فصل 26

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فصل 26

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26

I figured it out later that night, a few hours after Shoto left my stronghold.

I was sitting in my command center, holding the Jade Key and endlessly reciting the clue printed on its surface: “ ‘Continue your quest by taking the test.’ ”

In my other hand, I held the silver foil wrapper. My eyes darted from the key to the wrapper and back to the key again as I tried desperately to make the connection between them. I’d been doing this for hours, and it wasn’t getting me anywhere.

I sighed and put the key away, then laid the wrapper flat on the control panel in front of me. I carefully smoothed out all of its folds and wrinkles. The wrapper was square in shape, six inches long on each edge. Silver foil on one side, dull white paper on the other.

I pulled up some image-analysis software and made a high-resolution scan of both sides of the wrapper. Then I magnified both images on my display and studied every micrometer. I couldn’t find any markings or writing anywhere, on either side of the wrapper’s surface.

I was eating some corn chips at the time, so I was using voice commands to operate the image-analysis software. I instructed it to demagnify the scan of the wrapper and center the image on my display. As I did this, it reminded me of a scene in Blade Runner, where Harrison Ford’s character, Deckard, uses a similar voice-controlled scanner to analyze a photograph.

I held up the wrapper and took another look at it. As the virtual light reflected off its foil surface, I thought about folding the wrapper into a paper airplane and sailing it across the room. That made me think of origami, which reminded me of another moment from Blade Runner. One of the final scenes in the film.

And that was when it hit me.

“The unicorn,” I whispered.

The moment I said the word “unicorn” aloud, the wrapper began to fold on its own, there in the palm of my hand. The square piece of foil bent itself in half diagonally, creating a silver triangle. It continued to bend and fold itself into smaller triangles and even smaller diamond shapes until at last it formed a four-legged figure that then sprouted a tail, a head, and finally, a horn.

The wrapper had folded itself into a silver origami unicorn. One of the most iconic images from Blade Runner.

I was already riding the elevator down to my hangar and shouting at Max to prep the Vonnegut for takeoff.

Continue your quest by taking the test.

Now I knew exactly what “test” that line referred to, and where I needed to go to take it. The origami unicorn had revealed everything to me.

Blade Runner was referenced in the text of Anorak’s Almanac no less than fourteen times. It had been one of Halliday’s top ten all-time favorite films. And the film was based on a novel by Philip K. di@k, one of Halliday’s favorite authors. For these reasons, I’d seen Blade Runner over four dozen times and had memorized every frame of the film and every line of dialogue.

As the Vonnegut streaked through hyperspace, I pulled the Director’s Cut of Blade Runner up in a window on my display, then jumped ahead to review two scenes in particular.

The movie, released in 1982, is set in Los Angeles in the year 2019, in a sprawling, hyper-technological future that had never come to pass. The story follows a guy named Rick Deckard, played by Harrison Ford. Deckard works as a “blade runner,” a special type of cop who hunts down and kills replicants—genetically engineered beings that are almost indistinguishable from real humans. In fact, replicants look and act so much like real humans that the only way a blade runner can spot one is by using a polygraph-like device called a Voight-Kampff machine to test them.

Continue your quest by taking the test.

Voight-Kampff machines appear in only two scenes in the movie. Both of those take place inside the Tyrell Building, an enormous double-pyramid structure that houses the Tyrell Corporation, the company that manufactures the replicants.

Re-creations of the Tyrell Building were among the most common structures in the OASIS. Copies of it existed on hundreds of different planets, spread throughout all twenty-seven sectors. This was because the code for the building was included as a free built-in template in the OASIS WorldBuilder construction software (along with hundreds of other structures borrowed from various science-fiction films and television series). So for the past twenty-five years, whenever someone used the WorldBuilder software to create a new planet inside the OASIS, they could just select the Tyrell Building from a drop-down menu and insert a copy of it into their simulation to help fill out the skyline of whatever futuristic city or landscape they were coding. As a result, some worlds had over a dozen copies of the Tyrell Building scattered across their surfaces. I was currently hauling ass at light speed to the closest such world, a cyberpunk-themed planet in Sector Twenty-two called Axrenox.

If my suspicion was correct, every copy of the Tyrell Building on Axrenox contained a hidden entrance into the Second Gate, through the Voight-Kampff machines located inside. I wasn’t worried about running into the Sixers, because there was no way they could have barricaded the Second Gate. Not with thousands of copies of the Tyrell Building on hundreds of different worlds.

Once I reached Axrenox, finding a copy of the Tyrell Building took only a few minutes. It was pretty hard to miss. A massive pyramid-shaped structure covering several square kilometers at its base, it towered above most of the structures adjacent to it.

I zeroed in on the first instance of the building I saw and headed straight for it. My ship’s cloaking device was already engaged, and I left it activated when I set the Vonnegut down on one of the Tyrell Building’s landing pads. Then I locked the ship and activated all of its security systems, hoping they’d be enough to keep it from getting stolen until I returned. Magic didn’t function here, so I couldn’t just shrink the ship and put it in my pocket, and leaving your vessel parked out in the open on a cyberpunk-themed world like Axrenox was like asking for it to get ripped off. The Vonnegut would be a target for the first leather-clad booster gang that spotted it.

I pulled up a map of the Tyrell Building template’s layout and used it to locate a roof-access elevator a short distance from the platform where I’d landed. When I reached the elevator, I punched in the default security code on the code pad and crossed my fingers. I got lucky. The elevator doors hissed open. Whoever had created this section of the Axrenox cityscape hadn’t bothered to reset the security codes in the template. I took this as a good sign. It meant they’d probably left everything else in the template at the default setting too.

As I rode the elevator down to the 440th floor, I powered on my armor and drew my guns. Five security checkpoints stood between the elevator and the room I needed to reach. Unless the template had been altered, fifty NPC Tyrell security guard replicants would be standing between me and my destination.

The shooting started as soon as the elevator doors slid open. I had to kill seven skin jobs before I could even make it out of the elevator car and into the hallway.

The next ten minutes played out like the climax of a John Woo movie. One of the ones starring Chow Yun Fat, like Hard Boiled or The Killer. I switched both of my guns to autofire and held down the triggers as I moved from one room to the next, mowing down every NPC in my path. The guards returned fire, but their bullets pinged harmlessly off my armor. I never ran out of ammo, because each time I fired a round, a new round was teleported into the bottom of the clip.

My bullet bill this month was going to be huge.

When I finally reached my destination, I punched in another code and locked the door behind me. I knew I didn’t have much time. Klaxons were blaring throughout the building, and the thousands of NPC guards stationed on the floors below were probably already on their way up here to find me.

My footsteps echoed as I entered the room. It was deserted except for a large owl sitting on a golden perch. It blinked at me silently as I crossed the enormous cathedral-like room, which was a perfect re-creation of the office of the Tyrell Corporation’s founder, Eldon Tyrell. Every detail from the film had been duplicated exactly. Polished stone floors. Giant marble pillars. The entire west wall was a massive floor-to-ceiling window offering a breathtaking view of the vast cityscape outside.

A long conference table stood beside the window. Sitting on top of it was a Voight-Kampff machine. It was about the size of a briefcase, with a row of unlabeled buttons on the front, next to three small data monitors.

When I walked up and sat down in front of the machine, it turned itself on. A thin robotic arm extended a circular device that looked like a retinal scanner, which locked into place directly level with the pupil of my right eye. A small bellows was built into the side of the machine, and it began to rise and fall, giving the impression that the device was breathing.

I glanced around, wondering if an NPC of Harrison Ford would appear, to ask me the same questions he asked Sean Young in the movie. I’d memorized all of her answers, just in case. But I waited a few seconds and nothing happened. The machine’s bellows continued to rise and fall. In the distance, the security klaxons continued to wail.

I took out the Jade Key. The instant I did, a panel slid open in the surface of the Voight-Kampff machine, revealing a keyhole. I quickly inserted the Jade Key and turned it. The machine and the key both vanished, and in their place, the Second Gate appeared. It was a doorlike portal resting on top of the polished conference table. Its edges glowed with the same milky jade color as the key, and just like the First Gate, it appeared to lead into a vast field of stars.

I leapt up on the table and jumped inside.

I found myself standing just inside the entrance of a seedy-looking bowling alley with disco-era decor. The carpet was a garish pattern of green and brown swirls, and the molded plastic chairs were a faded orange color. The bowling lanes were all empty and unlit. The place was deserted. There weren’t even any NPCs behind the front counter or the snack bar. I wasn’t sure where I was supposed to be until I saw MIDDLETOWN LANES printed in huge letters on the wall above the bowling lanes.

At first, the only sound I heard was the low hum of the fluorescent lights overhead. But then I noticed a series of faint electronic chirps emanating from off to my left. I glanced in that direction and saw a darkened alcove just beyond the snack bar. Over this cavelike entrance was a sign. Eight bright red neon letters spelled out the words GAME ROOM.

There was a violent rush of wind, and the roar of what sounded like a hurricane tearing through the bowling alley. My feet began to slide across the carpet, and I realized that my avatar was being pulled toward the game room, as if a black hole had opened up somewhere in there.

As the vacuum yanked me through the game room entrance, I spotted a dozen videogames inside, all from the mid- to late ’80s. Crime Fighters, Heavy Barrel, Vigilante, Smash TV. But I could now see that my avatar was being drawn toward one game in particular, a game that stood alone at the very back of the game room.

Black Tiger. Capcom, 1987.

A swirling vortex had opened in the center of the game’s monitor, and it was sucking in bits of trash, paper cups, bowling shoes—everything that wasn’t nailed down. Including me. As my avatar neared it, I reflexively reached out and grabbed the joystick of a Time Pilot machine. My feet were instantly lifted off the floor as the vortex continued to pull my avatar inexorably toward it.

At this point, I was actually grinning in anticipation. I was all prepared to pat myself on the back, because I’d mastered Black Tiger long ago, during the first year of the Hunt.

In the years prior to his death, when Halliday had been living in seclusion, the only thing he’d posted on his website was a brief looping animation. It showed his avatar, Anorak, sitting in his castle’s library, mixing potions and poring over dusty spellbooks. This animation had run on a continuous loop for over a decade, until it was finally replaced by the Scoreboard on the morning Halliday died. In that animation, hanging on the wall behind Anorak, you could see a large painting of a black dragon.

Gunters had filled countless message board threads arguing about the meaning of the painting, about what the black dragon signified or whether it signified anything at all. But I’d been sure of its meaning from the start.

In one of the earliest journal entries in Anorak’s Almanac, Halliday wrote that whenever his parents would start screaming at each other, he would sneak out of the house and ride his bike to the local bowling alley to play Black Tiger, because it was a game he could beat on just one quarter. AA 23:234: “For one quarter, Black Tiger lets me escape from my rotten existence for three glorious hours. Pretty good deal.”

Black Tiger had first been released in Japan under its original title Burakku Doragon. Black Dragon. The game had been renamed for its American release. I’d deduced that the black dragon painting on the wall of Anorak’s study had been a subtle hint that Burakku Doragon would play a key role in the Hunt. So I’d studied the game until, like Halliday, I could reach the end on just one credit. After that, I continued to play it every few months, just to keep from getting rusty.

Now, it looked as if my foresight and diligence were about to pay off.

I was only able to hold on to the Time Pilot joystick for a few seconds. Then I lost my grip and my avatar was sucked directly into the Black Tiger game’s monitor.

Everything went black for a moment. Then I found myself in surreal surroundings.

I was now standing inside a narrow dungeon corridor. On my left was a high gray cobblestone wall with a mammoth dragon skull mounted on it. The wall stretched up and up, vanishing into the shadows above. I couldn’t make out any ceiling. The dungeon floor was composed of floating circular platforms arranged end to end in a long line that stretched out into the darkness ahead. To my right, beyond the platforms’ edge, there was nothing—just an endless, empty black void.

I turned around, but there was no exit behind me. Just another high cobblestone wall, stretching up into the infinite blackness overhead.

I looked down at my avatar’s body. I now looked exactly like the hero of Black Tiger—a muscular, half-naked barbarian warrior dressed in an armored thong and a horned helmet. My right arm disappeared in a strange metal gauntlet, from which hung a long retractable chain with a spiked metal ball on the end. My right hand deftly held three throwing daggers. When I hurled them off in the black void at my right, three more identical daggers instantly appeared in my hand. When I tried jumping, I discovered that I could leap thirty feet straight up and land back on my feet with catlike grace.

Now I understood. I was about to play Black Tiger, all right. But not the fifty-year-old, 2-D, side-scrolling platform game that I had mastered. I was now standing inside a new, immersive, three-dimensional version of the game that Halliday had created.

My knowledge of the original game’s mechanics, levels, and enemies would definitely come in handy, but the game play was going to be completely different, and it would require an entirely different set of skills.

The First Gate had placed me inside one of Halliday’s favorite movies, and now the Second Gate had put me inside one of his favorite videogames. While I was pondering the implication of this pattern, a message began to flash on my display: GO!

I looked around. An arrow etched into the stone wall on my left pointed the way forward. I stretched my arms and legs, cracked my knuckles, and took a deep breath. Then, readying my weapons, I ran forward, leaping from platform to platform, to confront the first of my adversaries.

Halliday had faithfully re-created every detail of Black Tiger’s eight-level dungeon.

I got off to a rough start and lost a life before I even cleared the first boss. But then I began to acclimate to playing the game in three dimensions (and from a first-person perspective). Eventually, I found my groove.

I pressed onward, leaping from platform to platform, attacking in midair, dodging the relentless onslaught of blobs, skeletons, snakes, mummies, minotaurs, and yes, ninjas. Each enemy I vanquished dropped a pile of “Zenny coins” that I could later use to purchase armor, weapons, and potions from one of the bearded wise men scattered throughout each level. (These “wise men” apparently thought setting up a small shop in the middle of a monster-infested dungeon was a fine idea.)

There were no time-outs, and no way for me to pause the game. Once you entered a gate, you couldn’t just stop and log out. The system wouldn’t allow it. Even if you removed your visor, you would remain logged in. The only way out of a gate was to go through it. Or die.

I managed to clear all eight levels of the game in just under three hours. The closest I came to death was during my battle with the final boss, the Black Dragon, who, of course, looked exactly like the beast depicted in the painting in Anorak’s study. I’d used up all of my extra lives, and my vitality bar was almost at zero, but I managed to keep moving and stay clear of the dragon’s fiery breath while I slowly knocked down his life meter with a steady barrage of throwing daggers. When I struck the final killing blow, the dragon crumbled into digital dust in front of me.

I let out a long, exhausted sigh of relief.

Then, with no transition whatsoever, I found myself back in the bowling alley game room, standing in front of the Black Tiger game. In front of me, on the game’s monitor, my armored barbarian was striking a heroic pose. The following text appeared below him:

YOU HAVE RETURNED PEACE AND PROSPERITY TO OUR NATION. THANK YOU, BLACK TIGER! CONGRATULATIONS ON YOUR STRENGTH AND WISDOM!

Then something strange happened—something that had never happened when I’d beaten the original game. One of the “wise men” from the dungeon appeared on the screen, with a speech balloon that said, “Thank you. I am indebted to you. Please accept a giant robot as your reward.”

A long row of robot icons appeared below the wise man, stretching across the screen horizontally. By moving the joystick left or right, I found that I was able to scroll through a selection of over a hundred different “giant robots.” When one of these robots was highlighted, a detailed list of its stats and weaponry appeared on the screen beside it.

There were several robots I didn’t recognize, but most were familiar. I spotted Gigantor, Tranzor Z, the Iron Giant, Jet Jaguar, the sphinx-headed Giant Robo from Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot, the entire Shogun Warriors toy line, and many of the mechs featured in both the Macross and Gundam anime series. Eleven of these icons were grayed out and had a red “X” over them, and these robots could not be identified or selected. I knew they must be the ones taken by Sorrento and the other Sixers who had cleared this gate before me.

It seemed possible that I was about to be awarded a real, working recreation of whichever robot I selected, so I studied my options carefully, searching for the one I thought would be the most powerful and well armed. But I stopped cold when I saw Leopardon, the giant transforming robot used by Supaidaman, the incarnation of Spider-Man who appeared on Japanese TV in the late 1970s. I’d discovered Supaidaman during the course of my research and had become somewhat obsessed with the show. So I didn’t care if Leopardon was the most powerful robot available. I had to have him, regardless.

I highlighted that icon and tapped the Fire button. A twelve-inch-tall replica of Leopardon appeared on top of the Black Tiger cabinet. I grabbed it and placed it in my inventory. There were no instructions, and the item description field was blank. I made a mental note to examine it later, when I got back to my stronghold.

Meanwhile, on the Black Tiger monitor, the end credits had begun to scroll over an image of the game’s barbarian hero sitting on a throne with a slender princess at his side. I respectfully read each of the programmers’ names. They were all Japanese, except for the very last credit, which read OASIS PORT BY J. D. HALLIDAY.

When the credits ended, the monitor went dark for a moment. Then a symbol slowly appeared in the center of the screen: a glowing red circle with a five-pointed star inside it. The points of the star extended just beyond the outer edge of the circle. A second later, an image of the Crystal Key appeared, spinning slowly in the center of the glowing red star.

I felt a rush of adrenaline, because I recognized the red star symbol, and I knew where it was meant to lead me.

I snapped several screenshots, just to be safe. A moment later, the monitor went dark, and the Black Tiger game cabinet melted and morphed into a door-shaped portal with glowing jade edges. The exit.

I let out a triumphant cheer and jumped through it.

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