LIGHTSPEED Presents: “Coma Kings” by Jessica Barber

io9 is proud to present fiction from Lightspeed Magazine. Once a month, we'll be featuring a story from Lightspeed's current issue. This month's selection is "Coma Kings" by Jessica Barber. You can read the story below, or you can listen to the podcast version. Enjoy!

Image © 2014 Galen Dara.

Coma Kings
Jessica Barber

So I guess the story begins, fittingly, with someone handing me a Coma rig and saying, play me.

Two a.m. and I’m at this party in somebody’s trailer out in the trashy part of town. I’m stoned out of my mind and there’s something on the television, either one of those cheesy infomercials or some sort of comedy thing making fun of those cheesy infomercials, and I’m trying to figure out which. I keep turning to the kid sprawled out beside me and saying, “Is this for real? Or is this like, a joke?” and he keeps blinking at me and going, “What? I don’t . . . ” and then trailing off. And so I’m deep into this important cultural assessment when somebody shoves a Coma rig into my hands.

“Fuck off,” I say, even though my fingers automatically curl into the wires. “I’m stoned, I don’t wanna play.”

“Come on,” says the guy who handed me the rig. “You’re Jenny, right? I hear you’re really good,” he says. True. “I hear you’re like, the best in the state, easy.” Not true, because of Annie, but I guess he’s not counting her. “I’ve wanted to play you like, forever.”

Either I’m really susceptible to flattery when stoned, or I actually just want to be playing Coma all the time, twenty-four/seven, no matter what, but either way I say fine and start to pull on the rig.

In each of my temples there are three distinct depressions, dents where the electrodes of my own rig have sat for hours on end. When I play Coma using my own gear, pulling on the headpiece feels like slotting a puzzle piece into place, but this kid’s rig is too big for me, not broken in. I try my best to align the electrodes properly, but in the end I just can’t get it to sit right, so I say fuck it and let it go all crooked. If you’ve played Coma you know this is a dumb idea, because it means the calibration will be all off and it will make you play like a spaz, but this is a throwaway game and I figure, who cares. I slide the opaque goggles over my eyes, fumble for the headphones and settle their huge soft cups over my ears, and the world disappears.

This is the point where usually I’d access my own personal Coma account, but like I said, I’m stoned, the rig doesn’t fit, and I don’t want some stupid throwaway game to drop me in the rankings. So I log in as a guest on the kid’s account instead.

Which is what fucks me over so badly, in the end.

* * * *

When Coma first came out, it was this gimmicky thing, a rich kid’s game, nothing I cared about or could have afforded if I did. I played for the first time at a mall. One of those demo booths set up spanning the food court, and the only thing I noticed about it then was that it was blocking my way to Sbarro’s. I hadn’t been interested, but Annie thought it looked like the coolest thing ever, and she begged me to let her play.

Forget it, I’d said, it looks stupid, I’m hungry, but she whined until I told her fine, get in line. Tough luck for her, though, you had to be thirteen and at the time she was only eleven. I played just to spite her, since I was fourteen and made the age cutoff.

I love how you can do these things that fuck you over forever, that change your goddamn life, and not even care at the time, not even know.

I won that first game at the mall easily, even though I had no clue what I was doing. Then I won the next game, and the game after that too, and by the end of the day I had more wins than anybody else and guess what that meant? Two free Coma rigs for the trouble.

I planned on selling them. They were going for five hundred bucks apiece, I mean, shit. But when we got home Annie goaded me into playing against her. Well, she won, of course, you know that much, and then I could hardly sell them off, could I? Not until I beat her.

I suppose you can guess how long it took for that to happen.

* * * *

I should probably tell you how that game at the party went, but I never know how to explain Coma when I’m out of the rig. It’s not like chess or something, it never makes sense when your brain is in the real world. If you really care, the game is on record, like every other game of Coma ever played.

It’s not worth watching; the kid is fucking terrible. We turn on our rigs and there’s nothing. I start building a box. Then there’s nothing but the inside of my box. One corner starts to crumble a little, and that’s the kid trying real hard, but then I just make it not crumble and that’s the end of that. I place a single white stone in the center of the box, and the game is over.

All of this is hardly worth telling you, except for what happens next. I feel the kid log out in a huff, and I’m about to do the same. But then there’s a ping up in the left corner of my consciousness, letting me know that Annie is requesting a game, and it’s a good thing I’m sitting down back in the real world because otherwise I would have fallen right over.

Here’s the thing. I have been trying to get Annie to play me again literally for years. I have sent game requests, again and again, and have gotten rejected each time. She absolutely will not play me. And now she’s been tricked, she doesn’t know it’s me, I finally get to play her, and here I am: wasted out of my mind with a Coma rig that doesn’t even fit.

If I were slightly less stoned, I might have started crying. As it is, I can’t even try to play, can’t even make the vaguest real effort because I know I’ll just get slaughtered, immediately, without mercy. Instead I start building useless structures, crumbling shapes that spell out Annie, it’s me, come back, I miss you.

The shock buys me about two solid minutes before Annie annihilates me and I am kicked out of the game. I can’t even bring myself to try and send her messages, try to request another chance. I just pull myself back into the real world, gut hurt and gasping for air.

I get home several hours before dawn, but my mother is up, sitting at the kitchen table and turning an unlit cigarette in her fingers, staring at the vinyl tabletop. The long walk home has cleared my head a bit, but I still feel shell-shocked, like there’s something sharp worming its way through the spaces between my organs. Like I’m going to burst apart at any moment.

My mother doesn’t look at me. “Where you been?”

“Went to a party,” I say. “Told you I was gonna go.” She makes a rough noise, deep in her throat, and I keep talking before she can say whatever it is she’s sitting on. “How’s Annie? You checked in on her?”

“She’s the same as ever, what do you think?” Ma says, which I take to mean no.

I try not to grit my teeth. “You still gotta check on her,” I mutter, move to squeeze past her but her hand darts out, catching me around the forearm.

“Don’t you tell me how I gotta care for my own child,” she snaps. Her cheap fake nails have half broken off, and their edges bite deep crescents into the underside of my wrist. We glare at each other until she releases me.

I bite down hard on the sides of my tongue and shove my way into the room I share with Annie.

Annie lies on her bed, just like she always does, a vanishing outline of a human body under a nubbly blanket, her head obscured by goggles, oversized headphones. She is surrounded by a small forest of medical equipment: stands for IV drips and catheter bags and heart rate monitors with their slow steady pulse of life.

The port at the base of her skull is hidden among pillows, under wide bandages. No electrodes. She doesn’t need those anymore.

Once I would have been overwhelmed by the urge to rip away every bit of equipment that surrounds her. Fuck, I’ll admit it: More than once I have given into this urge, but by now I know it doesn’t make any difference. She still lies there, just as unresponsive but now stripped bare, the heart rate monitor sending up a wailing protest in her absence.

So I don’t touch her. I just slide to the floor, scrape my thighs and palms across the synthetic roughness of the carpet and glare. “Goddammit, Annie,” I tell her.

There is a sound from the doorway and I fling myself around to face my mother, cheeks burning. She isn’t looking at me, though. Her eyes are trained on Annie.

“I can’t keep this up forever, you know,” she says. “It ain’t cheap. They don’t give me enough to look after her right. Sooner or later, we’re gonna have to let her go.”

She has been threatening this for years.

I don’t respond, just turn around and fit my molars together, like a small child, like if I pretend she isn’t there maybe she’ll disappear.

It doesn’t work. It never does.

* * * *

“Jennifer, I really need to see you applying yourself,” says Miss Denton. “You’ve already missed two tests this quarter, and I haven’t gotten any homework at all from you yet.”

I used to like school. I mean, maybe “like” is a strong word. But it was all right. These days, when I manage to go, it feels like trying to pull my limbs through molasses, impossibly difficult and never-ending. This is a compounding problem. It’s hard enough getting my ass to school by seven-thirty in the morning on a good day. Getting my ass to school when I’m just going to get yelled at for the last time I failed to get my ass to school is just adding indignity to injustice.

“I know,” I say. “I’m going to make them up, honest. I’ve just been . . . ” I don’t know what to say, here. Tired, is what almost comes out of my mouth. But that’s not the sort of excuse you can use.

I can tell by the way Miss Denton’s expression folds in on itself that she is supplying her own narrative. Poor Jennifer, with her crazy sister. Miss Denton wears tiny frameless glasses perched on the end of her nose, and she takes them off to polish them, stalling for time. “I know it’s been a hard year for you,” she begins.

Christ, I’m tired of this speech. I know it’s rude, but I let my body hunch forward, rest my forehead against the laminate desktop. It’s cool, and slightly sticky. I don’t even have the energy to be disgusted.

Miss Denton perseveres. “I know it’s been a hard year for you. But your junior year is just starting, and your grades right now are so important for college. You do still want to go to college, don’t you?”

“Yes,” I say, because I am supposed to. I wonder if it’s true. Standard small town dream: Make it out, make it somewhere far away.

I wonder if they’d let me keep Annie in my dorm room.

* * * *

I don’t make it to second period. I get to the door, then think of sitting at a desk for a solid hour and a half, the real world feeling cramped and finite, and just can’t. I find myself pushing through a side door out into the parking lot, twisting my way through rows of cars baking in the early sun. I can feel my rig tucked safe in my trunk, like a fucking siren song, and before I can think, I’m angling my steering wheel toward the city.

People go to Coma parlors for one of two reasons.

The first reason—why I go—is just to have a safe, quiet space to play Coma uninterrupted. The full-immersion aspect means it’s different than how gaming used to be. You can’t yell at your mom to get out of your room, or shove the cat away if it walks across the keyboard. Or worse, if something catches fire, or you’ve got a crazed family member screaming obscenities and threatening to kill you. If you’re planning to really settle in for a long game, better to be someplace supervised, someplace safe.

The second reason people go to Coma parlors is to hack their rigs. For some people, tweaking the electronics is just as much of a draw as actually playing the game. They think adding extra electrodes, overclocking the microprocessor, whatever-the-fuck else will give them an edge, help them achieve some sort of in-game nirvana. I think this is mostly bullshit; I use two-year-old stock parts and the occasional firmware upgrade, and I play better than most of the gearheads. Plus, we all know what it actually takes to get to that place of inseparability from the game.

There just aren’t very many people willing to go that far.

Lady K’s place looks like somebody’s garage workshop. Bare cinderblock walls, concrete floor. There’s a smattering of institutional couches around the outer edge, about half taken up by prone bodies, but the majority of its real estate is occupied by long, cobbled-together workbenches, ringed by kids bent industriously over the exploded innards of their Coma rigs. Soldering irons send fine wisps of smoke upward; someone’s running a Dremel carefully along the rim of their goggles.

The eponymous Lady K, a short, apple-cheeked chick who can’t be much older than me, is peering into a microscope when I come in, but she looks up at the door chime and gives me a little grin. I’m not in here often enough to be considered a regular, but Lady K knows me regardless. I’m higher ranked than anybody else who plays here, which probably helps my notoriety.

That, and Annie.

Always fucking Annie.

“Hey Jenny,” says Lady K. “You working on something today? Or just playing?”

“Just playing, for now,” I say. “Can I crash out on that couch?”

“Go for it,” says Lady K, and minutes later I am deep in Coma.

It’s good, I have a good morning. I play a guy I haven’t played before, some up-and-coming star from South Korea. We play off each other well, building up a huge structure, an entire city of improbable shapes. It takes a two-and-half-hour battle for me to bring the entire thing down around his ears.

When I come out from under I’m in a way better mood than I’ve been ever since that fucking party. A few people have plugged in to watch my game, and I actually manage a grin for them as we all disentangle from our rigs.

“That was a sweet trick with the arches,” someone says, and someone else offers to run out for pizza since it’s now past noon, and soon there’s a crowd of us sitting cross-legged in a circle on the floor, pizza grease seeping through paper plates and onto our fingertips. There’s a dimpled, heavy-set kid trying to tell everyone why he still prefers to use passive electrodes even though it means getting your hair gunked up with conductive paste, and I feel some unrecognized tightness below my collarbones soften, relax.

Lady K, sitting next to me, waves a slice of pepperoni to get my attention. “You sticking around for the rest of the afternoon?” She pauses, arches an eyebrow. “Shouldn’t you be in school?”

I am about to say something disparaging, when a fragment of conversation cuts through the rest of the chatter, the way fragments of conversation sometimes do, loud and unmistakable. “—kid in California hardwired himself two days ago.” It’s a pretty, wide-eyed girl with a punk-rock haircut talking; no wonder all the attention is on her. “That’s like over two dozen people hardwired in, just in America. It’s just so scary, I mean can you even imagine, drilling into your own skull like that? I hear there’s someone not too far from here, do you think—” the guy next to her finally cuts her off with an elbow jab to the ribs. She turns an inquiring glare on him, and he leans toward her, starting up a furious, whispered conversation.

The tightness underneath my collarbones spools back into existence. I ignore the guilty glances being slanted my way, and take a large, deliberate bite of pizza instead.

“Skipping,” I explain to Lady K once I am finished chewing. The conversation is still hushed and awkward. I fold the paper plate into a careful fat wedge, wipe my fingers on my jeans. “I’m gonna plug back in.”

There are too many eyes on me as I try to settle into my rig, I can’t get the electrodes to sit quite right. I never have problems with my rig but it’s taking too long, I’m starting to look like an idiot so I turn the whole thing on anyway, blissful blank order sliding over my brainwaves.

It fits my current luck that none of my active play partners are connected, so I drift uncomfortably, paging through lists of other people looking for games, trying to find someone whose stats make them look interesting. I am just about to accept an offer to play a teaching game with some newbie, when Annie’s pseud pops up as available.

I send her a game request without even really thinking about it; I’ve done this so many times it’s like a reflex now. And like all the other times before, she declines immediately.

Because I am childish and bitter, I send her two dozen game requests in quick succession, the Coma equivalent of ringing someone’s doorbell repeatedly.

Just admit you’re scared, I message her, and as usual, am informed that she is not accepting messages. I game-request her three more times and think really hard about flipping her off, as if the Coma network might somehow be able to convey my displeasure, might carry along my vitriol to resonate into the base of Annie’s wretched skull. Then I accept the game against the newbie and try to forget about it.

I’m a half hour into it when Annie’s game request pings along the edge of my brain.

I stop breathing. For at least thirty seconds I am essentially paralyzed; I know this because when I come back to myself my opponent is making good headway toward tearing down the defenses I’ve built up, sending me a little stream of surprised and pleased messages about how he thinks he’s finally really getting it. Sorry, I say, sorry, I have to go, and forfeit the game, just like that.

I accept Annie’s game request and the world is a clean slate.

Then Annie starts building a box.

Maybe you can see what’s coming here. I don’t know. Maybe it was obvious from the outside. If you had asked me before, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you what I thought was going to happen, because I didn’t think anything. I wanted to play Annie. Of course I did, she’s my sister, my sister who I lost, and I wanted to have her again, in any way I could. And I wanted to beat her, because she’s my sister, and you always want to win against your siblings. That’s just the way things work, right? That should have been enough.

So I didn’t think anything. But here’s the thing, and I know this makes me a fool, but deep down, I believed, somehow, that if I could just beat her everything would be all better. Believed, with that sort of secret inner ferocity of a fairy tale or a religion. I would win against her, like nobody ever had, and there would be a silent, eternal moment. And then her name would blip out of existence, and I’d pull off my rig and look over to where she was doing the same, prying her goggles away from her eyes and sliding the probe out from the back of her skull. And we’d look at each other, and start laughing, and everything would be okay.

In fairytales, you can wake somebody out of death with a kiss. Does waking somebody up like this really seem like so much to ask?

When I beat Annie, there is indeed one silent, eternal moment. And right then I don’t even realize what I’m waiting for, bated breath and tense muscles, until it doesn’t happen, until she leaves the space we created without comment, until she doesn’t blip out of existence.

Until she starts up another game, immediately, against someone else, as if absolutely nothing has changed.

* * * *

When I get home my mother is waiting for me.

“The school called to tell me you missed classes today,” she says.

My keys bite into my palms, hard and irregular. I get past my mother without looking at her, make my way into the living room. Climb onto the couch, pull my knees up to my chest. Turn my face into the cushion so the upholstery forces my eyes shut.

I have mostly stopped crying by this point.

“You listen when I’m talking to you,” says my mother.

I can hear her moving into the living room after me. The shadows behind my eyelids get darker as she stands over me, half-blocking the light. I expect her to grab hold of me, yank me upright, something, but she doesn’t move.

“Would you unplug me?” I hear myself asking. My voice filters through the cushions, muffled and strange. I doubt my mother can even understand what I’m saying. “If I was like Annie. Would you unplug us both?”

Silence. The tender spots at my temples throb in time with my pulse, thudding slow and regular. Then I feel her moving, feel the couch shifting as she sinks down next to me. Her fingertips press into my scalp, thumb curling into the fine hairs at the base of my skull.

“I don’t know,” she says, almost a whisper.

I almost want to believe she sounds sorry.

“Okay,” I say. Her fingernails catch in my hair when she pulls her hand away, bringing long strands with them. I feel them lift and separate, imagine them shining and infinite, like wires. “Okay.”

[end]

Please visit Lightspeed Magazine (www.lightspeedmagazine.com) to read more great science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared in the February 2014 issue, which also features original science fiction by Carrie Vaughn ("Harry and Marlowe and the Intrigues at the Aetherian Exhibition"), along with SF reprints by Ramez Naam ("Water") and Robert Charles Wilson ("Fireborn"). Plus, we have original fantasy by Sunny Moraine ("So Sharp That Blood Must Flow") and Ken Liu ("None Owns the Air"), and fantasy reprints by Rachel Swirsky ("Detours on the Way to Nothing") and Eugene Mirabelli ("Love in Another Language"). All that, and of course we also have our usual assortment of author and artist spotlights, along with feature interviews with author Doug Dorst and astronaut Chris Hadfield. For our ebook readers, we also have the novella reprint "Hellhound" by Robin McKinley and novel excerpts from Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer, The Trillionist by Sagan Jeffries, and Dreamwalker by C.S. Friedman. You can wait for the rest of this month's contents to be serialized online, or you can buy the whole issue right now in convenient ebook format for just $3.99. It's another great issue, so be sure to check it out. And while you're at it, tell a friend about Lightspeed!