Ready player one, p.4
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       Ready Player One, p.4
 

           Ernest Cline

  ruling.

  When I’d first enrolled in the OASIS public school system, I was required to give them my real name, avatar name, mailing address, and Social Security number. That information was stored in my student profile, but only my principal had access to that. None of my teachers or fellow students knew who I really was, and vice versa.

  Students weren’t allowed to use their avatar names while they were at school. This was to prevent teachers from having to say ridiculous things like “Pimp_Grease, please pay attention!” or “BigWang69, would you stand up and give us your book report?” Instead, students were required to use their real first names, followed by a number, to differentiate them from other students with the same name. When I enrolled, there were already two other students at my school with the first name Wade, so I’d been assigned the student ID of Wade3. That name floated above my avatar’s head whenever I was on school grounds.

  The school bell rang and a warning flashed in the corner of my display, informing me that I had forty minutes until the start of first period. I began to walk my avatar down the hall, using a series of subtle hand motions to control its movements and actions. I could also use voice commands to move around, if my hands were otherwise occupied.

  I strolled in the direction of my World History classroom, smiling and waving to the familiar faces I passed. I was going to miss this place when I graduated in a few months. I wasn’t looking forward to leaving school. I didn’t have the money to attend college, not even one in the OASIS, and my grades weren’t good enough for a scholarship. My only plan after graduation was to become a full-time gunter. I didn’t have much choice. Winning the contest was my one chance of escaping the stacks. Unless I wanted to sign a five-year indenturement contract with some corporation, and that was about as appealing to me as rolling around in broken glass in my birthday suit.

  As I continued down the hallway, other students began to materialize in front of their lockers, ghostly apparitions that rapidly solidified. The sound of chattering teenagers began to echo up and down the corridor. Before long, I heard an insult hurled in my direction.

  “Hey, hey! If it isn’t Wade Three!” I heard a voice shout. I turned and saw Todd13, an obnoxious avatar I recognized from my Algebra II class. He was standing with several of his friends. “Great outfit, slick,” he said. “Where did you snag the sweet threads?”

  My avatar was wearing a black T-shirt and blue jeans, one of the free default skins you could select when you created your account. Like his Cro-Magnon friends, Todd13 wore an expensive designer skin, probably purchased in some offworld mall.

  “Your mom bought them for me,” I retorted without breaking my stride. “Tell her I said thanks, the next time you stop at home to breast-feed and pick up your allowance.” Childish, I know. But virtual or not, this was still high school—the more childish an insult, the more effective it was.

  My jab elicited laughter from a few of his friends and the other students standing nearby. Todd13 scowled and his face actually turned red—a sign that he hadn’t bothered to turn off his account’s real-time emotion feature, which made your avatar mirror your facial expressions and body language. He was about to reply, but I muted him first, so I didn’t hear what he said. I just smiled and continued on my way.

  The ability to mute my peers was one of my favorite things about attending school online, and I took advantage of it almost daily. The best thing about it was that they could see that you’d muted them, and they couldn’t do a damn thing about it. There was never any fighting on school grounds. The simulation simply didn’t allow it. The entire planet of Ludus was a no-PvP zone, meaning that no player-versus-player combat was permitted. At this school, the only real weapons were words, so I’d become skilled at wielding them.

  I’d attended school in the real world up until the sixth grade. It hadn’t been a very pleasant experience. I was a painfully shy, awkward kid, with low self-esteem and almost no social skills—a side effect of spending most of my childhood inside the OASIS. Online, I didn’t have a problem talking to people or making friends. But in the real world, interacting with other people—especially kids my own age—made me a nervous wreck. I never knew how to act or what to say, and when I did work up the courage to speak, I always seemed to say the wrong thing.

  My appearance was part of the problem. I was overweight, and had been for as long as I could remember. My bankrupt diet of government-subsidized sugar-and-starch-laden food was a contributing factor, but I was also an OASIS addict, so the only exercise I usually got back then was running away from bullies before and after school. To make matters worse, my limited wardrobe consisted entirely of ill-fitting clothes from thrift stores and donation bins—the social equivalent of having a bull’s-eye painted on my forehead.

  Even so, I tried my best to fit in. Year after year, my eyes would scan the lunchroom like a T-1000, searching for a clique that might accept me. But even the other outcasts wanted nothing to do with me. I was too weird, even for the weirdos. And girls? Talking to girls was out of the question. To me, they were like some exotic alien species, both beautiful and terrifying. Whenever I got near one of them, I invariably broke out in a cold sweat and lost the ability to speak in complete sentences.

  For me, school had been a Darwinian exercise. A daily gauntlet of ridicule, abuse, and isolation. By the time I entered sixth grade, I was beginning to wonder if I’d be able to maintain my sanity until graduation, still six long years away.

  Then, one glorious day, our principal announced that any student with a passing grade-point average could apply for a transfer to the new OASIS public school system. The real public school system, the one run by the government, had been an underfunded, overcrowded train wreck for decades. And now the conditions at many schools had gotten so terrible that every kid with half a brain was being encouraged to stay at home and attend school online. I nearly broke my neck sprinting to the school office to submit my application. It was accepted, and I transferred to OASIS Public School #1873 the following semester.

  Prior to my transfer, my OASIS avatar had never left Incipio, the planet at the center of Sector One where new avatars were spawned at the time of their creation. There wasn’t much to do on Incipio except chat with other noobs or shop in one of the giant virtual malls that covered the planet. If you wanted to go somewhere more interesting, you had to pay a teleportation fare to get there, and that cost money, something I didn’t have. So my avatar was stranded on Incipio. That is, until my new school e-mailed me a teleportation voucher to cover the cost of my avatar’s transport to Ludus, the planet where all of the OASIS public schools were located.

  There were hundreds of school campuses here on Ludus, spread out evenly across the planet’s surface. The schools were all identical, because the same construction code was copied and pasted into a different location whenever a new school was needed. And since the buildings were just pieces of software, their design wasn’t limited by monetary constraints, or even by the laws of physics. So every school was a grand palace of learning, with polished marble hallways, cathedral-like classrooms, zero-g gymnasiums, and virtual libraries containing every (school board–approved) book ever written.

  On my first day at OPS #1873, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. Now, instead of running a gauntlet of bullies and drug addicts on my walk to school each morning, I went straight to my hideout and stayed there all day. Best of all, in the OASIS, no one could tell that I was fat, that I had acne, or that I wore the same shabby clothes every week. Bullies couldn’t pelt me with spitballs, give me atomic wedgies, or pummel me by the bike rack after school. No one could even touch me. In here, I was safe.

  When I arrived in my World History classroom, several students were already seated at their desks. Their avatars all sat motionless, with their eyes closed. This was a signal that they were “engaged,” meaning they were currently on phone calls, browsing the Web, or logged into chat rooms. It was poor OASIS etiquette to try to talk to an engaged
avatar. They usually just ignored you, and you’d get an automated message telling you to piss off.

  I took a seat at my desk and tapped the Engage icon at the edge of my display. My own avatar’s eyes slid shut, but I could still see my surroundings. I tapped another icon, and a large two-dimensional Web browser window appeared, suspended in space directly in front of me. Windows like this one were visible to only my avatar, so no one could read over my shoulder (unless I selected the option to allow it).

  My homepage was set to the Hatchery, one of the more popular gunter message forums. The Hatchery’s site interface was designed to look and operate like an old pre-Internet dial-up bulletin board system, complete with the screech of a 300-baud modem during the log-in sequence. Very cool. I spent a few minutes scanning the most recent message threads, taking in the latest gunter news and rumors. I rarely posted anything to the boards, even though I made sure to check them every day. I didn’t see much of interest this morning. The usual gunter clan flame wars. Ongoing arguments about the “correct” interpretation of some cryptic passage in Anorak’s Almanac. High-level avatars bragging about some new magic item or artifact they’d obtained. This crap had been going on for years now. In the absence of any real progress, gunter subculture had become mired in bravado, bullshit, and pointless infighting. It was sad, really.

  My favorite message threads were those devoted to bashing the Sixers. “Sixers” was the derogatory nickname gunters had given to employees of Innovative Online Industries. IOI (pronounced eye-oh-eye) was a global communications conglomerate and the world’s largest Internet service provider. A large portion of IOI’s business centered around providing access to the OASIS and on selling goods and services inside it. For this reason, IOI had attempted several hostile takeovers of Gregarious Simulation Systems, all of which had failed. Now they were trying to seize control of GSS by exploiting a loophole in Halliday’s will.

  IOI had created a new department within the company that they called their “Oology Division.” (“Oology” was originally defined as “the science of studying birds’ eggs,” but in recent years it had taken on a second meaning: the “science” of searching for Halliday’s Easter egg.) IOI’s Oology Division had but one purpose: to win Halliday’s contest and seize control of his fortune, his company, and the OASIS itself.

  Like most gunters, I was horrified at the thought of IOI taking control of the OASIS. The company’s PR machine had made its intentions crystal clear. IOI believed that Halliday never properly monetized his creation, and they wanted to remedy that. They would start charging a monthly fee for access to the simulation. They would plaster advertisements on every visible surface. User anonymity and free speech would become things of the past. The moment IOI took it over, the OASIS would cease to be the open-source virtual utopia I’d grown up in. It would become a corporate-run dystopia, an overpriced theme park for wealthy elitists.

  IOI required its egg hunters, which it referred to as “oologists,” to use their employee numbers as their OASIS avatar names. These numbers were all six digits in length, and they also began with the numeral “6,” so everyone began calling them the Sixers. These days, most gunters referred to them as “the Sux0rz.” (Because they sucked.)

  To become a Sixer, you had to sign a contract stipulating, among other things, that if you found Halliday’s egg, the prize would become the sole property of your employer. In return, IOI gave you a bimonthly paycheck, food, lodging, health-care benefits, and a retirement plan. The company also provided your avatar with high-end armor, vehicles, and weapons, and covered all of your teleportation fares. Joining the Sixers was a lot like joining the military.

  Sixers weren’t hard to spot, because they all looked identical. They were all required to use the same hulking male avatar (regardless of the operator’s true gender), with close-cropped dark hair and facial features left at the system default settings. And they all wore the same navy blue uniform. The only way to tell these corporate drones apart was by checking the six-digit employee number stamped on their right breast, just beneath the IOI corporate logo.

  Like most gunters, I loathed the Sixers and was disgusted by their very existence. By hiring an army of contract egg hunters, IOI was perverting the entire spirit of the contest. Of course, it could be argued that all the gunters who had joined clans were doing the same thing. There were now hundreds of gunter clans, some with thousands of members, all working together to find the egg. Each clan was bound by an ironclad legal agreement stating that if one clan member won the contest, all members would share the prize. Solos like me didn’t care much for the clans, either, but we still respected them as fellow gunters—unlike the Sixers, whose goal was to hand the OASIS over to an evil multinational conglomerate intent on ruining it.

  My generation had never known a world without the OASIS. To us, it was much more than a game or an entertainment platform. It had been an integral part of our lives for as far back as we could remember. We’d been born into an ugly world, and the OASIS was our one happy refuge. The thought of the simulation being privatized and homogenized by IOI horrified us in a way that those born before its introduction found difficult to understand. For us, it was like someone threatening to take away the sun, or charge a fee to look up at the sky.

  The Sixers gave gunters a common enemy, and Sixer bashing was a favorite pastime in our forums and chat rooms. A lot of high-level gunters had a strict policy of killing (or trying to kill) every Sixer who crossed their path. Several websites were devoted to tracking Sixer activities and movements, and some gunters spent more time hunting the Sixers than they did searching for the egg. The bigger clans actually held a yearly competition called “Eighty-Six the Sux0rz,” with a prize for the clan who managed to kill the largest number of them.

  After checking a few other gunter forums, I tapped a bookmark icon for one of my favorite websites, Arty’s Missives, the blog of a female gunter named Art3mis (pronounced “Artemis”). I’d discovered it about three years ago and had been a loyal reader ever since. She posted these great rambling essays about her search for Halliday’s egg, which she called a “maddening MacGuffin hunt.” She wrote with an endearing, intelligent voice, and her entries were filled with self-deprecating humor and witty, sardonic asides. In addition to posting her (often hysterical) interpretations of passages in the Almanac, she also linked to the books, movies, TV shows, and music she was currently studying as part of her Halliday research. I assumed that all of these posts were filled with misdirection and misinformation, but they were still highly entertaining.

  It probably goes without saying that I had a massive cyber-crush on Art3mis.

  She occasionally posted screenshots of her raven-haired avatar, and I sometimes (always) saved them to a folder on my hard drive. Her avatar had a pretty face, but it wasn’t unnaturally perfect. In the OASIS, you got used to seeing freakishly beautiful faces on everyone. But Art3mis’s features didn’t look as though they’d been selected from a beauty drop-down menu on some avatar creation template. Her face had the distinctive look of a real person’s, as if her true features had been scanned in and mapped onto her avatar. Big hazel eyes, rounded cheekbones, a pointy chin, and a perpetual smirk. I found her unbearably attractive.

  Art3mis’s body was also somewhat unusual. In the OASIS, you usually saw one of two body shapes on female avatars: the absurdly thin yet wildly popular supermodel frame, or the top-heavy, wasp-waisted porn starlet physique (which looked even less natural in the OASIS than it did in the real world). But Art3mis’s frame was short and Rubenesque. All curves.

  I knew the crush I had on Art3mis was both silly and ill-advised. What did I really know about her? She’d never revealed her true identity, of course. Or her age or location in the real world. There was no telling what she really looked like. She could be fifteen or fifty. A lot of gunters even questioned whether she was really female, but I wasn’t one of them. Probably because I couldn’t bear the idea that the girl with whom I was virtually smitt
en might actually be some middle-aged dude named Chuck, with back hair and male-pattern baldness.

  In the years since I’d first started reading Arty’s Missives, it had become one of the most popular blogs on the Internet, now logging several million hits a day. And Art3mis was now something of a celebrity, at least in gunter circles. But fame hadn’t gone to her head. Her writing was still as funny and self-deprecating as ever. Her newest blog post was titled “The John Hughes Blues,” and it was an in-depth treatise on her six favorite John Hughes teen movies, which she divided into two separate trilogies: The “Dorky Girl Fantasies” trilogy (Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, and Some Kind of Wonderful) and the “Dorky Boy Fantasies” trilogy (The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off).

  Just as I’d finished reading it, an instant message window popped up on my display. It was my best friend, Aech. (OK, if you want to split hairs, he was my only friend, not counting Mrs. Gilmore.)

  Aech: Top o’ the morning, amigo.

  Parzival: Hola, compadre.

  Aech: What are you up to?

  Parzival: Just surfing the turf. You?

  Aech: Got the Basement online. Come and hang out before school, fool.

  Parzival: Sweet! I’ll be there in a sec.

  I closed the IM window and checked the time. I still had about half an hour until class started. I grinned and tapped a small door icon at the edge of my display, then selected Aech’s chat room from my list of favorites.

  The system verified that I was on the chat room’s access list and allowed me to enter. My view of the classroom shrank from the limits of my peripheral vision to a small thumbnail window in the lower right of my display, allowing me to monitor what was in front of my avatar. The rest of my field of vision was now filled with the interior of Aech’s chat room. My avatar appeared just inside the “entrance,” a door at the top of a carpeted staircase. The door didn’t lead anywhere. It didn’t even open. This was because the Basement and its contents didn’t exist as a part of the OASIS. Chat rooms were stand-alone simulations—temporary virtual spaces that avatars could access from anywhere in OASIS. My avatar wasn’t actually “in” the chat room. It only appeared that way. Wade3/Parzival was still sitting in my World History classroom with his eyes closed. Logging into a chat room was a little like being in two places at once.

  Aech had named his chat room the Basement. He’d programmed it to look like a large suburban rec room, circa the late 1980s. Old movie and comic book posters covered the wood-paneled walls. A vintage RCA television stood in the center of the room, hooked up to a Betamax VCR, a LaserDisc player, and several vintage videogame consoles. Bookshelves lined the far wall, filled with role-playing game supplements and back issues of Dragon magazine.

  Hosting a chat room this large wasn’t cheap, but Aech could afford it. He made quite a bit of dough competing in televised PvP arena games after school and on the weekends. Aech was one of the highest-ranked combatants in the OASIS, in both the Deathmatch and Capture the Flag leagues. He was even more famous than Art3mis.

  Over the past few years, the Basement had become a highly exclusive hangout for elite gunters. Aech granted access only to people he deemed worthy, so being invited to hang out in the Basement was a big honor, especially for a third-level nobody like me.

  As I descended the staircase, I saw a few dozen other gunters milling around, with avatars that varied wildly in appearance. There were humans, cyborgs, demons, dark elves, Vulcans, and vampires. Most of them were gathered around the row of old arcade games against the wall. A few others stood by the ancient stereo (currently blasting “The Wild Boys” by Duran Duran), browsing through Aech’s giant rack of vintage cassette tapes.

  Aech himself was sprawled on one of the chat room’s three couches, which were arrayed in a U-shape in front of the TV. Aech’s avatar was a tall, broad-shouldered Caucasian male with dark hair and brown eyes. I’d asked him once if he looked anything like his avatar in real life, and he’d jokingly replied, “Yes. But in real life, I’m even more handsome.”

  As I walked over, he glanced up from the Intellivision game he was playing. His distinctive Cheshire grin stretched from ear to ear. “Z!” he shouted. “What is up, amigo?” He stretched out his right hand and gave me five as I dropped onto the couch opposite him. Aech had started calling me “Z” shortly after I met him. He liked to give people single-letter nicknames. Aech pronounced his own avatar’s name just like the letter “H.”

  “What up, Humperdinck?” I said. This was a game we played. I always called him by some random H name, like Harry, Hubert, Henry, or Hogan. I was making guesses at his real first name, which, he’d once confided to me, began with the letter “H.”

  I’d known Aech for a little over three years. He was also a student on Ludus, a senior at OPS #1172, which was on the opposite side of the planet from my school. We’d met one weekend in a public gunter chat room and hit it off immediately, because we shared all of the same interests. Which is to say one interest: a total, all-consuming obsession with Halliday and his Easter egg. A few minutes into our first conversation, I knew Aech was the real deal, an elite gunter with some serious mental kung fu. He had his ’80s trivia down cold, and not just the canon stuff, either. He was a true Halliday scholar. And he’d apparently seen the same qualities in me, because he’d given me his contact card and invited me to hang out in the Basement whenever I liked. He’d been my closest friend ever since.

  Over the years, a friendly rivalry had gradually developed between us. We did a lot of trash-talking about which one of us would get his name up on the Scoreboard first. We were constantly trying to out-geek each other with our knowledge of obscure gunter trivia. Sometimes we even conducted our research together. This usually consisted of watching cheesy ’80s movies and TV shows here in his chat room. We also played a lot of videogames, of course. Aech and I had wasted countless hours on two-player classics like Contra, Golden Axe, Heavy Barrel, Smash TV, and Ikari Warriors. Aside from yours truly, Aech was the best all-around gamer I’d ever encountered. We were evenly matched at most games, but he could trounce me at certain titles, especially anything in the first-person shooter genre. That was his area of expertise, after all.

  I didn’t know anything about who Aech was in the real world, but I got the sense his home life wasn’t that great. Like me, he seemed to spend every waking moment logged into the OASIS. And even though we’d never actually met in person, he’d told me more than once that I was his best friend, so I assumed he was just as isolated and lonely as I was.

  “So what did you do after you bailed last night?” he asked, tossing me the other Intellivision controller. We’d hung out here in his chat room for a few hours the previous evening, watching old Japanese monster movies.

  “Nada,” I said. “Went home and brushed up on a few classic coin-ops.”

  “Unnecessary.”

  “Yeah. But I was in the mood.” I didn’t ask him what he’d done the night before, and he didn’t volunteer any details. I knew he’d probably gone to Gygax, or somewhere equally awesome, to speedrun through a few quests and rack up some XPs. He just didn’t want to rub it in. Aech could afford to spend a fair amount of time off-world, following up leads and searching for the Copper Key. But he never lorded this over me, or ridiculed me for not having enough dough to teleport anywhere. And he never insulted me by offering to loan me a few credits. It was an unspoken rule among gunters: If you were a solo, you didn’t want or need help, from anyone. Gunters who wanted help joined a clan, and Aech and I both agreed that clans were for suck-asses and poseurs. We’d both vowed to remain solos for life. We still occasionally had discussions about the egg, but these conversations were always guarded, and we were careful to avoid talking about specifics.

  After I beat Aech at three rounds of Tron: Deadly Discs, he threw down his Intellivision controller in disgust and grabbed a magazine off the floor. It was an old issue of Starlog. I recognized Rutger Hauer on the cover, in a L
adyhawke promotional photo.

  “Starlog, eh?” I said, nodding my approval.

  “Yep. Downloaded every single issue from the Hatchery’s archive. Still working my way through ’em. I was just reading this great piece on Ewoks: The Battle for Endor.”

  “Made for TV. Released in 1985,” I recited. Star Wars trivia was one of my specialties. “Total garbage. A real low point in the history of the Wars.”

  “Says you, assface. It has some great moments.”

  “No,” I said, shaking my head. “It doesn’t. It’s even worse than that first Ewok flick, Caravan of Courage. They shoulda called it Caravan of Suck.”

  Aech rolled his eyes and went back to reading. He wasn’t going to take the bait. I eyed the magazine’s cover. “Hey, can I have a look at that when you’re done?”

  He grinned. “Why? So you can read the article on Ladyhawke?”

 
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