Ready Player Two

If you attempted to teleport to a location inside the OASIS that was already occupied by an object or another avatar, the system would automatically adjust your arrival coordinates to the closest unoccupied location. When I finished rematerializing, I discovered that the system had placed me directly in front of L0hengrin’s avatar, which was currently in its female form. She was seated about a meter away, wearing her trademark Legend of Billie Jean attire. A baggy pair of men’s trousers tucked into a pair of cowboy boots, with a sleeveless neon-colored wetsuit as her top.

She didn’t notice my arrival, because my avatar was invisible. Her eyes were also closed, but that just meant she was “engaged” and currently had her attention focused elsewhere, like on a phone call or a private chatroom. L0hengrin would most likely still be monitoring her avatar’s view of this room via a small video-feed window in the corner of her HUD. Middletown was located in a PvP zone, making it a risky place to leave your avatar unattended.

I looked around and saw that we weren’t in Kira’s old bedroom at the Barnett residence. We were three blocks north of that location, in the world famous wood-paneled basement of Ogden Morrow’s childhood home. This was where Morrow, Halliday, and their close-knit group of friends spent most of their free time. They gathered here after school and on the weekends to escape to other worlds, via dozens of tabletop role-playing games. Og’s basement would also later serve as the first office of Gregarious Games, the company that Halliday and Morrow co-founded after high school, which evolved into Gregarious Simulation Systems a few decades later when they launched the OASIS.

In the real Middletown, Ohio, Og’s childhood home had been demolished decades ago to make room for a block of condominiums. But here in the OASIS, Halliday had re-created his best friend’s childhood home in loving detail, along with his own home and the rest of their hometown, using old maps, photographs, and video footage for reference.

Like everything else in the Middletown simulation, Og’s basement looked just like the real thing had back in the late 1980s. Vintage movie and comic-book posters covered the walls. Three beat-up couches were arranged in a U-shape in front of an old RCA television, which was half-buried by a Betamax VCR, a Pioneer Laserdisc player, and several different classic home videogame consoles.

On the other side of the room, a bunch of folding chairs were clustered around a scarred wooden table covered with multicolored polyhedral dice. A row of bookshelves lined the far wall, each crammed to capacity with role-playing-game supplements and back issues of Dragon magazine. Two ground-level windows looked out onto the Morrows’ backyard, where a fat orange sun hovered above the horizon, silhouetting a rusting swing set in the neighbor’s yard.

Being in this room filled me with fond memories of my own teenage years, because in a strange way, I’d grown up here too. Back when we were in high school, Aech had modeled her private OASIS chatroom after Ogden Morrow’s basement, and the two of us spent countless hours there over the years. Talking, gaming, doing our homework, listening to old music, watching old movies. Daydreaming about the things we would do when we won Halliday’s fortune.

My life had been a lot harder back then, but in retrospect it now also seemed a hell of a lot simpler.

I glanced back over at L0hengrin. Her avatar’s eyes were still closed, and they were still darting around rapidly beneath her eyelids, as if she were in REM sleep. I was about to make my avatar visible and alert her to my presence, but then a better idea occurred to me. I selected L0hengrin’s avatar on my display and pulled up a list of her active communication processes. It told me that she was currently logged in to a private chatroom called Cyberdelia, which was hosted by a fifty-ninth-level avatar named Kastagir.

If L0hengrin really had found one of the shards, she might be in that private chatroom discussing it with her friends. Or, if she was bullshitting me, she might be in there discussing that instead. And my robes let me enter private chatrooms uninvited and undetected, allowing me to eavesdrop on their occupants. This was a trick I’d learned from the Great and Powerful Og himself, the only other avatar in the OASIS who had this ability.

I tapped the small door icon at the edge of my display to activate my chatroom interface, then searched for the one named Cyberdelia and tapped the Login button. My view of Og’s basement shrank from the limits of my peripheral vision to a small window in the corner of my display, and I suddenly found myself standing just inside the chatroom’s entrance.

Cyberdelia was a multilevel warehouse space filled with archaic late-twentieth-century technology and retro-futurist décor. Oddly adorned mannequins, pay phones, roller-blade ramps, and air-hockey tables were scattered around the club, and its walls were covered with graffiti urging its denizens to Hack the Planet! When I recognized the old techno song playing on the sound system—“Cowgirl” by Underworld—I made the connection, and smiled. This was a re-creation of the underground cyberpunk nightclub featured in the 1995 film Hackers.

From my position near the entrance, the chatroom looked deserted. But over the blaring music, I could hear several overlapping voices engaged in a heated conversation. I ventured further inside, following the noise, until I spotted five avatars gathered on one of the club’s upper-level catwalks. They were sitting and standing around a circular table made from an empty wooden cable spool. L0hengrin was among them, gesturing excitedly as she spoke to the others.

Being careful not to bump into any furniture, I moved closer, until I could make out what she was saying. From this distance, I was also able to read the name tags floating above the other four avatars’ heads: Kastagir, Rizzo, Lilith, and Wukong.

“You are so full of shit, Lo,” the one named Wukong said in a deep voice. “Even more than usual, which is saying something.” His avatar was a tall half-man, half-monkey creature, which explained the name—Sun Wukong was a character from Chinese mythology known as “the Monkey King.”

“Come on, Kong,” L0hengrin said, rolling her eyes. “Why would I lie about something like this?”

“To try and impress us?” Kastagir said. The chatroom’s enormous host was leaning against an iron girder with his massive arms folded across his chest. He was a human male with ebony skin and a giant fro-hawk that added at least a foot to his already-impressive height. He wore a brightly colored dashiki and a long, curved sword in an ornate scabbard, just like the character of the same name in the original Highlander film.

Lilith took a step forward. Her avatar was a young woman with shaggy turquoise-colored hair, dressed in torn black jeans, combat boots, and a dark blue hoodie. She appeared to be going for a turn-of-the-century edgy emo look.

“Of course the ignorant males doubt you,” she said. “But I believe you, sister!”

“So do I, Lo!” Rizzo added, popping her bubblegum. Her avatar’s inspiration made me grin again: the character of the same name in the movie version of Grease—a young Stockard Channing, wearing a black motorcycle jacket and a pair of oversize sunglasses. But this Rizzo had a touch of Columbia from Rocky Horror, with fishnet stockings and a glittery gold top hat.

“Thank you, ladies,” L0hengrin said, bowing to them. Wukong snorted like an angry gorilla.

“OK,” he said. “If you really found one of the shards, then why don’t you show us some proof? A screenshot or simcap or something?”

“I will,” L0hengrin said, putting her boots up on the table and her hands behind her head. “As soon as I finish collecting my reward.”

“I bet Parzival gets thousands of emails about the shards every day,” Kastagir said. “He probably stopped reading them years ago.”

“He’ll read mine,” L0hengrin said. “Parzival knows I wouldn’t waste his time with a bogus lead. He’s one of my subscribers, remember?”

She mimed brushing dust off of her shoulder.

“Really?” Lilith said, feigning surprise. “Parzival is one of your subscribers? You’ve never mentioned this before!”

“It’s OK,” she said, playfully punching Wukong in the shoulder. “I know you’re just jealous. I would be, too, if I were you. Caesar.”

Wukong pointed a finger at her. “I warned you about the Planet of the Apes jokes, Goldilocks.”

“I know,” she said, smiling. “And it was a scary warning too. Made a big impression.”

“Hold on,” Lilith said. “What’s to stop Parzival from taking it and teleporting away, without paying you a dime?”

“Parzival would never do that,” L0hengrin said. “He’s a righteous dude.”

“He’s a rich nutjob who acts like a total douchebag on social media,” Lilith said. “He also likes to hunt and kill his detractors for sport, remember? You shouldn’t trust him.”

“You guys are all so cynical,” L0hengrin said, shaking her head. “Have a little faith!”

“We just don’t want to see you get ripped off is all,” Rizzo said.

“If it makes you guys feel any better, I plan to record my entire conversation with Parzival, just in case I need to prove it took place.”

They all studied her for a moment.

“You’re not kidding about this,” Wukong said. “You really found something?”

L0hengrin nodded excitedly.

“One billion simoleons,” Rizzo said, shaking her head and smiling. “Have you already figured out what you’re gonna do with it?”

L0hengrin grinned at her, then glanced around at each of the others.

“I thought you’d never ask!” she replied. “First, I’m gonna buy a big house in Columbus for all of us to live in together. It’s gonna have a big kitchen that’s always full of food. We’ll each have our own room—and in the basement, we’ll have our own private classic videogame arcade where we can all hang out!” She paused to take in a large breath of air. “I’ll also make sure our new crib has the fastest OASIS connection money can buy,” she went on. “Then, once it’s ready, I’ll fly you all up to it! We’re all going

to grow old there together. And we’ll never have to depend on anyone else, ever again.”

They all stared back at her.

“Seriously?” Kastagir asked, in a voice that was almost a whisper. “You’d do that?”

L0hengrin nodded and then crossed her heart. “Guys,” she said. “You’re my four best friends in the world. My only friends, if we’re being honest. And ever since my mom died, you’ve been my only family too. Of course this is what I want to do.” She looked like she was about to sob, but then she forced out a laugh instead. “Besides, we’re the L0w Five. We promised to stick together forever. Right?”

Lilith reached out and squeezed one of L0hengrin’s hands. Kastagir’s lower lip began to tremble and he turned away in an attempt to conceal it. Rizzo had tears in her eyes, but she was smiling.

I was smiling and tearing up, too, I realized. It was heartbreakingly fitting that these kids had nicknamed themselves the L0w Five, because the bond that L0hengrin shared with her friends reminded me of the one I’d shared with the other members of the High Five during the contest. But it also reminded me just how much it had faded over the years.

“Goddammit!” Wukong roared. He reached up to wipe his eyes on the back of his furry simian forearm. “Cut it out, before you fools make me start bawling too!”

The others all laughed at that, and it made Wukong crack up also.

I was suddenly filled with an overwhelming desire to find out who these people were in real life, and how they all knew one another. For a normal OASIS user, learning the identity of Lo and her friends would’ve been impossible. But for me, it was as simple as selecting all of their avatars on my HUD. Then I instructed the system to scan each of their OASIS accounts and display any obvious similarities or connections between them. It informed me that L0hengrin, Wukong, Rizzo, Lilith, and Kastagir were all either nineteen or twenty years old in age, and that all five of them had graduated from the same OASIS public school on Ludus II a few years ago

—OPS #1126.

These gunters were old high school friends, just like me and Aech. And all five of them had enrolled in GSS’s Disadvantaged Youth Empowerment Program, which provided free ONI headsets and OASIS consoles to orphaned and/or destitute kids around the world.

I suddenly felt like a jerk for eavesdropping on their conversation. So I logged out of the chatroom and resumed control of my avatar back inside Og’s basement on Middletown. But I was still invisible, so L0hengrin couldn’t see me.

I stood there for a few seconds, staring down at her avatar, pretending to wrestle with my conscience. Then I went ahead and pulled up L0hengrin’s private account profile to find out her real-world identity. I justified violating her right to privacy as an OASIS user the way I always did—by telling myself it was necessary. Before I accepted L0hengrin’s help in return for a billion dollars, I had to find out as much as I could about her, to get a sense of who I would be dealing with. But that was a bullshit excuse and I knew it. What it really boiled down to was plain old curiosity. I was curious about who L0hengrin was in the real world. And I had the ability to find out. So I did.

L0hengrin’s real name was Skylar Castillo Adkins. According to her private user profile she was an unmarried nineteen-year-old Caucasian female, and she lived in the Duncanville, Texas, stacks, a sprawling vertical slum near the apocalyptic epicenter of the DFW metroplex. It was an even rougher neighborhood than the one I’d grown up in.

Since I’d already violated her privacy, I decided to go full-on Big Brother and have a look at her headset feeds. There were ten wide-angle surveillance cameras mounted on the exterior of each ONI headset, which allowed the wearer to keep an eye on their body and its surroundings from inside the OASIS. The Robes of Anorak gave me access to a secret submenu on every ONI user’s account, where I could monitor the video feeds coming from those cameras. Meaning I had the ability to spy on people in their homes. This was one of GSS’s uglier secrets, and there would be riots and class-action suits galore if our customers ever found out about it. But these were exceptional circumstances, I assured myself.

When I pulled up Skylar’s headset feeds, I was not prepared for what I saw. The darkened interior of an ancient Airstream trailer, lit up bright

green by the night-vision filters. I could see a helper bot silently washing dishes at the miniature kitchen sink. It was a battered Okagami Swap-Bot, so named because it could be used as both a telebot and an autonomous domestic helper robot. It had a sawed-off pistol-grip pump-shotgun in a makeshift holster strapped to its back, so she apparently used it to do more than just the dishes.

In the foreground of several of Skylar’s headset camera feeds, I could also see her—her thin, frail-looking body was stretched out on a worn mattress in the back of the trailer. Like a lot of people who lived in the stacks, she appeared to be suffering from borderline malnutrition. Her gaunt features seemed to conflict with the pleasant, dreamlike expression on her face. Someone had laid an old Snoopy blanket over her to keep her warm— or, no. She must’ve done this herself, using her telebot. Because she was all alone, with no one to rely on but herself.

My chest felt hollow. I closed all of the vidfeed windows and scanned Skylar’s user profile for more information about her. Her school records included a scan of her birth certificate, which revealed another surprise. She’d been DMAB—designated male at birth.

Discovering this minor detail didn’t send me spiraling into a sexual-identity crisis, the way it probably would have back when I was younger. Thanks to years of surfing the ONI-net, I now knew what it felt like to be all kinds of different people, having all different kinds of sex. I’d experienced sex with women while being another woman, and sex with men as both a woman and a man. I’d done playback of several different flavors of straight and gay and nonbinary sex, just out of pure curiosity, and I’d come away with the same realization that most ONI users came away with: Passion was passion and love was love, regardless of who the participants involved were, or what sort of body they were assigned at birth.

According to Skylar’s user profile history, she’d legally changed her gender to female when she was sixteen, a few months after she received her first ONI headset. Around the same time, she’d changed her avatar’s sex classification to øgender, a brand-new option GSS had added due to popular demand. People who identified as øgender were individuals who chose to experience sex exclusively through their ONI headsets, and who also didn’t

limit themselves to experiencing it as a specific gender or sexual orientation.

Coming out as øgender became incredibly common in the wake of the ONI’s release. For the first time in human history, anyone eighteen years of age or older could safely and easily experience sexual intercourse with any gender and as any gender. This tended to alter their perception of gender identity and fluidity in profound ways. It had certainly altered mine. And I was certain it had done the same thing for every other ONI user with even a mildly adventurous spirit. Thanks to the OASIS Neural Interface, your gender and your sexuality were no longer constrained by—or confined to— the physical body you happened to be born into.

Skylar’s profile also indicated she had no living family members. Her mother, Iris Adkins, had died of heart failure two years ago. Somehow, Skylar had been living on her own since she was seventeen. In the DFW stacks, no less.

I heard movement and quickly closed Skylar’s user profile. Then I glanced back over at her avatar, just in time to see L0hengrin’s eyes flicker open—an indication that she’d logged out of Kastagir’s chatroom.

Her avatar stood up and began to walk toward the exit. I was standing directly in her path. Instead of stepping out of her way, I folded my arms and assumed an ominous wizard pose. Then I made my avatar visible once again.

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