Ready player one, p.13
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       Ready Player One, p.13
 

           Ernest Cline

  would listen that Aech and I were both students on Ludus. Of course, he had no way of proving he really knew us, and by that time there were hundreds of other gunters claiming to be our close personal friends, so Aech and I were hoping his posts would go unnoticed. But they didn’t, of course. At least two other gunters were sharp enough to connect the dots between Ludus, the Limerick, and the Tomb of Horrors. The day after I-r0k let the cat out of the bag, the name “Daito” appeared in the fourth slot on the Scoreboard. Then, less than fifteen minutes later, the name “Shoto” appeared in the fifth slot. Somehow, they’d both obtained a copy of the Copper Key on the same day, without waiting for the server to reset at midnight. Then, a few hours later, both Daito and Shoto cleared the First Gate.

  No one had ever heard of these avatars before, but their names seemed to indicate they were working together, either as a duo or as part of a clan. Shoto and daito were the Japanese names for the short and long swords worn by samurai. When worn as a set, the two swords were called daisho, and this quickly became the nickname by which the two of them were known.

  Only four days had passed since my name had first appeared on the Scoreboard, and one new name had appeared below mine on each subsequent day. The secret was out now, and the hunt seemed to be shifting into high gear.

  All week, I was unable to focus on anything my teachers were saying. Luckily, I only had two months of school left, and I’d already earned enough credits to graduate, even if I coasted from here on out. So I drifted from one class to the next in a daze, puzzling over the Jade Key riddle, reciting it again and again in my mind.

  The captain conceals the Jade Key

  in a dwelling long neglected

  But you can only blow the whistle

  once the trophies are all collected

  According to my English Lit textbook, a poem with four lines of text and an alternate-line rhyme scheme was known as a quatrain, so that became my nickname for the riddle. Each night after school, I logged out of the OASIS and filled the blank pages of my grail diary with possible interpretations of the Quatrain.

  What “captain” was Anorak talking about? Captain Kangaroo? Captain America? Captain Buck Rogers in the twenty-fifth century?

  And where in the hell was this “dwelling long neglected”? That part of the clue seemed maddeningly nonspecific. Halliday’s boyhood home on Middletown couldn’t really be classified as “neglected,” but maybe he was talking about a different house in his hometown? That seemed too easy, and too close to the hiding place of the Copper Key.

  At first, I thought the neglected dwelling might be a reference to Revenge of the Nerds, one of Halliday’s favorite films. In that movie, the nerds of the title rent a dilapidated house and fix it up (during a classic ’80s music montage). I visited a re-creation of the Revenge of the Nerds house on the planet Skolnick and spent a day searching it, but it proved to be a dead end.

  The last two lines of the Quatrain were also a complete mystery. They seemed to say that once you found the neglected dwelling, you would have to collect a bunch of “trophies” and then blow some kind of whistle. Or did that line mean blow the whistle in the colloquial sense, as in “to reveal a secret or alert someone to a crime”? Either way, it didn’t make any sense to me. But I continued to go over each line, word by word, until my brain began to feel like Aquafresh toothpaste.

  That Friday after school, the day Daito and Shoto cleared the First Gate, I was sitting in a secluded spot a few miles from my school, a steep hill with a solitary tree at the top. I liked to come here to read, to do my homework, or to simply enjoy the view of the surrounding green fields. I didn’t have access to that kind of view in the real world.

  As I sat under the tree, I sorted through the millions of messages still clogging my inbox. I’d been sifting through them all week. I’d received notes from people all over the globe. Letters of congratulation. Pleas for help. Death threats. Interview requests. Several long, incoherent diatribes from gunters whose quest for the egg had clearly driven them insane. I’d also received invitations to join four of the biggest gunter clans: the Oviraptors, Clan Destiny, the Key Masters, and Team Banzai. I told each of them thanks, but no thanks.

  When I got tired of reading my “fan mail,” I sorted out all the messages that were tagged as “business related” and began reading through those. I discovered that I’d received several offers from movie studios and book publishers, all interested in buying the rights to my life story. I deleted them all, because I’d decided never to reveal my true identity to the world. At least, not until after I found the egg.

  I’d also received several endorsement-deal offers from companies who wanted to use Parzival’s name and face to sell their services and products. An electronics retailer was interested in using my avatar to promote their line of OASIS immersion hardware so they could sell “Parzival-approved” haptic rigs, gloves, and visors. I also had offers from a pizza-delivery chain, a shoe manufacturer, and an online store that sold custom avatar skins. There was even a toy company that wanted to manufacture a line of Parzival lunch boxes and action figures. These companies were offering to pay me in OASIS credits, which would be transferred directly to my avatar’s account.

  I couldn’t believe my luck.

  I replied to every single one of the endorsement inquires, saying that I would accept their offers under the following conditions: I wouldn’t have to reveal my true identity, and I would only do business through my OASIS avatar.

  I started receiving replies within the hour, with contracts attached. I couldn’t afford to have a lawyer look them over, but they all expired within a year’s time, so I just went ahead and signed them electronically and e-mailed them back along with a three-dimensional model of my avatar, to be used for the commercials. I also received requests for an audio clip of my avatar’s voice, so I sent them a synthesized clip of a deep baritone that made me sound like one of those guys who did voice-overs for movie trailers.

  Once they received everything, my avatar’s new sponsors informed me that they’d wire my first round of payments to my OASIS account within the next forty-eight hours. The amount of money I was going to receive wouldn’t be enough to make me rich. Not by a long shot. But to a kid who’d grown up with nothing, it seemed like a fortune.

  I did some quick calculations. If I lived frugally, I would have enough to move out of the stacks and rent a small efficiency apartment somewhere. For a year, at least. The very thought filled me with nervous excitement. I’d dreamed of escaping the stacks for as long as I could remember, and now it appeared that dream was about to come true.

  With the endorsement deals taken care of, I continued to sort through my e-mail messages. When I sorted the remaining messages by sender, I discovered that I’d received over five thousand e-mails from Innovative Online Industries. Actually, they’d sent me five thousand copies of the same e-mail. They’d been resending the same message all week, since my name first appeared on the Scoreboard. And they were still resending it, once every minute.

  The Sixers were mail-bombing me, to make sure they got my attention.

  The e-mails were all marked Maximum Priority, with the subject line URGENT BUSINESS PROPOSITION—PLEASE READ IMMEDIATELY!

  The second I opened one, a delivery confirmation was sent back to IOI, letting them know that I was finally reading their message. After that, they stopped resending it.

  Dear Parzival,

  First, allow me to congratulate you on your recent accomplishments, which we at Innovative Online Industries hold in the highest regard.

  On behalf of IOI, I wish to make you a highly lucrative business proposition, the exact details of which we can discuss in a private chatlink session. Please use the attached contact card to reach me at your earliest convenience, regardless of the day or hour.

  Given our reputation within the gunter community, I would understand if you were hesitant to speak with me. However, please be aware that if you choose not to accept our proposal,
we intend to approach each of your competitors. At the very least, we hope you’ll do us the honor of being the first to hear our generous offer. What have you got to lose?

  Thank you for your kind attention. I look forward to speaking with you.

  Sincerely,

  Nolan Sorrento

  Head of Operations

  Innovative Online Industries

  Despite the message’s reasonable tone, the threat behind it was crystal clear. The Sixers wanted to recruit me. Or they wanted to pay me to tell them how to find the Copper Key and clear the First Gate. And if I refused, they would go after Art3mis, then Aech, Daito, Shoto, and every other gunter who managed to get their name up on the Scoreboard. These shameless corporate sleazebags wouldn’t stop until they found someone dumb enough or desperate enough to give in and sell them the information they needed.

  My first impulse was to delete every single copy of the e-mail and pretend I’d never received it, but I changed my mind. I wanted to know exactly what IOI was going to offer. And I couldn’t pass up the chance to meet Nolan Sorrento, the Sixers’ infamous leader. There was no danger meeting with him via chatlink, as long as I was careful about what I said.

  I considered teleporting to Incipio before my “interview,” to buy a new skin for my avatar. Maybe a tailored suit. Something flashy and expensive. But then I thought better of it. I had nothing to prove to that corporate asshat. After all, I was famous now. I would roll into the meeting wearing my default skin and a fuck-off attitude. I would listen to their offer, then tell them to kiss my simulated ass. Maybe I’d record the whole thing and post it on YouTube.

  I prepped for the meeting by pulling up a search engine and learning everything I could about Nolan Sorrento. He had a PhD in Computer Science. Prior to becoming head of operations at IOI, he’d been a high-profile game designer, overseeing the creation of several third-party RPGs that ran inside the OASIS. I’d played all of his games, and they were actually pretty good. He’d been a decent coder, back before he sold his soul. It was obvious why IOI had hired him to lead their lackeys. They figured a game designer would have the best chance of solving Halliday’s grand videogame puzzle. But Sorrento and the Sixers had been at it for over five years and still had nothing to show for their efforts. And now that gunter avatar names were appearing on the Scoreboard left and right, the IOI brass had to be freaking out. Sorrento was probably catching all kinds of heat from his superiors. I wondered if it had been Sorrento’s idea to try to recruit me, or if he’d been ordered to do it.

  Once I’d done my homework on Sorrento, I felt like I was ready to sit down with the devil. I pulled up the contact card attached to Sorrento’s e-mail and tapped the chatlink invitation icon at the bottom.

  As I finished connecting to the chatlink session, my avatar materialized on a grand observation deck with a stunning view of over a dozen OASIS worlds suspended in black space beyond the curved window. I appeared to be on a space station or a very large transport ship; I couldn’t tell which.

  Chatlink sessions worked differently from chat rooms, and they were a lot more expensive to host. When you opened a chatlink, an insubstantial copy of your avatar was projected into another OASIS location. Your avatar wasn’t actually there, and so it appeared to other avatars as a slightly transparent apparition. But you could still interact with the environment in a limited way—walking through doors, sitting in chairs, and so forth. Chatlinks were primarily used for business purposes, when a company wanted to host a meeting in a specific OASIS location without spending the time and money to transport everyone’s avatars to it. This was the first time I’d ever used one.

  I turned around and saw that my avatar was standing in front of a large C-shaped reception desk. The IOI corporate logo—giant, overlapping chrome letters twenty feet tall—floated above it. As I approached the desk, an impossibly beautiful blonde receptionist stood to greet me. “Mr. Parzival,” she said, bowing slightly. “Welcome to Innovative Online Industries! Just a moment. Mr. Sorrento is already on his way to greet you.”

  I wasn’t sure how that could be, since I hadn’t warned them I was coming. While I waited, I tried to activate my avatar’s vidfeed recorder, but IOI had disabled recording in this chatlink session. They obviously didn’t want me to have video evidence of what was about to go down. So much for my plan to post the interview on YouTube.

  Less than a minute later, another avatar appeared, through a set of automatic doors on the opposite side of the observation deck. He headed right for me, boots clicking on the polished floor. It was Sorrento. I recognized him because he wasn’t using a standard-issue Sixer avatar—one of the perks of his position. His avatar’s face matched the photos of him I’d seen online. Blond hair and brown eyes, a hawkish nose. He did wear the standard Sixer uniform—a navy blue bodysuit with gold epaulettes at the shoulders and a silver IOI logo on his right breast, with his employee number printed beneath it: 655321.

  “At last!” he said as he walked up, grinning like a jackal. “The famous Parzival has graced us with his presence!” He extended a gloved right hand. “Nolan Sorrento, chief of operations. It’s an honor to meet you.”

  “Yeah,” I said, doing my best to sound aloof. “Likewise, I guess.” Even as a chatlink projection, my avatar could still mime shaking his outstretched hand. Instead I just stared down at it as if he were offering me a dead rat. He dropped it after a few seconds, but his smile didn’t falter. It broadened.

  “Please follow me.” He led me across the deck and back through the automatic doors, which slid open to reveal a large launching bay. It contained a single interplanetary shuttlecraft emblazoned with the IOI logo. Sorrento began to board it, but I halted at the foot of the ramp.

  “Why bother bringing me here via a chatlink?” I asked, motioning to the bay around us. “Why not just give me your sales pitch in a chat room?”

  “Please, indulge me,” he said. “This chatlink is part of our sales pitch. We want to give you the same experience you’d have if you came to visit our headquarters in person.”

  Right, I thought. If I had come here in person, my avatar would be surrounded by thousands of Sixers and I’d be at your mercy.

  I joined him inside the shuttle. The ramp retracted and we launched out of the bay. Through the ship’s wraparound windows I saw that we were leaving one of the Sixers’ orbital space stations. Looming directly ahead of us was the planet IOI-1, a massive chrome globe. It reminded me of the killer floating spheres in the Phantasm films. Gunters referred to IOI-1 as “the Sixer homeworld.” The company had constructed it shortly after the contest began, to serve as IOI’s online base of operations.

  Our shuttle, which seemed to be flying on automatic pilot, quickly reached the planet and began to skim its mirrored surface. I stared out the window as we did one complete orbit. As far as I knew, no gunter had ever been given this kind of tour.

  From pole to pole, IOI-1 was covered with armories, bunkers, warehouses, and vehicle hangars. I also saw airfields dotting the surface, where rows of gleaming gunships, spacecraft, and mechanized battle tanks stood waiting for action. Sorrento said nothing as we surveyed the Sixer armada. He just let me take it all in.

  I’d seen screenshots of IOI-1’s surface before, but they’d been low-res and taken from high orbit, just beyond the planet’s impressive defense grid. The larger clans had been openly plotting to nuke the Sixer Operations Complex for several years now, but they’d never managed to get past the defense grid or reach the planet’s surface.

  As we completed our orbit, the IOI Operations Complex swung into view ahead of us. It consisted of three mirror-surfaced towers—two rectangular skyscrapers on either side of a circular one. Seen from above, these three buildings formed the IOI logo.

  The shuttle slowed and hovered above the O-shaped tower, then spiraled down to a small landing pad on the roof. “Impressive digs, wouldn’t you agree?” Sorrento said, finally breaking his silence as we touched down and the ramp lowered.


  “Not bad.” I was proud of the calm in my voice. In truth, I was still reeling from everything I’d just seen. “This is an OASIS replica of the real IOI towers located in downtown Columbus, right?” I said.

  Sorrento nodded. “Yes, the Columbus complex is our company headquarters. Most of my team works in this central tower. Our close proximity to GSS eliminates any possibility of system lag. And, of course, Columbus doesn’t suffer from the rolling power blackouts that plague most major U.S. cities.”

  He was stating the obvious. Gregarious Simulation Systems was located in Columbus, and so was their main OASIS server vault. Redundant mirror servers were located all over the world, but they were all linked to the main node in Columbus. This was why, in the decades since the simulation’s launch, the city had become a kind of high-tech Mecca. Columbus was where an OASIS user could get the fastest, most reliable connection to the simulation. Most gunters dreamed of moving there someday, me included.

  I followed Sorrento off the shuttle and into an elevator adjacent to the landing pad. “You’ve become quite the celebrity these past few days,” he said as we began to descend. “It must be very exciting for you. Probably a little scary, too, huh? Knowing you now possess information that millions of people would be willing to kill for?”

  I’d been waiting for him to say something like this, so I had a reply prepared. “Do you mind skipping the scare tactics and the head games? Just tell me the details of your offer. I have other matters to attend to.”

  He grinned at me like I was a precocious child. “Yes, I’m sure you do,” he said. “But please don’t jump to any conclusions about our offer. I think you’ll be quite surprised.” Then, with a sudden touch of steel in his tone, he added, “In fact, I’m certain of it.”

  Doing my best to hide the intimidation I felt, I rolled my eyes and said, “Whatever, man.”

  A tone sounded as we reached the 106th floor, and the elevator doors swished open. I followed Sorrento past another receptionist and down a long, brightly lit corridor. The decor was something out of a utopian sci-fi flick. High-tech and immaculate. We passed several other Sixer avatars as we walked, and the moment they saw Sorrento, they each snapped to rigid attention and saluted him, as if he were some high-ranking general. Sorrento didn’t return these salutes or acknowledge his underlings in any way.

  Eventually, he led me into a huge open room that appeared to occupy most of the 106th floor. It contained a vast sea of high-walled cubicles, each containing a single person strapped into a high-end immersion rig.

  “Welcome to IOI’s Oology Division,” Sorrento said with obvious pride.

  “So, this is Sux0rz Central, eh?” I said, glancing around.

  “There’s no need to be rude,” Sorrento said. “This could be your team.”

  “Would I get my very own cubicle?”

  “No. You’d have your own office, with a very nice view.” He grinned. “Not that you’d spend much time looking at it.”

  I motioned to one of the new Habashaw immersion rigs. “Nice gear,” I said. It really was, too. State-of-the-art.

  “Yes, it is nice, isn’t it?” he said. “Our immersion rigs are heavily modified, and they’re all networked together. Our systems allow multiple operators to control any one of our oologist’s avatars. So depending on the obstacles an avatar encounters during their quest, control can be instantly transferred to the team member with the skills best suited to deal with the situation.”

  “Yeah, but that’s cheating,” I said.

  “Oh, come on now,” he said, rolling his eyes. “There’s no such thing. Halliday’s contest doesn’t have any rules. That’s one of the many colossal mistakes the old fool made.” Before I could reply, Sorrento started walking again, leading me on through the maze of cubicles. “All of our oologists are voice-linked to a support team,” he continued. “Composed of Halliday scholars, videogame experts, pop-culture historians, and cryptologists. They all work together to help each of our avatars overcome any challenge and solve every puzzle they encounter.” He turned and grinned at me. “As you can see, we’ve covered all the bases, Parzival. That’s why we’re going to win.”

  “Yeah,” I said. “You guys have been doing a bang-up job so far. Bravo. Now, why is it that we’re talking again? Oh, right. You guys have no clue where the Copper Key is, and you need my help to find it.”

  Sorrento narrowed his eyes; then he began to laugh. “I like you, kid,” he said, grinning at me. “You’re bright. And you’ve got cojones. Two qualities I greatly admire.”

  We continued walking. A few minutes later, we arrived in Sorrento’s enormous office. Its windows afforded a stunning view of the surrounding “city.” The sky was filled with aircars and spacecraft, and the planet’s simulated sun was just beginning to set. Sorrento sat down behind his desk and offered me the chair directly across from him.

  Here we go, I thought as I sat down. Play it cool, Wade.

  “So I’ll just cut to the chase,” he said. “IOI wants to recruit you. As a consultant, to assist with our search for Halliday’s Easter egg. You’ll have all of our company’s vast resources at your disposal. Money, weapons, magic items, ships, artifacts. You name it.”

  “What would my title be?”

  “Chief oologist,” he replied. “You’d be in charge of the entire division, second-in-command only to me. I’m talking about five thousand highly trained combat-ready avatars, all taking orders directly from you.”

  “Sounds pretty sweet,” I said, trying hard to sound nonchalant.

  “Of course it does. But there’s more. In exchange for your services, we’re willing to pay you two million dollars a year, with a one-million-dollar signing bonus up front. And if and when you help us find the egg, you’ll get a twenty-five-million-dollar bonus.”

  I pretended to add all of those numbers up on my fingers. “Wow,” I said, trying to sound impressed. “Can I work from home, too?”

  Sorrento couldn’t seem to tell whether or not I was joking. “No,” he said. “I’m afraid not. You’d have to relocate here to Columbus. But we’ll provide you with excellent living quarters here on the premises. And a private office, of course. Your own state-of-the-art immersion rig—”

  “Hold on,” I said, holding up a hand. “You mean I’d have to live in the IOI skyscraper? With you? And all of the other Sux— oologists?”

 
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