Monday, November 29, 2010

Excerpt: "Leaving Home"

 Growing up wasn’t nearly as hard as Julie thought it would be.
Her new skin, as nearly naked as her teen account’s safety settings would allow, got her everything she needed the first time she took it into a public Hangout.
“Who are you supposed to be?” the bare-chested soldier said. His washboard abs glistened with simulated sweat and his chiseled good looks were darkened to dangerousness with carefully programmed scruff. A mile away or a thousand miles away, Julie thought, a pale, pasty fat boy was licking his lips as he waited for a response.

He didn’t wait long.
“Julie,” she said. “I like your skin.”
He grinned and flexed his muscles. “What skin? This is how I really look.”
“Cool,” she said. Her new voice was huskier than the one nature provided, and a little deeper. Julie keyed a shortcut and her avatar reached up and put its hand on the soldier skin’s chest. “I like muscles.”
Figuring out how to word questions so they didn’t trigger the censorbots took some time, but Julie got the idea through eventually. Soldier Boy referred her to a Ninja in a jungle-themed Hangout, who passed her on to a fedora-wearing panda bear sitting in a coffee shop modeled after one from 1930s Brooklyn. The panda said he’d get back to her.
An hour later, Julie got a message to go to an L.L. Bean fitting room to try on a sweater. It would have looked ridiculous on the customized Sexy Julie skin, so she picked a Plain Jane off the rack. The sweater looked just fine with that skin's jeans and t-shirt combo so she put it on and waited, looking at “herself” in the mirror. The skin’s short, dark hair and small features made her look a little like Hayley. Unlike Hayley’s face, though, this one didn’t look like it disapproved of Julie’s actions.
A dark spot appeared on the mirror, about where the skin’s bellybutton would be, if she’d bothered to add one. The spot grew to the size of a basketball and then deepened to form a hole. A skeletal hand reached out of it. It was a hack; someone’s less-than-legal manipulation of the store’s software. Julie directed her avatar to accept the folded piece of paper the hand offered, and then ported back Home.
She unfolded the paper and the information it contained downloaded to Julie’s lapdesk. The panda had given her the keys to freedom: an adult login and password. A lot of the older kids had them, some of them leftovers from siblings but most acquired via hackers. Julie hadn’t paid much, so her new identity was probably stolen. It wouldn’t last long once she started using it, but she didn’t think she’d need much time.
Julie logged off her Hangout account and then logged back on with her the adult ID. The login menu had more options than she was used to. She opted for a button marked “Connections” and then waited as the Hangout Network took her to that channel. While she waited she browsed through the skins available to her on the borrowed account. She picked a custom job named Femme Fatale and walked it through the heavy wooden door that appeared before her.
The room beyond was dark and round, with heavy curtains closing off the hallways and niches that lined it. Julie watched as other avatars, most of them in pairs but some in trios and quartets, ducked behind the curtains together.
A figure approached her.
“I haven’t seen you before,” it said, smiling. “Can I help you find someone?”
Julie guessed it was a bot, part of the room’s software, rather than a human-controlled avatar. As she watched, the figure morphed from male to female to male again without losing its smile.
The bot gestured to a hallway. “Or maybe you’d like to watch something while you make up your mind.”
The curtain blocking the hallway the bot indicated glowed briefly and letters swam together and shimmered above it: “The Saturnalia Suite.”
Back in her bedroom, Julie’s hand hovered over a control. She was pretty sure what she’d find behind the curtain and it wasn’t every day she had access to the adult world.
She moved her hand away from the “accept” key. There’d be time for that later.
“What I really need,” she said, “is a ride.”

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