Take a breath. Your world is darkness, but not entirely. You're not without hope. You just need to
The Light .
Still, Rudy thought, it was easier said than done. Twenty years of life hadn't come anywhere close to preparing him for this. Then again, it barely qualified as life. School. Work. An endless, back and forth volley of mediocrity and exhaustion, from wake to sleep. Right here, right now, he couldn't think of a single moment that even came near to how he felt. He'd heard rumors, of course, whispers from friends who'd wanted to seem more mature than they were, but he'd always written them off. After all, nothing ever lived up to the hype. Why set himself up for disappointment, right?
Damn if it wasn't better than he'd heard.
He swallowed, involuntarily, and was suddenly keenly aware of the sweat travelling down his neck. His grip tightened, and he let out a brief gasp at how perfectly it fit in his right hand, as he used his left to wipe the sweat from his brow. He couldn't believe he'd waited all of this time to finally try it. If it was this intense by himself, he couldn't even begin to imagine how it would feel with someone else…
Almost on cue, he felt Jasper's hand on his shoulder, tight grip followed by hot breath on his ear. "Don't stop, you're doing
Idly, Rudy started to wonder if he could actually die from embarrassment. Still, at least Jasper was the only one who could see him right now. There were definite benefits to playing by yourself in a friend's room.
"Thanks?" He managed, voice raising in surprise as much as it did in question. "But I just got lucky."
"Not yet you haven't," Jasper replied, and Rudy felt his classmate's fond chuckle travel down his spine. "I've been watching you this whole time, remember? You saw what you wanted, what you needed, and you went for it. That ain't luck, Rudy. You've got this. Now finish it."
Rudy nodded, eager not to disappoint. As hard as it was, he cleared his mind of shame, of the warmth of Jasper's presence, of his watching eyes, and focused . His grip loosened slightly, and he carefully tilted his hand forward. Jasper was right, he was close. Damn close. Now he just needed to bring it home. A nervous grin made its way to Rudy's lips, before being replaced by a determined, confident smirk.
Nine - Zero.
All he saw was the Light.
Thirty-six points of light broke up an otherwise endless void of utter darkness. Of those, twenty-nine could be safely ignored, irrelevant dashes that bisected the abyss. Four more were purely informational, three zeros and a nine at the top of his vision. That left three that actually mattered - two identical white bars on opposite ends of existence, the one on his left matching the movement of his right hand in a dichotomous display of synchronicity that was almost intoxicating.
And finally, a single point. An alabaster square that single-handedly justified the capital L in "Light." A shape so beautiful, so breathtaking, that Rudy knew in his heart that he'd see its beguiling ballet every time he closed his eyes. Left to right to left again, arcing perfectly, again and again, until, inevitably…
The bar on the right simply couldn't keep up, and its quadrilateral quarry rocketed beyond its reach, and off into the infinite.
Rudy was dimly cognizant of the fact that Jasper said something as the numbers in the upper left shifted yet again, but he couldn't bring himself to care.
Rudy pulled back, his bar following, as yet another square headed to the top right of the screen. The opposing paddle rose to meet it, knocking the ball at an angle back towards his screen. His eyes locked on to the bouncing square, and he shifted position slightly. He was reasonably certain there wasn't any sort of spin mechanism, per se, but he had noticed that the part of the paddle that made contact determined the angle it would send the ball. With that in mind, if he just moved the tiniest bit up...
Jasper let out a whoop of joy, and Rudy, more exhausted than he anticipated, gently placed the joystick down.
"Damn, Rudes! You sure you've never done this before?" Jasper was grinning ear to ear, and Rudy couldn't help but smile back.
"Never." He paused, then tilted his head, still processing the rush. "And the computer was fun and all, but you said you do this competitively? With people? "
"Hell yeah." Jasper winked, conspiratorially. "Whaddya think? Wanna give it a go?"
Rudy nodded, and glanced back at the screen. 11 - 0. He really couldn't think of anything he'd rather do. "What do I need to know?"
The answer, he discovered, was quite a lot.
While Pong itself was the basis of Jasper's hobby, the actual software was decidedly different. ComPong, as it was apparently named, had been thrown together by a handful of friends around five years ago, allegedly as something between a joke and a dare. The group had ended up divided between a few different colleges, and brought ComPong with them, where it had gained a life of its own.
Not much of a life, of course - Jasper had been quick to point out that there were maybe a hundred players, total. They were all trying to spread the word, though, and get the game taken seriously as a legitimate esport. A little difficult, he had admitted, when it seemed like a simple derivative of a sixty year old game, but its humble origins belied its unique complexity.
"Now, the weird thing is that there was just straight up no meta scene for the original Pong game," Jasper continued. "Sixty years, and it doesn't even have so much as a joke entry on GameFAQs. There's no strategy guide, no subreddit, nothing."
"Is that weird, though? It's not like there's room for super complex techniques, or anything." Rudy, at this point, was belly down on Jasper's bedroom floor, scribbling notes into a borrowed notebook. "Hit the ball until the opponent doesn't. It was pretty intuitive."
His impromptu teacher shot him another wink, and Rudy busied himself by staring at his hasty handwriting, suddenly very glad that his skin tone didn't lend itself to visibly blushing. He still wasn't exactly used to having friends who hadn't known him growing up, especially friends who were as… boisterous as Jasper. Or, for that matter, as muscley. He had struck Rudy as the kind of guy who'd be more at home doing keg flips in letterman jacket than spending half an hour on a Friday night lecturing his communication studies classmate on the history of the competitive Pong scene.
Still, his clear passion, and the joy in his eyes, was intriguing, albeit distracting, and Rudy was quietly thrilled that he rated the attention.
The tight-shirted, charming-smiled, curly-haired attention.
"Intuitive, sure, but uncharted. No one ever thinks there's more to it, so no one ever really looked. I bet it seemed like there was spin on the ball when you hit it a certain way, right?"
Rudy shook his head, and tapped his pen against his bottom lip. "Nah. That'd make sense, but it'd be pretty complicated to do back in those days, right? I'm pretty sure the ball's return vector was dependent on the part of the paddle I hit it with, not how the paddle was moving. I counted…" He gave a brief hum of thought, then nodded. "Seven unique angles, right?"
Jasper let out an appreciative whistle. "Aiight! I thought you were just pretty lucky, but I see you!"
"Oh? You thought I was pretty?" Where the hell did that come from, Rudy wondered, the second the words passed his lips. He was no stranger to terrible puns, but that was… that was almost banter. Awful banter, but banter. Jasper just chuckled, and shook his head.
"Yeah, it's all based on where it hits, not how. Lotta people don't pick up on that at first. ComPong's the same way, mostly, but there are a few different rulesets that sometimes take effect. Your average round is just gonna be the basic 'first to eleven,' though. And of course, the big thing is gonna be the controllers..."
"Yeah," Jasper responded, and crossed over to the desk the TV sat on. He looked around in a drawer for a few seconds, before retrieving an oddly shaped piece of plastic tangled up in wires, which he promptly tossed towards Rudy. Rudy caught it (barely), and looked it over. The base was thin and black, with an orange button jutting out of the left hand side. The vast bulk of the object was a thick dial which let out a satisfying click when he turned it. It was obviously an old school controller, sure, but the whole contraption put him vaguely in mind of a really awkwardly designed camera. "That's a Paddle."
Jasper rolled his eyes, but grinned. "Ha, ha. The joystick you were using is pretty retro, but the old controllers were more like this. But real Pong is on so many different things that there are all kinds of ways to play it, right? ComPong's whole thing is taking that to the extreme. Here, check this out." He pulled another device out of the drawer, this time significantly more reverently, and held it up for Rudy to see. It seemed pretty basic - a USB connector on one end, a small grey block, and what looked like an input port for…
"Is… is that for an old PlayStation controller?"
"Yes and no. This baby is called a Volley. It'll actually read any sort of PS2 era novelty controller."
Huh. "You mean like… Guitar Hero, or something?"
"Exactly!" Jasper beamed. "They've got one of these for just about every controller port you could think of, and they are hella customizable. You can mess with input, time delay, all sorts of settings."
Rudy sat up and leaned forward, resting his head on an arm. "Isn't that sort of over the top? There's only so much you can really do with a game that simple, right."
For the first time, Jasper seemed almost embarrassed. "Well, I mean…" He stopped and bit his lip, until he finally found the words to continue. "Over the top is the point? ComPong's a pretty small scene, and a lot of us want to make it bigger. Like a real e-sport, y'know?"
"And throwing in a gimmick like that makes it more interesting for people to watch, right? Makes sense."
"Yeah!" Jasper grinned again, all traces of embarrassment gone. "It's like, 'oh, damn, what are they gonna bring out next,' y'know? Everyone kinda finds a controller that works for them, and that's their thing. Like the…" He paused for a second, frowning, but continued almost more quickly than Rudy could notice, "the current undefeated champ uses a DDR mat? And the number two player uses a board from one of those old Skate games. It's awesome."
Rudy raised an eyebrow. Handheld, he could get, but… "How would those even work?"
"The board is pretty self-explanatory - lean to either side to move, and grab it for any sort of button press. It's simple, but Raptor is pretty damn skilled with it - she was the undisputed best before River came along."
"Fair enough! I take it the mat is the same?"
Jasper frowned, and moved to lean against the wall. "Not exactly… that's where the different inputs come in? No one's figured out exactly how he has his Volley set up, which plays a big part in why he's undefeated… see, the way it works is that the loser of each round can decide whether to keep playing with the same controllers, or make their opponents switch with them, right? So if he loses the first round, he sticks them with a controller that isn't intuitive, and then demolishes them with their own controller. And if he wins the first round, which he normally does, he doesn't need the handicap anyway, y'know?"
"Huh. That seems kinda shady." Still, even as he said it, Rudy couldn't help but start trying to think of ways to overcome such a lopsided advantage. He definitely saw the appeal, even if he had trouble wrapping his head around it. "I guess I'd just need to see it to get it?"
All at once, Jasper was more intense than Rudy had ever seen, staring at him with a focus that was almost as embarrassing as it was exhilarating. He felt, rather than heard, his friend almost whisper the phrase "Do you wanna see it?"
When Rudy nodded in response, suddenly not trusting himself to speak, Jasper grinned, and went to sit next to him, pulling his phone out of his pocket and fiddling with it.
His lock screen, Rudy couldn't help noticing, was a shirtless mirror selfie. There was a lot to unpack there, probably, but he was more than willing to think that through later.
Eventually, Jasper pulled up a video of a ComPong match that looked like it took place in their dorm building's commons area. There was a small crowd in the way, but Rudy could see pretty clearly that the competitors were the people Jasper had been talking about earlier.
Raptor looked to be about Jasper's age, and was definitely leaning in to the skater persona. A backwards baseball cap full of pins topped off a sleeveless denim jacket that showed she was one hell of a shredded shredder. He was almost certain that the faint music coming from the screen was an 8-bit rendition of "Basket Case," which, if he was honest with himself, was absolutely perfect. She was tilting from side to side, and as ridiculous as playing Pong with a skateboard seemed as a concept, Rudy couldn't argue with the results. The paddle was always exactly where it needed to be, matching her opponent shot for shot.
Said opponent, River, if Rudy remembered right, was rocking a business casual look that was entirely at odds with his prefered playing style. He was a flurry of footwork, in light grey slacks and a vest, with an obsidian button up and purple tie, spinning and flipping with every movement in a way that shouldn't have been anywhere as efficient as he seemed to make it. Still, despite Raptor's obvious skill, the match was 9-10 in his favor, and he showed no sign of slowing down.
Eventually, one particularly egregious spin brought River's paddle down a section more than Raptor was obviously expecting, and the resulting ricochet landed him the victory, to a roar of cheers from the crowd. Rudy whistled in appreciation, only realizing it after Jasper shut the video off with a chuckle. "The rest of the match was pretty straight forward, but it's cool, huh? Toni - Raptor - did a hell of a job."
"Yeah, no, that was impressive. I can't believe the other guy could move like that!"
Jasper shrugged. "Yeah, he's… not bad. But hey, what do you think? Still interested?"
"Yeah? Definitely seems like a fun time."
"Awesome!" Jasper leaned to the side, and gently shoulder-checked Rudy. "There's a small tourney at the end of the month, if you wanna sign up! It'd be a good way to get started!"
Rudy mentally ran through his schedule - no major tests for the next few weeks, and enough of his coursework was done in advance that he could definitely afford the time. Finally, he nodded, with a confident grin. "Sounds like a blast! Sign me up!"
"Dude, yes. So, what time do you wanna swing by tomorrow?"
"Training, bro! I'm not gonna let you just show up and get creamed. It's ComPong boot camp from here on out. We ain't gonna rest until you can beat me."
Rudy nodded again, confidence rushing away in an instant as Jasper fixed him with another piercing stare. Suddenly, he wasn't sure what he'd signed himself up for. "S...sure! Sounds fun."
It was going to be a long, long month.