Ready player one, p.10
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       Ready Player One, p.10
 

           Ernest Cline

  “Please!” she growled, holding up a hand. “Do not patronize me, OK?” She let out what I can only describe as a howl of frustration. “I don’t believe this! Do you realize I’ve been trying to beat him for five goddamn weeks!”

  “But a minute ago you said it was three weeks—”

  “Don’t interrupt me!” She gave me another shove. “I’ve been practicing Joust nonstop for over a month now! I’m seeing flying ostriches in my goddamn sleep!”

  “That can’t be pleasant.”

  “And you just walk in here and nail it on the first try!” She started pounding her fist into the center of her forehead, and I realized she was pissed at herself, not me.

  “Listen,” I said. “It really was luck. I’ve got a knack for classic arcade games. That’s my specialty.” I shrugged. “Stop hitting yourself like Rain Man, OK?”

  She stopped and stared me. After a few seconds, she let out a long sigh. “Why couldn’t it be Centipede? Or Ms. Pac-Man? Or BurgerTime? Then I’d probably have already cleared the First Gate by now!”

  “Well, I don’t know about that,” I said.

  She glared at me a second, then gave me a devilish smile. She turned to face the exit and began to execute a series of elaborate gestures in the air in front of her while whispering the words of some incantation.

  “Hey,” I said. “Hold on a sec. What are you doing?”

  But I already knew. As she finished casting her spell, a giant stone wall appeared, completely covering the chamber’s only exit. Shit! She’d cast a Barrier spell. I was trapped inside the room.

  “Oh, come on!” I shouted. “Why did you do that?”

  “You seemed to be in an awful big hurry to get out of here. My guess is that when Anorak gave you the Copper Key, he also gave you some sort of clue about the location of the First Gate. Right? That’s where you’re headed next, isn’t it?”

  “Yeah,” I said. I thought about denying it, but what was the point now?

  “So unless you can nullify my spell—and I’m betting you can’t, Mr. Tenth-Level Warrior—that barrier will keep you in here until just after midnight, when the server resets. All of those traps you disarmed on your way down here will reset. That should slow down your exit considerably.”

  “Yes,” I said. “It will.”

  “And while you’re busy making your way back up to the surface, I’ll have another shot at defeating Acererak. And this time I’m gonna destroy him. Then I’ll be right behind you, mister.”

  I folded my arms. “If the king has been beating your ass for the past five weeks, what makes you think you’re finally going to win tonight?”

  “Competition brings out the best in me,” she replied. “It always has. And now I’ve got some serious competition.”

  I glanced over at the magical barrier she’d created. She was over fiftieth level, so it would remain in existence for the spell’s maximum duration: fifteen minutes. All I could do was stand there and wait for it to dissipate. “You’re evil, you know that?” I said.

  She grinned and shook her head. “Chaotic Neutral, sugar.”

  I grinned back at her. “I’m still going to beat you to the First Gate, you know.”

  “Probably,” she said. “But this is just the beginning. You’ll still have to clear it. And there are still two more keys to find, and two more gates to clear. Plenty of time for me to catch up with you, and then leave you in the dust, ace.”

  “We’ll see about that, lady.”

  She motioned to the window displaying the Scoreboard. “You’re famous now,” she said. “You realize what that means, don’t you?”

  “I haven’t had much time to think about it yet.”

  “Well, I have. I’ve been thinking about it for the past five weeks. Your avatar’s name on that Scoreboard is going to change everything. The public will become obsessed with the contest again, just like when it first began. The media is already going berserk. By tomorrow, Parzival will be a household name.”

  That thought made me a little queasy.

  “You could become famous in the real world too,” she said. “If you reveal your true identity to the media.”

  “I’m not an idiot.”

  “Good. Because there are billions of dollars up for grabs, and now everyone is going to assume you know how and where to find the egg. There are a lot of people who would kill for that information.”

  “I know that,” I said. “And I appreciate your concern. But I’ll be fine.”

  But I didn’t feel fine. I hadn’t really considered any of this, maybe because I’d never really believed I would actually be in this position.

  We stood there in silence, watching the clock and waiting. “What would you do if you won?” she suddenly asked. “How would you spend all that money?”

  I had spent a lot of time thinking about that. I daydreamed about it all the time. Aech and I had made absurd lists of things we would do and buy if we won the prize.

  “I don’t know,” I said. “The usual, I guess. Move into a mansion. Buy a bunch of cool shit. Not be poor.”

  “Wow. Big dreamer,” she said. “And after you buy your mansion and your ‘cool shit,’ what will you do with the hundred and thirty billion you’ll have left over?”

  Not wanting her to think I was some shallow idiot, I impulsively blurted out what I’d always dreamed of doing if I won. It was something I’d never told anyone.

  “I’d have a nuclear-powered interstellar spacecraft constructed in Earth’s orbit,” I said. “I’d stock it with a lifetime supply of food and water, a self-sustaining biosphere, and a supercomputer loaded with every movie, book, song, videogame, and piece of artwork that human civilization has ever created, along with a stand-alone copy of the OASIS. Then I’d invite a few of my closest friends to come aboard, along with a team of doctors and scientists, and we’d all get the hell out of Dodge. Leave the solar system and start looking for an extrasolar Earthlike planet.”

  I hadn’t thought this plan all the way through yet, of course. I still had a lot of details to work out.

  She raised an eyebrow. “That’s pretty ambitious,” she said. “But you do realize that nearly half the people on this planet are starving, right?” I detected no malice in her voice. She sounded like she genuinely believed I might not be aware of this fact.

  “Yes, I know,” I said defensively. “The reason so many people are starving is because we’ve wrecked the planet. The Earth is dying, you know? It’s time to leave.”

  “That’s a pretty negative outlook,” she said. “If I win that dough, I’m going to make sure everyone on this planet has enough to eat. Once we tackle world hunger, then we can figure out how to fix the environment and solve the energy crisis.”

  I rolled my eyes. “Right,” I said. “And after you pull off that miracle, you can genetically engineer a bunch of Smurfs and unicorns to frolic around this new perfect world you’ve created.”

  “I’m being serious,” she said.

  “You really think it’s that simple?” I said. “That you can just write a check for two hundred and forty billion dollars and fix all the world’s problems?”

  “I don’t know. Maybe not. But I’m gonna give it a shot.”

  “If you win.”

  “Right. If I win.”

  Just then, the OASIS server clock struck midnight. We both knew the second it happened, because the throne reappeared atop the dais, along with Acererak. He sat there motionless, looking just like he did when I’d first entered the room.

  Art3mis glanced up at him, then back at me. She smiled and gave me a small wave. “I’ll see you around, Parzival.”

  “Yeah,” I replied. “See ya.” She turned and began to walk toward the dais. I called after her. “Hey, Art3mis?”

  She turned back. For some reason I felt compelled to help her, even though I knew I shouldn’t. “Try playing on the left side,” I said. “That’s how I won. I think he might be easier to beat if he’s playing the stork.”
r />   She stared at me for a second, possibly trying to gauge whether I was messing with her. Then she nodded and ascended the dais. Acererak came to life as soon as she set foot on the first step.

  “Greetings, Art3mis,” his voice boomed. “What is it that you seek?”

  I couldn’t hear her reply, but a few seconds later the throne transformed into the Joust game, just as it had earlier. Art3mis said something to the lich and the two of them switched sides, so that she was on the left. Then they began to play.

  I watched them play from a distance until a few minutes later, when her Barrier spell dissipated. I cast one last glance up at Art3mis, then threw open the door and ran out.

  It took me a little over an hour to make my way back through the tomb and up to the surface. The instant I crawled outside, a MESSAGES WAITING indicator began to flash on my display. I realized then that Halliday had placed the tomb inside a null-communication zone, so no one could receive calls, texts, or e-mail while they were inside. Probably to prevent gunters from calling for help or advice.

  I checked my messages and saw that Aech had been trying to reach me since the moment my name appeared on the Scoreboard. He’d called over a dozen times and had also sent several text messages asking me what in the sweet name of Christ was going on and screaming at me in ALL CAPS to call him back right now. Just as I’d finished deleting these messages, I received another incoming call. It was Aech trying once again to reach me. I decided not to pick up. Instead, I sent him a short text message, promising to call as soon as I could.

  As I ran out of the forest, I kept the Scoreboard up in the corner of my display so I’d know immediately if Art3mis won her Joust match and obtained the key. When I finally reached the transport terminal and jumped into the nearest booth, it was just after two o’clock in the morning.

  I entered my destination on the booth’s touchscreen, and a map of Middletown appeared on the display. I was prompted to select one of the planet’s 256 transport terminals as my arrival point.

  When Halliday had created Middletown, he hadn’t placed just a single re-creation of his hometown there. He’d made 256 identical copies of it, spread out evenly across the planet’s surface. I didn’t think it would matter which copy of his hometown I went to, so I selected one at random, near the equator. Then I tapped CONFIRM to pay the fare, and my avatar vanished.

  A millisecond later, I was standing inside a vintage 1980s phone booth located inside an old Greyhound bus station. I opened the door and stepped out. It was like stepping out of a time machine. Several NPCs milled around, all dressed in mid-1980s attire. A woman with a giant ozone-depleting hairdo bobbed her head to an oversize Walkman. A kid in a gray Members Only jacket leaned against the wall, working on a Rubik’s Cube. A Mohawked punk rocker sat in a plastic chair, watching a Riptide rerun on a coin-operated television.

  I located the exit and headed for it, drawing my sword as I went. The entire surface of Middletown was a PvP zone, so I had to proceed with caution.

  Shortly after the Hunt began, this planet had turned into Grand Central Station, and all 256 copies of Halliday’s hometown had been scoured and ransacked by an endless parade of gunters, all searching for keys and clues. The popular theory on the message boards was that Halliday had created multiple copies of his hometown so that several avatars could search it at the same time without fighting over a single location. Of course, all of this searching had yielded a big fat doughnut. No keys. No clues. No egg. Since then, interest in the planet had waned dramatically. But some gunters probably still came here on occasion.

  If there was already another gunter inside Halliday’s house when I got there, my plan was to make a run for it, then steal a car and drive twenty-five miles (in any direction) to the next identical copy of Middletown. And then the next, until I found an instance of Halliday’s house that was unoccupied.

  Outside the bus station, it was a beautiful Midwestern day. The reddish orange sun hovered low in the sky. Even though I’d never been to Middletown before, I’d done extensive research on it, so I knew Halliday had coded the planet so that no matter when you visited or where you were on the surface, it was always a perfect late-autumn afternoon, circa 1986.

  I pulled up a map of the town and traced a route from my current location to Halliday’s childhood home. It was about a mile to the north. I pointed my avatar in that direction and began to run. Looking around, I was astounded at the painstaking attention to detail. I’d read that Halliday had done all of the coding himself, drawing on his memories to re-create his hometown exactly as it was during his childhood. He’d used old street maps, phone books, photographs, and video footage for reference, to make everything as authentic and accurate as possible.

  The place reminded me a lot of the town in the movie Footloose. Small, rural, and sparsely populated. The houses all seemed incredibly big and were placed ridiculously far apart. It astounded me that fifty years ago, even lower-income families had an entire house to themselves. The NPC citizens all looked like extras from a John Cougar Mellencamp video. I saw people out raking leaves, walking dogs, and sitting on porches. Out of curiosity, I waved at a few of them and got a friendly wave in return every time.

  Clues as to the time period were everywhere. NPC-piloted cars and trucks cruised slowly up and down the shady streets, all of them gas-guzzling antiques: Trans-Ams, Dodge Omnis, IROC Z28s, and K-cars. I passed a service station, and the sign said gasoline was only ninety-three cents a gallon.

  I was about to turn down Halliday’s street when I heard a fanfare of trumpets. My eyes shot over to the Scoreboard window, still hovering in the corner of my display.

  Art3mis had done it.

  Her name now appeared directly below mine. Her score was 9,000 points—a thousand points less than mine. It appeared that I’d received a bonus for being the first avatar to obtain the Copper Key.

  The full ramifications of the Scoreboard’s existence occurred to me for the first time. From here on out, it would not only allow gunters to keep track of each other’s progress, it would also show the entire world who the current frontrunners were, creating instant celebrities (and targets) in the process.

  I knew, at that exact moment, Art3mis must be staring down at her own copy of the Copper Key, reading the clue engraved on its surface. I was sure she’d be able to decipher it just as quickly as I had. In fact, she was probably already on her way to Middletown right now.

  That got me moving again. I now had only an hour’s head start on her. Maybe less.

  When I reached Cleveland Avenue, the street on which Halliday had grown up, I sprinted down the cracked sidewalk to the front steps of his childhood home. It looked just like the photographs I’d seen: a modest two-story colonial with red vinyl siding. Two late-’70s Ford sedans were parked in the driveway, one of them up on cinder blocks.

  Looking at the replica Halliday had created of his old house, I tried to imagine what it had been like for him to grow up there. I’d read that in the real Middletown, Ohio, every house on this street had been demolished in the late ’90s to make room for a strip mall. But Halliday had preserved his childhood forever, here in the OASIS.

  I ran up the walkway and entered through the front door, which opened into the living room. I knew this room well, because it appeared in Anorak’s Invitation. I recognized the simulated wood-grain paneling, the burnt orange carpet, and garish furniture that looked like it had been scavenged from several disco-era yard sales.

  The house was empty. For whatever reason, Halliday had decided not to place NPC re-creations of himself or his deceased parents here. Perhaps that would have been too creepy, even for him. However, I did spot a familiar family photo on the living room wall. This portrait had been taken at the local Kmart in 1984, but Mr. and Mrs. Halliday were still dressed in late-’70s fashions. Twelve-year-old Jimmy stood between them, glowering at the camera from behind thick eyeglasses. The Hallidays looked like an ordinary American family. There was no hint that the stoic man i
n the brown leisure suit was an abusive alcoholic, that the smiling woman in the floral pantsuit was bipolar, or that the young boy in the faded Asteroids T-shirt would one day create an entirely new universe.

  Looking around, I wondered why Halliday, who always claimed to have had a miserable childhood, had later become so nostalgic for it. I knew that if and when I finally escaped from the stacks, I’d never look back. And I definitely wouldn’t create a detailed simulation of the place.

  I glanced over at the bulky Zenith television and the Atari 2600 connected to it. The simulated wood grain on the Atari’s plastic casing perfectly matched the simulated wood grain on the television cabinet and on the living room walls. Beside the Atari was a shoebox containing nine game cartridges: Combat, Space Invaders, Pitfall, Kaboom!, Star Raiders, The Empire Strikes Back, Starmaster, Yars’ Revenge, and E.T. Gunters had attached a large amount of significance to the absence of Adventure, the game Halliday was seen playing on this very same Atari at the end of Anorak’s Invitation. People had searched the entire Middletown simulation for a copy of it, but there didn’t appear to be one anywhere on the whole planet. Gunters had brought copies of Adventure here from other planets, but when they tried to play them on Halliday’s Atari, they never worked. So far, no one had been able to figure out why.

  I did a quick search of the rest of the house and made sure no other avatars were present. Then I opened the door of James Halliday’s room. It was empty, so I stepped inside and locked the door. Screenshots and simcaps of this room had been available for years, and I’d studied all of them closely. But this was my first time standing inside the “real thing.” I got chills.

  The carpet was a horrendous mustard color. So was the wallpaper. But the walls were almost entirely covered with movie and rock band posters: Real Genius, WarGames, Tron, Pink Floyd, Devo, Rush. A bookshelf stood just inside the door, overflowing with science-fiction and fantasy paperbacks (all titles I’d read, of course). A second bookshelf by the bed was crammed to capacity with old computer magazines and Dungeons & Dragons rule books. Several long boxes of comic books were stacked against the wall, each carefully labeled. And there on the battered wooden desk in the corner was James Halliday’s first computer.

  Like many home computers of its era, it was housed in the same case as its keyboard. TRS-80 COLOR COMPUTER 2, 16K RAM was printed on a label above the keys. Cables snaked out of the back of the machine, leading to an audiocassette recorder, a small color television, a dot-matrix printer, and a 300-baud modem. A long list of telephone numbers for dial-up bulletin board systems was taped to the desk beside the modem.

  I sat down and located the power switch for the computer and the TV. I heard a crackle of static, followed by a low hum, as the TV warmed up. A moment later, the TRS-80’s green start-up screen appeared, and I saw these words:

  EXTENDED COLOR BASIC 1.1

  COPYRIGHT (c) 1982 BY TANDY

  OK

  Below this was a flashing cursor, cycling through every color of the spectrum. I typed HELLO and hit the Enter key.

  ?SYNTAX ERROR appeared on the next line. “Hello” wasn’t a valid command in BASIC, the only language the ancient computer understood.

  I knew from my research that the cassette recorder functioned as the TRS-80’s “tape drive.” It stored data as analog sound on magnetic audiotapes. When Halliday had first started programming, the poor kid hadn’t even had access to a floppy disk drive. He’d had to store his code on cassette tapes. A shoebox sat beside the tape drive, filled with dozens of these cassettes. Most of them were text adventure games: Raaka-tu, Bedlam, Pyramid, and Madness and the Minotaur. There were also a few ROM cartridges, which fit into a slot on the side of the computer. I dug around in the box until I found a cartridge with DUNGEONS OF DAGGORATH printed in crooked yellow text on its worn red label. The game’s artwork depicted a first-person view of a long dungeon corridor blocked by a hulking blue giant with a large stone ax.

  When a list of the games found in Halliday’s bedroom had first appeared online, I’d made sure to download and master every single one of them, so I’d already solved Dungeons of Daggorath, about two years earlier. It had taken most of a weekend. The graphics were crude, but even so, the game was fun and incredibly addictive.

  I knew from reading the message boards that during the past five years, several gunters had played and solved Dungeons of Daggorath right here on Halliday’s TRS-80. Some had solved every single game in the shoebox, just to see if anything would happen. And nothing had. But none of those gunters had been in possession of the Copper Key.

  My hands were trembling slightly as I powered off the TRS-80 and inserted the Dungeons of Daggorath cartridge. When I turned the computer back on, the screen flashed to black and a crude graphic of a wizard appeared, accompanied by some ominous sound effects. The wizard held a staff in one hand, and below him, printed in all capital letters, was the legend I DARE YE ENTER … THE DUNGEONS OF DAGGORATH!

  I laid my fingers on the keyboard and began to play. As soon as I did, a jambox sitting on top of Halliday’s dresser turned itself on, and familiar music began to blast out of it. It was Basil Poledouris’s score for Conan the Barbarian.

  That must be Anorak’s way of letting me know I’m on the right track, I thought.

  I quickly lost track of time. I forgot that my avatar was sitting in Halliday’s bedroom and that, in reality, I was sitting in my hideout, huddled near the electric heater, tapping at the empty air in front of me, entering commands on an imaginary keyboard. All of the intervening layers slipped away, and I lost myself in the game within the game.

  In Dungeons of Daggorath, you control your avatar by typing in commands, like TURN LEFT or GET TORCH, navigating your way through a maze of vector-graphic corridors while fighting off spiders, stone giants, blobs, and wraiths as you descend deeper and deeper, working your way down through the dungeon’s five increasingly difficult levels. It took a while for the commands and quirks of the game to come back to me, but once they did, the game wasn’t that difficult to solve. The ability to save my place at any time basically gave me infinite lives. (Although saving and reloading games from the tape drive proved to be a slow and tedious process. It often took several attempts and a lot of fiddling with the cassette deck’s volume knob.) Saving my game also allowed me to log out for bathroom breaks, and to recharge my space heater.

  While I was playing, the Conan the Barbarian score ended and the jambox clicked over and began to play the opposite side of the tape, treating me to the synthesizer-laden score for Ladyhawke. I couldn’t wait to rub Aech’s nose in that.

  I reached the last level of the dungeon around four o’clock in the morning and faced off against the Evil Wizard of Daggorath. After dying and reloading
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