Ready Player One (Page 39)

Maybe the Jade Key was disguised as one of those toy plastic whistles, and it was hidden in a box of Cap’n Crunch cereal.… But where was that cereal box hidden?

In a dwelling long neglected

I still didn’t know what long-neglected dwelling that line referred to, or where to look for it. I visited every neglected dwelling I could think of. Re-creations of the Addams Family house, the abandoned shack in the Evil Dead trilogy, Tyler Durden’s flophouse in Fight Club, and the Lars Homestead on Tattooine. No luck finding the Jade Key inside any of them. Dead end after dead end.

But you can only blow the whistle

Once the trophies are all collected

I still hadn’t deciphered the meaning of that last line, either. What trophies did I have to collect? Or was that some kind of half-assed metaphor? There had to be a simple connection I wasn’t making, a sly reference that I still wasn’t clever or knowledgeable enough to catch.

Since then, I’d failed to make any more progress. Every time I revisited the Quatrain, my ongoing infatuation with Art3mis would undermine my ability to focus, and before long I would close my grail diary and call her up to see if she wanted to hang out. She almost always did.

I convinced myself that it was all right to slack off a bit, because no one else seemed to be making any progress in their search for the Jade Key. The Scoreboard remained unchanged. Everyone else seemed to be just as stumped as I was.

As the weeks continued to pass, Art3mis and I spent more and more time together. Even when our avatars were doing other things, we were sending e-mails and instant messages to each other. A river of words flowed between us.

I wanted more than anything to meet her in the real world. Face-to-face. But I didn’t tell her this. I was certain she had strong feelings for me, but she also kept me at a distance. No matter how much I revealed about myself to her—and I wound up revealing just about everything, including my real name—she always adamantly refused to reveal any details about her own life. All I knew was that she was nineteen and that she lived somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. That was all she would tell me.

The image of her that formed in my mind was the most obvious one. I pictured her as a physical manifestation of her avatar. I imagined her with the same face, eyes, hair, and body. Even though she told me repeatedly that in reality she looked almost nothing like her avatar and that she wasn’t nearly as attractive in person.

When I began to spend most of my time with Art3mis, Aech and I began to grow apart. Instead of hanging out several times a week, we chatted a few times a month. Aech knew I was falling for Art3mis, but he never gave me too much grief about it, even when I would bail on him at the last minute to hang out with her instead. He would just shrug, tell me to be careful, and say, “I sure hope you know what you’re doing, Z.”

I didn’t, of course. My whole relationship with Art3mis was in defiance of all common sense. But I couldn’t help falling for her. Somehow, without my realizing it, my obsession with finding Halliday’s Easter egg was gradually being supplanted by my obsession with Art3mis.

Eventually, she and I began to go out on “dates,” taking day trips to exotic OASIS locales and exclusive night spots. At first, Art3mis protested. She thought I should keep a low profile, because as soon as my avatar was spotted in public, the Sixers would know that their attempt to kill me had failed, and I’d be back on their hit list. But I told her I no longer cared. I was already hiding from the Sixers in the real world, and I refused to continue hiding from them in the OASIS, too. Besides, I had a ninety-ninth-level avatar now. I felt nigh invincible.

Maybe I was just trying to impress Art3mis by acting fearless. If so, I think it worked.

We still disguised our avatars before we went out, because we knew there would be tabloid headlines galore if Parzival and Art3mis started showing up in public together on a regular basis. But there was one exception. One night, she took me to see the Rocky Horror Picture Show in a huge stadium-sized movie theater on the planet Transsexual, where they held the most highly attended and longest-running weekly screening of the movie in the OASIS. Thousands of avatars came to every show, to sit in the stands and revel in the audience participation. Normally, only longstanding members of the Rocky Horror Fan Club were permitted to get up onstage and help act out the film in front of the giant movie screen, and only after they’d passed a grueling audition process. But Art3mis used her fame to pull a few strings, and she and I were both allowed to join the cast for that night’s show. The whole planet was in a no-PvP zone, so I wasn’t worried about getting ambushed by the Sixers. But I did have a serious case of stage fright when the show began.

Art3mis played a note-perfect Columbia, and I had the honor of playing her undead love interest, Eddie. I altered my avatar’s appearance so that I looked exactly like Meat Loaf did in the role, but my performance and lip-synching still kinda sucked. Luckily, the audience cut me a lot of slack, because I was the famous gunter Parzival, and I was clearly having a blast.

That night was easily the most fun I’d ever had in my life up to that point. I told Art3mis so afterward, and that was when she leaned over and kissed me for the first time. I couldn’t feel it, of course. But it still set my heart racing.

I’d heard all the clichéd warnings about the perils of falling for someone you only knew online, but I ignored them. I decided that whoever Art3mis really was, I was in love with her. I could feel it, deep in the soft, chewy caramel center of my being.

And then one night, like a complete idiot, I told her how I felt.

Chapter 18

It was a Friday night, and I was spending another solitary evening doing research, working my way through every episode of Whiz Kids, an early-’80s TV show about a teenage hacker who uses his computer skills to solve mysteries. I’d just finished watching the episode “Deadly Access” (a crossover with Simon & Simon) when an e-mail arrived in my inbox. It was from Ogden Morrow. The subject line read “We Can Dance If We Want To.”

There was no text in the body of the e-mail. Just a file attachment—an invitation to one of the most exclusive gatherings in the OASIS: Ogden Morrow’s birthday party. In the real world, Morrow almost never made public appearances, and in the OASIS, he came out of hiding only once a year, to host this event.

The invitation featured a photo of Morrow’s world-famous avatar, the Great and Powerful Og. The gray-bearded wizard was hunched over an elaborate DJ mixing board, one headphone pressed to his ear, biting his lower lip in auditory ecstasy as his fingers scratched ancient vinyl on a set of silver turntables. His record crate bore a DON’T PANIC sticker and an anti-Sixer logo—a yellow number six with a red circle-and-slash over it. The text at the bottom read

Ogden Morrow’s ’80s Dance Party

in celebration of his 73rd birthday!

Tonight—10pm OST at the Distracted Globe

ADMIT ONE

I was flabbergasted. Ogden Morrow had actually taken the time to invite me to his birthday party. It felt like the greatest honor I’d ever received.

I called Art3mis, and she confirmed that she’d received the same e-mail. She said she couldn’t pass up an invitation from Og himself, despite the obvious risks. So, naturally, I told her I would meet her there at the club. It was the only way I could avoid looking like a total wuss.

I knew that if Og had invited the two of us, he’d probably also invited the other members of the High Five. But Aech probably wouldn’t show up, because he competed in a globally televised arena deathmatch every Friday night. And Shoto and Daito never entered a PvP zone unless it was absolutely necessary.

The Distracted Globe was a famous zero-gravity dance club on the planet Neonoir in Sector Sixteen. Ogden Morrow had coded the place himself decades ago and was still its sole owner. I’d never visited the Globe before. I wasn’t much for dancing, or for socializing with the twinked-out wannabe-gunter überdorks who were known to frequent the place. But Og’s birthday party was a special event, and so the usual clientele would be banished for the evening. Tonight, the club would be packed with celebrities—movie stars, musicians, and at least two members of the High Five.

I spent over an hour tweaking my avatar’s hair and trying on different skins to wear to the club. I finally settled on some classic ’80s-era attire: a light gray suit, exactly like the one Peter Weller wore in Buckaroo Banzai, complete with a red bow tie, along with a pair of vintage white Adidas high-tops. I also loaded my inventory with my best suit of body armor and a large amount of weaponry. One of the reasons the Globe was such a hip, exclusive club was because it was located in a PvP zone, one where both magic and technology functioned. So it was extremely dangerous to go there. Especially for a famous gunter like me.

There were hundreds of cyberpunk-themed worlds spread throughout the OASIS, but Neonoir was one of the largest and oldest. Seen from orbit, the planet was a shiny onyx marble covered in overlapping spider-webs of pulsating light. It was always night on Neonoir, the world over, and its surface was an uninterrupted grid of interconnected cities packed with impossibly large skyscrapers. Its skies were filled with a continuous stream of flying vehicles whirring through the vertical cityscapes, and the streets below teemed with leather-clad NPCs and mirror-shaded avatars, all sporting high-tech weaponry and subcutaneous implants as they spouted city-speak straight out of Neuromancer.

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