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Ready Player One, Page 5

Ernest Cline


  “Man, you just love that crapburger, don’t you?”

  “Blow me, Aech.”

  “How many times have you seen that sapfest? I know you’ve made me sit through it at least twice.” He was baiting me now. He knew Ladyhawke was one of my guilty pleasures, and that I’d seen it over two dozen times.

  “I was doing you a favor by making you watch it, noob,” I said. I shoved a new cartridge into the Intellivision console and started up a single-player game of Astrosmash. “You’ll thank me one day. Wait and see. Ladyhawke is canon.”

  “Canon” was the term we used to classify any movie, book, game, song, or TV show of which Halliday was known to have been a fan.

  “Surely, you must be joking,” Aech said.

  “No, I am not joking. And don’t call me Shirley.”

  He lowered the magazine and leaned forward. “There is no way Halliday was a fan of Ladyhawke. I guarantee it.”

  “Where’s your proof, dipshit?” I asked.

  “The man had taste. That’s all the proof I need.”

  “Then please explain to me why he owned Ladyhawke on both VHS and LaserDisc?” A list of all the films in Halliday’s collection at the time of his death was included in the appendices of Anorak’s Almanac. We both had the list memorized.

  “The guy was a billionaire! He owned millions of movies, most of which he probably never even watched! He had DVDs of Howard the Duck and Krull, too. That doesn’t mean he liked them, asshat. And it sure as hell doesn’t make them canon.”

  “It’s not really up for debate, Homer,” I said. “Ladyhawke is an eighties classic.”

  “It’s fucking lame, is what it is! The swords look like they were made out of tinfoil. And that soundtrack is epically lame. Full of synthesizers and shit. By the motherfucking Alan Parsons Project! Lame-o-rama! Beyond lame. Highlander II lame.”

  “Hey!” I feigned hurling my Intellivision controller at him. “Now you’re just being insulting! Ladyhawke’s cast alone makes the film canon! Roy Batty! Ferris Bueller! And the dude who played Professor Falken in WarGames!” I searched my memory for the actor’s name. “John Wood! Reunited with Matthew Broderick!”

  “A real low point in both of their careers,” he said, laughing. He loved arguing about old movies, even more than I did. The other gunters in the chat room were now starting to form a small crowd around us to listen in. Our arguments were often high in entertainment value.

  “You must be stoned!” I shouted. “Ladyhawke was directed by Richard fucking Donner! The Goonies? Superman: The Movie? You’re saying that guy sucks?”

  “I don’t care if Spielberg directed it. It’s a chick flick disguised as a sword-and-sorcery picture. The only genre film with less balls is probably … freakin’ Legend. Anyone who actually enjoys Ladyhawke is a bona fide USDA-choice pussy!”

  Laughter from the peanut gallery. I was actually getting a little pissed off now. I was a big fan of Legend too, and Aech knew it.

  “Oh, so I’m a pussy? You’re the one with the Ewok fetish!” I snatched the Starlog out of his hands and threw it against a Revenge of the Jedi poster on the wall. “I suppose you think your extensive knowledge of Ewok culture is gonna help you find the egg?”

  “Don’t start on the Endorians again, man,” he said, holding up an index finger. “I’ve warned you. I will ban your ass. I swear.” I knew this was a hollow threat, so I was about to push the Ewok thing even further, maybe give him some crap for referring to them as “Endorians.” But just then, a new arrival materialized on the staircase. A total lamer by the name of I-r0k. I let out a groan. I-r0k and Aech attended the same school and had a few classes together, but I still couldn’t figure out why Aech had granted him access to the Basement. I-r0k fancied himself an elite gunter, but he was nothing but an obnoxious poseur. Sure, he did a lot of teleporting around the OASIS, completing quests and leveling up his avatar, but he didn’t actually know anything. And he was always brandishing an oversize plasma rifle the size of a snowmobile. Even in chat rooms, where it was totally pointless. The guy had no sense of decorum.

  “Are you cocks arguing about Star Wars again?” he said, descending the steps and walking over to join the crowd around us. “That shit is so played out, yo.”

  I turned to Aech. “If you want to ban someone, why don’t you start with this clown?” I hit Reset on the Intellivision and started another game.

  “Shut your hole, Penis-ville!” I-r0k replied, using his favorite mispronunciation of my avatar’s name. “He doesn’t ban me ’cause he knows I’m elite! Ain’t that right, Aech?”

  “No,” Aech said, rolling his eyes. “That ain’t right. You’re about as elite as my great-grandmother. And she’s dead.”

  “Screw you, Aech! And your dead grandma!”

  “Gee, I-r0k,” I muttered. “You always manage to elevate the intelligence level of the conversation. The whole room just lights up the moment you arrive.”

  “So sorry to upset you, Captain No-Credits,” I-r0k said. “Hey, shouldn’t you be on Incipio panhandling for change right now?” He reached for the second Intellivision controller, but I snatched it up and tossed it to Aech.

  He scowled at me. “Prick.”


  “Poseur? Penis-ville is calling me a poseur?” He turned to address the small crowd. “This chump is so broke that he has to bum rides to Greyhawk, just so he can kill kobolds for copper pieces! And he’s calling me a poseur!”

  This elicited a few snickers from the crowd, and I felt my face turn red under my visor. Once, about a year ago, I’d made the mistake of hitching a ride off-world with I-r0k to try to gain a few experience points. After dropping me in a low-level quest area on Greyhawk, the jerk had followed me. I’d spent the next few hours slaying a small band of kobolds, waiting for them to respawn, and then slaying them again, over and over. My avatar was still only first level at the time, and it was one of the only safe ways for me to level up. I-r0k had taken several screenshots of my avatar that night and labeled them “Penis-ville the Mighty Kobold Slayer.” Then he’d posted them to the Hatchery. He still brought it up every chance he got. He was never going to let me live it down.

  “That’s right, I called you a poseur, poseur.” I stood and got up in his grille. “You’re an ignorant know-nothing twink. Just because you’re fourteenth-level, it doesn’t make you a gunter. You actually have to possess some knowledge.”

  “Word,” Aech said, nodding his agreement. We bumped fists. More snickering from the crowd, now directed at I-r0k.

  I-r0k glared at us a moment. “OK. Let’s see who the real poseur is,” he said. “Check this out, girls.” Grinning, he produced an item from his inventory and held it up. It was an old Atari 2600 game, still in the box. He purposefully covered the game’s title with his hand, but I recognized the cover artwork anyway. It was a painting of a young man and woman in ancient Greek attire, both brandishing swords. Lurking behind them were a minotaur and a bearded guy with an eye patch. “Know what this is, hotshot?” I-r0k said, challenging me. “I’ll even give you a clue.… It’s an Atari game, released as part of a contest. It contained several puzzles, and if you solved them, you could win a prize. Sound familiar?”

  I-r0k was always trying to impress us with some clue or piece of Halliday lore he foolishly believed he’d been the first to uncover. Gunters loved to play the game of one-upmanship and were constantly trying to prove they had acquired more obscure knowledge than everyone else. But I-r0k totally sucked at it.

  “You’re joking, right?” I said. “You just now discovered the Swordquest series?”

  I-r0k deflated.

  “You’re holding Swordquest: Earthworld,” I continued. “The first game in the Swordquest series. Released in 1982.” I smiled wide. “Can you name the next three games in the series?”

  His eyes narrowed. He was, of course, stumped. Like I said, he was a total poseur.

  “Anyone else?” I said, opening the
question up to the floor. The gunters in the crowd eyed each other, but no one spoke up.

  “Fireworld, Waterworld, and Airworld,” Aech answered.

  “Bingo!” I said, and we bumped fists again. “Although Airworld was never actually finished, because Atari fell on hard times and canceled the contest before it was completed.”

  I-r0k quietly put the game box back in his inventory.

  “You should join up with the Sux0rz, I-r0k,” Aech said, laughing. “They could really use someone with your vast stores of knowledge.”

  I-r0k flipped him the bird. “If you two fags already knew about the Swordquest contest, how come I’ve never once heard you mention it?”

  “Come on, I-r0k,” Aech said, shaking his head. “Swordquest: Earthworld was Atari’s unofficial sequel to Adventure. Every gunter worth their salt knows about that contest. How much more obvious can you get?”

  I-r0k tried to save some face. “OK, if you’re both such experts, who programmed all of the Swordquest games?”

  “Dan Hitchens and Tod Frye,” I recited. “Try asking me something difficult.”

  “I got one for you,” Aech interjected. “What were the prizes Atari gave out to the winner of each contest?”

  “Ah,” I said. “Good one. Let’s see.… The prize for the Earthworld contest was the Talisman of Penultimate Truth. It was solid gold and encrusted with diamonds. The kid who won it melted it down to pay for college, as I recall.”

  “Yeah, yeah,” Aech prodded. “Quit stalling. What about the other two?”

  “I’m not stalling. The Fireworld prize was the Chalice of Light, and the Waterworld prize was supposed to be the Crown of Life, but it was never awarded, due to the cancellation of the contest. Same goes for the Airworld prize, which was supposed to be a Philosopher’s Stone.”

  Aech grinned and gave me a double high five, then added, “And if the contest hadn’t been canceled, the winners of the first four rounds would have competed for the grand prize, the Sword of Ultimate Sorcery.”

  I nodded. “The prizes were all mentioned in the Swordquest comic books that came with the games. Comic books which happen to be visible in the treasure room in the final scene of Anorak’s Invitation, by the way.”

  The crowd burst into applause. I-r0k lowered his head in shame.

  Since I’d become a gunter, it had been obvious to me that Halliday had drawn inspiration for his contest from the Swordquest contest. I had no idea if he’d borrowed any of the puzzles from them too, but I’d studied the games and their solutions thoroughly, just to be safe.

  “Fine. You win,” I-r0k said. “But you both obviously need to get a life.”

  “And you,” I said, “obviously need to find a new hobby. Because you clearly lack the intelligence and commitment to be a gunter.”

  “No doubt,” Aech said. “Try doing some research for a change, I-r0k. I mean, did you ever hear of Wikipedia? It’s free, douchebag.”

  I-r0k turned and walked over to the long boxes of comic books stacked on the other side of the room, as if he’d lost interest in the discussion. “Whatever,” he said over his shoulder. “If I didn’t spend so much time offline, getting laid, I’d probably know just as much worthless shit as you two do.”

  Aech ignored him and turned back to me. “What were the names of the twins who appeared in the Swordquest comic books?”

  “Tarra and Torr.”

  “Damn, Z! You are the man.”

  “Thanks, Aech.”

  A message flashed on my display, informing me that the three-minute-warning bell had just rung in my classroom. I knew Aech and I-r0k were seeing the same warning, because our schools operated on the same schedule.

  “Time for another day of higher learning,” Aech said, standing up.

  “Drag,” I-r0k said. “See you losers later.” He gave me the finger; then his avatar disappeared as he logged out of the chat room. The other gunters began to log out and vanish too, until only Aech and I remained.

  “Seriously, Aech,” I said. “Why do you let that moron hang out here?”

  “Because he’s fun to beat at videogames. And his ignorance gives me hope.”

  “How so?”

  “Because if most of the other gunters out there are as clueless as I-r0k—and they are, Z, believe me—that means you and I really do have a shot at winning the contest.”

  I shrugged. “I guess that’s one way to look at it.”

  “Wanna hang after school again tonight? Around seven or so? I’ve got a few errands to run, but then I’m gonna tackle some of the stuff on my need-to-watch list. A Spaced marathon, perhaps?”

  “Oh, hell yes,” I said. “Count me in.”

  We logged out simultaneously, just as the final bell began to ring.

  My avatar’s eyes slid open, and I was back in my World History classroom. The seats around me were now filled with other students, and our teacher, Mr. Avenovich, was materializing at the front of the classroom. Mr. A’s avatar looked like a portly, bearded college professor. He sported an infectious grin, wire-rimmed spectacles, and a tweed jacket with patches on the elbows. When he spoke, he somehow always managed to sound like he was reading a passage from Dickens. I liked him. He was a good teacher.

  Of course, we didn’t know who Mr. Avenovich really was or where he lived. We didn’t know his real name, or even if “he” was really a man. For all we knew, he could have been a small Inuit woman living in Anchorage, Alaska, who had adopted this appearance and voice to make her students more receptive to her lessons. But for some reason, I suspected that Mr. Avenovich’s avatar looked and sounded just like the person operating it.

  All of my teachers were pretty great. Unlike their real-world counterparts, most of the OASIS public school teachers seemed to genuinely enjoy their job, probably because they didn’t have to spend half their time acting as babysitters and disciplinarians. The OASIS software took care of that, ensuring that students remained quiet and in their seats. All the teachers had to do was teach.

  It was also a lot easier for online teachers to hold their students’ attention, because here in the OASIS, the classrooms were like holodecks. Teachers could take their students on a virtual field trip every day, without ever leaving the school grounds.

  During our World History lesson that morning, Mr. Avenovich loaded up a stand-alone simulation so that our class could witness the discovery of King Tut’s tomb by archaeologists in Egypt in AD 1922. (The day before, we’d visited the same spot in 1334 BC and had seen Tutankhamen’s empire in all its glory.)

  In my next class, Biology, we traveled through a human heart and watched it pumping from the inside, just like in that old movie Fantastic Voyage.

  In Art class we toured the Louvre while all of our avatars wore silly berets.

  In my Astronomy class we visited each of Jupiter’s moons. We stood on the volcanic surface of Io while our teacher explained how the moon had originally formed. As our teacher spoke to us, Jupiter loomed behind her, filling half the sky, its Great Red Spot churning slowly just over her left shoulder. Then she snapped her fingers and we were standing on Europa, discussing the possibility of extraterrestrial life beneath the moon’s icy crust.

  I spent my lunch period sitting in one of the green fields bordering the school, staring at the simulated scenery while I munched on a protein bar with my visor on. It beat staring at the inside of my hideout. I was a senior, so I was allowed to go off-world during lunch if I wanted to, but I didn’t have that kind of spare dough to blow.

  Logging into the OASIS was free, but traveling around inside it wasn’t. Most of the time, I didn’t have enough credits to teleport off-world and get back to Ludus. When the last bell rang each day, the students who had things to do in the real world would log out of the OASIS and vanish. Everyone else would head off-world. A lot of kids owned their own interplanetary vehicles. School parking lots all over Ludus were filled with UFOs, TIE fighters, old NASA space shuttles, Vipers from Battlestar Galactica, and other s
pacecraft designs lifted from every sci-fi movie and TV show you can think of. Every afternoon I would stand on the school’s front lawn and watch with envy as these ships filled the sky, zooming off to explore the simulation’s endless possibilities. The kids who didn’t own ships would either hitch a ride with a friend or stampede to the nearest transport terminal, headed for some offworld dance club, gaming arena, or rock concert. But not me. I wasn’t going anywhere. I was stranded on Ludus, the most boring planet in the entire OASIS.

  The Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation was a big place.

  When the OASIS had first been launched, it contained only a few hundred planets for users to explore, all created by GSS programmers and artists. Their environments ran the gamut, from sword-and-sorcery settings to cyberpunk-themed planetwide cities to irradiated postapocalyptic zombie-infested wastelands. Some planets were designed with painstaking detail. Others were randomly generated from a series of templates. Each one was populated with a variety of artificially intelligent NPCs (nonplayer characters)—computer-controlled humans, animals, monsters, aliens, and androids with which OASIS users could interact.

  GSS had also licensed preexisting virtual worlds from their competitors, so content that had already been created for games like Everquest and World of Warcraft was ported over to the OASIS, and copies of Norrath and Azeroth were added to the growing catalog of OASIS planets. Other virtual worlds soon followed suit, from the Metaverse to the Matrix. The Firefly universe was anchored in a sector adjacent to the Star Wars galaxy, with a detailed re-creation of the Star Trek universe in the sector adjacent to that. Users could now teleport back and forth between their favorite fictional worlds. Middle Earth. Vulcan. Pern. Arrakis. Magrathea. Discworld, Mid-World, Riverworld, Ringworld. Worlds upon worlds.

  For the sake of zoning and navigation, the OASIS had been divided equally into twenty-seven cube-shaped “sectors,” each containing hundreds of different planets. (The three-dimensional map of all twenty-seven sectors distinctly resembled an ’80s puzzle toy called a Rubik’s Cube. Like most gunters, I knew this was no coincidence.) Each sector measured exactly ten light-hours across, or about 10.8 billion kilometers. So if you were traveling at the speed of light (the fastest speed attainable by any spacecraft inside the OASIS), you could get from one side of a sector to the other in exactly ten hours. That sort of long-distance travel wasn’t cheap. Spacecraft that could travel at light speed were rare, and they required fuel to operate. Charging people for virtual fuel to power their virtual spaceships was one of the ways Gregarious Simulation Systems generated revenue, since accessing the OASIS was free. But GSS’s primary source of income came from teleportation fares. Teleportation was the fastest way to travel, but it was also the most expensive.

  Traveling around inside the OASIS wasn’t just costly—it was also dangerous. Each sector was divided up into many different zones that varied in size and shape. Some zones were so large that they encompassed several planets, while others covered only a few kilometers on the surface of a single world. Each zone had a unique combination of rules and parameters. Magic would function in some zones and not in others. The same was true of technology. If you flew your technology-based starship into a zone where technology didn’t function, your engines would fail the moment you crossed the zone border. Then you’d have to hire some silly gray-bearded sorcerer with a spell-powered space barge to tow your ass back into a technology zone.

  Dual zones permitted the use of both magic and technology, and null zones didn’t allow either. There were pacifist zones where no player-versus-player combat was allowed, and player-versus-player zones where it was every avatar for themselves.

  You had to be careful whenever you entered a new zone or sector. You had to be prepared.

  But like I said, I didn’t have that problem. I was stuck at school.

  Ludus had been designed as a place of learning, so the planet had been created without a single quest portal or gaming zone anywhere on its surface. The only thing to be found here were thousands of identical school campuses separated by rolling green fields, perfectly landscaped parks, rivers, meadows, and sprawling template-generated forests. There were no castles, dungeons, or orbiting space fortresses for my avatar to raid. And there were no NPC villains, monsters, or aliens for me to fight, so there was no treasure or magic items for me to plunder.

  This totally sucked, for a lot of reasons.

  Completing quests, fighting NPCs, and gathering treasure were the only ways a low-level avatar like mine could earn experience points (XPs). Earning XPs was how you increased your avatar’s power level, strength, and abilities.

  A lot of OASIS users didn’t care about their avatar’s power level or bother with the gaming aspects of the simulation at all. They only used the OASIS for entertainment, business, shopping, and hanging out with their friends. These users simply avoided entering any gaming or PvP zones where their defenseless first-level avatars could be attacked by NPCs or by other players. If you stayed in safe zones, like Ludus, you didn’t have to worry about your avatar getting robbed, kidnapped, or killed.

  I hated being stuck in a safe zone.

  If I was going to find Halliday’s egg, I knew I would eventually have to venture out in the dangerous sectors of the OASIS. And if I wasn’t powerful or well-armed enough to defend myself, I wasn’t going to stay alive for very long.

  Over the past five years, I’d managed to slowly, gradually raise my avatar up to third level. This hadn’t been easy. I’d done it by hitching rides off-world with other students (mostly Aech) who happened to be headed to a planet where my wuss avatar could survive. I’d have them drop me near a newbie-level gaming zone and spend the rest of the night or weekend slaying orcs, kobolds, or some other piddly class of monster that was too weak to kill me. For each NPC my avatar defeated, I would earn a few meager experience points and, usually, a handful of copper or silver coins dropped by my slain foes. These coins were instantly converted to credits, which I used to pay the teleportation fare back to Ludus, often just before the final school bell rang. Sometimes, but not often, one of the NPCs I killed would drop an item. That was how I’d obtained my avatar’s sword, shield, and armor.

  I’d stopped hitching rides with Aech at the end of the previous school year. His avatar was now above thirtieth level, and so he was almost always headed to a planet where it wasn’t safe for my avatar. He was happy to drop me on some noob world along the way, but if I didn’t earn enough credits to pay for my fare back to Ludus, I’d wind up missing school because I was stuck on some other planet. This was not an acceptable excuse. I’d now racked up so many unexcused absences that I was in danger of being expelled. If that happened, I would have to return my school-issued OASIS console and visor. Worse, I’d be transferred back to school in the real world to finish out my senior year there. I couldn’t risk that.

  So these days I rarely left Ludus at all. I was stuck here, and stuck at third level. Having a third-level avatar was a colossal embarrassment. None of the other gunters took you seriously unless you were at least tenth level. Even though I’d been a gunter since day one, everyone still considered me a noob. It was beyond frustrating.