فصل 13

کتاب: بازیکن شماره یک آماده / فصل 14

فصل 13

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13

Aech cleared the First Gate early the next day.

His name appeared on the Scoreboard in third place, with a score of 108,000 points. The value of obtaining the Copper Key had dropped another 1,000 points for him, but the value of clearing the First Gate remained unchanged at 100,000.

I returned to school that same morning. I’d considered calling in sick, but was concerned that my absence might raise suspicions. When I got there, I realized I shouldn’t have worried. Due to the sudden renewed interest in the Hunt, over half of the student body, and quite a few of the teachers, didn’t bother showing up. Since everyone at school knew my avatar by the name Wade3, no one paid any attention to me. Roaming the halls unnoticed, I decided that I enjoyed having a secret identity. It made me feel like Clark Kent or Peter Parker. I thought my dad would probably have gotten a kick out of that.

That afternoon, I-r0k sent e-mails to Aech and me, attempting to blackmail us. He said that if we didn’t tell him how to find the Copper Key and the First Gate, he would post what he knew about us to every gunter message board he could find. When we refused, he made good on his threat and began telling anyone who would listen that Aech and I were both students on Ludus. Of course, he had no way of proving he really knew us, and by that time there were hundreds of other gunters claiming to be our close personal friends, so Aech and I were hoping his posts would go unnoticed. But they didn’t, of course. At least two other gunters were sharp enough to connect the dots between Ludus, the Limerick, and the Tomb of Horrors. The day after I-r0k let the cat out of the bag, the name “Daito” appeared in the fourth slot on the Scoreboard. Then, less than fifteen minutes later, the name “Shoto” appeared in the fifth slot. Somehow, they’d both obtained a copy of the Copper Key on the same day, without waiting for the server to reset at midnight. Then, a few hours later, both Daito and Shoto cleared the First Gate.

No one had ever heard of these avatars before, but their names seemed to indicate they were working together, either as a duo or as part of a clan. Shoto and daito were the Japanese names for the short and long swords worn by samurai. When worn as a set, the two swords were called daisho, and this quickly became the nickname by which the two of them were known.

Only four days had passed since my name had first appeared on the Scoreboard, and one new name had appeared below mine on each subsequent day. The secret was out now, and the hunt seemed to be shifting into high gear.

All week, I was unable to focus on anything my teachers were saying. Luckily, I only had two months of school left, and I’d already earned enough credits to graduate, even if I coasted from here on out. So I drifted from one class to the next in a daze, puzzling over the Jade Key riddle, reciting it again and again in my mind.

The captain conceals the Jade Key in a dwelling long neglected But you can only blow the whistle once the trophies are all collected

According to my English Lit textbook, a poem with four lines of text and an alternate-line rhyme scheme was known as a quatrain, so that became my nickname for the riddle. Each night after school, I logged out of the OASIS and filled the blank pages of my grail diary with possible interpretations of the Quatrain.

What “captain” was Anorak talking about? Captain Kangaroo? Captain America? Captain Buck Rogers in the twenty-fifth century?

And where in the hell was this “dwelling long neglected”? That part of the clue seemed maddeningly nonspecific. Halliday’s boyhood home on Middletown couldn’t really be classified as “neglected,” but maybe he was talking about a different house in his hometown? That seemed too easy, and too close to the hiding place of the Copper Key.

At first, I thought the neglected dwelling might be a reference to Revenge of the Nerds, one of Halliday’s favorite films. In that movie, the nerds of the title rent a dilapidated house and fix it up (during a classic ’80s music montage). I visited a re-creation of the Revenge of the Nerds house on the planet Skolnick and spent a day searching it, but it proved to be a dead end.

The last two lines of the Quatrain were also a complete mystery. They seemed to say that once you found the neglected dwelling, you would have to collect a bunch of “trophies” and then blow some kind of whistle. Or did that line mean blow the whistle in the colloquial sense, as in “to reveal a secret or alert someone to a crime”? Either way, it didn’t make any sense to me. But I continued to go over each line, word by word, until my brain began to feel like Aquafresh toothpaste.

That Friday after school, the day Daito and Shoto cleared the First Gate, I was sitting in a secluded spot a few miles from my school, a steep hill with a solitary tree at the top. I liked to come here to read, to do my homework, or to simply enjoy the view of the surrounding green fields. I didn’t have access to that kind of view in the real world.

As I sat under the tree, I sorted through the millions of messages still clogging my inbox. I’d been sifting through them all week. I’d received notes from people all over the globe. Letters of congratulation. Pleas for help. Death threats. Interview requests. Several long, incoherent diatribes from gunters whose quest for the egg had clearly driven them insane. I’d also received invitations to join four of the biggest gunter clans: the Oviraptors, Clan Destiny, the Key Masters, and Team Banzai. I told each of them thanks, but no thanks.

When I got tired of reading my “fan mail,” I sorted out all the messages that were tagged as “business related” and began reading through those. I discovered that I’d received several offers from movie studios and book publishers, all interested in buying the rights to my life story. I deleted them all, because I’d decided never to reveal my true identity to the world. At least, not until after I found the egg.

I’d also received several endorsement-deal offers from companies who wanted to use Parzival’s name and face to sell their services and products. An electronics retailer was interested in using my avatar to promote their line of OASIS immersion hardware so they could sell “Parzival-approved” haptic rigs, gloves, and visors. I also had offers from a pizza-delivery chain, a shoe manufacturer, and an online store that sold custom avatar skins. There was even a toy company that wanted to manufacture a line of Parzival lunch boxes and action figures. These companies were offering to pay me in OASIS credits, which would be transferred directly to my avatar’s account.

I couldn’t believe my luck.

I replied to every single one of the endorsement inquires, saying that I would accept their offers under the following conditions: I wouldn’t have to reveal my true identity, and I would only do business through my OASIS avatar.

I started receiving replies within the hour, with contracts attached. I couldn’t afford to have a lawyer look them over, but they all expired within a year’s time, so I just went ahead and signed them electronically and e-mailed them back along with a three-dimensional model of my avatar, to be used for the commercials. I also received requests for an audio clip of my avatar’s voice, so I sent them a synthesized clip of a deep baritone that made me sound like one of those guys who did voice-overs for movie trailers.

Once they received everything, my avatar’s new sponsors informed me that they’d wire my first round of payments to my OASIS account within the next forty-eight hours. The amount of money I was going to receive wouldn’t be enough to make me rich. Not by a long shot. But to a kid who’d grown up with nothing, it seemed like a fortune.

I did some quick calculations. If I lived frugally, I would have enough to move out of the stacks and rent a small efficiency apartment somewhere. For a year, at least. The very thought filled me with nervous excitement. I’d dreamed of escaping the stacks for as long as I could remember, and now it appeared that dream was about to come true.

With the endorsement deals taken care of, I continued to sort through my e-mail messages. When I sorted the remaining messages by sender, I discovered that I’d received over five thousand e-mails from Innovative Online Industries. Actually, they’d sent me five thousand copies of the same e-mail. They’d been resending the same message all week, since my name first appeared on the Scoreboard. And they were still resending it, once every minute.

The Sixers were mail-bombing me, to make sure they got my attention.

The e-mails were all marked Maximum Priority, with the subject line URGENT BUSINESS PROPOSITION—PLEASE READ IMMEDIATELY!

The second I opened one, a delivery confirmation was sent back to IOI, letting them know that I was finally reading their message. After that, they stopped resending it.

Dear Parzival,

First, allow me to congratulate you on your recent accomplishments, which we at Innovative Online Industries hold in the highest regard.

On behalf of IOI, I wish to make you a highly lucrative business proposition, the exact details of which we can discuss in a private chatlink session. Please use the attached contact card to reach me at your earliest convenience, regardless of the day or hour.

Given our reputation within the gunter community, I would understand if you were hesitant to speak with me. However, please be aware that if you choose not to accept our proposal, we intend to approach each of your competitors. At the very least, we hope you’ll do us the honor of being the first to hear our generous offer. What have you got to lose?

Thank you for your kind attention. I look forward to speaking with you.

Sincerely,

Nolan Sorrento Head of Operations Innovative Online Industries

Despite the message’s reasonable tone, the threat behind it was crystal clear. The Sixers wanted to recruit me. Or they wanted to pay me to tell them how to find the Copper Key and clear the First Gate. And if I refused, they would go after Art3mis, then Aech, Daito, Shoto, and every other gunter who managed to get their name up on the Scoreboard. These shameless corporate sleazebags wouldn’t stop until they found someone dumb enough or desperate enough to give in and sell them the information they needed.

My first impulse was to delete every single copy of the e-mail and pretend I’d never received it, but I changed my mind. I wanted to know exactly what IOI was going to offer. And I couldn’t pass up the chance to meet Nolan Sorrento, the Sixers’ infamous leader. There was no danger meeting with him via chatlink, as long as I was careful about what I said.

I considered teleporting to Incipio before my “interview,” to buy a new skin for my avatar. Maybe a tailored suit. Something flashy and expensive. But then I thought better of it. I had nothing to prove to that corporate asshat. After all, I was famous now. I would roll into the meeting wearing my default skin and a fu@k-off attitude. I would listen to their offer, then tell them to kiss my simulated ass. Maybe I’d record the whole thing and post it on YouTube.

I prepped for the meeting by pulling up a search engine and learning everything I could about Nolan Sorrento. He had a PhD in Computer Science. Prior to becoming head of operations at IOI, he’d been a high-profile game designer, overseeing the creation of several third-party RPGs that ran inside the OASIS. I’d played all of his games, and they were actually pretty good. He’d been a decent coder, back before he sold his soul. It was obvious why IOI had hired him to lead their lackeys. They figured a game designer would have the best chance of solving Halliday’s grand videogame puzzle. But Sorrento and the Sixers had been at it for over five years and still had nothing to show for their efforts. And now that gunter avatar names were appearing on the Scoreboard left and right, the IOI brass had to be freaking out. Sorrento was probably catching all kinds of heat from his superiors. I wondered if it had been Sorrento’s idea to try to recruit me, or if he’d been ordered to do it.

Once I’d done my homework on Sorrento, I felt like I was ready to sit down with the devil. I pulled up the contact card attached to Sorrento’s e-mail and tapped the chatlink invitation icon at the bottom.

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