فصل 22

کتاب: بازیکن شماره یک آماده / فصل 23

فصل 22

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22

The Vonnegut dropped out of light speed, and Archaide suddenly filled the cockpit viewscreen. It stood out from the other planets in the area because it wasn’t coded to look real. All of the neighboring planets were perfectly rendered, with clouds, continents, or impact craters covering their curved surfaces. But Archaide had none of these features, because it was home to the OASIS’s largest classic videogame museum, and its appearance had been designed as a tribute to the vector-graphic games of the late ’70s and early ’80s. The planet’s only surface feature was a web of glowing green dots similar to the ground lights on an airport runway. They were spaced evenly across the globe in a perfect grid, so that, from orbit, Archaide resembled the vector-graphic Death Star from Atari’s 1983 Star Wars arcade game.

As Max piloted the Vonnegut down to the surface, I prepared for the possibility of combat by charging up my armor and buffing my avatar with several potions and nano packs. Archaide was both a PvP zone and a chaos zone, which meant that both magic and technology functioned here. So I made sure to load up all of my combat contingency macros.

The Vonnegut’s perfectly rendered steel loading ramp lowered to the ground, standing out in sharp contrast against the digital blackness of Archaide’s surface. As I stepped off the ramp, I tapped a keypad on my right wrist. The ramp retracted, and there was a sharp hum as the ship’s security system activated. A transparent blue shield appeared around the Vonnegut’s hull.

I gazed around at the horizon, which was just a jagged green vector line, denoting mountainous terrain. Here on the surface, Archaide looked exactly like the environment of the 1981 game Battlezone, another vector-graphic classic from Atari. In the distance, a triangular volcano spewed green pixels of lava. You could run toward that volcano for days and never reach it. It always remained at the horizon. Just like in an old videogame, the scenery never changed on Archaide, even if you circumnavigated the globe.

Following my instructions, Max had set the Vonnegut down in a landing lot near the equator in the eastern hemisphere. The lot was empty, and the surrounding area appeared deserted. I headed toward the nearest green dot. As I approached, I could see that it was actually the mouth of an entrance tunnel, a neon green circle ten meters in diameter leading belowground. Archaide was a hollow planet, and the museum exhibits were all located beneath the surface.

As I approached the nearest tunnel entrance, I heard loud music emanating from below. I recognized the song as “Pour Some Sugar on Me” by Def Leppard, off their Hysteria album (Epic Records, 1987). I reached the edge of the glowing green ring and jumped in. As my avatar plummeted down into the museum, the green vector-graphic theme disappeared and I found myself in high-resolution full-color surroundings. Everything around me looked completely real once again.

Below its surface, Archaide housed thousands of classic video arcades, each one a loving re-creation of an actual arcade that had once existed somewhere in the real world. Since the dawn of the OASIS, thousands of elderly users had come here and painstakingly coded virtual replicas of local arcades they remembered from their childhood, thus making them a permanent part of the museum. And each of these simulated game rooms, bowling alleys, and pizza joints was lined with classic arcade games. There was at least one copy of every coin-operated videogame ever made down here. The original game ROMs were all stored in the planet’s OASIS code, and their wooden game cabinets were each coded to look like the antique originals. Hundreds of shrines and exhibits devoted to various game designers and publishers were also scattered throughout the museum.

The museum’s various levels were comprised of vast caverns linked by a network of subterranean streets, tunnels, staircases, elevators, escalators, ladders, slides, trapdoors, and secret passageways. It was like a massive underground multilevel labyrinth. The layout made it extremely easy to get lost, so I kept a three-dimensional holographic map on my display. My avatar’s present location was indicated by a flashing blue dot. I’d entered the museum next to an old arcade called Aladdin’s Castle, close to the surface. I touched a point on the map near the core of the planet, indicating my destination, and the software mapped the quickest route for me to get there. I ran forward, following it.

The museum was divided into layers. Here, near the planet’s mantle, you could find the last coin-operated videogames ever made, from the first few decades of the twenty-first century. These were mostly dedicated simulator cabinets with first-generation haptics—vibrating chairs and tilting hydraulic platforms. Lots of networked stock car simulators that allowed people to race each other. These games were the last of their kind. By that era, home videogame consoles had already made most coin-op games obsolete. After the OASIS went online, they stopped making them altogether.

As you ventured deeper into the museum, the games grew older and more archaic. Turn-of-the-century coin-ops. Lots of head-to-head fighting games with blocky polygon-rendered figures beating the crap out of each other on large flat-screen monitors. Shooting games played with crude haptic light guns. Dancing games. Once you reached the level below that, the games all began to look identical. Each was housed in a large rectangular wooden box containing a cathode picture tube with a set of crude game controls mounted in front of it. You used your hands and your eyes (and occasionally your feet) to play these games. There were no haptics. These games didn’t make you feel anything. And the deeper I descended, the cruder the game graphics got.

The museum’s bottom level, located in the planet core, was a spherical room containing a shrine to the very first videogame, Tennis for Two, invented by William Higinbotham in 1958. The game ran on an ancient analog computer and was played on a tiny oscilloscope screen about five inches in diameter. Next to it was a replica of an ancient PDP-1 computer running a copy of Spacewar!, the second videogame ever made, created by a bunch of students at MIT in 1962.

Like most gunters, I’d already visited Archaide a few times. I’d been to the core and had played both Tennis for Two and Spacewar! until I’d mastered them. Then I’d wandered around the museums’ many levels, playing games and looking for clues Halliday might have left behind. But I’d never found anything.

I kept running, farther and farther down, until I reached the Gregarious Simulation Systems Museum, which was located just a few levels above the planet core. I’d been here once before too, so I knew my way around. There were exhibits devoted to all of GSS’s most popular games, including several arcade ports of titles they’d originally released for home computers and consoles. It didn’t take me long to find the exhibit where Halliday’s five Game Designer of the Year trophies were displayed, next to a bronze statue of the man himself.

Within a few minutes, I knew I was wasting my time here. The GSS Museum exhibit was coded so that it was impossible to remove any of the items on display, so the trophies could not be “collected.” I spent a few minutes trying in vain to cut one of them free of its pedestal with a laser welding torch before calling it quits.

Another dead end. This whole trip had been a waste of time. I took one last look around and headed for the exit, trying not to let my frustration get the best of me.

I decided to take a different route on my way back up to the surface, through a section of the museum I’d never fully explored on my previous visits. I wandered through a series of tunnels that led me into a giant, cavernous chamber. It contained a kind of underground city comprised entirely of pizza joints, bowling alleys, convenience stores, and, of course, video arcades. I wandered through the maze of empty streets, then down a winding back alley that dead-ended by the entrance of a small pizza shop.

I froze in my tracks when I saw the name of the place.

It was called Happytime Pizza, and it was a replica of a small family-run pizza joint that had existed in Halliday’s hometown in the mid-1980s. Halliday appeared to have copied the code for Happytime Pizza from his Middletown simulation and hidden a duplicate of it here in the Archaide museum.

What the hell was it doing here? I’d never seen its existence mentioned on any of the gunter message boards or strategy guides. Was it possible no one had ever spotted it before now?

Halliday mentioned Happytime Pizza several times in the Almanac, so I knew he had fond memories of this place. He’d often come here after school, to avoid going home.

The interior re-created the atmosphere of a classic ’80s pizza parlor and video arcade in loving detail. Several NPC employees stood behind the counter, tossing dough and slicing pies. (I turned on my Olfatrix tower and discovered that I could actually smell the tomato sauce.) The shop was divided into two halves, the game room and the dining room. The dining room had videogames in it as well—all of the glass-top tables were actually sit-down arcade games known as “cocktail cabinets.” You could sit and play Donkey Kong on the table while you ate your pizza.

If I’d been hungry, I could have ordered a real slice of pizza at the counter. The order would have been forwarded to a pizza vendor near my apartment complex, the one I’d specified in my OASIS account’s food service preference settings. Then a slice would have been delivered to my door in a matter of minutes, and the cost (including tip) would have been deducted from my OASIS account balance.

As I walked into the game room, I heard a Bryan Adams song blasting out of the speakers mounted on the carpeted walls. Bryan was singing about how, everywhere he went, the kids wanted to rock. I pressed my thumb to a plate on the change machine and bought a single quarter. I scooped it out of the stainless-steel tray and headed to the back of the game room, taking in all of the simulation’s little details. I spotted a handwritten note taped to the marquee of a Defender game. It read BEAT THE OWNER’S HIGH SCORE AND WIN A FREE LARGE PIZZA!

A Robotron game was currently displaying its high-score list. Robotron allowed its all-time best player to enter an entire sentence of text beside their score instead of just their initials, and this machine’s top dog had used his precious victory space to announce that Vice-Principal Rundberg is a total douchebag!

I continued farther into the dark electronic cave and walked up to a Pac-Man machine at the very back of the room, wedged between a Galaga and a Dig Dug. The black-and-yellow cabinet was covered with chips and scratches, and the garish side-art was peeling.

The Pac-Man game’s monitor was dark, and there was an OUT OF ORDER sign taped to it. Why would Halliday include a broken game in this simulation? Was this just another atmospheric detail? Intrigued, I decided to investigate further.

I pulled the game cabinet out from the wall and saw that the power cord was unplugged. I plugged it back into the wall socket and waited for the game to boot up. It seemed to work fine.

As I was shoving the cabinet back into place, I spotted something. At the top of the game, resting on the metal brace that held the glass marquee in place, was a single quarter. The date on the coin was 1981—the year Pac-Man had been released.

I knew that back in the ’80s, placing your quarter on a game’s marquee was how you reserved the next turn on the machine. But when I tried to remove the quarter, it wouldn’t budge. Like it was welded in place.

Weird.

I slapped the OUT OF ORDER sign on the neighboring Galaga cabinet and looked at the start-up screen, which was listing off the game’s villainous ghosts: Inky, Blinky, Pinky, and Clyde. The high score at the top of the screen was 3,333,350 points.

Several things were strange about this. In the real world, Pac-Man machines didn’t save their high score if they were unplugged. And the high-score counter was supposed to flip over at 1,000,000 points. But this machine displayed a high score of 3,333,350 points—just 10 points shy of the highest Pac-Man score possible.

The only way to beat that score would be to play a perfect game.

I felt my pulse quicken. I’d uncovered something here. Some sort of Easter egg, hidden inside this old coin-op videogame. It wasn’t the Easter egg. Just an Easter egg. Some sort of challenge or puzzle, one I was almost certain had been created and placed here by Halliday. I didn’t know if it had anything to do with the Jade Key. It might not be related to the egg at all. But there was only one way to find out.

I would have to play a perfect game of Pac-Man.

This was no easy feat. You had to play all 256 levels perfectly, all the way up to the final split-screen. And you had to eat every single dot, energizer, fruit, and ghost possible along the way, without ever losing a single life. Less than twenty perfect games had been documented in the game’s sixty-year history. One of them, the fastest perfect game ever played, had been accomplished by James Halliday in just under four hours. He’d done it on an original Pac-Man machine located in the Gregarious Games break room.

Because I knew Halliday loved the game, I’d already done a fair amount of research on Pac-Man. But I’d never managed to play a perfect game. Of course, I’d never really made a serious attempt. Up until now, I’d never had a reason to.

I opened my grail diary and pulled up all of the Pac-Man–related data I’d ever collected. The original game code. The unabridged biography of the designer, Toru Iwatani. Every Pac-Man strategy guide ever written. Every episode of the Pac-Man cartoon series. The ingredients for Pac-Man cereal. And, of course, patterns. I had Pac-Man pattern diagrams out the wazoo, along with hundreds of hours of archived video of the best Pac-Man players in history. I’d already studied a lot of this stuff, but I skimmed over it again now to refresh my memory. Then I closed my grail diary and studied the Pac-Man machine in front of me, like a gunfighter sizing up an opponent.

I stretched my arms, rolled my head and neck around on my shoulders, and cracked my knuckles.

When I dropped a quarter into the left coin slot, the game emitted a familiar electronic bea-wup! sound. I tapped the Player One button, and the first maze appeared on the screen.

I wrapped my right hand around the joystick and began to play, guiding my pizza-shaped protagonist through one maze after another. Wakka-wakka-wakka-wakka.

My synthetic surroundings faded away as I focused on the game and lost myself in its ancient two-dimensional reality. Just as with Dungeons of Daggorath, I was now playing a simulation within a simulation. A game within a game.

I had several false starts. I would play for an hour, or even two; then I’d make one tiny mistake and I’d have to reboot the machine and start all over. But I was now on my eighth attempt, and I’d been playing for six hours straight. I was rockin’ like Dokken. This game had been Iceman-perfect so far. Two-hundred and fifty-five screens in and I still hadn’t made a single mistake. I’d managed to nail all four ghosts with every single power pill (until the eighteenth maze, when they stop turning blue altogether), and I’d snagged every bonus fruit, bird, bell, and key that had appeared, without dying once.

I was having the best game of my life. This was it. I could feel it. Everything was finally falling in to place. I had the glow.

There was a spot in each maze, just above the starting position, where it was possible to “hide” Pac-Man for up to fifteen minutes. In that location, the ghosts couldn’t find him. Using this trick, I’d been able to take two quick food and bathroom breaks during the past six hours.

As I chomped my way through the 255th screen, the song “Pac-Man Fever” began to blast out of the game room stereo. A smile crept onto my face. I knew this had to be a small tip-of-the-hat from Halliday.

Sticking to my tried-and-true pattern one last time, I whipped the joystick right, slid into the secret door, then out the opposite side and straight down to snag the last few remaining dots, clearing the board. I took a deep breath as the outline of the blue maze began to pulse white. And then I saw it, staring me in the face. The fabled split-screen. The end of the game.

Then, in the worst case of bad timing imaginable, a Scoreboard alert flashed on my display, just a few seconds after I began to play through the final screen.

The top ten rankings appeared, superimposed over my view of the Pac-Man screen, and I glanced at them just long enough to see that Aech had now become the second person to find the Jade Key. His score had just jumped 19,000 points, putting him in second place and knocking me into third.

By some miracle, I managed not to flip out. I stayed focused on my Pac-Man game.

I gripped the joystick tighter, refusing to let this wreck my concentration. I was nearly finished! I only had to milk the final 6,760 possible points from this last garbled maze and then I would finally have the high score.

My heart pounded in time with the music as I cleared the unblemished left half of the maze. Then I ventured into the twisted terrain of the right half, guiding Pac-Man through the pixelated on-screen refuse of the game’s depleted memory. Hidden underneath all of those junk sprites and garbled graphics were nine more dots, worth ten points each. I couldn’t see them, but I had their locations memorized. I quickly found and ate all nine, gaining 90 more points. Then I turned and ran into the nearest ghost—Clyde—and committed Pacicide, dying for the first time in the game. Pac-Man froze and withered into nothingness with an extended beeewup.

Each time Pac-Man died on this final maze, the nine hidden dots reappeared on the deformed right half of the screen. So to achieve the game’s maximum possible score, I had to find and eat each of those dots five more times, once with each of my five remaining lives.

I did my best not to think about Aech, who I knew must be holding the Jade Key at that very moment. Right now, he was probably reading whatever clue was etched into its surface.

I pulled the joystick to the right, weaving through the digital debris one final time. I could have done it blindfolded by now. I fish-hooked around Pinky to grab the two dots near the bottom, then another three in the center, and then the last four near the top.

I’d done it. I had the new high score: 3,333,360 points. A perfect game.

I took my hands off the controls and watched as all four ghosts converged on Pac-Man. GAME OVER flashed in the center of the maze.

I waited. Nothing happened. After a few seconds, the game’s attract screen came back up, showing the four ghosts, their names, and their nicknames.

My gaze shot to the quarter sitting on the edge of the marquee brace. Earlier it had been welded in place, unmovable. But now it tumbled forward and fell end-over-end, landing directly in the palm of my avatar’s hand. Then it vanished, and a message flashed on my display informing me that the quarter had automatically been added to my inventory. When I tried to take it back out and examine it, I found that I couldn’t. The quarter icon remained in my inventory. I couldn’t take it out or drop it.

If the quarter had any magical properties, they weren’t revealed in its item description, which was completely empty. To learn anything more about the quarter, I would have to cast a series of high-level divination spells on it. That would take days and require a lot of expensive spell components, and even then there was no guarantee the spells would tell me anything.

But at the moment, I was having a hard time caring all that much about the mystery of the undroppable quarter. All I could think about was that Aech and Art3mis had now both beaten me to the Jade Key. And getting the high score on this Pac-Man game on Archaide obviously hadn’t gotten me any closer to finding it myself. I really had been wasting my time here.

I headed back up to the planet’s surface. Just as I was sitting down in the Vonnegut’s cockpit, an e-mail from Aech arrived in my inbox. I felt my pulse quicken when I saw its subject line: Payback Time.

Holding my breath, I opened the message and read it:

Dear Parzival,

You and I are officially even now, got that? I consider my debt to you hereby paid in full.

Better hurry. The Sixers must already be on their way there.

Good luck, Aech

Below his signature was an image file he’d attached to the message. It was a high-resolution scan of the instruction manual cover for the text adventure game Zork—the version released in 1980 by Personal Software for the TRS-80 Model III.

I’d played and solved Zork once, a long time ago, back during the first year of the Hunt. But I’d also played hundreds of other classic text adventure games that year, including all of Zork’s sequels, and so most of the details of the game had now faded in my memory. Most old text adventure games were pretty self-explanatory, so I’d never actually bothered to read the Zork instruction manual. I now knew that this had a been a colossal mistake.

On the manual’s cover was a painting depicting a scene from the game. A swashbuckling adventurer wearing armor and a winged helmet stood with a glowing blue sword raised over his head, preparing to strike a troll cowering before him. The adventurer clutched several treasures in his other hand, and more treasures lay at his feet, scattered among human bones. A dark, fanged creature lurked just behind the hero, glowering malevolently.

All of this was in the painting’s foreground, but my eyes had instantly locked on what was in the background: a large white house, with its front door and windows all boarded up.

A dwelling long neglected.

I stared at the image a few more seconds, just long enough to curse myself for not making the connection on my own, months ago. Then I fired the Vonnegut’s engines and set a course for another planet in Sector Seven, not far from Archaide. It was small world called Frobozz that was home to a detailed re-creation of the game Zork.

It was also, I now knew, the hiding place of the Jade Key.

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