I’d been running a highly customized version of MaxHeadroom v3.4.1 for a few weeks now. Before that, my system agent software had been modeled after the actress Erin Gray (of Buck Rogers and Silver Spoons fame). But she’d proved to be way too distracting, so I’d switched to Max. He was annoying at times, but he also cracked me up. He did a pretty decent job of keeping me from feeling lonesome, too.

As I stumbled into the bathroom module and emptied my bladder, Max continued to address me from a small monitor mounted above the mirror. “Uh-oh! It appears you’ve sp-sp-sprung a leak!” he said.

“Get a new joke,” I said. “Any news I should know about?”

“Just the usual. Wars, rioting, famine. Nothing that would interest you.”

“Any messages?”

He rolled his eyes. “A few. But to answer your real question, no. Art3mis still hasn’t called or written you back, lover boy.”

“I’ve warned you. Don’t call me that, Max. You’re begging to be deleted.”

“Touchy, touchy. Honestly, Wade. When did you get so s-s-sensitive?”

“I’ll erase you, Max. I mean it. Keep it up and I’ll switch back to Wilma Deering. Or I’ll try out the disembodied voice of Majel Barrett.”

Max made a pouty face and spun around to face the shifting digital wallpaper behind him—currently a pattern of multicolored vector lines. Max was always like this. Giving me grief was part of his preprogrammed personality. I actually sort of enjoyed it, because it reminded me of hanging out with Aech. And I really missed hanging out with Aech. A lot.

My gaze dropped to the bathroom mirror, but I didn’t much like what I saw there, so I closed my eyes until I finished urinating. I wondered (not for the first time) why I hadn’t painted the mirror black too, when I’d done the window.


The hour or so after I woke up was my least favorite part of each day, because I spent it in the real world. This was when I dealt with the tedious business of cleaning and exercising my physical body. I hated this part of the day because everything about it contradicted my other life. My real life, inside the OASIS. The sight of my tiny one-room apartment, my immersion rig, or my reflection in the mirror—they all served as a harsh reminder that the world I spent my days in was not, in fact, the real one.

“Retract chair,” I said as I stepped out of the bathroom. The haptic chair instantly flattened itself again, then retracted so that it was flush against the wall, clearing a large empty space in the center of the room. I pulled on my visor and loaded up the Gym, a stand-alone simulation.

Now I was standing in a large modern fitness center lined with exercise equipment and weight machines, all of which could be perfectly simulated by my haptic suit. I began my daily workout. Sit-ups, stomach crunches, push-ups, aerobics, weight training. Occasionally, Max would shout words of encouragement. “Get those legs up, you s-s-sissy! Feel the burn!”

I usually got a little exercise while logged into the OASIS, by engaging in physical combat or running around the virtual landscape on my treadmill. But I spent the vast majority of my time sitting in my haptic chair, getting almost no exercise at all. I also had a habit of overeating when I was depressed or frustrated, which was most of the time. As a result, I’d gradually started to put on some extra pounds. I wasn’t in the best shape to begin with, so I quickly reached a point where I could no longer fit comfortably in my haptic chair or squeeze in to my XL haptic suit. Soon, I would need to buy a new rig, with components from the Husky line.

I knew that if I didn’t get my weight under control, I would probably die of sloth before I found the egg. I couldn’t let that happen. So I made a snap decision and enabled the voluntary OASIS fitness lockout software on my rig. I’d regretted it almost immediately.

From then on, my computer monitored my vital signs and kept track of exactly how many calories I burned during the course of each day. If I didn’t meet my daily exercise requirements, the system prevented me from logging into my OASIS account. This meant that I couldn’t go to work, continue my quest, or, in effect, live my life. Once the lockout was engaged, you couldn’t disable it for two months. And the software was bound to my OASIS account, so I couldn’t just buy a new computer or go rent a booth in some public OASIS café. If I wanted to log in, I had no choice but to exercise first. This proved to be the only motivation I needed.

The lockout software also monitored my dietary intake. Each day I was allowed to select meals from a preset menu of healthy, low-calorie foods. The software would order the food for me online and it would be delivered to my door. Since I never left my apartment, it was easy for the program to keep track of everything I ate. If I ordered additional food on my own, it would increase the amount of exercise I had to do each day, to offset my additional calorie intake. This was some sadistic software.

But it worked. The pounds began to melt off, and after a few months, I was in near-perfect health. For the first time in my life I had a flat stomach, and muscles. I also had twice the energy, and I got sick a lot less frequently. When the two months ended and I was finally given the option to disable the fitness lockout, I decided to keep it in place. Now, exercising was a part of my daily ritual.

Once I finished with my weight training, I stepped onto my treadmill. “Begin morning run,” I said to Max. “Bifrost track.”

The virtual gym vanished. Now I was standing on a semitransparent running track, a curved looping ribbon suspended in a starry nebula. Giant ringed planets and multicolored moons were suspended in space all around me. The running track stretched out ahead of me, rising, falling, and occasionally spiraling into a helix. An invisible barrier prevented me from accidentally running off the edge of the track and plummeting into the starry abyss. The Bifrost track was another stand-alone simulation, one of several hundred track designs stored on my console’s hard drive.

As I began to run, Max fired up my ’80s music playlist. As the first song began, I quickly rattled off its title, artist, album, and year of release from memory: “ ‘A Million Miles Away,’ the Plimsouls, Everywhere at Once, 1983.” Then I began to sing along, reciting the lyrics. Having the right ’80s song lyric memorized might save my avatar’s life someday.

When I finished my run, I pulled off my visor and began removing my haptic suit. This had to be done slowly to prevent damaging the suit’s components. As I carefully peeled it off, the contact patches made tiny popping sounds as they pulled free of my skin, leaving tiny circular marks all over my body. Once I had the suit off, I placed it inside the cleaning unit and laid my clean spare suit out on the floor.

Max had already turned on the shower for me, setting the water temperature right where I liked it. As I jumped into the steam-filled stall, Max switched the music over to my shower tunes playlist. I recognized the opening riffs of “Change,” by John Waite. From the Vision Quest soundtrack. Geffen Records, 1985.

The shower worked a lot like an old car wash. I just stood there while it did most of the work, blasting me from all angles with jets of soapy water, then rinsing me off. I had no hair to wash, because the shower also dispensed a nontoxic hair-removing solution that I rubbed all over my face and body. This eliminated the need for me to shave or cut my hair, both hassles I didn’t need. Having smooth skin also helped make sure my haptic suit fit snugly. I looked a little freaky without any eyebrows, but I got used to it.

When the rinse jets cut off, the blow-dryers kicked on, blasting the moisture off of my skin in a matter of seconds. I stepped into the kitchen and took out a can of Sludge, a high-protein, vitamin D–infused breakfast drink (to help counteract my sunlight deprivation). As I gulped it down, my computer’s sensors silently took note, scanning the barcode and adding the calories to my total for the day. With breakfast out of the way, I pulled on my clean haptic suit. This was less tricky than taking the suit off, but it still took time to do properly.

Once I had the suit on, I ordered the haptic chair to extend. Then I paused and spent a moment staring at my immersion rig. I’d been so proud of all this high-tech hardware when I’d first purchased it. But over the past few months, I’d come to see my rig for what it was: an elaborate contraption for deceiving my senses, to allow me to live in a world that didn’t exist. Each component of my rig was a bar in the cell where I had willingly imprisoned myself.

Standing there, under the bleak fluorescents of my tiny one-room apartment, there was no escaping the truth. In real life, I was nothing but an antisocial hermit. A recluse. A pale-skinned pop culture–obsessed geek. An agoraphobic shut-in, with no real friends, family, or genuine human contact. I was just another sad, lost, lonely soul, wasting his life on a glorified videogame.

But not in the OASIS. In there, I was the great Parzival. World-famous gunter and international celebrity. People asked for my autograph. I had a fan club. Several, actually. I was recognized everywhere I went (but only when I wanted to be). I was paid to endorse products. People admired and looked up to me. I got invited to the most exclusive parties. I went to all the hippest clubs and never had to wait in line. I was a pop-culture icon, a VR rock star. And, in gunter circles, I was a legend. Nay, a god.

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