If there was already another gunter inside Halliday’s house when I got there, my plan was to make a run for it, then steal a car and drive twenty-five miles (in any direction) to the next identical copy of Middletown. And then the next, until I found an instance of Halliday’s house that was unoccupied.
Outside the bus station, it was a beautiful Midwestern day. The reddish orange sun hovered low in the sky. Even though I’d never been to Middletown before, I’d done extensive research on it, so I knew Halliday had coded the planet so that no matter when you visited or where you were on the surface, it was always a perfect late-autumn afternoon, circa 1986.
I pulled up a map of the town and traced a route from my current location to Halliday’s childhood home. It was about a mile to the north. I pointed my avatar in that direction and began to run. Looking around, I was astounded at the painstaking attention to detail. I’d read that Halliday had done all of the coding himself, drawing on his memories to re-create his hometown exactly as it was during his childhood. He’d used old street maps, phone books, photographs, and video footage for reference, to make everything as authentic and accurate as possible.
The place reminded me a lot of the town in the movie Footloose. Small, rural, and sparsely populated. The houses all seemed incredibly big and were placed ridiculously far apart. It astounded me that fifty years ago, even lower-income families had an entire house to themselves. The NPC citizens all looked like extras from a John Cougar Mellencamp video. I saw people out raking leaves, walking dogs, and sitting on porches. Out of curiosity, I waved at a few of them and got a friendly wave in return every time.
Clues as to the time period were everywhere. NPC-piloted cars and trucks cruised slowly up and down the shady streets, all of them gas-guzzling antiques: Trans-Ams, Dodge Omnis, IROC Z28s, and K-cars. I passed a service station, and the sign said gasoline was only ninety-three cents a gallon.
I was about to turn down Halliday’s street when I heard a fanfare of trumpets. My eyes shot over to the Scoreboard window, still hovering in the corner of my display.
Art3mis had done it.
Her name now appeared directly below mine. Her score was 9,000 points—a thousand points less than mine. It appeared that I’d received a bonus for being the first avatar to obtain the Copper Key.
The full ramifications of the Scoreboard’s existence occurred to me for the first time. From here on out, it would not only allow gunters to keep track of each other’s progress, it would also show the entire world who the current frontrunners were, creating instant celebrities (and targets) in the process.
I knew, at that exact moment, Art3mis must be staring down at her own copy of the Copper Key, reading the clue engraved on its surface. I was sure she’d be able to decipher it just as quickly as I had. In fact, she was probably already on her way to Middletown right now.
That got me moving again. I now had only an hour’s head start on her. Maybe less.
When I reached Cleveland Avenue, the street on which Halliday had grown up, I sprinted down the cracked sidewalk to the front steps of his childhood home. It looked just like the photographs I’d seen: a modest two-story colonial with red vinyl siding. Two late-’70s Ford sedans were parked in the driveway, one of them up on cinder blocks.
Looking at the replica Halliday had created of his old house, I tried to imagine what it had been like for him to grow up there. I’d read that in the real Middletown, Ohio, every house on this street had been demolished in the late ’90s to make room for a strip mall. But Halliday had preserved his childhood forever, here in the OASIS.
I ran up the walkway and entered through the front door, which opened into the living room. I knew this room well, because it appeared in Anorak’s Invitation. I recognized the simulated wood-grain paneling, the burnt orange carpet, and garish furniture that looked like it had been scavenged from several disco-era yard sales.
The house was empty. For whatever reason, Halliday had decided not to place NPC re-creations of himself or his deceased parents here. Perhaps that would have been too creepy, even for him. However, I did spot a familiar family photo on the living room wall. This portrait had been taken at the local Kmart in 1984, but Mr. and Mrs. Halliday were still dressed in late-’70s fashions. Twelve-year-old Jimmy stood between them, glowering at the camera from behind thick eyeglasses. The Hallidays looked like an ordinary American family. There was no hint that the stoic man in the brown leisure suit was an abusive alcoholic, that the smiling woman in the floral pantsuit was bipolar, or that the young boy in the faded Asteroids T-shirt would one day create an entirely new universe.
Looking around, I wondered why Halliday, who always claimed to have had a miserable childhood, had later become so nostalgic for it. I knew that if and when I finally escaped from the stacks, I’d never look back. And I definitely wouldn’t create a detailed simulation of the place.
I glanced over at the bulky Zenith television and the Atari 2600 connected to it. The simulated wood grain on the Atari’s plastic casing perfectly matched the simulated wood grain on the television cabinet and on the living room walls. Beside the Atari was a shoebox containing nine game cartridges: Combat, Space Invaders, Pitfall, Kaboom!, Star Raiders, The Empire Strikes Back, Starmaster, Yars’ Revenge, and E.T. Gunters had attached a large amount of significance to the absence of Adventure, the game Halliday was seen playing on this very same Atari at the end of Anorak’s Invitation. People had searched the entire Middletown simulation for a copy of it, but there didn’t appear to be one anywhere on the whole planet. Gunters had brought copies of Adventure here from other planets, but when they tried to play them on Halliday’s Atari, they never worked. So far, no one had been able to figure out why.
I did a quick search of the rest of the house and made sure no other avatars were present. Then I opened the door of James Halliday’s room. It was empty, so I stepped inside and locked the door. Screenshots and simcaps of this room had been available for years, and I’d studied all of them closely. But this was my first time standing inside the “real thing.” I got chills.
The carpet was a horrendous mustard color. So was the wallpaper. But the walls were almost entirely covered with movie and rock band posters: Real Genius, WarGames, Tron, Pink Floyd, Devo, Rush. A bookshelf stood just inside the door, overflowing with science-fiction and fantasy paperbacks (all titles I’d read, of course). A second bookshelf by the bed was crammed to capacity with old computer magazines and Dungeons & Dragons rule books. Several long boxes of comic books were stacked against the wall, each carefully labeled. And there on the battered wooden desk in the corner was James Halliday’s first computer.
Like many home computers of its era, it was housed in the same case as its keyboard. TRS-80 COLOR COMPUTER 2, 16K RAM was printed on a label above the keys. Cables snaked out of the back of the machine, leading to an audiocassette recorder, a small color television, a dot-matrix printer, and a 300-baud modem. A long list of telephone numbers for dial-up bulletin board systems was taped to the desk beside the modem.
I sat down and located the power switch for the computer and the TV. I heard a crackle of static, followed by a low hum, as the TV warmed up. A moment later, the TRS-80’s green start-up screen appeared, and I saw these words:
EXTENDED COLOR BASIC 1.1
COPYRIGHT (c) 1982 BY TANDY
Below this was a flashing cursor, cycling through every color of the spectrum. I typed HELLO and hit the Enter key.
?SYNTAX ERROR appeared on the next line. “Hello” wasn’t a valid command in BASIC, the only language the ancient computer understood.
I knew from my research that the cassette recorder functioned as the TRS-80’s “tape drive.” It stored data as analog sound on magnetic audiotapes. When Halliday had first started programming, the poor kid hadn’t even had access to a floppy disk drive. He’d had to store his code on cassette tapes. A shoebox sat beside the tape drive, filled with dozens of these cassettes. Most of them were text adventure games: Raaka-tu, Bedlam, Pyramid, and Madness and the Minotaur. There were also a few ROM cartridges, which fit into a slot on the side of the computer. I dug around in the box until I found a cartridge with DUNGEONS OF DAGGORATH printed in crooked yellow text on its worn red label. The game’s artwork depicted a first-person view of a long dungeon corridor blocked by a hulking blue giant with a large stone ax.
When a list of the games found in Halliday’s bedroom had first appeared online, I’d made sure to download and master every single one of them, so I’d already solved Dungeons of Daggorath, about two years earlier. It had taken most of a weekend. The graphics were crude, but even so, the game was fun and incredibly addictive.
I knew from reading the message boards that during the past five years, several gunters had played and solved Dungeons of Daggorath right here on Halliday’s TRS-80. Some had solved every single game in the shoebox, just to see if anything would happen. And nothing had. But none of those gunters had been in possession of the Copper Key.
My hands were trembling slightly as I powered off the TRS-80 and inserted the Dungeons of Daggorath cartridge. When I turned the computer back on, the screen flashed to black and a crude graphic of a wizard appeared, accompanied by some ominous sound effects. The wizard held a staff in one hand, and below him, printed in all capital letters, was the legend I DARE YE ENTER … THE DUNGEONS OF DAGGORATH!