Leah Walker, age sixteen, descends into the basement of her family’s home in Buckhead, in Atlanta, a box of Lucky Charms in her hand, and sits at one of the computers she’s set up. Since it’s Saturday, Leah is wearing her typical household attire, cargo shorts, an oversized rugby shirt with the sleeves pulled up, and white Reeboks. The computers were purchased by her father, Paxton, with the idea they’d be used to connect him to his office, or allow him to work from home, but so far, Leah has been the only one to figure out how to use them, so they’ve more or less become hers to do with as she pleases. Her father still gives her assignments, such as connecting to his office network to post messages, or download files, but these don’t take up a lot of time, so she’s free to pursue her own interests.
Lately, her interests have included connecting to computer bulletin boards on the West Coast. A few months earlier, Leah saw a report on a network news magazine show about teen hackers in California who compromise the phone companies and invade computer networks. Two years earlier, she’d been enthralled by the film War Games, and ever since her father brought home the first computer, a Commodore 64, she’s been trying to tap into groups who could teach her how to pull off some of these tricks.
She switches on the stereo, and the room is filled with the Thompson Twins, from rotation at WRAS 88.5, Georgia State University’s radio station. She sits at the Amiga 1000, which her father recently purchased, and waits for it to power up. On another table is a Macintosh, Leah’s personal favorite for schoolwork, and on a portable stand nearby sits the Commodore 64, which is used mainly for gaming since the Amiga came along, with its new operating system, Windows 1.0, that Leah has been learning on her own, though she’s been badgering her parents to let her take a course at the Learning Annex on the Windows system.
“Hold me now, hold me in your loving arms,” Leah sings along with the radio. She opens the cereal and takes out a handful, which she pops into her mouth, then clicks on the modem software and selects a number from the list. The modem makes its usual wavering and staticky noises as it connects her to a box just outside Los Angeles, which, she’s recently learned, is a meeting point for several hacker groups. She logs in with her handle, JoeMamba, then begins exploring what’s new since her last visit. So far, she’s mainly lurked, following various threads without contributing more than a few questions. Not wanting anyone to suspect she’s a high school kid from Georgia, she’s set up her profile as Lee Johannes, a male college student from somewhere in the Midwest. As she explores the message board, she keeps notes on a yellow pad by the computer.
After about twenty-five or thirty minutes, Leah disconnects, and slides the yellow pad over, so she can see it. For the past several days, there’s been a discussion about a “backdoor” someone left on a server in Texas, and Leah’s anxious to see if she can get in using it. She keys in the modem number and waits for it to connect. Once she gets the prompt, she uses the credentials mentioned on the board, and this allows her access. From there, she has no idea what she’s supposed to do. It’s a Unix machine, and Leah has had even less experience with this type of system, than with Windows. She starts trying out some of the commands she has learned to see what they do.
Her sister, Alyssa, a tiny, blonde girl, four-years-old, appears at the door, standing on her tiptoes, which she’s in the habit of doing when she’s not wearing shoes. She has on a long, My Little Pony nightgown.
“Leah,” she says. “Can I play the bear game on the computer?”
“Sure, Princess,” Leah says. She pats her left knee. “Want to see what I’m doing?”
Alyssa hurries over and climbs onto Leah’s knee. “What is it?”
Leah leans toward one of Alyssa’s ears and says in a low voice, “It’s called hacking, so don’t tell Mom and Dad.”
“Okay,” Alyssa says.
Leah holds the cereal box for Alyssa, and she takes out a handful, which she eats one piece at a time, while she watches what Leah’s doing.
“This is a computer in Texas I’m not supposed to be logging into,” Leah says.
“Why are you doing it?” Alyssa asks.
“I think the main reason is because I can,” Leah says, “but beyond that I’m not real sure.”
“I want to play the bear game,” Alyssa says, sliding off Leah’s lap.
“All right,” Leah says, “it’s still there from last time, but use the headphones, okay?”
“I will,” Alyssa says.
“Remember how to turn it on?” Leah asks.
“Yep,” Alyssa says. She sits at the console, and starts the computer. She loads a program with cartoon bears in it, then puts on some headphones. As she plays, she occasionally hums along with the music in the game.
From the top of the stairs, her mother, Melinda, announces, “Leah, Gita’s here.”
Leah rolls to the door in the swivel chair and yells back, “Tell her I went to the North Pole.”
“She’s standing right here,” Melinda yells back.
“Oh. Don’t tell her that, then,” Leah says. “Are her legs working?”
There’s a pause, followed by Melinda saying, “They appear to be.”
“Well use them, Gita,” Leah calls back. She rolls back to the computer. A minute or so later, Gita, an Indian girl with short, black hair, and wearing sandals, cut-off jeans, and a bulky Frankie Say Relax T-shirt, enters. She stops, regards Leah with frustration, and says, “Why are you screwing around on the computer? We’re supposed to be going to the park.” She glances at Alyssa and says, “Hey, Aly.”
“She can’t hear you,” Leah says without removing her eyes from the screen. “Headphones.” Leah looks at the clock. “It’s ten forty-two. The park will still be there.”
Gitanjali Ramachandra or Gita, as she prefers to be known, is the daughter of the chief financial officer at Bickering Plummet, and has lived in Atlanta since her parents immigrated there when Gita was three-years-old. She and Leah met at school, and their families have gotten to know one another since Paxton’s firm won the bid to design an annex to Bickering’s corporate headquarters scheduled to be completed around the time she and Leah graduate in 1987. She jostles Alyssa’s hair, which prompts Alyssa to look up and say, “Hey, Gita!”
“Want some cereal?” Leah says, offering the box to Gita.
“Lucky Charms?” Gita says, with a sour look.
“Hey, they’re magically delicious,” Leah says, withdrawing her offer. “Never mind, then.” She eats another handful.
Gita plops down in an overstuffed chair nearby and sighs.
“Is that the Amiga?” Gita says.
“Yeah. My father likes to be on the cutting edge of the computing revolution,” Leah says. “The only problem is he has no idea how any of this works. That’s where I come in.”
“That’s convenient,” her friend says.
“It’s practically the only time Dad talks to me, when he needs something done on the computer,” Leah says. “Have you ever heard of the Arpanet?”
Gita shakes her head. “What is it?”
“Near as I can figure, it’s this gigantic network that connects the military with colleges and government agencies,” Leah says.
“Why would they need to be connected like that?” Gita says.
“I don’t know,” Leah says. “I guess schools that do research need to connect with the places that fund them. I read someplace the Arpanet was built to withstand a nuclear war.”
“That’s helpful to know,” Gita replies with more than a hint of sarcasm.
Twenty minutes later, Gita has shifted in the chair, so her feet, sans footwear, are over the back, and her head is hanging back over the seat. “How long are you going to be screwing around on that computer?”
“Sorry,” Leah says. “Once I get going, it gets addictive.” She disconnects from what she’s doing and shuts down the Amiga. She rises. “What’s the plan, Piedmont Park?”
Gita maneuvers in the chair so her feet are on the ground, then slips on her sandals, and stands. “That’s what I thought.”
“Anyone meeting us?” Leah says.
“I said something about it to Stewart,” Gita says.
“Stewart, the ass wipe who calls you Rama-lama-ding-dong?” Leah says. “Honestly, Gita, what do you see in that guy?”
“He’s cute,” Gita says. “Besides, he said he’d stop calling me that.”
“When’s he going to start? Monday?” Leah says.
Gita rolls her eyes.
“Why are you even looking at Stewart, anyway? Aren’t you supposed to be getting married?” Leah asks her.
“Not before I’m twenty,” Gita says.
“I cannot believe there’s a guy sitting over in India waiting for you to come over and marry him,” Leah says.
“No. Raja’s in Canton,” Gita says. “His family moved here five years ago.”
“Still, what do you know about this guy?” Leah says.
“Our families go way back,” she says. “They matched us up when we were six months old.”
“Well, good luck with that,” Leah says. “I’m never getting married.”
“What about Mitchell?” Gita says. “You’ve been seeing him for a while.”
“He’s okay, but creepy,” she says. “Always pestering me to come over to his house. Says he wants to show me something.”
“Like what?” Gita says.
“Oh, take a good guess.” Leah takes the cereal and goes over to Alyssa, who’s engrossed in her game. She pulls one of the headphones away from Alyssa’s ear, and sets the cereal beside the keyboard.
“You’re on your own, Princess,” Leah says, then bends down and kisses Alyssa on the forehead.
Alyssa laughs. “Okay. Bye, Leah. Bye, Gita.”
“Did you drive?” Leah asks as they head into the hallway toward the stairs.
“I just live across the street,” Gita says.
“Ha!” Leah says. “Maybe we can get the Mercedes, then.”
They go upstairs into the kitchen, where Melinda is sitting at the counter reading the Constitution. A cigarette is burning in an ashtray nearby.
“Is Dad using the Mercedes today?” Leah says. She goes to the counter and takes a draw from the cigarette. Melinda takes it from her, and gives her an aggravated look, then puts it back in the ashtray.
“What’s wrong with Margaret’s car?” Melinda says.
“The Karmann Ghia doesn’t have a phone,” Leah says.
Leah learned how to drive in her aunt Margaret’s Karmann Ghia, and she’s been letting Leah drive it ever since Margaret purchased a sedan. One of the stipulations of Leah using it is that she service it herself, since Margaret doesn’t trust mechanics in the area, and Leah has become adept at most repairs.
“I think he’s golfing at noon,” Melinda says, “but I’m not sure if he’s driving or riding.”
“Let’s just take the convertible,” Gita says.
“Oh, all right,” Leah says. “But if we get stuck someplace and can’t call for help, don’t blame me.”
“What’s Alyssa doing?” Melinda asks.
“Playing that bear game for the five thousandth time,” Leah says.
“I’ll check on her in a minute,” Melinda says. “What are you girls doing today?”
“Piedmont Park,” Leah says. She kisses Melinda on the cheek. “Love you, Mom.”
“Have fun,” Melinda says.
Leah and Gita head out to the garage.