REvive

REvive You are never gonna keep me down

The party gathered in the food court-like area of Incipio, but things didn’t quite have the same feel as they used to. Where once there had always been a sense of wonder and fun, there now existed an undercurrent of tension as well. The population was a bit lower than normal, understandably that some people didn’t want to log back into the game. Starting over can be a depressing thing. Of the players that were still logging in, the newly low-level ones tended to keep to themselves. Cor and his crew, however, had no time for that kind of unpleasantness, and stood around a table conversing with another player.

Cor shook hands with a slim man in a fitted suit, his face a mystery behind the black designer shades covering his eyes.

“You’ve got yourself a deal. Just let me know when you’re ready to take off,” the man said. “I’ll go get ready. My ship is here.”

The man shared a map coordinate with Cor, and then took his leave.

“Right,” Cor said, waving to the man and turning back to his friends.

“You sure about this? Cutting Agent Smith over there in for whatever coin we find will leave us with less saved up,” Ten asked, crossing his arms.

“It’s either we cut a pilot in on our take, or we stay here and end up saving up even less,” Cor replied.

“Until we pay a pilot in full, or get our own ship,” Mads added.

“What matters is that we’re making progress; the stronger we get, the more money we’ll save up in the end, right?” Jeena said.

“And this Airheart dude seems like a trustworthy guy, right?” Cor said.

“Maybe…” Ten muttered. “Sure has some choice digs still.”

“Are you legit upset about the people who didn’t lose something by not going to Chthonia?” Mads asked Ten.

“Maybe…”

“Don’t be that guy, man.”

In the days after the hunt’s end, there was a growing disdain among some of the players who zeroed out for anyone who was still walking around with gear and levels. Born out of jealousy, it was strengthened by a crackpot theory that the people who hadn’t been at Chthonia were IOI sympathizers; that they didn’t want to fight; that they were really fine with IOI getting the egg; or worse yet, that they new IOI was going to use the cataclyst, so they stayed clear of the sector and didn’t bother to warn anyone. Feeding into that were rumors of players coming to Chthonia in the aftermath of the cataclyst to swipe all the loot from everyone who fell there. Whether they were true, or even related, didn’t matter. It generated a strange tension in the OASIS, as if there always had to be someone to hate, and with IOI sheepishly absent, all eyes turned to those who still had something to lose. The supposed rich cowards who sat by to watch the fate of the OASIS, instead of fighting like the rest of us.

“There’s enough people losing their shit over losing their shit, don’t join that mob,” Jeena said.

“Lorraine, if I hear you shouting ‘eat the rich,’ I’ll disown you,” Cor said.

“Alright, alright. God you guys are pushy,” Ten said.

“I push, because I love,” Mads said, tickling Ten’s neck. “And because it’s funny when people fall over.”

coin

Foregoing any shopping on Incipio in order to save coin for when they really needed it, the party headed to Airheart’s ship instead. Nestled at the far end of the port, what the pilot referred to as a modestly standard frame, was an innocent-looking, honey-yellow cargo plane with a red nose. Airheart guided everyone aboard with a servile politeness, and it didn’t take long before the plane broke from Incipio’s surface and into OASIS outer space. A twin propeller cargo plane navigating the black void of the universe would have been an extremely strange experience, had Cor and his companions not traveled those same stars in a flying hearse. The absurdity of it all made me miss the Ectoskeleton. Airheart set the course for Tolkien and wandered into the cargo area, leaning against the threshold to the cockpit.

“We’ve got a little bit until getting into Sector 3, so make yourselves comfortable,” he said. “Feel free to move about the cabin.”

“Right, thanks a lot,” Cor said, nodding his head in appreciation.

Everyone rose from their seats, giving the ship another look.

“What has you all headed to Tolkien? If you don’t mind me asking.”

The party shuffled about the cabin.

“We’re…questing,” Ten muttered.

“Ah, some normal playtime huh? I suppose the OASIS is just an online platform again. No more egg and all that.”

“Where were you when Parzival won the egg?” Mads asked.

“Me? I was stuck at work, doing nothing. Everyone was watching him finish the last gate.”

“Well we were on Chthonia when it happened.” Ten said.

An eyebrow rose from beneath Airheart’s shades, then he nodded. “I see. I guess I was one of the lucky ones, too busy to log in just to zero out.”

“Hindsight is always twenty-twenty, right?” Mads laughed.

“You guys seem to be taking it well, though.”

“For the most part,” Mads muttered, nudging Ten.

“Gotta take it in stride, I guess. You lose your shit, you start over.” Cor shrugged.

“Like Halliday said, ‘you can’t take it with you,’ right?”

“You knew about Halliday?” Cor asked.

“Sure, but who didn’t? What a guy. Sad to have seen him go. That hunt though, maybe it’s for the best that it’s finally over. It was fun while it lasted, at least.”

“Were you in a clan? A gunter?” Jeena asked.

“Something like that, I learned a lot about the guy and his interests, but I didn’t really get to do a lot of hunting – work and all.”

“Guess that explains why you’ve got such fancy digs and you’re still low level, huh?” Ten asked, a tinge of judgment in his voice.

“A corporate paycheck helps, yeah. I also like to play the chauffeur, easy enough to make coin on the side, see the sights. I like flying, too, so that’s about all I get to do with my time in the OASIS. Can’t buy a real plane, and fuel for it is…well…the OASIS provides.”

“Must be some job. Where do you work?” Mads asked.

“Eh, it was information analysis, boring office stuff, really.”

“Sounds boring,” Ten said.

“You spend your workdays in a suit and then log into the OASIS to wear a suit?” Mads chuckled.

“A much nicer suit.” Airheart smirked, pulling on his lapel.

“So you never got to hunt for the egg?” Cor asked.

“Nah, I did a lot of research, but it didn’t go anywhere for a long time. Three years with zero progress certainly kills your drive. Although, part of me still thinks, maybe it would be fun to try the hunt, just for the hell of it. There’s no egg, no fortune, but Halliday went through all the trouble to make that hunt. I’d like to see it firsthand.”

“Firsthand?” Ten asked.

“Y’know, not from articles and captures.”

“Right.”

“I wonder if it’s still in the game even, all the gates and keys,” Jeena pondered.

“Damn, you’re right. Might have missed my shot then huh? Oh well…tomorrow is another day.”

Everyone nodded, but Ten drew his wand and pointed it at Airheart.

“What’s your problem!?” Airheart drew a MAC-10 from his inventory and pointed it back at Ten.

“You’re a Sixer!” Ten shouted.

“It’s not what you think!” Airheart shouted back.

“You admit it?!” Jeena raised her rifle to Airheart, who drew another MAC-10 to aim at her.

“I said it’s not what you think!”

Cor drew his katana and held it at the ready. “Then how is it?”

Mads pulled out her crowbar, holding it like a shotgun, pointing it at Cor. Cor slowly turned his katana to Mads, gently catching the blade on the tip of her crowbar and guiding it to point at Airheart.

“I’m not some indent goon,” Airheart said.

“Obviously, no indent has this kind of gear,” Jeena said.

“Then what are you?” Cor demanded.

“I’m – I was – an oologist.”

“Was?” Jeena repeated.

“Oology is done. They shut it down the night Parzival won. Hundreds out of a job.”

“Aww you’re breakin’ my heart,” Ten sneered.

“There’s been no news of that,” Jeena interjected.

“Of course not, IOI’s been silent since the end of the hunt. There’s a bunch of restructuring, and oology was just cut loose after Sorrento was arrested. Higher-ups wanted to minimize his involvement with the company, so they nixed his entire department.”

“So what are you doing here?” Cor asked.

“I’m…playing the game?” Airheart answered flatly.

The phrase itself perfectly encapsulated the reasoning. Why does anyone come to the OASIS? Why was I here? Why were any of us here? Regardless of where they all came from, they were all here for the same reason. To have fun. To play the game. Everyone stood in silence for a moment, gazes darting between pointed weapons.

“I have a question?” Mads finally broke the silence. “Why are we all pointing our guns at each other?”

“Because he pointed his…wand? At me,” Airheart said.

“Because you’re a Sixer!” Ten repeated.

“So what if I am, or was? I’m not out to gank players. I took you onto my ship, for money. Four of you, by the way, I’d stand no chance.”

Jeena lowered her rifle. “He’s got a point.”

“A pretty sharp one,” Cor said, spinning the katana in his hand, then stabbing it downward and into his inventory window.

“Ten, put it down,” Jeena said.

“Do you wanna get to Tolkien, or what?” Airheart said.

Ten grimaced, but put his wand away.

“So…out of a job, huh?” Mads said, sauntering up to Airheart. “That uh…kinda sucks.”

“Just a little. I’ve got savings, but that will only go so far.”

“What are you gonna do?”

“Not sure. Amazingly, no one’s in need of someone who knows about the life and interests of a single guy, even if it was Halliday. Not anymore.”

“You’re pretty interested in a Sixer, Mads,” Jeena laughed, shouldering her rifle.

“Why is that so strange?” Airheart asked.

“Mads was a Sixer-Fixer,” Cor said.

“And yet it was the jumpsuit wizard who drew on me first?”

“I’m turning over a new leaf,” Mads said with a wink.

“More like there’s no fun it anymore,” Jeena said.

“And he’s not a Sixer now, is he? No corporate onesie, no dumb helmet.”

“I barely ever had that, I worked outside of the OASIS. In the desert, as it were.”

“You seem like a decent guy, I’m sure you’ll get by.”

“Right, and even though I didn’t get to play a lot, I know just far too much about the OASIS. Information will sell well, and I know a lot of good routes. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to check our heading – unless you’d all like to have another Mexican standoff.”

“No, go ‘head,” Cor said. “Sorry.”

“It’s no problem,” Airheart shouted from the cockpit.

Cor turned to his party and took a deep breath, his shoulder raised high.

“Well I feel sheepish,” he said.

Mads just laughed.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen Ten move that quick in my life.” Jeena chuckled.

“Yeah what the hell got into you?” Mads asked.

“He was Sixer, it was instinct. We’d been killing those guys like yesterday!” Ten jabbered.

“Aww, he’s so embarrassed!” Mads poked Ten’s shoulder with her crowbar.

“Whatever! Let’s just get to Tolkien and pay the suit what we owe him.”

Ten walked to his chair and slumped down into it with a huff. The others giggled while Ten pouted, scrolling through a browser window.

coin

“Y’see, the song is expressing awareness of the total impermanence of life and relationships in the first verse, while in the second, it speaks of the utter randomness of the universe born from whatever decisions we choose, no matter how considered those decisions may be,” Mads explained with all the fervor of someone connecting unrelated photographs with string on a corkboard.

“Fascinating,” Airheart said, whether his tone was authentic or patronizing, no one could tell.

“The cheery tone of the song then alleviates the inevitable existential dread that such information would bestow upon the masses, e.g. the listener, but still reinforcing all that impermanence, all that randomness, by reminding us in the chorus, which sums up those elements with an innocuous-sounding, earworm-inducing scat vocalization…”

Airheart turned his head to meet Mads’ gaze.

“That it’s all gone in an ‘mmmbop’,” Mads said.

“All in an mmmbop?”

“Yeah!”

“Really? Just a single mmmbop?”

Mads clapped and pointed to Airheart.

“You don’t have to patronize her, we don’t,” Jeena said.

“No it’s okay…it’s oddly interesting.”

“This guy gets it!” Mads shouted to his friends, pointing to the pilot.

“We got it too, we just couldn’t hear it for a third time,” Cor said.

Mads jumped from the co-pilot’s chair and danced her way into the cargo hold with the rest of the party.

“Mads, what are you doing?” Ten scolded.

“I’m making friends,” Mads said with a shrugged.

“Why?”

“The guy just lost his job, Ten,” Mads said with an exaggerated tone of empathy. “Have a little heart.”

“Oh I have as little heart as possible for IOI, rest assured,” Ten joked.

“We’ll be making our approach to Tolkien, so it might get a little bumpy while I switch over to a lo-sci engine,” Airheart called.

In the OASIS, where different regions would limit the use of high science or magic devices and items in their vicinity, the modifications that allowed the Sea Duck to fly through space would have to be switched off so it could fly in the fantasy world of Tolkien. The plane shook as it neared the planet, and the engines cut out for a moment before turning back on, the propellers chopping the air.

“Is there some place specific you’re aiming to go?” Airheart asked.

“Do you know where the Shire is?” Cor replied.

“Ha, ‘do I know where the Shire is,’ you got it!”

The Sea Duck soon set itself down on the sparkling Brandywine River, in a recreation of the Shire. Airheart trotted from the cockpit into the cargo hold, adjusting the slick black gloves covering his hands.

“And we have arrived,” Airheart said over the declining hum of the engines.

“Thanks, we really appreciate it,” Cor said.

Airheart pulled a lever near the back of the hold and the cargo hatch opened, its lip splashing into the shallow end of the water, at a bend in the river. The party disembarked onto a grassy patch of land on the bank.

“Just let me know when you’re ready to fly out again. I’ll be here.”

“Will you be okay staying here? This is a PvP area,” Cor asked.

“I’ll be fine. This baby has more than a few defensive systems hidden in her chassis.”

“Don Karnage beware.”

Airheart pointed to Cor with a smile.

“Maybe I’ll chill at the Prancing Pony, eh?”

“Hey…why don’t you just come with us?” Jeena asked.

“Huh?” Airheart slid his shades down the bridge of his nose.

“We were thinking about it on the plane,” Jeena continued.

“We’ve gotta pay you for your troubles, and if you’re just gonna sit around, why not come with us and get some loot out of the deal,” Cor explained. “Whaddya say? You keep whatever you pick up, plus our agreed-upon fee.”

Airheart nodded his head, thinking on the idea until he reached out for the Sea Duck with his hand. The plane shrunk down, flying into his open palm as a small toy.

“Great idea,” Airheart said, slapping the miniature plane into his inventory window with a smile on his face.

Mads let out a wild cheer, and Cor scrolled through his menu to invite Airheart to the party. His name and status meters appeared in my display when he accepted.

“Welcome to the party, Airheart,” Cor said with a smirk.

“Glad to be here. So, what are we doing?”

“There’s a low-level quest here to kill the Goblin King in the Misty Mountains,” Cor explained. “Shouldn’t be too hard, and there’s lots of treasure stowed away in the mountain.”

“The quest starts at Bag End, of course,” Jeena said.

“I think I’ve got some travelling music!” Mads shouted as the party moved.

The opening of Men Without Hats’ Safety Dance emanated from Mads, but she stopped it several seconds in.

“No no no…wait…wait…” Mads muttered, scrolling through her menu. “Actually…you know what? Yeah.”

The party travelled through the winding roads of Hobbiton as Safety Dance played. It didn’t take long until everyone was skipping along their way.

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The NPC responsible for offering the quest was none other than Bilbo Baggins, chilling in Bag End with his big hairy feet up, sucking down on Longbottom Leaf to send smoke rings fluttering above his hobbit hole. It was a picturesque sight. Sometimes people came to Bag End just to chill out, spend some time at Bilbo’s 111th birthday party.

“It’s amazing what some people are able to do in this game,” Airheart said, reading the flavor text of the quest in his menu window. “Everyone able to make their own quests for others to play, takes dedication on par with someone like Halliday.”

“The architecture tools for the OASIS are pretty easy to use too, so that goes a pretty long way,” Jeena said, skipping through Bilbo’s dialogue just to get the quest in her log.

“They aren’t that easy to use. No one wanted to play mine,” Mads pouted.

“Mads, no one played your quest because it made no sense,” Jeena said.

“Your face made no sense!” Mads yelled, kicking Bilbo’s gate open, the “No admittance” sign flying off in the gentle breeze.

“Have you ever even taken a quest before?” Ten asked, seeming annoyed.

“Oh uh, a long time ago, nothing special. Mostly quests to unlock some pretty choice shortcuts and secret locations,” Airheart answered. “None of the community-generated ones, though. It was either Halliday-created or -related content, or poring over his autobiography.”

“Well, strap yourself in slick, you’re about to get a crash course in slaying quests,” Mads said with pomp.

“It’s not really all that hard,” Jeena interjected.

“I’m gathering that I find the thing on the list and…slay it?” Airheart asked, playing along.

“Damn…this guy’s good,” Mads said, throwing an arm around Jeena.

“Have to keep up this air of professionalism, don’t I?” Airheart said, adjusting his lapels. “It sounds like you’ve all done this one before, too?”

“Yeah, it’s part of our comeback tour. We zeroed out on Chthonia, so we made lists of everything we lost, now we’re out to get it all back,” Jeena explained.

“Ha, personal quest, I get it,” Airheart replied.

Jeena nodded with a smirk

“Okay! Everyone got the quest? We’re off to the Misty Mountains,” Cor said.

“I don’t think there would be any place for me to land the Sea Duck nearby, how will we get there?” Airheart asked.

“Oh, don’t worry about it,” Cor replied. “Let’s go.”

When the party reached the outer limits of the Shire, we were treated to a cutscene that showed a montage of them automatically traversing the expanses of Middle-Earth, while the Lord of the Rings theme played. Whoever created the quest had a sense of humor, and it wasn’t long before the party had reached the mouth of the cave that led inside the Misty Mountains.

“Alright everyone, weapons ready. Here there be goblins…” Cor drew his katana from his inventory window and tapped it on his red leather-clad shoulder.

Jeena pulled the bolt back on her rifle; Mads slapped her crowbar into the palm of her offhand; Ten spun his wand between his fingers; and Airheart took a deep breath, holding a MAC-10 in each hand, pointed to the ground.

“Thunderbirds are go,” the pilot said.

The front porch to Goblin Town was a rickety collection of planks, flanked on either side by torches made of human skulls. Chatter from goblins in distant caverns echoed through the mountain, while a low, humming chant persisted somewhere, betraying the Goblin King’s position.

“So this is pretty easy as far as quests go, the dungeon is mostly a bunch of walkways, and we’ll only fight goblins as we get to the king,” Cor explained.

“And that’s our target, yeah?” Airheart checked.

“Correct. As a slaying quest, we literally don’t have to do anything but kill the target. Any other enemies or loot is just gravy.”

“Right,” Airheart said.

It wasn’t long until the first set of goblins climbed up from the sides of a walkway. Jeena shot several off before they had time to clamor from the ledge, while Mads and Cor began swinging away at the rest.

“Keep up the rear, they tend come from all around,” Jeena ordered.

Ten and Airheart turned their backs to the party, blasting away the flanking goblins with spells and bullets. They fell to the planks as small puddles of coins.

“Guns sort of trivialize this quest, huh?” Airheart said as he reloaded his guns.

“I’m not complaining,” Ten said, drawing in his share of the coins.

“For once,” Mads laughed.

“The goblins are weak, but there’s a lot of them. It’s like a beginner’s quest, but they can pile up if we’re not careful,” Cor said.

As the party moved deeper into the bowels of Goblin Town, the drumming chant grew louder, accompanied by the cacophony of coins, tinkling and crashing on the wooden walkways for every enemy slain, and the blasts of gunfire and magic that slew them. Mads continued her scavenger hunt, shoving butter knives, loaves of bread, cups, really any random junk on tables they passed into her inventory. Cutting through swathes of goblins quickly led them to the Goblin King’s throne, a larger, square platform of wooden planks hanging over a chasm that stretched down into the dark.

“Alright, here we are,” Cor said.

The Goblin King, corpulent on his throne, eyed the party, slamming the tip of his mighty staff into the planks with a thunderous wallop. He brushed the flabby, boil-pocked flesh dangling from his chin with an inquisitively scripted ponderance. He lumbered out of his throne, stepping down from his footstool made of a pile of goblins. He took a deep breath, and started monologuing, “Abominations, mutations, deviations. That’s all you’re gonna find down here! Who would be so–”

The king stopped abruptly at the crack of a single round of gunfire, a small hitspark exploding right between his eyes as a bullet found its mark. Jeena stood with her rifle raised and steadied on the boss. She glanced away from her iron sights to the party, who looked back at her. The single shell from her fired shout loudly bounced on the wood, before rolling between the cracks and clanging across the cavern walls, flipping into the depths.

“Oh, I’m sorry, did you want to listen to Nutsack Chin’s monologue?” she said.

The king swiped his staff at Jeena, and she braced against the clubbing with her rifle. Cor rushed in, slicing the Goblin King’s side, but was struck from behind with the king’s staff on a return swing. Cor’s health meter in the corner of my HUD dipped dangerously low as he stumbled.

“Okay, he hits a little harder when you’re level one,” Cor said.

Mads ran to Cor as the Goblin King grabbed one of the goblins on his footrest pile and chucked it ahead. Mads dipped under the wailing goblin to reach Cor, and Airheart sprayed a cloud of bullets ahead, the flying goblin shattering into coins that splashed past him. The pilot then turned his guns to the king himself, pelting him with a light burst of gunfire.

“Lemme tell you, I’m not fairing much better at level three,” Airheart said. “Does he just have his club and…throwing goblins?”

“As far as I remember,” Cor said, climbing to his feet.

Mads cast a minor healing spell on Cor, and he was put back into a stable amount of health.

“Watch it!” Jeena fired into the king’s shoulder, but he kept his attention to Cor and Mads, bringing his staff down from overhead. Ten projected a shield of magic between his friends and the Goblin King, and his staff bounced away. When the shield fell, Cor rushed back in, stabbing his sword into the king’s stomach and leaping high into the air, dragging the blade up through the boss’ body. The Goblin King groped for Cor with his free hand as he landed on his shoulders, stabbing his sword into the monster’s collar for stability. Airheart skipped back while spraying into the king’s stomach, meeting with Jeena as the two reloaded. Mads coiled back with her crowbar, and let out a shrill “BATTER UP!” as she swung right into the back of the Goblin King’s leg, forcing him to take a knee.

“Expelliarmus!” Ten shot a blast from his wand straight into the Goblin King’s hand, throwing his skull staff off the platform.

“Go for it!” Mads shouted with the activation of a short-lived bardsong.

Mads held her crowbar like a guitar and strummed, her hips sporadically moving to an imagined beat. An icon denoting increased attack power appeared next to everyone’s names in my HUD, and the party went in for one final assault. Cor dipped back and dropped to the floor, dragging his katana down the Goblin King’s spine. Ten, Jeena, and Airheart unloaded with everything they had, bullets and blasts of magic hitting the king squarely in his wide form. Cor swung wildly, carving into the king’s back, the boss’ HP dipping at an alarming rate.

“Ten seconds left, bring it on home!” Mads called.

Jeena reloaded, snapped the bolt of her rifle, and rushed the boss, leaping from the king’s bent knee and up onto his shoulders. She pressed her rifle into the Goblin King’s face and squeezed the trigger, unloading the entire magazine. With each pop of gunfire a huge chunk was shaved off the king’s HP meter, until there was nothing left. The Goblin King stumbled back and teetered forward until he fell over completely, shattering into a pile of coins as his face hit the planks. Jeena landed cleanly amidst the loot, gold coins sliding off her armor as she turned to the party.

“Phew…” Cor sighed.

“Nice work,” Airheart said.

“Jeena showing off again,” Ten said.

The coins swirled around, drawn into the characters’ outstretched hands. For each piece of coin collected, a commensurate amount of experience was earned as well, pushing Cor, Jeena, Ten, and Mads up to the third level. A blast of light blanketed each player as their level increased, and Mads laughed maniacally.

“Mwahahaaa! I can feel my power returning!” she yelled, flexing her bicep. “Look at this! Look at these musssclesssss!”

“That’s a level three muscle right there,” Jeena said, slapping Mads’ arm.

“I feel like I could lift a bus, just because I wanted to!”

With the pile of coins cleared, Cor picked up a black leather trenchcoat that was left behind, slowly spinning just above the floor.

“Well here it is, check one off the list for me,” Cor said.

“And I was just getting used to the Beat It jacket,” Mads said. “C’mon, give us some slick moves before you Neo up. A moonwalk, a shimmy, something.”

“You’re the dancer here Mads, not…me…” Cor said, trailing off as a massive rumbling echoed from the bowels of Goblin Town.

“That’s not a good sound,” Airheart said.

Cor shoved the trenchcoat into his inventory window and swiped it away. “We should get outta here.”

The party rushed down the rickety walkways of Goblin Town as a deluge of goblins flooded from the caverns. They blocked the walkway that lead to the entrance, forcing the players to take a detour, climbing higher up the wooden paths while goblins swarmed behind them.

“I completely don’t remember this!” Cor yelled, leading the party down narrow walkways as goblins screeched from every conceivable direction.

“Neither do I, is this new?” Mads wondered, whacking a goblin off the path.

“I think we just hauled ass last time. Slaying quest, yeah?” Jeena said, smashing a goblin in the face with the butt of her rifle.

“There! There’s a light!” Cor said, pointing his sword to a pinprick of sunlight amidst the murky glow of the torches.

The party carved their way through a group of goblins blocking a small pathway, emerging on an outcropping of mountain that formed a land bridge with another peak.

“We cross and head back down, no problem!” Cor said.

The party stopped, however, when goblins began to fill the threshold on the other end of the land bridge.

“Pincer attack,” Jeena muttered.

“Okay…uh…so we kill the goblins…then head back down. No problem,” Cor said.

“Whose idea was it to go up?” Ten whined.

“I think we took a wrong turn,” Airheart said.

“We’re okay, we’re okay,” Cor muttered.

“We are totally not okay!” Jeena said, plugging a few encroaching goblins with gunfire.

Ten reached over Jeena’s shoulder, trying to blast goblins off the land bridge to thin out the horde.

“This side isn’t looking much better,” Airheart sprayed rounds from his machine guns into a veritable wall of goblins coming from the other end of the bridge.

“We’re so boned!” Mads yelled.

As more goblins began to swarm the bridge, the earth underfoot cracked, seams scarring like lightning across the rock, under the stress of what had to be the weight of the Misty Mountain’s entire remaining population of goblins.

“Yarp…we’re boned,” Cor said.

With a loud snap, the bridge was rent to gravel and shards of rock, and everyone, the party and the horde of goblins, fell. Players screamed, and goblins howled. Yet, just because they were plummeting to the bottom of the Misty Mountains didn’t mean the fight was over. Goblins snarled and thrashed, taking off bits of HP until the party fought back. Mads swung for the fences wildly with her crowbar, cracking homeruns on goblin skulls. Cor kicked off one goblin and flew blade-first into another, pressing his foe into the side of the mountain as it raced by, scraping the goblin into a shredding of coins as they fell. Jeena choked a goblin and unloaded her assault rifle into its stomach until it shattered into a cloud of gold coins.

“Jeena! Back me up!” Ten yelled.

Ten blasted a group of goblins away, using the recoil of his spell to fly backwards into Jeena. The two spun back-to-back, locking their free arms and unloading a vortex of bullets and sparkles into the swarm of goblins that tried to close in on them.

“So we should probably figure out how to not go splat!” Mads yelled, pressing her feet into the back of a goblin and turning its skull into a pile of coins with her crowbar.

“That’s my cue!” Airheart called. “Cor! Hold this!”

With my attention, Airheart swiped his left arm sideways, tossing one of his guns to Cor. Cor unloaded the machine gun into a group of goblins, using his katana to dice up any that survived the buffet. Airheart opened his inventory and snatched the miniature Sea Duck from the window, chucking it below as hard as he could. In a flash of green, the frame of the Sea Duck unfolded beneath the falling party, its chassis clapping together, wings unfurling. As the plane finished materializing, Airheart pointed a fob to it, and with a ba-bweep the cargo hatch opened to swallow up the party. They tumbled in the cargo hold, grabbing on to straps and chairs as the plane continued its nosedive towards the bottom of the canyon.

“Hold on to something!” Airheart said as he coolly slid down the hold and into the cockpit.

Airheart pressed himself into the pilot’s seat, quickly flipping switches to ignite the engines. Goblins grabbed onto the plane’s chassis, hacking away at the paneling while others, chopped up by the rotors, exploded into coins. Airheart tilted in his chair, sending the plane into a tailspin that launched the goblin hangers-on into the mountainsides. The terrified wails of the party drowned out even the sound of the engines.

“Sorry!” Airheart called, steering the plane out of its spin.

“I hope whatever that was you just did was really cool!” Mads cried.

“I’m gonna throw up on my boot suit!” Ten yelled.

Airheart planted his feet on either side of the console, pulling back on the steering to raise the plane out of its nosedive. The Sea Duck swooped over the canyon floor, steadying itself horizontally amidst a shower of coins. The party in the cargo hold fell to the floor, watching the flood of coins bounce and shine, catching the midday sun as they scattered across the canyon’s bottom.

“Are we alive?!” Cor shouted.

“Jesus Reginald Christ, he did it!” Mads cheered.

“We’re not done just yet. If you’re hanging on, keep doing so, if you’re not, please start,” Airheart said.

The plane tilted up, climbing up the canyon a short way before turning and dipping back down.

“What are you doing?” Cor asked.

“Taking what’s ours, friend!”

The Sea Duck leveled out, nearly skimming the canyon floor, now glittering like gold. The plane flew over the sheet of gold coins, creating a vacuum of treasure that drew itself up into the plane’s cargo hatch, filling the party’s inventories with the goblins’ loot. Each player watched as their wallets filled with stacks and stacks of coins, their value easily climbing into the quadruple digits. With that amassment of coin came experience points, which left the interior of the plane a light show of effects that accompanied their avatars leveling up several times. The Sea Duck flew out of the Misty Mountains as it echoed with heartfelt cheers of joy and victory.

coin

The plane landed back at Brandywine River, and Cor met Airheart as he exited the cockpit, handing the pilot back his MAC-10.

“Oh, thank you,” Airheart said, hiding the weapon beneath his jet-black suit jacket.

“No man, thank you,” Cor started. “You saved our asses back there, and–”

“–and you looked too damn cool doing it,” Mads said.

“Would it make you all feel better, or worse, if I told you I’d never done anything like that before, and I was absolutely terrified the entire time?”

“A little of column A, little of column B,” Jeena said with a smile.

“We’re…swimming in coin now, thanks to your flying,” Cor said.

“And now we’re like, level ten! And we haven’t even turned in the quest yet,” Mads chimed in.

“Glad I could help out,” Airheart said. “I hope you’ll invite me again sometime.”

“As far as I’m concerned, you’re part of this clan,” Ten said, surprisingly.

“Ten, what?” Jeena asked.

“Who are you?” Mads squinted.

“What? He really pulled through for us,” Ten said. “All of us, together. Not just us four, and not just himself.”

“Oh hey, it’s nothing,” Airheart rubbed the back of his neck.

“No…you know what? He’s right,” Cor said with a nod. “Who cares if we met you like…five hours ago? What you did today was awesome.”

“I know things are tough, getting sacked from IOI and all, so if we can make your time here in the OASIS more enjoyable, you’re…welcome with us,” Ten said.

“Ha, thank you. Hey, speaking of…how’d you figure out I was a Sixer anyway?” Airheart asked.

“Hey yeah, how did you do that?” Mads added.

“Uh…context clues.”

“Hokay. Vaguetown, population Ten. Er…not the number, but…jumpsuit wizard. Sole citizen and de facto mayor. Do something about those potholes, Mayor McCheese!”

“Okay…fine.” Ten sighed loudly. “Since we’ve gotten all ‘Hallmark’ with our feelings lately…”

“What-now?” Airheart asked.

“I think he’s referring to when Cor told us why he didn’t take the egg hunt seriously,” Jeena said.

“Wasn’t fun anymore,” Cor added.

“Ah,” Airheart said.

“He cried,” Mads whispered, loudly.

“I did not.”

“Like a newborn baby,” Mads continued.

“Anyway!” Ten said. “I knew Airheart was a Six…er…oologist, because I used to be an oologist, too.”

“The fucking what now?” Mads reeled back in surprise.

“Come again for Big Fudge,” Cor said.

“The term ‘information analysis’ he’d said was a pretty common way of explaining what you did to other people, without it sounding like you got paid to be obsessed with a single dude. It was a joke in oology while I was there, about what to put down on your resumé.”

Airheart let out a jovial “Hm.”

“But it was what you said after, that ‘tomorrow is another day’ thing. It’s what oology used to say like every night when we came up with nothing.”

“Damn, man. Why didn’t you tell us?” Cor asked.

“Tell you that I used to work for IOI? Tell Mads, a Sixer-Fixer that I used to be what she loves ganking?”

“Heeey, I can show some restraint,” Mads said.

“You used to work for them. How’d you get out?” Jeena interrupted.

“Luckily, oologists aren’t exactly like indents. It’s a pretty cushy gig if you can keep up, and I got lazy. Dejected. Saw how bad IOI was handling things in the OASIS. Working there you hear about the things they plan on doing if they got the controlling shares. Plus, I wasn’t…having fun? They fired me for underperformance, and it was honestly a blessing.”

“Why’d you work for them in the first place?” Mads asked.

“It was 2040, I had just gotten out of high school. IOI’s bullshit in the OASIS hadn’t reached peak bullshit yet. They were offering good benefits, and I needed a job. I thought it would be fun, searching for the egg, playing the game with the full backing of a giant company…well, we see how all that turned out. I was gone by early ’42.”

“Ah, I came on in the fall of ’42. Same reasons, really,” Airheart said.

“Yeah, you also mentioned that three years’ worth of Halliday knowledge led you nowhere. Three years ago people started to think the egg hunt and gunters were a joke – by then the only people who still cared about the egg were obsessed gunters, and oologists who were paid to be obsessed.”

“Is that why you were always so pissed when IOI got closer to the egg?” Cor asked.

“Firsthand experience.” Ten nodded. “And it’s why I really understood what you said about not having fun with the game anymore. I started to get worried about IOI killing all the fun in the game. I could have been set for life, but if IOI got that egg, it’d ruin other peoples’ lives. So many depend on this place to escape the real world. If IOI messed with that, just for their own bottom line…? I would have been complicit in that.”

“Oof, hittin’ Airheart below the belt, there,” Mads said.

“No. I know how he feels, but he’s right. The real world is rough, and the OASIS is a great escape. I don’t blame him. I come here to fly, see the sights, I can only imagine the other people who use this to escape worse lives. This place is important.”

“And I don’t blame any of my old coworkers. Jobs can be hard to come by. My personality just…didn’t mix with oology, and what it strove for,” Ten said. “I managed to keep my debt pretty low, worked it off under a year, then I was free to get the egg fair and square. I was free to play the game.”

“If it makes you feel any better, all of us were pretty blindsided by the lay-offs. You work there for so many years, you start to feel that you’ll have the position forever. Deep down I suppose we never wanted to think about what would happen when the hunt ended. Win or lose, we would be out of a job, but at least if we won we expected a big severance package, some kind of bonus.”

“But all you got was the boot,” Mads said, gently kicking the air.

“Yup. But, I’m a saver, of both dollars and coins.”

“And now you’ve got us,” Cor said.

“For what that’s worth,” Ten said, making no effort to hide his grin.

“Aw look at you two, you were pointing guns at each other earlier today, and now you’re like, the bestest of buds!” Mads said.

Ten held his hand out to Airheart, who took it without a moment’s hesitation.

“Welcome to the party, Airheart,” Ten said.

<== Last Episode ===