فصل 03

کتاب: بازیکن شماره یک آماده / فصل 4

فصل 03

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3

The system verified that I was on the chat room’s access list and allowed me to enter. My view of the classroom shrank from the limits of my peripheral vision to a small thumbnail window in the lower right of my display, allowing me to monitor what was in front of my avatar. The rest of my field of vision was now filled with the interior of Aech’s chat room. My avatar appeared just inside the “entrance,” a door at the top of a carpeted staircase. The door didn’t lead anywhere. It didn’t even open. This was because the Basement and its contents didn’t exist as a part of the OASIS. Chat rooms were stand-alone simulations—temporary virtual spaces that avatars could access from anywhere in OASIS. My avatar wasn’t actually “in” the chat room. It only appeared that way. Wade3/Parzival was still sitting in my World History classroom with his eyes closed. Logging into a chat room was a little like being in two places at once.

Aech had named his chat room the Basement. He’d programmed it to look like a large suburban rec room, circa the late 1980s. Old movie and comic book posters covered the wood-paneled walls. A vintage RCA television stood in the center of the room, hooked up to a Betamax VCR, a LaserDisc player, and several vintage videogame consoles. Bookshelves lined the far wall, filled with role-playing game supplements and back issues of Dragon magazine.

Hosting a chat room this large wasn’t cheap, but Aech could afford it. He made quite a bit of dough competing in televised PvP arena games after school and on the weekends. Aech was one of the highest-ranked combatants in the OASIS, in both the Deathmatch and Capture the Flag leagues. He was even more famous than Art3mis.

Over the past few years, the Basement had become a highly exclusive hangout for elite gunters. Aech granted access only to people he deemed worthy, so being invited to hang out in the Basement was a big honor, especially for a third-level nobody like me.

As I descended the staircase, I saw a few dozen other gunters milling around, with avatars that varied wildly in appearance. There were humans, cyborgs, demons, dark elves, Vulcans, and vampires. Most of them were gathered around the row of old arcade games against the wall. A few others stood by the ancient stereo (currently blasting “The Wild Boys” by Duran Duran), browsing through Aech’s giant rack of vintage cassette tapes.

Aech himself was sprawled on one of the chat room’s three couches, which were arrayed in a U-shape in front of the TV. Aech’s avatar was a tall, broad-shouldered Caucasian male with dark hair and brown eyes. I’d asked him once if he looked anything like his avatar in real life, and he’d jokingly replied, “Yes. But in real life, I’m even more handsome.”

As I walked over, he glanced up from the Intellivision game he was playing. His distinctive Cheshire grin stretched from ear to ear. “Z!” he shouted. “What is up, amigo?” He stretched out his right hand and gave me five as I dropped onto the couch opposite him. Aech had started calling me “Z” shortly after I met him. He liked to give people single-letter nicknames. Aech pronounced his own avatar’s name just like the letter “H.”

“What up, Humperdinck?” I said. This was a game we played. I always called him by some random H name, like Harry, Hubert, Henry, or Hogan. I was making guesses at his real first name, which, he’d once confided to me, began with the letter “H.”

I’d known Aech for a little over three years. He was also a student on Ludus, a senior at OPS #1172, which was on the opposite side of the planet from my school. We’d met one weekend in a public gunter chat room and hit it off immediately, because we shared all of the same interests. Which is to say one interest: a total, all-consuming obsession with Halliday and his Easter egg. A few minutes into our first conversation, I knew Aech was the real deal, an elite gunter with some serious mental kung fu. He had his ’80s trivia down cold, and not just the canon stuff, either. He was a true Halliday scholar. And he’d apparently seen the same qualities in me, because he’d given me his contact card and invited me to hang out in the Basement whenever I liked. He’d been my closest friend ever since.

Over the years, a friendly rivalry had gradually developed between us. We did a lot of trash-talking about which one of us would get his name up on the Scoreboard first. We were constantly trying to out-geek each other with our knowledge of obscure gunter trivia. Sometimes we even conducted our research together. This usually consisted of watching cheesy ’80s movies and TV shows here in his chat room. We also played a lot of videogames, of course. Aech and I had wasted countless hours on two-player classics like Contra, Golden Axe, Heavy Barrel, Smash TV, and Ikari Warriors. Aside from yours truly, Aech was the best all-around gamer I’d ever encountered. We were evenly matched at most games, but he could trounce me at certain titles, especially anything in the first-person shooter genre. That was his area of expertise, after all.

I didn’t know anything about who Aech was in the real world, but I got the sense his home life wasn’t that great. Like me, he seemed to spend every waking moment logged into the OASIS. And even though we’d never actually met in person, he’d told me more than once that I was his best friend, so I assumed he was just as isolated and lonely as I was.

“So what did you do after you bailed last night?” he asked, tossing me the other Intellivision controller. We’d hung out here in his chat room for a few hours the previous evening, watching old Japanese monster movies.

“Nada,” I said. “Went home and brushed up on a few classic coin-ops.”

“Unnecessary.”

“Yeah. But I was in the mood.” I didn’t ask him what he’d done the night before, and he didn’t volunteer any details. I knew he’d probably gone to Gygax, or somewhere equally awesome, to speedrun through a few quests and rack up some XPs. He just didn’t want to rub it in. Aech could afford to spend a fair amount of time off-world, following up leads and searching for the Copper Key. But he never lorded this over me, or ridiculed me for not having enough dough to teleport anywhere. And he never insulted me by offering to loan me a few credits. It was an unspoken rule among gunters: If you were a solo, you didn’t want or need help, from anyone. Gunters who wanted help joined a clan, and Aech and I both agreed that clans were for suck-asses and poseurs. We’d both vowed to remain solos for life. We still occasionally had discussions about the egg, but these conversations were always guarded, and we were careful to avoid talking about specifics.

After I beat Aech at three rounds of Tron: Deadly Discs, he threw down his Intellivision controller in disgust and grabbed a magazine off the floor. It was an old issue of Starlog. I recognized Rutger Hauer on the cover, in a Ladyhawke promotional photo.

“Starlog, eh?” I said, nodding my approval.

“Yep. Downloaded every single issue from the Hatchery’s archive. Still working my way through ’em. I was just reading this great piece on Ewoks: The Battle for Endor.”

“Made for TV. Released in 1985,” I recited. Star Wars trivia was one of my specialties. “Total garbage. A real low point in the history of the Wars.”

“Says you, assface. It has some great moments.”

“No,” I said, shaking my head. “It doesn’t. It’s even worse than that first Ewok flick, Caravan of Courage. They shoulda called it Caravan of Suck.”

Aech rolled his eyes and went back to reading. He wasn’t going to take the bait. I eyed the magazine’s cover. “Hey, can I have a look at that when you’re done?”

He grinned. “Why? So you can read the article on Ladyhawke?”

“Maybe.”

“Man, you just love that crapburger, don’t you?”

“Blow me, Aech.”

“How many times have you seen that sapfest? I know you’ve made me sit through it at least twice.” He was baiting me now. He knew Ladyhawke was one of my guilty pleasures, and that I’d seen it over two dozen times.

“I was doing you a favor by making you watch it, noob,” I said. I shoved a new cartridge into the Intellivision console and started up a single-player game of Astrosmash. “You’ll thank me one day. Wait and see. Ladyhawke is canon.”

“Canon” was the term we used to classify any movie, book, game, song, or TV show of which Halliday was known to have been a fan.

“Surely, you must be joking,” Aech said.

“No, I am not joking. And don’t call me Shirley.”

He lowered the magazine and leaned forward. “There is no way Halliday was a fan of Ladyhawke. I guarantee it.”

“Where’s your proof, dipsh@t?” I asked.

“The man had taste. That’s all the proof I need.”

“Then please explain to me why he owned Ladyhawke on both VHS and LaserDisc?” A list of all the films in Halliday’s collection at the time of his death was included in the appendices of Anorak’s Almanac. We both had the list memorized.

“The guy was a billionaire! He owned millions of movies, most of which he probably never even watched! He had DVDs of Howard the Duck and Krull, too. That doesn’t mean he liked them, asshat. And it sure as hell doesn’t make them canon.”

“It’s not really up for debate, Homer,” I said. “Ladyhawke is an eighties classic.”

“It’s fu@king lame, is what it is! The swords look like they were made out of tinfoil. And that soundtrack is epically lame. Full of synthesizers and sh@t. By the motherfu@king Alan Parsons Project! Lame-o-rama! Beyond lame. Highlander II lame.”

“Hey!” I feigned hurling my Intellivision controller at him. “Now you’re just being insulting! Ladyhawke’s cast alone makes the film canon! Roy Batty! Ferris Bueller! And the dude who played Professor Falken in WarGames!” I searched my memory for the actor’s name. “John Wood! Reunited with Matthew Broderick!”

“A real low point in both of their careers,” he said, laughing. He loved arguing about old movies, even more than I did. The other gunters in the chat room were now starting to form a small crowd around us to listen in. Our arguments were often high in entertainment value.

“You must be stoned!” I shouted. “Ladyhawke was directed by Richard fu@king Donner! The Goonies? Superman: The Movie? You’re saying that guy sucks?”

“I don’t care if Spielberg directed it. It’s a chick flick disguised as a sword-and-sorcery picture. The only genre film with less balls is probably … freakin’ Legend. Anyone who actually enjoys Ladyhawke is a bona fide USDA-choice pussy!”

Laughter from the peanut gallery. I was actually getting a little pissed off now. I was a big fan of Legend too, and Aech knew it.

“Oh, so I’m a pussy? You’re the one with the Ewok fetish!” I snatched the Starlog out of his hands and threw it against a Revenge of the Jedi poster on the wall. “I suppose you think your extensive knowledge of Ewok culture is gonna help you find the egg?”

“Don’t start on the Endorians again, man,” he said, holding up an index finger. “I’ve warned you. I will ban your ass. I swear.” I knew this was a hollow threat, so I was about to push the Ewok thing even further, maybe give him some crap for referring to them as “Endorians.” But just then, a new arrival materialized on the staircase. A total lamer by the name of I-r0k. I let out a groan. I-r0k and Aech attended the same school and had a few classes together, but I still couldn’t figure out why Aech had granted him access to the Basement. I-r0k fancied himself an elite gunter, but he was nothing but an obnoxious poseur. Sure, he did a lot of teleporting around the OASIS, completing quests and leveling up his avatar, but he didn’t actually know anything. And he was always brandishing an oversize plasma rifle the size of a snowmobile. Even in chat rooms, where it was totally pointless. The guy had no sense of decorum.

“Are you cocks arguing about Star Wars again?” he said, descending the steps and walking over to join the crowd around us. “That sh@t is so played out, yo.”

I turned to Aech. “If you want to ban someone, why don’t you start with this clown?” I hit Reset on the Intellivision and started another game.

“Shut your hole, Penis-ville!” I-r0k replied, using his favorite mispronunciation of my avatar’s name. “He doesn’t ban me ’cause he knows I’m elite! Ain’t that right, Aech?”

“No,” Aech said, rolling his eyes. “That ain’t right. You’re about as elite as my great-grandmother. And she’s dead.”

“Screw you, Aech! And your dead grandma!”

“Gee, I-r0k,” I muttered. “You always manage to elevate the intelligence level of the conversation. The whole room just lights up the moment you arrive.”

“So sorry to upset you, Captain No-Credits,” I-r0k said. “Hey, shouldn’t you be on Incipio panhandling for change right now?” He reached for the second Intellivision controller, but I snatched it up and tossed it to Aech.

He scowled at me. “Prick.”

“Poseur.”

“Poseur? Penis-ville is calling me a poseur?” He turned to address the small crowd. “This chump is so broke that he has to bum rides to Greyhawk, just so he can kill kobolds for copper pieces! And he’s calling me a poseur!”

This elicited a few snickers from the crowd, and I felt my face turn red under my visor. Once, about a year ago, I’d made the mistake of hitching a ride off-world with I-r0k to try to gain a few experience points. After dropping me in a low-level quest area on Greyhawk, the jerk had followed me. I’d spent the next few hours slaying a small band of kobolds, waiting for them to respawn, and then slaying them again, over and over. My avatar was still only first level at the time, and it was one of the only safe ways for me to level up. I-r0k had taken several screenshots of my avatar that night and labeled them “Penis-ville the Mighty Kobold Slayer.” Then he’d posted them to the Hatchery. He still brought it up every chance he got. He was never going to let me live it down.

“That’s right, I called you a poseur, poseur.” I stood and got up in his grille. “You’re an ignorant know-nothing twink. Just because you’re fourteenth-level, it doesn’t make you a gunter. You actually have to possess some knowledge.”

“Word,” Aech said, nodding his agreement. We bumped fists. More snickering from the crowd, now directed at I-r0k.

I-r0k glared at us a moment. “OK. Let’s see who the real poseur is,” he said. “Check this out, girls.” Grinning, he produced an item from his inventory and held it up. It was an old Atari 2600 game, still in the box. He purposefully covered the game’s title with his hand, but I recognized the cover artwork anyway. It was a painting of a young man and woman in ancient Greek attire, both brandishing swords. Lurking behind them were a minotaur and a bearded guy with an eye patch. “Know what this is, hotshot?” I-r0k said, challenging me. “I’ll even give you a clue.… It’s an Atari game, released as part of a contest. It contained several puzzles, and if you solved them, you could win a prize. Sound familiar?”

I-r0k was always trying to impress us with some clue or piece of Halliday lore he foolishly believed he’d been the first to uncover. Gunters loved to play the game of one-upmanship and were constantly trying to prove they had acquired more obscure knowledge than everyone else. But I-r0k totally sucked at it.

“You’re joking, right?” I said. “You just now discovered the Swordquest series?”

I-r0k deflated.

“You’re holding Swordquest: Earthworld,” I continued. “The first game in the Swordquest series. Released in 1982.” I smiled wide. “Can you name the next three games in the series?”

His eyes narrowed. He was, of course, stumped. Like I said, he was a total poseur.

“Anyone else?” I said, opening the question up to the floor. The gunters in the crowd eyed each other, but no one spoke up.

“Fireworld, Waterworld, and Airworld,” Aech answered.

“Bingo!” I said, and we bumped fists again. “Although Airworld was never actually finished, because Atari fell on hard times and canceled the contest before it was completed.”

I-r0k quietly put the game box back in his inventory.

“You should join up with the Sux0rz, I-r0k,” Aech said, laughing. “They could really use someone with your vast stores of knowledge.”

I-r0k flipped him the bird. “If you two fags already knew about the Swordquest contest, how come I’ve never once heard you mention it?”

“Come on, I-r0k,” Aech said, shaking his head. “Swordquest: Earthworld was Atari’s unofficial sequel to Adventure. Every gunter worth their salt knows about that contest. How much more obvious can you get?”

I-r0k tried to save some face. “OK, if you’re both such experts, who programmed all of the Swordquest games?”

“Dan Hitchens and Tod Frye,” I recited. “Try asking me something difficult.”

“I got one for you,” Aech interjected. “What were the prizes Atari gave out to the winner of each contest?”

“Ah,” I said. “Good one. Let’s see.… The prize for the Earthworld contest was the Talisman of Penultimate Truth. It was solid gold and encrusted with diamonds. The kid who won it melted it down to pay for college, as I recall.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Aech prodded. “Quit stalling. What about the other two?”

“I’m not stalling. The Fireworld prize was the Chalice of Light, and the Waterworld prize was supposed to be the Crown of Life, but it was never awarded, due to the cancellation of the contest. Same goes for the Airworld prize, which was supposed to be a Philosopher’s Stone.”

Aech grinned and gave me a double high five, then added, “And if the contest hadn’t been canceled, the winners of the first four rounds would have competed for the grand prize, the Sword of Ultimate Sorcery.”

I nodded. “The prizes were all mentioned in the Swordquest comic books that came with the games. Comic books which happen to be visible in the treasure room in the final scene of Anorak’s Invitation, by the way.”

The crowd burst into applause. I-r0k lowered his head in shame.

Since I’d become a gunter, it had been obvious to me that Halliday had drawn inspiration for his contest from the Swordquest contest. I had no idea if he’d borrowed any of the puzzles from them too, but I’d studied the games and their solutions thoroughly, just to be safe.

“Fine. You win,” I-r0k said. “But you both obviously need to get a life.”

“And you,” I said, “obviously need to find a new hobby. Because you clearly lack the intelligence and commitment to be a gunter.”

“No doubt,” Aech said. “Try doing some research for a change, I-r0k. I mean, did you ever hear of Wikipedia? It’s free, douchebag.”

I-r0k turned and walked over to the long boxes of comic books stacked on the other side of the room, as if he’d lost interest in the discussion. “Whatever,” he said over his shoulder. “If I didn’t spend so much time offline, getting laid, I’d probably know just as much worthless sh@t as you two do.”

Aech ignored him and turned back to me. “What were the names of the twins who appeared in the Swordquest comic books?”

“Tarra and Torr.”

“Damn, Z! You are the man.”

“Thanks, Aech.”

A message flashed on my display, informing me that the three-minute-warning bell had just rung in my classroom. I knew Aech and I-r0k were seeing the same warning, because our schools operated on the same schedule.

“Time for another day of higher learning,” Aech said, standing up.

“Drag,” I-r0k said. “See you losers later.” He gave me the finger; then his avatar disappeared as he logged out of the chat room. The other gunters began to log out and vanish too, until only Aech and I remained.

“Seriously, Aech,” I said. “Why do you let that moron hang out here?”

“Because he’s fun to beat at videogames. And his ignorance gives me hope.”

“How so?”

“Because if most of the other gunters out there are as clueless as I-r0k—and they are, Z, believe me—that means you and I really do have a shot at winning the contest.”

I shrugged. “I guess that’s one way to look at it.”

“Wanna hang after school again tonight? Around seven or so? I’ve got a few errands to run, but then I’m gonna tackle some of the stuff on my need-to-watch list. A Spaced marathon, perhaps?”

“Oh, hell yes,” I said. “Count me in.”

We logged out simultaneously, just as the final bell began to ring.

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