Ready Player One - Ernest Cline - Flip eBook Pages 151-200 (2024)

Like other gunters around the globe, I’d been dreading the next change on the Scoreboard, because I knew it was going to give the Sixers an unfair advantage. A few months after we’d all cleared the First Gate, an anonymous avatar had placed an ultrapowerful artifact up for auction. It was called Fyndoro’s Tablet of Finding, and it had unique powers that could give its owner a huge advantage in the hunt for Halliday’s Easter egg. Most of the virtual items in the OASIS were created by the system at random, and they would “drop” when you killed an NPC or completed a quest. The rarest such items were artifacts, superpowerful magic items that gave their owners incredible abilities. Only a few hundred of these artifacts existed, and most of them dated back to the earliest days of the OASIS, when it was still primarily an MMO game. Every artifact was unique, meaning that only one copy of it existed in the entire simulation. Usually, the way to obtain an artifact was to defeat some godlike villain at the end of a high-level quest. If you got lucky, the bad guy would drop an artifact when you killed him. You could also obtain an artifact by killing an avatar who had one in its inventory, or by purchasing one in an online auction. Since artifacts were so rare, it was always big news when one went up for auction. Some had been known to sell for hundreds of thousands of credits, depending on their powers. The record had been set three years ago when an artifact called the Cataclyst was auctioned off. According to its auction listing, the Cataclyst was a sort of magical bomb, and it could be used only once. When it was detonated, it would kill every single avatar and NPC in the sector, including its owner. There was no defense against it. If you were unlucky enough to be in the same sector when it went off, you were a goner, regardless of how powerful or well protected you were. The Cataclyst had sold to an anonymous bidder for just over a million credits. The artifact still hadn’t been detonated, so its new owner still had it sitting around somewhere, waiting for the right time to use it. It was something of a running joke now. When a gunter was surrounded by avatars she didn’t like, she would claim to have the Cataclyst in her inventory and threaten to detonate it. But most people suspected that the item had actually fallen into the Sixers’ hands, along with countless other powerful artifacts. Fyndoro’s Tablet of Finding wound up selling for even more than the Cataclyst. According to the auction description, the tablet was a flat circle of polished black stone, and it had one very simple power. Once a day, its owner could write any avatar’s name on its surface, and the tablet would display that avatar’s location at that exact moment. However, this power had range limitations. If you were in a different OASIS sector than the avatar you were trying to find, the tablet would tell you only which sector your target was currently in. If you were already in the same sector, the tablet

would tell you what planet your target was currently on (or closest to, if they were out in space). If you were already on the same planet as your target when you used the tablet, it would show you their exact coordinates on a map. As the artifact’s seller made sure to point out in his auction listing, if you used the tablet’s power in conjunction with the Scoreboard, it arguably became the most valuable artifact in the entire OASIS. All you had to do was watch the top rankings on the Scoreboard and wait until someone’s score increased. The second that happened, you could write that avatar’s name on the tablet and it would tell you where they were at that exact moment, thus revealing the location of the key they’d just found, or the gate they’d just exited. Due to the artifact’s range limitations, it might take two or three attempts to narrow down the exact location of a key or a gate, but even so, that was still information a lot of people would be willing to kill for. When Fyndoro’s Tablet of Finding went up for auction, a huge bidding war broke out between several of the large gunter clans. But when the auction finally ended, the tablet wound up selling to the Sixers for almost two million credits. Sorrento himself used his own IOI account to bid on the tablet. He waited until the last few seconds of the auction and then outbid everyone. He could have bid anonymously, but he obviously wanted the world to know who now possessed the artifact. It was also his way of letting those of us in the High Five know that from that moment forward, whenever one of us found a key or cleared a gate, the Sixers would be tracking us. And there was nothing we could do about it. At first, I was worried the Sixers would also try to use the tablet to hunt down each of our avatars and kill us one at a time. But locating our avatars wouldn’t do them any good unless we happened to be in a PvP zone at the time and were stupid enough to stay put until the Sixers could reach us. And since the tablet could be used only once a day, they would also run the risk of missing their window of opportunity if the Scoreboard changed on the same day they tried to use the tablet to locate one of us. They didn’t take the chance. They kept the artifact in reserve and waited for their moment. Less than a half hour after Art3mis’s score increase, the entire Sixer fleet was spotted converging on Sector Seven. The moment the Scoreboard changed, the Sixers had obviously used Fyndoro’s Tablet of Finding to try to ascertain Art3mis’s exact location. Luckily, the Sixer avatar using the tablet (probably Sorrento himself) happened to be in a different sector from Art3mis, so the tablet didn’t reveal what planet she was on. It only told the Sixers which sector she was currently in. And so the entire Sixer fleet had immediately hightailed it to Sector Seven. Thanks to their complete lack of subtlety, the whole world now knew the Jade Key must be hidden somewhere in that sector. Naturally, thousands of gunters began to converge on it too. The Sixers had narrowed the search area for everyone. Luckily, Sector Seven contained hundreds of planets, moons, and other worlds, and the Jade Key could have been hidden on any one of them. I spent the rest of the day in shock, reeling at the news that I’d been dethroned. That was exactly how the newsfeed headlines put it: PARZIVAL DETHRONED! ART3MIS NEW #1 GUNTER! SIXERS CLOSING IN! Once I finally got a grip, I pulled up the Scoreboard and made myself stare at it for thirty solid minutes while I mentally berated myself.

HIGH SCORES: 1. Art3mis 129,000 2. Parzival 110,000 3. Aech 108,000 4. Daito 107,000 5. Shoto 106,000 6. IOI-655321 105,000 7. IOI-643187 105,000 8. IOI-621671 105,000 9. IOI-678324 105,000 10. IOI-637330 105,000 You’ve got no one but yourself to blame, I told myself. You let success go to your head. You slacked off on your research. What, did you think lightning would strike twice? That eventually you’d just stumble across the clue you needed to find the Jade Key? Sitting in first place all that time gave you a false sense ofsecurity. But you don’t have that problem now, do you, asshead? No, because instead of buckling down and focusing on your quest like you should have, you pissed away your lead. You wasted almost half a year screwing around and pining over some girl you’ve never even met in person. The girl who dumped you. The same girl who is going to end up beating you. Now … get your head back in the game, moron. Find that key. Suddenly, I wanted to win the contest more than ever. Not just for the money. I wanted to prove myself to Art3mis. And I wanted the Hunt to be over, so that she would talk to me again. So that I could finally meet her in person, see her true face, and try to make sense of how I felt about her. I cleared the Scoreboard off my display and opened up my grail diary, which had now grown into a vast mountain of data containing every scrap of information I’d collected since the contest began. It appeared as a jumble of cascading windows floating in front of me, displaying text, maps, photos, and audio and video files, all indexed, cross-referenced, and pulsing with life. I kept the Quatrain open in a window that was always on top. Four lines of text. Twenty-four words. Thirty-four syllables. I’d stared at them so often and for so long that they’d nearly lost all meaning. Looking at them again now, I had to resist the urge to scream in rage and frustration. The captain conceals the Jade Key in a dwelling long neglected But you can only blow the whistle once the trophies are all collected I knew the answer was right there in front of me. Art3mis had already figured it out. I read over my notes about John Draper, aka Captain Crunch, and the toy plastic whistle that had made him famous in the annals of hacker lore. I still believed that

these were the “captain” and “whistle” Halliday was referring to. But the rest of the Quatrain’s meaning remained a mystery. But now I possessed a new piece of information—the key wassomewhere in Sector Seven. So I pulled up my OASIS atlas and began to search for planets with names I thought might somehow be related to the Quatrain. I found a few worlds named after famous hackers, like Woz and Mitnick, but none named after John Draper. Sector Seven also contained hundreds of worlds named after old Usenet newsgroups, and on one of these, the planet alt.phreaking, there was a statue of Draper posing with an ancient rotary phone in one hand and a Cap’n Crunch whistle in the other. But the statue had been erected three years after Halliday’s death, so I knew it was a dead end. I read through the Quatrain yet again, and this time the last two lines jumped out at me: But you can only blow the whistle once the trophies are all collected Trophies. Somewhere in Sector Seven. I needed to find a collection of trophies in Sector Seven. I did a quick search of my files on Halliday. From what I could tell, the only trophies he’d ever owned were the five Game Designer of the Year awards he’d won back around the turn of the century. These trophies were still on display in the GSS Museum in Columbus, but there were replicas of them on display inside the OASIS, on a planet called Archaide. And Archaide was located in Sector Seven. The connection seemed thin, but I still wanted to check it out. At the very least, it would make me feel like I was doing something productive for the next few hours. I glanced over at Max, who was currently doing the samba on one of my command center’s monitors. “Max, prep the Vonnegut for takeoff. If you’re not too busy.” Max stopped dancing and smirked at me. “You got it, El Comanchero!” I got up and walked over to my stronghold’s elevator, which I’d modeled after the turbolift on the original Star Trek series. I rode down four levels to my armory, a massive vault filled with storage shelves, display cases, and weapon racks. I pulled up my avatar’s inventory display, which appeared as a classic “paper doll” diagram of my avatar, onto which I could drag and drop various items and pieces of equipment. Archaide was located in a PvP zone, so I decided to upgrade my gear and wear my Sunday best. I put on my gleaming +10 Hale Mail powered armor, then strapped on my favorite set of blaster pistols and slung a pump-action pistol-grip shotgun across my back, along with a +5 Vorpal Bastard Sword. I also grabbed a few other essential items. An extra pair of antigrav boots. A Ring of Magic Resistance. An Amulet of Protection. Some Gauntlets of Giant Strength. I hated the idea of needing something and not having it with me, so I usually ended up carrying enough equipment for three gunters. When I ran out of room on my avatar’s body, I stored the additional gear in my Backpack of Holding. Once I was properly outfitted, I hopped back on the elevator, and a few secondslater I arrived at the entrance of my hangar, located on the bottom level of my stronghold. Pulsing blue lightslined 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 worldsin Sector Eleven known as the Whedonverse. The Oviraptors were co*cky 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 co*ckpit, 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 co*ckpit 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. Asthe Vonnegut made the jump to lightspeed, 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 circ*mstances, I was willing to splurge a little. “Let’s take the stargate, Max. We’re in kind of a hurry.”

The Vonnegut dropped out of lightspeed, and Archaide suddenly filled the co*ckpit 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 twentyfirst 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. The museum’s bottom level, located in the planet core, was a spherical room containing a shrine to the very first videogame, Tennis for Two, invented by William Higinbotham in 1958. The game ran on an ancient analog computer and was played on a tiny oscilloscope screen about five inches in diameter. Next to it was a replica of an ancient PDP-1 computer running a copy of Spacewar!, the second videogame ever made, created by a bunch of students at MIT in 1962. Like most gunters, I’d already visited Archaide a few times. I’d been to the core and had played both Tennis for Two and Spacewar! until I’d mastered them. Then

I’d wandered around the museums’ many levels, playing games and looking for clues Halliday might have left behind. But I’d never found anything. I kept running, farther and farther down, until I reached the Gregarious Simulation Systems Museum, which was located just a few levels above the planet core. I’d been here once before too, so I knew my way around. There were exhibits devoted to all of GSS’s most popular games, including several arcade ports of titles they’d originally released for home computers and consoles. It didn’t take me long to find the exhibit where Halliday’s five Game Designer of the Year trophies were displayed, next to a bronze statue of the man himself. Within a few minutes, I knew I was wasting my time here. The GSS Museum exhibit was coded so that it was impossible to remove any of the items on display, so the trophies could not be “collected.” I spent a few minutes trying in vain to cut one of them free of its pedestal with a laser welding torch before calling it quits. Another dead end. This whole trip had been a waste of time. I took one last look around and headed for the exit, trying not to let my frustration get the best of me. I decided to take a different route on my way back up to the surface, through a section of the museum I’d never fully explored on my previous visits. I wandered through a series of tunnels that led me into a giant, cavernous chamber. It contained a kind of underground city comprised entirely of pizza joints, bowling alleys, convenience stores, and, of course, video arcades. I wandered through the maze of empty streets, then down a winding back alley that dead-ended by the entrance of a small pizza shop. I froze in my tracks when I saw the name of the place. It was called Happytime Pizza, and it was a replica of a small family-run pizza joint that had existed in Halliday’s hometown in the mid-1980s. Halliday appeared to have copied the code for Happytime Pizza from his Middletown simulation and hidden a duplicate of it here in the Archaide museum. What the hell was it doing here? I’d never seen its existence mentioned on any of the gunter message boards or strategy guides. Was it possible no one had ever spotted it before now? Halliday mentioned Happytime Pizza several times in the Almanac, so I knew he had fond memories of this place. He’d often come here after school, to avoid going home. The interior re-created the atmosphere of a classic ’80s pizza parlor and video arcade in loving detail. Several NPC employees stood behind the counter, tossing dough and slicing pies. (I turned on my Olfatrix tower and discovered that I could actually smell the tomato sauce.) The shop was divided into two halves, the game room and the dining room. The dining room had videogames in it as well—all of the glass-top tables were actually sit-down arcade games known as “co*cktail cabinets.” You could sit and play Donkey Kong on the table while you ate your pizza. If I’d been hungry, I could have ordered a real slice of pizza at the counter. The order would have been forwarded to a pizza vendor near my apartment complex, the one I’d specified in my OASIS account’sfood service preference settings. Then a slice would have been delivered to my door in a matter of minutes, and the cost (including tip) would have been deducted from my OASIS account balance. As I walked into the game room, I heard a Bryan Adams song blasting out of the speakers mounted on the carpeted walls. Bryan was singing about how, everywhere he went, the kids wanted to rock. I pressed my thumb to a plate on the change machine

and bought a single quarter. I scooped it out of the stainless-steel tray and headed to the back of the game room, taking in all of the simulation’s little details. I spotted a handwritten note taped to the marquee of a Defender game. It read BEAT THE OWNER’S HIGH SCORE AND WIN A FREE LARGE PIZZA! A Robotron game was currently displaying its high-score list. Robotron allowed its all-time best player to enter an entire sentence of text beside their score instead of just their initials, and this machine’s top dog had used his precious victory space to announce that Vice-Principal Rundberg is a total douchebag! I continued farther into the dark electronic cave and walked up to a Pac-Man machine at the very back of the room, wedged between a Galaga and a Dig Dug. The black-and-yellow cabinet was covered with chips and scratches, and the garish sideart was peeling. The Pac-Man game’s monitor was dark, and there was an OUT OF ORDER sign taped to it. Why would Halliday include a broken game in this simulation? Was this just another atmospheric detail? Intrigued, I decided to investigate further. I pulled the game cabinet out from the wall and saw that the power cord was unplugged. I plugged it back into the wall socket and waited for the game to boot up. It seemed to work fine. As I was shoving the cabinet back into place, I spotted something. At the top of the game, resting on the metal brace that held the glass marquee in place, was a single quarter. The date on the coin was 1981—the year Pac-Man had been released. I knew that back in the ’80s, placing your quarter on a game’s marquee was how you reserved the next turn on the machine. But when I tried to remove the quarter, it wouldn’t budge. Like it was welded in place. Weird. I slapped the OUT OF ORDER sign on the neighboring Galaga cabinet and looked at the start-up screen, which was listing off the game’s villainous ghosts: Inky, Blinky, Pinky, and Clyde. The high score at the top of the screen was 3,333,350 points. Several things were strange about this. In the real world, Pac-Man machines didn’t save their high score if they were unplugged. And the high-score counter was supposed to flip over at 1,000,000 points. But this machine displayed a high score of 3,333,350 points—just 10 points shy of the highest Pac-Man score possible. The only way to beat that score would be to play a perfect game. I felt my pulse quicken. I’d uncovered something here. Some sort of Easter egg, hidden inside this old coin-op videogame. It wasn’t the Easter egg. Just an Easter egg. Some sort of challenge or puzzle, one I was almost certain had been created and placed here by Halliday. I didn’t know if it had anything to do with the Jade Key. It might not be related to the egg at all. But there was only one way to find out. I would have to play a perfect game of Pac-Man. This was no easy feat. You had to play all 256 levels perfectly, all the way up to the final split-screen. And you had to eat every single dot, energizer, fruit, and ghost possible along the way, without ever losing a single life. Less than twenty perfect games had been documented in the game’s sixty-year history. One of them, the fastest perfect game ever played, had been accomplished by James Halliday in just under four hours. He’d done it on an original Pac-Man machine located in the Gregarious Games break room.

Because I knew Halliday loved the game, I’d already done a fair amount of research on Pac-Man. But I’d never managed to play a perfect game. Of course, I’d never really made a serious attempt. Up until now, I’d never had a reason to. I opened my grail diary and pulled up all of the Pac-Man–related data I’d ever collected. The original game code. The unabridged biography of the designer, Toru Iwatani. Every Pac-Man strategy guide ever written. Every episode of the Pac-Man cartoon series. The ingredients for Pac-Man cereal. And, of course, patterns. I had Pac-Man pattern diagrams out the wazoo, along with hundreds of hours of archived video of the best Pac-Man players in history. I’d already studied a lot of this stuff, but I skimmed over it again now to refresh my memory. Then I closed my grail diary and studied the Pac-Man machine in front of me, like a gunfighter sizing up an opponent. I stretched my arms, rolled my head and neck around on my shoulders, and cracked my knuckles. When I dropped a quarter into the left coin slot, the game emitted a familiar electronic bea-wup! sound. I tapped the Player One button, and the first maze appeared on the screen. I wrapped my right hand around the joystick and began to play, guiding my pizzashaped protagonist through one maze after another. Wakka-wakka-wakka-wakka. My synthetic surroundings faded away as I focused on the game and lost myself in its ancient two-dimensional reality. Just as with Dungeons of Daggorath, I was now playing a simulation within a simulation. A game within a game. I had several false starts. I would play for an hour, or even two; then I’d make one tiny mistake and I’d have to reboot the machine and start all over. But I was now on my eighth attempt, and I’d been playing for six hours straight. I was rockin’ like Dokken. This game had been Iceman-perfect so far. Two-hundred and fifty-five screens in and I still hadn’t made a single mistake. I’d managed to nail all four ghosts with every single power pill (until the eighteenth maze, when they stop turning blue altogether), and I’d snagged every bonusfruit, bird, bell, and key that had appeared, without dying once. I was having the best game of my life. This was it. I could feel it. Everything was finally falling in to place. I had the glow. There was a spot in each maze, just above the starting position, where it was possible to “hide” Pac-Man for up to fifteen minutes. In that location, the ghosts couldn’t find him. Using this trick, I’d been able to take two quick food and bathroom breaks during the past six hours. As I chomped my way through the 255th screen, the song “Pac-Man Fever” began to blast out of the game room stereo. A smile crept onto my face. I knew this had to be a small tip-of-the-hat from Halliday. Sticking to my tried-and-true pattern one last time, I whipped the joystick right, slid into the secret door, then out the opposite side and straight down to snag the last few remaining dots, clearing the board. I took a deep breath as the outline of the blue maze began to pulse white. And then I saw it, staring me in the face. The fabled splitscreen. The end of the game. Then, in the worst case of bad timing imaginable, a Scoreboard alert flashed on my display, just a few seconds after I began to play through the final screen.

The top ten rankings appeared, superimposed over my view of the Pac-Man screen, and I glanced at them just long enough to see that Aech had now become the second person to find the Jade Key. His score had just jumped 19,000 points, putting him in second place and knocking me into third. By some miracle, I managed not to flip out. I stayed focused on my Pac-Man game. I gripped the joystick tighter, refusing to let this wreck my concentration. I was nearly finished! I only had to milk the final 6,760 possible pointsfrom thislast garbled maze and then I would finally have the high score. My heart pounded in time with the music as I cleared the unblemished left half of the maze. Then I ventured into the twisted terrain of the right half, guiding PacMan through the pixelated on-screen refuse of the game’s depleted memory. Hidden underneath all of those junk sprites and garbled graphics were nine more dots, worth ten points each. I couldn’t see them, but I had their locations memorized. I quickly found and ate all nine, gaining 90 more points. Then I turned and ran into the nearest ghost—Clyde—and committed Pacicide, dying for the first time in the game. PacMan froze and withered into nothingness with an extended beeewup. Each time Pac-Man died on this final maze, the nine hidden dots reappeared on the deformed right half of the screen. So to achieve the game’s maximum possible score, I had to find and eat each of those dots five more times, once with each of my five remaining lives. I did my best not to think about Aech, who I knew must be holding the Jade Key at that very moment. Right now, he was probably reading whatever clue was etched into its surface. I pulled the joystick to the right, weaving through the digital debris one final time. I could have done it blindfolded by now. I fish-hooked around Pinky to grab the two dots near the bottom, then another three in the center, and then the last four near the top. I’d done it. I had the new high score: 3,333,360 points. A perfect game. I took my hands off the controls and watched as all four ghosts converged on PacMan. GAME OVER flashed in the center of the maze. I waited. Nothing happened. After a few seconds, the game’s attract screen came back up, showing the four ghosts, their names, and their nicknames. My gaze shot to the quarter sitting on the edge of the marquee brace. Earlier it had been welded in place, unmovable. But now it tumbled forward and fell end-over-end, landing directly in the palm of my avatar’s hand. Then it vanished, and a message flashed on my display informing me that the quarter had automatically been added to my inventory. When I tried to take it back out and examine it, I found that I couldn’t. The quarter icon remained in my inventory. I couldn’t take it out or drop it. If the quarter had any magical properties, they weren’t revealed in its item description, which was completely empty. To learn anything more about the quarter, I would have to cast a series of high-level divination spells on it. That would take days and require a lot of expensive spell components, and even then there was no guarantee the spells would tell me anything. But at the moment, I was having a hard time caring all that much about the mystery of the undroppable quarter. All I could think about was that Aech and Art3mis had now both beaten me to the Jade Key. And getting the high score on this Pac-Man game on Archaide obviously hadn’t gotten me any closer to finding it myself. I really had been wasting my time here.

I headed back up to the planet’ssurface.Just asI wassitting down in the Vonnegut’s co*ckpit, an e-mail from Aech arrived in my inbox. I felt my pulse quicken when I saw its subject line: Payback Time. Holding my breath, I opened the message and read it: Dear Parzival, You and I are officially even now, got that? I consider my debt to you hereby paid in full. Better hurry. The Sixers must already be on their way there. Good luck, Aech Below his signature was an image file he’d attached to the message. It was a highresolution scan of the instruction manual cover for the text adventure game Zork— the version released in 1980 by Personal Software for the TRS-80 Model III. I’d played and solved Zork once, a long time ago, back during the first year of the Hunt. But I’d also played hundreds of other classic text adventure games that year, including all of Zork’s sequels, and so most of the details of the game had now faded in my memory. Most old text adventure games were pretty self-explanatory, so I’d never actually bothered to read the Zork instruction manual. I now knew that this had a been a colossal mistake. On the manual’s cover was a painting depicting a scene from the game. A swashbuckling adventurer wearing armor and a winged helmet stood with a glowing blue sword raised over his head, preparing to strike a troll cowering before him. The adventurer clutched several treasures in his other hand, and more treasures lay at his feet, scattered among human bones. A dark, fanged creature lurked just behind the hero, glowering malevolently. All of this was in the painting’s foreground, but my eyes had instantly locked on what was in the background: a large white house, with its front door and windows all boarded up. A dwelling long neglected. I stared at the image a few more seconds, just long enough to curse myself for not making the connection on my own, months ago. Then I fired the Vonnegut’s engines and set a course for another planet in Sector Seven, not far from Archaide. It was small world called Frobozz that was home to a detailed re-creation of the game Zork. It was also, I now knew, the hiding place of the Jade Key.

Frobozz was located in a group of several hundred rarely visited worlds known as the XYZZY Cluster. These planets all dated back to the early days of the OASIS, and each one re-created the environment of some classic text adventure game or MUD (multi-user dungeon). Each of these worlds was a kind of shrine—an interactive tribute to the OASIS’s earliest ancestors. Text adventure games(often referred to as “interactive fiction” by modern scholars) used text to create the virtual environment the player inhabited. The game program provided you with a simple written description of your surroundings, then asked what you wanted to do next. To move around or interact with your virtual surroundings, you keyed in text commands telling the game what you wanted your avatar to do. These instructions had to be very simple, usually composed of just two or three words, such as “go south” or “get sword.” If a command was too complex, the game’s simple parsing engine wouldn’t be able to understand it. By reading and typing text, you made your way through the virtual world, collecting treasure, fighting monsters, avoiding traps, and solving puzzles until you finally reached the end of the game. The first text adventure game I’d ever played was called Colossal Cave, and initially the text-only interface had seemed incredibly simple and crude to me. But after playing for a few minutes, I quickly became immersed in the reality created by the words on the screen. Somehow, the game’s simple two-sentence room descriptions were able to conjure up vivid images in my mind’s eye. Zork was one of the earliest and most famous text adventure games. According to my grail diary, I’d played the game through to the end just once, all in one day, over four years ago. Since then, in a shocking display of unforgivable ignorance, I’d somehow forgotten two very important details about the game: 1. Zork began with your character standing outside a shuttered white house. 2. Inside the living room of that white house there was a trophy case. To complete the game, every treasure you collected had to be returned to the living room and placed inside the trophy case. Finally, the rest of the Quatrain made sense. The captain conceals the Jade Key in a dwelling long neglected But you can only blow the whistle once the trophies are all collected Decades ago, Zork and its sequels had all been licensed and re-created inside the OASIS as stunning three-dimensional immersive simulations all located on the planet

Frobozz, which was named after a character in the Zork universe. So the dwelling long neglected—the one I’d been trying to locate for the past six months—had been sitting right out in the open on Frobozz this entire time. Hiding in plain sight. I checked the ship’s navigational computer. Traveling at light speed, it would take me just over fifteen minutes to reach Frobozz. There was a good chance the Sixers would beat me there. If they did, there would probably already be a small armada of Sixer gunships waiting in orbit around the planet when I dropped out of light speed. I would have to fight my way through them to reach the surface, and then either lose them, or try to find the Jade Key with them still breathing down my neck. Not a good scenario. Luckily, I had a backup plan. My Ring of Teleportation. It was one of the most valuable magic items in my inventory, looted from the hoard of a red dragon I’d slain on Gygax. The ring allowed my avatar to teleport once a month, to any location in the OASIS. I only used it in dire emergencies as a last-ditch means of escape, or when I needed to get somewhere in a big hurry. Like right now. I quickly programmed the Vonnegut’s onboard computer to autopilot the ship to Frobozz. I instructed it to activate its cloaking device as soon as it dropped out of hyperspace, then locate me on the planet’s surface and land somewhere nearby. If I was lucky, the Sixers wouldn’t detect my ship and blast it out of the sky before it could reach me. If they did, I’d be stuck on Frobozz with no way to leave, while the entire Sixer army closed in on me. I engaged the Vonnegut’s autopilot, then activated my Ring of Teleportation by speaking the command word, “Brundell.” When the ring began to glow, I said the name of the planet where I wished to teleport. A world map of Frobozz appeared on my display. It was a large world, and like the planet Middletown, its surface was covered with hundreds of identical copies of the same simulation—in this case, recreations of the Zork playing field. There were 512 copies of it, to be exact, which meant there were 512 white houses, spaced out evenly across the planet’s surface. I should be able to obtain the Jade Key at any one of them, so I selected one of the copies at random on the map. My ring emitted a blinding flash of light, and a split second later my avatar was there, standing on the surface of Frobozz. I opened my grail diary and located my original notes on how to solve Zork. Then I pulled up a map of the game’s playing field and placed it in the corner of my display. Surveying the skies, I didn’t see any sign of the Sixers, but that didn’t mean they hadn’t already arrived. Sorrento and his underlings had probably just teleported to one of the other playing fields. Everybody knew that the Sixers had already been camped out in Sector Seven, waiting for this moment. As soon as they saw Aech’s score increase, they would have used Fyndoro’s Tablet of Finding and learned that he was currently on Frobozz. Which meant the entire Sixer armada would already be on its way here. So I needed to get to the key as quickly as possible, then get the hell of out Dodge. I took a look around. My surroundings were eerily familiar. The opening text description in the game Zork read as follows: WEST OF HOUSE

You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door. There is a small mailbox here. > My avatar now stood in that open field, just west of the white house. The front door of the old Victorian mansion was boarded up, and there was a mailbox just a few yards away from me, at the end of the walkway leading to the house. The house was surrounded by a dense forest, and beyond it I saw a range of jagged mountain peaks. Glancing off to my left, I spotted a path leading to the north, right where I knew it should be. I ran around to the back of the house. I found a small window there, slightly ajar, and I forced it open and climbed inside. As expected, I found myself in the kitchen. A wooden table sat in the center of the room, and on it rested a long brown sack and a bottle of water. A chimney stood nearby, and a staircase led up to the attic. A hallway off to my left led to the living room. Just like the game. But the kitchen also contained things that weren’t mentioned in the game’s text description of this room. A stove, a refrigerator, several wooden chairs, a sink, and a few rows of kitchen cabinets. I opened the fridge. It was full of junk food. Fossilized pizza, snack puddings, lunch meat, and a wide array of condiment packets. I checked the cupboards. They were filled with canned and dry goods. Rice, pasta, soup. And cereal. One entire cupboard was crammed with boxes of vintage breakfast cereals, most of which had been discontinued before I’d been born. Fruit Loops, Honeycombs, Lucky Charms, Count Chocula, Quisp, Frosted Flakes. And hidden way at the back was a lone box of Cap’n Crunch. Printed clearly on the front of it were the words FREE TOY WHISTLE INSIDE! The captain conceals the Jade Key. I dumped the contents of the box out on the counter, scattering golden cereal nuggets everywhere. Then I spotted it—a small plastic whistle encased in a clear cellophane envelope. I tore off the cellophane and held the whistle in my hand. It was yellow in color, with the cartoon face of Cap’n Crunch molded on one side and a small dog on the other. The words CAP’N CRUNCH BO’SUN WHISTLE were embossed on either side. I raised the whistle to my avatar’s lips and blew into it. But the whistle emitted no sound, and nothing happened. You can only blow the whistle once the trophies are all collected. I pocketed the whistle and opened the sack on the kitchen table. I saw a clove of garlic inside, and I added it to my inventory. Then I ran west, into the living room. The floor was covered with a large Oriental rug. Antique furniture, the kind I’d seen in films from the 1940s, was positioned around the room. A wooden door with odd characters carved into its surface was set into the west wall. And against the opposite wall there was a beautiful glass trophy case. It was empty. A battery-powered lantern sat on top of the case, and a shining sword was mounted on the wall directly above it. I took the sword and the lantern, then rolled up the Oriental rug, uncovering the trapdoor I already knew was hidden underneath. I opened it, revealing a staircase that led down into a darkened cellar. I turned on the lamp. As I descended the staircase, my sword began to glow.

I continued to refer to the Zork notes in my grail diary, which reminded me exactly how to make my way through the game’s labyrinth of rooms, passageways, and puzzles. I collected all nineteen of the game’streasures asI went, returning repeatedly to the living room in the white house to place them in the trophy case, a few at a time. Along the way, I had to do battle with several NPCs: a troll, a Cyclops, and a really annoying thief. As for the legendary grue, lurking in the dark, waiting to dine on my flesh—I simply avoided him. Aside from the Cap’n Crunch whistle hidden in the kitchen, I found no surprises or deviations from the original game. To solve thisimmersive three-dimensional version of Zork, I simply had to perform the exact same actions required to solve the original text-based game. By running at top speed and by neverstopping to sightsee orsecondguess myself, I managed to complete the game in twenty-two minutes. Shortly after I collected the last of the game’s nineteen treasures, a tiny brass bauble, a notice flashed in my display informing me that the Vonnegut had arrived outside. The autopilot had just landed the ship in the field to the west of the white house. Its cloaking device was still engaged and its shields were up. If the Sixers were already here, in orbit around the planet, I was hoping they hadn’t spotted my ship. I ran back to the living room of the white house one last time and placed the final treasure inside the trophy case. Just as in the original game, a map appeared inside the case, directing me to a hidden barrow that marked the end of the game. But I wasn’t concerned with the map or with finishing the game. All of the “trophies” were now “collected” in the case, so I took out the Cap’n Crunch whistle. It had three holes across the top, and I covered the third one to generate the 2600-hertz tone that had made this whistle famous in the annals of hacker history. Then I blew one clear, shrill note. The whistle transformed into a small key, and my score on the scoreboard increased by 18,000 points. I was back in second place, a mere 1,000 points ahead of Aech. A second later, the entire Zork simulation reset itself. The nineteen items in the trophy case vanished, returning to their original locations, and the rest of the house and the game’s playing field returned to the same state in which I’d found them. As I stared at the key in the palm of my hand, I felt a brief jolt of panic. The key was silver, not the milky green color of jade. But when I turned the key over and examined it more closely, I saw that it actually appeared to be wrapped in silver foil, like a stick of gum or a bar of chocolate. I carefully peeled the wrapper away, and a key made of polished green stone was revealed inside. The Jade Key. And just like the Copper Key, I saw that it had a clue etched into its surface: Continue your quest by taking the test I reread it several times, but had no immediate revelations as to its meaning, so I placed the key in my inventory, then examined the wrapper. It was silver foil on one side and white paper on the other. I didn’t see any markings on either side. Just then, I heard the muffled roar of approaching spacecraft and knew it must be the Sixers. It sounded like they were here in force.

I pocketed the wrapper and ran out of the house. Overhead, thousands of Sixer gunshipsfilled the sky like an angry swarm of metal wasps. The ships were separating into small groups asthey descended, heading off in different directions, asif to blanket the entire surface of the planet. I didn’t think the Sixers would be foolish enough to try to barricade all 512 instances of the white house. That strategy had worked for them on Ludus, but only for a few hours, and they’d only had one location to barricade. The entire planet of Frobozz was in a PvP zone, and both magic and technology functioned here, which meant that all bets were off. There would be hordes of gunters arriving here soon, armed to the teeth, and if the Sixers tried to keep all of them at bay, it would mean war on a scale never before seen in the history of the OASIS. As I continued running across the field and up the ramp of my ship, I spotted a large squadron of gunships, about a hundred or so, descending from the sky directly above my location. They appeared to be headed straight for me. Max had already powered up the Vonnegut’s engines,so Ishouted for him to lift off as soon as I was aboard. When I reached the co*ckpit controls, I threw the throttle wide open, and the descending swarm of Sixer gunships banked hard to follow me. As my ship blasted its way skyward, I began to take heavy fire from several directions. But I was lucky. My ship was fast, and my shields were top-of-the-line, so they managed to hold up long enough for me to reach orbit. But they failed a few seconds later, and the Vonnegut’s hull suffered an alarming amount of damage in the handful of seconds it took me to make the jump to light speed. It was a close call. The bastards almost got me. My ship was in bad shape, so instead of returning directly to my stronghold, I headed to Joe’s Garage, an orbitalstarship repairshop over in Sector Ten.Joe’s was an honest NPC-operated establishment, with reasonable rates and lightning-fast service. I used them whenever the Vonnegut needed repairs or upgrades. While Joe and his boys worked on my ship, I sent Aech a brief e-mail to say thanks. I told him that whatever debt he felt he owed me was now most definitely paid in full. I also copped to being a colossally insensitive, self-centered asshole and begged him to forgive me. As soon as the repairs to my ship were finished, I headed back to my stronghold. Then I spent the rest of the day glued to the newsfeeds. The word about Frobozz was out, and every gunter with the means had already teleported there. Thousands of others were arriving by spacecraft every minute, to do battle with the Sixers and secure their own copy of the Jade Key. The newsfeeds were airing live coverage of the hundreds of large-scale battles breaking out on Frobozz, around nearly every instance of the “dwelling long neglected.” The big gunter clans had once again banded together to launch a coordinated attack on the Sixers’ forces. It was the beginning of what would come to be known as the Battle of Frobozz, and casualties were already mounting on both sides. I also kept a close eye on the Scoreboard, waiting to see evidence that the Sixers had begun to collect copies of the Jade Key while their forces held the opposition at bay. As I feared, the next score to increase was the one beside Sorrento’s IOI employee number. It jumped 17,000 points, moving him into fourth place.

Now that the Sixers knew exactly where and how to obtain the Jade Key, I expected to see their other avatars’ scores begin to jump as Sorrento’s underlings followed his lead. But to my surprise, the next avatar to snag the Jade Key was none other than Shoto. He did it less than twenty minutes after Sorrento. Somehow, Shoto had managed to evade the hordes of Sixers currently swarming all over the planet, enter an instance of the white house, collect all nineteen of the required treasures, and obtain his copy of the key. I continued to watch the Scoreboard, expecting to see his brother Daito’s score increase as well. But that never happened. Instead, a few minutes after Shoto obtained his copy of the key, Daito’s name disappeared from the Scoreboard entirely. There was only one possible explanation: Daito had just been killed.

Over the next twelve hours, chaos continued to reign on Frobozz as every gunter in the OASIS scrambled to reach the planet and join the fray. The Sixers had dispersed their grand army across the globe in a bold attempt to blockade all 512 copies of the Zork playing field. But their forces, as vast and wellequipped as they were, were spread far too thin this time. Only seven more of their avatars managed to obtain the Jade Key that day. And when the gunter clans began their coordinated attack on the Sixers’ forces, the “boobs in blue” began to suffer heavy casualties and were forced to pull back. Within a matter of hours, the Sixer high command decided to deploy a new strategy. It had quickly become obvious that they wouldn’t be able to maintain over five hundred different blockades or fend off the massive influx of gunters. So they regrouped all of their forces around ten adjacent instances of the Zork playing field near the planet’s south pole. They installed powerful force shields over each of them and stationed armored battalions outside the shield walls. This scaled-down strategy worked, and the Sixers’ forces proved sufficient to hold those ten locations and prevent any other guntersfrom getting inside (and there wasn’t much reason for other gunters to try, since over five hundred other instances of Zork now stood wide open and unprotected). Now that the Sixers could operate undisturbed, they basically formed ten lines of avatars outside each white house and began to run them through the process of obtaining the Jade Key, one after another. Everyone could plainly see what they were doing, because the digits beside each IOI employee number on the Scoreboard began to increase by 15,000 points. At the same time, hundreds of gunter scores were increasing as well. Now that the location of the Jade Key was public knowledge, deciphering the Quatrain and figuring out how to obtain the key was relatively easy. It was there for the taking to anyone who had already cleared the First Gate. As the Battle of Frobozz drew to a close, the rankings on the Scoreboard stood like this: HIGH SCORES: 1. Art3mis 129,000 2. Parzival 128,000 3. Aech 127,000 4. IOI-655321 122,000 5. Shoto 122,000

6. IOI-643187 120,000 7. IOI-621671 120,000 8. IOI-678324 120,000 9. IOI-637330 120,000 10. IOI-699423 120,000 Even though Shoto had matched Sorrento’s score of 122,000 points, Sorrento had achieved that score first, which must be the reason he’d remained in the higher slot. The relatively small point bonuses Art3mis, Aech, Shoto, and I had received for being the first to reach the Copper and Jade keys were what kept our names in the hallowed “High Five” slots. Sorrento had now earned one of these bonuses too. Seeing his IOI employee number above Shoto’s name made me cringe. Scrolling down, I saw that the Scoreboard was now over five thousand names long, with more being added every hour as new avatars finally managed to defeat Acererak at Joust and collect their own instance of the Copper Key. No one on the message boards seemed to know what had happened to Daito, but the common assumption was that he’d been killed by the Sixers during the first few minutes of the Battle of Frobozz. Rumors about exactly how he had died were running rampant, but no one had actually been witness to his demise. Except for maybe Shoto, and he’d vanished. Isent him a few chat requests, but got no reply. Like me, I assumed he was focusing all of his energy on finding the Second Gate before the Sixers did. I sat in my stronghold, staring at the Jade Key and reciting the words etched into its spine, over and over, like a maddening mantra: Continue your quest by taking the test Continue your quest by taking the test Continue your quest by taking the test Yes, but what test? What test was I supposed to take? The Kobayashi Maru? The Pepsi Challenge? Could the clue have been any more vague? I reached under my visor and rubbed my eyes in frustration. I decided I needed to take a break and get some sleep. I pulled up my avatar’s inventory and placed the Jade Key back inside. As I did, I noticed the silver foil wrapper in the inventory slot beside it—the wrapper that had covered the Jade Key when it first appeared in my hand. I knew the secret to deciphering the riddle must involve the wrapper in some way, but I still couldn’t sort out how. I wondered if it might be a reference to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, but then decided against it. There hadn’t been any golden ticket inside the wrapper. It must have some other purpose or meaning. I stared at the wrapper and pondered this until I could no longer keep my eyes open. Then I logged out and went to sleep. A few hourslater, at 6:12 a.m. OST, I wasjolted awake by the gut-wrenching sound of my Scoreboard alarm alerting me that one of the top rankings had changed again.

Filled with a growing sense of dread, I logged in and pulled up the Scoreboard, unsure of what to expect. Maybe Art3mis had finally cleared Gate Two? Or perhaps Aech or Shoto had achieved that honor. But all of their scores remained unchanged. To my horror, I saw that it was Sorrento’s score that had increased, by 200,000 points. And two gate icons now appeared beside it. Sorrento had just become the first person to find and clear the Second Gate. As a result, his avatar now stood in first place, at the top of the Scoreboard. I sat there frozen, staring at Sorrento’s employee number, silently weighing the repercussions of what had just happened. Upon exiting the gate, Sorrento would have been given a clue as to the location of the Crystal Key. The key that would open the third and final gate. So now the Sixers were the only ones who possessed that clue. Which meant they were now closer to finding Halliday’s Easter egg than anyone had ever been. I suddenly felt ill, and I was also having a difficult time breathing. I realized I must be having some sort of panic attack. A total and complete freak-out. A massive mental meltdown. Whatever you want to call it. I went a little nuts. I tried calling Aech, but he didn’t pick up. Either he was still pissed off at me, or he had other, more pressing matters to attend to. I was about to call Shoto, but then I remembered that his brother’s avatar had just been killed. He probably wasn’t in a very receptive mood. I considered flying to Benatar to try to get Art3mis to talk to me, but then I came to my senses. She’d had the Jade Key in her possession for several days, and she still hadn’t been able to clear the Second Gate. Learning that the Sixers had done it in less than twenty-four hours had probably driven her into a psychotic rage. Or maybe a catatonic stupor. She probably didn’t feel like talking to anyone right now, least of all me. I tried calling her anyway. As usual, she didn’t answer. I was so desperate to hear a familiar voice that I resorted to talking to Max. In my current state, even his glib computer-generated voice was somehow comforting. Of course, it didn’t take long for Max to run out of preprogrammed replies; and when he started to repeat himself the illusion that I wastalking to another person wasshattered, and I felt even more alone. You know you’ve totally screwed up your life when your whole world turns to sh*t and the only person you have to talk to is your system agent software. I couldn’t go back to sleep, so I stayed up watching the newsfeeds and scanning the gunter message boards. The Sixer armada remained on Frobozz, and their avatars were still farming copies of the Jade Key. Sorrento had obviously learned from his previous mistake. Now that the Sixers alone knew the location of the Second Gate, they weren’t going to be stupid enough to reveal its location to the world by trying to barricade it with their armada. But they were still taking full advantage of the situation. As the day progressed, the Sixers continued to walk additional avatars through the Second Gate. After Sorrento made it through, another ten Sixers cleared it during the following twenty-four hours. As each Sixer score increased by 200,000 points, Art3mis, Aech, Shoto, and I were all pushed farther and farther down the Scoreboard until we’d been knocked out of the top ten entirely, and the Scoreboard’s main page displayed nothing but IOI employee numbers.

The Sixers now ruled the roost. Then, when I was sure things couldn’t possibly get any worse, they did. They got much, much worse. Two days after he cleared the Second Gate, Sorrento’s score jumped another 30,000 points, indicating that he had just acquired the Crystal Key. I sat there in my stronghold, staring at the monitors, watching all of this unfold in stunned horror. There was no denying it. The end of the contest was at hand. And it wasn’t going to end like I’d always thought it would, with some noble, worthy gunter finding the egg and winning the prize. I’d been kidding myself for the past five and a half years. We all had. This story was not going to have a happy ending. The bad guys were going to win. I spent the next twenty-four hours in a frantic funk, obsessively checking the Scoreboard every five seconds, expecting the end to come at any moment. Sorrento, or one of his many “Halliday experts,” had obviously been able to decipher the riddle and locate the Second Gate. But even though the proof was right there on the Scoreboard, I still had a hard time believing it. Up until now, the Sixers had only made progress by tracking Art3mis, Aech, or me. How had those same clueless asshats found the Second Gate on their own? Maybe they’d just gotten lucky. Or perhaps they’d discovered some new and innovative way to cheat. How else could they have solved the riddle so quickly, when Art3mis hadn’t been able to do it with several days’ head start? My brain felt like hammered Play-Doh. I couldn’t make any sense of the clue printed on the Jade Key. I was completely out of ideas. Even lame ones. I didn’t know what to do or where to look next. As the night went on, the Sixers continued to acquire copies of the Crystal Key. Each time one of their scores increased it was like a knife in my heart. But I couldn’t make myself stop checking the Scoreboard. I was utterly transfixed. I felt myself inching toward complete hopelessness. My efforts over the past five years had been for nothing. I’d foolishly underestimated Sorrento and the Sixers. And I was about to pay the ultimate price for my hubris. Those soulless corporate lackeys were closing in on the egg at this very moment. I could sense it, with every fiber of my being. I’d already lost Art3mis, and now I was going to lose the contest, too. I’d already decided what I was going to do when it happened. First, I would choose one of the kids in my official fan club, someone with no money and a first-level newbie avatar, and give her every item I owned. Then I would activate the selfdestruct sequence on my stronghold and sit in my command center while the whole place went up in a massive thermonuclear explosion. My avatar would die and GAME OVER would appear in the center of my display. Then I would rip off my visor and leave my apartment for the first time in six months. I would ride the elevator up to the roof. Or maybe I would even take the stairs. Get a little exercise. There was an arboretum on the roof of my apartment building. I had never visited it, but I’d seen photos and admired the view via webcam. A transparent Plexiglas barrier had been installed around the ledge to keep people from jumping, but it was a joke. At least three determined individuals had managed to climb over it since I’d moved in. I would sit up there and breathe the unfiltered city air for a while, feeling the wind on my skin. Then I would scale the barrier and hurl myself over the side. This was my current plan.

I was trying to decide what tune I should whistle as I plummeted to my death when my phone rang. It was Shoto. I wasn’t in the mood to talk, so I let his call roll to vidmail, then watched as Shoto recorded his message. It was brief. He said he needed to come to my stronghold to give me something. Something Daito had left to me in his will. When I returned his call to arrange a meeting, I could tell Shoto was an emotional wreck. His quiet voice was filled with pain, and the depth of his despair was apparent on the features of his avatar’s face. He seemed utterly despondent. In even worse shape than I was. I asked Shoto why his brother had bothered to make out a “will” for his avatar, instead of just leaving his possessions in Shoto’s care. Then Daito could simply create a new avatar and reclaim the items his brother was holding for him. But Shoto told me that his brother would not be creating a new avatar. Not now, or ever. When I asked why, he promised to explain when he saw me in person.

Max alerted me when Shoto arrived an hour or so later. I granted his ship clearance to enter Falco’s airspace and told him to park in my hangar. Shoto’s vessel was a large interplanetary trawler named the Kurosawa, modeled after a ship called the Bebop in the classic anime series Cowboy Bebop. Daito and Shoto had used it as their mobile base of operations for as long as I’d known them. The ship was so big that it barely fit through my hangar doors. I was standing on the runway to greet Shoto as he emerged from the Kurosawa. He was dressed in black mourning robes, and his face bore the same inconsolable expression I’d seen when we spoke on the phone. “Parzival-san,” he said, bowing low. “Shoto-san.” I returned the bow respectfully, then stretched out my palm, a gesture he recognized from the time we’d spent questing together. Grinning, he reached out and slipped me some skin. But then his dark expression immediately resurfaced. This was the first time I’d seen Shoto since the quest we’d shared on Tokusatsu (not counting those “Daisho Energy Drink” commercials he and his brother appeared in), and his avatar seemed to be a few inches taller than I remembered. I led him up to one of my stronghold’s rarely used “sitting rooms,” a re-creation of the living room set from Family Ties. Shoto recognized the decor and nodded his silent approval. Then, ignoring the furniture, he seated himself in the center of the floor. He sat seiza-style, folding his legs under his thighs. I did the same, positioning myself so that our avatars faced each other. We sat in silence for a while. When Shoto was finally ready to speak, he kept his eyes on the floor. “The Sixers killed my brother last night,” he said, almost whispering. At first, I was too stunned to reply. “You mean they killed his avatar?” I asked, even though I could already tell that wasn’t what he meant. Shoto shook his head. “No. They broke into his apartment, pulled him out of his haptic chair, and threw him off his balcony. He lived on the forty-third floor.” Shoto opened a browser window in the air beside us. It displayed a Japanese newsfeed article. I tapped it with my index finger, and the Mandarax software translated the text to English. The headline was ANOTHER OTAKU SUICIDE. The brief article below said that a young man, Toshiro Yoshiaki, age twenty-two, had jumped to his death from his apartment, located on the forty-third floor of a converted hotel in Shinjuku, Tokyo, where he lived alone. I saw a school photo of Toshiro beside the article. He was a young Japanese man with long, unkempt hair and bad skin. He didn’t look anything like his OASIS avatar. When Shoto saw that I’d finished reading, he closed the window. I hesitated a moment before asking, “Are you sure he didn’t really commit suicide? Because his avatar had been killed?”

“No,” Shoto said. “Daito did not commit seppuku. I’m sure of it. The Sixers broke into his apartment while we were engaged in combat with them on Frobozz. That’s how they were able to defeat his avatar. By killing him, in the real world.” “I’m sorry, Shoto.” I didn’t know what else to say. I knew he was telling the truth. “My real name is Akihide,” he said. “I want you to know my true name.” I smiled, then bowed, briefly pressing my forehead to the floor. “I appreciate your trusting me with your true name,” I said. “My true name is Wade.” I could no longer see the point in keeping secrets. “Thank you, Wade,” Shoto said, returning the bow. “You’re welcome, Akihide.” He was silent for a moment; then he cleared his throat and began to talk about Daito. The words poured out of him. It was obvious he needed to talk to someone about what had happened. About what he’d lost. “Daito’s real name was Toshiro Yoshiaki. I didn’t even know that until last night, until I saw the news article.” “But … I thought you were his brother?” I’d always assumed that Daito and Shoto lived together. That they shared an apartment or something. “My relationship with Daito is difficult to explain.” He stopped to clear his throat. “We were not brothers. Not in real life. Just in the OASIS. Do you understand? We only knew each other online. I never actually met him.” He slowly raised his eyes to meet my gaze, to see if I was judging him. I reached out and rested a hand on his shoulder. “Believe me, Shoto. I understand. Aech and Art3mis are my two best friends, and I’ve never met either of them in real life either. In fact, you are one of my closest friends too.” He bowed his head. “Thank you.” I could tell by his voice that he was crying now. “We’re gunters,” I said, trying to fill the awkward silence. “We live here, in the OASIS. For us, this is the only reality that has any meaning.” Akihide nodded. A few moments later he continued to talk. He told me how he and Toshiro had met, six years ago, when they were both enrolled in an OASIS support group for hikikomori, young people who had withdrawn from society and chosen to live in total isolation. Hikikomori locked themselves in a room, read manga, and cruised the OASIS all day, relying on their families to bring them food. There had been hikikomori in Japan since back before the turn of the century, but their number had skyrocketed after the hunt for Halliday’s Easter egg began. Millions of young men and women all over the country had locked themselves away from the world. They sometimes called these children the “missing millions.” Akihide and Toshiro became best friends and spent almost every day hanging out together in the OASIS. When the hunt for Halliday’s Easter egg began, they’d immediately decided to join forces and search for it together. They made a perfect team, because Toshiro was a prodigy at videogames, while the much younger Akihide was well versed in American pop culture. Akihide’s grandmother had attended school in the United States, and both of his parents had been born there, so Akihide had been raised on American movies and television, and he’d grown up learning to speak English and Japanese equally well. Akihide and Toshiro’s mutual love of samurai movies served as the inspiration for their avatars’ names and appearances. Shoto and Daito had grown so close that they were now like brothers, so when they created their new gunter identities, they decided that in the OASIS they were brothers, from that moment on.

After Shoto and Daito cleared the First Gate and became famous, they gave several interviews with the media. They kept their identities a secret, but they did reveal that they were both Japanese, which made them instant celebrities in Japan. They began to endorse Japanese products and had a cartoon and a live-action TV series based on their exploits. At the height of their fame, Shoto had suggested to Daito that perhaps it wastime for them to meet in person. Daito had flown into a rage and stopped speaking to Shoto for several days. After that, Shoto had never suggested it again. Eventually, Shoto worked his way up to telling me how Daito’s avatar had died. The two of them had been aboard the Kurosawa, cruising between planets in Sector Seven, when the Scoreboard informed them that Aech had obtained the Jade Key. When that happened, they knew the Sixers would use Fyndoro’s Tablet of Finding to pinpoint Aech’s exact location and that their ships would soon be converging on it. In preparation for this, Daito and Shoto had spent the past few weeks planting microscopic tracking devices on the hulls of every Sixer gunship they could find. Using these devices, they were able to follow the gunships when they all abruptly changed course and headed for Frobozz. Assoon as Shoto and Daito learned that Frobozz wasthe Sixers’ destination, they’d easily deciphered the meaning of the Quatrain. And by the time they reached Frobozz, just a few minutes later, they’d already figured out what they needed to do to obtain the Jade Key. They landed the Kurosawa next to an instance of the white house that was still deserted. Shoto ran inside to collect the nineteen treasures and get the key, while Daito remained outside to stand guard. Shoto worked quickly, and he only had two treasures left to collect when Daito informed him by comlink that ten Sixer gunships were closing in on their location. He told his brother to hurry and promised to hold off the enemy until Shoto had the Jade Key. Neither of them knew if they’d have another chance to reach it. As Shoto scrambled to get the last two treasures and place them in the trophy case, he remotely activated one of the Kurosawa’s external cameras and used it to record a short video of Daito’s confrontation with the approaching Sixers. Shoto opened a window and played this video clip for me. But he averted his eyes until it was over. He obviously had no desire to watch it again. On the vidfeed, I saw Daito standing alone in the field beside the white house. A small fleet of Sixer gunships was descending out of the sky, and they began to fire their laser cannons as soon as they were within range. A hailstorm of fiery red bolts began to rain down all around Daito. Behind him, in the distance, I could see more Sixer gunships setting down, and each one was off-loading squadrons of powerarmored ground troops. Daito was surrounded. The Sixers had obviously spotted the Kurosawa during its descent to the planet’s surface, and they’d made killing the two samurai a priority. Daito didn’t hesitate to use the ace up his sleeve. He pulled out the Beta Capsule, held it aloft in his right hand, and activated it. His avatar instantly changed into Ultraman, a glowing-eyed red-and-silver alien superhero. As his avatar transformed, he also grew to a height of 156 feet. The Sixer ground forces closing in on him froze in their tracks, staring up in frightened awe as Ultraman Daito snatched two gunships out of the sky and smashed them together, like a giant child playing with two tiny metal toys. He dropped the flaming wreckage to the ground and began to swat other Sixer gunships out of the

sky like bothersome flies. The ships that escaped his deadly grasp banked around and sprayed him with laser bolts and machine-gun fire, but both deflected harmlessly off his armored alien skin. Daito let out a booming laugh that echoed acrossthe landscape. Then he made a cross with his arms, intersecting at the wrists. A glowing energy beam blasted forth from his hands, vaporizing half a dozen gunships unlucky enough to fly through its path. Daito turned and swept the beam over the Sixer ground forces around him, frying them like terrified ants under a magnifying glass. Daito appeared to be enjoying himself immensely. So much so that he paid little attention to the warning light embedded in the center of his chest, which had now begun to flash bright red. This was a signal that his three minutes as Ultraman had nearly elapsed and that his power was almost depleted. Thistime limit was Ultraman’s primary weakness. If Daito failed to deactivate the Beta Capsule and return to human form before his three minutes were up, his avatar would die. But it was obvious that if he changed back into his human form right now, in the middle of the massive Sixer onslaught, he’d be killed instantly too. And Shoto would never be able to reach the ship. I could see the Sixer troops around Daito screaming into their comlinks for backup, and additional Sixer gunships were still arriving in droves. Daito was blasting them out of the sky one at a time, with perfectly aimed bursts of his specium ray. And with each blast he fired, the warning light on his chest pulsed faster. Then Shoto emerged from the white house and told his brother via comlink that he’d acquired the Jade Key. In that same instant, the Sixer ground forces spotted Shoto, and sensing a much easier target, they began to redirect their fire at his avatar. Shoto made a mad dash for the Kurosawa. When he activated the Boots of Speed he was wearing, his avatar became a barely visible blur racing across the open field. As Shoto ran, Daito repositioned his giant form to provide him with as much cover as possible. Still firing energy blasts, he was able to keep the Sixers at bay. Then Daito’s voice broke in on the comlink. “Shoto!” he shouted. “I think someone is here! Someone is inside—” His voice cut off. At the same moment, his avatar froze, as if he’d been turned to stone, and a log-out icon appeared directly over his head. Logging out of your OASIS account while you were engaged in combat was the same thing as committing suicide. During the log-out sequence, your avatar froze in place for sixty seconds, during which time you were totally defenseless and susceptible to attack. The log-out sequence was designed this way to prevent avatars from using it as an easy way to escape a fight. You had to stand your ground or retreat to a safe location before you could log out. Daito’s log-out sequence had been engaged at the worst possible moment. As soon as his avatar froze, he began to take heavy laser and gunfire from all directions. The red warning light on his chest began to flash faster and faster until it finally went solid red. When that happened, Daito’s giant form fell over and collapsed. As he fell, he barely missed crushing Shoto and the Kurosawa. As he hit the ground, his avatar’s body transformed and shrank back to its normal size and appearance. Then it began to disappear altogether, slowly fading out of existence. When Daito’s avatar vanished completely, it left behind a small pile of spinning items on the ground—everything he’d been carrying in his inventory, including the Beta Capsule. He was dead. I saw another blur of motion on the vidfeed as Shoto ran back to collect Daito’s items. Then he looped around and ran back aboard the Kurosawa. The ship lifted off

and blasted into orbit, taking heavy fire the entire way. I was reminded of my own desperate escape from Frobozz. Luckily for Shoto, his brother had wiped out most of the Sixer gunships in the vicinity, and reinforcements had yet to arrive. Shoto was able to reach orbit and escape by making the jump to light speed. But just barely. The video ended and Shoto closed the window. “How do you think the Sixers found out where he lived?” I asked. “I don’t know,” Shoto said. “Daito was careful. He covered his tracks.” “If they found him, they might be able to find you, too,” I said. “I know. I’ve taken precautions.” “Good.” Shoto removed the Beta Capsule from his inventory and held it out to me. “Daito would have wanted you to have this.” I held up a hand. “No, I think you should keep it. You might need it.” Shoto shook his head. “I have all of his other items,” he said. “I don’t need this. And I don’t want it.” He held the capsule out to me, insistent. I took the artifact and examined it. It was a small metal cylinder, silver and black in color, with a red activation button on its side. Its size and shape reminded me of the lightsabers I owned. But lightsabers were a dime a dozen. I had over fifty in my collection. There was only one Beta Capsule, and it was a far more powerful weapon. I raised the capsule with both hands and bowed. “Thank you, Shoto-san.” “Thank you, Parzival,” he said, returning the bow. “Thank you for listening.” He stood up slowly. Everything about his body language seemed to signal defeat. “You haven’t given up yet, have you?” I asked. “Of course not.” He straightened his body and gave me a dark smile. “But finding the egg is no longer my goal. Now, I have a new quest. A far more important one.” “And that is?” “Revenge.” I nodded. Then I walked over and took down one of the samurai swords mounted on the wall and presented it to Shoto. “Please,” I said. “Accept this gift. To aid you in your new quest.” Shoto took the sword and drew its ornate blade a few inches from the scabbard. “A Masamune?” he asked, staring at the blade in wonder. I nodded. “Yes. And it’s a plus-five Vorpal Blade, too.” Shoto bowed again to show his gratitude. “Arigato.” We rode the elevator back down to my hangar in silence. Just before he boarded his ship, Shoto turned to me. “How long do you think it will take the Sixers to clear the Third Gate?” he asked. “I don’t know,” I said. “Hopefully, long enough for us to catch up with them.” “It’s not over until the fat lady is singing, right?” I nodded. “It’s not over until it’s over. And it’s not over yet.”

I figured it out later that night, a few hours after Shoto left my stronghold. I was sitting in my command center, holding the Jade Key and endlessly reciting the clue printed on its surface: “ ‘Continue your quest by taking the test.’ ” In my other hand, I held the silver foil wrapper. My eyes darted from the key to the wrapper and back to the key again as I tried desperately to make the connection between them. I’d been doing this for hours, and it wasn’t getting me anywhere. I sighed and put the key away, then laid the wrapper flat on the control panel in front of me. I carefully smoothed out all of its folds and wrinkles. The wrapper was square in shape, six inches long on each edge. Silver foil on one side, dull white paper on the other. I pulled up some image-analysis software and made a high-resolution scan of both sides of the wrapper. Then I magnified both images on my display and studied every micrometer. I couldn’t find any markings or writing anywhere, on either side of the wrapper’s surface. I was eating some corn chips at the time, so I was using voice commands to operate the image-analysis software. I instructed it to demagnify the scan of the wrapper and center the image on my display. As I did this, it reminded me of a scene in Blade Runner, where Harrison Ford’s character, Deckard, uses a similar voice-controlled scanner to analyze a photograph. I held up the wrapper and took another look at it. As the virtual light reflected off its foil surface, I thought about folding the wrapper into a paper airplane and sailing it across the room. That made me think of origami, which reminded me of another moment from Blade Runner. One of the final scenes in the film. And that was when it hit me. “The unicorn,” I whispered. The moment I said the word “unicorn” aloud, the wrapper began to fold on its own, there in the palm of my hand. The square piece of foil bent itself in half diagonally, creating a silver triangle. It continued to bend and fold itself into smaller triangles and even smaller diamond shapes until at last it formed a four-legged figure that then sprouted a tail, a head, and finally, a horn. The wrapper had folded itself into a silver origami unicorn. One of the most iconic images from Blade Runner. I was already riding the elevator down to my hangar and shouting at Max to prep the Vonnegut for takeoff. Continue your quest by taking the test. Now I knew exactly what “test” that line referred to, and where I needed to go to take it. The origami unicorn had revealed everything to me.

Blade Runner was referenced in the text of Anorak’s Almanac no less than fourteen times. It had been one of Halliday’s top ten all-time favorite films. And the film was based on a novel by Philip K. Dick, one of Halliday’s favorite authors. For these reasons, I’d seen Blade Runner over four dozen times and had memorized every frame of the film and every line of dialogue. As the Vonnegut streaked through hyperspace, I pulled the Director’s Cut of Blade Runner up in a window on my display, then jumped ahead to review two scenes in particular. The movie, released in 1982, is set in Los Angeles in the year 2019, in a sprawling, hyper-technological future that had never come to pass. The story follows a guy named Rick Deckard, played by Harrison Ford. Deckard works as a “blade runner,” a special type of cop who hunts down and kills replicants—genetically engineered beings that are almost indistinguishable from real humans. In fact, replicants look and act so much like real humans that the only way a blade runner can spot one is by using a polygraph-like device called a Voight-Kampff machine to test them. Continue your quest by taking the test. Voight-Kampff machines appear in only two scenes in the movie. Both of those take place inside the Tyrell Building, an enormous double-pyramid structure that houses the Tyrell Corporation, the company that manufactures the replicants. Re-creations of the Tyrell Building were among the most common structures in the OASIS. Copies of it existed on hundreds of different planets, spread throughout all twenty-seven sectors. This was because the code for the building was included as a free built-in template in the OASIS WorldBuilder construction software (along with hundreds of other structures borrowed from various science-fiction films and television series). So for the past twenty-five years, whenever someone used the WorldBuilder software to create a new planet inside the OASIS, they could just select the Tyrell Building from a drop-down menu and insert a copy of it into theirsimulation to help fill out the skyline of whatever futuristic city or landscape they were coding. As a result, some worlds had over a dozen copies of the Tyrell Building scattered across their surfaces. I was currently hauling ass at light speed to the closest such world, a cyberpunk-themed planet in Sector Twenty-two called Axrenox. If my suspicion was correct, every copy of the Tyrell Building on Axrenox contained a hidden entrance into the Second Gate, through the Voight-Kampff machines located inside. I wasn’t worried about running into the Sixers, because there was no way they could have barricaded the Second Gate. Not with thousands of copies of the Tyrell Building on hundreds of different worlds. Once I reached Axrenox, finding a copy of the Tyrell Building took only a few minutes. It was pretty hard to miss. A massive pyramid-shaped structure covering several square kilometers at its base, it towered above most of the structures adjacent to it. I zeroed in on the first instance of the building I saw and headed straight for it. My ship’s cloaking device was already engaged, and I left it activated when I set the Vonnegut down on one of the Tyrell Building’s landing pads. Then I locked the ship and activated all of its security systems, hoping they’d be enough to keep it from getting stolen until I returned. Magic didn’t function here, so I couldn’t just shrink the ship and put it in my pocket, and leaving your vessel parked out in the open on

a cyberpunk-themed world like Axrenox was like asking for it to get ripped off. The Vonnegut would be a target for the first leather-clad booster gang that spotted it. I pulled up a map of the Tyrell Building template’s layout and used it to locate a roof-access elevator a short distance from the platform where I’d landed. When I reached the elevator, I punched in the default security code on the code pad and crossed my fingers. I got lucky. The elevator doors hissed open. Whoever had created this section of the Axrenox cityscape hadn’t bothered to reset the security codes in the template. I took this as a good sign. It meant they’d probably left everything else in the template at the default setting too. AsI rode the elevator down to the 440th floor, I powered on my armor and drew my guns. Five security checkpoints stood between the elevator and the room I needed to reach. Unlessthe template had been altered, fifty NPC Tyrellsecurity guard replicants would be standing between me and my destination. The shooting started as soon as the elevator doors slid open. I had to kill seven skin jobs before I could even make it out of the elevator car and into the hallway. The next ten minutes played out like the climax of a John Woo movie. One of the ones starring Chow Yun Fat, like Hard Boiled or The Killer. I switched both of my guns to autofire and held down the triggers as I moved from one room to the next, mowing down every NPC in my path. The guards returned fire, but their bullets pinged harmlessly off my armor. I never ran out of ammo, because each time I fired a round, a new round was teleported into the bottom of the clip. My bullet bill this month was going to be huge. When I finally reached my destination, I punched in another code and locked the door behind me. I knew I didn’t have much time. Klaxons were blaring throughout the building, and the thousands of NPC guards stationed on the floors below were probably already on their way up here to find me. My footsteps echoed as I entered the room. It was deserted except for a large owl sitting on a golden perch. It blinked at me silently asI crossed the enormous cathedrallike room, which was a perfect re-creation of the office of the Tyrell Corporation’s founder, Eldon Tyrell. Every detail from the film had been duplicated exactly. Polished stone floors. Giant marble pillars. The entire west wall was a massive floorto-ceiling window offering a breathtaking view of the vast cityscape outside. A long conference table stood beside the window. Sitting on top of it was a VoightKampff machine. It was about the size of a briefcase, with a row of unlabeled buttons on the front, next to three small data monitors. When I walked up and sat down in front of the machine, it turned itself on. A thin robotic arm extended a circular device that looked like a retinal scanner, which locked into place directly level with the pupil of my right eye. A small bellows was built into the side of the machine, and it began to rise and fall, giving the impression that the device was breathing. I glanced around, wondering if an NPC of Harrison Ford would appear, to ask me the same questions he asked Sean Young in the movie. I’d memorized all of her answers, just in case. But I waited a few seconds and nothing happened. The machine’s bellows continued to rise and fall. In the distance, the security klaxons continued to wail. I took out the Jade Key. The instant I did, a panel slid open in the surface of the Voight-Kampff machine, revealing a keyhole. I quickly inserted the Jade Key and turned it. The machine and the key both vanished, and in their place, the Second Gate

appeared. It was a doorlike portal resting on top of the polished conference table. Its edges glowed with the same milky jade color as the key, and just like the First Gate, it appeared to lead into a vast field of stars. I leapt up on the table and jumped inside. I found myself standing just inside the entrance of a seedy-looking bowling alley with disco-era decor. The carpet was a garish pattern of green and brown swirls, and the molded plastic chairs were a faded orange color. The bowling lanes were all empty and unlit. The place was deserted. There weren’t even any NPCs behind the front counter or the snack bar. I wasn’t sure where I was supposed to be until I saw MIDDLETOWN LANES printed in huge letters on the wall above the bowling lanes. At first, the only sound I heard was the low hum of the fluorescent lights overhead. But then I noticed a series of faint electronic chirps emanating from off to my left. I glanced in that direction and saw a darkened alcove just beyond the snack bar. Over this cavelike entrance was a sign. Eight bright red neon letters spelled out the words GAME ROOM. There was a violent rush of wind, and the roar of what sounded like a hurricane tearing through the bowling alley. My feet began to slide across the carpet, and I realized that my avatar was being pulled toward the game room, as if a black hole had opened up somewhere in there. As the vacuum yanked me through the game room entrance, I spotted a dozen videogames inside, all from the mid- to late ’80s. Crime Fighters, Heavy Barrel, Vigilante, Smash TV. But I could now see that my avatar was being drawn toward one game in particular, a game that stood alone at the very back of the game room. Black Tiger. Capcom, 1987. A swirling vortex had opened in the center of the game’s monitor, and it was sucking in bits of trash, paper cups, bowling shoes—everything that wasn’t nailed down. Including me. As my avatar neared it, I reflexively reached out and grabbed the joystick of a Time Pilot machine. My feet were instantly lifted off the floor as the vortex continued to pull my avatar inexorably toward it. At this point, I was actually grinning in anticipation. I was all prepared to pat myself on the back, because I’d mastered Black Tiger long ago, during the first year of the Hunt. In the years prior to his death, when Halliday had been living in seclusion, the only thing he’d posted on his website was a brief looping animation. It showed his avatar, Anorak, sitting in his castle’s library, mixing potions and poring over dusty spellbooks. This animation had run on a continuousloop for over a decade, until it was finally replaced by the Scoreboard on the morning Halliday died. In that animation, hanging on the wall behind Anorak, you could see a large painting of a black dragon. Gunters had filled countless message board threads arguing about the meaning of the painting, about what the black dragon signified or whether it signified anything at all. But I’d been sure of its meaning from the start. In one of the earliest journal entries in Anorak’s Almanac, Halliday wrote that whenever his parents would start screaming at each other, he would sneak out of the house and ride his bike to the local bowling alley to play Black Tiger, because it was a game he could beat on just one quarter. AA 23:234: “For one quarter, Black Tiger lets me escape from my rotten existence for three glorious hours. Pretty good deal.”

Black Tiger had first been released in Japan under its original title Burakku Doragon. Black Dragon. The game had been renamed for its American release. I’d deduced that the black dragon painting on the wall of Anorak’sstudy had been a subtle hint that Burakku Doragon would play a key role in the Hunt. So I’d studied the game until, like Halliday, I could reach the end on just one credit. After that, I continued to play it every few months, just to keep from getting rusty. Now, it looked as if my foresight and diligence were about to pay off. I was only able to hold on to the Time Pilot joystick for a few seconds. Then I lost my grip and my avatar was sucked directly into the Black Tiger game’s monitor. Everything went black for a moment. Then I found myself in surreal surroundings. I was now standing inside a narrow dungeon corridor. On my left was a high gray cobblestone wall with a mammoth dragon skull mounted on it. The wall stretched up and up, vanishing into the shadows above. I couldn’t make out any ceiling. The dungeon floor was composed of floating circular platforms arranged end to end in a long line thatstretched out into the darkness ahead. To my right, beyond the platforms’ edge, there was nothing—just an endless, empty black void. I turned around, but there was no exit behind me. Just another high cobblestone wall, stretching up into the infinite blackness overhead. I looked down at my avatar’s body. I now looked exactly like the hero of Black Tiger—a muscular, half-naked barbarian warrior dressed in an armored thong and a horned helmet. My right arm disappeared in a strange metal gauntlet, from which hung a long retractable chain with a spiked metal ball on the end. My right hand deftly held three throwing daggers. When I hurled them off in the black void at my right, three more identical daggers instantly appeared in my hand. When I tried jumping, I discovered that I could leap thirty feet straight up and land back on my feet with catlike grace. Now I understood. I was about to play Black Tiger, all right. But not the fifty-yearold, 2-D, side-scrolling platform game that I had mastered. I was now standing inside a new, immersive, three-dimensional version of the game that Halliday had created. My knowledge of the original game’s mechanics, levels, and enemies would definitely come in handy, but the game play was going to be completely different, and it would require an entirely different set of skills. The First Gate had placed me inside one of Halliday’s favorite movies, and now the Second Gate had put me inside one of hisfavorite videogames. While I was pondering the implication of this pattern, a message began to flash on my display: GO! I looked around. An arrow etched into the stone wall on my left pointed the way forward. I stretched my arms and legs, cracked my knuckles, and took a deep breath. Then, readying my weapons, I ran forward, leaping from platform to platform, to confront the first of my adversaries. Halliday had faithfully re-created every detail of Black Tiger’s eight-level dungeon. I got off to a rough start and lost a life before I even cleared the first boss. But then I began to acclimate to playing the game in three dimensions (and from a first-person perspective). Eventually, I found my groove. I pressed onward, leaping from platform to platform, attacking in midair, dodging the relentless onslaught of blobs, skeletons, snakes, mummies, minotaurs, and yes, ninjas. Each enemy I vanquished dropped a pile of “Zenny coins” that I could later use

to purchase armor, weapons, and potions from one of the bearded wise men scattered throughout each level. (These “wise men” apparently thought setting up a small shop in the middle of a monster-infested dungeon was a fine idea.) There were no time-outs, and no way for me to pause the game. Once you entered a gate, you couldn’t just stop and log out. The system wouldn’t allow it. Even if you removed your visor, you would remain logged in. The only way out of a gate was to go through it. Or die. I managed to clear all eight levels of the game in just under three hours. The closest I came to death was during my battle with the final boss, the Black Dragon, who, of course, looked exactly like the beast depicted in the painting in Anorak’s study. I’d used up all of my extra lives, and my vitality bar was almost at zero, but I managed to keep moving and stay clear of the dragon’s fiery breath while I slowly knocked down his life meter with a steady barrage of throwing daggers. When I struck the final killing blow, the dragon crumbled into digital dust in front of me. I let out a long, exhausted sigh of relief. Then, with no transition whatsoever, I found myself back in the bowling alley game room,standing in front of the Black Tiger game. In front of me, on the game’s monitor, my armored barbarian was striking a heroic pose. The following text appeared below him: YOU HAVE RETURNED PEACE AND PROSPERITY TO OUR NATION. THANK YOU, BLACK TIGER! CONGRATULATIONS ON YOUR STRENGTH AND WISDOM! Then something strange happened—something that had never happened when I’d beaten the original game. One of the “wise men” from the dungeon appeared on the screen, with a speech balloon that said, “Thank you. I am indebted to you. Please accept a giant robot as your reward.” A long row of robot icons appeared below the wise man,stretching acrossthe screen horizontally. By moving the joystick left or right, I found that I was able to scroll through a selection of over a hundred different “giant robots.” When one of these robots was highlighted, a detailed list of its stats and weaponry appeared on the screen beside it. There were several robots I didn’t recognize, but most were familiar. I spotted Gigantor, Tranzor Z, the Iron Giant, Jet Jaguar, the sphinx-headed Giant Robo from Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot, the entire Shogun Warriors toy line, and many of the mechs featured in both the Macross and Gundam anime series. Eleven of these icons were grayed out and had a red “X” over them, and these robots could not be identified or selected. I knew they must be the ones taken by Sorrento and the other Sixers who had cleared this gate before me. It seemed possible that I was about to be awarded a real, working recreation of whichever robot I selected, so I studied my options carefully, searching for the one I thought would be the most powerful and well armed. But I stopped cold when I saw Leopardon, the giant transforming robot used by Supaidaman, the incarnation of Spider-Man who appeared on Japanese TV in the late 1970s. I’d discovered Supaidaman during the course of my research and had become somewhat obsessed

with the show. So I didn’t care if Leopardon was the most powerful robot available. I had to have him, regardless. I highlighted that icon and tapped the Fire button. A twelve-inch-tall replica of Leopardon appeared on top of the Black Tiger cabinet. I grabbed it and placed it in my inventory. There were no instructions, and the item description field was blank. I made a mental note to examine it later, when I got back to my stronghold. Meanwhile, on the Black Tiger monitor, the end credits had begun to scroll over an image of the game’s barbarian hero sitting on a throne with a slender princess at his side. I respectfully read each of the programmers’ names. They were all Japanese, except for the very last credit, which read OASIS PORT BY J. D. HALLIDAY. When the credits ended, the monitor went dark for a moment. Then a symbolslowly appeared in the center of the screen: a glowing red circle with a five-pointed star inside it. The points of the star extended just beyond the outer edge of the circle. A second later, an image of the Crystal Key appeared, spinning slowly in the center of the glowing red star. I felt a rush of adrenaline, because I recognized the red star symbol, and I knew where it was meant to lead me. I snapped several screenshots, just to be safe. A moment later, the monitor went dark, and the Black Tiger game cabinet melted and morphed into a door-shaped portal with glowing jade edges. The exit. I let out a triumphant cheer and jumped through it.

When I emerged from the gate, my avatar reappeared back inside Tyrell’s office. The Voight-Kampff machine had reappeared in its original location, resting on the table beside me. I checked the time. Over three hours had passed since I’d first entered the gate. The room was deserted, save for the owl, and the security klaxons were no longer wailing. The NPC guards must have busted in and searched this area while I was still inside the gate, because they no longer appeared to be looking for me. The coast was clear. I made my way back to the elevator and up to the landing platform without incident. And thanks be to Crom, the Vonnegut was still parked right where I’d left it, its cloaking device still engaged. I ran on board and left Axrenox, jumping to light speed as soon as I reached orbit. As the Vonnegut streaked through hyperspace, headed for the nearest stargate, I pulled up one of the screenshots I’d taken of the red star symbol. Then I opened my grail diary and accessed the subfolder devoted to the legendary Canadian rock band Rush. Rush had been Halliday’sfavorite band, from histeens onward. He’d once revealed in an interview that he’d coded every single one of his videogames (including the OASIS) while listening exclusively to Rush albums. He often referred to Rush’s three members—Neil Peart, Alex Lifeson, and Geddy Lee—as “the Holy Trinity” or “the Gods of the North.” In my grail diary, I had every single Rush song, album, bootleg, and music video ever made. I had high-resscans of all their liner notes and album artwork. Every frame of Rush concert footage in existence. Every radio and television interview the band had ever done. Unabridged biographies on each band member, along with copies of their side projects and solo work. I pulled up the band’s discography and selected the album I was looking for: 2112, Rush’s classic sci-fi–themed concept album. A high-resolution scan of the album’s cover appeared on my display. The band’s name and the album’stitle were printed over a field ofstars, and below that, appearing as if reflected in the surface of a rippling lake, was the symbol I’d seen on the Black Tiger game’s monitor: a red five-pointed star enclosed in a circle. When I placed the album cover side by side with the screenshot of the game screen, the two symbols matched exactly. 2112’s title track is an epic seven-part song, over twenty minutes in length. The song tells the story of an anonymous rebel living in the year 2112, a time when creativity and self-expression have been outlawed. The red star on the album’s cover wasthe symbol of the Solar Federation, the oppressive interstellar society in the story. The Solar Federation was controlled by a group of “priests,” who are described in

Part II of the song, titled “The Temples of Syrinx.” Its lyrics told me exactly where the Crystal Key was hidden: We are the Priests of the Temples of Syrinx Our great computers fill the hallowed halls. We are the Priests of the Temples of Syrinx All the gifts of life are held within our walls. There was a planet in Sector Twenty-one named Syrinx. That was where I was headed now. The OASIS atlas described Syrinx as “a desolate world with rocky terrain and no NPC inhabitants.” When I accessed the planet’s colophon, I saw that Syrinx’s author was listed as “Anonymous.” But I knew the planet must have been coded by Halliday, because its design matched the world described in 2112’s liner notes. 2112 was originally released in 1976, back when most music was sold on twelveinch vinyl records. The records came in cardboard sleeves with artwork and a track listing printed on them. Some album sleeves opened up like a book and included more artwork and liner notes inside, along with lyrics and information about the band. As I pulled up a scan of 2112’s original fold-out album sleeve, I saw that there was a second image of the red star symbol on the inside. This one depicted a naked man cowering in front of the star, both his hands raised in fear. On the opposite side of the record sleeve were the printed lyrics to all seven parts of the 2112 suite. The lyrics for each section were preceded by a paragraph of prose that augmented the narrative laid out in the lyrics. These brief vignettes were told from the point of view of 2112’s anonymous protagonist. The following text preceded the lyrics to Part I: I lie awake, staring out at the bleakness of Megadon. City and sky become one, merging into a single plane, a vast sea of unbroken grey. The Twin Moons, just two pale orbs as they trace their way across the steely sky. When my ship reached Syrinx, I saw the twin moons, By-Tor and Snow Dog, that orbited the planet. Their names were taken from another classic Rush song. And down below, on the planet’s bleak gray surface, there were exactly 1,024 copies of Megadon, the domed city described in the liner notes. That was twice the number of Zork instances there’d been on Frobozz, so I knew the Sixers couldn’t barricade them all. With my cloaking device engaged, I selected the nearest instance of the city and landed the Vonnegut just outside the wall of its dome, watching my scopes for other ships. Megadon was anchored atop a rocky plateau, on the edge of an immense cliff. The city appeared to be in ruins. Its massive transparent dome was riddled with cracks and looked as though it might collapse at any moment. I was able to enter the city by squeezing through one of the largest of these cracks, at the base of the dome. The city of Megadon reminded me of an old 1950s sci-fi paperback cover painting depicting the crumbling ruins of a once-great technologically advanced civilization. In the absolute center of the city I found a towering obelisk-shaped temple with windblasted gray walls. A giant red star of the Solar Federation was emblazoned above the entrance.

I was standing before the Temple of Syrinx. It wasn’t covered by a force field, or surrounded by a detachment of Sixers. There wasn’t a soul in sight. I drew my guns and walked through the entrance of the temple. Inside, mammoth obelisk-shaped supercomputers stood in long rows, filling the giant, cathedral-like temple. I wandered along these rows, listening to the deep hum of the machines, until I finally reached the center of the temple. There, I found a raised stone altar with the five-pointed red star etched into its surface. As I stepped up to the altar, the humming of the computers ceased, and the chamber grew silent. It appeared I was supposed to place something on the altar, an offering to the Temple of Syrinx. But what kind of offering? The twelve-inch Leopardon robot I’d acquired after completing the Second Gate didn’t seem to fit. I tried placing it on the altar anyway and nothing happened. I placed the robot back in my inventory and stood there for a moment, thinking. Then I remembered something else from the 2112 liner notes. I pulled them up and scanned over them again. There was my answer, in the text that preceded Part III —“Discovery”: Behind my beloved waterfall, in the little room that was hidden beneath the cave, I found it. I brushed away the dust of the years, and picked it up, holding it reverently in my hands. I had no idea what it might be, but it was beautiful. I learned to lay my fingers across the wires, and to turn the keys to make them sound differently. As I struck the wires with my other hand, I produced my first harmonious sounds, and soon my own music! I found the waterfall near the southern edge of the city, just inside the curved wall of the atmospheric dome. As soon as I found it, I activated my jet boots and flew over the foaming river below the falls, then passed through the waterfall itself. My haptic suit did its best to simulate the sensation of torrents of falling water striking my body, but it felt more like someone pounding on my head, shoulders, and back with a bundle of sticks. Once I’d passed through the falls to the other side, I found the opening of a cave and went inside. The cave narrowed into a long tunnel, which terminated in a small, cavernous room. I searched the room and discovered that one of the stalagmites protruding from the floor was slightly worn around the tip. I grabbed the stalagmite and pulled it toward me, but it didn’t budge. I tried pushing, and it gave, bending as if on some hidden hinge, like a lever. I heard a rumble of grinding stone behind me, and I turned to see a trapdoor opening in the floor. A hole had also opened in the roof of the cave, casting a brilliant shaft of light down through the open trapdoor, into a tiny hidden chamber below. I took an item out of my inventory, a wand that could detect hidden traps, magical or otherwise. I used it to make sure the area was clear, then jumped down through the trapdoor and landed on the dusty floor of the hidden chamber. It was a tiny cubeshaped room with a large rough-hewn stone standing against the north wall. Embedded in the stone, neck first, was an electric guitar. I recognized its design from the 2112 concert footage I’d watched during the trip here. It was a 1974 Gibson Les Paul, the exact guitar used by Alex Lifeson during the 2112 tour.

I grinned at the absurd Arthurian image of the guitar in the stone. Like every gunter, I’d seen John Boorman’s film Excalibur many times, so it seemed obvious what I should do next. I reached out with my right hand, grasped the neck of the guitar, and pulled. The guitar came free of the stone with a prolonged metallic shhingggg! As I held the guitar over my head, the metallic ringing segued into a guitar power chord that echoed throughout the cave. I stared down at the guitar, about to activate my jet boots again, to fly back up through the trapdoor and out of the cave. But then an idea occurred to me and I froze. James Halliday had taken guitar lessons for a few years in high school. That was what had first inspired me to learn to play. I’d never held an actual guitar, but on a virtual axe, I could totally shred. I searched my inventory and found a guitar pick. Then I opened my grail diary and pulled up the sheet music for 2112, along with the guitar tablature for the song “Discovery,” which describes the hero’s discovery of the guitar in a room hidden behind a waterfall. As I began to play the song, the sound of the guitar blasted off the chamber walls and back out through the cave, despite the absence of any electricity or amplifiers. When I finished playing the first measure of “Discovery,” a message briefly appeared, carved into the stone from which I’d pulled the guitar. The first was ringed in red metal The second, in green stone The third is clearest crystal and cannot be unlocked alone In seconds, the words began to vanish, fading from the stone along with the strains of the last note I’d played on the guitar. I quickly snapped a screenshot of the riddle, already trying to sort out its meaning. It was about the Third Gate, of course. And how it could not “be unlocked alone.” Had the Sixers played the song and discovered this message? I seriously doubted it. They would have pulled the guitar from the stone and immediately returned it to the temple. If so, they probably didn’t know there was some sort of trick to unlocking the Third Gate. And that would explain why they still hadn’t reached the egg. I returned to the temple and placed the guitar on the altar. As I did, the towering computers around me began to emit a cacophony of sound, like a grand orchestra tuning up. The noise built to a deafening crescendo before ceasing abruptly. Then there was a flash of light on the altar, and the guitar transformed into the Crystal Key. When I reached out and picked up the key, a chime sounded, and my score on the Scoreboard increased by 25,000 points. When added to the 200,000 I’d received for clearing the Second Gate, that brought my total score up to 353,000 points, one thousand points more than Sorrento. I was back in first place. But I knew this was no time to celebrate. I quickly examined the Crystal Key, tilting it up to study its glittering, faceted surface. I didn’t see any words etched there, but I did find a small monogram etched in the center of the key’s crystal handle, a single calligraphic letter “A” that I recognized immediately.

That same letter “A” appeared in the Character Symbol box on James Halliday’s first Dungeons & Dragons character sheet. The very same monogram also appeared on the dark robes of his famous OASIS avatar, Anorak. And, I knew, that same emblematic letter adorned the front gates of Castle Anorak, his avatar’s impregnable stronghold. In the first few years of the Hunt, gunters had swarmed like hungry insects to any OASIS location thatseemed like a possible hiding place for the three keys,specifically planets originally coded by Halliday himself. Chief among these was the planet Chthonia, a painstaking re-creation of the fantasy world Halliday had created for his high-school Dungeons & Dragons campaign, and also the setting of many of his early videogames. Chthonia had become the gunters’ Mecca. Like everyone else, I’d felt obligated to make a pilgrimage there, to visit Castle Anorak. But the castle was impregnable and always had been. No avatar but Anorak himself had ever been able to pass through its entrance. But now I knew there must be a way to enter Castle Anorak. Because the Third Gate was hidden somewhere inside. When I got back to my ship, I blasted off and set a course for Chthonia in Sector Ten. Then I began to scan the newsfeeds, intending to check out the media frenzy my return to first place was generating. But my score wasn’t the top story. No, the big news that afternoon was that the hiding place of Halliday’s Easter egg had, at long last, finally been revealed to the world. It was, the news anchors said, located somewhere on the planet Chthonia, inside Castle Anorak. They knew this because the entire Sixer army was now encamped around the castle. They’d arrived earlier that day, shortly after I’d cleared the Second Gate. I knew the timing couldn’t be a coincidence. My progress must have prompted the Sixers to end their covert attempts to clear the Third Gate and make its location public by barricading it before I or anyone else could reach it. When I arrived at Chthonia a few minutes later, I did a cloaked flyby of the castle, just to gauge the lay of the land for myself. It was even worse than I’d imagined. The Sixers had installed some type of magical shield over Castle Anorak, a semitransparent dome that completely covered the castle and the area around it. Encamped inside the shield wall wasthe entire Sixer army. A vast collection of troops, tanks, weapons, and vehicles surrounded the castle on all sides. Several gunter clans were already on the scene, and they were making their first attempts to bring down the shield by launching high-yield nukes at it. Each detonation was followed by a brief atomic light show, and then the blast would dissipate harmlessly against the shield. The attacks on the shield continued for the next few hours as the news spread and more and more gunters arrived on Chthonia. The clanslaunched every type of weapon they could think of at the shield, but nothing affected it. Not nukes, not fireballs, and not magic missiles. Eventually, a team of gunters tried to dig a tunnel under the dome wall, and that was when it was discovered that the shield was actually a complete sphere surrounding the castle, above- and belowground. Later that night, several high-level gunter wizards finished casting a series of divination spells on the castle and announced on the message boards that the shield around the castle was generated by a powerful artifact called the Orb of Osuvox,

which could only be operated by a wizard who was ninety-ninth level. According to the artifact’s item description, it could create a spherical shield around itself, with a circumference of up to half a kilometer. This shield was impenetrable and indestructible and could vaporize just about anything that touched it. It could also be kept up indefinitely, as long as the wizard operating the orb remained immobile and kept both hands on the artifact. In the days that followed, gunters tried everything they could think of to penetrate the shield. Magic. Technology. Teleportation. Counterspells. Other artifacts. Nothing worked. There was no way to get inside. An air of hopelessness quickly swept through the gunter community. Solos and clansmen alike were ready to throw in the towel. The Sixers had the Crystal Key and exclusive access to the Third Gate. Everyone agreed that The End was near, that the Hunt was “all over but the crying.” During all of these developments, I somehow managed to keep my cool. There was a chance the Sixers hadn’t even figured out how to open the Third Gate yet. Of course, they had plenty of time now. They could be slow and methodical. Sooner or later, they would stumble on the solution. But I refused to give up. Until an avatar reached Halliday’s Easter egg, anything was still possible. Like any classic videogame, the Hunt had simply reached a new, more difficult level. A new level often required an entirely new strategy. I began to formulate a plan. A bold, outrageous plan that would require epic amounts of luck to pull off. I set this plan in motion by e-mailing Art3mis, Aech, and Shoto. My message told them exactly where to find the Second Gate and how to obtain the Crystal Key. Once I was sure all three of them had received my message, I initiated the next phase of my plan. This was the part that terrified me, because I knew there was a good chance it was going to end up getting me killed. But at this point, I no longer cared. I was going to reach the Third Gate, or die trying.

Going outside is highly overrated. —Anorak’s Almanac, Chapter 17, Verse 32

When the IOI corporate police came to arrest me, I was right in the middle of the movie Explorers (1985, directed by Joe Dante). It’s about three kids who build a spaceship in their backyard and then fly off to meet aliens. Easily one of the greatest kid flicks ever made. I’d gotten into the habit of watching it at least once a month. It kept me centered. I had a thumbnail of my apartment building’s external security camera feed at the edge of my display, so I saw the IOI Indentured Servant Retrieval Transport pull up out front, siren wailing and lights flashing. Then four jackbooted, riot-helmeted dropcopsjumped out and ran into the building, followed by a guy in a suit. I continued to watch them on the lobby camera as they waved their IOI badges, blew past the security station, and filed onto the elevator. Now they were on their way up to my floor. “Max,” I muttered, noting the fear in my own voice. “Execute security macro number one: Crom, strong in his mountain.” This voice command instructed my computer to execute a long series of preprogrammed actions, both online and in the real world. “You g-g-got it, Chief!” Max replied cheerfully, and a split second later, my apartment’s security system switched into lockdown mode. My reinforced platetitanium WarDoor swung down from the ceiling, slamming and locking into place over my apartment’s built-in security door. On the security camera mounted in the hallway outside my apartment, I watched the four dropcops get off the elevator and sprint down the hallway to my door. The two guys in front were carrying plasma welders. The other two held industrial-strength VoltJolt stun guns. The suit, who brought up the rear, was carrying a digital clipboard. I wasn’t surprised to see them. I knew why they were here. They were here to cut open my apartment and pull me out of it, like a chunk of Spam being removed from a can. When they reached my door, my scanner gave them the once-over, and their ID data flashed on my display, informing me that all five of these men were IOI credit officers with a valid indenturement arrest warrant for one Bryce Lynch, the occupant of this apartment. So, in keeping with local, state, and federal law, my apartment building’s security system immediately opened both of my security doors to grant them entrance. But the WarDoor that had just slammed into place kept them outside. Of course, the dropcops expected me to have redundant security, which is why they’d brought plasma welders. The IOI drone in the suitsqueezed past the dropcops and gingerly pressed histhumb to my door intercom. His name and corporate title appeared on my display: Michael Wilson, IOI Credit and Collections Division, Employee # IOI-481231.

Wilson looked up into the lens of my hallway camera and smiled pleasantly. “Mr. Lynch,” he said. “My name is Michael Wilson, and I’m with the Credit and Collections division of Innovative Online Industries.” He consulted his clipboard. “I’m here because you have failed to make the last three payments on your IOI Visa card, which has an outstanding balance in excess of twenty thousand dollars. Our records also show that you are currently unemployed and have therefore been classified as impecunious. Under current federal law, you are now eligible for mandatory indenturement. You will remain indentured until you have paid your debt to our company in full, along with all applicable interest, processing and late fees, and any other charges or penaltiesthat you incur henceforth.” Wilson motioned toward the dropcops. “These gentlemen are here to assist me in apprehending you and escorting you to your new place of employment. We request that you open your door and grant us access to your residence. Please be aware that we are authorized to seize any personal belongings you have inside. The sale value of these items will, of course, be deducted from your outstanding credit balance.” As far as I could tell, Wilson recited all of this without taking a single breath, speaking in the flat monotone of someone who repeats the same sentences all day long. After a brief pause, I replied through the intercom. “Sure thing, guys. Just give me a minute to get my pants on. Then I’ll be right out.” Wilson frowned. “Mr. Lynch, if you do not grant us access to your residence within ten seconds, we are authorized to enter by force. The cost of any damage resulting from our forced entry, including all property damage and repair labor, will be added to your outstanding balance. Thank you.” Wilson stepped away from the intercom and nodded to the others. One of the dropcops immediately powered up his welder, and when the tip began to glow molten orange, he began cutting through my War-Door’s titanium plating. The other welder moved a few feet farther down and began to cut a hole right through the wall of my apartment. These guys had access to the building’s security specs, so they knew the walls of each apartment were lined with steel plating and a layer of concrete, which they could cut through much more quickly than the titanium WarDoor. Of course, I’d taken the precaution of reinforcing my apartment’s walls, floor, and ceiling, with a titanium alloy SageCage, which I’d assembled piece by piece. Once they cut through my wall, they would have to cut through the cage, too. But this would buy me only five or six extra minutes, at the most. Then they would be inside. I’d heard that dropcops had a nickname for this procedure—cutting an indent out of a fortified residence so they could arrest him. They called it doing a C-section. I dry-swallowed two of the antianxiety pills I’d ordered in preparation for this day. I’d already taken two earlier that morning, but they didn’t seem to be working. Inside the OASIS, I closed all the windows on my display and set my account’s security level to maximum. Then I pulled up the Scoreboard, just to check it one last time and reassure myself that nothing had changed and that the Sixers still hadn’t won. The top ten rankings had been static for several days now. HIGH SCORES: 1. Art3mis 354,000 2. Parzival 353,000

3. IOI-655321 352,000 4. Aech 352,000 5. IOI-643187 349,000 6. IOI-621671 348,000 7. IOI-678324 347,000 8. Shoto 347,000 9. IOI-637330 346,000 10. IOI-699423 346,000 Art3mis, Aech, and Shoto had all cleared the Second Gate and obtained the Crystal Key within forty-eight hours of receiving my e-mail. When Art3mis received the 25,000 points for reaching the Crystal Key, it had put her back in first place, due to the point bonuses she’d already received for finding the Jade Key first, and the Copper Key second. Art3mis, Aech, and Shoto had all tried to contact me since receiving my e-mail, but I hadn’t answered any of their phone calls, e-mails, or chat requests. I saw no reason to tell them what I intended to do. They couldn’t do anything to help me and would probably just try to talk me out of it. There was no turning back now, anyway. I closed the Scoreboard and took a long look around my stronghold, wondering if it was for the last time. Then I took several quick deep breaths, like a deep-sea diver preparing to submerge, and tapped the logout icon on my display. The OASIS vanished, and my avatar reappeared inside my virtual office, a standalone simulation stored on my console’s hard drive. I opened a console window and keyed in the command word to activate my computer’s self-destruct sequence: sh*tSTORM. A progress meter appeared on my display, showing that my hard drive was now being zeroed out and wiped clean. “Good-bye, Max,” I whispered. “Adios, Wade,” Max said, just a few seconds before he was deleted. Sitting in my haptic chair, I could already feel the heat coming from the other side of the room. When I pulled off my visor, I saw smoke pouring in through the holes being cut in the door and the wall. It was starting to get too thick for my apartment’s air purifiers to handle. I began to cough. The dropcop working on my door finished cutting his hole. The smoking circle of metal fell to the floor with a heavy metallic boom that made me jump in my chair. As the welder stepped back, another dropcop stepped forward and used a small canister to spray some sort of freezing foam around the edge of the hole, cooling off the metal so they wouldn’t burn themselves when they crawled inside. Which was what they were about to do. “Clear!” one of them shouted from out in the hallway. “No visible weapons!” One of the stun-gun wielding dropcops climbed through the hole first. Suddenly, he was standing right in front of me, his weapon leveled at my face. “Don’t move!” he shouted. “Or you get the juice, understand?”

I nodded that yes, I understood. It occurred to me then that this cop was the first visitor I’d ever had in my apartment in all the time I’d lived there. The second dropcop to crawl inside wasn’t nearly as polite. Without a word, he walked over and jammed a ball gag in my mouth. This was standard procedure, because they didn’t want me to issue any more voice commandsto my computer. They needn’t have bothered. The moment the first dropcop had entered my apartment, an incendiary device had detonated inside my computer. It was already melting to slag. When the dropcop finished strapping on the ball gag, he grabbed me by the exoskeleton of my haptic suit, yanked me out of my haptic chair like a rag doll, and threw me on the floor. The other dropcop hit the kill switch that opened my WarDoor, and the last two dropcops rushed in, followed by Wilson the suit. I curled into a ball on the floor and closed my eyes. I started to shake involuntarily. I tried to prepare myself for what I knew was about to happen next. They were going to take me outside. “Mr. Lynch,” Wilson said, smiling. “I hereby place you under corporate arrest.” He turned to the dropcops. “Tell the repo team to come on up and clear this place out.” He glanced around the room and noticed the thin line of smoke now pouring out of my computer. He looked at me and shook his head. “That was stupid. We could have sold that computer to help pay down your debt.” I couldn’t reply around the ball gag, so I just shrugged and gave him the finger. They tore off my haptic suit and left it for the repo team. I was totally naked underneath. They gave me a disposable slate-gray jumpsuit to put on, with matching plastic shoes. The suit felt like sandpaper, and it began to make me itch as soon as I put it on. They’d cuffed my hands, so it wasn’t easy to scratch. They dragged me out into the hall. The harsh fluorescents sucked the color out of everything and made it look like an old black-and-white film. As we rode the elevator down to the lobby, I hummed along with the Muzak as loudly as I could, to show them I wasn’t afraid. When one of the dropcops waved his stun gun at me, I stopped. They put a hooded winter coat on me in the lobby. They didn’t want me catching pneumonia now that I was company property. A human resource. Then they led me outside, and sunlight hit my face for the first time in over half a year. It was snowing, and everything was covered in a thin layer of gray ice and slush. I didn’t know what the temperature was, but I couldn’t remember ever feeling so cold. The wind cut right to my bones. They herded me over to their transport truck. Two new indents already sat in the back, strapped into plastic seats, both wearing visors. People they’d arrested earlier that morning. The dropcops were like garbage collectors, making their daily rounds. The indent on my right was a tall, thin guy, probably a few years older than me. He looked like he might be suffering from malnutrition. The other indent was morbidly obese, and I couldn’t be sure of the person’s gender. I decided to think of him as male. His face was obscured by a mop of dirty blond hair, and something that looked like a gas mask covered his nose and mouth. A thick black tube ran from the mask down to a nozzle on the floor. I wasn’t sure of its purpose until he lurched forward, drawing his restraints tight, and vomited into the mask. I heard a vacuum activate, sucking the indent’s regurgitated Oreos down the tube and into the floor. I wondered if they stored it in an external tank or just dumped it on the street. Probably a tank. IOI would probably have his vomit analyzed and put the results in his file.

“You feel sick?” one of the dropcops asked as he removed my ball gag. “Tell me now and I’ll put a mask on you.” “I feel great,” I said, not very convincingly. “OK. But if I have to clean up your puke, I’ll make sure you regret it.” They shoved me inside and strapped me down directly across from the skinny guy. Two of the dropcops climbed into the back with us, stowing their plasma welders in a locker. The other two slammed the rear doors and climbed into the cab up front. As we pulled away from my apartment complex, I craned my neck to look through the transport’s tinted rear windows, up at the building where I’d lived for the past year. I was able to spot my window up on the forty-second floor, because of its spraypainted black glass. The repo team was probably already up there by now. All of my gear was being disassembled, inventoried, tagged, boxed, and prepared for auction. Once they finished emptying out my apartment, custodial bots would scour and disinfect it. A repair crew would patch the outer wall and replace the door. IOI would be billed, and the cost of the repairs would be added to my outstanding debt to the company. By midafternoon, the lucky gunter who was next on the apartment building’s waiting list would get a message informing him that a unit had opened up, and by this evening, the new tenant would probably already be moved in. By the time the sun went down, all evidence that I’d ever lived there would be totally erased. Asthe transportswung out onto High Street, I heard the tires crunch the salt crystals covering the frozen asphalt. One of the dropcops reached over and slapped a visor on my face. I found myself sitting on a sandy white beach, watching the sunset while waves crashed in front of me. This must be the simulation they used to keep indents calm during the ride downtown. Using my cuffed hand, I pushed the visor up onto my forehead. The dropcops didn’t seem to care or pay me any notice at all. So I craned my head again to stare out the window. I hadn’t been out here in the real world for a long time, and I wanted to see how it had changed.

A thick film of neglect still covered everything in sight. The streets, the buildings, the people. Even the snow seemed dirty. It drifted down in gray flakes, like ash after a volcanic eruption. The number of homeless people seemed to have increased drastically. Tents and cardboard shelters lined the streets, and the public parks I saw seemed to have been converted into refugee camps. Asthe transport rolled deeper into the city’sskyscraper core, I saw people clustered on every street corner and in every vacant lot, huddled around burning barrels and portable fuel-cell heaters. Others waited in line at the free solar charging stations, wearing bulky, outdated visors and haptic gloves. Their hands made small, ghostly gestures as they interacted with the far more pleasant reality of the OASIS via one of GSS’s free wireless access points. Finally, we reached 101 IOI Plaza, in the heart of downtown. I stared out the window in silent apprehension as the corporate headquarters of Innovative Online Industries Inc. came into view: two rectangular skyscrapers flanking a circular one, forming the IOI corporate logo. The IOI skyscrapers were the three tallest buildings in the city, mighty towers of steel and mirrored glass joined by dozens of connective walkways and elevator trams. The top of each tower disappeared into the sodium-vapor-drenched cloud layer above. The buildings looked identical to their headquarters in the OASIS on IOI-1, but here in the real world they seemed much more impressive. The transport rolled into a parking garage at the base of the circular tower and descended a series of concrete ramps until we arrived in a large open area resembling a loading dock. A sign over a row of wide bay doors read IOI INDENTURED EMPLOYEE INDUCTION CENTER. The other indents and I were herded off the transport, where a squad of stun gun– armed security guards was waiting to take custody of us. Our handcuffs were removed; then another guard began to swipe each of us with a handheld retina scanner. I held my breath as he held the scanner up to my eyes. A second later, the unit beeped and he read off the information on its display. “Lynch, Bryce. Age twenty-two. Full citizenship. No criminal record. Credit Default Indenturement.” He nodded to himself and tapped a series of icons on his clipboard. Then I was led into a warm, brightly lit room filled with hundreds of other new indents. They were all shuffling through a maze of guide ropes, like weary overgrown children at some nightmarish amusem*nt park. There seemed to be an equal number of men and women, but it was hard to tell, because nearly everyone shared my pale complexion and total lack of body hair, and we all wore the same gray jumpsuits and gray plastic shoes. We looked like extras from THX 1138.

The line fed into a series of security checkpoints. At the first checkpoint, each indent was given a thorough scan with a brand-new Meta-detector to make sure they weren’t hiding any electronic devices on or in their persons. While I waited for my turn, I saw several people pulled out of line when the scanner found a subcutaneous minicomputer or a voice-controlled phone installed as a tooth replacement. They were led into another room to have the devices removed. A dude just ahead of me in line actually had a top-of-the-line miniature Sinatro OASIS console concealed inside a prosthetic testicl*. Talk about balls. Once I’d cleared a few more checkpoints, I was ushered into the testing area, a giant room filled with hundreds of small, soundproofed cubicles. I was seated in one of them and given a cheap visor and an even cheaper pair of haptic gloves. The gear didn’t give me access to the OASIS, but I still found it comforting to put it on. I wasthen given a battery of increasingly difficult aptitude testsintended to measure my knowledge and abilities in every area that might conceivably be of use to my new employer. These tests were, of course, cross-referenced with the fake educational background and work history that I’d given to my bogus Bryce Lynch identity. I made sure to ace all of the tests on OASIS software, hardware, and networking, but I intentionally failed the tests designed to gauge my knowledge of James Halliday and the Easter egg. I definitely didn’t want to get placed in IOI’s Oology Division. There was a chance I might run into Sorrento there. I didn’t think he’d recognize me —we’d never actually met in person, and I now barely resembled my old school ID photo—but I didn’t want to risk it. I was already tempting fate more than anyone in their right mind ever would. Hours later, when I finally finished the last exam, I was logged into a virtual chat room to meet with an indenturement counselor. Her name was Nancy, and in a hypnotic monotone, she informed me that, due to my exemplary test scores and impressive employment record, I had been “awarded” the position of OASIS Technical Support Representative II. I would be paid $28,500 a year, minus the cost of my housing, meals, taxes, medical, dental, optical, and recreation services, all of which would be deducted automatically from my pay. My remaining income (if there was any) would be applied to my outstanding debt to the company. Once my debt was paid in full, I would be released from indenturement. At that time, based on my job performance, it was possible I would be offered a permanent position with IOI. This was a complete joke, of course. Indents were never able to pay off their debt and earn their release. Once they got finished slapping you with pay deductions, late fees, and interest penalties, you wound up owing them more each month, instead of less. Once you made the mistake of getting yourself indentured, you would probably remain indentured for life. A lot of people didn’t seem to mind this, though. They thought of it as job security. It also meant they weren’t going to starve or freeze to death in the street. My “Indenturement Contract” appeared in a window on my display. It contained a long list of disclaimers and warnings about my rights(or lack thereof) as an indentured employee. Nancy told me to read it,sign it, and proceed to Indent Processing. Then she logged out of the chat room. I scrolled to the bottom of the contract without bothering to read it. It was over six hundred pages long. I signed the name Bryce Lynch, then verified my signature with a retinal scan.

Even though I was using a fake name, I wondered if the contract might still be legally binding. I wasn’t sure, and I didn’t really care. I had a plan, and this was part of it. They led me down another corridor, into the Indenturement Processing Area. I was placed on a conveyor belt that carried me through a long series of stations. First, they took my jumpsuit and shoes and incinerated them. Then they ran me through a kind of human car wash—a series of machines that soaped, scrubbed, disinfected, rinsed, dried, and deloused me. Afterward, I was given a new gray jumpsuit and another pair of plastic slippers. At the next station, a bank of machines gave me a complete physical, including a battery of blood tests. (Luckily, the Genetic Privacy Act made it illegal for IOI to sample my DNA.) Then I was given a series of inoculations with an array of automated needle guns that shot me in both shoulders and both ass cheeks simultaneously. As I inched forward along the conveyor, flat-screen monitors mounted overhead showed the same ten-minute training film over and over, on an endless loop: “Indentured Servitude: Your Fast Track from Debt to Success!” The cast was made up of D-list television stars who cheerfully spouted corporate propaganda while relating the minutiae of IOI’s indenturement policy. After five viewings, I had every line of the damn thing memorized. By the tenth viewing, I was mouthing the words along with the actors. “What can I expect after I complete my initial processing and get placed in my permanent position?” asked Johnny, the training film’s main character. You can expect to spend the rest of yourlife as a corporate slave, Johnny, I thought. But I kept watching as, once again, the helpful IOI Human Resources rep pleasantly told Johnny all about the day-to-day life of an indent. Finally, I reached the last station, where a machine fitted me with a security anklet —a padded metal band that locked around my ankle, just above the joint. According to the training film, this device monitored my physical location and also granted or denied me access to different areas of the IOI office complex. If I tried to escape, remove the anklet, or cause trouble of any kind, the device was capable of delivering a paralyzing electrical shock. If necessary, it could also administer a heavy-duty tranquilizer directly into my bloodstream. After the anklet was on, another machine clamped a small electronic device onto my right earlobe, piercing it in two locations. I winced in pain and shouted a stream of profanity. I knew from the training film that I’d just been fitted with an OCT. OCT stood for “observation and communication tag.” But most indents just referred to it as “eargear.” It reminded me of the tags environmentalists used to put on endangered animals, to track their movements in the wild. The eargear contained a tiny comlink that allowed the main IOI Human Resources computer to make announcements and issue commands directly into my ear. It also contained a tiny forward-looking camera that let IOIsupervisorssee whatever was directly in front of me. Surveillance cameras were mounted in every room in the IOI complex, but that apparently wasn’t enough. They also had to mount a camera to the side of every indent’s head. A few seconds after my eargear was attached and activated, I began to hear the placid monotone of the HR mainframe, droning instructions and other information. The voice drove me nuts at first, but I gradually got used to it. I didn’t have much choice.

Ready Player One - Ernest Cline - Flip eBook Pages 151-200 (2024)
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