Ready Player One (Page 5)

Every stack in our park stood at least fifteen mobile homes high (with the occasional RV, shipping container, Airstream trailer, or VW microbus mixed in for variety). In recent years, many of the stacks had grown to a height of twenty units or more. This made a lot of people nervous. Stack collapses weren’t that uncommon, and if the scaffold supports buckled at the wrong angle, the domino effect could bring down four or five of the neighboring stacks too.

Our trailer was near the northern edge of the stacks, which ran up to a crumbling highway overpass. From my vantage point at the laundry room window, I could see a thin stream of electric vehicles crawling along the cracked asphalt, carrying goods and workers into the city. As I stared out at the grim skyline, a bright sliver of the sun peeked over the horizon. Watching it rise, I performed a mental ritual: Whenever I saw the sun, I reminded myself that I was looking at a star. One of over a hundred billion stars in our galaxy. A galaxy that was just one of billions of other galaxies in the observable universe. This helped me keep things in perspective. I’d started doing it after watching a science program from the early ’80s called Cosmos.

I slipped out the window as quietly as possible and, clutching the bottom of the window frame, slid down the cold surface of the trailer’s metal siding. The steel platform on which the trailer rested was only slightly wider and longer than the trailer itself, leaving a ledge about a foot and a half wide all the way around. I carefully lowered myself until my feet rested on this ledge, then reached up to close the window behind me. I grabbed hold of a rope I’d strung there at waist level to serve as a handhold and began to sidestep along the ledge to the corner of the platform. From there I was able to descend the ladderlike frame of the scaffolding. I almost always took this route when leaving or returning to my aunt’s trailer. A rickety metal staircase was bolted to the side of the stack, but it shook and knocked against the scaffolding, so I couldn’t use it without announcing my presence. Bad news. In the stacks, it was best to avoid being heard or seen, whenever possible. There were often dangerous and desperate people about—the sort who would rob you, rape you, and then sell your organs on the black market.

Descending the network of metal girders had always reminded me of old platform videogames like Donkey Kong or BurgerTime. I’d seized upon this idea a few years earlier when I coded my first Atari 2600 game (a gunter rite of passage, like a Jedi building his first lightsaber). It was a Pitfall rip-off called The Stacks where you had to navigate through a vertical maze of trailers, collecting junk computers, snagging food-voucher power-ups, and avoiding meth addicts and pedophiles on your way to school. My game was a lot more fun than the real thing.

As I climbed down, I paused next to the Airstream trailer three units below ours, where my friend Mrs. Gilmore lived. She was a sweet old lady in her mid-seventies, and she always seemed to get up ridiculously early. I peeked in her window and saw her shuffling around in her kitchen, making breakfast. She spotted me after a few seconds, and her eyes lit up.

“Wade!” she said, cracking open her window. “Good morning, my dear boy.”

“Good morning, Mrs. G,” I said. “I hope I didn’t startle you.”

“Not at all,” she said. She pulled her robe tight against the draft coming in the window. “It’s freezing out there! Why don’t you come in and have some breakfast? I’ve got some soy bacon. And these powdered eggs aren’t too bad, if you put enough salt on them.…”

“Thanks, but I can’t this morning, Mrs. G. I have to get to school.”

“All right. Rain check, then.” She blew me a kiss and started to close the window. “Try not to break your neck climbing around out there, OK, Spider-Man?”

“Will do. See ya later, Mrs. G.” I waved good-bye to her and continued my descent.

Mrs. Gilmore was a total sweetheart. She let me crash on her couch when I needed to, although it was hard for me to sleep there because of all her cats. Mrs. G was super-religious and spent most of her time in the OASIS, sitting in the congregation of one of those big online mega-churches, singing hymns, listening to sermons, and taking virtual tours of the Holy Land. I fixed her ancient OASIS console whenever it went on the fritz, and in return, she answered my endless questions about what it had been like for her to grow up during the 1980s. She knew the coolest bits of ’80s trivia—stuff you couldn’t learn from books or movies. She was always praying for me too. Trying her hardest to save my soul. I never had the heart to tell her that I thought organized religion was a total crock. It was a pleasant fantasy that gave her hope and kept her going—which was exactly what the Hunt was for me. To quote the Almanac: “People who live in glass houses should shut the f**k up.”

When I reached the bottom level, I jumped off the scaffold and dropped the few remaining feet to the ground. My rubber boots crunched into the slush and frozen mud. It was still pretty dark down here, so I took out my flashlight and headed east, weaving my way through the dark maze, doing my best to remain unseen while being careful to avoid tripping over a shopping cart, engine block, or one of the other pieces of junk littering the narrow alleys between the stacks. I rarely saw anyone out at this time of the morning. The commuter shuttles ran only a few times a day, so the residents lucky enough to have a job would already be waiting at the bus stop by the highway. Most of them worked as day laborers in the giant factory farms that surrounded the city.

After walking about half a mile, I reached a giant mound of old cars and trucks piled haphazardly along the stacks’ eastern perimeter. Decades ago, the cranes had cleared the park of as many abandoned vehicles as possible, to make room for even more stacks, and they’d dumped them in huge piles like this one all around the settlement’s perimeter. Many of them were nearly as tall as the stacks themselves.

I walked to the edge of the pile, and after a quick glance around to make sure I wasn’t being watched or followed, I turned sideways to squeeze through a gap between two crushed cars. From there, I ducked, clambered, and sidestepped my way farther and farther into the ramshackle mountain of twisted metal, until I reached a small open space at the rear of a buried cargo van. Only the rear third of the van was visible. The rest was concealed by the other vehicles stacked on and around it. Two overturned pickup trucks lay across the van’s roof at different angles, but most of their weight was supported by the cars stacked on either side, creating a kind of protective arch that had prevented the van from being crushed by the mountain of vehicles piled above it.

I pulled out a chain I kept around my neck, on which there hung a single key. In a stroke of luck, this key had still been hanging from the van’s ignition when I’d first discovered it. Many of these vehicles had been in working condition when they were abandoned. Their owners had simply no longer been able to afford fuel for them, so they’d just parked them and walked away.

I pocketed my flashlight and unlocked the van’s rear right door. It opened about a foot and a half, giving me just enough room to squeeze inside. I pulled the door closed behind me and locked it again. The van’s rear doors had no windows, so I was hunched over in total darkness for a second, until my fingers found the old power strip I’d duct-taped to the ceiling. I flipped it on, and an old desk lamp flooded the tiny space with light.

The crumpled green roof of a compact car covered the crushed opening where the windshield had been, but the damage to the van’s front end didn’t extend beyond the cab. The rest of the interior remained intact. Someone had removed all of the van’s seats (probably to use as furniture), leaving a small “room” about four feet wide, four feet high, and nine feet long.

This was my hideout.

I’d discovered it four years earlier, while searching for discarded computer parts. When I first opened the door and gazed into the van’s darkened interior, I knew right away that I’d found something of immeasurable value: privacy. This was a place no one else knew about, where I wouldn’t have to worry about getting hassled or slapped around by my aunt or whatever loser she was currently dating. I could keep my things here without worrying they’d be stolen. And, most important, it was a place where I could access the OASIS in peace.

The van was my refuge. My Batcave. My Fortress of Solitude. It was where I attended school, did my homework, read books, watched movies, and played videogames. It was also where I conducted my ongoing quest to find Halliday’s Easter egg.

I’d covered the walls, floor, and ceiling with Styrofoam egg cartons and pieces of carpeting in an effort to soundproof the van as much as possible. Several cardboard boxes of busted laptops and computer parts sat in the corner, next to a rack of old car batteries and a modified exercise bike I’d rigged up as a recharger. The only furniture was a folding lawn chair.

I dropped my backpack, shrugged off my coat, and hopped on the exercise bike. Charging the batteries was usually the only physical exercise I got each day. I pedaled until the meter said the batteries had a full charge, then sat down in my chair and switched on the small electric heater I kept beside it. I pulled off my gloves and rubbed my hands in front of the filaments as they began to glow bright orange. I couldn’t leave the heater on for very long, or it would drain the batteries.

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