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Ready Player One, Page 3

Ernest Cline

  civilization running like it was before. So we’ve had to cut back. Big-time. We call this the Global Energy Crisis, and it’s been going on for a while now.

  “Also, it turns out that burning all of those fossil fuels had some nasty side effects, like raising the temperature of our planet and screwing up the environment. So now the polar ice caps are melting, sea levels are rising, and the weather is all messed up. Plants and animals are dying off in record numbers, and lots of people are starving and homeless. And we’re still fighting wars with each other, mostly over the few resources we have left.

  “Basically, kid, what this all means is that life is a lot tougher than it used to be, in the Good Old Days, back before you were born. Things used to be awesome, but now they’re kinda terrifying. To be honest, the future doesn’t look too bright. You were born at a pretty crappy time in history. And it looks like things are only gonna get worse from here on out. Human civilization is in ‘decline.’ Some people even say it’s ‘collapsing.’

  “You’re probably wondering what’s going to happen to you. That’s easy. The same thing is going to happen to you that has happened to every other human being who has ever lived. You’re going to die. We all die. That’s just how it is.

  “What happens when you die? Well, we’re not completely sure. But the evidence seems to suggest that nothing happens. You’re just dead, your brain stops working, and then you’re not around to ask annoying questions anymore. Those stories you heard? About going to a wonderful place called ‘heaven’ where there is no more pain or death and you live forever in a state of perpetual happiness? Also total bullshit. Just like all that God stuff. There’s no evidence of a heaven and there never was. We made that up too. Wishful thinking. So now you have to live the rest of your life knowing you’re going to die someday and disappear forever.


  OK, on second thought, maybe honesty isn’t the best policy after all. Maybe it isn’t a good idea to tell a newly arrived human being that he’s been born into a world of chaos, pain, and poverty just in time to watch everything fall to pieces. I discovered all of that gradually over several years, and it still made me feel like jumping off a bridge.

  Luckily, I had access to the OASIS, which was like having an escape hatch into a better reality. The OASIS kept me sane. It was my playground and my preschool, a magical place where anything was possible.

  The OASIS is the setting of all my happiest childhood memories. When my mom didn’t have to work, we would log in at the same time and play games or go on interactive storybook adventures together. She used to have to force me to log out every night, because I never wanted to return to the real world. Because the real world sucked.

  I never blamed my mom for the way things were. She was a victim of fate and cruel circumstance, like everyone else. Her generation had it the hardest. She’d been born into a world of plenty, then had to watch it all slowly vanish. More than anything, I remember feeling sorry for her. She was depressed all the time, and taking drugs seemed to be the only thing she truly enjoyed. Of course, they were what eventually killed her. When I was eleven years old, she shot a bad batch of something into her arm and died on our ratty fold-out sofa bed while listening to music on an old mp3 player I’d repaired and given to her the previous Christmas.

  That was when I had to move in with my mom’s sister, Alice. Aunt Alice didn’t take me in out of kindness or familial responsibility. She did it to get the extra food vouchers from the government every month. Most of the time, I had to find food on my own. This usually wasn’t a problem, because I had a talent for finding and fixing old computers and busted OASIS consoles, which I sold to pawnshops or traded for food vouchers. I earned enough to keep from going hungry, which was more than a lot of my neighbors could say.

  The year after my mom died, I spent a lot of time wallowing in self-pity and despair. I tried to look on the bright side, to remind myself that, orphaned or not, I was still better off than most of the kids in Africa. And Asia. And North America, too. I’d always had a roof over my head and more than enough food to eat. And I had the OASIS. My life wasn’t so bad. At least that’s what I kept telling myself, in a vain attempt to stave off the epic loneliness I now felt.

  Then the Hunt for Halliday’s Easter egg began. That was what saved me, I think. Suddenly I’d found something worth doing. A dream worth chasing. For the last five years, the Hunt had given me a goal and purpose. A quest to fulfill. A reason to get up in the morning. Something to look forward to.

  The moment I began searching for the egg, the future no longer seemed so bleak.

  I was halfway through the fourth episode of my Family Ties mini-marathon when the laundry room door creaked open and my aunt Alice walked in, a malnourished harpy in a housecoat, clutching a basket of dirty clothes. She looked more lucid than usual, which was bad news. She was much easier to deal with when she was high.

  She glanced over at me with the usual look of disdain and started to load her clothes into the washer. Then her expression changed and she peeked around the dryer to get a better look at me. Her eyes went wide when she spotted my laptop. I quickly closed it and began to shove it into my backpack, but I knew it was already too late.

  “Hand it over, Wade,” she ordered, reaching for the laptop. “I can pawn it to help pay our rent.”

  “No!” I shouted, twisting away from her. “Come on, Aunt Alice. I need it for school.”

  “What you need is to show some gratitude!” she barked. “Everyone else around here has to pay rent. I’m tired of you leeching off of me!”

  “You keep all of my food vouchers. That more than covers my share of the rent.”

  “The hell it does!” She tried again to grab the laptop out of my hands, but I refused to let go of it. So she turned and stomped back to her room. I knew what was coming next, so I quickly entered a command on my laptop that locked its keyboard and erased the hard drive.

  Aunt Alice returned a few seconds later with her boyfriend, Rick, who was still half-asleep. Rick was perpetually shirtless, because he liked to show off his impressive collection of prison tattoos. Without saying a word, he walked over and raised a fist at me threateningly. I flinched and handed over the laptop. Then he and Aunt Alice walked out, already discussing how much the computer might fetch at a pawnshop.

  Losing the laptop wasn’t a big deal. I had two spares stowed in my hideout. But they weren’t nearly as fast, and I would have to reload all of my media onto them from backup drives. A total pain in the ass. But it was my own fault. I knew the risk of bringing anything of value back here.

  The dark blue light of dawn was starting to creep in through the laundry room window. I decided it might be a good idea to leave for school a little early today.

  I dressed as quickly and quietly as possible, pulling on the worn corduroys, baggy sweater, and oversize coat that comprised my entire winter wardrobe. Then I put on my backpack and climbed up onto the washing machine. After pulling on my gloves, I slid open the frost-covered window. The arctic morning air stung my cheeks as I gazed out over the uneven sea of trailer rooftops.

  My aunt’s trailer was the top unit in a “stack” twenty-two mobile homes high, making it a level or two taller than the majority of the stacks immediately surrounding it. The trailers on the bottom level rested on the ground, or on their original concrete foundations, but the units stacked above them were suspended on a reinforced modular scaffold, a haphazard metal latticework that had been constructed piecemeal over the years.

  We lived in the Portland Avenue Stacks, a sprawling hive of discolored tin shoeboxes rusting on the shores of I-40, just west of Oklahoma City’s decaying skyscraper core. It was a collection of over five hundred individual stacks, all connected to each other by a makeshift network of recycled pipes, girders, support beams, and footbridges. The spires of a dozen ancient construction cranes (used to do the actual stacking) were positioned around the stacks’ ever-expanding outer perimeter.

; The top level or “roof” of the stacks was blanketed with a patchwork array of old solar panels that provided supplemental power to the units below. A bundle of hoses and corrugated tubing snaked up and down the side of each stack, supplying water to each trailer and carrying away sewage (luxuries not available in some of the other stacks scattered around the city). Very little sunlight made it to the bottom level (known as the “floor”). The dark, narrow strips of ground between the stacks were clogged with the skeletons of abandoned cars and trucks, their gas tanks emptied and their exit routes blocked off long ago.

  One of our neighbors, Mr. Miller, once explained to me that trailer parks like ours had originally consisted of a few dozen mobile homes arranged in neat rows on the ground. But after the oil crash and the onset of the energy crisis, large cities had been flooded with refugees from surrounding suburban and rural areas, resulting in a massive urban housing shortage. Real estate within walking distance of a big city became far too valuable to waste on a flat plane of mobile homes, so someone had cooked up the brilliant idea of, as Mr. Miller put it, “stacking the sumbitches,” to maximize the use of ground space. The idea caught on in a big way, and trailer parks across the country had quickly evolved into “stacks” like this one—strange hybrids of shantytowns, squatter settlements, and refugee camps. They were now scattered around the outskirts of most major cities, each one overflowing with uprooted rednecks like my parents, who—desperate for work, food, electricity, and reliable OASIS access—had fled their dying small towns and had used the last of their gasoline (or their beasts of burden) to haul their families, RVs, and trailer homes to the nearest metropolis.

  Every stack in our park stood at least fifteen mobile homes high (with the occasional RV, shipping container, Airstream trailer, or VW microbus mixed in for variety). In recent years, many of the stacks had grown to a height of twenty units or more. This made a lot of people nervous. Stack collapses weren’t that uncommon, and if the scaffold supports buckled at the wrong angle, the domino effect could bring down four or five of the neighboring stacks too.

  Our trailer was near the northern edge of the stacks, which ran up to a crumbling highway overpass. From my vantage point at the laundry room window, I could see a thin stream of electric vehicles crawling along the cracked asphalt, carrying goods and workers into the city. As I stared out at the grim skyline, a bright sliver of the sun peeked over the horizon. Watching it rise, I performed a mental ritual: Whenever I saw the sun, I reminded myself that I was looking at a star. One of over a hundred billion stars in our galaxy. A galaxy that was just one of billions of other galaxies in the observable universe. This helped me keep things in perspective. I’d started doing it after watching a science program from the early ’80s called Cosmos.

  I slipped out the window as quietly as possible and, clutching the bottom of the window frame, slid down the cold surface of the trailer’s metal siding. The steel platform on which the trailer rested was only slightly wider and longer than the trailer itself, leaving a ledge about a foot and a half wide all the way around. I carefully lowered myself until my feet rested on this ledge, then reached up to close the window behind me. I grabbed hold of a rope I’d strung there at waist level to serve as a handhold and began to sidestep along the ledge to the corner of the platform. From there I was able to descend the ladderlike frame of the scaffolding. I almost always took this route when leaving or returning to my aunt’s trailer. A rickety metal staircase was bolted to the side of the stack, but it shook and knocked against the scaffolding, so I couldn’t use it without announcing my presence. Bad news. In the stacks, it was best to avoid being heard or seen, whenever possible. There were often dangerous and desperate people about—the sort who would rob you, rape you, and then sell your organs on the black market.

  Descending the network of metal girders had always reminded me of old platform videogames like Donkey Kong or BurgerTime. I’d seized upon this idea a few years earlier when I coded my first Atari 2600 game (a gunter rite of passage, like a Jedi building his first lightsaber). It was a Pitfall rip-off called The Stacks where you had to navigate through a vertical maze of trailers, collecting junk computers, snagging food-voucher power-ups, and avoiding meth addicts and pedophiles on your way to school. My game was a lot more fun than the real thing.

  As I climbed down, I paused next to the Airstream trailer three units below ours, where my friend Mrs. Gilmore lived. She was a sweet old lady in her mid-seventies, and she always seemed to get up ridiculously early. I peeked in her window and saw her shuffling around in her kitchen, making breakfast. She spotted me after a few seconds, and her eyes lit up.

  “Wade!” she said, cracking open her window. “Good morning, my dear boy.”

  “Good morning, Mrs. G,” I said. “I hope I didn’t startle you.”

  “Not at all,” she said. She pulled her robe tight against the draft coming in the window. “It’s freezing out there! Why don’t you come in and have some breakfast? I’ve got some soy bacon. And these powdered eggs aren’t too bad, if you put enough salt on them.…”

  “Thanks, but I can’t this morning, Mrs. G. I have to get to school.”

  “All right. Rain check, then.” She blew me a kiss and started to close the window. “Try not to break your neck climbing around out there, OK, Spider-Man?”

  “Will do. See ya later, Mrs. G.” I waved good-bye to her and continued my descent.

  Mrs. Gilmore was a total sweetheart. She let me crash on her couch when I needed to, although it was hard for me to sleep there because of all her cats. Mrs. G was super-religious and spent most of her time in the OASIS, sitting in the congregation of one of those big online mega-churches, singing hymns, listening to sermons, and taking virtual tours of the Holy Land. I fixed her ancient OASIS console whenever it went on the fritz, and in return, she answered my endless questions about what it had been like for her to grow up during the 1980s. She knew the coolest bits of ’80s trivia—stuff you couldn’t learn from books or movies. She was always praying for me too. Trying her hardest to save my soul. I never had the heart to tell her that I thought organized religion was a total crock. It was a pleasant fantasy that gave her hope and kept her going—which was exactly what the Hunt was for me. To quote the Almanac: “People who live in glass houses should shut the fuck up.”

  When I reached the bottom level, I jumped off the scaffold and dropped the few remaining feet to the ground. My rubber boots crunched into the slush and frozen mud. It was still pretty dark down here, so I took out my flashlight and headed east, weaving my way through the dark maze, doing my best to remain unseen while being careful to avoid tripping over a shopping cart, engine block, or one of the other pieces of junk littering the narrow alleys between the stacks. I rarely saw anyone out at this time of the morning. The commuter shuttles ran only a few times a day, so the residents lucky enough to have a job would already be waiting at the bus stop by the highway. Most of them worked as day laborers in the giant factory farms that surrounded the city.

  After walking about half a mile, I reached a giant mound of old cars and trucks piled haphazardly along the stacks’ eastern perimeter. Decades ago, the cranes had cleared the park of as many abandoned vehicles as possible, to make room for even more stacks, and they’d dumped them in huge piles like this one all around the settlement’s perimeter. Many of them were nearly as tall as the stacks themselves.

  I walked to the edge of the pile, and after a quick glance around to make sure I wasn’t being watched or followed, I turned sideways to squeeze through a gap between two crushed cars. From there, I ducked, clambered, and sidestepped my way farther and farther into the ramshackle mountain of twisted metal, until I reached a small open space at the rear of a buried cargo van. Only the rear third of the van was visible. The rest was concealed by the other vehicles stacked on and around it. Two overturned pickup trucks lay across the van’s roof at different angles, but most of their weight was supported by the cars stacked on either side, creating a ki
nd of protective arch that had prevented the van from being crushed by the mountain of vehicles piled above it.

  I pulled out a chain I kept around my neck, on which there hung a single key. In a stroke of luck, this key had still been hanging from the van’s ignition when I’d first discovered it. Many of these vehicles had been in working condition when they were abandoned. Their owners had simply no longer been able to afford fuel for them, so they’d just parked them and walked away.

  I pocketed my flashlight and unlocked the van’s rear right door. It opened about a foot and a half, giving me just enough room to squeeze inside. I pulled the door closed behind me and locked it again. The van’s rear doors had no windows, so I was hunched over in total darkness for a second, until my fingers found the old power strip I’d duct-taped to the ceiling. I flipped it on, and an old desk lamp flooded the tiny space with light.

  The crumpled green roof of a compact car covered the crushed opening where the windshield had been, but the damage to the van’s front end didn’t extend beyond the cab. The rest of the interior remained intact. Someone had removed all of the van’s seats (probably to use as furniture), leaving a small “room” about four feet wide, four feet high, and nine feet long.

  This was my hideout.

  I’d discovered it four years earlier, while searching for discarded computer parts. When I first opened the door and gazed into the van’s darkened interior, I knew right away that I’d found something of immeasurable value: privacy. This was a place no one else knew about, where I wouldn’t have to worry about getting hassled or slapped around by my aunt or whatever loser she was currently dating. I could keep my things here without worrying they’d be stolen. And, most important, it was a place where I could access the OASIS in peace.

  The van was my refuge. My Batcave. My Fortress of Solitude. It was where I attended school, did my homework, read books, watched movies, and played videogames. It was also where I conducted my ongoing quest to find Halliday’s Easter egg.

  I’d covered the walls, floor, and ceiling with Styrofoam egg cartons and pieces of carpeting in an effort to soundproof the van as much as possible. Several cardboard boxes of busted laptops and computer parts sat in the corner, next to a rack of old car batteries and a modified exercise bike I’d rigged up as a recharger. The only furniture was a folding lawn chair.

  I dropped my backpack, shrugged off my coat, and hopped on the exercise bike. Charging the batteries was usually the only physical exercise I got each day. I pedaled until the meter said the batteries had a full charge, then sat down in my chair and switched on the small electric heater I kept beside it. I pulled off my gloves and rubbed my hands in front of the filaments as they began to glow bright orange. I couldn’t leave the heater on for very long, or it would drain the batteries.

  I opened the rat-proof metal box where I kept my food cache and took out some bottled water and a packet of powdered milk. I mixed these together in a bowl, then dumped in a generous serving of Fruit Rocks cereal. Once I’d wolfed it down, I retrieved an old plastic Star Trek lunch box I kept hidden under the van’s crushed dashboard. Inside were my school-issued OASIS console, haptic gloves, and visor. These items were, by far, the most valuable things I owned. Far too valuable to carry around with me.

  I pulled on my elastic haptic gloves and flexed my fingers to make sure none of the joints was sticking. Then I grabbed my OASIS console, a flat black rectangle about the size of a paperback book. It had a wireless network antenna built into it, but the reception inside the van was for shit, since it was buried under a huge mound of dense metal. So I’d rigged up an external antenna and mounted it on the hood of a car at the top of the junk pile. The antenna cable snaked up through a hole I’d punched in the van’s ceiling. I plugged it into a port on the side of the console, then slipped on my visor. It fit snugly around my eyes like a pair of swimmer’s goggles, blocking out all external light. Small earbuds extended from the visor’s temples and automatically plugged themselves into my ears. The visor also housed two built-in stereo voice microphones to pick up everything I said.

  I powered on the console and initiated the log-in sequence. I saw a brief flash of red as the visor scanned my retinas. Then I cleared my throat and said my log-in pass phrase, being careful to enunciate: “You have been recruited by the Star League to defend the Frontier against Xur and the Ko-Dan Armada.”

  My pass phrase was also verified, along with my voice pattern, and then I was logged in. The following text appeared, superimposed in the center of my virtual display:

  Identity verification successful.

  Welcome to the OASIS, Parzival!

  Login Completed: 07:53:21 OST-2.10.2045

  As the text faded away, it was replaced by a short message, just three words long. This message had been embedded in the log-in sequence by James Halliday himself, when he’d first programmed the OASIS, as an homage to the simulation’s direct ancestors, the coin-operated videogames of his youth. These three words were always the last thing an OASIS user saw before leaving the real world and entering the virtual one:


  My avatar materialized in front of my locker on the second floor of my high school—the exact spot where I’d been standing when I’d logged out the night before.

  I glanced up and down the hallway. My virtual surroundings looked almost (but not quite) real. Everything inside the OASIS was beautifully rendered in three dimensions. Unless you pulled focus and stopped to examine your surroundings more closely, it was easy to forget that everything you were seeing was computer-generated. And that was with my crappy school-issued OASIS console. I’d heard that if you accessed the simulation with a new state-of-the-art immersion rig, it was almost impossible to tell the OASIS from reality.

  I touched my locker door and it popped open with a soft metallic click. The inside was sparsely decorated. A picture of Princess Leia posing with a blaster pistol. A group photo of the members of Monty Python in their Holy Grail costumes. James Halliday’s Time magazine cover. I reached up and tapped the stack of textbooks on the locker’s top shelf and they vanished, then reappeared in my avatar’s item inventory.

  Aside from my textbooks, my avatar had only a few meager possessions: a flashlight, an iron shortsword, a small bronze shield, and a suit of banded leather armor. These items were all nonmagical and of low quality, but they were the best I could afford. Items in the OASIS had just as much value as things in the real world (sometimes more), and you couldn’t pay for them with food vouchers. The OASIS credit was the coin of the realm, and in these dark times, it was also one of the world’s most stable currencies, valued higher than the dollar, pound, euro, or yen.

  A small mirror was mounted inside my locker door, and I caught a glimpse of my virtual self as I closed it. I’d designed my avatar’s face and body to look, more or less, like my own. My avatar had a slightly smaller nose than me, and he was taller. And thinner. And more muscular. And he didn’t have any teenage acne. But aside from these minor details, we looked more or less identical. The school’s strictly enforced dress code required that all student avatars be human, and of the same gender and age as the student. No giant two-headed hermaphrodite demon unicorn avatars were allowed. Not on school grounds, anyway.

  You could give your OASIS avatar any name you liked, as long as it was unique. Meaning you had to pick a name that hadn’t already been taken by someone else. Your avatar’s name was also your e-mail address and chat ID, so you wanted it to be cool and easy to remember. Celebrities had been known to pay huge sums of money to buy an avatar name they wanted from a cyber-squatter who had already reserved it.

  When I’d first created my OASIS account, I’d named my avatar Wade_the_Great. After that, I kept changing it every few months, usually to something equally ridiculous. But my avatar had now had the same name for over five years. On the day the Hunt began, the day I’d decided to become a gunter, I’d renamed my avatar Parzival, after the knight of Arthurian legend who had f
ound the Holy Grail. The other more common spellings of that knight’s name, Perceval and Percival, had already been taken by other users. But I preferred the name Parzival, anyway. I thought it had a nice ring to it.

  People rarely used their real names online. Anonymity was one of the major perks of the OASIS. Inside the simulation, no one knew who you really were, unless you wanted them to. Much of the OASIS’s popularity and culture were built around this fact. Your real name, fingerprints, and retinal patterns were stored in your OASIS account, but Gregarious Simulation Systems kept that information encrypted and confidential. Even GSS’s own employees couldn’t look up an avatar’s true identity. Back when Halliday was still running the company, GSS had won the right to keep every OASIS user’s identity private in a landmark Supreme Court