The present day, somewhere else.
The basement's dark. The hot chocolate's cold. The only sound is her hands tapping away at the keyboard. She's nearly solved the last problem, and if this works, we're 15 minutes tops from go. She's 12 years old and knows she can change the world.
Videogames aren't reality - they're a reality construction kit. It took her way too long to understand that. She used to love playing her old titles, sinking into the glorious solitude of Blockfall and Witchwizard for hours until her dreams filled up with falling shapes and pixelated monsters, but now it's different. Now awake and asleep are damn near the same thing, and reality's a whole new beast.
Dad's gonna love his birthday present.
She's been more worried about him than ever recently. He does his meditation and his chants, then wanders the farmhouse for hours. She's heard him going out to the paddocks late at night, where she knows he'll talk to the cows and stare up at the sky. He hardly ever uses the computer anymore, and never for games; she misses their Offroad Racer challenges. Some part of his mood is seasonal, but there's more to it and it's getting worse.
She might just know how to change that, finally.
[One of the missing PATH statements falls into place. Nearly there. She can work the keyboard and think about Dad at the same time, now, which is good, 'cause otherwise she'd never get anything done.]
On one level, the Dad Issue is simple: the Network. It was such a long time ago, well before she was born, but it's never left him. The picture's emerged slowly over the years, always from other sources and never from him directly: Dad working like a maniac on that vast project, putting his blood into it, arguing and fighting for his vision of the world, then watching as they discarded his ideas, his dignity and, finally, his job. The Network, at least the Network he believed in, never saw the light of day.
He doesn't talk about it, ever, except the one time last year when they had a picnic down in the back field and shared lemon-lolly cupcakes with the cows. Halfway through a jellybean he'd stopped, stared at the grass, and said:
"It wouldn't have just been for the universities and the rich kids, hon. Imagine if everyone had their own little computer connection and could do whatever the hell they liked with it. Imagine the possibilities."
"But that'd take hundreds of thousands of machines," she pointed out. "Millions, even, and they'd overload the phone company. That's just not possible."
"Maybe not in this reality," he replied, his eyes gleaming.
She sat there not knowing what to say, feeling unseen ghosts around them both. They finished the cupcakes and headed back up to the farmhouse