Ready player one, p.25
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       Ready Player One, p.25
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           Ernest Cline

  a track listing printed on them. Some album sleeves opened up like a book and included more artwork and liner notes inside, along with lyrics and information about the band. As I pulled up a scan of 2112’s original fold-out album sleeve, I saw that there was a second image of the red star symbol on the inside. This one depicted a naked man cowering in front of the star, both his hands raised in fear.

  On the opposite side of the record sleeve were the printed lyrics to all seven parts of the 2112 suite. The lyrics for each section were preceded by a paragraph of prose that augmented the narrative laid out in the lyrics. These brief vignettes were told from the point of view of 2112’s anonymous protagonist.

  The following text preceded the lyrics to Part I:

  I lie awake, staring out at the bleakness of Megadon. City and sky become one, merging into a single plane, a vast sea of unbroken grey. The Twin Moons, just two pale orbs as they trace their way across the steely sky.

  When my ship reached Syrinx, I saw the twin moons, By-Tor and Snow Dog, that orbited the planet. Their names were taken from another classic Rush song. And down below, on the planet’s bleak gray surface, there were exactly 1,024 copies of Megadon, the domed city described in the liner notes. That was twice the number of Zork instances there’d been on Frobozz, so I knew the Sixers couldn’t barricade them all.

  With my cloaking device engaged, I selected the nearest instance of the city and landed the Vonnegut just outside the wall of its dome, watching my scopes for other ships.

  Megadon was anchored atop a rocky plateau, on the edge of an immense cliff. The city appeared to be in ruins. Its massive transparent dome was riddled with cracks and looked as though it might collapse at any moment. I was able to enter the city by squeezing through one of the largest of these cracks, at the base of the dome.

  The city of Megadon reminded me of an old 1950s sci-fi paperback cover painting depicting the crumbling ruins of a once-great technologically advanced civilization. In the absolute center of the city I found a towering obelisk-shaped temple with wind-blasted gray walls. A giant red star of the Solar Federation was emblazoned above the entrance.

  I was standing before the Temple of Syrinx.

  It wasn’t covered by a force field, or surrounded by a detachment of Sixers. There wasn’t a soul in sight.

  I drew my guns and walked through the entrance of the temple.

  Inside, mammoth obelisk-shaped supercomputers stood in long rows, filling the giant, cathedral-like temple. I wandered along these rows, listening to the deep hum of the machines, until I finally reached the center of the temple.

  There, I found a raised stone altar with the five-pointed red star etched into its surface. As I stepped up to the altar, the humming of the computers ceased, and the chamber grew silent.

  It appeared I was supposed to place something on the altar, an offering to the Temple of Syrinx. But what kind of offering?

  The twelve-inch Leopardon robot I’d acquired after completing the Second Gate didn’t seem to fit. I tried placing it on the altar anyway and nothing happened. I placed the robot back in my inventory and stood there for a moment, thinking. Then I remembered something else from the 2112 liner notes. I pulled them up and scanned over them again. There was my answer, in the text that preceded Part III—“Discovery”:

  Behind my beloved waterfall, in the little room that was hidden beneath the cave, I found it. I brushed away the dust of the years, and picked it up, holding it reverently in my hands. I had no idea what it might be, but it was beautiful. I learned to lay my fingers across the wires, and to turn the keys to make them sound differently. As I struck the wires with my other hand, I produced my first harmonious sounds, and soon my own music!

  I found the waterfall near the southern edge of the city, just inside the curved wall of the atmospheric dome. As soon as I found it, I activated my jet boots and flew over the foaming river below the falls, then passed through the waterfall itself. My haptic suit did its best to simulate the sensation of torrents of falling water striking my body, but it felt more like someone pounding on my head, shoulders, and back with a bundle of sticks. Once I’d passed through the falls to the other side, I found the opening of a cave and went inside. The cave narrowed into a long tunnel, which terminated in a small, cavernous room.

  I searched the room and discovered that one of the stalagmites protruding from the floor was slightly worn around the tip. I grabbed the stalagmite and pulled it toward me, but it didn’t budge. I tried pushing, and it gave, bending as if on some hidden hinge, like a lever. I heard a rumble of grinding stone behind me, and I turned to see a trapdoor opening in the floor. A hole had also opened in the roof of the cave, casting a brilliant shaft of light down through the open trapdoor, into a tiny hidden chamber below.

  I took an item out of my inventory, a wand that could detect hidden traps, magical or otherwise. I used it to make sure the area was clear, then jumped down through the trapdoor and landed on the dusty floor of the hidden chamber. It was a tiny cube-shaped room with a large rough-hewn stone standing against the north wall. Embedded in the stone, neck first, was an electric guitar. I recognized its design from the 2112 concert footage I’d watched during the trip here. It was a 1974 Gibson Les Paul, the exact guitar used by Alex Lifeson during the 2112 tour.

  I grinned at the absurd Arthurian image of the guitar in the stone. Like every gunter, I’d seen John Boorman’s film Excalibur many times, so it seemed obvious what I should do next. I reached out with my right hand, grasped the neck of the guitar, and pulled. The guitar came free of the stone with a prolonged metallic shhingggg!

  As I held the guitar over my head, the metallic ringing segued into a guitar power chord that echoed throughout the cave. I stared down at the guitar, about to activate my jet boots again, to fly back up through the trapdoor and out of the cave. But then an idea occurred to me and I froze.

  James Halliday had taken guitar lessons for a few years in high school. That was what had first inspired me to learn to play. I’d never held an actual guitar, but on a virtual axe, I could totally shred.

  I searched my inventory and found a guitar pick. Then I opened my grail diary and pulled up the sheet music for 2112, along with the guitar tablature for the song “Discovery,” which describes the hero’s discovery of the guitar in a room hidden behind a waterfall. As I began to play the song, the sound of the guitar blasted off the chamber walls and back out through the cave, despite the absence of any electricity or amplifiers.

  When I finished playing the first measure of “Discovery,” a message briefly appeared, carved into the stone from which I’d pulled the guitar.

  The first was ringed in red metal

  The second, in green stone

  The third is clearest crystal

  and cannot be unlocked alone

  In seconds, the words began to vanish, fading from the stone along with the strains of the last note I’d played on the guitar. I quickly snapped a screenshot of the riddle, already trying to sort out its meaning. It was about the Third Gate, of course. And how it could not “be unlocked alone.”

  Had the Sixers played the song and discovered this message? I seriously doubted it. They would have pulled the guitar from the stone and immediately returned it to the temple.

  If so, they probably didn’t know there was some sort of trick to unlocking the Third Gate. And that would explain why they still hadn’t reached the egg.

  I returned to the temple and placed the guitar on the altar. As I did, the towering computers around me began to emit a cacophony of sound, like a grand orchestra tuning up. The noise built to a deafening crescendo before ceasing abruptly. Then there was a flash of light on the altar, and the guitar transformed into the Crystal Key.

  When I reached out and picked up the key, a chime sounded, and my score on the Scoreboard increased by 25,000 points. When added to the 200,000 I’d received for clearing the Second Gate, that brought my total score up to 353,000 points, one thousand points more th
an Sorrento. I was back in first place.

  But I knew this was no time to celebrate. I quickly examined the Crystal Key, tilting it up to study its glittering, faceted surface. I didn’t see any words etched there, but I did find a small monogram etched in the center of the key’s crystal handle, a single calligraphic letter “A” that I recognized immediately.

  That same letter “A” appeared in the Character Symbol box on James Halliday’s first Dungeons & Dragons character sheet. The very same monogram also appeared on the dark robes of his famous OASIS avatar, Anorak. And, I knew, that same emblematic letter adorned the front gates of Castle Anorak, his avatar’s impregnable stronghold.

  In the first few years of the Hunt, gunters had swarmed like hungry insects to any OASIS location that seemed like a possible hiding place for the three keys, specifically planets originally coded by Halliday himself. Chief among these was the planet Chthonia, a painstaking re-creation of the fantasy world Halliday had created for his high-school Dungeons & Dragons campaign, and also the setting of many of his early videogames. Chthonia had become the gunters’ Mecca. Like everyone else, I’d felt obligated to make a pilgrimage there, to visit Castle Anorak. But the castle was impregnable and always had been. No avatar but Anorak himself had ever been able to pass through its entrance.

  But now I knew there must be a way to enter Castle Anorak. Because the Third Gate was hidden somewhere inside.

  When I got back to my ship, I blasted off and set a course for Chthonia in Sector Ten. Then I began to scan the newsfeeds, intending to check out the media frenzy my return to first place was generating. But my score wasn’t the top story. No, the big news that afternoon was that the hiding place of Halliday’s Easter egg had, at long last, finally been revealed to the world. It was, the news anchors said, located somewhere on the planet Chthonia, inside Castle Anorak. They knew this because the entire Sixer army was now encamped around the castle.

  They’d arrived earlier that day, shortly after I’d cleared the Second Gate.

  I knew the timing couldn’t be a coincidence. My progress must have prompted the Sixers to end their covert attempts to clear the Third Gate and make its location public by barricading it before I or anyone else could reach it.

  When I arrived at Chthonia a few minutes later, I did a cloaked flyby of the castle, just to gauge the lay of the land for myself. It was even worse than I’d imagined.

  The Sixers had installed some type of magical shield over Castle Anorak, a semitransparent dome that completely covered the castle and the area around it. Encamped inside the shield wall was the entire Sixer army. A vast collection of troops, tanks, weapons, and vehicles surrounded the castle on all sides.

  Several gunter clans were already on the scene, and they were making their first attempts to bring down the shield by launching high-yield nukes at it. Each detonation was followed by a brief atomic light show, and then the blast would dissipate harmlessly against the shield.

  The attacks on the shield continued for the next few hours as the news spread and more and more gunters arrived on Chthonia. The clans launched every type of weapon they could think of at the shield, but nothing affected it. Not nukes, not fireballs, and not magic missiles. Eventually, a team of gunters tried to dig a tunnel under the dome wall, and that was when it was discovered that the shield was actually a complete sphere surrounding the castle, above- and belowground.

  Later that night, several high-level gunter wizards finished casting a series of divination spells on the castle and announced on the message boards that the shield around the castle was generated by a powerful artifact called the Orb of Osuvox, which could only be operated by a wizard who was ninety-ninth level. According to the artifact’s item description, it could create a spherical shield around itself, with a circumference of up to half a kilometer. This shield was impenetrable and indestructible and could vaporize just about anything that touched it. It could also be kept up indefinitely, as long as the wizard operating the orb remained immobile and kept both hands on the artifact.

  In the days that followed, gunters tried everything they could think of to penetrate the shield. Magic. Technology. Teleportation. Counterspells. Other artifacts. Nothing worked. There was no way to get inside.

  An air of hopelessness quickly swept through the gunter community. Solos and clansmen alike were ready to throw in the towel. The Sixers had the Crystal Key and exclusive access to the Third Gate. Everyone agreed that The End was near, that the Hunt was “all over but the crying.”

  During all of these developments, I somehow managed to keep my cool. There was a chance the Sixers hadn’t even figured out how to open the Third Gate yet. Of course, they had plenty of time now. They could be slow and methodical. Sooner or later, they would stumble on the solution.

  But I refused to give up. Until an avatar reached Halliday’s Easter egg, anything was still possible.

  Like any classic videogame, the Hunt had simply reached a new, more difficult level. A new level often required an entirely new strategy.

  I began to formulate a plan. A bold, outrageous plan that would require epic amounts of luck to pull off. I set this plan in motion by e-mailing Art3mis, Aech, and Shoto. My message told them exactly where to find the Second Gate and how to obtain the Crystal Key. Once I was sure all three of them had received my message, I initiated the next phase of my plan. This was the part that terrified me, because I knew there was a good chance it was going to end up getting me killed. But at this point, I no longer cared.

  I was going to reach the Third Gate, or die trying.

  Going outside is highly overrated.

  —Anorak’s Almanac, Chapter 17, Verse 32

  When the IOI corporate police came to arrest me, I was right in the middle of the movie Explorers (1985, directed by Joe Dante). It’s about three kids who build a spaceship in their backyard and then fly off to meet aliens. Easily one of the greatest kid flicks ever made. I’d gotten into the habit of watching it at least once a month. It kept me centered.

  I had a thumbnail of my apartment building’s external security camera feed at the edge of my display, so I saw the IOI Indentured Servant Retrieval Transport pull up out front, siren wailing and lights flashing. Then four jackbooted, riot-helmeted dropcops jumped out and ran into the building, followed by a guy in a suit. I continued to watch them on the lobby camera as they waved their IOI badges, blew past the security station, and filed onto the elevator.

  Now they were on their way up to my floor.

  “Max,” I muttered, noting the fear in my own voice. “Execute security macro number one: Crom, strong in his mountain.” This voice command instructed my computer to execute a long series of preprogrammed actions, both online and in the real world.

  “You g-g-got it, Chief!” Max replied cheerfully, and a split second later, my apartment’s security system switched into lockdown mode. My reinforced plate-titanium WarDoor swung down from the ceiling, slamming and locking into place over my apartment’s built-in security door.

  On the security camera mounted in the hallway outside my apartment, I watched the four dropcops get off the elevator and sprint down the hallway to my door. The two guys in front were carrying plasma welders. The other two held industrial-strength VoltJolt stun guns. The suit, who brought up the rear, was carrying a digital clipboard.

  I wasn’t surprised to see them. I knew why they were here. They were here to cut open my apartment and pull me out of it, like a chunk of Spam being removed from a can.

  When they reached my door, my scanner gave them the once-over, and their ID data flashed on my display, informing me that all five of these men were IOI credit officers with a valid indenturement arrest warrant for one Bryce Lynch, the occupant of this apartment. So, in keeping with local, state, and federal law, my apartment building’s security system immediately opened both of my security doors to grant them entrance. But the WarDoor that had just slammed into place kept them outside.

  Of course, the dropcops expected m
e to have redundant security, which is why they’d brought plasma welders.

  The IOI drone in the suit squeezed past the dropcops and gingerly pressed his thumb to my door intercom. His name and corporate title appeared on my display: Michael Wilson, IOI Credit and Collections Division, Employee # IOI-481231.

  Wilson looked up into the lens of my hallway camera and smiled pleasantly. “Mr. Lynch,” he said. “My name is Michael Wilson, and I’m with the Credit and Collections division of Innovative Online Industries.” He consulted his clipboard. “I’m here because you have failed to make the last three payments on your IOI Visa card, which has an outstanding balance in excess of twenty thousand dollars. Our records also show that you are currently unemployed and have therefore been classified as impecunious. Under current federal law, you are now eligible for mandatory indenturement. You will remain indentured until you have paid your debt to our company in full, along with all applicable interest, processing and late fees, and any other charges or penalties that you incur henceforth.” Wilson motioned toward the dropcops. “These gentlemen are here to assist me in apprehending you and escorting you to your new place of employment. We request that you open your door and grant us access to your residence. Please be aware that we are authorized to seize any personal belongings you have inside. The sale value of these items will, of course, be deducted from your outstanding credit balance.”

  As far as I could tell, Wilson recited all of this without taking a single breath, speaking in the flat monotone of someone who repeats the same sentences all day long.

  After a brief pause, I replied through the intercom. “Sure thing, guys. Just give me a minute to get my pants on. Then I’ll be right out.”

  Wilson frowned. “Mr. Lynch, if you do not grant us access to your residence within ten seconds, we are authorized to enter by force. The cost of any damage resulting from our forced entry, including all property damage and repair labor, will be added to your outstanding balance. Thank you.”

  Wilson stepped away from the intercom and nodded to the others. One of the dropcops immediately powered up his welder, and when the tip began to glow molten orange, he began cutting through my War-Door’s titanium plating. The other welder moved a few feet farther down and began to cut a hole right through the wall of my apartment. These guys had access to the building’s security specs, so they knew the walls of each apartment were lined with steel plating and a layer of concrete, which they could cut through much more quickly than the titanium WarDoor.

  Of course, I’d taken the precaution of reinforcing my apartment’s walls, floor, and ceiling, with a titanium alloy SageCage, which I’d assembled piece by piece. Once they cut through my wall, they would have to cut through the cage, too. But this would buy me only five or six extra minutes, at the most. Then they would be inside.

  I’d heard that dropcops had a nickname for this procedure—cutting an indent out of a fortified residence so they could arrest him. They called it doing a C-section.

  I dry-swallowed two of the antianxiety pills I’d ordered in preparation for this day. I’d already taken two earlier that morning, but they didn’t seem to be working.

  Inside the OASIS, I closed all the windows on my display and set my account’s security level to maximum. Then I pulled up the Scoreboard, just to check it one last time and reassure myself that nothing had changed and that the Sixers still hadn’t won. The top ten rankings had been static for several days now.

  HIGH SCORES:

  1. Art3mis 354,000

  2. Parzival 353,000

  3. IOI-655321 352,000

  4. Aech 352,000

  5. IOI-643187 349,000

  6. IOI-621671 348,000

  7. IOI-678324 347,000

  8. Shoto 347,000

  9. IOI-637330 346,000

  10. IOI-699423 346,000

  Art3mis, Aech, and Shoto had all cleared the Second Gate and obtained the Crystal Key within forty-eight hours of receiving my e-mail. When Art3mis received the 25,000 points for reaching the Crystal Key, it had put her back in first place, due to the point bonuses she’d already received for finding the Jade Key first, and the Copper Key second.

  Art3mis, Aech, and Shoto had all tried to contact me since receiving my e-mail, but I hadn’t answered any of their phone calls, e-mails, or chat requests. I saw no reason to tell them what I intended to do. They couldn’t do anything to help me and would probably just try to talk me out of it.

  There was no turning back now, anyway.

  I closed the Scoreboard and took a long look around my stronghold, wondering if it was for the last time. Then I took several quick deep breaths, like a deep-sea diver preparing to submerge, and tapped the logout icon on my display. The OASIS vanished, and my avatar reappeared inside my virtual office, a standalone simulation stored on my console’s hard drive. I opened a console window and keyed in the command word to activate my computer’s self-destruct sequence: SHITSTORM.

  A progress meter appeared on my display, showing that my hard drive was now being zeroed out and wiped clean.

  “Good-bye, Max,” I whispered.

  “Adios, Wade,” Max said, just a few seconds before he was deleted.

  Sitting in my haptic chair, I could already feel the heat coming from the other side of the room. When I pulled off my visor, I saw smoke pouring in through the holes being cut in the door and the wall. It was starting to get too thick for my apartment’s air purifiers to handle. I began to cough.

 
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