فصل 27

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فصل 27

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27

When I emerged from the gate, my avatar reappeared back inside Tyrell’s office. The Voight-Kampff machine had reappeared in its original location, resting on the table beside me. I checked the time. Over three hours had passed since I’d first entered the gate. The room was deserted, save for the owl, and the security klaxons were no longer wailing. The NPC guards must have busted in and searched this area while I was still inside the gate, because they no longer appeared to be looking for me. The coast was clear.

I made my way back to the elevator and up to the landing platform without incident. And thanks be to Crom, the Vonnegut was still parked right where I’d left it, its cloaking device still engaged. I ran on board and left Axrenox, jumping to light speed as soon as I reached orbit.

As the Vonnegut streaked through hyperspace, headed for the nearest stargate, I pulled up one of the screenshots I’d taken of the red star symbol. Then I opened my grail diary and accessed the subfolder devoted to the legendary Canadian rock band Rush.

Rush had been Halliday’s favorite band, from his teens onward. He’d once revealed in an interview that he’d coded every single one of his videogames (including the OASIS) while listening exclusively to Rush albums. He often referred to Rush’s three members—Neil Peart, Alex Lifeson, and Geddy Lee—as “the Holy Trinity” or “the Gods of the North.”

In my grail diary, I had every single Rush song, album, bootleg, and music video ever made. I had high-res scans of all their liner notes and album artwork. Every frame of Rush concert footage in existence. Every radio and television interview the band had ever done. Unabridged biographies on each band member, along with copies of their side projects and solo work. I pulled up the band’s discography and selected the album I was looking for: 2112, Rush’s classic sci-fi–themed concept album.

A high-resolution scan of the album’s cover appeared on my display. The band’s name and the album’s title were printed over a field of stars, and below that, appearing as if reflected in the surface of a rippling lake, was the symbol I’d seen on the Black Tiger game’s monitor: a red five-pointed star enclosed in a circle.

When I placed the album cover side by side with the screenshot of the game screen, the two symbols matched exactly.

2112’s title track is an epic seven-part song, over twenty minutes in length. The song tells the story of an anonymous rebel living in the year 2112, a time when creativity and self-expression have been outlawed. The red star on the album’s cover was the symbol of the Solar Federation, the oppressive interstellar society in the story. The Solar Federation was controlled by a group of “priests,” who are described in Part II of the song, titled “The Temples of Syrinx.” Its lyrics told me exactly where the Crystal Key was hidden:

We are the Priests of the Temples of Syrinx Our great computers fill the hallowed halls. We are the Priests of the Temples of Syrinx All the gifts of life are held within our walls.

There was a planet in Sector Twenty-one named Syrinx. That was where I was headed now.

The OASIS atlas described Syrinx as “a desolate world with rocky terrain and no NPC inhabitants.” When I accessed the planet’s colophon, I saw that Syrinx’s author was listed as “Anonymous.” But I knew the planet must have been coded by Halliday, because its design matched the world described in 2112’s liner notes.

2112 was originally released in 1976, back when most music was sold on twelve-inch vinyl records. The records came in cardboard sleeves with artwork and a track listing printed on them. Some album sleeves opened up like a book and included more artwork and liner notes inside, along with lyrics and information about the band. As I pulled up a scan of 2112’s original fold-out album sleeve, I saw that there was a second image of the red star symbol on the inside. This one depicted a naked man cowering in front of the star, both his hands raised in fear.

On the opposite side of the record sleeve were the printed lyrics to all seven parts of the 2112 suite. The lyrics for each section were preceded by a paragraph of prose that augmented the narrative laid out in the lyrics. These brief vignettes were told from the point of view of 2112’s anonymous protagonist.

The following text preceded the lyrics to Part I:

I lie awake, staring out at the bleakness of Megadon. City and sky become one, merging into a single plane, a vast sea of unbroken grey. The Twin Moons, just two pale orbs as they trace their way across the steely sky.

When my ship reached Syrinx, I saw the twin moons, By-Tor and Snow Dog, that orbited the planet. Their names were taken from another classic Rush song. And down below, on the planet’s bleak gray surface, there were exactly 1,024 copies of Megadon, the domed city described in the liner notes. That was twice the number of Zork instances there’d been on Frobozz, so I knew the Sixers couldn’t barricade them all.

With my cloaking device engaged, I selected the nearest instance of the city and landed the Vonnegut just outside the wall of its dome, watching my scopes for other ships.

Megadon was anchored atop a rocky plateau, on the edge of an immense cliff. The city appeared to be in ruins. Its massive transparent dome was riddled with cracks and looked as though it might collapse at any moment. I was able to enter the city by squeezing through one of the largest of these cracks, at the base of the dome.

The city of Megadon reminded me of an old 1950s sci-fi paperback cover painting depicting the crumbling ruins of a once-great technologically advanced civilization. In the absolute center of the city I found a towering obelisk-shaped temple with wind-blasted gray walls. A giant red star of the Solar Federation was emblazoned above the entrance.

I was standing before the Temple of Syrinx.

It wasn’t covered by a force field, or surrounded by a detachment of Sixers. There wasn’t a soul in sight.

I drew my guns and walked through the entrance of the temple.

Inside, mammoth obelisk-shaped supercomputers stood in long rows, filling the giant, cathedral-like temple. I wandered along these rows, listening to the deep hum of the machines, until I finally reached the center of the temple.

There, I found a raised stone altar with the five-pointed red star etched into its surface. As I stepped up to the altar, the humming of the computers ceased, and the chamber grew silent.

It appeared I was supposed to place something on the altar, an offering to the Temple of Syrinx. But what kind of offering?

The twelve-inch Leopardon robot I’d acquired after completing the Second Gate didn’t seem to fit. I tried placing it on the altar anyway and nothing happened. I placed the robot back in my inventory and stood there for a moment, thinking. Then I remembered something else from the 2112 liner notes. I pulled them up and scanned over them again. There was my answer, in the text that preceded Part III—“Discovery”:

Behind my beloved waterfall, in the little room that was hidden beneath the cave, I found it. I brushed away the dust of the years, and picked it up, holding it reverently in my hands. I had no idea what it might be, but it was beautiful. I learned to lay my fingers across the wires, and to turn the keys to make them sound differently. As I struck the wires with my other hand, I produced my first harmonious sounds, and soon my own music!

I found the waterfall near the southern edge of the city, just inside the curved wall of the atmospheric dome. As soon as I found it, I activated my jet boots and flew over the foaming river below the falls, then passed through the waterfall itself. My haptic suit did its best to simulate the sensation of torrents of falling water striking my body, but it felt more like someone pounding on my head, shoulders, and back with a bundle of sticks. Once I’d passed through the falls to the other side, I found the opening of a cave and went inside. The cave narrowed into a long tunnel, which terminated in a small, cavernous room.

I searched the room and discovered that one of the stalagmites protruding from the floor was slightly worn around the tip. I grabbed the stalagmite and pulled it toward me, but it didn’t budge. I tried pushing, and it gave, bending as if on some hidden hinge, like a lever. I heard a rumble of grinding stone behind me, and I turned to see a trapdoor opening in the floor. A hole had also opened in the roof of the cave, casting a brilliant shaft of light down through the open trapdoor, into a tiny hidden chamber below.

I took an item out of my inventory, a wand that could detect hidden traps, magical or otherwise. I used it to make sure the area was clear, then jumped down through the trapdoor and landed on the dusty floor of the hidden chamber. It was a tiny cube-shaped room with a large rough-hewn stone standing against the north wall. Embedded in the stone, neck first, was an electric guitar. I recognized its design from the 2112 concert footage I’d watched during the trip here. It was a 1974 Gibson Les Paul, the exact guitar used by Alex Lifeson during the 2112 tour.

I grinned at the absurd Arthurian image of the guitar in the stone. Like every gunter, I’d seen John Boorman’s film Excalibur many times, so it seemed obvious what I should do next. I reached out with my right hand, grasped the neck of the guitar, and pulled. The guitar came free of the stone with a prolonged metallic shhingggg!

As I held the guitar over my head, the metallic ringing segued into a guitar power chord that echoed throughout the cave. I stared down at the guitar, about to activate my jet boots again, to fly back up through the trapdoor and out of the cave. But then an idea occurred to me and I froze.

James Halliday had taken guitar lessons for a few years in high school. That was what had first inspired me to learn to play. I’d never held an actual guitar, but on a virtual axe, I could totally shred.

I searched my inventory and found a guitar pick. Then I opened my grail diary and pulled up the sheet music for 2112, along with the guitar tablature for the song “Discovery,” which describes the hero’s discovery of the guitar in a room hidden behind a waterfall. As I began to play the song, the sound of the guitar blasted off the chamber walls and back out through the cave, despite the absence of any electricity or amplifiers.

When I finished playing the first measure of “Discovery,” a message briefly appeared, carved into the stone from which I’d pulled the guitar.

The first was ringed in red metal The second, in green stone The third is clearest crystal and cannot be unlocked alone

In seconds, the words began to vanish, fading from the stone along with the strains of the last note I’d played on the guitar. I quickly snapped a screenshot of the riddle, already trying to sort out its meaning. It was about the Third Gate, of course. And how it could not “be unlocked alone.”

Had the Sixers played the song and discovered this message? I seriously doubted it. They would have pulled the guitar from the stone and immediately returned it to the temple.

If so, they probably didn’t know there was some sort of trick to unlocking the Third Gate. And that would explain why they still hadn’t reached the egg.

I returned to the temple and placed the guitar on the altar. As I did, the towering computers around me began to emit a cacophony of sound, like a grand orchestra tuning up. The noise built to a deafening crescendo before ceasing abruptly. Then there was a flash of light on the altar, and the guitar transformed into the Crystal Key.

When I reached out and picked up the key, a chime sounded, and my score on the Scoreboard increased by 25,000 points. When added to the 200,000 I’d received for clearing the Second Gate, that brought my total score up to 353,000 points, one thousand points more than Sorrento. I was back in first place.

But I knew this was no time to celebrate. I quickly examined the Crystal Key, tilting it up to study its glittering, faceted surface. I didn’t see any words etched there, but I did find a small monogram etched in the center of the key’s crystal handle, a single calligraphic letter “A” that I recognized immediately.

That same letter “A” appeared in the Character Symbol box on James Halliday’s first Dungeons & Dragons character sheet. The very same monogram also appeared on the dark robes of his famous OASIS avatar, Anorak. And, I knew, that same emblematic letter adorned the front gates of Castle Anorak, his avatar’s impregnable stronghold.

In the first few years of the Hunt, gunters had swarmed like hungry insects to any OASIS location that seemed like a possible hiding place for the three keys, specifically planets originally coded by Halliday himself. Chief among these was the planet Chthonia, a painstaking re-creation of the fantasy world Halliday had created for his high-school Dungeons & Dragons campaign, and also the setting of many of his early videogames. Chthonia had become the gunters’ Mecca. Like everyone else, I’d felt obligated to make a pilgrimage there, to visit Castle Anorak. But the castle was impregnable and always had been. No avatar but Anorak himself had ever been able to pass through its entrance.

But now I knew there must be a way to enter Castle Anorak. Because the Third Gate was hidden somewhere inside.

When I got back to my ship, I blasted off and set a course for Chthonia in Sector Ten. Then I began to scan the newsfeeds, intending to check out the media frenzy my return to first place was generating. But my score wasn’t the top story. No, the big news that afternoon was that the hiding place of Halliday’s Easter egg had, at long last, finally been revealed to the world. It was, the news anchors said, located somewhere on the planet Chthonia, inside Castle Anorak. They knew this because the entire Sixer army was now encamped around the castle.

They’d arrived earlier that day, shortly after I’d cleared the Second Gate.

I knew the timing couldn’t be a coincidence. My progress must have prompted the Sixers to end their covert attempts to clear the Third Gate and make its location public by barricading it before I or anyone else could reach it.

When I arrived at Chthonia a few minutes later, I did a cloaked flyby of the castle, just to gauge the lay of the land for myself. It was even worse than I’d imagined.

The Sixers had installed some type of magical shield over Castle Anorak, a semitransparent dome that completely covered the castle and the area around it. Encamped inside the shield wall was the entire Sixer army. A vast collection of troops, tanks, weapons, and vehicles surrounded the castle on all sides.

Several gunter clans were already on the scene, and they were making their first attempts to bring down the shield by launching high-yield nukes at it. Each detonation was followed by a brief atomic light show, and then the blast would dissipate harmlessly against the shield.

The attacks on the shield continued for the next few hours as the news spread and more and more gunters arrived on Chthonia. The clans launched every type of weapon they could think of at the shield, but nothing affected it. Not nukes, not fireballs, and not magic missiles. Eventually, a team of gunters tried to dig a tunnel under the dome wall, and that was when it was discovered that the shield was actually a complete sphere surrounding the castle, above- and belowground.

Later that night, several high-level gunter wizards finished casting a series of divination spells on the castle and announced on the message boards that the shield around the castle was generated by a powerful artifact called the Orb of Osuvox, which could only be operated by a wizard who was ninety-ninth level. According to the artifact’s item description, it could create a spherical shield around itself, with a circumference of up to half a kilometer. This shield was impenetrable and indestructible and could vaporize just about anything that touched it. It could also be kept up indefinitely, as long as the wizard operating the orb remained immobile and kept both hands on the artifact.

In the days that followed, gunters tried everything they could think of to penetrate the shield. Magic. Technology. Teleportation. Counterspells. Other artifacts. Nothing worked. There was no way to get inside.

An air of hopelessness quickly swept through the gunter community. Solos and clansmen alike were ready to throw in the towel. The Sixers had the Crystal Key and exclusive access to the Third Gate. Everyone agreed that The End was near, that the Hunt was “all over but the crying.”

During all of these developments, I somehow managed to keep my cool. There was a chance the Sixers hadn’t even figured out how to open the Third Gate yet. Of course, they had plenty of time now. They could be slow and methodical. Sooner or later, they would stumble on the solution.

But I refused to give up. Until an avatar reached Halliday’s Easter egg, anything was still possible.

Like any classic videogame, the Hunt had simply reached a new, more difficult level. A new level often required an entirely new strategy.

I began to formulate a plan. A bold, outrageous plan that would require epic amounts of luck to pull off. I set this plan in motion by e-mailing Art3mis, Aech, and Shoto. My message told them exactly where to find the Second Gate and how to obtain the Crystal Key. Once I was sure all three of them had received my message, I initiated the next phase of my plan. This was the part that terrified me, because I knew there was a good chance it was going to end up getting me killed. But at this point, I no longer cared.

I was going to reach the Third Gate, or die trying.

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