Ready Player Two

After two dozelaps imy heated indoor Olympic-size swimming pool— which, thanks to my AR swim goggles, was teeming with rare tropical fish and even a pod of friendly dolphins to keep me company—I was standing in my walk-in closet, surrounded by tailored suits and designer clothes I had never worn and probably never would. I wore the same outfit every day, so I never had to expend any thought on what to wear next. I got the idea from Jeff Goldblum in The Fly, and he, in turn, got it from Albert Einstein.

I was equally disciplined about my daily workout, even when I was feeling under the weather. Exercising for at least two hours every day was an absolute necessity, since I frequently spent over eleven hours a day logged in to the OASIS with my ONI headset, followed by another eight hours of sleep on top of that. For me, it seemed to take at least two hours of vigorous exercise to balance out the twenty or so hours of each day that I spent not moving at all.

Like eating and sleeping, exercise was one of the things people still had to do in reality. None of the simulated physical activity you experienced through your ONI headset actually had any real-world effects, like improving your circulation or increasing your muscle tone.

I finished lacing up my vintage Air Jordans and stepped outside onto the balcony, where my usual breakfast was waiting for me. As I took a seat at the table, one of my humanoid service robots, Belvedere, uncovered my omelet and hash browns and poured me a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. Then he retreated to the corner of the balcony and stood there like a statue, waiting to be of further use.

I’d programmed Belvedere never to speak unless spoken to, because his synthesized voice set me on edge, regardless of how much I tweaked his tone or inflection. Probably because I’d seen too many robot-uprising movies.

There wasn’t any actual chance of my service robots staging a revolt, of course. Like most of the artificial intelligence people interacted with on a daily basis, Belvedere and his fellow household bots were Tier One AI, which was classified as “extremely weak.” Tier One AI was used to operate service robots, drive automated cars, and fly automated planes. All of our OASIS NPCs were Tier Ones.

Tier Two AI was used mostly for science and military applications, and their use and operating parameters were heavily restricted by most world governments. Tier Twos could form short-term memories and had stronger independent learning abilities—but they still did not have the capacity for autonomy, or any sort of identity or self-awareness.

Tier Three AI was the real deal—fully autonomous, self-aware, and conscious. The kind that science fiction films warn you about. This level of artificial intelligence was still theoretical, praise be to Crom. But according to GSS’s top engineers, probably not for much longer. The race to create true artificial intelligence had become like the race to create the atomic bomb. Several different countries—including my own—were working to create full-blown self-aware, as-smart-if-not-smarter-than-the-average-human-being artificial intelligence. Maybe some of them already had, and now it was just a waiting game to see who would unleash it first, probably in an army of sentient aerial drones and battle telebots that said “Roger, Roger” to one another while machine-gunning civilian populations. That was, if we didn’t nuke ourselves into oblivion first.

I ate in silence for a few minutes, staring up at the sky overhead. When I finished my food, I put my AR specs on again and used them to log in to my OASIS account. Then I used a heavily encrypted remote-access code to take control of a telebot—a humanoid telepresence robot—that was located in orbit high above the Earth aboard the Vonnegut. Once my link to the bot was established, my AR specs allowed me to see through its “eyes”—a set of stereoscopic video cameras mounted in its head. I disconnected the telebot from its charging dock, which was anchored to a bulkhead in the

ship’s forward cargo hold. This was in the ring-shaped section of the craft, which rotated constantly to generate centripetal force and create simulated gravity.

I piloted the telebot over to a circular observation window set into the outer hull. Then I waited a few seconds for the ring to rotate around, until the luminous blue curve of the Earth came into view, filling my field of vision. The Vonnegut was currently passing over North America, and through a break in the cloud cover I was able to locate the outline of Lake Erie, and then the dense urban grid of Columbus just below it. I stabilized and magnified the image until I had a satellite’s view of my own house and the patio where I was currently sitting. For a second or two, I was able to gaze down at myself through the eyes of a telepresence robot aboard a starship orbiting the Earth.

When the Earth rotated out of view again, I turned the telebot away from the window, then I used it to make a quick circuit of the ship. Dozens of other telebots floated through each of its sections, under the control of the technicians and engineers back on Earth. They were running diagnostic tests on the experimental heavy-duty radiation shielding around the frozen embryo storage compartment. After watching them work for a while, I piloted my telebot into the ship’s Network Operations Center, to check on the ARC@DIA backup servers, and the OASIS uplink from Earth that we used to keep our copy of various planets in the simulation up to date. Everything appeared to be running smoothly. We still had plenty of extra storage space for future ARC@DIA content updates on the Vonnegut’s computer. Its processing power limited us to a maximum of one hundred simultaneous ARC@DIA users, but that was far more than we needed.

I spent a few more minutes piloting my telebot through the silent corridors of the ship before I returned it to its charging dock. Then I disconnected from it, and just like that, I was back on Earth, sitting on my patio.

I’d traveled all the way to space and back, and I’d only managed to kill fifteen minutes.

I tried calling Aech and Shoto, to see if either of them wanted to catch up before our co-owners meeting. But as usual, neither of them picked up. I took off my specs and threw them on the table in front of me with a sigh. I

told myself that Aech was probably still asleep, and that Shoto was probably busy with work. I could’ve checked their account statuses to see, but I’d learned the hard way that if your friends were avoiding you, you didn’t want or need to know about it.

I continued to eat my breakfast in silence, listening to the wind in the trees and absentmindedly watching the flock of security drones overhead as they patrolled the perimeter of my estate. This was usually the only time I spent outdoors each day, to get my daily minimum dose of sunlight. Deep down, I still shared Halliday’s opinion that going outside was highly overrated.

I pulled my AR specs back on and skimmed over the emails that had collected in my inbox overnight. Then I spent some time updating my ONI-net queue with new Recs and Sims from the “Most Popular Downloads” list. I did this every morning, even though I already had thousands of hours of experiences in my queue—more than I would ever have time to make it through, even if I lived to be a hundred. That was why I constantly updated and rearranged the clips in my queue—to make sure I got to the best stuff first.

In the early days of the ONI-net, some people at GSS had worried that its popularity might cause the rest of the OASIS to become a ghost town, because everyone would spend all of their time doing playback instead of exploring the OASIS to have experiences of their own. But the OASIS continued to grow and thrive alongside the ONI-net, and most users divided their time equally between the two. Perhaps it was human nature to crave both passive and interactive forms of entertainment.

As usual, I searched the ONI-net for any newly listed clips tagged with the name Art3mis or Samantha Cook. Whenever anyone posted a recording in which she appeared, I would download it. Even if it was just a clip of her signing an autograph for someone, it still gave me a chance to experience standing next to her for a few seconds.

I knew how pathetic this was—which somehow made it even more pathetic.

But trust me, there were far more twisted and depraved clips I could’ve been playing back. The current top download in the NSFW section of the ONI-net library was a fifty-person orgy, recorded simultaneously by all fifty

participants, giving the viewer the ability to jump from one participant’s body to the next at will, like some hedonistic demon. Cyberstalking my ex-girlfriend at her public appearances seemed like a pretty tame pastime in comparison.

Don’t get me wrong. The ONI-net wasn’t just a way for people to experience guilt-free sex and risk-free drug use. It was also an incredibly powerful tool for fostering empathy and understanding. Entertainers and politicians and artists and activists used this new communication medium to connect with a global audience, with profound results. The Art3mis Foundation had even started posting .oni clips now—first-person slice-of-life recordings made by impoverished and exploited people around the globe, designed to expose others to their plight. It was a brilliant and effective use of ONI technology. But it also seemed hypocritical of Samantha to use the ONI to further her own agenda after railing against its release. When I’d said so during one of our meetings, Samantha made it abundantly clear that she didn’t give a flying frak at a rolling Rathtar what I thought.

I ate the last bite of my now-cold omelet and dropped my napkin on my plate. Belvedere sprang into action and began to clear off the table, the servos in his robotic limbs whirring with each of his small, precise movements.

What now?

I could head over to my music room, to knock out my daily guitar lesson. One of my new hobbies was learning to play guitar in reality, which proved to be very different—and far more difficult—than playing a simulated axe in the OASIS. Luckily, I had the best guitar teacher imaginable—a fully licensed hologram of the great Edward Van Halen, circa the release of 1984. He was a taskmaster too. Thanks to his tutelage I was starting to get pretty good.

Or I could take another Bollywood dance lesson. I was practicing for Aech and Endira’s wedding in a few months. I knew that Samantha would be in attendance, and I’d secretly begun to harbor an idiotic fantasy that I might be able to win her back when she saw me tearing up the dance floor.

A message popped up on my AR display, reminding me that I had an appointment scheduled with my therapist this morning. I always scheduled

a therapy session before our GSS co-owners meeting, to help put me in a calm, nonconfrontational frame of mind, and—hopefully—prevent me from starting any unnecessary arguments with Samantha. Sometimes it even worked.

I selected the icon for the therapy program on the HUD of my AR specs, and my virtual therapist appeared in the empty chair across the table from me. When you first installed the software, you were allowed to select your therapist’s physical appearance and personality from thousands of premade options, from Freud to Frasier. I’d selected Sean Maguire—Robin Williams’s character in Good Will Hunting. His familiar demeanor, his warm smile, and his fake Boston accent made our sessions feel like I was talking to an old friend—even though he usually only said things like “Yes, go on” and “And how does that make you feel, Wade?”

I also had the ability to change the location where I met with him. The default setting was his office at the community college where he taught— the same location where most of his sessions with Will Hunting took place in the film. Or you could choose one of several bars in Southie, including Timmy’s Tap or the L Street Tavern. But I felt like changing things up this morning, so I selected the bench by the lake at Boston Public Garden, and an instant later, Sean and I were sitting on it, side by side, staring at the swans.

He began by asking me if I was still having nightmares about my aunt Alice’s death. I lied and told him no, because I didn’t feel like discussing the subject again.

He moved on to my social-media “addiction” (his term) and asked me how I felt my recovery was progressing. Just over a month ago, I’d placed an irreversible lock on all my social-media accounts. I couldn’t use any of them for a full year. I told Sean that I was still experiencing withdrawal symptoms, but they were beginning to subside.

Meed-Feed Addiction had been around since before I was born, but it had become even more common in the wake of the ONI’s release. Most of the early social media platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter had migrated into the OASIS shortly after it launched, and they all still existed there today in your meed feed, the consolidated social media feed timeline built into every user’s account. It allowed the billions of OASIS users

around the world to share messages, memes, files, photos, songs, videos, celebrity gossip, pornography, and petty insults with one another, just as people had been doing on the Internet for the past half century.

I’d never been good in social situations of any kind, so I’d avoided social media entirely for most of my life. And I should have kept on avoiding it once I became a public figure.

It turned out I just wasn’t comfortable living in the spotlight. I was an awkward kid who was good at videogames and memorizing trivia. I was not mentally or emotionally equipped to have the whole world’s attention focused on me.

At any given moment, there were millions of people posting shit at or about me somewhere online. This had been the case ever since I first found the Copper Key, but it was only after I’d won the contest that the haters came out in force.

It made sense, in hindsight. The moment I inherited Halliday’s fortune, I was no longer the scrappy underdog from the stacks doing heroic battle with the Sixers. I was just another asshole billionaire, living a life of ease in his ivory tower. None of the stuff my friends and I did to try to help humanity seemed to make any difference.

My detractors in the media began to refer to my avatar as “Parvenu” instead of Parzival, while the less pretentious garden-variety assholes online instead chose to adopt I-Roc’s old nickname for me—“Penisville.”

Things got really bad when a previously unknown music group called Tapioca Shindig released a song titled “Sixer Fellatin’ Punk,” which used an autotuned sound bite from the live POV broadcast I’d made during the Battle of Castle Anorak, when I’d publicly declared to the world that “If I find Halliday’s Easter egg, I hereby vow to split my winnings equally with Art3mis, Aech, and Shoto….If I’m lying, I should be forever branded as a gutless Sixer-fellating punk.” But they only took the last part, so the lyrics to the whole song were just me singing “I should be forever branded as a gutless Sixer-fellating punk!” over and over.

The song instantly went viral. It was Tapioca Shindig’s one and only hit single. They posted a music video to the ONI-net that racked up over a billion downloads before I had it taken offline. Then I sued the band for

defamation and bankrupted each of its members. Which, of course, only made the public hate me even more.

Samantha, Aech, and Shoto received their fair share of online hate, too, of course, but they took it in stride. They were somehow able to bask in the adoration of their billions of fans while ignoring the ire of even their most vocal detractors. I appeared to lack the emotional maturity necessary to pull off that little trick.

Yes, I knew the haters’ opinions were utterly meaningless, and had no effect whatsoever on our real lives. Unless, of course, we let it. Which, of course, I did.

And yes, the rational part of my brain knew that the vast majority of the people who trolled us online were acting out, due to crushing disappointment with their own miserable lives. And who could blame them? Reality was completely miserable for a vast majority of the world’s population. I should’ve taken pity on the sad, pathetic souls who had nothing better to do with their time than vent their frustrations by attacking me and my friends.

Instead I went on a rage-induced troll-killing spree. Several of them, actually.

The superuser abilities I’d inherited from Halliday allowed me to circumvent the OASIS’s strict policy of user anonymity. So when some snide douchebag using the handle PenisvilleH8r posted something nasty about me on the meed feeds, I pulled up his private account profile, pinpointed his avatar’s location inside the OASIS, and waited till he set foot inside a PvP zone. Then, before PenisvilleH8r even knew what was happening, I made my avatar invisible, teleported in, and zeroed his ass out with a ninety-ninth-level Finger of Death spell. Now that my avatar wore the Robes of Anorak, I was both omnipotent and invulnerable, so there was literally nothing anyone could do to stop me.

I gleefully zeroed out hundreds of trolls in this fashion. If someone talked shit about me, I found them and killed their avatar. If someone posted something hateful about Art3mis or her foundation, I found them and killed their avatar. If someone posted a racist meme about Aech or a video attacking Shoto’s work, I found them and killed their avatar—usually right after I asked them the rhetorical question, “Who run Bartertown?”

Eventually, people began to accuse me of being the untraceable, undetectable, ultrapowerful avatar behind the killings, and the resulting online media backlash, dubbed “Parzivalgate,” destroyed my public image. Thanks to my robes there was no hard evidence against me, and of course I denied everything, but even I had to admit that the circumstantial case was pretty strong. Gee, a bunch of avatars get killed by an undetectable, all-powerful avatar, and the only thing they have in common is that they trash-talked the one person most likely to have an undetectable, all-powerful avatar….

A petition calling for official sanctions against me was digitally signed by hundreds of millions of daily OASIS users. A few dozen class-action lawsuits were filed against me. In the end, none of them amounted to anything; I was a multibillionaire with unlimited resources and the world’s best lawyers on my payroll, and there was no proof of wrongdoing on my part. But there was nothing I could do about the anger I’d caused.

Finally, Aech took me aside for a long talk. She reminded me how fortunate—and powerful—I was now, even if on the inside I still felt like that underdog kid from the stacks. She told me to grow up, and let it go. “Cultivate an attitude of gratitude, Z.”

I reluctantly took her advice and went into therapy. I could’ve afforded a real-life human therapist, of course—but I found it easier to share my innermost thoughts with a computer program than with another person. A virtual therapist couldn’t judge you, or share your secrets with its spouse for laughs. It would never repeat anything I said to anyone, and that was the only sort of therapist I could bring myself to confide in.

After a few sessions with Sean, I’d realized that the best thing for my mental health would be to abandon social media altogether. So I had. And it was the right choice. My anger abated, and my wounded pride began to heal.

I’d finally gained enough distance from my addiction to realize something. Human beings were never meant to participate in a worldwide social network comprised of billions of people. We were designed by evolution to be hunter-gatherers, with the mental capacity to interact and socialize with the other members of our tribe—a tribe made up of a few hundred other people at most. Interacting with thousands or even millions

of other people on a daily basis was way too much for our ape-descended melons to handle. That was why social media had been gradually driving the entire population of the world insane since it emerged back around the turn of the century.

I was even beginning to wonder if the invention of a worldwide social network was actually the “Great Filter” that theoretically caused all technological civilizations to go extinct, instead of nuclear weapons or climate change. Maybe every time an intelligent species grew advanced enough to invent a global computer network, they would then develop some form of social media, which would immediately fill these beings with such an intense hatred for one another that they ended up wiping themselves out within four or five decades.

Only time would tell.



One thing I had never shared with my therapist—or with anyone—was the comfort I took from knowing that I had access to the Big Red Button.

Not that I would ever actually press it. I’d read all of the worst-case scenarios and seen the disaster simulations created by GSS’s in-house think tanks, predicting what would happen if the OASIS went offline. The outlook was never pretty. The general consensus was this: if the OASIS stopped working for more than a few days, so would human civilization.

This had become even more of a certainty in the wake of our merger with IOI, because nearly all of the support operations that kept the global Internet backbone running were now dependent on the OASIS in some form. As were the vast majority of the security and defense systems around the world, at the national, state, local, and home level. If the OASIS went down, the Internet would probably suffer a catastrophic collapse of its infrastructure a short time later, and our already precarious human civilization would begin to rapidly collapse too. That was why GSS had so many backup server installations all over the world.

Nobody knew that the OASIS’s creator had rigged the whole simulation with a self-destruct button, and that I alone now had access to it.

Nobody knew that the fate of the whole world was literally in my hands.

Except me. And I wanted to keep it that way.



Once my virtual therapy session was over, I headed downstairs and made the long trek to my office at the far end of the mansion’s east wing. This was the same enormous oak-paneled room that had served as Halliday’s office when he’d lived here. It was also the room in which Halliday had designed and programmed his elaborate Easter-egg hunt. He’d even included a re-creation of this office in the hunt’s final challenge.

To me, this room was hallowed ground. And I’d spent three years and millions of dollars re-creating the vast collection of classic videogame consoles and home computers Halliday had originally kept on display here.

The office contained over a hundred glass tables, arranged in a large egg-shaped pattern on the floor. On each table was a different vintage home computer or videogame system, along with tiered racks that held a collection of its peripherals, controllers, software, and games. Each collection was meticulously arranged and displayed, like a museum exhibit.

A conventional OASIS immersion rig sat in one corner of the room, collecting dust. I only used it for emergencies now, when I needed to access the OASIS after I’d hit my twelve-hour ONI daily usage limit. It was hard to believe that just a few years ago, I’d been completely content accessing the OASIS with my visor and haptic rig. Once you got used to an ONI headset, the old hardware made everything look and feel painfully fake— even with the best haptics money could buy.

My new prototype MoTIV—a mobile tactical immersion vault—sat on a circular elevator pad in the center of the room.

The MoTIV was a logical extension of the concept of the standard immersion vault—an armored coffin that protected your sleeping body while your mind roamed the OASIS. Except that my new device didn’t just

provide passive protection. Part of GSS’s new SuperVault deluxe line of tactical OASIS immersion vaults, the MoTIV looked more like a heavily armed robotic spider than a coffin. It was an armored escape vehicle and all-terrain weapons platform, featuring eight retractable armored legs for navigating all forms of terrain, and a pair of machine guns and grenade launchers mounted on each side of its armored chassis—not to mention a bulletproof acrylic cockpit canopy for its occupant.

Our in-house ad agency had already come up with the perfect slogan: “If you’re gonna use lethal force to defend yourself, you better have a MoTIV!”

If I was awake, I could operate my MoTIV using the control panel located inside the cockpit. If I was logged in to the OASIS with an ONI headset, I could control the MoTIV from inside the simulation, via my avatar. So if my body came under attack while I was logged in, I wouldn’t need to log out before I could defend myself. And I could hurl insults at my would-be assailants through the earsplittingly loud speakers mounted on its heavily armored exoskeleton.

The MoTIV was overkill, considering the small army of security guards and defense drones guarding my house. But state-of-the-art toys like these were a perk of my position at GSS—and I had to admit, having it made me feel a lot less anxious about leaving my body unattended for twelve hours every day.

Most ONI users couldn’t afford a standard immersion vault, let alone a personal armored attack vehicle. Some settled for locking themselves in a room or closet before they entered the sleeplike state induced by the ONI headset. Others asked someone they trusted to watch over their helpless body while their mind was temporarily disconnected from it.

Of course, as Art3mis was fond of pointing out, plenty of users didn’t take any precautions at all when they put on their ONI headsets. And plenty of them paid the price for doing so. A new breed of thieves, rapists, serial killers, and organ harvesters preyed on those ONI users who failed to lock up their bodies while their minds were on vacation. But over the past few years, thousands of “BodyLocker” capsule hotels had opened up around the world, where people could rent coffin-size rooms for just a few credits a

day. It was the lowest-rent housing imaginable. They couldn’t build them fast enough to meet the demand.

To increase user safety, GSS had also started selling deluxe ONI headsets featuring built-in motion-activated cameras, with video feeds that could be monitored from inside the OASIS. Immersion vaults were also equipped with interior and exterior cameras that allowed their occupants to monitor their physical body and its surroundings from inside the OASIS, along with motion detectors that would alert them if anyone came within spitting distance of their body in the Earl.

I went into the office’s private bathroom and remained there until I’d emptied my bowels and bladder as much as possible. This had become a pre-login ritual for every ONI user—especially those who wanted to remain logged in for a full twelve hours without soiling themselves. When I emerged from the bathroom, I climbed into the MoTIV and settled into the form-fitting gel-foam flotation recliner. Its padded retaining bands locked into place around my arms, legs, and waist, to keep me from falling out. Throughout my long ONI session, the recliner would periodically rotate my body and flex my limbs to increase circulation and prevent muscle atrophy. There were also special suits you could wear that would electrically stimulate your muscles while you were under, but they irritated my skin so I never wore them.

I pressed a button to close the MoTIV’s canopy. Then I pressed another button to activate the circular elevator pad it was sitting on. I grinned and braced myself for a drop, just before the pad began to rocket down the elevator shaft. Lights embedded in the shaft’s reinforced titanium wall flew by in a blur.

This elevator had been designed so that, if you looked straight up during its descent, it perfectly re-created the look of the top-secret Pepsi elevator guarded by B. B. King in Spies Like Us. It, and the bunker it led to, had both been constructed by Halliday when he’d first moved into this house, so that he would have a place to ride out World War III, which was still threatening to break out at any moment, just as it had been for the past hundred years. Now I used his bunker for my daily twelve-hour ONI dives, content in the knowledge that I was deep enough and well protected enough to survive a missile strike on my house, on the off chance that some nutjob

despot with a death wish managed to get one past our global defense network, and the redundant one GSS maintained over the entire city of Columbus to prevent terrorist attacks on our OASIS servers, and the even more redundant antiballistic-missile installations that surrounded my home.

The whole world knew my address, so I didn’t feel like I was being paranoid. I was just taking sensible precautions.

When the elevator’s blast doors slid open, I used the MoTIV’s cockpit controls to spider-walk it forward, into the bunker’s receiving bay, which was just a big empty concrete room with lights embedded in its ceiling. The elevator stood at one end and a pair of large armored doors stood at the other, leading to the high-tech, fully stocked bomb shelter beyond.

I secretly loved coming down here. Three kilometers beneath the earth, in this armored concrete bunker, I felt like I was in my own private Batcave. (Although it was obvious to me now that Bruce Wayne never would’ve been able to construct his crime-fighting crib all by himself, in total secrecy, with no one to help him lay the plumbing and pour the concrete but his geriatric butler. No way.)

I lowered my MoTIV to the concrete floor, retracted its legs, and placed it into standard defense mode. Then I removed my ONI headset from its cradle above my head and put it on. When I powered it on, its titanium sensor bands automatically retracted to fit the contours of my skull before locking themselves tightly in place so that the headset couldn’t be moved or jostled by even a micrometer. If that were to happen in the middle of my ONI session…it would be bad.

I pressed a button to close the MoTIV’s armored canopy and it slid shut with a pneumatic hiss, sealing me safely inside its roomy cockpit. Then I cleared my throat and said, “Initiate login sequence.”

I felt a familiar tingling sensation all over my scalp as the headset scanned my brain and verified my identity. Then a female voice prompted me to speak my passphrase and I recited it, being careful to enunciate each syllable. I’d recently reset it to the same passphrase I’d used during the latter days of Halliday’s Hunt—a lyric from the 1987 song “Don’t Let’s Start” by They Might Be Giants: No one in the world ever gets what they want and that is beautiful….

Once my passphrase was accepted and I agreed to the ONI safety warning, the system finished logging me in. I heard myself breathe a sigh of relief as reality receded and the OASIS faded into existence all around me.

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