May 03, 1994|By BARBARA TUFTY

WASHINGTON — It was elegant. It was terrible. It was splendid.

It was a spectacular emerald green caterpillar with a ruby red head and waving golden antennae. And it was marching across my computer screen, ''eating'' my words like a caterpillar munching a leaf of spinach.

I watched it fascinated. It was about 1 1/2 inches long, made of brilliant green asterisks with a red asterisk head and a blinking yellow E as a headlight. Munch, munch . . . munch across the top line of my article and down the next. Where did it come from? What was it doing? Then I panicked. It was a virus! I pushed ''Enter.'' Nothing moved except the caterpillar which kept on munching. Push ''Escape.'' Nothing. Munch. Push ''Pause.'' ''Delete.'' ''Page up.'' ''Page down.'' Munch.

I turned the computer off, then on again. My familiar file was there, nothing changed, but the caterpillar was gone. Had I eradicated it? Was it my imagination? The bright emerald-ruby-gold image burned in my mind, but not on my screen.

My friends said it was a virus, but no one recognized my description. So I kept on writing, hoping it had ''gone away.'' I am computer-literate only as far as my WordPerfect program is concerned. I know I work only with the tip of the iceberg of all the computer power, but I use the program as I use a car -- to get from here to there without my having to know how the gears shift or the axle works.

Over the next few days, I began to feel secure again . . . until suddenly the caterpillar reappeared, marching and munching across the screen. I swiftly turned all systems off, called the office, and borrowed a floppy with a ''search and destroy'' program. It searched and found, but could not destroy. It only reported ''Found the Green Caterpillar (GreenCat) Virus active in memory. Power down the system immediately. Reboot from a clean, write- protected system diskette and then re-run SCAN to determine extent of hard-disk infection.''

What did that mean? I had no ''clean, write-protected system diskette.'' I called the office again. A 20-minute high-tech conversation with a professional computer repairman left me technically bewildered and helpless. He couldn't come for another ten days.

By now, I was feeling terrible -- like Typhoid Mary, the housekeeper who spread the disease as she worked in homes and institutions, I was a carrier, an outcast, a bad-news messenger. I called all friends and offices with whom I had been in computer contact and warned them about my dread disease. But no one found any GreenCat Virus.

Suddenly, a magical friend stopped by and slipped one disk after another into the various ports, typing furiously, whispering to himself and to the computer, at times saying an ominous ''Oh oh!'' and flipping through his notebooks. Eventually, he rid me of my GreenCat but installed an automatic search-and-destroy program for whenever I start up my computer.

So where did this green monster come from? The only source would have been through my modem into a research library.

But what mentally depraved people insert such destructive viruses? Some bright kid playing jokes? Some sick mind striving to find itself by senseless sabotage? The electronic world now seems filled with demented creatures bent on destruction. Today's counter-virus programs are working fast to protect us from the more than 1,700 viruses speeding around the globe. But the computer virus, like a living virus organism, reproduces itself and spreads like an epidemic. Viruses are now so sophisticated that they can clone and evolve into more variations -- as many as 2,400. Rogues that create them should be caught and hanged by their thumbs.

''I want a COOKIE,'' says one virus, appearing suddenly on a screen again and again, until the frustrated and unknowing person types out ''COOKIE'' and the program crashes. Another virus makes all the words on the screen crumble and fall like shredded paper to the bottom of the screen. ''BLOODY!'' virus ** infests a floppy and hard disk. After about 128 reboots, the virus flashes the message ''Bloody! Jan. 4, 1989,'' the date of the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing. Then there's the dreaded Michelangelo virus that appears on the artist's birthday every March.

I was lucky, for even though GreenCat had spread throughout my hard-disk system, it ate only one of my articles. I hope it died of indigestion.

Barbara Tufty is a science writer and consultant.

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