فصل 19

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فصل 19

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19

My computer woke me up just before sundown, and I began my daily ritual.

“I’m up!” I shouted at the darkness. In the weeks since Art3mis had dumped me, I’d had a hard time getting out of bed in the morning. So I’d disabled my alarm’s snooze feature and instructed the computer to blast “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” by Wham! I loathed that song with every fiber of my being, and getting up was the only way to silence it. It wasn’t the most pleasant way to start my day, but it got me moving.

The song cut off, and my haptic chair reshaped and reoriented itself, transforming from a bed back into its chair configuration, lifting me into a sitting position as it did so. The computer began to bring the lights up slowly, allowing my eyes to adjust. No outside light ever penetrated my apartment. The single window had once provided a view of the Columbus skyline, but I’d spray-painted it completely black a few days after I moved in. I’d decided that everything outside the window was a distraction from my quest, so I didn’t need to waste time staring at it. I didn’t want to hear the outside world, either, but I hadn’t been able to improve upon the apartment’s existing soundproofing. So I had to live with the muffled sounds of wind and rain, and of street and air traffic. Even these could be a distraction. At times, I’d slip into a kind of trance, sitting with my eyes closed, oblivious to the passage of time, listening to the sounds of the world outside my room.

I’d made several other modifications to the apartment for the sake of security and convenience. First, I replaced the flimsy door with a new airtight armor-plated vacuum-sealed WarDoor. Whenever I needed something—food, toilet paper, new gear—I ordered it online, and someone brought it right to my door. Deliveries worked like this: First, the scanner mounted outside in the hallway would verify the delivery person’s identity and my computer would confirm they were delivering something I’d actually ordered. Then the outer door would unlock itself and slide open, revealing a steel-reinforced air lock about the size of a shower stall. The delivery person would place the parcel, pizza, or whatever inside the air lock and step back. The outer door would hiss shut and relock itself; then the package would be scanned, X-rayed, and analyzed eight ways from Wednesday. Its contents would be verified and delivery confirmation would be sent. Then I would unlock and open the inner door and receive my goods. Capitalism would inch forward, without my actually having to interact face-to-face with another human being. Which was exactly how I preferred it, thank you.

The room itself wasn’t much to look at, which was fine, because I spent as little time looking at it as possible. It was basically a cube, about ten meters long on each side. A modular shower and toilet unit were embedded in one wall, opposite the small ergonomic kitchen. I’d never actually used the kitchen to cook anything. My meals were all frozen or delivered. Microwave brownies were as close as I ever got to cooking.

The rest of the room was dominated by my OASIS immersion rig. I’d invested every spare cent I had in it. Newer, faster, or more versatile components were always being released, so I was constantly spending large chunks of my meager income on upgrades.

The crown jewel in my rig was, of course, my customized OASIS console. The computer that powered my world. I’d built it myself, piece by piece, inside a modded mirror-black Odinware sphere chassis. It had a new overclocked processor that was so fast its cycle-time bordered on pre-cognition. And the internal hard drive had enough storage space to hold three digitized copies of Everything in Existence.

I spent the majority of my time in my Shaptic Technologies HC5000 fully adjustable haptic chair. It was suspended by two jointed robotic arms anchored to my apartment’s walls and ceiling. These arms could rotate the chair on all four axes, so when I was strapped in to it, the unit could flip, spin, or shake my body to create the sensation that I was falling, flying, or sitting behind the wheel of a nuclear-powered rocket sled hurtling at Mach 2 through a canyon on the fourth moon of Altair VI.

The chair worked in conjunction with my Shaptic Bootsuit, a full-body haptic feedback suit. It covered every inch of my body from the neck down and had discreet openings so I could relieve myself without removing the entire thing. The outside of the suit was covered with an elaborate exoskeleton, a network of artificial tendons and joints that could both sense and inhibit my movements. Built into the inside of the suit was a weblike network of miniature actuators that made contact with my skin every few centimeters. These could be activated in small or large groups for the purpose of tactile simulation—to make my skin feel things that weren’t really there. They could convincingly simulate the sensation of a tap on the shoulder, a kick to the shin, or a gunshot in the chest. (Built-in safety software prevented my rig from actually causing me any physical harm, so a simulated gunshot actually felt more like a weak punch.) I had an identical backup suit hanging in the MoshWash cleaning unit in the corner of the room. These two haptic suits made up my entire wardrobe. My old street clothes were buried somewhere in the closet, collecting dust.

On my hands, I wore a pair of state-of-the-art Okagami IdleHands haptic datagloves. Special tactile feedback pads covered both palms, allowing the gloves to create the illusion that I was touching objects and surfaces that didn’t actually exist.

My visor was a brand-new pair of Dinatro RLR-7800 WreckSpex, featuring a top-of-the-line virtual retinal display. The visor drew the OASIS directly onto my retinas, at the highest frame rate and resolution perceptible to the human eye. The real world looked washed-out and blurry by comparison. The RLR-7800 was a not-yet-available-to-the-plebian-masses prototype, but I had an endorsement deal with Dinatro, so they sent me free gear (shipped to me through a series of remailing services, which I used to maintain my anonymity).

My AboundSound audio system consisted of an array of ultrathin speakers mounted on the apartment’s walls, floor, and ceiling, providing 360 degrees of perfect spatial pin-drop sound reproduction. And the Mjolnur subwoofer was powerful enough to make my back teeth vibrate.

The Olfatrix smell tower in the corner was capable of generating over two thousand discernible odors. A rose garden, salty ocean wind, burning cordite—the tower could convincingly re-create them all. It also doubled as an industrial-strength air conditioner/purifier, which was primarily what I used it for. A lot of jokers liked to code really horrific smells into their simulations, just to mess with people who owned smell towers, so I usually left the odor generator disabled, unless I was in a part of the OASIS where I thought being able to smell my surroundings might prove useful.

On the floor, directly underneath my suspended haptic chair, was my Okagami Runaround omnidirectional treadmill. (“No matter where you go, there you are” was the manufacturer’s slogan.) The treadmill was about two meters square and six centimeters thick. When it was activated, I could run at top speed in any direction and never reach the edge of the platform. If I changed direction, the treadmill would sense it, and its rolling surface would change direction to match me, always keeping my body near the center of its platform. This model was also equipped with built-in lifts and an amorphous surface, so that it could simulate walking up inclines and staircases.

You could also purchase an ACHD (anatomically correct haptic doll), if you wanted to have more “intimate” encounters inside the OASIS. ACHDs came in male, female, and dual-s@x models, and were available with a wide array of options. Realistic latex skin. Servomotor-driven endoskeletons. Simulated musculature. And all of the attendant appendages and orifices one would imagine.

Driven by loneliness, curiosity, and raging teen hormones, I’d purchased a midrange ACHD, the Shaptic ÜberBetty, a few weeks after Art3mis stopped speaking to me. After spending several highly unproductive days inside a stand-alone brothel simulation called the Pleasuredome, I’d gotten rid of the doll, out of a combination of shame and self-preservation. I’d wasted thousands of credits, missed a whole week of work, and was on the verge of completely abandoning my quest for the egg when I confronted the grim realization that virtual s@x, no matter how realistic, was really nothing but glorified, computer-assisted masturbation. At the end of the day, I was still a virgin, all alone in a dark room, humping a lubed-up robot. So I got rid of the ACHD and went back to spanking the monkey the old-fashioned way.

I felt no shame about masturbating. Thanks to Anorak’s Almanac, I now thought of it as a normal bodily function, as necessary and natural as sleeping or eating.

AA 241:87—I would argue that masturbation is the human animal’s most important adaptation. The very cornerstone of our technological civilization. Our hands evolved to grip tools, all right—including our own. You see, thinkers, inventors, and scientists are usually geeks, and geeks have a harder time getting laid than anyone. Without the built-in s@xual release valve provided by masturbation, it’s doubtful that early humans would have ever mastered the secrets of fire or discovered the wheel. And you can bet that Galileo, Newton, and Einstein never would have made their discoveries if they hadn’t first been able to clear their heads by slapping the salami (or “knocking a few protons off the old hydrogen atom”). The same goes for Marie Curie. Before she discovered radium, you can be certain she first discovered the little man in the canoe.

It wasn’t one of Halliday’s more popular theories, but I liked it.

As I shuffled over to the toilet, a large flat-screen monitor mounted on the wall switched on, and the smiling face of Max, my system agent software, appeared on the screen. I’d programmed Max to start up a few minutes after I turned on the lights, so I could wake up a little bit before he started jabbering to me.

“G-g-good morning, Wade!” Max stuttered cheerily. “Rise and sh-sh-shine!”

Running system agent software was a little like having a virtual personal assistant—one that also functioned as a voice-activated interface with your computer. System agent software was highly configurable, with hundreds of preprogrammed personalities to choose from. I’d programmed mine to look, sound, and behave like Max Headroom, the (ostensibly) computer-generated star of a late-’80s talk show, a groundbreaking cyberpunk TV series, and a slew of Coke commercials.

“Good morning, Max,” I replied groggily.

“I think you mean good evening, Rumpelstiltskin. It’s 7:18 p.m., OASIS Sta-sta-standard Time, Wednesday, December thirtieth.” Max was programmed to speak with a slight electronic stutter. In the mid-’80s, when the character of Max Headroom was created, computers weren’t actually powerful enough to generate a photorealistic human figure, so Max had been portrayed by an actor (the brilliant Matt Frewer) who wore a lot of rubber makeup to make him look computer-generated. But the version of Max now smiling at me on the monitor was pure software, with the best simulated AI and voice-recognition subroutines money could buy.

I’d been running a highly customized version of MaxHeadroom v3.4.1 for a few weeks now. Before that, my system agent software had been modeled after the actress Erin Gray (of Buck Rogers and Silver Spoons fame). But she’d proved to be way too distracting, so I’d switched to Max. He was annoying at times, but he also cracked me up. He did a pretty decent job of keeping me from feeling lonesome, too.

As I stumbled into the bathroom module and emptied my bladder, Max continued to address me from a small monitor mounted above the mirror. “Uh-oh! It appears you’ve sp-sp-sprung a leak!” he said.

“Get a new joke,” I said. “Any news I should know about?”

“Just the usual. Wars, rioting, famine. Nothing that would interest you.”

“Any messages?”

He rolled his eyes. “A few. But to answer your real question, no. Art3mis still hasn’t called or written you back, lover boy.”

“I’ve warned you. Don’t call me that, Max. You’re begging to be deleted.”

“Touchy, touchy. Honestly, Wade. When did you get so s-s-sensitive?”

“I’ll erase you, Max. I mean it. Keep it up and I’ll switch back to Wilma Deering. Or I’ll try out the disembodied voice of Majel Barrett.”

Max made a pouty face and spun around to face the shifting digital wallpaper behind him—currently a pattern of multicolored vector lines. Max was always like this. Giving me grief was part of his preprogrammed personality. I actually sort of enjoyed it, because it reminded me of hanging out with Aech. And I really missed hanging out with Aech. A lot.

My gaze dropped to the bathroom mirror, but I didn’t much like what I saw there, so I closed my eyes until I finished urinating. I wondered (not for the first time) why I hadn’t painted the mirror black too, when I’d done the window.

The hour or so after I woke up was my least favorite part of each day, because I spent it in the real world. This was when I dealt with the tedious business of cleaning and exercising my physical body. I hated this part of the day because everything about it contradicted my other life. My real life, inside the OASIS. The sight of my tiny one-room apartment, my immersion rig, or my reflection in the mirror—they all served as a harsh reminder that the world I spent my days in was not, in fact, the real one.

“Retract chair,” I said as I stepped out of the bathroom. The haptic chair instantly flattened itself again, then retracted so that it was flush against the wall, clearing a large empty space in the center of the room. I pulled on my visor and loaded up the Gym, a stand-alone simulation.

Now I was standing in a large modern fitness center lined with exercise equipment and weight machines, all of which could be perfectly simulated by my haptic suit. I began my daily workout. Sit-ups, stomach crunches, push-ups, aerobics, weight training. Occasionally, Max would shout words of encouragement. “Get those legs up, you s-s-sissy! Feel the burn!”

I usually got a little exercise while logged into the OASIS, by engaging in physical combat or running around the virtual landscape on my treadmill. But I spent the vast majority of my time sitting in my haptic chair, getting almost no exercise at all. I also had a habit of overeating when I was depressed or frustrated, which was most of the time. As a result, I’d gradually started to put on some extra pounds. I wasn’t in the best shape to begin with, so I quickly reached a point where I could no longer fit comfortably in my haptic chair or squeeze in to my XL haptic suit. Soon, I would need to buy a new rig, with components from the Husky line.

I knew that if I didn’t get my weight under control, I would probably die of sloth before I found the egg. I couldn’t let that happen. So I made a snap decision and enabled the voluntary OASIS fitness lockout software on my rig. I’d regretted it almost immediately.

From then on, my computer monitored my vital signs and kept track of exactly how many calories I burned during the course of each day. If I didn’t meet my daily exercise requirements, the system prevented me from logging into my OASIS account. This meant that I couldn’t go to work, continue my quest, or, in effect, live my life. Once the lockout was engaged, you couldn’t disable it for two months. And the software was bound to my OASIS account, so I couldn’t just buy a new computer or go rent a booth in some public OASIS café. If I wanted to log in, I had no choice but to exercise first. This proved to be the only motivation I needed.

The lockout software also monitored my dietary intake. Each day I was allowed to select meals from a preset menu of healthy, low-calorie foods. The software would order the food for me online and it would be delivered to my door. Since I never left my apartment, it was easy for the program to keep track of everything I ate. If I ordered additional food on my own, it would increase the amount of exercise I had to do each day, to offset my additional calorie intake. This was some sadistic software.

But it worked. The pounds began to melt off, and after a few months, I was in near-perfect health. For the first time in my life I had a flat stomach, and muscles. I also had twice the energy, and I got sick a lot less frequently. When the two months ended and I was finally given the option to disable the fitness lockout, I decided to keep it in place. Now, exercising was a part of my daily ritual.

Once I finished with my weight training, I stepped onto my treadmill. “Begin morning run,” I said to Max. “Bifrost track.”

The virtual gym vanished. Now I was standing on a semitransparent running track, a curved looping ribbon suspended in a starry nebula. Giant ringed planets and multicolored moons were suspended in space all around me. The running track stretched out ahead of me, rising, falling, and occasionally spiraling into a helix. An invisible barrier prevented me from accidentally running off the edge of the track and plummeting into the starry abyss. The Bifrost track was another stand-alone simulation, one of several hundred track designs stored on my console’s hard drive.

As I began to run, Max fired up my ’80s music playlist. As the first song began, I quickly rattled off its title, artist, album, and year of release from memory: “ ‘A Million Miles Away,’ the Plimsouls, Everywhere at Once, 1983.” Then I began to sing along, reciting the lyrics. Having the right ’80s song lyric memorized might save my avatar’s life someday.

When I finished my run, I pulled off my visor and began removing my haptic suit. This had to be done slowly to prevent damaging the suit’s components. As I carefully peeled it off, the contact patches made tiny popping sounds as they pulled free of my skin, leaving tiny circular marks all over my body. Once I had the suit off, I placed it inside the cleaning unit and laid my clean spare suit out on the floor.

Max had already turned on the shower for me, setting the water temperature right where I liked it. As I jumped into the steam-filled stall, Max switched the music over to my shower tunes playlist. I recognized the opening riffs of “Change,” by John Waite. From the Vision Quest soundtrack. Geffen Records, 1985.

The shower worked a lot like an old car wash. I just stood there while it did most of the work, blasting me from all angles with jets of soapy water, then rinsing me off. I had no hair to wash, because the shower also dispensed a nontoxic hair-removing solution that I rubbed all over my face and body. This eliminated the need for me to shave or cut my hair, both hassles I didn’t need. Having smooth skin also helped make sure my haptic suit fit snugly. I looked a little freaky without any eyebrows, but I got used to it.

When the rinse jets cut off, the blow-dryers kicked on, blasting the moisture off of my skin in a matter of seconds. I stepped into the kitchen and took out a can of Sludge, a high-protein, vitamin D–infused breakfast drink (to help counteract my sunlight deprivation). As I gulped it down, my computer’s sensors silently took note, scanning the barcode and adding the calories to my total for the day. With breakfast out of the way, I pulled on my clean haptic suit. This was less tricky than taking the suit off, but it still took time to do properly.

Once I had the suit on, I ordered the haptic chair to extend. Then I paused and spent a moment staring at my immersion rig. I’d been so proud of all this high-tech hardware when I’d first purchased it. But over the past few months, I’d come to see my rig for what it was: an elaborate contraption for deceiving my senses, to allow me to live in a world that didn’t exist. Each component of my rig was a bar in the cell where I had willingly imprisoned myself.

Standing there, under the bleak fluorescents of my tiny one-room apartment, there was no escaping the truth. In real life, I was nothing but an antisocial hermit. A recluse. A pale-skinned pop culture–obsessed geek. An agoraphobic shut-in, with no real friends, family, or genuine human contact. I was just another sad, lost, lonely soul, wasting his life on a glorified videogame.

But not in the OASIS. In there, I was the great Parzival. World-famous gunter and international celebrity. People asked for my autograph. I had a fan club. Several, actually. I was recognized everywhere I went (but only when I wanted to be). I was paid to endorse products. People admired and looked up to me. I got invited to the most exclusive parties. I went to all the hippest clubs and never had to wait in line. I was a pop-culture icon, a VR rock star. And, in gunter circles, I was a legend. Nay, a god.

I sat down and pulled on my gloves and visor. Once my identity was verified, the Gregarious Simulation Systems logo appeared in front of me, followed by the log-in prompt.

Greetings, Parzival. Please speak your pass phrase.

I cleared my throat and recited my pass phrase. Each word appeared on my display as I said it. “No one in the world ever gets what they want and that is beautiful.”

There was a brief pause, and then I let out an involuntary sigh of relief as the OASIS faded into existence all around me.

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