فصل 20

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فصل 20

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20

My avatar slowly materialized in front of the control panel in my stronghold’s command center, the same spot where I’d been sitting the night before, engaged in my evening ritual of staring blankly at the Quatrain until I drifted off to sleep and the system logged me out. I’d been staring at the damn thing for almost six months now, and I still hadn’t been able to decipher it. No one had. Everyone had theories, of course, but the Jade Key still remained unfound, and top rankings on the Scoreboard remained static.

My command center was located under an armored dome embedded in the rocky surface of my own private asteroid. From here I had a sweeping 360-degree view of the surrounding cratered landscape, stretching to the horizon in all directions. The rest of my stronghold was belowground, in a vast subterranean complex that stretched all the way to the asteroid’s core. I’d coded the entire thing myself, shortly after moving to Columbus. My avatar needed a stronghold, and I didn’t want any neighbors, so I’d bought the cheapest planetoid I could find—this tiny barren asteroid in Sector Fourteen. Its designation was S14A316, but I’d renamed it Falco, after the Austrian rap star. (I wasn’t a huge Falco fan or anything. I just thought it sounded like a cool name.)

Falco had only a few square kilometers of surface area, but it had still cost me a pretty penny. It had been worth it, though. When you owned your own world, you could build whatever you wanted there. And no one could visit it unless I granted them access, something I never gave to anyone. My stronghold was my home inside the OASIS. My avatar’s sanctuary. It was the one place in the entire simulation where I was truly safe.

As soon as my log-in sequence completed, a window popped up on my display, informing me that today was an election day. Now that I was eighteen, I could vote, in both the OASIS elections and the elections for U.S. government officials. I didn’t bother with the latter, because I didn’t see the point. The once-great country into which I’d been born now resembled its former self in name only. It didn’t matter who was in charge. Those people were rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic and everyone knew it. Besides, now that everyone could vote from home, via the OASIS, the only people who could get elected were movie stars, reality TV personalities, or radical televangelists.

I did take the time to vote in the OASIS elections, however, because their outcomes actually affected me. The voting process only took me a few minutes, because I was already familiar with all of the major issues GSS had put on the ballot. It was also time to elect the president and VP of the OASIS User Council, but that was a no-brainer. Like most gunters, I voted to reelect Cory Doctorow and Wil Wheaton (again). There were no term limits, and those two geezers had been doing a kick-ass job of protecting user rights for over a decade.

When I finished voting, I adjusted my haptic chair slightly and studied the command console in front of me. It was crammed with switches, buttons, keyboards, joysticks, and display screens. A bank of security monitors on my left were linked to virtual cameras placed throughout the interior and exterior of my stronghold. To my right, another bank of monitors displayed all of my favorite news and entertainment vidfeeds. Among these was my own channel: Parzival-TV—Broadcasting obscure eclectic crap, 24-7-365.

Earlier that year, GSS had added a new feature to every OASIS user’s account: the POV (personal OASIS vidfeed) channel. It allowed anyone who paid a monthly fee to run their own streaming television network. Anyone logged into the simulation could tune in and watch your POV channel, from anywhere in the world. What you aired on your channel and who you allowed to view it were entirely up to you. Most users chose to run a “voyeur channel,” which was like being the star of your own twenty-four-hour reality show. Hovering virtual cameras would follow your avatar around the OASIS as you went about your day-to-day activities. You could limit access to your channel so that only your friends could watch, or you could charge viewers by the hour to access your POV. A lot of second-tier celebrities and @@@ographers did this, selling their virtual lives at a per-minute premium.

Some people used their POV to broadcast live video of their real-world selves, or their dog, or their kids. Some people programmed nothing but old cartoons. The possibilities were endless, and the variety of stuff available seemed to grow more twisted every day. Nonstop foot fetish videos broadcast out of Eastern Europe. Amateur @@@ featuring deviant soccer moms in Minnesota. You name it. Every flavor of weirdness the human psyche could cook up was being filmed and broadcast online. The vast wasteland of television programming had finally reached its zenith, and the average person was no longer limited to fifteen minutes of fame. Now everyone could be on TV, every second of every day, whether or not anyone was watching.

Parzival-TV wasn’t a voyeur channel. In fact, I never showed my avatar’s face on my vidfeed. Instead, I programmed a selection of classic ’80s TV shows, retro commercials, cartoons, music videos, and movies. Lots of movies. On the weekends, I showed old Japanese monster flicks, along with some vintage anime. Whatever struck my fancy. It didn’t really matter what I programmed. My avatar was still one of the High Five, so my vidfeed drew millions of viewers every day, regardless of what I aired, and this allowed me to sell commercial time to my various sponsors.

Most of Parzival-TV’s regular viewers were gunters who monitored my vidfeed with the hope that I’d inadvertently reveal some key piece of information about the Jade Key or the egg itself. I never did, of course. At the moment, Parzival-TV was wrapping up a nonstop two-day Kikaider marathon. Kikaider was a late-’70s Japanese action show about a red-and-blue android who beat the crap out of rubber-suited monsters in each episode. I had a weakness for vintage kaiju and tokusatsu, shows like Spectreman, The Space Giants, and Supaidaman.

I pulled up my programming grid and made a few changes to my evening lineup. I cleared away the episodes of Riptide and Misfits of Science I’d programmed and dropped in a few back-to-back flicks starring Gamera, my favorite giant flying turtle. I thought they should be real crowd pleasers. Then, to finish off the broadcast day, I added a few episodes of Silver Spoons.

Art3mis also ran her own vidfeed channel, Art3mivision, and I always kept one of my monitors tuned to it. Right now, she was airing her usual Monday evening fare: an episode of Square Pegs. After that would be ElectraWoman and DynaGirl, followed by back-to-back episodes of Isis and Wonder Woman. Her programming lineup hadn’t changed in ages. But it didn’t matter. She still got killer ratings. Recently, she’d also launched her own wildly successful clothing line for full-figured female avatars, under the label Art3Miss. She was doing really well for herself.

After that night in the Distracted Globe, Art3mis had cut off all contact with me. She blocked all of my e-mails, phone calls, and chat requests. She also stopped making posts to her blog.

I tried everything I could think of to reach her. I sent her avatar flowers. I made multiple trips to her avatar’s stronghold, an armored palace on Benatar, the small moon she owned. I dropped mix tapes and notes on her palace from the air, like lovesick bombs. Once, in a supreme act of desperation, I stood outside her palace gates for two solid hours, with a boom box over my head, blasting “In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel at full volume.

She didn’t come out. I don’t even know if she was home.

I’d been living in Columbus for over five months now, and it had been eight long, torturous weeks since I’d last spoken to Art3mis. But I hadn’t spent that time moping around and feeling sorry for myself. Well, not all of it, anyway. I’d tried to enjoy my “new life” as a world-famous sector-hopping gunter. Even though I’d maxxed out my avatar’s power level, I continued to complete as many quests as possible, to add to my already impressive collection of weapons, magic items, and vehicles, which I kept in a vault deep within my stronghold. Questing kept me busy and served as a welcome distraction from the growing loneliness and isolation I felt.

I’d tried to reconnect with Aech after Art3mis had dumped me, but things weren’t the same. We’d grown apart, and I knew it was my fault. Our conversations were now stilted and reserved, as if we were both afraid of revealing some key piece of information the other might be able to use. I could tell he no longer trusted me. And while I’d been off obsessing over Art3mis, it seemed Aech had become obsessed with being the first gunter to find the Jade Key. But it had been almost half a year since we’d cleared the First Gate, and the Jade Key’s location still remained a mystery.

I hadn’t spoken to Aech in almost a month. My last conversation with him had devolved into a shouting match, which had ended when I reminded Aech that he “never even would have found the Copper Key” if I hadn’t led him straight to it. He’d glared at me in silence for a second, then logged out of the chat room. Stubborn pride kept me from calling him back right away to apologize, and now it seemed like too much time had passed.

Yeah. I was on a roll. In less than six months, I’d managed to wreck both of my closest friendships.

I flipped over to Aech’s channel, which he called the H-Feed. He was currently showing a WWF match from the late ’80s, featuring Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant. I didn’t even bother checking Daito and Shoto’s channel, the Daishow, because I knew they’d be showing some old samurai movie. That’s all those guys ever aired.

A few months after our confrontational first meeting in Aech’s basement, I’d managed to form a tenuous friendship with Daito and Shoto when the three of us teamed up to complete an extended quest in Sector Twenty-two. It was my idea. I felt bad about how our first encounter had ended, and I waited for an opportunity to extend some sort of olive branch to the two samurai. It came when I discovered a hidden high-level quest called Shodai Urutoraman on the planet Tokusatsu. The creation date in the quest’s colophon said it had been launched several years after Halliday’s death, which meant it couldn’t have any relation to the contest. It was also a Japanese-language quest, created by GSS’s Hokkaido division. I could have tried to complete it on my own, using the Mandarax real-time translator software installed in all OASIS accounts, but it would have been risky. Mandarax had been known to garble or misinterpret quest instructions and cues, which could easily lead to fatal mistakes.

Daito and Shoto lived in Japan (they’d become national heroes there), and I knew that they both spoke Japanese and English fluently. So I’d contacted them to ask if they were interested in teaming up with me, just for this one quest. They were skeptical at first, but after I described the unique nature of the quest, and what I believed the payoff for solving it might be, they finally agreed. The three of us met outside the quest gate on Tokusatsu and entered it together.

The quest was a re-creation of all thirty-nine episodes of the original Ultraman TV series, which had aired on Japanese television from 1966 to 1967. The show’s storyline centered around a human named Hayata who was a member of the Science Patrol, an organization devoted to fighting the hordes of giant Godzilla-like monsters that were constantly attacking Earth and threatening human civilization. When the Science Patrol encountered a threat they couldn’t handle on their own, Hayata would use an alien device called a Beta Capsule to transform into an alien super-being known as Ultraman. Then he would proceed to kick the monster-of-the-week’s ass, using all sorts of kung-fu moves and energy attacks.

If I’d entered the quest gate by myself, I would have automatically played through the entire series storyline as Hayata. But because Shoto, Daito, and I had all entered at once, we were each allowed to select a different Science Patrol team member to play. We could then change or swap characters at the start of the next level or “episode.” The three of us took turns playing Hayata and his Science Patrol teammates Hoshino and Arashi. As with most quests in the OASIS, playing as a team made it easier to defeat the various enemies and complete each of the levels.

It took us an entire week, often playing over sixteen hours a day, before we were finally able to clear all thirty-nine levels and complete the quest. As we stepped out of the quest gate, our avatars were each awarded a huge amount of experience points and several thousand credits. But the real prize for completing the quest was an incredibly rare artifact: Hayata’s Beta Capsule. The small metal cylinder allowed the avatar who possessed it to transform into Ultraman once a day, for up to three minutes.

Since there were three of us, there was a debate over who should be allowed to keep the artifact. “Parzival should have it,” Shoto had said, turning to his older brother. “He found this quest. We wouldn’t even have known about it, were it not for him.”

Of course, Daito had disagreed. “And he would not have been able to complete the quest without our help!” He said the only fair thing to do would be to auction off the Beta Capsule and split the proceeds. But there was no way I could allow that. The artifact was far too valuable to sell, and I knew it would end up in the hands of the Sixers, because they purchased nearly every major artifact that went up for auction. I also saw this as an opportunity to get on Daisho’s good side.

“You two should keep the Beta Capsule,” I said. “Urutoraman is Japan’s greatest superhero. His powers belong in Japanese hands.”

They were both surprised and humbled by my generosity. Especially Daito. “Thank you, Parzival-san,” he said, bowing low. “You are a man of honor.”

After that, the three of us had parted as friends, if not necessarily allies, and I considered that an ample reward for my efforts.

A chime sounded in my ears and I checked the time. It was almost eight o’clock. Time to make the doughnuts.

I was always hard-up for cash, no matter how frugal I tried to be. I had several large bills to pay each month, both in the real world and in the OASIS. My real-world expenses were pretty standard. Rent, electricity, food, water. Hardware repairs and upgrades. My avatar’s expenses were far more exotic. Spacecraft repairs. Teleportation fees. Power cells. Ammunition. I purchased my ammo in bulk, but it still wasn’t cheap. And my monthly teleportation expenses were often astronomical. My search for the egg required constant travel, and GSS kept raising their teleportation fares.

I’d already spent all of my remaining product endorsement dough. Most of it went toward the cost of my rig and buying my own asteroid. I earned a decent amount of money each month by selling commercial time on my POV channel and by auctioning off any unneeded magic items, armor, or weapons I acquired during my travels. But my primary source of income was my full-time job doing OASIS technical support.

When I’d created my new Bryce Lynch identity, I’d given myself a college degree, along with multiple technical certifications and a long, sterling work record as an OASIS programmer and app developer. However, despite my sterling bogus résumé, the only job I’d been able to get was as a tier-one technical support representative at Helpful Helpdesk Inc., one of the contract firms GSS used to handle OASIS customer service and support. Now I worked forty hours a week, helping morons reboot their OASIS consoles and update the drivers for their haptic gloves. It was grueling work, but it paid the rent.

I logged out of my own OASIS account and then used my rig to log into a separate OASIS account I’d been issued for work. The log-in process completed and I took control of a Happy Helpdesk avatar, a cookie-cutter Ken doll that I used to take tech-support calls. This avatar appeared inside a huge virtual call center, inside a virtual cubicle, sitting at a virtual desk, in front of a virtual computer, wearing a virtual phone headset.

I thought of this place as my own private virtual hell.

Helpful Helpdesk Inc. took millions of calls a day, from all over the world. Twenty-four seven, three sixty-five. One angry, befuddled cretin after another. There was no downtime between calls, because there were always several hundred morons in the call queue, all of them willing to wait on hold for hours to have a tech rep hold their hand and fix their problem. Why bother looking up the solution online? Why try to figure the problem out on your own when you could have someone else do your thinking for you?

As usual, my ten-hour shift passed slowly. It was impossible for helpdesk avatars to leave their cubicles, but I found other ways to pass the time. My work account was rigged so that I couldn’t browse outside websites, but I’d hacked my visor to allow me to listen to music or stream movies off my hard drive while I took calls.

When my shift finally ended and I logged out of work, I immediately logged back into my own OASIS account. I had thousands of new e-mail messages waiting, and I could tell just by their subject lines what had happened while I’d been at work.

Art3mis had found the Jade Key.

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