Once I was properly outfitted, I hopped back on the elevator, and a few seconds later I arrived at the entrance of my hangar, located on the bottom level of my stronghold. Pulsing blue lights lined the runway, which ran up the center of the hangar to a massive pair of armored doors at the far end. These doors opened into the launch tunnel, which led up to a matching set of armored doors set into the asteroid’s surface.

Standing on the left side of the runway was my battle-worn X-wing fighter. Parked on the right side was my DeLorean. Sitting on the runway itself was my most frequently used spacecraft, the Vonnegut. Max had already powered up the engines, and they emitted a low, steady roar that filled the hangar. The Vonnegut was a heavily modified Firefly-class transport vessel, modeled after the Serenity in the classic Firefly TV series. The ship had been named the Kaylee when I’d first obtained it, but I’d immediately rechristened it after one of my favorite twentieth-century novelists. Its new name was stenciled on the side of its battered gray hull.

I’d looted the Vonnegut from a cadre of Oviraptor clansmen who had foolishly attempted to hijack my X-wing while I was cruising through a large group of worlds in Sector Eleven known as the Whedonverse. The Oviraptors were cocky bastards with no clue who it was they were messing with. I was in a foul mood even before they’d opened fire on me. Otherwise, I probably would have just evaded them by jumping to light speed. But that day I decided to take their attack personally.

Ships were like most other items in the OASIS. Each one had specific attributes, weapons, and speed capabilities. My X-wing was far more maneuverable than the Oviraptors’ large transport ship, so it was no trouble for me to avoid the barrage from their aftermarket guns, while I bombarded them with laser bolts and proton torpedoes. After I disabled their engines, I boarded the ship and proceeded to kill every avatar there. The captain tried to apologize when he saw who I was, but I wasn’t in a forgiving mood. After I’d dispatched the crew, I parked my X-wing in the cargo hold and then cruised home in my new ship.

As I approached the Vonnegut, the loading ramp extended to the hangar floor. By the time I reached the cockpit, the ship was already lifting off. I heard the landing gear retract with a thud just as I seated myself at the controls.

“Max, lock up the house, and set a course for Archaide.”

“Aye, C-c-captain,” Max stuttered from one of the cockpit monitors. The hangar doors slid open, and the Vonnegut rocketed out the launch tunnel and up into the starry sky. As the ship cleared the surface, the armored tunnel doors slammed closed behind it.

I spotted several ships camped out in a high orbit above Falco. The usual suspects: crazed fans, wannabe disciples, and aspiring bounty hunters. A few of them, the ones currently turning to follow me, were tagalongs—people who spent most of their time trying to tail prominent gunters and gather intel on their movements so they could sell the information later. I was always able to lose these idiots by jumping to light speed. A lucky thing for them. If I couldn’t lose someone who was trying to tail me, I usually had no choice but to stop and kill them.

As the Vonnegut made the jump to light speed, each of the planets on my viewscreen became a long streak of light. “Li-li-light speed engaged, Captain,” Max reported. “ETA to Archaide is estimated at fifty-three minutes. Fifteen if you want to use the nearest stargate.”

Stargates were strategically located throughout each sector. They were really just giant spaceship-sized teleporters, but since they charged by the mass of your ship and the distance you wanted to travel, they were normally used only by corporations or extremely wealthy avatars with credits to burn. I was neither, but under the circumstances, I was willing to splurge a little.

“Let’s take the stargate, Max. We’re in kind of a hurry.”


Chapter 22

The Vonnegut dropped out of light speed, and Archaide suddenly filled the cockpit viewscreen. It stood out from the other planets in the area because it wasn’t coded to look real. All of the neighboring planets were perfectly rendered, with clouds, continents, or impact craters covering their curved surfaces. But Archaide had none of these features, because it was home to the OASIS’s largest classic videogame museum, and its appearance had been designed as a tribute to the vector-graphic games of the late ’70s and early ’80s. The planet’s only surface feature was a web of glowing green dots similar to the ground lights on an airport runway. They were spaced evenly across the globe in a perfect grid, so that, from orbit, Archaide resembled the vector-graphic Death Star from Atari’s 1983 Star Wars arcade game.

As Max piloted the Vonnegut down to the surface, I prepared for the possibility of combat by charging up my armor and buffing my avatar with several potions and nano packs. Archaide was both a PvP zone and a chaos zone, which meant that both magic and technology functioned here. So I made sure to load up all of my combat contingency macros.

The Vonnegut’s perfectly rendered steel loading ramp lowered to the ground, standing out in sharp contrast against the digital blackness of Archaide’s surface. As I stepped off the ramp, I tapped a keypad on my right wrist. The ramp retracted, and there was a sharp hum as the ship’s security system activated. A transparent blue shield appeared around the Vonnegut’s hull.

I gazed around at the horizon, which was just a jagged green vector line, denoting mountainous terrain. Here on the surface, Archaide looked exactly like the environment of the 1981 game Battlezone, another vector-graphic classic from Atari. In the distance, a triangular volcano spewed green pixels of lava. You could run toward that volcano for days and never reach it. It always remained at the horizon. Just like in an old videogame, the scenery never changed on Archaide, even if you circumnavigated the globe.

Following my instructions, Max had set the Vonnegut down in a landing lot near the equator in the eastern hemisphere. The lot was empty, and the surrounding area appeared deserted. I headed toward the nearest green dot. As I approached, I could see that it was actually the mouth of an entrance tunnel, a neon green circle ten meters in diameter leading belowground. Archaide was a hollow planet, and the museum exhibits were all located beneath the surface.

As I approached the nearest tunnel entrance, I heard loud music emanating from below. I recognized the song as “Pour Some Sugar on Me” by Def Leppard, off their Hysteria album (Epic Records, 1987). I reached the edge of the glowing green ring and jumped in. As my avatar plummeted down into the museum, the green vector-graphic theme disappeared and I found myself in high-resolution full-color surroundings. Everything around me looked completely real once again.

Below its surface, Archaide housed thousands of classic video arcades, each one a loving re-creation of an actual arcade that had once existed somewhere in the real world. Since the dawn of the OASIS, thousands of elderly users had come here and painstakingly coded virtual replicas of local arcades they remembered from their childhood, thus making them a permanent part of the museum. And each of these simulated game rooms, bowling alleys, and pizza joints was lined with classic arcade games. There was at least one copy of every coin-operated videogame ever made down here. The original game ROMs were all stored in the planet’s OASIS code, and their wooden game cabinets were each coded to look like the antique originals. Hundreds of shrines and exhibits devoted to various game designers and publishers were also scattered throughout the museum.

The museum’s various levels were comprised of vast caverns linked by a network of subterranean streets, tunnels, staircases, elevators, escalators, ladders, slides, trapdoors, and secret passageways. It was like a massive underground multilevel labyrinth. The layout made it extremely easy to get lost, so I kept a three-dimensional holographic map on my display. My avatar’s present location was indicated by a flashing blue dot. I’d entered the museum next to an old arcade called Aladdin’s Castle, close to the surface. I touched a point on the map near the core of the planet, indicating my destination, and the software mapped the quickest route for me to get there. I ran forward, following it.

The museum was divided into layers. Here, near the planet’s mantle, you could find the last coin-operated videogames ever made, from the first few decades of the twenty-first century. These were mostly dedicated simulator cabinets with first-generation haptics—vibrating chairs and tilting hydraulic platforms. Lots of networked stock car simulators that allowed people to race each other. These games were the last of their kind. By that era, home videogame consoles had already made most coin-op games obsolete. After the OASIS went online, they stopped making them altogether.

As you ventured deeper into the museum, the games grew older and more archaic. Turn-of-the-century coin-ops. Lots of head-to-head fighting games with blocky polygon-rendered figures beating the crap out of each other on large flat-screen monitors. Shooting games played with crude haptic light guns. Dancing games. Once you reached the level below that, the games all began to look identical. Each was housed in a large rectangular wooden box containing a cathode picture tube with a set of crude game controls mounted in front of it. You used your hands and your eyes (and occasionally your feet) to play these games. There were no haptics. These games didn’t make you feel anything. And the deeper I descended, the cruder the game graphics got.

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