I opened the rat-proof metal box where I kept my food cache and took out some bottled water and a packet of powdered milk. I mixed these together in a bowl, then dumped in a generous serving of Fruit Rocks cereal. Once I’d wolfed it down, I retrieved an old plastic Star Trek lunch box I kept hidden under the van’s crushed dashboard. Inside were my school-issued OASIS console, haptic gloves, and visor. These items were, by far, the most valuable things I owned. Far too valuable to carry around with me.

I pulled on my elastic haptic gloves and flexed my fingers to make sure none of the joints was sticking. Then I grabbed my OASIS console, a flat black rectangle about the size of a paperback book. It had a wireless network antenna built into it, but the reception inside the van was for shit, since it was buried under a huge mound of dense metal. So I’d rigged up an external antenna and mounted it on the hood of a car at the top of the junk pile. The antenna cable snaked up through a hole I’d punched in the van’s ceiling. I plugged it into a port on the side of the console, then slipped on my visor. It fit snugly around my eyes like a pair of swimmer’s goggles, blocking out all external light. Small earbuds extended from the visor’s temples and automatically plugged themselves into my ears. The visor also housed two built-in stereo voice microphones to pick up everything I said.

I powered on the console and initiated the log-in sequence. I saw a brief flash of red as the visor scanned my retinas. Then I cleared my throat and said my log-in pass phrase, being careful to enunciate: “You have been recruited by the Star League to defend the Frontier against Xur and the Ko-Dan Armada.”

My pass phrase was also verified, along with my voice pattern, and then I was logged in. The following text appeared, superimposed in the center of my virtual display:

Identity verification successful.

Welcome to the OASIS, Parzival!

Login Completed: 07:53:21 OST-2.10.2045

As the text faded away, it was replaced by a short message, just three words long. This message had been embedded in the log-in sequence by James Halliday himself, when he’d first programmed the OASIS, as an homage to the simulation’s direct ancestors, the coin-operated videogames of his youth. These three words were always the last thing an OASIS user saw before leaving the real world and entering the virtual one:


Chapter 2

My avatar materialized in front of my locker on the second floor of my high school—the exact spot where I’d been standing when I’d logged out the night before.


I glanced up and down the hallway. My virtual surroundings looked almost (but not quite) real. Everything inside the OASIS was beautifully rendered in three dimensions. Unless you pulled focus and stopped to examine your surroundings more closely, it was easy to forget that everything you were seeing was computer-generated. And that was with my crappy school-issued OASIS console. I’d heard that if you accessed the simulation with a new state-of-the-art immersion rig, it was almost impossible to tell the OASIS from reality.

I touched my locker door and it popped open with a soft metallic click. The inside was sparsely decorated. A picture of Princess Leia posing with a blaster pistol. A group photo of the members of Monty Python in their Holy Grail costumes. James Halliday’s Time magazine cover. I reached up and tapped the stack of textbooks on the locker’s top shelf and they vanished, then reappeared in my avatar’s item inventory.

Aside from my textbooks, my avatar had only a few meager possessions: a flashlight, an iron shortsword, a small bronze shield, and a suit of banded leather armor. These items were all nonmagical and of low quality, but they were the best I could afford. Items in the OASIS had just as much value as things in the real world (sometimes more), and you couldn’t pay for them with food vouchers. The OASIS credit was the coin of the realm, and in these dark times, it was also one of the world’s most stable currencies, valued higher than the dollar, pound, euro, or yen.

A small mirror was mounted inside my locker door, and I caught a glimpse of my virtual self as I closed it. I’d designed my avatar’s face and body to look, more or less, like my own. My avatar had a slightly smaller nose than me, and he was taller. And thinner. And more muscular. And he didn’t have any teenage acne. But aside from these minor details, we looked more or less identical. The school’s strictly enforced dress code required that all student avatars be human, and of the same gender and age as the student. No giant two-headed hermaphrodite demon unicorn avatars were allowed. Not on school grounds, anyway.

You could give your OASIS avatar any name you liked, as long as it was unique. Meaning you had to pick a name that hadn’t already been taken by someone else. Your avatar’s name was also your e-mail address and chat ID, so you wanted it to be cool and easy to remember. Celebrities had been known to pay huge sums of money to buy an avatar name they wanted from a cyber-squatter who had already reserved it.

When I’d first created my OASIS account, I’d named my avatar Wade_the_Great. After that, I kept changing it every few months, usually to something equally ridiculous. But my avatar had now had the same name for over five years. On the day the Hunt began, the day I’d decided to become a gunter, I’d renamed my avatar Parzival, after the knight of Arthurian legend who had found the Holy Grail. The other more common spellings of that knight’s name, Perceval and Percival, had already been taken by other users. But I preferred the name Parzival, anyway. I thought it had a nice ring to it.

People rarely used their real names online. Anonymity was one of the major perks of the OASIS. Inside the simulation, no one knew who you really were, unless you wanted them to. Much of the OASIS’s popularity and culture were built around this fact. Your real name, fingerprints, and retinal patterns were stored in your OASIS account, but Gregarious Simulation Systems kept that information encrypted and confidential. Even GSS’s own employees couldn’t look up an avatar’s true identity. Back when Halliday was still running the company, GSS had won the right to keep every OASIS user’s identity private in a landmark Supreme Court ruling.

When I’d first enrolled in the OASIS public school system, I was required to give them my real name, avatar name, mailing address, and Social Security number. That information was stored in my student profile, but only my principal had access to that. None of my teachers or fellow students knew who I really was, and vice versa.

Students weren’t allowed to use their avatar names while they were at school. This was to prevent teachers from having to say ridiculous things like “Pimp_Grease, please pay attention!” or “BigWang69, would you stand up and give us your book report?” Instead, students were required to use their real first names, followed by a number, to differentiate them from other students with the same name. When I enrolled, there were already two other students at my school with the first name Wade, so I’d been assigned the student ID of Wade3. That name floated above my avatar’s head whenever I was on school grounds.

The school bell rang and a warning flashed in the corner of my display, informing me that I had forty minutes until the start of first period. I began to walk my avatar down the hall, using a series of subtle hand motions to control its movements and actions. I could also use voice commands to move around, if my hands were otherwise occupied.

I strolled in the direction of my World History classroom, smiling and waving to the familiar faces I passed. I was going to miss this place when I graduated in a few months. I wasn’t looking forward to leaving school. I didn’t have the money to attend college, not even one in the OASIS, and my grades weren’t good enough for a scholarship. My only plan after graduation was to become a full-time gunter. I didn’t have much choice. Winning the contest was my one chance of escaping the stacks. Unless I wanted to sign a five-year indenturement contract with some corporation, and that was about as appealing to me as rolling around in broken glass in my birthday suit.

As I continued down the hallway, other students began to materialize in front of their lockers, ghostly apparitions that rapidly solidified. The sound of chattering teenagers began to echo up and down the corridor. Before long, I heard an insult hurled in my direction.

“Hey, hey! If it isn’t Wade Three!” I heard a voice shout. I turned and saw Todd13, an obnoxious avatar I recognized from my Algebra II class. He was standing with several of his friends. “Great outfit, slick,” he said. “Where did you snag the sweet threads?”

My avatar was wearing a black T-shirt and blue jeans, one of the free default skins you could select when you created your account. Like his Cro-Magnon friends, Todd13 wore an expensive designer skin, probably purchased in some offworld mall.

“Your mom bought them for me,” I retorted without breaking my stride. “Tell her I said thanks, the next time you stop at home to breast-feed and pick up your allowance.” Childish, I know. But virtual or not, this was still high school—the more childish an insult, the more effective it was.

My jab elicited laughter from a few of his friends and the other students standing nearby. Todd13 scowled and his face actually turned red—a sign that he hadn’t bothered to turn off his account’s real-time emotion feature, which made your avatar mirror your facial expressions and body language. He was about to reply, but I muted him first, so I didn’t hear what he said. I just smiled and continued on my way.

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