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Ready Player One

Ernest Cline

  of a tap on the shoulder, a kick to the shin, or a gunshot in the chest. (Built-in safety software prevented my rig from actually causing me any physical harm, so a simulated gunshot actually felt more like a weak punch.) I had an identical backup suit hanging in the MoshWash cleaning unit in the corner of the room. These two haptic suits made up my entire wardrobe. My old street clothes were buried somewhere in the closet, collecting dust.

  On my hands, I wore a pair of state-of-the-art Okagami IdleHands haptic datagloves. Special tactile feedback pads covered both palms, allowing the gloves to create the illusion that I was touching objects and surfaces that didn’t actually exist.

  My visor was a brand-new pair of Dinatro RLR-7800 WreckSpex, featuring a top-of-the-line virtual retinal display. The visor drew the OASIS directly onto my retinas, at the highest frame rate and resolution perceptible to the human eye. The real world looked washed-out and blurry by comparison. The RLR-7800 was a not-yet-available-to-the-plebian-masses prototype, but I had an endorsement deal with Dinatro, so they sent me free gear (shipped to me through a series of remailing services, which I used to maintain my anonymity).

  My AboundSound audio system consisted of an array of ultrathin speakers mounted on the apartment’s walls, floor, and ceiling, providing 360 degrees of perfect spatial pin-drop sound reproduction. And the Mjolnur subwoofer was powerful enough to make my back teeth vibrate.

  The Olfatrix smell tower in the corner was capable of generating over two thousand discernible odors. A rose garden, salty ocean wind, burning cordite—the tower could convincingly re-create them all. It also doubled as an industrial-strength air conditioner/purifier, which was primarily what I used it for. A lot of jokers liked to code really horrific smells into their simulations, just to mess with people who owned smell towers, so I usually left the odor generator disabled, unless I was in a part of the OASIS where I thought being able to smell my surroundings might prove useful.

  On the floor, directly underneath my suspended haptic chair, was my Okagami Runaround omnidirectional treadmill. (“No matter where you go, there you are” was the manufacturer’s slogan.) The treadmill was about two meters square and six centimeters thick. When it was activated, I could run at top speed in any direction and never reach the edge of the platform. If I changed direction, the treadmill would sense it, and its rolling surface would change direction to match me, always keeping my body near the center of its platform. This model was also equipped with built-in lifts and an amorphous surface, so that it could simulate walking up inclines and staircases.

  You could also purchase an ACHD (anatomically correct haptic doll), if you wanted to have more “intimate” encounters inside the OASIS. ACHDs came in male, female, and dual-sex models, and were available with a wide array of options. Realistic latex skin. Servomotor-driven endoskeletons. Simulated musculature. And all of the attendant appendages and orifices one would imagine.

  Driven by loneliness, curiosity, and raging teen hormones, I’d purchased a midrange ACHD, the Shaptic ÜberBetty, a few weeks after Art3mis stopped speaking to me. After spending several highly unproductive days inside a stand-alone brothel simulation called the Pleasuredome, I’d gotten rid of the doll, out of a combination of shame and self-preservation. I’d wasted thousands of credits, missed a whole week of work, and was on the verge of completely abandoning my quest for the egg when I confronted the grim realization that virtual sex, no matter how realistic, was really nothing but glorified, computer-assisted masturbation. At the end of the day, I was still a virgin, all alone in a dark room, humping a lubed-up robot. So I got rid of the ACHD and went back to spanking the monkey the old-fashioned way.

  I felt no shame about masturbating. Thanks to Anorak’s Almanac, I now thought of it as a normal bodily function, as necessary and natural as sleeping or eating.

  AA 241:87—I would argue that masturbation is the human animal’s most important adaptation. The very cornerstone of our technological civilization. Our hands evolved to grip tools, all right—including our own. You see, thinkers, inventors, and scientists are usually geeks, and geeks have a harder time getting laid than anyone. Without the built-in sexual release valve provided by masturbation, it’s doubtful that early humans would have ever mastered the secrets of fire or discovered the wheel. And you can bet that Galileo, Newton, and Einstein never would have made their discoveries if they hadn’t first been able to clear their heads by slapping the salami (or “knocking a few protons off the old hydrogen atom”). The same goes for Marie Curie. Before she discovered radium, you can be certain she first discovered the little man in the canoe.

  It wasn’t one of Halliday’s more popular theories, but I liked it.

  As I shuffled over to the toilet, a large flat-screen monitor mounted on the wall switched on, and the smiling face of Max, my system agent software, appeared on the screen. I’d programmed Max to start up a few minutes after I turned on the lights, so I could wake up a little bit before he started jabbering to me.

  “G-g-good morning, Wade!” Max stuttered cheerily. “Rise and sh-sh-shine!”

  Running system agent software was a little like having a virtual personal assistant—one that also functioned as a voice-activated interface with your computer. System agent software was highly configurable, with hundreds of preprogrammed personalities to choose from. I’d programmed mine to look, sound, and behave like Max Headroom, the (ostensibly) computer-generated star of a late-’80s talk show, a groundbreaking cyberpunk TV series, and a slew of Coke commercials.

  “Good morning, Max,” I replied groggily.

  “I think you mean good evening, Rumpelstiltskin. It’s 7:18 p.m., OASIS Sta-sta-standard Time, Wednesday, December thirtieth.” Max was programmed to speak with a slight electronic stutter. In the mid-’80s, when the character of Max Headroom was created, computers weren’t actually powerful enough to generate a photorealistic human figure, so Max had been portrayed by an actor (the brilliant Matt Frewer) who wore a lot of rubber makeup to make him look computer-generated. But the version of Max now smiling at me on the monitor was pure software, with the best simulated AI and voice-recognition subroutines money could buy.

  I’d been running a highly customized version of MaxHeadroom v3.4.1 for a few weeks now. Before that, my system agent software had been modeled after the actress Erin Gray (of Buck Rogers and Silver Spoons fame). But she’d proved to be way too distracting, so I’d switched to Max. He was annoying at times, but he also cracked me up. He did a pretty decent job of keeping me from feeling lonesome, too.

  As I stumbled into the bathroom module and emptied my bladder, Max continued to address me from a small monitor mounted above the mirror. “Uh-oh! It appears you’ve sp-sp-sprung a leak!” he said.

  “Get a new joke,” I said. “Any news I should know about?”

  “Just the usual. Wars, rioting, famine. Nothing that would interest you.”

  “Any messages?”

  He rolled his eyes. “A few. But to answer your real question, no. Art3mis still hasn’t called or written you back, lover boy.”

  “I’ve warned you. Don’t call me that, Max. You’re begging to be deleted.”

  “Touchy, touchy. Honestly, Wade. When did you get so s-s-sensitive?”

  “I’ll erase you, Max. I mean it. Keep it up and I’ll switch back to Wilma Deering. Or I’ll try out the disembodied voice of Majel Barrett.”

  Max made a pouty face and spun around to face the shifting digital wallpaper behind him—currently a pattern of multicolored vector lines. Max was always like this. Giving me grief was part of his preprogrammed personality. I actually sort of enjoyed it, because it reminded me of hanging out with Aech. And I really missed hanging out with Aech. A lot.

  My gaze dropped to the bathroom mirror, but I didn’t much like what I saw there, so I closed my eyes until I finished urinating. I wondered (not for the first time) why I hadn’t painted the mirror black too, when I’d done the window.

  The hour or so after I woke up
was my least favorite part of each day, because I spent it in the real world. This was when I dealt with the tedious business of cleaning and exercising my physical body. I hated this part of the day because everything about it contradicted my other life. My real life, inside the OASIS. The sight of my tiny one-room apartment, my immersion rig, or my reflection in the mirror—they all served as a harsh reminder that the world I spent my days in was not, in fact, the real one.

  “Retract chair,” I said as I stepped out of the bathroom. The haptic chair instantly flattened itself again, then retracted so that it was flush against the wall, clearing a large empty space in the center of the room. I pulled on my visor and loaded up the Gym, a stand-alone simulation.

  Now I was standing in a large modern fitness center lined with exercise equipment and weight machines, all of which could be perfectly simulated by my haptic suit. I began my daily workout. Sit-ups, stomach crunches, push-ups, aerobics, weight training. Occasionally, Max would shout words of encouragement. “Get those legs up, you s-s-sissy! Feel the burn!”

  I usually got a little exercise while logged into the OASIS, by engaging in physical combat or running around the virtual landscape on my treadmill. But I spent the vast majority of my time sitting in my haptic chair, getting almost no exercise at all. I also had a habit of overeating when I was depressed or frustrated, which was most of the time. As a result, I’d gradually started to put on some extra pounds. I wasn’t in the best shape to begin with, so I quickly reached a point where I could no longer fit comfortably in my haptic chair or squeeze in to my XL haptic suit. Soon, I would need to buy a new rig, with components from the Husky line.

  I knew that if I didn’t get my weight under control, I would probably die of sloth before I found the egg. I couldn’t let that happen. So I made a snap decision and enabled the voluntary OASIS fitness lockout software on my rig. I’d regretted it almost immediately.

  From then on, my computer monitored my vital signs and kept track of exactly how many calories I burned during the course of each day. If I didn’t meet my daily exercise requirements, the system prevented me from logging into my OASIS account. This meant that I couldn’t go to work, continue my quest, or, in effect, live my life. Once the lockout was engaged, you couldn’t disable it for two months. And the software was bound to my OASIS account, so I couldn’t just buy a new computer or go rent a booth in some public OASIS café. If I wanted to log in, I had no choice but to exercise first. This proved to be the only motivation I needed.

  The lockout software also monitored my dietary intake. Each day I was allowed to select meals from a preset menu of healthy, low-calorie foods. The software would order the food for me online and it would be delivered to my door. Since I never left my apartment, it was easy for the program to keep track of everything I ate. If I ordered additional food on my own, it would increase the amount of exercise I had to do each day, to offset my additional calorie intake. This was some sadistic software.

  But it worked. The pounds began to melt off, and after a few months, I was in near-perfect health. For the first time in my life I had a flat stomach, and muscles. I also had twice the energy, and I got sick a lot less frequently. When the two months ended and I was finally given the option to disable the fitness lockout, I decided to keep it in place. Now, exercising was a part of my daily ritual.

  Once I finished with my weight training, I stepped onto my treadmill. “Begin morning run,” I said to Max. “Bifrost track.”

  The virtual gym vanished. Now I was standing on a semitransparent running track, a curved looping ribbon suspended in a starry nebula. Giant ringed planets and multicolored moons were suspended in space all around me. The running track stretched out ahead of me, rising, falling, and occasionally spiraling into a helix. An invisible barrier prevented me from accidentally running off the edge of the track and plummeting into the starry abyss. The Bifrost track was another stand-alone simulation, one of several hundred track designs stored on my console’s hard drive.

  As I began to run, Max fired up my ’80s music playlist. As the first song began, I quickly rattled off its title, artist, album, and year of release from memory: “ ‘A Million Miles Away,’ the Plimsouls, Everywhere at Once, 1983.” Then I began to sing along, reciting the lyrics. Having the right ’80s song lyric memorized might save my avatar’s life someday.

  When I finished my run, I pulled off my visor and began removing my haptic suit. This had to be done slowly to prevent damaging the suit’s components. As I carefully peeled it off, the contact patches made tiny popping sounds as they pulled free of my skin, leaving tiny circular marks all over my body. Once I had the suit off, I placed it inside the cleaning unit and laid my clean spare suit out on the floor.

  Max had already turned on the shower for me, setting the water temperature right where I liked it. As I jumped into the steam-filled stall, Max switched the music over to my shower tunes playlist. I recognized the opening riffs of “Change,” by John Waite. From the Vision Quest soundtrack. Geffen Records, 1985.

  The shower worked a lot like an old car wash. I just stood there while it did most of the work, blasting me from all angles with jets of soapy water, then rinsing me off. I had no hair to wash, because the shower also dispensed a nontoxic hair-removing solution that I rubbed all over my face and body. This eliminated the need for me to shave or cut my hair, both hassles I didn’t need. Having smooth skin also helped make sure my haptic suit fit snugly. I looked a little freaky without any eyebrows, but I got used to it.

  When the rinse jets cut off, the blow-dryers kicked on, blasting the moisture off of my skin in a matter of seconds. I stepped into the kitchen and took out a can of Sludge, a high-protein, vitamin D–infused breakfast drink (to help counteract my sunlight deprivation). As I gulped it down, my computer’s sensors silently took note, scanning the barcode and adding the calories to my total for the day. With breakfast out of the way, I pulled on my clean haptic suit. This was less tricky than taking the suit off, but it still took time to do properly.

  Once I had the suit on, I ordered the haptic chair to extend. Then I paused and spent a moment staring at my immersion rig. I’d been so proud of all this high-tech hardware when I’d first purchased it. But over the past few months, I’d come to see my rig for what it was: an elaborate contraption for deceiving my senses, to allow me to live in a world that didn’t exist. Each component of my rig was a bar in the cell where I had willingly imprisoned myself.

  Standing there, under the bleak fluorescents of my tiny one-room apartment, there was no escaping the truth. In real life, I was nothing but an antisocial hermit. A recluse. A pale-skinned pop culture–obsessed geek. An agoraphobic shut-in, with no real friends, family, or genuine human contact. I was just another sad, lost, lonely soul, wasting his life on a glorified videogame.

  But not in the OASIS. In there, I was the great Parzival. World-famous gunter and international celebrity. People asked for my autograph. I had a fan club. Several, actually. I was recognized everywhere I went (but only when I wanted to be). I was paid to endorse products. People admired and looked up to me. I got invited to the most exclusive parties. I went to all the hippest clubs and never had to wait in line. I was a pop-culture icon, a VR rock star. And, in gunter circles, I was a legend. Nay, a god.

  I sat down and pulled on my gloves and visor. Once my identity was verified, the Gregarious Simulation Systems logo appeared in front of me, followed by the log-in prompt.

  Greetings, Parzival.

  Please speak your pass phrase.

  I cleared my throat and recited my pass phrase. Each word appeared on my display as I said it. “No one in the world ever gets what they want and that is beautiful.”

  There was a brief pause, and then I let out an involuntary sigh of relief as the OASIS faded into existence all around me.

  My avatar slowly materialized in front of the control panel in my stronghold’s command center, the same spot where I’d been sitting the night before, engaged in m
y evening ritual of staring blankly at the Quatrain until I drifted off to sleep and the system logged me out. I’d been staring at the damn thing for almost six months now, and I still hadn’t been able to decipher it. No one had. Everyone had theories, of course, but the Jade Key still remained unfound, and top rankings on the Scoreboard remained static.

  My command center was located under an armored dome embedded in the rocky surface of my own private asteroid. From here I had a sweeping 360-degree view of the surrounding cratered landscape, stretching to the horizon in all directions. The rest of my stronghold was belowground, in a vast subterranean complex that stretched all the way to the asteroid’s core. I’d coded the entire thing myself, shortly after moving to Columbus. My avatar needed a stronghold, and I didn’t want any neighbors, so I’d bought the cheapest planetoid I could find—this tiny barren asteroid in Sector Fourteen. Its designation was S14A316, but I’d renamed it Falco, after the Austrian rap star. (I wasn’t a huge Falco fan or anything. I just thought it sounded like a cool name.)

  Falco had only a few square kilometers of surface area, but it had still cost me a pretty penny. It had been worth it, though. When you owned your own world, you could build whatever you wanted there. And no one could visit it unless I granted them access, something I never gave to anyone. My stronghold was my home inside the OASIS. My avatar’s sanctuary. It was the one place in the entire simulation where I was truly safe.

  As soon as my log-in sequence completed, a window popped up on my display, informing me that today was an election day. Now that I was eighteen, I could vote, in both the OASIS elections and the elections for U.S. government officials. I didn’t bother with the latter, because I didn’t see the point. The once-great country into which I’d been born now resembled its former self in name only. It didn’t matter who was in charge. Those people were rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic and everyone knew it. Besides, now that everyone could vote from home, via the OASIS, the only people who could get elected were movie stars, reality TV personalities, or radical televangelists.

  I did take the time to vote in the OASIS elections, however, because their outcomes actually affected me. The voting process only took me a few minutes, because I was already familiar with all of the major issues GSS had put on the ballot. It was also time to elect the president and VP of the OASIS User Council, but that was a no-brainer. Like most gunters, I voted to reelect Cory Doctorow and Wil Wheaton (again). There were no term limits, and those two geezers had been doing a kick-ass job of protecting user rights for over a decade.

  When I finished voting, I adjusted my haptic chair slightly and studied the command console in front of me. It was crammed with switches, buttons, keyboards, joysticks, and display screens. A bank of security monitors on my left were linked to virtual cameras placed throughout the interior and exterior of my stronghold. To my right, another bank of monitors displayed all of my favorite news and entertainment vidfeeds. Among these was my own channel: Parzival-TV—Broadcasting obscure eclectic crap, 24-7-365.

  Earlier that year, GSS had added a new feature to every OASIS user’s account: the POV (personal OASIS vidfeed) channel. It allowed anyone who paid a monthly fee to run their own streaming television network. Anyone logged into the simulation could tune in and watch your POV channel, from anywhere in the world. What you aired on your channel and who you allowed to view it were entirely up to you. Most users chose to run a “voyeur channel,” which was like being the star of your own twenty-four-hour reality show. Hovering virtual cameras would follow your avatar around the OASIS as you went about your day-to-day activities. You could limit access to your channel so that only your friends could watch, or you could charge viewers by the hour to access your POV. A lot of second-tier celebrities and pornographers did this, selling their virtual lives at a per-minute premium.

  Some people used their POV to broadcast live video of their real-world selves, or their dog, or their kids. Some people programmed nothing but old cartoons. The possibilities were endless, and the variety of stuff available seemed to grow more twisted every day. Nonstop foot fetish videos broadcast out of Eastern Europe. Amateur porn featuring deviant soccer moms in Minnesota. You name it. Every flavor of weirdness the human psyche could cook up was being filmed and broadcast online. The vast wasteland of television programming had finally reached its zenith, and the average person was no longer limited to fifteen minutes of fame. Now everyone could be on TV, every second of every day, whether or not anyone was watching.

  Parzival-TV wasn’t a voyeur channel. In fact, I never showed my avatar’s face on my vidfeed. Instead, I programmed a selection of classic ’80s TV shows, retro commercials, cartoons, music videos, and movies. Lots of movies. On the weekends, I showed old Japanese monster flicks, along with some vintage anime. Whatever struck my fancy. It didn’t really matter what I programmed. My avatar was still one of the High Five, so my vidfeed drew millions of viewers every day, regardless of what I aired, and this allowed me to sell commercial time to my various sponsors.

  Most of Parzival-TV’s regular viewers were gunters who monitored my vidfeed with the hope that I’d inadvertently reveal some key piece of information about the Jade Key or the egg itself. I never did, of course. At the moment, Parzival-TV was wrapping up a nonstop two-day Kikaider marathon. Kikaider was a late-’70s Japanese action show about a red-and-blue android who beat the crap out of rubber-suited monsters in each episode. I had a weakness for vintage kaiju and tokusatsu, shows like Spectreman, The Space Giants, and Supaidaman.

  I pulled up my programming grid and made a few changes to my evening lineup. I cleared away the episodes of Riptide and Misfits of Science I’d programmed and dropped in a few back-to-back flicks starring Gamera, my favorite giant flying turtle. I thought they should be real crowd pleasers. Then, to finish off the broadcast day, I added a few episodes of Silver Spoons.

  Art3mis also ran her own vidfeed channel, Art3mivision, and I always kept one of my monitors tuned to it. Right now, she was airing her usual Monday evening fare: an episode of Square Pegs. After that would be ElectraWoman and DynaGirl, followed by back-to-back episodes of Isis and Wonder Woman. Her programming lineup hadn’t changed in ages. But it didn’t matter. She still got killer ratings. Recently, she’d also launched her own wildly successful clothing line for full-figured female avatars, under the label Art3Miss. She was doing really well for herself.

  After that night in the Distracted Globe, Art3mis had cut off all contact with me. She blocked all of my e-mails, phone calls, and chat requests. She also stopped making posts to her blog.

  I tried everything I could think of to reach her. I sent her avatar flowers. I made multiple trips to her avatar’s stronghold, an armored palace on Benatar, the small moon she owned. I dropped mix tapes and notes on her palace from the air, like lovesick bombs. Once, in a supreme act of desperation, I stood outside her palace gates for two solid hours, with a boom box over my head, blasting “In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel at full volume.

  She didn’t come out. I don’t even know if she was home.

  I’d been living in Columbus for over five months now, and it had been eight long, torturous weeks since I’d last spoken to Art3mis. But I hadn’t spent that time moping around and feeling sorry for myself. Well, not all of it, anyway. I’d tried to enjoy my “new life” as a world-famous sector-hopping gunter. Even though I’d maxxed out my avatar’s power level, I continued to complete as many quests as possible, to add to my already impressive collection of weapons, magic items, and vehicles, which I kept in a vault deep within my stronghold. Questing kept me busy and served as a welcome distraction from the growing loneliness and isolation I felt.

  I’d tried to reconnect with Aech after Art3mis had dumped me, but things weren’t the same. We’d grown apart, and I knew it was my fault. Our conversations were now stilted and reserved, as if we were both afraid of revealing some key piece of information the other might be able to use. I could tell he no longer trusted me. And whil
e I’d been off obsessing over Art3mis, it seemed Aech had become obsessed with being the first gunter to find the Jade Key. But it had been almost half a year since we’d cleared the First Gate, and the Jade Key’s location still remained a mystery.

  I hadn’t spoken to Aech in almost a month. My last conversation with him had devolved into a shouting match, which had ended when I reminded Aech that he “never even would have found the Copper Key” if I hadn’t led him straight to it. He’d glared at me in silence for a second, then logged out of the chat room. Stubborn pride kept me from calling him back right away to apologize, and now it seemed like too much time had passed.

  Yeah. I was on a roll. In less than six months, I’d managed to wreck both of my closest friendships.

  I flipped over to Aech’s channel, which he called the H-Feed. He was currently showing a WWF match from the late ’80s, featuring Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant. I didn’t even bother checking Daito and Shoto’s channel, the Daishow, because I knew they’d be showing some old samurai movie. That’s all those guys ever aired.