“I know what I’m doing.” Said John, but he mumbled so quietly that the other kids couldn’t hear him. School had ended, hours ago, and they’d gone straight to the arcade, as they did every Friday. It was John’s turn on ACE – he said he’d played it before. His dad, who was so-recently-divorced, had a cabinet in his apartment. John played instead of sleeping, and instead of speaking to his father.
“You’re a liar, John.” Riley stuck his fat face through the arms of the others and his rubbery jowls flapped like penguin wings. “Arcade only got ACE this morning. You’ve never played it. Liar.”
John missed the words. He’d shut them off the last time his ability was questioned, and now the plasma jet fighters filled his vision. There was no edge of the screen, there was nothing beyond the frame – the lights were the world, and the humming fluorescence of missiles and engines surrounded him, as far as he knew. Just like it did when he ignored his father’s attempts to impress him, the cockroaches, the cardboard boxes. There was only ACE. The lights reached to caress his eyes long after his friends had left.
He was ushered out at six, and ACE shut down.
He played it some more after his dad picked him up. His REAL high scores were on this unit – the one in the arcade was just practise. Practise for him to finally merge with the game itself, and the numbers were an indicator as to how close he was. At the point of breaking 99.999.999, John would surely shed his coil and be converted into the Ace Pilot inside the screen, that just made the most sense to him. If his parents’ marriage – which he had known to be a certainty for the first twelve years of his life – wasn’t true, then what was?
“Time for bed, John. Come on, lad.” Usually John’s dad let him play until he fell asleep, but he had work in the morning, and the lounge was filled with blip-booms. It was 2 AM.
“I don’t want to.” John mumbled, his face was painted in green light. A tiny explosion echoed around rolled off the peeling walls.
Nothing on the second call, as usual. His dad went to bed, knocked himself out with over-the-counters. He saw John when he left for work in the morning, still playing, bulbous eye-bags looking sickly in the dim glow.
John crumbled into sleep not long after dad left, somewhere between screens, after the points were racked up and the numbers floated through a star field, over a list of his own name. He hit the hardwood; drifted, drifted, into the plasma star field. Climbed the ladder of his name. Climbed into the cockpit of the ACE fighter. His ears hummed.
You’re greatest pilot we have, ACE. Commander hissed out of his little square. His face only moved as two separate frames – one with his mouth opened, one closed. Lines mistranslated. Go out now and shooting the bad!
He had lived out the situation so many times that introductory flight was as passive as blinking, and he was in the air – staring out from behind blocky grids into the oncoming bolts of neon that implied speed. This, surely, was the part where the first wave of one-hit enemies emerged in a triangle – but nothing came beside endless skies. John waited anxiously, finger on the trigger, knowing they would spring at any moment. Nothing. After countless artificial hours, the neon bolts all passed, leaving behind a dead gradient sky. John wasn’t sure if the fighter was moving at all now, as nothing came closer, and nothing moved away, leaving him to float in the emptiness. The recognisable music of the game had also slipped away without him noticing, and the anxiety was replaced with gut-wrenching dread. This wasn’t the world he thought he knew.
Something familiar came after a while, a box emerged from the top of the cockpit, where the Commander would usually be when he told ACE to shooting the bad – but the Commander wasn’t present. It lingered.
JOHN. It said after a while. It was the Commander’s tin-box voice, but it didn’t refer to him as ACE. JOHN, it repeated. Then the face appeared in the box.
It was of his father, visibly aged by about twenty years. His beard was ragged, greying, and his eyes had almost become consumed in sagging purple flesh. The hair on his was thinning into translucence. It was his father, but so warped by stress and concern that he had become another man. John’s dad didn’t reveal harsher emotions to his son, beyond the occasional sweeping of his hair and a glance of a grimace. But it wasn’t just the separation and weekend custody he had to worry about now, it was his son, and the endless hours of the virtual skies. John could feel the worry, in some way, and pushed it further back beyond ACE FIGHTER’s screen.
The cabinet was dead when John came to in the evening. When he placed his hand on the metal panels, they scalded his palm. The machine had burnt itself out. John felt too queasy to grieve.
His father came home an hour later in a series of door-slams. He dropped his bags, his tie, and came over to the machine. It was missing its organic component, who was lying on the sofa.
“You got the top score then?”
“Nah,” said John. He was staring at the cracks in the ceiling. “Bored of it.”
“Oh,” his dad frowned, but he paid nothing for the cabinet; it was a bootleg that a man at work wanted off his hands. He was in no debt. “Hope you’re not bored of screens, then. I got the Conan film on the way home. Do you want to watch it with me?” It rattled in an unlabelled VHS box.
“Yeah.” Said John. “Why not.”