Ready Player Two

L0hengrifroze, anwhen heeyes locked on to me they seemed to double in size. Then she bowed her head and slammed her right fist against her heart as she dropped to one knee.

“My liege,” she said in a shaky voice, keeping her eyes on the floor. “I’m L0hengrin. Your humble servant. And a huge fan, sir. Truly.”

“Please rise, L0hengrin,” I said. “I’m a big fan of yours too.” She stood and slowly raised her eyes to meet mine.

“Sir Parzival,” she said, shaking her head in wonder. “It’s really you.” “It’s really me,” I replied. “It’s an honor to meet you, L0hengrin.”

“The honor is all mine,” she said. “And please, call me Lo. All my friends do.”

“All right, Lo.” I offered her my hand and she shook it. “My friends call me Z.”

“I know,” she said, giving me a sheepish smile. “I’ve read every single one of the books written about you over the past few years, including your autobiography, which I’ve read at least two dozen times. So I know pretty much everything there is to know about you. Everything that’s ever been made public, anyway. I’m kinda obsessed with you—”

She suddenly cut herself off, wincing in embarrassment. Then she pounded her right fist lightly against her forehead several times before finally meeting my gaze again.

Her cheeks had turned a bright shade of red—an indication she hadn’t shut off her avatar’s blush response. She probably hadn’t switched off any

of her avatar’s other involuntary emotional responses either. Younger ONI users did this intentionally. They referred to it as “rolling real.”

Poor Lo. Her nervousness at meeting an idol reminded me too much of myself for comfort. Hoping to rescue her—and impatient to learn what she knew—I tried to keep things moving. “I’m intrigued to see what you’ve found,” I said. “Would you like to show me?”

“Sure!” she replied. “You mean, like, right now?” I nodded. “No time like the present.”

“Right,” she said. She cast a nervous glance toward the basement windows and lowered her voice. “But first I need to show you how I found it, so that you can repeat the same steps. That’s why I was waiting for you here, instead of at Kira’s house.”

“OK,” I said. “Go ahead.”

L0hengrin took a few hesitant steps toward the other end of the basement before halting and turning back to me. “Listen, Mr. Watts,” she said, keeping her eyes on the floor. “I don’t mean any disrespect, but would you mind verbally confirming that the reward is still one billion U.S. dollars?”

“Not at all,” I said. “If anything you tell me helps me locate one of the Seven Shards of the Siren’s Soul, then I will immediately transfer one billion dollars to your OASIS account. It’s all outlined in the contract you signed when you sent me your clue.”

Before anyone could try to claim the reward, they were required to sign a digital “Shard Clue Submission Contract” that my lawyers had drafted. I located the copy L0hengrin had signed and displayed it in a window in front of her. The print was too fine to read without squinting, and the text scrolled on for several pages.

“This contract states, among other things, that if the information you present to me proves to be valid, you agree not to share it with anyone else for a period of three years. You also agree not to discuss the details of our transaction with anyone, including the media. If you do, you forfeit the reward and I can take it all back—”

“Oh, I’ve read the contract,” she said, grinning, but still not meeting my gaze. “A few thousand times. Sorry, I didn’t mean to insult you. It’s just—

that’s a lot of zenny for me.”

I laughed. “Don’t worry, Lo. If you can help me find one of the Seven Shards, then that money is all yours. I promise.”

She nodded and took a deep breath. The look of nervous anticipation on her face set my own heart racing. If this kid was lying about finding one of the shards, then she deserved an Academy Award for her performance.

L0hengrin turned and walked over to the bookshelves that lined the basement’s far wall. They were filled with sci-fi and fantasy paperbacks, role-playing-game supplements, and back issues of various vintage gaming magazines, like Dragon and Space Gamer. Lo began to flip through the huge collection of old Dungeons & Dragons modules shelved there, apparently looking for one in particular.

I’d browsed through that very same bookshelf seven years ago, during the early days of Halliday’s contest. And I’d read or skimmed over most of those old modules and magazines—but not all of them. The remaining titles were still on my reading list when I won the contest, at which point I’d forgotten all about them. Now I was kicking myself, wondering what I’d missed.

“For the past few years, I’ve been scouring Middletown, looking for a way to alter the time period of the simulation,” Lo said. “You know, because of the couplet.”

“The couplet?”

She paused in her search and turned around to look at me. “On Kira’s headstone?”

“Oh, right,” I said. “Of course.”

I had no idea what she was talking about, and L0hengrin could obviously see it on my face. Her eyes widened in surprise.

“Oh my God. You don’t even know about the couplet. Do you?” “No,” I replied, throwing up my hands. “I guess I don’t.”

She frowned at me and shook her head, as if to say, How far the mighty have fallen.

“You know how in Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of The Two Towers,

there’s a scene were King Théoden places a Simbelmynë on Théodred’s

tomb?” she asked.

I nodded.

“Well, if you visit the re-creation of Kira’s grave on EEarth and place a Simbelmynë taken from Arda on it, a rhymed couplet appears on her headstone,” Lo said. “Other types of flowers indigenous to Middle-earth might work too. I’m not sure. I didn’t try any of them.”

I felt like a complete idiot. I’d visited Kira’s grave on EEarth several times to search for clues. But I’d never thought to try this. At least I could hide my embarrassment, since I wasn’t “rolling real.”

L0hengrin opened a browser window in front of her avatar, then spun it around so I could see it. It showed a screenshot of Kira’s headstone on EEarth. Below her name and the dates of her birth and death was an inscription: BELOVED WIFE, DAUGHTER & FRIEND. Below that were two additional lines of text, which did not appear on her headstone in the real world:

The First Shard lies in the Sirenrst den So the question isnt where, but when?

There it was. After all these years, a genuine clue. And it seemed likely that L0hengrin was the first and only person to discover it, because no one else had submitted it to me in an attempt to claim the reward.

“When I found that couplet,” Lo continued, “I thought the ‘Siren’s first den’ might be the place where Kira was living when she created Leucosia— her old guest bedroom here on Middletown. But the time period of this simulation is always set to 1986. Kira only lived in Middletown during her junior year of high school, from the fall of 1988 to the summer of 1989. So to reach the Siren’s Den, I figured I would need to alter the time period of the Middletown simulation, to a different ‘when.’ I tried everything I could think of, including time travel.” She held up an object that resembled an oversize pocket watch—a rare time-travel device called an Omni. “But no dice. Time machines don’t function here, the way they do on some other planets, like Zemeckis.”

This was something I already knew firsthand. I’d brought my own time machine, ECTO-88, to Middletown to try the same thing. I’d upgraded the car with a fully functional (and extremely expensive) Flux Capacitor, which allowed me to time travel on planets where doing so was an option. For example, on EEarth, I could travel as far back as 2012, when the OASIS was first launched, and GSS began backing up previous versions of the simulated Earth on their servers. But my flux capacitor wouldn’t function on Middletown, so I’d dismissed time travel as a possibility.

“But I knew from the riddle that changing the timeframe had to be part of the solution,” Lo continued. “So I kept on searching for another way…”

She turned around and continued to flip through the D&D modules on the bookshelf.

“Then, earlier this week, I was browsing through Og’s old gaming library here when I came across something strange.”

She finally located the item she was looking for and carried it back over to me. It was a shrink-wrapped wall calendar for the year 1989, featuring the work of a fantasy artist named Boris Vallejo. The painting on the cover depicted a pair of Valkyries riding into battle.

My eyes widened, then darted to the calendar already hanging on the basement wall. It, too, was a Boris Vallejo artwork calendar, for the year 1986. The month of October was currently displayed. It featured a painting of a bikini-clad female warrior astride a black steed, brandishing a magic ring at an incoming flight of dragons. Out of curiosity, I’d looked up the name of this painting once—it was called Magic Ring and it had also been used as the cover artwork for a 1985 fantasy novel called Warrior Witch of Hel.

Like the other wall decorations in Og’s basement, the calendar couldn’t be taken down or removed. And its pages couldn’t be flipped to another month.

“Halliday coded the Middletown simulation to re-create his hometown circa October 1986, right?” Lo said. “So why would there be a calendar for the year 1989 here?”

“Good question,” I said, glancing between the calendar on the wall and the one in her hand. “But gunters around the world spent years studying the

contents of this room. Why didn’t any of them find it?”

“Because it wasn’t here,” Lo said, grinning wide. “I checked Gunterpedia. There’s an itemized list of every single object in this basement. The only calendar listed on it is the one hanging on the wall.” She held up the 1989 calendar. “So either they somehow missed this one, or


“It appeared on that bookshelf after Halliday’s contest ended,” I finished.

L0hengrin nodded and held the 1989 calendar out to me. “Now try swapping it with the one on the wall.”

I took the calendar from L0hengrin, then, with my other hand, I reached out and tried to take the 1986 calendar down off the wall. To my surprise, it slid right off the nail it was hanging on. I carefully hung up the 1989 calendar in its place, and opened it to the month of January.

As soon as I let go of the calendar, its pages began to flip upward on their own, until the month of April was displayed. As the pages were flipping, the sky outside cycled rapidly between day and night, pulsing on and off like a strobe light. The entire Middletown simulation was fast-forwarding all around us, like time-lapse film footage played back at high speed.

When the strobing stopped, our surroundings had changed. The couches in Og’s basement had rearranged themselves, and two more bookshelves had appeared against the far wall, both filled with more gaming supplements. There were also several new posters on the walls. But the most striking difference was the time of day. Outside the basement windows, night had fallen. The streetlights were on and there was a full moon out.

“Whoa,” I heard myself whisper. I glanced at the digital alarm clock sitting on top of one of the bookshelves. Its glowing blue display said the local time was now 1:07 A.M.

I turned back to L0hengrin. She was beaming with pride.

“Swapping the calendars changes the time period of the Middletown simulation from October 1986 to April 1989,” she explained. “But only this one instance of the simulation has been updated. The other two hundred and

fifty-five copies of Middletown spread out across the planet remain set to the 1986 version. I’ve checked.”

“If this is April in 1989,” I said, “then what happens if we go over to the Barnetts’ empty guest bedroom now?”

Lo grinned. “Before we head over there, you need to obtain an item located in this room. An audio cassette tape that Kira gifted to both Halliday and Og….”

She locked eyes with me, studying my reaction.

“What, are you actually quizzing me now?” I asked.

Lo nodded and folded her arms. The dubious expression on her face made me laugh out loud.

“It was called Leucosia’s Mix,” I said. “Oscar Miller mentions it in his memoir, The Middletown Adventurers’ Guild. But he doesn’t give the full track list. He just mentions one song that was on it—‘There Is a Light That Never Goes Out’ by the Smiths.”

Lo nodded. “That’s exactly right,” she said. “And now that we’ve jumped ahead to 1989, there are two copies of Leucosia’s Mix in the Middletown simulation. One in Halliday’s Walkman in his bedroom, and one here.”

She walked over to the ground-level window at the opposite end of the basement, which looked out onto the Morrows’ moonlit backyard. Og’s boombox was resting on the window ledge. She pressed the Eject button and removed the tape inside.

“According to Miller’s book, Kira made two copies of this mixtape,” she said, holding it up. “She gave one to Og and one to Halliday, a few months before her school year abroad ended and she had to go back home to London.”

She tossed the tape to me and I held it up to read the sticker on its A side: Leucosia’s Mix was written on it in cursive, above a track-list insert filled out in the same handwriting.

“Thanks,” I said, adding the tape to my inventory. Lo was already running up the basement steps.

“Kira’s house is just a few blocks from here,” she shouted over her shoulder. “Follow me!”

When we reached the Barnetts’ house a few minutes later, L0hengrin halted at the end of the darkened sidewalk leading up to it. Then she pointed up to Kira’s bedroom window on the second floor. It was the only room in the house with a light on. In fact, glancing up and down the street, I saw that it was the only illuminated window on the entire block.

L0hengrin saw me noticing this and nodded her approval. But she didn’t say anything.

I thought for a moment, then took the copy of Leucosia’s Mix out of my inventory and examined the track list. There it was, the seventh song on side A. “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” by the Smiths. One of Kira’s all-time favorites.

I turned to point this out to L0hengrin, but she was already sprinting into the house. I followed her inside.



L0hengrin was waiting for me inside the guest bedroom. On my previous visits, this room had been undecorated and empty, aside from a bed, a dresser, and a small wooden desk. Now sci-fi and fantasy paperbacks were piled everywhere, and posters adorned the walls. The Dark Crystal. The Last Unicorn. Purple Rain. The Smiths. Homemade collages hung there, too, made from magazine clippings of videogame characters and artwork.

Sheets of graph paper were tacked up everywhere, filled with Kira’s meticulous renderings of characters, objects, and landscapes from classic role-playing videogames, like Bard’s Tale and Might and Magic. I’d read about this. Kira had spent hundreds of hours copying pixels from the screen onto the graph paper, coloring them in by hand one square at a time, to figure out how different artists achieved their effects and improve on their techniques. When she worked at GSS later on, she became famous for creating artwork that pushed the boundaries of the computer hardware

available at the time. Og was fond of saying that his wife had “always had a knack for bringing pixels to life.”

I turned around slowly, trying to absorb as many details as I could. There were no family photos displayed anywhere. But she did have several pictures taped around the edge of her mirror, showing Kira with her nerdy new circle of friends—Halliday, Og, and the other misfit members of the Middletown Adventurers’ Guild. Several of those boys would later write tell-all books about growing up with Halliday and Og, and like every other die-hard gunter I’d scoured them all for details that might help me unlock the puzzles and riddles Halliday left behind. I’d reread them all again a few years ago, this time absorbing the details they contained about Kira’s life, so I knew that not a single one of them described the interior of her room at the Barnett residence. She was never allowed to have male visitors up there, and none of the boys in the guild had ever seen Kira’s room, including Og and Halliday. But I would’ve been willing to bet they’d both spent plenty of time imagining what it looked like. Maybe that was what I was looking at now—a simulation of what Halliday imagined Kira’s room looked like back then.

A small color television sat on Kira’s desk, with a Dragon 64 home computer connected to it. Seeing this made me smile. The Dragon 64 was a British PC built with the same hardware as the TRS-80 Color Computer 2, the first computer Halliday ever owned. According to one of the old journal entries he included in Anorak’s Almanac, when he found out that he and Kira owned compatible computers, Halliday took it as a sign they were meant to be together. He was wrong, of course.

Kira had a color dot-matrix printer hooked up to her computer, and the giant cork bulletin board on the wall above her desk was filled with printouts of her early original ASCII and ANSI artwork. Lots of pixelated dragons and unicorns and elves and hobbits and castles. I’d seen them all reprinted in collections of Kira’s artwork, but looking at them again now, I was still amazed at the detail and nuance she had been able to create with so few pixels and such a limited color palette.

L0hengrin walked across the room, over to Kira’s dresser, which had a small Aiwa stereo system sitting on top of it. She pressed the Eject button on its cassette deck, then pointed at the empty tray.

“Go ahead,” she said. “You can do the honors….”

I walked over, put Leucosia’s Mix into the tape player, and fast-forwarded it until I reached the end of the sixth song on the first side (“Jessie’s Girl” by Rick Springfield). When I hit the Play button, I heard a few seconds of analog tape hiss before the next song began, and Morrissey began to croon: Take me out tonight…

I glanced around the room. Nothing happened. I glanced over at L0hengrin. She held up a hand and mouthed the word wait.

So we waited. We waited until about three minutes into the song, when Morrissey starts to sing a riff on the title over and over again. There is a light and it never goes out…

As he sang “light” for the first time, the lid of a wooden jewelry box sitting next to the stereo flew open, and a necklace floated up out of it, as if lifted by an invisible hand. It was silver with a blue gemstone, and I recognized it as the one Kira was wearing in her 1989 Middletown High School yearbook photo. According to his autobiography, Og gave it to her the first time he told her he was in love with her.

When the Smiths song ended, there was a blinding flash of light. When it faded the floating necklace had transformed into a large blue teardrop-shaped crystal, spinning in front of us at eye-level.

There it was, at long last—one of the Seven Shards of the Siren’s Soul.

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