Ready Player One (Page 45)

Yeah. I was on a roll. In less than six months, I’d managed to wreck both of my closest friendships.

I flipped over to Aech’s channel, which he called the H-Feed. He was currently showing a WWF match from the late ’80s, featuring Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant. I didn’t even bother checking Daito and Shoto’s channel, the Daishow, because I knew they’d be showing some old samurai movie. That’s all those guys ever aired.

A few months after our confrontational first meeting in Aech’s basement, I’d managed to form a tenuous friendship with Daito and Shoto when the three of us teamed up to complete an extended quest in Sector Twenty-two. It was my idea. I felt bad about how our first encounter had ended, and I waited for an opportunity to extend some sort of olive branch to the two samurai. It came when I discovered a hidden high-level quest called Shodai Urutoraman on the planet Tokusatsu. The creation date in the quest’s colophon said it had been launched several years after Halliday’s death, which meant it couldn’t have any relation to the contest. It was also a Japanese-language quest, created by GSS’s Hokkaido division. I could have tried to complete it on my own, using the Mandarax real-time translator software installed in all OASIS accounts, but it would have been risky. Mandarax had been known to garble or misinterpret quest instructions and cues, which could easily lead to fatal mistakes.

Daito and Shoto lived in Japan (they’d become national heroes there), and I knew that they both spoke Japanese and English fluently. So I’d contacted them to ask if they were interested in teaming up with me, just for this one quest. They were skeptical at first, but after I described the unique nature of the quest, and what I believed the payoff for solving it might be, they finally agreed. The three of us met outside the quest gate on Tokusatsu and entered it together.

The quest was a re-creation of all thirty-nine episodes of the original Ultraman TV series, which had aired on Japanese television from 1966 to 1967. The show’s storyline centered around a human named Hayata who was a member of the Science Patrol, an organization devoted to fighting the hordes of giant Godzilla-like monsters that were constantly attacking Earth and threatening human civilization. When the Science Patrol encountered a threat they couldn’t handle on their own, Hayata would use an alien device called a Beta Capsule to transform into an alien super-being known as Ultraman. Then he would proceed to kick the monster-of-the-week’s a*s, using all sorts of kung-fu moves and energy attacks.

If I’d entered the quest gate by myself, I would have automatically played through the entire series storyline as Hayata. But because Shoto, Daito, and I had all entered at once, we were each allowed to select a different Science Patrol team member to play. We could then change or swap characters at the start of the next level or “episode.” The three of us took turns playing Hayata and his Science Patrol teammates Hoshino and Arashi. As with most quests in the OASIS, playing as a team made it easier to defeat the various enemies and complete each of the levels.

It took us an entire week, often playing over sixteen hours a day, before we were finally able to clear all thirty-nine levels and complete the quest. As we stepped out of the quest gate, our avatars were each awarded a huge amount of experience points and several thousand credits. But the real prize for completing the quest was an incredibly rare artifact: Hayata’s Beta Capsule. The small metal cylinder allowed the avatar who possessed it to transform into Ultraman once a day, for up to three minutes.

Since there were three of us, there was a debate over who should be allowed to keep the artifact. “Parzival should have it,” Shoto had said, turning to his older brother. “He found this quest. We wouldn’t even have known about it, were it not for him.”

Of course, Daito had disagreed. “And he would not have been able to complete the quest without our help!” He said the only fair thing to do would be to auction off the Beta Capsule and split the proceeds. But there was no way I could allow that. The artifact was far too valuable to sell, and I knew it would end up in the hands of the Sixers, because they purchased nearly every major artifact that went up for auction. I also saw this as an opportunity to get on Daisho’s good side.

“You two should keep the Beta Capsule,” I said. “Urutoraman is Japan’s greatest superhero. His powers belong in Japanese hands.”

They were both surprised and humbled by my generosity. Especially Daito. “Thank you, Parzival-san,” he said, bowing low. “You are a man of honor.”

After that, the three of us had parted as friends, if not necessarily allies, and I considered that an ample reward for my efforts.

A chime sounded in my ears and I checked the time. It was almost eight o’clock. Time to make the doughnuts.

I was always hard-up for cash, no matter how frugal I tried to be. I had several large bills to pay each month, both in the real world and in the OASIS. My real-world expenses were pretty standard. Rent, electricity, food, water. Hardware repairs and upgrades. My avatar’s expenses were far more exotic. Spacecraft repairs. Teleportation fees. Power cells. Ammunition. I purchased my ammo in bulk, but it still wasn’t cheap. And my monthly teleportation expenses were often astronomical. My search for the egg required constant travel, and GSS kept raising their teleportation fares.

I’d already spent all of my remaining product endorsement dough. Most of it went toward the cost of my rig and buying my own asteroid. I earned a decent amount of money each month by selling commercial time on my POV channel and by auctioning off any unneeded magic items, armor, or weapons I acquired during my travels. But my primary source of income was my full-time job doing OASIS technical support.

When I’d created my new Bryce Lynch identity, I’d given myself a college degree, along with multiple technical certifications and a long, sterling work record as an OASIS programmer and app developer. However, despite my sterling bogus résumé, the only job I’d been able to get was as a tier-one technical support representative at Helpful Helpdesk Inc., one of the contract firms GSS used to handle OASIS customer service and support. Now I worked forty hours a week, helping morons reboot their OASIS consoles and update the drivers for their haptic gloves. It was grueling work, but it paid the rent.

I logged out of my own OASIS account and then used my rig to log into a separate OASIS account I’d been issued for work. The log-in process completed and I took control of a Happy Helpdesk avatar, a cookie-cutter Ken doll that I used to take tech-support calls. This avatar appeared inside a huge virtual call center, inside a virtual cubicle, sitting at a virtual desk, in front of a virtual computer, wearing a virtual phone headset.

I thought of this place as my own private virtual hell.

Helpful Helpdesk Inc. took millions of calls a day, from all over the world. Twenty-four seven, three sixty-five. One angry, befuddled cretin after another. There was no downtime between calls, because there were always several hundred morons in the call queue, all of them willing to wait on hold for hours to have a tech rep hold their hand and fix their problem. Why bother looking up the solution online? Why try to figure the problem out on your own when you could have someone else do your thinking for you?

As usual, my ten-hour shift passed slowly. It was impossible for helpdesk avatars to leave their cubicles, but I found other ways to pass the time. My work account was rigged so that I couldn’t browse outside websites, but I’d hacked my visor to allow me to listen to music or stream movies off my hard drive while I took calls.

When my shift finally ended and I logged out of work, I immediately logged back into my own OASIS account. I had thousands of new e-mail messages waiting, and I could tell just by their subject lines what had happened while I’d been at work.

Art3mis had found the Jade Key.

Chapter 21

Like other gunters around the globe, I’d been dreading the next change on the Scoreboard, because I knew it was going to give the Sixers an unfair advantage.

A few months after we’d all cleared the First Gate, an anonymous avatar had placed an ultrapowerful artifact up for auction. It was called Fyndoro’s Tablet of Finding, and it had unique powers that could give its owner a huge advantage in the hunt for Halliday’s Easter egg.

Most of the virtual items in the OASIS were created by the system at random, and they would “drop” when you killed an NPC or completed a quest. The rarest such items were artifacts, superpowerful magic items that gave their owners incredible abilities. Only a few hundred of these artifacts existed, and most of them dated back to the earliest days of the OASIS, when it was still primarily an MMO game. Every artifact was unique, meaning that only one copy of it existed in the entire simulation. Usually, the way to obtain an artifact was to defeat some godlike villain at the end of a high-level quest. If you got lucky, the bad guy would drop an artifact when you killed him. You could also obtain an artifact by killing an avatar who had one in its inventory, or by purchasing one in an online auction.

Since artifacts were so rare, it was always big news when one went up for auction. Some had been known to sell for hundreds of thousands of credits, depending on their powers. The record had been set three years ago when an artifact called the Cataclyst was auctioned off. According to its auction listing, the Cataclyst was a sort of magical bomb, and it could be used only once. When it was detonated, it would kill every single avatar and NPC in the sector, including its owner. There was no defense against it. If you were unlucky enough to be in the same sector when it went off, you were a goner, regardless of how powerful or well protected you were.

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