going, he might be ready earlier than most.
> Hey, pack the screen, not your head.
> All right, all right, already. It was a common complaint among the kids when he took too long to reply to them. I can't type you a story and a memo at once, squirt.
> Memo to who?
> Captain Gibson. My boss.
> ?????
Letters were now appearing in different shades of green as Chris was learning how to toggle the color wheels in MFTL.
> I want to brag about one of my students.
> Oh. Story now?
>> Don't you want to know who?
> Megan Leifer.
> No. You.
> ????!
> You are doing rather well with these systems, Chris.
> Oh.


A picture of a clock appeared on James's screen, implying Chris didn't have all day. James laughed out loud and  tried to cover it with a sneeze. Chris looked over his monitor at him and grinned.
> Enough, babyhack. When virtual reality machines were introduced into the classrooms, the security parameters on them were about as good as the ones on the system you and I are using right now. A boy in my rank, Wayne, was in a program called Medieval Squalor. He had managed to maneuver himself into a knight's armor and was trying to find a dragon to fight. There was only one Computer Tech for every five classrooms. A pack of cyberpunks called the Atse Hackees broke into Wayne's cyberspace.
> Atse Hackees?
> Don't interrupt.
> Don't type so much at a time, then. Who are the Atse Hackees?
> You were begging me to pack the screen a minute ago. And you really don't know who these cyberpunks are?
A crude graphic of a red face with its black tongue sticking out wavered onto the screen. James erased the impertinence with a keystroke and inserted a picture from one of the latest newscasts onto Chris's screen. Several young men and women stood in front of a public CS terminal. They had on black jumpsuits with neon orange piping. One had arrow tips pointing upwards on his sleeve. Two of them had shaved heads indicating they were outlaws, the others had dyed their hair to match the orange on their jumpsuits.
> These are cyberpunks who call themselves Atse Hackees, Chris. They are usually very good hackers. And they are also very violent.
> Not afraid.
> You should be. Now do you want to watch my story or what?
> So type it. I watch it.
> Better. Anyhow, some of the Atse Hackees hacked their way into Wayne's program. They outfitted themselves as the dragon that the program wouldn't create on its own. Wayne thought he had manipulated the program to do what he wanted it to. At first, the cyberpunks had a difficult time moving the dragon and Wayne was able to score many hits on the beast. That's how he had set up the dragon fight, like a video game. It didn't take the cyberpunks too long before they were able to move the monster easily and from there, they were able to concentrate on beating the security codes.
> Can they still jump into the cyberspace? Into other people's Virtual programs?
> Sometimes.
> That's why you write me this story? A warning?
> Yes, Chris. You see, they did beat the security codes. And when they did, the dragon's fire got hotter and hotter. Wayne's virtual body was being baked in his suit of armor. Soon, his virtual body died.
> !!!!!!!!
> What do you mean "!!!!!!!!"?
> If your virtual body dies, you die, right?
> Eventually, yes. We didn't notice right away what had happened. How could we, each in our own worlds? The CT came running in and hit the esc key. Wayne's virtual reality slowed down and the session ended before the cyberpunks could do more and override the esc function. But Wayne's real body was overheated from the dragonfire in the program. The CT couldn't get a Medic to the comproom fast enough. Wayne's real body died a few minutes later. There were other incidents like that. That's why there's a CT in every comproom. And why there are much, much better security parameters now.
> Could it still happen? Do the cyberpunks still get into the cyberspace of someone else?

> 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.


James's screen went black, and a neon green clock appeared in the center. It was five to four. James waved at Chris and began composing the note to his supervisor.
Chris peered cautiously out the door and looked up and down the hallway. No one in sight. He ran to the closest dart tube and punched in his address.
His father wasn't home as he had feared. He waited at the front lift for the delivery of the virtual reality set. It wasn't long before the droids delivered it. They hooked it up while ignoring his questions. He grabbed the intro CD and jammed it into his old mainframe. Finally, he would learn about the cyberspace. He could learn more at home from the nets than he could in school.
He had absorbed most of the intro CD before the droids finished the installation and he was eager to begin his first jaunt into the cyberspace. He had picked out a nice program of a woods that he was just going to play around in for a while. Just to get the hang of things. A mechanical voice said, "Thank you, Christopher Leary. MacNet hopes you enjoy your new product."
Chris shut the door behind the droids and quickly hooked up.
"Begin Balcones Woods program."
Nothing happened. Chris adjusted the headpiece, leaned further back in the recliner. "Computer, begin Balcones Woods program."
"Initiating program."
He grinned through the headpiece as a bunch of trees appeared in front of him. "Computer, increase temperature to 30 degrees Celsius. Now create a creek."
The temperature increased, but the creek did not appear. "Computer, create a creek ten feet from me.
He was now standing in mud. He grinned bigger and bigger as he developed the landscape around him. He began walking through his creation. He deleted flies and ants and mosquitoes, and increased foxes and rabbits and squirrels. The raccoons he assumed were sleeping somewhere. Chris reached up and grabbed a tree branch and pulled himself up into the tree. Numerous birds flew away. He perched in the tree for a few minutes and debated whether to really build a tree house or have the computer generate one. In the end, he decided to leave that for another day.

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."

"Player two."

"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 . . . .

"Hold still!"

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?"

> Chris?

"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

"Next story"

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.

Story, Hacker?

> Chris????

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?

Write to the author

Robin MacRorie recently graduated from the creative writing program at the University of Notre Dame and currently teaches first year composition there. "Virtual Child" placed first in the 1993 Sigma Tau Delta short story contest at the University of Texas, Arlington, and was later published in Tender is the Net. The story was later used as the kernel of her novel, I've Heard Coyote's Howl which further details the problems that Chris and James encounter from within the cyberspace.

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