REpose I get knocked down…
The Clash at Castle Anorak would become one of the defining moments in the OASIS, the day Parzival found Halliday’s Easter Egg. Players from all over the universe gathered on a single planet, Chthonia, to cross swords with the IOI Corporation, a soulless megacorp that became the de facto bad guy in the whole egg hunt. If the Man had won the vast fortune tied to the egg, it would have invariably made life worse, both within this virtual paradise, and without. The battle was such a big deal that later on they held an event on the anniversary of that day; a no-holds barred, knockdown, drag-out battle royale from field to castle to find the egg, and survive with it in hand to win. You could even win consolation prizes by taking out the AI mobs created to look like Sixer avatars: faceless, generic character models used by IOI employees, recreated in the event mostly just for everyone to beat on, and rub salt in the wounds of the company. Permadeath was turned off in the fight so everyone could simply enjoy the thrill of it all, and participate without the risk of losing their avatar – unlike the actual battle.
The Clash at Castle Anorak was the defining moment in the OASIS because it meant a paradigm shift was on its way, but it was also the defining moment for many players, especially the gunters who spent their lives looking for that egg; people who consumed Halliday’s pop culture mega-mix; people who created their identities off burnt out stars and played out games; people like me and my party.
“Cor, why the hell did you bring us here?” a man in a pointed wizard hat said, shuffling under his cloak that dragged to the ground.
“Oh c’mon, you don’t want to help out? Bash in some Sixer heads?” Cor, a young man in a trench coat, said as he crossed his arms.
He stared off from the cliff they stood on to survey the amassing army of avatars below, all surrounding a black castle in the distance. Behind Cor and his friends lay a veritable parking lot of vehicles from every corner of the universe, modeled after everything from the commonplace Millennium Falcon to the rather unique house from The Wizard of Oz.
“I’m all for cooking some Sixers, but this is crazy. And what? All so some rando can get to the egg?”
Cor sighed. “Ten, there was no way we were gonna be the ones to get the egg. That ship sailed a long time ago.”
“Not all of us gave up on the hunt, man. We were ready to take on whatever Halliday threw at us.”
“This from the guy who couldn’t even get the copper key,” a woman in a power suit said, clapping her metal-covered left hand on the cannon on her right arm.
“Whatever…Joust is stupid,” Ten muttered.
“Doesn’t matter, Sixers stopped everyone below them and the High Five on the scoreboard anyway,” another young woman said, brushing the skirt of her flamboyantly-colored maid outfit.
“So then the best thing for us to do is help them. You want IOI to get the egg?” Cor opened his arms wide, displaying the predicament beyond the sea of avatars to the castle, nestled beneath a blue bubble that IOI goons had erected to keep people away.
“I’d rather we got the egg,” Ten replied. “We were gonna share it, remember?”
“Yeah, but that’s not on the table anymore,” Jeena said.
Cor turned. His friends leaned against his car, modeled after the Ghostbusters II’s Ecto-1. Unlike most vehicles in the OASIS, the only modifications were a skull and crossbones motif where the iconic logo would be; a matte black paintjob with red fins and chrome detailing; and a hover feature you could get for completing a Back to the Future II quest. I called it the “Ectoskeleton” because despite being in my late twenties and single, I have a death grip on dad humor. It wasn’t much of a car, but it was all Cor needed, just like his friends leaning against it.
Jeena, clad in her purple chrome power suit, had been a close friend for years within the OASIS, so we always had each other’s back. We called her “Jeen the Machine,” she hated it; Tenebris, the two of us picked up while questing, he loved wizards from the moment he read his first pdf of Harry Potter when he was a kid. We were never quite sure how old he was, but he complained enough to either be sixteen or sixty; and Mad_Donna, we all met her on a gunter forum. She was obsessed with pop music, especially from the 80s and 90s, which then bled into the Asian scene, where they retained the appeal of those previous decades, even while tastes changed in the west. Mads didn’t reveal much about herself, other than loving to tell people she was actually a guy, if only to see their reactions, given her overly cute avatar, which he tried to make look like some old Korean popstar.
These nut jobs were my party, my friends.
“At least we have each other,” Cor said. “Mads, how many pop songs are about at least having each other?”
“Damn near every one of ‘em Cor, except for that stuff from Dead or Alive; they were really weird,” Mads said.
“See, who needs a half-a-trillion dollars when I’ve got you chuckleheads?”
“I’m worth at least a million myself,” Mads said, winking.
The army of avatars began to cheer as a giant robot burst through the atmosphere headfirst, throwing its feet forward to make a hard landing off in the distance, near the castle. The impact was felt even on the cliff some distance away. People started screaming “Par-zi-val!” while others still in their vehicles revved whatever motors they had.
“Okay…that was kinda cool,” Cor muttered.
“Eh, it was alright,” Jeena said.
“Do you think he did that superhero landing on purpose?” Mads laughed.
A booming voice came in over speakers on the IOI ships floating above the castle, the voice of some jagoff from IOI named Sorrento. None of us were really listening. Others booed and revved their engines again.
“We should probably get ready,” Jeena said.
An ear-splitting whine of feedback on another microphone cut through the air, followed by a younger voice saying “You’re wrong, Sorrento. We’re coming in. At noon. All of us.”
Avatars all around began to cheer.
“Shit…noon?” Ten said.
“Yeah, that’s what it said in the email,” Jeena said.
“That’s two minutes from now!” someone else in the crowd behind the party yelled.
I glanced at the clock in the corner of my HUD. 11:58am. Why do we have to cut these things so damn close?
“Yop, time to go.” Cor said. “Get in the hearse or I’m leaving you here!”
Mads and Ten opened the passenger-side doors, and Jeena moved towards the Ectoskeleton’s back. Cor ran and slid hip-first across the car’s hood and swung into the driver’s seat. Cars and ships roared to life, lifting off the ground and orienting towards the castle. Cor turned the wheel and the hearse lulled forward until the edge of the cliff was out of view.
“Geeze, not so close Cor, we’ll slide right off the cliff!” Mads said, throwing her hands onto the dashboard to brace herself.
Cor reached back over his shoulders, pulling the hood of his coat and a skull-faced gasmask down over his head and face.
“Somethin’ somethin’ we don’t need roads, right Mads?” Cor said, cocking his head playfully.
Cor flicked a switch on the dashboard, and the hearse shook as the hover module kicked in. The car lifted off the ground and the wheels tilted down on their axels into the dirt, small thrusters igniting from within the rims.
“How are we supposed to even get in the castle with that shield still up?” Jeena asked clicking buttons on her arm cannon.
“Jesus H. Tapdancing Christ what the hell is that?!” Ten yelled, his arm extending from the backseat to point ahead.
A silver monstrosity grew near the front of the castle, towering over the avatars and giant robots standing at the ready.
“Godzilla?” Cor said.
“Actually, it’s Mechagodzilla,” Jeena replied.
“Don’t mansplain me, woman,” Cor snapped.
Seconds later, another robot formed from five smaller ones that appeared next to Mechagodzilla.
“Oh…and they have a Voltron,” Mads said flatly.
“Where the hell is everyone getting these robots?” Cor cried.
“What, are you jealous?” Jeena said from the back, her own helmet clapping shut over her face, the visor glowing orange when it closed.
“Are you not?” Cor said.
The giant robots all paused, staring each other down as a cacophony of weapons and vehicles clamored around them. When my clock read 12:00 on the dot, an explosion erupted from the back of Castle Anorak, in a small weapons depot that IOI had set up. The shield surrounding the castle fell as the light of the explosion subsided, shattering like glass that could be heard for miles as everyone fell silent.
“Holy…the shield is…” Ten trailed off.
“This is some shit, huh?” Mads said.
“Hold on to your butts!” Cor slammed his foot into the accelerator, the Ectoskeleton shooting forward as part of the massive wave of chrome and jet fire flowing down the cliffside.
Missiles and fireballs arced like party ribbons through the air, bolts of lightning flashed from sky to ground, and battle cries reached the heavens as the sea of avatars met with the IOI Sixers. The Ectoskeleton slid down the embankment of the cliff and Cor switched on the sirens to get people’s attention, so they could get the hell out of the way. Avatars parted like the Red Sea as the party made their way to the frontline.
“So uh…what’s the plan guys?” Mads asked, her arms still braced against the dashboard.
“We’re gonna drive right up to the Sixers, and show ‘em a good time,” Cor answered.
“Yeah, no I got that, but I mean like…do we have some sort of battle plan, or…?”
“Battle plan!” Ten laughed.
“Stay close to the car, that’s our rally point. Use it for cover, hit the sirens if things get real hairy and we’ll come runnin’. We can strap on the proton packs if we need to throw down more firepower.”
“Can let ‘em go nuclear if things get real bad, too,” Ten said.
“It won’t come to that,” Cor snapped. “Just stay together, and if you see a Sixer, give ‘em a makeover.”
“Oh ho, I’ve got just the thing for that!” Mads said, lifting a shotgun up across her chest.
“HOLD ON!” Cor yelled.
The wall of avatars rushing by on either side of the car gave way to a wasteland of unclaimed items, slowly spinning inches above the ground with piles of gold coins, each marking the graves of fallen avatars. Sixers trampled about blasting and swinging away indiscriminately with stock weapons IOI could easily pay to supply. The Ectoskeleton smashed into a small squadron of featureless Sixer avatars, and Cor spun the wheel, throwing the hearse’s backend out. The broadside of the car crushed a few more Sixers, and Cor and Ten leaned out their windows as the car came to a stop. Cor unloaded a torrent of nigh-automatic gunfire from one of his two 92fs pistols, as Ten loosed a torrent of mystifying shots from his magic wand. Jeena flew out of the hearse’s back hatch and landed in a roll, sliding onto her feet and letting her arm cannon do the talking with a low, thunderous voice. Mads jumped onto the hood and took an encroaching Sixer’s head clean off with her shotgun.
“Mads, lay down a tasty beat!” Cor called as he and Ten leapt from the car.
“I’ve got just the thing!” Mads smirked.
“Not Erasure,” Cor snapped, drawing his second pistol from beneath his coat.
“Boooo you pleb,” Mads said, drawing a microphone stand from behind her.
She pressed a switch on the mic, and hidden lights bedazzling the stand lit up. A steady, energetic drumbeat kicked in as a spotlight shot down from the sky on Mads, widening to encompass a large area around the party, the Ectoskeleton, and plenty of Sixers and Avatars. Spaceships and fighter jets flown by players streaked overhead towards the castle, and a piano tune erupted to accompany the drumbeat.
“That’s a good one,” Cor said.
It was Bonnie Tyler’s Holding Out for a Hero, and more than simply playing a tune, Mads was casting a persistent spell. As long as her party stayed within range to hear the song, they received powerful benefits to strengthen their avatar’s combat performance. Mads had customized all her bardsongs to sync up with her favorite pop songs, and while, at first, we hated it, it really grew on us.
As she laughed and danced, Mads began pointing at other avatars nearby, inviting them to our party so they too could receive the benefits of her bardsong. I watched in my display as our party list quickly grew to its maximum, each name accompanied by a handful of icons denoting increases to health, attack power, and defense. A few people in the party chat quickly threw out messages like “thanks for the invite” and “let’s kick some sixer ass.” I replied “Be sure to keep Mads safe so the buffs stay up,” as Sixers began to swarm around the Ectoskeleton to clash with the incoming wave of gunters.
Cor blasted holes through Sixers, dipping and spinning to slide between their attacks. As a few came up on either side, he waved his hand to one phalanx, dousing them all in an array of putrid, green bubbles, and then jumped back over the other group, spinning in midair to spray the Sixers in a hail of gunfire from his twin pistols. With one Sixer left standing from his assault, Cor grabbed him by the neck and used him as a human shield against incoming fire unleashed by the other group he infected with a poisonous “damage over time” spell. The grappled Sixer’s body held out long enough for the poison to do its work, and one by one the other Sixer avatars doubled over and fell to the ground like soggy pizza. Cor then bent the Sixer in his arm over and drilled a hole into his helmet with a single shot. His form broke apart into a cascade of gold coins.
Jeena pivoted in place, delivering plasma shots to any Sixers that got close from any angle. As the herd thinned out, a few Sixers hesitated. The barrel of Jeena’s cannon sprouted open, and she whipped her arm forward, extending an electric tether that snagged one of the retreating Sixers. She reeled him in and then tossed the Sixer overhead with her mechanized strength, raising her arm cannon over her head to obliterate him in a plasmatic blast, only errant pixels and coins raining down and bouncing off her gleaming armor.
Mads continued to dance on the hood while fending off Sixers with her shotgun, her choreography mixing steps, hip fires, shimmies, and pump action. Each time she could match an action to the beat, she conferred a stronger buff to the party with her dance moves, or added massive damage to her attacks. As one song subsided, she had another queued up and soon Michael Jackson’s Beat It roared above the din of the fight. However, her buffs could only do so much as the battle flared around her. The problem with corporate goons is there’s always enough money for more, and the Sixers were in no short supply, sometimes rushing a single player and leaving nothing behind but pixels and coins. Whatever form of healing Mads could provide could never stack up to five Sixers ganking a single gunter taken unawares. A character name in my party list flashed red as their hit points dropped to zero.
“Stay together!” Cor yelled. “Don’t get cocky just because they’re weaker than you.”
Another name went red on my list. We were dropping like flies.
“My heals can’t handle everyone at once, get yourself topped up if you can!” Mads called to the wounded party.
“There’s more coming from the west!” A party member said, just before their own name went red. Cor looked over his shoulder to see their avatar explode into a pile of coins.
“I’ve got my hands full over here, they’re pressing in. Jeen! Can you handle the west?”
Cor holstered his pistols beneath his coat, then pulling out a polished skull, holding it by the small bit of spine connected to it. He held it ahead of him and the mouth of the skull opened. A shining, curved blade sprouted from between the jaws, and an intricate shaft extended from the spinal column. Cor held the massive scythe in both hands, winding up for an attack as the Sixers rushed in. He slid between their ranks and spun around, the scythe cleaving through Sixers and blasting away anyone who wasn’t immediately killed. As the Sixers climbed to their feet, Cor waved his left hand at them. Another round of toxic bubbles fluttered around the Sixers’ bodies, inflicting them with a poison that slowly sapped their hit points.
A reward for a quest involving the four horsemen of the apocalypse, the scythe, taken from Death, worked best when paired with Pestilence’s Book of Plagues, which granted Cor the spells to inflict opponents with ailments that reduced parameters. This then made them easier to take down with the scythe, which dealt more damage itself to ailing opponents. The Sixers struggled with the poison running through their digital veins, but didn’t last long anyway when Cor zipped up to each one, slicing them using a unique attack that allowed the user to rush to a poisoned target.
“Sixers south, I couldn’t hold them. Sorry,” another player said, their name flashing red in the party list as well.
Cor watched as yet another phalanx of Sixers approached, and he reached for what looked like an old flintlock pistol strapped to his chest. He leveled the archaic firearm at the incoming group, and pulled the hammer back. Intricate scrollwork on the barrel began to glow a dull orange, but Cor’s finger hovered over the trigger. These bullets were incredibly hard to come by, rare and expensive, and I only had one left. If I was going to use the last one, I suppose there’s no better time than the battle for the fate of the OASIS.
Cor squeezed the trigger, and his arm shot backwards while his upper body arched from the recoil. A purple ball of energy hit a Sixer squarely in the chest and threw him back into the crowd. A pulse grew from the fallen Sixer, turning into a singularity that sucked in any other IOI goons nearby. When the singularity collapsed, it exploded in a blast of negative color, sending coins raining down onto the battlefield.
“Ten! Hold them off for a moment!” Jeena called.
Ten stepped up as Jeena slid away, and he swiped his magic wand. The earth underfoot rose in jagged spikes, crawling into the incoming phalanx of Sixers. Another flick of his wrist thrust a slab of earth upwards, launching several Sixers into the air where they were then pelted by a volley of fireballs that left nothing but coins to fall to the ground. Sixers stumbled over upturned terrain with swords drawn, only to be pushed away by gusts of wind from Ten’s hands. When a Sixer carrying a heavy laser rifle made his way to the forefront, Ten threw his hands to his sides, projecting a clear blue bubble that deflected the automatic laser fire back into the crowd of encroaching Sixers.
“Whatever you’re gonna do, now is a great time to do it, Jeena!”
Jeena reached into the back of the Ectoskeleton and pulled out one of the four proton packs by its straps. As a new group of Sixers began to approach, she wound her arm back. The mechanical muscles of her power suit coiled and whirred, and then she threw the pack, far overhead towards the Sixers. She aimed her arm cannon and fired a volley at the pack, hitting it squarely several times before it fell into the crowd. Moments later the pack melted down and exploded into a small, white hot mushroom cloud, vaporizing much of the advancing Sixers. A wave of gunters arrived to bolster the opposition against the Sixers, cheering at all the explosions and jumping into the fray.
“Are you sure that was a good idea? Those proton packs are rare,” Ten said, freezing some Sixers with a blast of ice.
“What do I care? That was your pack,” Jeena said, lightly punching Ten in the shoulder as she charged up power in her cannon.
“Chill out, Ten.”
“Oh, you were kidding? So that wasn’t mine?”
“What? No, that was yours, but we’re probably gonna die here anyway.” Jeena blasted a Sixer through the chest.
“Remember what Halliday said? ‘You can’t take it with you.’”
“Then why didn’t you blow yours up?!” Ten threw his arms up.
“Why would I do that? Didn’t you hear – those proton packs are rare?”
Sixers began to thin out, and other gunters were making short work of them in the surrounding areas. I wouldn’t have necessarily called our battle a success, but Cor, Ten, Mads, and Jeena were still standing, and that was all that mattered.
“Good work everyone, let’s regroup and get ready for another round,” Cor said. “There’s more Sixers what need their dumb helmets smashed in.”
“An’ I still need me one hundred Sixer scalps!” Mads shouted, reloading her shotgun.
“How is the battle at the castle going?” Jeena asked.
“I can’t see any of those robots anymore,” Cor replied, squinting at Castle Anorak.
Suddenly, there was an earsplitting boom. It sounded like the entire universe was cracking in half.
And then we all died.
A white flash filled my view.
“AH! What the hell?!” I shouted as I shoved my headset off my eyes.
I looked around my room and at my computer equipment for some sort of problem. Everything was okay, the network was up, the computer was fine, whatever happened was inside the OASIS. I took a deep breath and sighed, pulling my goggles back down and reentering the virtual world. The words GAME OVER floated in my view, the party list reading every player dead. The screen faded to black, and I was soon presented with the option to start a new character. I loaded up my saved appearance data, and was greeted by the most basic of avatar ensembles – a black t-shirt and jeans. The level 42 avatar “Cor_Leonid,” decked out in a leather trench coat for slaying a goblin king, Death’s own scythe, and myriad other fantastic paraphernalia, all gone. He was reduced to a schmuck just logging in for the very first time.
My avatar rematerialized in what amounted to the starting area of the OASIS, a virtual mall on the planet Incipio. It acted like a launch page for the entirety of the system and its numerous features. People too poor to go anywhere exciting slummed around in this place, watching gunters and high-profile avatars wander around like superstars. It wasn’t necessarily a bad place, but as an experienced player, there was a certain level of embarrassment to log in from there in a t-shirt. If I hadn’t been coming down from an adrenaline rush, I probably would have been a lot more embarrassed, but I was too amped up and too confused to care. What had happened on Chthonia?
Other newly minted avatars slowly began to flood into the mall like Cor had, and he moved away to an empty storefront to get some space. Whatever had happened to Cor, happened to a lot of other gunters, apparently. People gathered around video terminals, chattering about the new arrivals and what was most likely going on at Chthonia. As more new avatars began to file into the mall, Cor made his way to one of the higher floors, which also met at eye level with a Jumbotron-style set of monitors. The infamous scoreboard used to rank those in the egg hunt was displayed, and above that was a live feed of the guy we all followed to Chthonia, Parzival, playing some old video game. He was in the middle of the last set of obstacles laid out before someone could reach the egg. A part of me was glad I wasn’t the one trying to do that, and to know that your entire attempt was being broadcast? No thanks.
I opened my friends list to see that Ten, Mads, and Jeena were all still online, but wherever they were, was news to me. Then, I reflexively went to open my inventory, something I often did out of habit whenever my menu was open, but this time I hesitated. I knew what I would find there, but it took me a moment to ready myself for it. As long as my inventory was closed, the truth wasn’t a reality, even in this virtual one. I had Schrodinger’s inventory, but it was only a matter of time before I would have had to look, so I bit the bullet. After clicking the inventory tab, an empty list greeted me.
I was a level one scrub. Cor had no weapons, armor, or items. No money, and no vehicle keys, not that I expected the Ectoskeleton was still around. I could only assume that whatever wiped us out also destroyed my wheels. I felt gutted. Three years of progression, of hard work, just gone, like bytes in the wind. The hysterical wailing of a few other avatars meant that we all truly shared the same fate. Someone shouted about the Cataclyst, a rare item capable of derezzing an entire sector in the OASIS’ universe. It had recently been purchased at auction and was most likely used by some Sixers as a last resort to prevent gunters from getting to the egg. Another avatar had some colorful, and honestly quite creative insults to level at IOI. I glanced back at the scoreboard, and then to the entrance of the mall where a sea of new, level one avatars began shuffling in.
They were all my brothers in arms at Castle Anorak, returning home from the frontlines. However, as with any battle, it took something irreplaceable from us all. We were the t-shirt-wearing ghosts of gunters past now.
Parzival was the OASIS’ only hope.
=== Next Episode ==>