فصل 17

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فصل 17

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17

Art3mis: You there?

Parzival: Yes! Hey! I can’t believe you finally responded to one of my chat requests.

Art3mis: Only to ask you to cut it out. It’s a bad idea for us to start chatting.

Parzival: Why? I thought we were friends.

Art3mis: You seem like a great guy. But we’re competitors. Rival gunters. Sworn enemies. You know the drill.

Parzival: We don’t have to talk about anything related to the Hunt.…

Art3mis: Everything is related to the Hunt.

Parzival: Come on. At least give it at shot. Let’s start over. Hi, Art3mis! How have you been?

Art3mis: Fine. Thanks for asking. You?

Parzival: Outstanding. Listen, why are we using this ancient text-only chat interface? I can host a virtual chat room for us.

Art3mis: I prefer this.

Parzival: Why?

Art3mis: As you may recall, I tend to ramble in real time. When I have to type out everything I want to say, I come off as less of a flibbertigibbet.

Parzival: I don’t think you’re a flibbertigibbet. You’re enchanting.

Art3mis: Did you just use the word “enchanting”?

Parzival: What I typed is right there in front of you, isn’t it?

Art3mis: That’s very sweet. But you’re full of crap.

Parzival: I am totally and completely serious.

Art3mis: So, how’s life at the top of the Scoreboard, hotshot? Sick of being famous yet?

Parzival: I don’t feel famous.

Art3mis: Are you kidding? The whole world is dying to find out who you really are. You’re a rock star, man.

Parzival: You’re just as famous as I am. And if I’m such a rock star, how come the media always portrays me as some unwashed geek who never goes outside?

Art3mis: I take it you saw that SNL skit they did about us?

Parzival: Yes. Why does everyone assume I’m an antisocial nut job?

Art3mis: You’re not antisocial?

Parzival: No! Maybe. OK, yes. But I have excellent personal hygiene.

Art3mis: At least they got your gender correct. Everyone thinks I’m a man in real life.

Parzival: That’s because most gunters are male, and they can’t accept the idea that a woman has beaten and/or outsmarted them.

Art3mis: I know. Neanderthals.

Parzival: So you’re telling me, definitively, that you are a female? IRL?

Art3mis: You should have already figured that out on your own, Clouseau.

Parzival: I did. I have.

Art3mis: Have you?

Parzival: Yes. After analyzing the available data, I’ve concluded that you must be a female.

Art3mis: Why must I?

Parzival: Because I don’t want to find out that I’ve got a crush on some 300 lb. dude named Chuck who lives in his mother’s basement in suburban Detroit.

Art3mis: You’ve got a crush on me?

Parzival: You should have already figured that out on your own, Clouseau.

Art3mis: What if I were a 300 lb. gal named Charlene, who lives in her mom’s basement in suburban Detroit? Would you still have a crush on me then?

Parzival: I don’t know. Do you live in your mother’s basement?

Art3mis: No.

Parzival: Yeah. Then I probably still would.

Art3mis: So I’m supposed to believe you’re one of those mythical guys who only cares about a woman’s personality, and not about the package it comes in?

Parzival: Why is it that you assume I’m a man?

Art3mis: Please. It’s obvious. I get nothing but boy-vibes coming from you.

Parzival: Boy-vibes? What, do I use masculine sentence structure or something?

Art3mis: Don’t change the subject. You were saying you have a crush on me?

Parzival: I’ve had a crush on you since before we even met. From reading your blog and watching your POV. I’ve been cyber-stalking you for years.

Art3mis: But you still don’t really know anything about me. Or my real personality.

Parzival: This is the OASIS. We exist as nothing but raw personality in here.

Art3mis: I beg to differ. Everything about our online personas is filtered through our avatars, which allows us to control how we look and sound to others. The OASIS lets you be whoever you want to be. That’s why everyone is addicted to it.

Parzival: So, IRL, you’re nothing like the person I met that night in the tomb?

Art3mis: That was just one side of me. The side I chose to show you.

Parzival: Well, I liked that side. And if you showed me your other sides, I’m sure I’d like those, too.

Art3mis: You say that now. But I know how these things work. Sooner or later, you’ll demand to see a picture of the real me.

Parzival: I’m not the sort who makes demands. Besides, I’m definitely not going to show you a photo of me.

Art3mis: Why? Are you butt ugly?

Parzival: You’re such a hypocrite!

Art3mis: So? Answer the question, Claire. Are you ugly?

Parzival: I must be.

Art3mis: Why?

Parzival: The female of the species has always found me repellent.

Art3mis: I don’t find you repellent.

Parzival: Of course not. That’s because you’re an obese man named Chuck who likes to chat up ugly young boys online.

Art3mis: So you’re a young man?

Parzival: Relatively young.

Art3mis: Relative to what?

Parzival: To a fifty-three-year-old guy like you, Chuck. Does your mom let you live in that basement rent-free or what?

Art3mis: Is that really what you’re picturing?

Parzival: If it were, I wouldn’t be chatting with you right now.

Art3mis: So what do you imagine I look like, then?

Parzival: Like your avatar, I suppose. Except, you know, without the armor, guns, or glowing sword.

Art3mis: You’re kidding, right? That’s the first rule of online romances, pal. No one ever looks anything like their avatar.

Parzival: Are we going to have an online romance?

Art3mis: No way, ace. Sorry.

Parzival: Why not?

Art3mis: No time for love, Dr. Jones. My cyber-@@@ addiction eats up most of my free time. And searching for the Jade Key takes up the rest. That’s what I should be doing right now, in fact.

Parzival: Yeah. So should I. But talking to you is more fun.

Art3mis: How about you?

Parzival: How about me what?

Art3mis: Do you have time for an online romance?

Parzival: I’ve got time for you.

Art3mis: You’re too much.

Parzival: I’m not even laying it on thick yet.

Art3mis: Do you have a job? Or are you still in high school?

Parzival: High school. I graduate next week.

Art3mis: You shouldn’t reveal stuff like that! I could be a Sixer spy trying to profile you.

Parzival: The Sixers already profiled me, remember? They blew up my house. Well, it was a trailer. But they blew it up.

Art3mis: I know. I’m still freaked out about that. I can only imagine how you feel.

Parzival: Revenge is a dish best served cold.

Art3mis: Bon appetit. What do you do when you’re not hunting?

Parzival: I refuse to answer any more questions until you start reciprocating.

Art3mis: Fine. Quid pro quo, Dr. Lecter. We’ll take turns asking questions. Go ahead.

Parzival: Do you work, or go to school?

Art3mis: College.

Parzival: Studying what?

Art3mis: It’s my turn. What do you do when you’re not hunting?

Parzival: Nothing. Hunting is all I do. I’m hunting right now, in fact. Multitasking all over the goddamn place.

Art3mis: Same here.

Parzival: Really? I’ll keep an eye on the Scoreboard then. Just in case.

Art3mis: You do that, ace.

Parzival: What are you studying? In college?

Art3mis: Poetry and Creative Writing.

Parzival: That makes sense. You’re a fantastic writer.

Art3mis: Thanks for the compliment. How old are you?

Parzival: Just turned 18 last month. You?

Art3mis: Don’t you think we’re getting a little too personal now?

Parzival: Not even remotely.

Art3mis: 19.

Parzival: Ah. An older woman. Hot.

Art3mis: That is, if I am a woman …

Parzival: Are you a woman?

Art3mis: It’s not your turn.

Parzival: Fine.

Art3mis: How well do you know Aech?

Parzival: He’s been my best friend for five years. Now, spill it. Are you a woman? And by that I mean are you a human female who has never had a s@x-change operation?

Art3mis: That’s pretty specific.

Parzival: Answer the question, Claire.

Art3mis: I am, and always have been, a human female. Have you ever met Aech IRL?

Parzival: No. Do you have any siblings?

Art3mis: No. You?

Parzival: Nope. You got parents?

Art3mis: They died. The flu. So I was raised by my grandparents. You got parentage?

Parzival: No. Mine are dead too.

Art3mis: It kinda sucks, doesn’t it? Not having your parents around.

Parzival: Yeah. But a lot of people are worse off than me.

Art3mis: I tell myself that all the time. So … are you and Aech working as a duo?

Parzival: Oh, here we go.…

Art3mis: Well? Are you?

Parzival: No. He asked me the same thing about you and me, you know. Because you cleared the First Gate a few hours after I did.

Art3mis: Which reminds me—why did you give me that tip? About changing sides on the Joust game?

Parzival: I felt like helping you.

Art3mis: Well, you shouldn’t make that mistake again. Because I’m the one who’s going to win. You do realize that, right?

Parzival: Yeah, yeah. We’ll see.

Art3mis: You’re not holding up your end of our Q & A, goof. You’re, like, five questions behind.

Parzival: Fine. What color is your hair? IRL?

Art3mis: Brunette.

Parzival: Eyes?

Art3mis: Blue.

Parzival: Just like your avatar, eh? Do you have the same face and body, too?

Art3mis: As far as you know.

Parzival: OK. What’s your favorite movie? Of all time?

Art3mis: It changes. Right now? Probably Highlander.

Parzival: You’ve got great taste, lady.

Art3mis: I know. I have a thing for evil bald bad guys. The Kurgan is too s@xy.

Parzival: I’m going to shave my head right now. And start wearing leather.

Art3mis: Send photos. Listen, I gotta go in a few minutes, Romeo. You can ask me one last question. Then I need to get some sleep.

Parzival: When can we chat again?

Art3mis: After one of us finds the egg.

Parzival: That could take years.

Art3mis: So be it.

Parzival: Can I at least keep e-mailing you?

Art3mis: Not a good idea.

Parzival: You can’t stop me from e-mailing you.

Art3mis: Actually, I can. I can block you on my contact list.

Parzival: You wouldn’t do that, though. Would you?

Art3mis: Not if you don’t force me to.

Parzival: Harsh. Unnecessarily harsh.

Art3mis: Good night, Parzival.

Parzival: Farewell, Art3mis. Sweet dreams.

chatlog ends. 2.27.2045–02:51:38 OST

I started e-mailing her. At first I showed restraint and only wrote her once a week. To my surprise, she never failed to respond. Usually it was with just a single sentence, saying she was too busy to reply. But her replies eventually got longer and we began to correspond. A few times a week at first. Then, as our e-mails grew longer and more personal, we started writing each other at least once a day. Sometimes more. Whenever an e-mail from her arrived in my inbox, I dropped everything to read it.

Before long, we were meeting in private chat-room sessions at least once a day. We played vintage board games, watched movies, and listened to music. We talked for hours. Long, rambling conversations about everything under the sun. Spending time with her was intoxicating. We seemed to have everything in common. We shared the same interests. We were driven by the same goal. She got all of my jokes. She made me laugh. She made me think. She changed the way I saw the world. I’d never had such a powerful, immediate connection with another human being before. Not even with Aech.

I no longer cared that we were supposed to be rivals, and she didn’t seem to either. We began to share details about our research. We told each other what movies we were currently watching and what books we were reading. We even began to exchange theories and to discuss our interpretations of specific passages in the Almanac. I couldn’t make myself be cautious around her. A little voice in my head kept trying to tell me that every word she said could be disinformation and that she might just be playing me for a fool. But I didn’t believe it. I trusted her, even though I had every reason not to.

I graduated from high school in early June. I didn’t attend the graduation ceremony. I’d stopped attending classes altogether when I fled the stacks. As far as I knew, the Sixers thought I was dead, and I didn’t want to tip them off by showing up for my last few weeks of school. Missing finals week wasn’t a big deal, since I already had more than enough credits to receive my diploma. The school e-mailed a copy of it to me. They snail-mailed the actual diploma to my address in the stacks, which no longer existed, so I don’t know what became of it.

When I finished school, I’d intended to devote all of my time to the Hunt. But all I really wanted to do was spend time with Art3mis.

When I wasn’t hanging out with my new online pseudo-girlfriend, I devoted the rest of my time to leveling up my avatar. Gunters called this “making the climb to ninety-nine,” because ninety-ninth level was the maximum power level an avatar could attain. Art3mis and Aech had both recently done it, and I felt compelled to catch up. It actually didn’t take me very long. I now had nothing but free time, and I had the money and the means to fully explore the OASIS. So I began to complete every quest I could find, sometimes jumping five or six levels in one day. I became a split-class Warrior/Mage. As my stats continued to increase, I honed my avatar’s combat and spell-casting abilities while collecting a wide array of powerful weapons, magic items, and vehicles.

Art3mis and I even teamed up for a few quests. We visited the planet Goondocks and finished the entire Goonies quest in just one day. Arty played through it as Martha Plimpton’s character, Stef, while I played as Mikey, Sean Astin’s character. It was entirely too much fun.

I didn’t spend all of my time goofing off. I tried to keep my head in the game. Really I did. At least once a day, I would pull up the Quatrain and try once again to decipher its meaning.

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

For a while, I thought that the whistle in the third line might be a reference to a late-’60s Japanese TV show called The Space Giants, which had been dubbed in English and rebroadcast in the United States in the ’70s and ’80s. The Space Giants (called Maguma Taishi in Japan) featured a family of transforming robots who lived in a volcano and battled an evil alien villain named Rodak. Halliday referred to this show several times in Anorak’s Almanac, citing it as one of his childhood favorites. One of the show’s main characters was a boy named Miko, who would blow a special whistle to summon the robots to his aid. I watched all fifty-two ultra-cheesy episodes of The Space Giants, back-to-back, while wolfing down corn chips and taking notes. But when the viewing marathon was over, I still wasn’t any closer to understanding the Quatrain’s meaning. I’d hit another dead end. I decided that Halliday must be referring to some other whistle.

Then, one Saturday morning, I finally made a small breakthrough. I was watching a collection of vintage ’80s cereal commercials when I paused to wonder why cereal manufacturers no longer included toy prizes inside every box. It was a tragedy, in my opinion. Another sign that civilization was going straight down the tubes. I was still pondering this when an old Cap’n Crunch commercial came on, and that was when I made a connection between the first and third lines of the Quatrain: The captain conceals the Jade Key … But you can only blow the whistle …

Halliday was alluding to a famous ’70s hacker named John Draper, better known by the alias Captain Crunch. Draper was one of the first phone phreaks, and he was famous for discovering that the toy plastic whistles found as prizes in boxes of Cap’n Crunch cereal could be used to make free long-distance phone calls, because they emitted a 2600-hertz tone that tricked the old analog phone system into giving you free access to the line.

The captain conceals the Jade Key

That had to be it. “The captain” was Cap’n Crunch, and “the whistle” was the famous toy plastic whistle of phone phreak lore.

Maybe the Jade Key was disguised as one of those toy plastic whistles, and it was hidden in a box of Cap’n Crunch cereal.… But where was that cereal box hidden?

In a dwelling long neglected

I still didn’t know what long-neglected dwelling that line referred to, or where to look for it. I visited every neglected dwelling I could think of. Re-creations of the Addams Family house, the abandoned shack in the Evil Dead trilogy, Tyler Durden’s flophouse in Fight Club, and the Lars Homestead on Tattooine. No luck finding the Jade Key inside any of them. Dead end after dead end.

But you can only blow the whistle Once the trophies are all collected

I still hadn’t deciphered the meaning of that last line, either. What trophies did I have to collect? Or was that some kind of half-assed metaphor? There had to be a simple connection I wasn’t making, a sly reference that I still wasn’t clever or knowledgeable enough to catch.

Since then, I’d failed to make any more progress. Every time I revisited the Quatrain, my ongoing infatuation with Art3mis would undermine my ability to focus, and before long I would close my grail diary and call her up to see if she wanted to hang out. She almost always did.

I convinced myself that it was all right to slack off a bit, because no one else seemed to be making any progress in their search for the Jade Key. The Scoreboard remained unchanged. Everyone else seemed to be just as stumped as I was.

As the weeks continued to pass, Art3mis and I spent more and more time together. Even when our avatars were doing other things, we were sending e-mails and instant messages to each other. A river of words flowed between us.

I wanted more than anything to meet her in the real world. Face-to-face. But I didn’t tell her this. I was certain she had strong feelings for me, but she also kept me at a distance. No matter how much I revealed about myself to her—and I wound up revealing just about everything, including my real name—she always adamantly refused to reveal any details about her own life. All I knew was that she was nineteen and that she lived somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. That was all she would tell me.

The image of her that formed in my mind was the most obvious one. I pictured her as a physical manifestation of her avatar. I imagined her with the same face, eyes, hair, and body. Even though she told me repeatedly that in reality she looked almost nothing like her avatar and that she wasn’t nearly as attractive in person.

When I began to spend most of my time with Art3mis, Aech and I began to grow apart. Instead of hanging out several times a week, we chatted a few times a month. Aech knew I was falling for Art3mis, but he never gave me too much grief about it, even when I would bail on him at the last minute to hang out with her instead. He would just shrug, tell me to be careful, and say, “I sure hope you know what you’re doing, Z.”

I didn’t, of course. My whole relationship with Art3mis was in defiance of all common sense. But I couldn’t help falling for her. Somehow, without my realizing it, my obsession with finding Halliday’s Easter egg was gradually being supplanted by my obsession with Art3mis.

Eventually, she and I began to go out on “dates,” taking day trips to exotic OASIS locales and exclusive night spots. At first, Art3mis protested. She thought I should keep a low profile, because as soon as my avatar was spotted in public, the Sixers would know that their attempt to kill me had failed, and I’d be back on their hit list. But I told her I no longer cared. I was already hiding from the Sixers in the real world, and I refused to continue hiding from them in the OASIS, too. Besides, I had a ninety-ninth-level avatar now. I felt nigh invincible.

Maybe I was just trying to impress Art3mis by acting fearless. If so, I think it worked.

We still disguised our avatars before we went out, because we knew there would be tabloid headlines galore if Parzival and Art3mis started showing up in public together on a regular basis. But there was one exception. One night, she took me to see the Rocky Horror Picture Show in a huge stadium-sized movie theater on the planet Transs@xual, where they held the most highly attended and longest-running weekly screening of the movie in the OASIS. Thousands of avatars came to every show, to sit in the stands and revel in the audience participation. Normally, only longstanding members of the Rocky Horror Fan Club were permitted to get up onstage and help act out the film in front of the giant movie screen, and only after they’d passed a grueling audition process. But Art3mis used her fame to pull a few strings, and she and I were both allowed to join the cast for that night’s show. The whole planet was in a no-PvP zone, so I wasn’t worried about getting ambushed by the Sixers. But I did have a serious case of stage fright when the show began.

Art3mis played a note-perfect Columbia, and I had the honor of playing her undead love interest, Eddie. I altered my avatar’s appearance so that I looked exactly like Meat Loaf did in the role, but my performance and lip-synching still kinda sucked. Luckily, the audience cut me a lot of slack, because I was the famous gunter Parzival, and I was clearly having a blast.

That night was easily the most fun I’d ever had in my life up to that point. I told Art3mis so afterward, and that was when she leaned over and kissed me for the first time. I couldn’t feel it, of course. But it still set my heart racing.

I’d heard all the clichéd warnings about the perils of falling for someone you only knew online, but I ignored them. I decided that whoever Art3mis really was, I was in love with her. I could feel it, deep in the soft, chewy caramel center of my being.

And then one night, like a complete idiot, I told her how I felt.

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