Ready player one, p.23
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       Ready Player One, p.23
 

           Ernest Cline

  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 was talking to another person was shattered, and I felt even more alone. You know you’ve totally screwed up your life when your whole world turns to shit 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 self-destruct 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 ju
mped 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 was time 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.

  As soon as Shoto and Daito learned that Frobozz was the 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 power-armored 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 across the 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 pa
id 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. This time 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.

 
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