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Ready Player One, Page 22

Ernest Cline

  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, re-creations 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:


  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’s treasures as I 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 this immersive 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 never stopping to sightsee or second-guess 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 appeare
d 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 gunships filled the sky like an angry swarm of metal wasps. The ships were separating into small groups as they descended, heading off in different directions, as if 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 I shouted for him to lift off as soon as I was aboard. When I reached the cockpit 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 orbital starship repair shop 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 well-equipped 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 gunters from 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:


  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. I sent 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 hours later, at 6:12 a.m. OST, I was jolted 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.