Over the next few months, Dad started wandering the house again, doing meditations, stargazing and going into town even less than usual until he was a virtual recluse. The last time she tried telling him she was worried, he picked her up, gave her a hug, and whispered gently:

"I'm ok, hon. It's just about getting old and having regrets instead of dreams, which is one of the silly things old people do. Now, you're still enjoying your games?"

"Of course. It's like they open up other worlds."

"Wonderful. Never lose that feeling, hon. One of these evenings I'll come down and thrash you again at Offroad Racer ..."


But he never came down, and she had played through all six games they owned dozens of times, everything from Adventure Kingdom to Xanadu, until the computer started to feel like a used-up heap of possibilities. She was so bored and frustrated she even started looking forward to school just for the change in routine, which was both amazing and worrying. School was the stupidest, most half-witted place in the entire universe, holding as it always did the prospect of Michael Holroyd and his nastiness about computer games, Dad, and everything else she cared about.

[She taps a final command and the texture problem's fixed. One last compile and we are go ...]

Michael Holroyd had an Apple V, by far the best of anyone in school. (Only a few people had computers, and there were none in the classrooms.) He also had more than 15 games all mail-ordered from overseas. He liked to laugh at her Commodore 1000, with its old processor and small screen, and he made a point of talking very loudly about the international data calls he could make using the Apple's modem, which let him play games against university students in far-off places like Oxford and Berkeley.

"But your Dad would know all about that, wouldn't he?" Michael would jeer. "Shame his Network turned out to be a crock, shame you've got no money for toll-gaming or a decent computer or even proper clothes ..."

Michael's father had a senior position at the phone company and even owned a portable handset. She knew he had worked with Dad years ago as one of the managers who decided to scrap the Network, turning its funding back over to the military and ending the hope of open access. Michael was desperately proud of his father - which, she quietly admitted to herself, she could understand - but he showed it by attacking her at every opportunity.

"He got run off from his dumb ideas and went and hid on that pokey little farm! He's out there now being a loony magician shaman ... he goes down to the back fields and asks the cows to get him his job back!"

She was quite sure Michael didn't know what a shaman was, but it didn't matter: His constant harassment made school miserable. It got worse and worse, until one day on the steps he said it:

"He deserved to lose his job. Data calls have turned out much better under the army and the phone company. He deserves to end up all alone with one crappy computer and a daughter with no ideas and no friends just like him."

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