Chapter no 8

Ready Player One

The walls of the corridor leading into the tomb were covered with dozens of strange paintings depicting enslaved humans, orcs, elves, and other creatures. Each fresco appeared in the exact location described in the original D&D module. I knew that hidden in the tiled stone surface of the floor were several spring-loaded trapdoors. If you stepped on one, it snapped open and dropped you into a pit filled with poisoned iron spikes. But because the location of each hidden trapdoor was clearly marked on my map, I was able to avoid all of them.‌
So far, everything had followed the original module to the letter. If the same was true for the rest of the tomb, I might be able to survive long enough to locate the Copper Key. There were only a few monsters lurking in this dungeon—a gargoyle, a skeleton, a zombie, some asps, a mummy, and the evil demi-lich Acererak himself. Since the map told me where each of them was hiding, I should be able to avoid fighting them. Unless, of course, one of them was guarding the Copper Key. And I could already guess who probably had that honor.

I tried to proceed carefully, as if I had no idea what to expect.

Avoiding the Sphere of Annihilation located at the end of the corridor, I located a hidden door beside the last pit trap. It opened into a small sloping passageway. My flashlight reached into the darkness ahead, flickering off the damp stone walls. My surroundings made me feel like I was in a low-budget sword-and-sorcery flick, like Hawk the Slayer or The Beastmaster.

I began to make my way through the dungeon, room by room. Even though I knew where all of the traps were located, I still had to proceed carefully to avoid them all. In a dark, forbidding chamber known as the Chapel of Evil, I found thousands of gold and silver coins hidden in the pews, right where they were supposed to be. It was more money than my

avatar could carry, even with the Bag of Holding that I found. I gathered up as many of the gold coins as I could and they appeared in my inventory. The currency was automatically converted and my credit counter jumped to over twenty thousand, by far the largest amount of money I’d ever had. And in addition to the credits, my avatar received an equal number of experience points for obtaining the coins.

As I continued deeper into the tomb, I obtained several magic items along the way. A +1 Flaming Sword. A Gem of Seeing. A +1 Ring of Protection. I even found a suit of +3 Full Plate armor. These were the first magic items my avatar had ever possessed, and they made me feel unstoppable.

When I put on the suit of magical armor, it shrank to fit my avatar perfectly. Its gleaming chrome appearance reminded me of the bad-ass armor worn by the knights in Excalibur. I actually switched to a third-person view for a few seconds, just to admire how cool my avatar looked wearing it.

The farther I went, the more confident I became. The tomb’s layout and contents continued to match the module description exactly, down to the last detail. That is, until I reached the Pillared Throne Room.

It was a large square chamber with a high ceiling, filled with dozens of massive stone columns. A huge raised dais stood at the far end of the room, atop which rested an obsidian throne inlaid with silver and ivory skulls.

All this matched the module description exactly, with one huge difference. The throne was supposed to be empty, but it wasn’t. The demi-lich Acererak was sitting on it, glaring down at me silently. A dusty gold crown glinted on his withered head. He appeared exactly as he did on the cover of the original Tomb of Horrors module. But according to its text, Acererak wasn’t supposed to be here. He was supposed to be waiting in a burial chamber much deeper in the dungeon.

I considered running but decided against it. If Halliday had placed the lich in this room, perhaps he’d placed the Copper Key here too. I had to find out.

I walked across the chamber to the foot of the dais. From here I could see the lich more clearly. His teeth were two rows of pointed cut diamonds arrayed in a lipless grin, and a large ruby was set in each of his eye sockets.

For the first time since entering the tomb, I wasn’t sure what to do next.

My chances of surviving one-on-one combat with a demi-lich were nonexistent. My wimpy +1 Flaming Sword couldn’t even affect him, and the two magic rubies in his eye sockets had the power to suck out my avatar’s life force and kill me instantly. Even a party of six or seven high-level avatars would have had a difficult time defeating him.

I silently wished (not for the last time) that the OASIS was like an old adventure game and that I could save my place. But it wasn’t, and I couldn’t. If my avatar died here, it would mean starting over with nothing. But there was no point in hesitating now. If the lich killed me, I would come back tomorrow night and try again. The entire tomb should reset when the OASIS server clock struck midnight. If it did, all of the hidden traps I’d disarmed would reset themselves, and the treasure and magic items would reappear.

I tapped the Record icon at the edge of my display so that whatever happened next would be stored in a vidcap file I could play back and study later. But when I tapped the icon, I got a RECORDING NOT ALLOWED message. It seemed that Halliday had disabled recording inside the tomb.

I took a deep breath, raised my sword, and placed my right foot on the bottom step of the dais. As I did, there was a sound like cracking bones as Acererak slowly lifted his head. The rubies in his eye sockets began to glow with an intense red light. I took several steps backward, expecting him to leap down and attack me. But he didn’t rise from his throne. Instead, he lowered his head and fixed me with his chilling gaze. “Greetings, Parzival,” he said in a rasping voice. “What is it that you seek?”

This caught me off guard. According to the module, the lich wouldn’t speak. He was just supposed to attack, leaving me with no choice but to kill him or run for my life.

“I seek the Copper Key,” I replied. Then I remembered I was speaking to a king, so I quickly bowed my head, dropped to one knee, and added, “Your Majesty.”

“Of course you do,” Acererak said, motioning for me to rise. “And you’ve come to the right place.” He stood, and his mummified skin cracked like old leather as he moved. I clutched my sword more tightly, still anticipating an attack.

“How can I know that you are worthy of possessing the Copper Key?” he asked.

Holy shit! How the hell was I supposed to answer that? And what if I gave the wrong answer? Would he suck out my soul and incinerate me?

I racked my brain for a suitable reply. The best I could come up with was, “Allow me to prove my worth, noble Acererak.”

The lich let out a long, disturbing cackle that echoed off the chamber’s stone walls. “Very well!” he said. “You shall prove your worth by facing me in a joust!”

I’d never heard of an undead lich king challenging someone to a joust. Especially not in a subterranean burial chamber. “All right,” I said uncertainly. “But won’t we be needing horses for that?”

“Not horses,” he replied, stepping away from his throne. “Birds.”

He waved a skeletal hand at his throne. There was a brief flash of light, accompanied by a transformation sound effect (which I was pretty sure had been lifted from the old Super Friends cartoon). The throne melted and morphed into an old coin-operated videogame cabinet. Two joysticks protruded from its control panel, one yellow and one blue. I couldn’t help but grin as I read the name on the game’s backlit marquee: JOUST. Williams Electronics, 1982.

“Best two out of three games,” Acererak rasped. “If you win, I shall grant you what you seek.”

“What if you win?” I asked, already knowing the answer.

“If I am victorious,” the lich said, the rubies in his eye sockets blazing even brighter, “then you shall die!” A ball of swirling orange flame appeared in his right hand. He raised it threateningly.

“Of course,” I said. “That was my first guess. Just wanted to double-check.”

The fireball in Acererak’s hand vanished. He stretched out his leathery palm, which now held two shiny quarters. “The games are on me,” he said. He stepped up to the Joust machine and dropped both quarters into the left coin slot. The game emitted two low electronic chimes and the credit counter jumped from zero to two.

Acererak took hold of the yellow joystick on the left side of the control panel and closed his bony fingers around it. “Art thou ready?” he croaked.

“Yeah,” I said, taking a deep breath. I cracked my knuckles and grabbed the Player Two joystick with my left hand, poising my right hand over the Flap button.

Acererak rocked his head from left to right, cracking his neck. It sounded like a snapping tree branch. Then he slapped the Two Player button and the joust began.

Joust was a classic ’80s arcade game with a strange premise. Each player controls a knight armed with a lance. Player One is mounted on an ostrich, while Player Two is mounted on a stork. You flap your wings to fly around the screen and “joust” with the other player, and also against several computer-controlled enemy knights (who are all mounted on buzzards). When you crash into an opponent, whoever’s lance is higher on the screen wins the joust. The loser is killed and loses a life. Whenever you kill one of the enemy knights, his buzzard craps out a green egg that quickly hatches into another enemy knight if you don’t scoop it up in time. There’s also a winged pterodactyl that appears once in a while to wreak havoc.

I hadn’t played Joust in over a year. It was one of Aech’s favorite games, and for a while he’d had a Joust cabinet in his chat room. He used to challenge me to a game whenever he wanted to settle an argument or some asinine pop-culture dispute. For a few months, we played almost every day. In the beginning, Aech was slightly better than I was, and he had a habit of gloating over his victories. This had really irked me, so I started practicing Joust on my own, playing a few games a night against an AI opponent. I honed my skills until I finally got good enough to beat Aech, repeatedly and consistently. Then I began to gloat over him, savoring my revenge. The last time we’d played, I’d rubbed his nose in defeat so mercilessly that he’d flipped out and vowed never to play me again. Since then, we’d used Street Fighter II to settle our disputes.

My Joust skills were a lot rustier than I thought. I spent the first five minutes just trying to relax and to reacquaint myself with the controls and the rhythm of the game. During this time, Acererak managed to kill me twice, mercilessly slamming his winged mount into mine at the perfect trajectory. He handled the game’s controls with the calculated perfection of a machine. Which, of course, was exactly what he was—cutting-edge NPC artificial intelligence, programmed by Halliday himself.

By the end of our first game, the moves and tricks I’d picked up during all those marathon bouts with Aech were starting to come back to me. But Acererak didn’t need a warm-up. He was in perfect form from the outset, and there was no way I could make up for my weak showing at the start of

the game. He killed off my last man before I even cleared 30,000 points. Embarrassing.

“One game down, Parzival,” he said, flashing a rictus grin. “One more to go.”

He didn’t waste time by making me stand there and watch him play out the rest of his game. He reached up and found the power switch at the rear of the game cabinet, then flipped it off and back on. After the screen cycled through its chromatic Williams Electronics boot-up sequence, he snatched two more quarters out of thin air and dropped them into the game.

“Art thou ready?” he inquired again, hunching over the control panel.

I hesitated a moment, then asked, “Actually, would you mind if we switched sides? I’m used to playing on the left.”

It was true. When Aech and I played in the Basement, I always took the ostrich side. Being on the right side during the first game had screwed up my rhythm a bit.

Acererak appeared to consider my request for a moment. Then he nodded. “Certainly,” he said. He stepped back from the cabinet and we switched sides. It suddenly occurred to me just how absurd this scene was: a guy wearing a suit of armor, standing next to an undead king, both hunched over the controls of a classic arcade game. It was the sort of surreal image you’d expect to see on the cover of an old issue of Heavy Metal or Dragon magazine.

Acererak slapped the Two Player button, and my eyes locked on the screen.

The next game started out badly for me too. My opponent’s movements were relentless and precise, and I spent the first few waves just trying to evade him. I was also distracted by the incessant click of his skeletal index finger as he tapped his Flap button.

I unclenched my jaw and cleared my mind, forcing myself not to think about where I was, who I was playing against, or what was at stake. I tried to imagine that I was back in the Basement, playing against Aech.

It worked. I slipped into the zone, and the tide began to turn in my favor. I began to find the flaws in the lich’s playing style, the holes in his programming. This was something I’d learned over the years, mastering hundreds of different videogames. There was always a trick to beating a computer-controlled opponent. At a game like this, a gifted human player could always triumph over the game’s AI, because software couldn’t

improvise. It could either react randomly, or in a limited number of predetermined ways, based on a finite number of preprogrammed conditions. This was an axiom in videogames, and would be until humans invented true artificial intelligence.

Our second game came right down to the wire, but by the end of it, I’d spotted a pattern to the lich’s playing technique. By changing my ostrich’s direction at a certain moment, I could get him to slam his stork into one of the oncoming buzzards. By repeating this move, I was able to pick off his extra lives, one by one. I died several times myself in the process, but I finally took him down during the tenth wave, with no extra lives of my own to spare.

I stepped back from the machine and sighed with relief. I could feel rivulets of sweat running down my forehead and around the edge of my visor. I wiped at my face with the sleeve of my shirt, and my avatar mimicked this motion.

“Good game,” Acererak said. Then, to my surprise, he offered me his withered claw of a hand. I shook it, chuckling nervously as I did so.

“Yeah,” I replied. “Good game, man.” It occurred to me that, in a weird way, I was actually playing against Halliday. I quickly pushed the thought out of my head, afraid I might psych myself out.

Acererak once again produced two quarters and dropped them into the Joust machine. “This one is for all the marbles,” he said. “Art thou ready?”

I nodded. This time, I took the liberty of slapping the Two Player button myself.

Our final tie-breaking game lasted longer than the first two combined. During the final wave, so many buzzards filled the screen that it was hard to move without getting dusted by one of them. The lich and I faced off one final time, at the very top of the playing field, both of us incessantly hitting our Flap buttons while slamming our joysticks left and right. Acererak made a final, desperate move to avoid my charge and dropped a micrometer too low. His final mount died in a tiny pixelated explosion.

PLAYER TWO GAME OVER appeared on the screen, and the lich let out a long bloodcurdling howl of rage. He smashed an angry fist into the side of the Joust cabinet, shattering it into a million tiny pixels that scattered and bounced across the floor. Then he turned to face me. “Congratulations, Parzival,” he said, bowing low. “You played well.”

“Thank you, noble Acererak,” I replied, resisting the urge to jump up and down and shake my ass victoriously in his general direction. Instead, I solemnly returned his bow. As I did, the lich transformed into a tall human wizard dressed in flowing black robes. I recognized him immediately. It was Halliday’s avatar, Anorak.

I stared at him, utterly speechless. For years gunters had speculated that Anorak still roamed the OASIS, now as an autonomous NPC. Halliday’s ghost in the machine.

“Now,” the wizard said, speaking with Halliday’s familiar voice. “Your reward.”

The chamber filled with the sound of a full orchestra. Triumphant horns were quickly joined by a stirring string section. I recognized the music. It was the last track from John Williams’s original Star Wars score, used in the scene where Princess Leia gives Luke and Han their medals (and Chewbacca, as you may recall, gets the shaft).

As the music built to a crescendo, Anorak stretched out his right hand. There, resting in his open palm, was the Copper Key, the item for which millions of people had been searching for the past five years. As he handed it to me, the music faded out, and in the same instant, I heard a chime sound. I’d just gained fifty thousand experience points, enough to raise my avatar all the way up to tenth level.

“Farewell, Sir Parzival,” Anorak said. “I bid you good luck on your quest.” And before I could ask what I was supposed to do next, or where I could find the first gate, his avatar vanished in a flash of light, accompanied by a teleportation sound effect I knew was lifted from the old ’80s Dungeons & Dragons cartoon.

I found myself standing alone on the empty dais. I looked down at the Copper Key in my hand and felt overcome with wonder and elation. It looked just as it had in Anorak’s Invitation: a simple antique copper key, its oval-shaped bow embossed with the roman numeral “I.” I turned it over in my avatar’s hand, watching the torchlight play across the roman numeral, and that was when I spotted two small lines of text engraved into the metal. I tilted the key up to the light and read them aloud: “What you seek lies hidden in the trash on the deepest level of Daggorath.”

I didn’t even need to read it a second time. I instantly understood its meaning. I knew exactly where I needed to go and what I would have to do once I got there.

“Hidden in the trash” was a reference to the ancient TRS-80 line of computers made by Tandy and Radio Shack in the ’70s and ’80s. Computer users of that era had given the TRS-80 the derogatory nickname of “Trash 80.”

What you seek lies hidden in the trash.

Halliday’s first computer had been a TRS-80, with a whopping 16K of RAM. And I knew exactly where to find a replica of that computer in the OASIS. Every gunter did.

In the early days of the OASIS, Halliday had created a small planet named Middletown, named after his hometown in Ohio. The planet was the site of a meticulous re-creation of his hometown as it was in the late 1980s. That saying about how you can never go home again? Halliday had found a way. Middletown was one of his pet projects, and he’d spent years coding and refining it. And it was well known (to gunters, at least) that one of the most detailed and accurate parts of the Middletown simulation was the recreation of Halliday’s boyhood home.

I’d never been able to visit it, but I’d seen hundreds of screenshots and vidcaps of the place. Inside Halliday’s bedroom was a replica of his first computer, a TRS-80 Color Computer 2. I was positive that was where he’d hidden the First Gate. And the second line of text inscribed on the Copper Key told me how to reach it:

On the deepest level of Daggorath.

Dagorath was a word in Sindarin, the Elvish language J. R. R. Tolkien had created for The Lord of the Rings. The word dagorath meant “battle,” but Tolkien had spelled the word with just one “g,” not two. “Daggorath” (with two “g”s) could refer only to one thing: an incredibly obscure computer game called Dungeons of Daggorath released in 1982. The game had been made for just one platform, the TRS-80 Color Computer.

Halliday had written in Anorak’s Almanac that Dungeons of Daggorath was the game that made him decide he wanted to become a videogame designer.

And Dungeons of Daggorath was one of the games sitting in the shoebox next to the TRS-80 in the re-creation of Halliday’s childhood bedroom.

So all I had to do was teleport to Middletown, go to Halliday’s house, sit down at his TRS-80, play the game, reach the bottom level of the dungeon, and … that was where I’d find the First Gate.

At least, that was my interpretation.

Middletown was in Sector Seven, a long way from Ludus. But I’d collected more than enough gold and treasure to pay for the teleportation fare to get there. By my avatar’s previous standards, I was now filthy rich.

I checked the time: 11:03 p.m., OST (OASIS Server Time, which also happened to be Eastern Standard Time). I had eight hours before I had to be at school. That might be enough time. I could go for it, right now. Sprint like hell, back up through the dungeon to the surface, then hightail it back to the nearest transport terminal. From there, I could teleport directly to Middletown. If I left right now, I should be able to reach Halliday’s TRS-80 in under an hour.

I knew I should get some sleep first. I’d been logged into the OASIS for almost fifteen solid hours. And tomorrow was Friday. I could teleport to Middletown right after school and then I’d have the whole weekend to tackle the First Gate.

But who was I kidding? There was no way I’d be able to sleep tonight, or sit through school tomorrow. I had to go now.

I began to sprint for the exit, but then stopped in the middle of the chamber. Through the open door, I saw a long shadow bouncing on the wall, accompanied by the echo of approaching footsteps.

A few seconds later, the silhouette of an avatar appeared in the doorway. I was about to reach for my sword when I realized I was still holding the Copper Key in my hand. I shoved it into a pouch on my belt and fumbled my sword out of its scabbard. As I raised my blade, the avatar spoke.

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