When I finally logged back in to my OASIS account, I was sitting in my new corner office on the top floor of the GSS skyscraper in downtown Columbus, Ohio, preparing to start my gig as one of the company’s new owners. The other three were still scattered across the globe: Shoto had flown back home to Japan to take over operations at GSS’s Hokkaido division. Aech was enjoying an extended vacation in Senegal, a country she’d dreamed of visiting her whole life, because her ancestors had come from there. And Samantha had flown back to Vancouver to pack up her belongings and say goodbye to her grandmother, Evelyn. She wasn’t due to arrive here in Columbus for another four days, which seemed like an eternity. I needed to distract myself until our reunion, so I decided to log back in to the OASIS and try out a few more of the superuser abilities my avatar now possessed.
I climbed into my brand-new top-of-the-line OASIS immersion rig, a Habashaw OIR-9400, then put on my visor and haptic gloves and initiated the login sequence. My avatar reappeared where I’d last logged out, on the planet Chthonia, standing outside the gates of Castle Anorak. As I’d anticipated, there were thousands of other avatars already gathered there, all waiting patiently for me to make an appearance. According to the newsfeed headlines, some of them had been camped out there all week—ever since I’d resurrected them in the aftermath of our epic battle against the Sixers.
In my first official act as one of GSS’s new owners, just a few hours after the fight ended, I’d authorized our admins to restore all the items, credits, and power levels those heroic users had lost, along with their avatars. I thought it was the least we could do to repay them for their help, and Samantha, Aech, and Shoto had agreed. It was the first decision we’d voted on as the company’s new co-owners.
As soon as the avatars in my vicinity spotted me, they began to run in my direction, closing in on me from all sides at once. To avoid getting mobbed, I teleported inside the castle, into Anorak’s study—a room in the highest tower that I alone could enter, thanks to the Robes of Anorak I now wore. The obsidian-black garment endowed my avatar with the godlike powers Halliday’s own avatar had once possessed.
I glanced around the cluttered study. Here, just over a week ago, Anorak had declared me the winner of Halliday’s contest and changed my life forever.
My eyes fell upon the painting of a black dragon that hung on the wall. Beneath it stood an ornate crystal pedestal with a jewel-encrusted chalice resting on top of it. And cradled within the chalice was the object I’d spent so many years searching for: Halliday’s silver Easter egg.
I walked over to admire it, and that was when I noticed something strange—an inscription on the egg’s otherwise pristine surface. One that definitely hadn’t been there when I’d last seen it, nine days earlier.
No other avatars could enter this room. No one could’ve tampered with the egg. So there was only one way that inscription could’ve gotten there. Halliday himself must have programmed it to appear on the egg’s surface. It could have appeared right after Anorak gave me his robes, and I’d just been too distracted to notice.
I bent down to read the inscription: GSS—13th Floor—Vault #42–8675309.
My pulse suddenly thudding in my ears, I immediately logged out of the OASIS and scrambled out of my rig. Then I bolted out of my new office, sprinted down the hall, and jumped into the first elevator to arrive. The half dozen GSS employees inside all avoided making direct eye contact. I could
guess what all of them were thinking: Meet the new boss, weird as the old boss.
I gave them all a polite nod and pressed the “13” button. According to the interactive building directory on my phone, the thirteenth floor was where the GSS archives were located. Of course Halliday had put them there. In one of his favorite TV shows, Max Headroom, Network 23’s hidden research-and-development lab was located on the thirteenth floor. And The Thirteenth Floor was also the title of an old sci-fi film about virtual reality, released in 1999, right on the heels of both The Matrix and eXistenZ.
When I stepped off the elevator, the armed guards at the security station snapped to attention. As a formality, one of them scanned my retinas to verify my identity, then he led me past the security station and through a set of armored doors, into a maze of brightly lit corridors. Eventually we reached a large room, its walls lined with dozens of numbered doors, like extra-large safety-deposit boxes, each with a number stenciled on its front.
I thanked the guard and told him he could go as I scanned the doors. There it was: number 42. Another of Halliday’s jokes—according to one of his favorite novels, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the number 42 was the “Ultimate Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything.”
I just stood there for a few seconds, reminding myself to breathe. Then I punched in the seven-digit combination from the egg’s inscription into the code pad beside the vault door: 8-6-7-5-3-0-9, a combination no self-respecting gunter would have trouble remembering. Jenny, I’ve got your number. I need to make you mine….
The lock disengaged with a thud and the door swung open, revealing the vault’s cube-shaped interior—and a large silver egg sitting inside. It looked identical to the virtual egg on display in Anorak’s study, except this one had no inscription on its surface.
I wiped my sweaty palms on my thighs—I did not want to drop this— and removed the egg, then set it on a steel table in the center of the room. The bottom of the egg was weighted, so it wobbled slightly before standing perfectly upright—like a Weeble. (Weebles wobble, but they don’t fall down.) As I leaned in to examine the egg more closely, I spotted a small
oval-shaped thumb scanner pad near the top, flush with its curved surface. When I pressed my thumb to it, the egg split in half and hinged open.
Inside it, resting in form-fitting blue velvet, was some sort of headset.
I lifted it out and turned it over in my hands. The device had a segmented central spine that appeared to stretch from a wearer’s forehead to the nape of their neck, with a row of ten C-shaped metal bands attached to it. Each band was comprised of jointed, retractable segments, and each segment had a row of circular sensor pads on its underside. This made the whole sensor array adjustable, so that it could fit around heads of all shapes and sizes. A long fiber-optic cable stretched from the base of the headset, with a standard OASIS console plug at the end of it.
My heart had been thudding against my rib cage, but now it almost stopped. This had to be some sort of OASIS peripheral—one unlike any I’d ever seen before, and light-years more advanced.
A short electronic beep emanated from the egg and I glanced back over at it. A flash of red swept across my vision as a tiny retinal scanner verified my identity a second time. Then a small video monitor embedded in the egg’s open lid turned itself on and the GSS logo appeared for a few seconds, before it was replaced by the withered face of James Donovan Halliday. Judging by his age and emaciated features, he’d made this video recording shortly before his death. But despite his condition, he hadn’t used his OASIS avatar to record this message like he had with Anorak’s Invitation. For some reason, he’d chosen to appear in the flesh this time, under the brutal, unforgiving light of reality.
“The device you now hold in your hands is an OASIS Neural Interface, or ONI.” He pronounced it Oh-En-Eye. “It is the world’s first fully functional noninvasive brain-computer interface. It allows an OASIS user to see, hear, smell, taste, and feel their avatar’s virtual environment, via signals transmitted directly into their cerebral cortex. The headset’s sensor array also monitors and interprets its wearer’s brain activity, allowing them to control their OASIS avatar just as they do their physical body—simply by thinking about it.”
“No fucking way,” I heard myself whisper.
“That’s just for starters,” Halliday said, as if he’d heard me. “An ONI headset can also be used to record its wearer’s experiences in the real world. All sensory input received by their brain is digitized and stored as a .oni (dot-oh-en-eye) file on an external data drive attached to their headset. Once that file is uploaded to the OASIS, the entire experience can be played back and reexperienced by the person who recorded it, or by any other ONI user with whom they choose to share the file.”
Halliday managed a thin smile.
“In other words, the ONI allows you to relive moments of other people’s lives. To see the world through their eyes, hear it through their ears, smell it through their nose, taste it with their tongue, and feel it through their skin.” Halliday gave the camera a matter-of-fact nod. “The ONI is the most powerful communication tool humans have ever invented. And I think it’s also probably the last one we will ever need to invent.” He tapped the center of his forehead. “Now we can plug right in to the old noodle.”
I heard the words, but I couldn’t process them. Was Halliday for real? Or had he been delusional when he made this recording, losing his grip on reality as he entered the final stages of his illness? The technology he was describing was still the stuff of science fiction. Yes, millions of physically disabled people used brain-computer interfaces every day, to see or hear or move paralyzed limbs. But these medical miracles could still only be achieved by cutting a hole in the patient’s skull and sticking implants and electrodes directly into their brain.
The concept of a brain-computer interface headset that allowed you to record, play back, and/or simulate a human being’s entire sensory experience had appeared in a bunch of Halliday’s favorite sci-fi novels, TV shows, and movies. There was SimStim—the fictional Simulated Stimulation technology William Gibson had envisioned in Neuromancer. And a similar form of experience-recording technology had also been featured in Brainstorm and Strange Days, two of Halliday’s favorite films…
If the ONI could do everything Halliday claimed, then he’d once again done the impossible. Through sheer force of will and brainpower, he’d once again turned science fiction into science fact, without much regard for the long-term consequences.
I also wondered about the name Halliday had chosen for his invention. I’d seen enough anime to know that oni was also a Japanese word for a giant horned demon from the pits of hell.
“The ONI’s software and documentation have already been emailed to your private OASIS account,” Halliday continued. “Along with complete schematics of the headset and the 3-D printer files necessary to fabricate more of them.”
Halliday paused and stared into the camera for a moment before continuing.
“Once you’ve tested the ONI yourself, I think you’ll realize—just as I did—that this invention has the power to drastically alter the nature of human existence. I think it could help humanity. But it could also make things even worse. It will all depend on the timing, I think. That’s why I’m entrusting its fate to you, my heir. You must decide when—or if—the world is ready for this technology.”
His frail body shook with a coughing fit. Then he took a rasping breath and spoke one final time.
“Take all the time you need to decide,” he said. “And don’t let anyone rush you. Once Pandora’s box has been opened, there’s no closing it again. So…choose wisely.”
He gave the camera a small wave goodbye. Then the recording ended and a VIDEO FILE DELETED message appeared on the monitor just before it powered itself off.
I sat there for a long time. Could this be some sort of posthumous practical joke? Because the alternative didn’t seem to make any sense. If the ONI really could do everything he said it could, then it would be the most powerful communication tool ever invented. Why would he have kept it a secret? Why not just patent it and release it to the world?
I glanced back down at the headset in my hands. It had been locked away in this vault for the past eight years, waiting patiently for me to find it. And now that I had, there was really only one thing left for me to do.
I put the headset back inside the egg, then I turned around and carried it out of the archives, planning to walk back to the elevator at a calm,
dignified pace. But my self-control evaporated in seconds, and I began to run as fast as my legs would carry me.
The employees I encountered as I hurried back upstairs were treated to the sight of their wild-eyed boss sprinting through the hallowed halls of Gregarious Simulation Systems, clutching a giant silver egg.
Back in my office, I locked the door, lowered the blinds, and sat down at my desktop computer to read over the ONI documentation Halliday had emailed me.
I was grateful that Samantha wasn’t there. I didn’t want to give her the opportunity to talk me out of testing the ONI. Because I was worried she might try to, and if she did, she would’ve succeeded. (I’d recently discovered that when you’re madly in love with someone they can persuade you to do pretty much anything.)
There was no way I could pass up such a historic opportunity. It would’ve been like passing up the chance to be the first person to walk on the moon. Besides, I wasn’t worried about the ONI being dangerous. If using the headset was potentially harmful, Halliday would’ve warned me. After all, I’d just won the contest to become his sole heir. He wouldn’t have wanted any harm to come to me.
That’s what I kept telling myself as I plugged the ONI headset into my OASIS console and placed it gently on my head. Its telescoping bands retracted automatically, pressing the array of sensor and transmitter pads mounted on them firmly against the unique contours of my cranium. Then its metal joints tightened up and the whole spiderlike device locked itself onto my skull so that its pads couldn’t be jostled or removed while the device was interfacing with my brain. According to the ONI documentation, forcibly removing the headset while it was in operation could severely damage the wearer’s brain and/or leave them in a permanent coma. So the titanium-reinforced safety bands made certain this couldn’t happen. I found this little detail comforting instead of unsettling. Riding in an automobile was risky, too, if you didn’t wear your seatbelt…
The ONI documentation also noted that a sudden power loss to the headset could also cause potential harm to the wearer’s brain, which was why it had an internal backup battery that could power the device long enough to complete an emergency logout sequence and safely awaken the wearer from the artificially induced sleeplike state it placed them in while the headset was in use.
So I had nothing to worry about. Nothing at all. Just a giant metal spider locked onto my skull, about to interface with my brain.
I lay down on the blue velvet couch in the corner of my office and made sure that my body was in a comfortable sleeping position, as per the instructions. Then I took a deep breath and powered everything on.
I felt a slight tingling sensation on my scalp. From reading the ONI documentation, I knew that the headset was performing a scan of my brain to map its unique geography. This scan would then be saved to my account so that it could be used to verify my identity in the future, in lieu of a retinal scan. A synthesized female voice prompted me to speak my passphrase. I recited it slowly, being careful to enunciate: Everybody wants to rule the world.
Once it was verified, a tiny augmented reality display extended from the front of the headset and then locked into place in front of my left eye, like a monocle. Several paragraphs of text appeared, floating in the air in front of me, superimposed in the center of my vision:
Warning! For safety reasons, the OASIS Neural Interface headset can only be used for a maximum of twelve consecutive hours at a time. When this limit has been reached, you will be logged out of your account automatically, and you will be unable to use your ONI headset again until twelve hours of downtime have elapsed. During this mandatory downtime you are still free to access the OASIS using conventional immersion hardware. Tampering with or disabling your ONI headset’s built-in security safeguards to exceed the daily usage limits can result in Synaptic Overload Syndrome and permanent neural tissue trauma. Gregarious Simulation Systems will not be held responsible for any injuries caused by improper use of the OASIS Neural Interface.
I’d seen this safety warning in the headset’s documentation, but I was surprised that Halliday had embedded it in the login sequence. It looked as
though he’d already made all of the necessary preparations to release the ONI to the public over eight years ago. But he’d never actually done it. Instead, he’d taken the secret of the ONI’s existence with him to the grave. And now I had inherited that secret.
I reread the warning a few times, working up my nerve. The part about permanent brain damage was unsettling, but it wasn’t like I was being used as a guinea pig. According to the ONI documentation, GSS had already conducted a series of independent human safety trials on the ONI headset over a decade ago, and they’d all shown that using it was completely safe, as long as the user adhered to the twelve-hour daily usage limit. And the headset firmware’s built-in safety features made sure they did. So, I reminded myself once again, I had absolutely nothing to worry about….
I reached out and tapped the Agree button beneath the safety warning. The system finished logging me in and text flashed in the center of my field of vision:
Identity veriﬁcation successful. Welcome to the OASIS, Parzival!
Login Completed: 11:07:18 OST—1.25.2046
As the timestamp faded away, it was replaced by a short message, just three words long—the last thing I would see before I left the real world and entered the virtual one.
But they weren’t the three words I was used to seeing. I—like every other ONI user to come—was greeted by a new message Halliday had created, to welcome those visitors who had adopted his new technology:
READY PLAYER TWO