فصل 38

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فصل 38

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38

“Do you guys see this?” I whispered.

There was no reply.

“Hello? Aech? Art3mis? Shoto? Are you guys still there?”

Still no reply. Either Og had cut their voice links to me, or Halliday had coded this final stage of the gate so that no outside communication was possible. I was pretty sure it was the latter.

I stood there in silence for a minute, unsure of what to do. Then I followed my first instinct and walked over to the Atari 2600. It was hooked up to a 1977 Zenith Color TV. I turned on the TV, but nothing happened. Then I switched on the Atari. Still nothing. There was no power, even though both the TV and the Atari were plugged into electrical outlets set into the floor.

I tried the Apple II on the table beside it. It wouldn’t switch on either.

After a few minutes of experimentation, I discovered that the only computer that would power on was one of the oldest, the IMSAI 8080, the same model of computer Matthew Broderick owned in WarGames.

When I booted it up, the screen was completely blank, save for one word.

LOGIN:

I typed in ANORAK and hit Enter.

IDENTIFICATION NOT RECOGNIZED—CONNECTION TERMINATED.

Then the computer shut itself off and I had to power it back on to get the LOGIN prompt again.

I tried HALLIDAY. No dice.

In WarGames, the backdoor password that had granted access to the WOPR supercomputer was “Joshua.” Professor Falken, the creator of the WOPR, had used the name of his son for the password. The person he’d loved most in the world.

I typed in OG. It didn’t work. OGDEN didn’t work either.

I typed in KIRA and hit the Enter key.

IDENTIFICATION NOT RECOGNIZED—CONNECTION TERMINATED.

I tried each of his parents’ first names. I tried ZAPHOD, the name of his pet fish. Then TIBERIUS, the name of a ferret he’d once owned.

None of them worked.

I checked the time. I’d been in this room for over ten minutes now. Which meant that Sorrento had caught up with me. So he would now be inside his own separate copy of this room, probably with a team of Halliday scholars whispering suggestions in his ear, thanks to his hacked immersion rig. They were probably already working from a prioritized list of possibilities, entering them as fast as Sorrento could type.

I was out of time.

I clenched my teeth in frustration. I had no idea what to try next.

Then I remembered a line from Ogden Morrow’s biography: The opposite s@x made Jim extremely nervous, and Kira was the only girl that I ever saw him speak to in a relaxed manner. But even then, it was only in-character, as Anorak, during the course of our gaming sessions, and he would only address her as Leucosia, the name of her D&D character.

I rebooted the computer again. When the LOGIN prompt reappeared, I typed in LEUCOSIA. Then I hit the Enter key.

Every system in the room powered itself on. The sounds of whirring disk drives, self-test beeps, and other boot-up sounds echoed off the vaulted ceiling.

I ran back over to the Atari 2600 and searched through the giant rack of alphabetized game cartridges beside it until I found the one I was looking for: Adventure. I shoved it into the Atari and turned the system on, then hit the Reset switch to start the game.

It took me only a few minutes to reach the Secret Room.

I grabbed the sword and used it to slay all three of the dragons. Then I found the black key, opened the gates of the Black Castle, and ventured into its labyrinth. The gray dot was hidden right where it was supposed to be. I picked it up and carried it back across the tiny 8-bit kingdom, then used it to pass through the magic barrier and enter the Secret Room. But unlike the original Atari game, this Secret Room didn’t contain the name of Warren Robinett, Adventure’s original programmer. Instead, at the very center of the screen, there was a large white oval with pixelated edges. An egg.

The egg.

I stared at the TV screen in stunned silence for a moment. Then I pulled the Atari joystick to the right, moving my tiny square avatar across the flickering screen. The TV’s mono speaker emitted a brief electronic bip sound as I dropped the gray dot and picked up the egg. As I did, there was a brilliant flash of light, and then I saw that my avatar was no longer holding a joystick. Now, cupped in both of my hands, was a large silver egg. I could see my avatar’s warped reflection on its curved surface.

When I finally managed to stop staring at it, I looked up and saw that the double doors on the other side of the room had been replaced with the gate exit—a crystal-edged portal leading back into the foyer of Castle Anorak. The castle appeared to have been completely restored, even though the OASIS server still wouldn’t reset for several more hours.

I took one last look around Halliday’s office; then, still clutching the egg in my hands, I walked across the room and stepped through the exit.

As soon as I was through it, I turned around just in time to see the Crystal Gate transform into a large wooden door set into the castle wall.

I opened the wooden door. Beyond it there was a spiral staircase that led up to the top of Castle Anorak’s tallest tower. There, I found Anorak’s study. Towering shelves lined the room, filled with ancient scrolls and dusty spellbooks.

I walked over to the window and looked out on a stunning view of the surrounding landscape. It was no longer barren. The effects of the Cataclyst had been undone, and all of Chthonia appeared to be have been restored along with the castle.

I looked around the room. Directly beneath the familiar black dragon painting there was an ornate crystal pedestal on which rested a gold chalice encrusted with tiny jewels. Its diameter matched that of the silver egg I held in my hands.

I placed the egg in the chalice, and it fit perfectly.

In the distance, I heard a fanfare of trumpets, and the egg began to glow.

“You win,” I heard a voice say. I turned and saw that Anorak was standing right behind me. His obsidian black robes seemed to pull most of the sunlight out of the room. “Congratulations,” he said, stretching out his long-fingered hand.

I hesitated, wondering if this was another trick. Or perhaps one final test …

“The game is over,” Anorak said, as if he’d read my mind. “It’s time for you to receive your prize.”

I looked down at his outstretched hand. Then, after a moment’s hesitation, I took it.

Cascading bolts of blue lightning erupted in the space between us, and their spiderweb tines enveloped us both, as if a surge of power were passing from his avatar into mine. When the lightning subsided, I saw that Anorak was no longer dressed in his black wizard’s robes. In fact, he no longer looked like Anorak at all. He was shorter, thinner, and somewhat less handsome. Now he looked like James Halliday. Pale. Middle-aged. He was dressed in worn jeans and a faded Space Invaders T-shirt.

I looked down at my own avatar and discovered that I was now wearing Anorak’s robes. Then I realized that the icons and readouts around the edge of my display had also changed. My stats were all completely maxxed out, and I now had a list of spells, inherent powers, and magic items that seemed to scroll on forever.

My avatar’s level and hit-point counters both had infinity symbols in front of them.

And my credit readout now displayed a number twelve digits long. I was a multibillionaire.

“I’m entrusting the care of the OASIS to you now, Parzival,” Halliday said. “Your avatar is immortal and all-powerful. Whatever you want, all you have to do is wish for it. Pretty sweet, eh?” He leaned toward me and lowered his voice. “Do me a favor. Try and use your powers only for good. OK?”

“OK,” I said, in a voice that was barely a whisper.

Halliday smiled, then gestured around us. “This is your castle now. I’ve coded this room so that only your avatar can enter it. I did this to ensure that you alone have access to this.” He walked over to a bookshelf against the wall and pulled on the spine of one of the volumes it held. I heard a click; then the bookshelf slid aside, revealing a square metal plate set into the wall. In the center of the plate there was a comically large red button embossed with a single word: OFF.

“I call this the Big Red Button,” Halliday said. “If you press it, it will shut off the entire OASIS and launch a worm that will delete everything stored on the GSS servers, including all of the OASIS source code. It will shut down the OASIS forever.” He smirked. “So don’t press it unless you’re absolutely positive it’s the right thing to do, OK?” He gave me an odd smile. “I trust your judgment.”

Halliday slid the bookshelf back into place, concealing the button once again. Then he startled me by putting his arm around my shoulders. “Listen,” he said, adopting a confidential tone. “I need to tell you one last thing before I go. Something I didn’t figure out for myself until it was already too late.” He led me over to the window and motioned out at the landscape stretching out beyond it. “I created the OASIS because I never felt at home in the real world. I didn’t know how to connect with the people there. I was afraid, for all of my life. Right up until I knew it was ending. That was when I realized, as terrifying and painful as reality can be, it’s also the only place where you can find true happiness. Because reality is real. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” I said. “I think I do.”

“Good,” he said, giving me a wink. “Don’t make the same mistake I did. Don’t hide in here forever.”

He smiled and took a few steps away from me. “All right. I think that covers everything. It’s time for me to blow this pop stand.”

Then Halliday began to disappear. He smiled and waved good-bye as his avatar slowly faded out of existence.

“Good luck, Parzival,” he said. “And thanks. Thanks for playing my game.”

Then he was completely gone.

“Are you guys there?” I said to the empty air a few minutes later.

“Yes!” Aech said excitedly. “Can you hear us?”

“Yeah. I can now. What happened?”

“The system cut off our voice links to you as soon as you entered Halliday’s office, so we couldn’t talk to you.”

“Luckily, you didn’t need our help anyway,” Shoto said. “Good job, man.”

“Congratulations, Wade,” I heard Art3mis say. And I could tell she meant it too.

“Thanks,” I said. “But I couldn’t have done it without you guys.”

“You’re right,” Art3mis said. “Remember to mention that when you talk to the media. Og says there are a few hundred reporters on their way here right now.”

I glanced back over at the bookshelf that concealed the Big Red Button. “Did you guys see everything Halliday said to me before he vanished?” I asked.

“No,” Art3mis said. “We saw everything up until he told you to ‘try and use your powers only for good.’ Then your vidfeed cut out. What happened after that?”

“Nothing much,” I said. “I’ll tell you about it later.”

“Dude,” Aech said. “You’ve got to check the Scoreboard.”

I opened a window and pulled up the Scoreboard. The list of high scores was gone. Now the only thing displayed on Halliday’s website was an image of my avatar, dressed in Anorak’s robes, holding the silver egg, along with the words PARZIVAL WINS!

“What happened to the Sixers?” I asked. “The ones who were still inside the gate?”

“We’re not sure,” Aech said. “Their vidfeeds vanished when the Scoreboard changed.”

“Maybe their avatars were killed,” Shoto said. “Or maybe …”

“Maybe they were just ejected from the gate,” I said.

I pulled up my map of Chthonia and saw that I could now teleport anywhere in the OASIS simply by selecting my desired destination in the atlas. I zoomed in on Castle Anorak and tapped a spot just outside the front entrance, and in a blink, my avatar was standing there.

I was right. When I’d cleared the Third Gate, the eighteen Sixer avatars who were still inside had been ejected from the gate and deposited in front of the castle. They were all standing there with confused looks on their faces when I appeared in front of them, resplendent in my new threads. They all stared at me in silence for a few seconds, then pulled out guns and swords, preparing to attack. They all looked identical, so I couldn’t tell which one was being controlled by Sorrento. But at this point, I didn’t really care.

Using my avatar’s new superuser interface, I made a sweeping gesture with my hand, selecting all of the Sixer avatars on my display. Their outlines began to glow red. Then I tapped the skull-and-crossbones icon that now appeared on my avatar’s toolbar. All eighteen Sixer avatars instantly dropped dead. Their bodies slowly faded out of existence, each leaving behind a tiny pile of weapons and loot.

“Holy sh@t!” I heard Shoto say over the comlink. “How did you do that?”

“You heard Halliday,” Aech said. “His avatar is immortal and all-powerful.”

“Yeah,” I said. “He wasn’t kidding, either.”

“Halliday also said you could wish for whatever you wanted,” Aech said. “What are you gonna wish for first?”

I thought about that for a second; then I tapped the new Command icon that now appeared at the edge of my display and said, “I wish for Aech, Art3mis, and Shoto to be resurrected.”

A dialog window popped up, asking me to confirm the spelling of each of their avatar names. Once I did, the system asked me if, in addition to resurrecting their avatars, I wanted to restore all of their lost items, too. I tapped the Yes icon. Then a message appeared in the center of my display: RESURRECTION COMPLETE. AVATARS RESTORED.

“Guys?” I said. “You might want to try logging back into your accounts now.”

“We’re already on our way!” Aech shouted.

A few seconds later, Shoto logged back into his account, and his avatar materialized a short distance in front of me, in the exact spot where he’d been killed a few hours earlier. He ran over to me, grinning from ear to ear. “Arigato, Parzival-san,” he said, bowing low.

I returned the bow, then threw my arms around him. “Welcome back,” I said. A moment later, Aech emerged from the castle entrance and ran over to join us.

“Good as new,” he said, grinning down at his restored avatar. “Thanks, Z.”

“De nada.” I glanced back through the castle’s open entrance. “Where’s Art3mis? She should have reappeared right next to you—”

“She didn’t log back in,” Aech said. “She said she wanted to go outside and get some fresh air.”

“You saw her? What—?” I searched for the right words. “How did she look?”

They both just smiled at me; then Aech rested a hand on my shoulder. “She said she’d be outside waiting for you. Whenever you’re ready to meet her.”

I nodded. I was about to tap my Log-out icon when Aech held up her—his—hand. “Wait a second! Before you log out, you’ve got to see something,” he said, opening a window in front of me. “This is airing on all of the newsfeeds right now. The feds just took Sorrento in for questioning. They stormed into IOI headquarters and yanked him right out of his haptic chair!”

A video clip began to play. Handheld camera footage showed a team of federal agents leading Sorrento across the lobby of the IOI corporate headquarters. He was still wearing his haptic suit and was shadowed by a gray-haired man in a suit who I assumed was his attorney. Sorrento looked annoyed more than anything, as if this were all just a mild inconvenience. The caption along the bottom of the window read: Top IOI Executive Sorrento Accused of Murder.

“The newsfeeds have been playing clips from the simcap of your chatlink session with Sorrento all day,” Aech said, pausing the clip. “Especially the part where he threatens to kill you and then blows up your aunt’s trailer.”

Aech hit Play, and the news clip continued. The federal agents continued to usher Sorrento through the lobby, which was packed with reporters, all pushing against one another and shouting questions. The reporter shooting the video we were watching lunged forward and jammed the camera in Sorrento’s face. “Did you give the order to kill Wade Watts personally?” the reporter shouted. “How does it feel to know you just lost the contest?”

Sorrento smiled, but didn’t reply. Then his attorney stepped in front of the camera and addressed the reporters. “The charges leveled against my client are preposterous,” he said. “The simcap being circulated is clearly a doctored fake. We have no other comment at this time.”

Sorrento nodded. He continued to smile as the feds led him out of the building.

“The bastard will probably get off scot-free,” I said. “IOI can afford to hire the best lawyers in the world.”

“Yes, they can,” Aech said. Then he flashed his Cheshire grin. “But now so can we.”

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