Mission One Start

Last month brought the first trailer for Spielberg’s Ready Player One movie, based on Ernest Cline’s book about a virtual-reality treasure hunt in a dystopian future. This prompted me to finally read Ready Player One, and it convinced me that the future of profitable literature is all about nostalgia: pure, vacuous, unreflective nostalgia that namechecks as many childhood fascinations as print allows.

Well, I want a piece of that. I’m now at work on a science fiction novel called Mission One Start, and I know it’s bound for the best-seller lists. Here’s a sample.


I always liked Critical Mass Eisley. There were hundreds, maybe thousands of clubs across the OMNIWAY based on the Cantina from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, but this one went beyond rote imitation. The layout echoed an alien version of the classic sitcom Cheers, and tonight a Skeksis from Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal tended bar, wearing mirrored cyberpunk shades while mixing a Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster from Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Here they knew the difference between a Trandoshan and a Gorn.

Even the patrons were a more eclectic mix. As I grabbed a Romulan Ale, I ducked around a winter-camo Robocop, a gaggle of teenage girls dressed as the Bangles in Voltron pilot outfits, and an impressively well-rendered Destro from G.I. Joe wearing Ghostbuster gear. It was great.

I slipped behind a table styled like the monster checkerboard from the Millennium Falcon and tapped my line open.

“You sure she’ll be here?” I asked.

“Totally,” Rhodel said in my ear. “The Minicons may be weird, but they always follow through. Besides, they need our passcodes, and we need their access.”

“I think I see her.”

She wove through the crowd like a ninja about to kidnap the president. Her avatar was a slim, sharp-featured woman with long red hair and just an adorable hint of anime around the eyes. She wore a Dune stillsuit that glowed with subtle crimson highlights, topped off with a visor and yellow trenchcoat right off Jubilee from the X-Men.

“Quit gawking and talk to her, man!” Rhodel piped up through my ear. I’d forgotten that he had a link to my visuals. “And don’t get caught up talking about that awful Dune movie.”

“You’re not supposed to be listening in,” I said. “That was part of their agreement. And Lynch’s Dune is great.”

“Oh, come on. That blithering, blundering mess destroys everything good about the—“

I cut the link before Rhodel could finish.

She was right in front of me, and even cuter up close.

“You’re Gawainterceptor, aren’t you?” she asked. “Nice name. Are you looking for the Holy Grail or Shadow the mercenary?”

I struggled for a reply. She’d caught my nods to both the Arthurian knight and the dog from Final Fantasy VI…or Final Fantasy III, as it had been known when it released on the Super NES in 1994.

“Uh, you can call me Wain,” I blurted. In an attempt to save face, I staggered my words to imitate an obscure Final Fantasy VI line: “And…who…might…you…be?”

“I am Elaine of the planet E-Square,” she said, and a wave of blue ran down her hair. She had an on-the-fly avatar editor as well, probably one a lot more expensive than my Belarusian knockoff.

“Well, then let me hop into my Flintlock,” I replied, picking up her reference to Xexex, the 1991 arcade shooter from Konami.

“So you’re looking for the Fifth Abyss?” She cocked her head to the side, a grin worthy of Ally Sheedy in St. Elmo’s Fire on her lips.

“I’m looking for a lot of things,” I said.

Including a girlfriend like you, I thought.

“Then follow me.” She grinned. “If you can keep up.”

With that, she turned and delicately threaded the crowd on her way to the door. I leapt from the table and followed.

She stepped out into the busy Nexus Prime street and flashed me a smile. Then she morphed.

I’d seen avatar-editors before, but never one so smooth. Her human shape dissolved into pixels and reformed as a sleek motorcycle that I instantly recognized as the titular bike from the Street Hawk TV series.

Her new vehicle incarnation sped off down the street, dodging everyone in its path. I frantically primed my own avatar editor and switched, perhaps less gracefully than she had, into another motorcycle. On a whim, I picked the Condor from the M.A.S.K. toy line.

We tore through the streets like two Tron light cycles, leaving behind neon contrails and indignantly scattered players who probably hadn’t seen Krull even a dozen times. She made a game of it, whipping around corners and slowing just enough in straightaways for me to almost catch her. I somehow managed to keep on her trail like a Gradius homing missile, ready to switch to the Condor’s helicopter mode if she took to the skies.

She rounded a bend and led me into MechAlley, a long avenue lined with statues of anime robots. Her avatar pixel-flickered again, turning into a small robotic creature, and she disappeared somewhere in between Giant Gorg and GoShogun.

I skidded to a halt and scanned the wide stretch of mecha effigies. It took me a minute to spy a tiny hole in the wall right between the feet of Gunbuster, the title robot from a six-part anime series by Hideaki Anno, the creator of Neon Genesis Evangelion.

Rolling toward the tiny entrance, I switched my avatar to the first small thing I could think of: a hamster. I slipped into the hole and found myself in a winding labyrinth that glowed green and black, like the primitive polygons of an early 3-D video game.

It led through so many turns I lost track of how far I’d come, but eventually I emerged into a small room where every surface was black glass. She was waiting at its center.

The tiny room was shielded, I realized. If this was an ambush, no one in the OMNIWAY could hear me, much less help me. At least I had a better look at her new avatar. She was a Ro-Bear Berbil, a mechanical koala creature from the classic Thundercats cartoon.

“We can talk here,” she said. “Most of the dark zones got deleted, but this one’s too small for Nextek to notice.”

“And here I thought you were taking me to see Lion-O and Cheetara.”

That made her smile.

“Nice rodent avatar,” she said. “But what’s with the getup?”

I glanced down. I’d given my avatar a robe festooned with glittering hearts.

“This?” I asked. “I’m Greg ‘the Hamster’ Valentine.”

She laughed at my invoking the old-school WWF wrestler. Then her avatar shifted to a pattern of pink and black stripes.

“All right,” she said. “I’ll be Brutus ‘The Berbil’ Beefcake.”

And then I knew for certain. I was in love.

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