فصل 04

کتاب: بازیکن شماره یک آماده / فصل 5

فصل 04

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4

My avatar’s eyes slid open, and I was back in my World History classroom. The seats around me were now filled with other students, and our teacher, Mr. Avenovich, was materializing at the front of the classroom. Mr. A’s avatar looked like a portly, bearded college professor. He sported an infectious grin, wire-rimmed spectacles, and a tweed jacket with patches on the elbows. When he spoke, he somehow always managed to sound like he was reading a passage from di@kens. I liked him. He was a good teacher.

Of course, we didn’t know who Mr. Avenovich really was or where he lived. We didn’t know his real name, or even if “he” was really a man. For all we knew, he could have been a small Inuit woman living in Anchorage, Alaska, who had adopted this appearance and voice to make her students more receptive to her lessons. But for some reason, I suspected that Mr. Avenovich’s avatar looked and sounded just like the person operating it.

All of my teachers were pretty great. Unlike their real-world counterparts, most of the OASIS public school teachers seemed to genuinely enjoy their job, probably because they didn’t have to spend half their time acting as babysitters and disciplinarians. The OASIS software took care of that, ensuring that students remained quiet and in their seats. All the teachers had to do was teach.

It was also a lot easier for online teachers to hold their students’ attention, because here in the OASIS, the classrooms were like holodecks. Teachers could take their students on a virtual field trip every day, without ever leaving the school grounds.

During our World History lesson that morning, Mr. Avenovich loaded up a stand-alone simulation so that our class could witness the discovery of King Tut’s tomb by archaeologists in Egypt in AD 1922. (The day before, we’d visited the same spot in 1334 BC and had seen Tutankhamen’s empire in all its glory.)

In my next class, Biology, we traveled through a human heart and watched it pumping from the inside, just like in that old movie Fantastic Voyage.

In Art class we toured the Louvre while all of our avatars wore silly berets.

In my Astronomy class we visited each of Jupiter’s moons. We stood on the volcanic surface of Io while our teacher explained how the moon had originally formed. As our teacher spoke to us, Jupiter loomed behind her, filling half the sky, its Great Red Spot churning slowly just over her left shoulder. Then she snapped her fingers and we were standing on Europa, discussing the possibility of extraterrestrial life beneath the moon’s icy crust.

I spent my lunch period sitting in one of the green fields bordering the school, staring at the simulated scenery while I munched on a protein bar with my visor on. It beat staring at the inside of my hideout. I was a senior, so I was allowed to go off-world during lunch if I wanted to, but I didn’t have that kind of spare dough to blow.

Logging into the OASIS was free, but traveling around inside it wasn’t. Most of the time, I didn’t have enough credits to teleport off-world and get back to Ludus. When the last bell rang each day, the students who had things to do in the real world would log out of the OASIS and vanish. Everyone else would head off-world. A lot of kids owned their own interplanetary vehicles. School parking lots all over Ludus were filled with UFOs, TIE fighters, old NASA space shuttles, Vipers from Battlestar Galactica, and other spacecraft designs lifted from every sci-fi movie and TV show you can think of. Every afternoon I would stand on the school’s front lawn and watch with envy as these ships filled the sky, zooming off to explore the simulation’s endless possibilities. The kids who didn’t own ships would either hitch a ride with a friend or stampede to the nearest transport terminal, headed for some offworld dance club, gaming arena, or rock concert. But not me. I wasn’t going anywhere. I was stranded on Ludus, the most boring planet in the entire OASIS.

The Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation was a big place.

When the OASIS had first been launched, it contained only a few hundred planets for users to explore, all created by GSS programmers and artists. Their environments ran the gamut, from sword-and-sorcery settings to cyberpunk-themed planetwide cities to irradiated postapocalyptic zombie-infested wastelands. Some planets were designed with painstaking detail. Others were randomly generated from a series of templates. Each one was populated with a variety of artificially intelligent NPCs (nonplayer characters)—computer-controlled humans, animals, monsters, aliens, and androids with which OASIS users could interact.

GSS had also licensed preexisting virtual worlds from their competitors, so content that had already been created for games like Everquest and World of Warcraft was ported over to the OASIS, and copies of Norrath and Azeroth were added to the growing catalog of OASIS planets. Other virtual worlds soon followed suit, from the Metaverse to the Matrix. The Firefly universe was anchored in a sector adjacent to the Star Wars galaxy, with a detailed re-creation of the Star Trek universe in the sector adjacent to that. Users could now teleport back and forth between their favorite fictional worlds. Middle Earth. Vulcan. Pern. Arrakis. Magrathea. Discworld, Mid-World, Riverworld, Ringworld. Worlds upon worlds.

For the sake of zoning and navigation, the OASIS had been divided equally into twenty-seven cube-shaped “sectors,” each containing hundreds of different planets. (The three-dimensional map of all twenty-seven sectors distinctly resembled an ’80s puzzle toy called a Rubik’s Cube. Like most gunters, I knew this was no coincidence.) Each sector measured exactly ten light-hours across, or about 10.8 billion kilometers. So if you were traveling at the speed of light (the fastest speed attainable by any spacecraft inside the OASIS), you could get from one side of a sector to the other in exactly ten hours. That sort of long-distance travel wasn’t cheap. Spacecraft that could travel at light speed were rare, and they required fuel to operate. Charging people for virtual fuel to power their virtual spaceships was one of the ways Gregarious Simulation Systems generated revenue, since accessing the OASIS was free. But GSS’s primary source of income came from teleportation fares. Teleportation was the fastest way to travel, but it was also the most expensive.

Traveling around inside the OASIS wasn’t just costly—it was also dangerous. Each sector was divided up into many different zones that varied in size and shape. Some zones were so large that they encompassed several planets, while others covered only a few kilometers on the surface of a single world. Each zone had a unique combination of rules and parameters. Magic would function in some zones and not in others. The same was true of technology. If you flew your technology-based starship into a zone where technology didn’t function, your engines would fail the moment you crossed the zone border. Then you’d have to hire some silly gray-bearded sorcerer with a spell-powered space barge to tow your ass back into a technology zone.

Dual zones permitted the use of both magic and technology, and null zones didn’t allow either. There were pacifist zones where no player-versus-player combat was allowed, and player-versus-player zones where it was every avatar for themselves.

You had to be careful whenever you entered a new zone or sector. You had to be prepared.

But like I said, I didn’t have that problem. I was stuck at school.

Ludus had been designed as a place of learning, so the planet had been created without a single quest portal or gaming zone anywhere on its surface. The only thing to be found here were thousands of identical school campuses separated by rolling green fields, perfectly landscaped parks, rivers, meadows, and sprawling template-generated forests. There were no castles, dungeons, or orbiting space fortresses for my avatar to raid. And there were no NPC villains, monsters, or aliens for me to fight, so there was no treasure or magic items for me to plunder.

This totally sucked, for a lot of reasons.

Completing quests, fighting NPCs, and gathering treasure were the only ways a low-level avatar like mine could earn experience points (XPs). Earning XPs was how you increased your avatar’s power level, strength, and abilities.

A lot of OASIS users didn’t care about their avatar’s power level or bother with the gaming aspects of the simulation at all. They only used the OASIS for entertainment, business, shopping, and hanging out with their friends. These users simply avoided entering any gaming or PvP zones where their defenseless first-level avatars could be attacked by NPCs or by other players. If you stayed in safe zones, like Ludus, you didn’t have to worry about your avatar getting robbed, kidnapped, or killed.

I hated being stuck in a safe zone.

If I was going to find Halliday’s egg, I knew I would eventually have to venture out in the dangerous sectors of the OASIS. And if I wasn’t powerful or well-armed enough to defend myself, I wasn’t going to stay alive for very long.

Over the past five years, I’d managed to slowly, gradually raise my avatar up to third level. This hadn’t been easy. I’d done it by hitching rides off-world with other students (mostly Aech) who happened to be headed to a planet where my wuss avatar could survive. I’d have them drop me near a newbie-level gaming zone and spend the rest of the night or weekend slaying orcs, kobolds, or some other piddly class of monster that was too weak to kill me. For each NPC my avatar defeated, I would earn a few meager experience points and, usually, a handful of copper or silver coins dropped by my slain foes. These coins were instantly converted to credits, which I used to pay the teleportation fare back to Ludus, often just before the final school bell rang. Sometimes, but not often, one of the NPCs I killed would drop an item. That was how I’d obtained my avatar’s sword, shield, and armor.

I’d stopped hitching rides with Aech at the end of the previous school year. His avatar was now above thirtieth level, and so he was almost always headed to a planet where it wasn’t safe for my avatar. He was happy to drop me on some noob world along the way, but if I didn’t earn enough credits to pay for my fare back to Ludus, I’d wind up missing school because I was stuck on some other planet. This was not an acceptable excuse. I’d now racked up so many unexcused absences that I was in danger of being expelled. If that happened, I would have to return my school-issued OASIS console and visor. Worse, I’d be transferred back to school in the real world to finish out my senior year there. I couldn’t risk that.

So these days I rarely left Ludus at all. I was stuck here, and stuck at third level. Having a third-level avatar was a colossal embarrassment. None of the other gunters took you seriously unless you were at least tenth level. Even though I’d been a gunter since day one, everyone still considered me a noob. It was beyond frustrating.

In desperation, I’d tried to find a part-time after-school job, just to earn some walking-around money. I applied for dozens of tech support and programming jobs (mostly grunt construction work, coding parts of OASIS malls and office buildings), but it was completely hopeless. Millions of college-educated adults couldn’t get one of those jobs. The Great Recession was now entering its third decade, and unemployment was still at a record high. Even the fast-food joints in my neighborhood had a two-year waiting list for job applicants.

So I remained stuck at school. I felt like a kid standing in the world’s greatest video arcade without any quarters, unable to do anything but walk around and watch the other kids play.

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