The Hero with a Thousand Extra Lives
Johnny bit his lip and concentrated.
Right. Come in quick, let a missile target itself -- beep beep beep beebeebeebeeb -- on the first fighter, fire the missile -- thwump -- empty the guns at the fighter -- fplat fplat fplat fplat -- hit fighter No. 2 and take out its shields with the laser -- bwizzle -- while the missile -- pwwosh -- takes out fighter No. 1, dive, switch guns, rake fighter No. 3 as it turns fplat fplat fplat -- pick up fighter No. 2 in the sights again up the upcurve, let go a missile -- thwump -- and rake it with -- Fwit fwit fwit.
Fighter No. 4! It always came in last, but if you went after it first, the others would have time to turn and you'd end up in the sights of three of them.
He'd died six times already. And it was only five o'clock.
His hands flew over the keyboard. Stars roared past as he accelerated out of the melee. It'd leave him short of fuel, but by the time they caught up, the shields would be back and he'd be ready, and two of them would already have taken damage, and . . . here they come . . . missiles away, wow, lucky hit on the first one, die die die!, red fireball -- swsssh -- take shield loss while concentrating fire on the next one -- swsssh -- and now the last one was running, but he could outrun it, hit the accelerator -- ggrrRRRSSHHH -- and just keep it in his sights while he poured shot after shot into -- swssh.
The huge bulk of their capital ship was in the corner of the screen. Level 10, here we come . . . careful, careful . . . there were no more ships now, so all he had to do was keep out of its range and then sweep in and We wish to talk.
Johnny blinked at the message on the screen.
We wish to talk.
The ship roared by -- eeeyooowwwnn. He reached out for the throttle key and slowed himself down, and then turned and got the big red shape in his sights again. We wish to talk.
His finger hovered on the Fire button. Then, without really looking, he moved it over to the keyboard and pressed Pause.
Then he read the manual.
Only You Can Save Mankind, it said on the cover. "Full Sound and Graphics. The Ultimate Game."
A ScreeWee heavy cruiser, it said on page seventeen, could be taken out with seventy-six laser shots. Once you'd cleared the fighter escort and found a handy spot where the ScreeWee's guns couldn't get you, it was just a matter of time. We wish to talk.
Even with the Pause on, the message still flashed on the screen.
There was nothing in the manual about messages. Johnny riffled through the pages. It must be one of the New Features the game was Packed With.
He put down the book, put his hands on the keys, and cautiously tapped out: Die, alein scum/No! We do not wish to die! We wish to talk!
It wasn't supposed to be like this, was it?
Wobbler Johnson, who'd given him the disk and photocopied the manual on his dad's copier, had said that once you'd completed level 10, you got given an extra 10,000 points and the Scroll of Valor and moved on to the Arcturus Sector, where there were different ships and more of them.
Johnny wanted the Scroll of Valor.
Johnny fired the laser one more time. Swsssh. He didn't really know why. It was just because you had the joystick and there was the Fire button and that was what it was for.
After all, there wasn't a Don't Fire button.
We Surrender! PLEASE!
He reached over and, very carefully, pressed the Save Game button. The computer whirred and clicked, and then was silent.
He didn't play again the whole evening. He did his homework.
It was Geography. You had to color in Great Britain and put a dot on the map of the world where you thought it was.
The ScreeWee Captain thumped her desk with one of her forelegs. "What?"
The First Officer swallowed and tried to keep her tail held at a respectful angle.
"He just vanished again, ma'am," she said.
"But did he accept?"
The Captain drummed the fingers of three hands on the table. She looked slightly like a newt but mainly like an alligator.
"But we didn't fire on him!"
"And you sent my message?"
"And every time we've killed him, he comes back. . . ."
He caught up with Wobbler in break.
Wobbler was the kind of boy who was always picked last when you had to pick teams, although that was all right at the moment as the PE teacher didn't believe in teams because they encouraged competition.
He wobbled. It was glandular, he said. He wobbled especially when he ran. Bits of Wobbler headed in various directions; it was only on average that he was running in any particular direction.
But he was good at games. They just weren't the ones that people thought you ought to be good at. If ever there was an Interschool First-One-to-Break-the-Unbreakable-Copy-Protection-on-Galactic-Thrusters, Wobbler wouldn't just be on the team, he'd be picking the team.
"Yo, Wobbler," said Johnny.
"It's not cool to say yo anymore," said Wobbler.
"Is it rad to say cool?" said Johnny.
"Cool's always cool. And no one says rad anymore, either."
Wobbler looked around conspiratorially and then fished a package from his bag.
"This is cool. Have a shot at this."
"What is it?" said Johnny.
"I cracked Fighter Star TeraBomber," said Wobbler. "Only don't tell anyone, all right? Just type FSB. It's not much good, really. The space bar drops the bombs, and . . . well . . . just press the keys, you'll see what they do. . . ."
"Listen . . . you know Only You Can Save Mankind?"
"Still playing that, are you?"
"You didn't, you know, do anything to it, did you? Um? Before you gave me a copy?"