فصل 37

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فصل 37

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37

I found myself standing in a vast, dark, empty space. I couldn’t see the walls or ceiling, but there appeared to be a floor, because I was standing on something. I waited a few seconds, unsure of what to do. Then a booming electronic voice echoed through the void. It sounded as if it were being generated by a primitive speech synthesizer, like those used in Q*Bert and Gorf. “Beat the high score or be destroyed!” the voice announced. A shaft of light appeared, shining down from somewhere high above. There, in front of me, at the base of this long pillar of light, stood an old coin-operated arcade game. I recognized its distinctive, angular cabinet immediately. Tempest. Atari. 1980.

I closed my eyes and dropped my head. “Crap,” I muttered. “This is not my best game, gang.”

“Come on,” I heard Art3mis whisper. “You had to know Tempest was going to factor into the Third Gate somehow. It was so obvious!”

“Oh really?” I said. “Why?”

“Because of the quote on the last page of the Almanac,” she replied. “ ‘I must uneasy make, lest too light winning make the prize light.’ ”

“I know the quote,” I said, annoyed. “It’s from Shakespeare. But I figured it was just Halliday’s way of letting us know how difficult he was going to make the Hunt.”

“It was,” Art3mis said. “But it was also a clue. That quote was taken from Shakespeare’s final play, The Tempest.”

“sh@t!” I hissed. “How the hell did I miss that?”

“I never made that connection either,” Aech confessed. “Bravo, Art3mis.”

“The game Tempest also appears briefly in the music video for the song ‘Subdivisions’ by Rush,” she added. “One of Halliday’s favorites. Pretty hard to miss.”

“Whoa,” Shoto said. “She’s good.”

“OK!” I shouted. “It should have been obvious. No need to rub it in!”

“I take it you’ve haven’t had much practice at this game, Z?” Aech said.

“A little, a long time ago,” I said. “But not nearly enough. Look at the high score.” I pointed at the monitor. The high score was 728,329. The initials next to it were JDH—James Donovan Halliday. And, as I feared, the credit counter at the bottom of the screen had a numeral one in front of it.

“Yikes,” Aech said. “Only one credit. Just like Black Tiger.”

I remembered the now-useless extra life quarter in my inventory and took it out. But when I dropped it into the coin slot, it fell right through into the coin return. I reached down to remove it and saw a sticker on the coin mechanism: TOKENS ONLY.

“So much for that idea,” I said. “And I don’t see a token machine anywhere around here.”

“Looks like you only get one game,” Aech said. “All or nothing.”

“Guys, I haven’t played Tempest in years,” I said. “I’m screwed. There’s no way I’m going to beat Halliday’s high score on my first attempt.”

“You don’t have to,” Art3mis said. “Look at the copyright year.”

I glanced at the bottom of the screen: ©MCMLXXX ATARI.

“Nineteen eighty?” Aech said. “How does that help him?”

“Yeah,” I said. “How does that help me?”

“That means this is the very first version of Tempest,” Art3mis said. “The version that shipped with a bug in the game code. When Tempest first hit the arcades, kids discovered that if you died with a certain score, the machine would give you a bunch of free credits.”

“Oh,” I said, somewhat ashamed. “I didn’t know that.”

“You would,” Art3mis said, “if you’d researched the game as much as I did.”

“Damn, girl,” Aech said. “You’ve got some serious knowledge.”

“Thanks,” she said. “It helps to be an obsessive-compulsive geek. With no life.” Everyone laughed at that, except me. I was much too nervous.

“OK, Arty,” I said. “What do I need to do to get those free games?”

“I’m looking it up in my quest journal right now,” she said. I could hear paper rustling. It sounded like she was flipping through the pages of an actual book.

“You just happen to have a hard copy of your journal with you?” I asked.

“I’ve always kept my journal longhand, in spiral notebooks,” she said. “Good thing, too, since my OASIS account and everything in it was just erased.” More flipping of pages. “Here it is! First, you need to rack up over one hundred eighty thousand points. Once you’ve done that, make sure you end the game with a score where the last two digits are oh six, eleven, or twelve. If you do that, you’ll get forty free credits.”

“You’re absolutely positive?”

“Positively absolutely.”

“OK,” I said. “Here goes.”

I began to run through my pregame ritual. Stretching, cracking my knuckles, rolling my head and neck left and right.

“Christ, will you get on with it?” Aech said. “The suspense is killing me here!”

“Quiet!” Shoto said. “Give the man some room to breathe, will you?”

Everyone remained silent while I finished psyching myself up. “Here goes nothing,” I said. Then I hit the flashing Player One button.

Tempest used old-school vector graphics, so the game’s images were created from glowing neon lines drawn against a pitch-black screen. You’re given a top-down view of a three-dimensional tunnel, and you use a spinning rotary dial to control a “shooter” that travels around the rim of the tunnel. The object of the game is to shoot the enemies crawling up out of the tunnel toward you while dodging their fire and avoiding other obstacles. As you proceed from one level to the next, the tunnels take on gradually more complex geometric shapes, and the number of enemies and obstacles crawling up toward you multiplies drastically.

Halliday had put this Tempest machine on Tournament settings, so I couldn’t start the game any higher than level nine. It took me about fifteen minutes to get my score up above 180,000, and I lost two lives in the process. I was even rustier than I thought. When my score hit 189,412, I intentionally impaled my shooter on a spike, using up my last remaining life. The game prompted me to enter my initials, and I nervously tapped them in: W-O-W.

When I finished, the game’s credit counter jumped from zero up to forty.

The sound of my friends’ wild cheers filled my ears, nearly giving me a heart attack. “Art3mis, you’re a genius,” I said, once the noise died down.

“I know.”

I tapped the Player One button again and began a second game, now focused on beating Halliday’s high score. I still felt anxious, but considerably less so. If I didn’t manage to get the high score this time, I had thirty-nine more chances.

During a break between waves, Art3mis spoke up. “So, your initials are W-O-W? What does the O stand for?”

“Obtuse,” I said.

She laughed. “No, seriously.”

“Owen.”

“Owen,” she repeated. “Wade Owen Watts. That’s nice.” Then she fell silent again as the next wave began. I finished my second game a few minutes later, with a score of 219,584. Not horrible, but a far cry from my goal.

“Not bad,” Aech said.

“Yeah, but not that good, either,” Shoto observed. Then he seemed to remember that I could hear him. “I mean—much better, Parzival. You’re doing great.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence, Shoto.”

“Hey, check this out,” Art3mis said, reading from her journal. “The creator of Tempest, Dave Theurer, originally got the idea for the game from a nightmare he had about monsters crawling up out of a hole in the ground and chasing after him.” She laughed her little musical laugh, which I hadn’t heard in so long. “Isn’t that cool, Z?” she said.

“That is cool,” I replied. Somehow, just hearing her voice set me at ease. I think she knew this, and that was why she kept talking to me. I felt reenergized. I hit the Player One button again and began my third game.

They all watched me play in complete silence. Nearly an hour later, I lost my last man. My final score was 437,977.

As soon as the game ended, Aech’s voice cut in. “Bad news, amigo,” she said.

“What?”

“We were right. When the Cataclyst went off, the Sixers had a group of avatars in reserve, waiting just outside the sector. Right after the detonation, they reentered the sector and headed straight for Chthonia. They …” Her voice trailed off.

“They what?”

“They just entered the gate, about five minutes ago,” Art3mis answered. “The gate closed after you went in, but when the Sixers arrived, they used three of their own keys to reopen it.”

“You mean the Sixers are already inside the gate? Right now?”

“Eighteen of them,” Aech said. “When they stepped through the gate, each one entered a stand-alone simulation. A separate instance of the gate. All eighteen of them are playing Tempest right now, just like you. Trying to beat Halliday’s high score. And all of them used the exploit to get forty free credits. Most of them aren’t doing that well, but one of them has some serious skill. We think Sorrento is probably operating that avatar. He just started his second game—”

“Wait a second!” I interrupted. “How can you possibly know all this?”

“Because we can see them,” Shoto said. “Everyone logged into the OASIS right now can see them. They can see you, too.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“The moment someone enters the Third Gate, a live vidfeed of their avatar appears at the top of the Scoreboard,” Art3mis said. “Apparently, Halliday wanted clearing the final gate to be a spectator sport.”

“Wait,” I said. “You mean to tell me that the entire world has been watching me play Tempest for the past hour?”

“Correct,” Art3mis said. “And they’re watching you stand there and jabber back at us right now too. So watch what you say.”

“Why didn’t you guys tell me?” I shouted.

“We didn’t want to make you nervous,” Aech said. “Or distract you.”

“Oh, great! Perfect! Thank you!” I was shouting, somewhat hysterically.

“Calm down, Parzival,” Art3mis said. “Get your head back in the game. This a race now. There are eighteen Sixer avatars right behind you. So you need to make this next game count. Understand?”

“Yeah,” I said, exhaling slowly. “I understand.” I took another deep breath and pressed the Player One button once again.

As usual, competition brought out the best in me. This time, I managed to slip into the zone. Spinner, zapper, super-zapper, clear a level, avoid the spikes. My hands began to work the controls without my even having to think about it. I forgot about what was at stake, and I forgot about the millions of people watching me. I lost myself in the game.

I’d been playing just over an hour and had just cleared level 81 when I heard another wild burst of cheering in my ears. “You did it, man!” I heard Shoto shout.

My eyes darted up to the top of the screen. My score was 802,488.

I kept playing, instinctively wanting to get the highest score possible. But then I heard Art3mis loudly clear her throat, and I realized there was no need to go any further. In fact, I was now wasting valuable seconds, burning away whatever lead I still had on the Sixers. I quickly depleted my two extra lives, and GAME OVER flashed on the screen. I entered my initials again, and they appeared at the top of the list, just above Halliday’s high score. Then the monitor went blank, and a message appeared in the center of the screen:

WELL DONE, PARZIVAL! PREPARE FOR STAGE 2!

Then the game cabinet vanished, and my avatar vanished with it.

I found myself galloping across a fog-covered hillside. I assumed I was riding a horse, because I was bobbing up and down and I heard the sound of hoofbeats. Directly ahead, a familiar-looking castle had just appeared out of the fog.

But when I looked down at my avatar’s body, I saw that I wasn’t riding a horse at all. I was walking on the ground. My avatar was now dressed in a suit of chain-mail armor, and my hands were held out in front of my body, as though I were clutching a set of reins. But I wasn’t holding anything. My hands were completely empty.

I stopped moving forward and the sound of hoofbeats also ceased, but not until a few seconds later. I turned around and saw the source of the sound. It wasn’t a horse. It was a man banging two coconut halves together.

Then I knew where I was. Inside the first scene of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Another of Halliday’s favorite films, and perhaps the most-beloved geek film of all time.

It appeared to be another Flicksync, like the WarGames simulation inside Gate One.

I was playing King Arthur, I realized. I wore the same costume Graham Chapman had worn in the film. And the man with the coconuts was my trusty manservant, Patsy, as played by Terry Gilliam.

Patsy bowed and groveled a bit when I turned to face him, but said nothing.

“It’s Python’s Holy Grail!” I heard Shoto whisper excitedly.

“Duh,” I said, forgetting myself for a second. “I know that, Shoto.”

A warning flashed on my display: INCORRECT DIALOGUE! A score of –100 points appeared in the corner of my display.

“Smooth move, Ex-lax,” I heard Art3mis say.

“Just let us know if you need any help, Z,” Aech said. “Wave your hands or something, and we’ll feed you the next line.”

I nodded and gave a thumbs-up. But I didn’t think I was going to need much help. Over the past six years, I’d watched Holy Grail exactly 157 times. I knew every word by heart.

I glanced back up at the castle ahead of me, already aware of what was waiting for me there. I began to “gallop” again, holding my invisible reins as I pretended to ride forward. Once again, Patsy began to bang his coconut halves together, galloping along behind me. When we reached the entrance of the castle, I pulled back on my “reins” and brought my “steed” to a halt.

“Whoa there!” I shouted.

My score increased by 100 points, bringing it back up to zero.

On cue, two soldiers appeared up above, leaning over the castle wall. “Who goes there?” one of them shouted down at us.

“It is I, Arthur, son of Uther Pendragon, from the castle of Camelot,” I recited. “King of the Britons! Defeater of the Saxons! Sovereign of all England!”

My score jumped another 500 points, and a message informed me that I’d received a bonus for my accent and inflection. I felt myself relax, and I realized I was already having fun.

“Pull the other one!” the soldier replied.

“I am,” I continued. “And this is my trusty servant Patsy. We have ridden the length and breadth of the land in search of knights who will join me in my court at Camelot. I must speak with your lord and master!”

Another 500 points. In my ear, I could hear my friends giggling and applauding.

“What?” the other soldier replied. “Ridden on a horse?”

“Yes!” I said. 100 points.

“You’re using coconuts!”

“What?” I said. 100 points.

“You’ve got two empty halves of coconut and you’re bangin’ ’em together!”

“So? We have ridden since the snows of winter covered this land, through the kingdom of Mercia, through—” Another 500 points.

“Where’d you get the coconuts?”

And so it went. The character I was playing changed from one scene to the next, switching to whomever had the most dialogue. Incredibly, I flubbed only six or seven lines. Each time I got stumped, all I had to do was shrug and hold out my hands, palms up—my signal that I needed some help—and Aech, Art3mis, and Shoto would all gleefully feed me the correct line. The rest of the time they remained silent except for the occasional giggle fit or burst of laughter. The only really difficult part was not laughing myself, especially when Art3mis started doing note-perfect recitations of all of Carol Cleveland’s lines in the Castle Anthrax scene. I cracked up a few times and got hit with score penalties for it. Otherwise, it was smooth sailing.

Reenacting the film wasn’t just easy—it was a total blast.

About halfway through the movie, right after my confrontation with the Knights of Ni, I opened up a text window on my display and typed STATUS ON THE SIXERS?

“Fifteen of them are still playing Tempest,” I heard Aech reply. “But three of them beat Halliday’s score and are now inside the Grail simulation.” A brief pause. “And the leader—Sorrento, we think—is running just nine minutes behind you.”

“And so far, he hasn’t missed a single line of dialogue,” Shoto added.

I nearly cursed out loud, then caught myself and typed sh@t!

“Exactly,” Art3mis said.

I took a deep breath and returned my attention to the next scene (“The Tale of Sir Launcelot”). Aech continued to give me updates on the Sixers whenever I asked for them.

When I reached the film’s final scene (the assault on the French Castle), I grew anxious again, wondering what would happen next. The First Gate had required me to reenact a movie (WarGames), and the Second Gate had contained a videogame challenge (Black Tiger). So far, the Third Gate had contained both. I knew there must be a third stage, but I had no idea what it might be.

I got my answer a few minutes later. As soon as I completed Holy Grail’s final scene, my display went black while the silly organ music that ends the film played for a few minutes. When the music stopped, the following appeared on my display:

CONGRATULATIONS! YOU HAVE REACHED THE END! READY PLAYER 1

And then, as the text faded away, I found myself standing in a huge oak-paneled room as big as a warehouse, with a high vaulted ceiling and a polished hardwood floor. The room had no windows, and only one exit—large double doors set into one of the four bare walls. An older high-end OASIS immersion rig stood in the absolute center of the expansive room. Over a hundred glass tables surrounded the rig, arranged in a large oval around it. On each table there was a different classic home computer or videogame system, accompanied by tiered racks that appeared to hold a complete collection of its peripherals, controllers, software, and games. All of it was arranged perfectly, like a museum exhibit. Looking around the circle, from one system to the next, I saw that the computers seemed to be arranged roughly by year of origin. A PDP-1. An Altair 8800. An IMSAI 8080. An Apple I, right next to an Apple II. An Atari 2600. A Commodore PET. An Intellivision. Several different TRS-80 models. An Atari 400 and 800. A ColecoVision. A TI-99/4. A Sinclair ZX80. A Commodore 64. Various Nintendo and Sega game systems. The entire lineage of Macs and PCs, PlayStations and Xboxes. Finally, completing the circle, was an OASIS console—connected to the immersion rig in the center of the room.

I realized that I was standing in a re-creation of James Halliday’s office, the room in his mansion where he’d spent most of the last fifteen years of his life. The place where he’d coded his last and greatest game. The one I was now playing.

I’d never seen any photos of this room, but its layout and contents had been described in great detail by the movers hired to clear the place out after Halliday’s death.

I looked down at my avatar and saw that I no longer appeared as one of the Monty Python knights. I was Parzival once again.

First, I did the obvious and tried the exit. The doors wouldn’t budge.

I turned back and took another long look around the room, surveying the long line of monuments to the history of computing and videogames.

That was when I realized that the oval-shaped ring in which they were arranged actually formed the outline of an egg.

In my head, I recited the words of Halliday’s first riddle, the one in Anorak’s Invitation:

Three hidden keys open three secret gates Wherein the errant will be tested for worthy traits And those with the skill to survive these straits Will reach The End where the prize awaits

I’d reached the end. This was it. Halliday’s Easter egg must be hidden somewhere in this room.

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