My generation had never known a world without the OASIS. To us, it was much more than a game or an entertainment platform. It had been an integral part of our lives for as far back as we could remember. We’d been born into an ugly world, and the OASIS was our one happy refuge. The thought of the simulation being privatized and homogenized by IOI horrified us in a way that those born before its introduction found difficult to understand. For us, it was like someone threatening to take away the sun, or charge a fee to look up at the sky.
The Sixers gave gunters a common enemy, and Sixer bashing was a favorite pastime in our forums and chat rooms. A lot of high-level gunters had a strict policy of killing (or trying to kill) every Sixer who crossed their path. Several websites were devoted to tracking Sixer activities and movements, and some gunters spent more time hunting the Sixers than they did searching for the egg. The bigger clans actually held a yearly competition called “Eighty-Six the Sux0rz,” with a prize for the clan who managed to kill the largest number of them.
After checking a few other gunter forums, I tapped a bookmark icon for one of my favorite websites, Arty’s Missives, the blog of a female gunter named Art3mis (pronounced “Artemis”). I’d discovered it about three years ago and had been a loyal reader ever since. She posted these great rambling essays about her search for Halliday’s egg, which she called a “maddening MacGuffin hunt.” She wrote with an endearing, intelligent voice, and her entries were filled with self-deprecating humor and witty, sardonic asides. In addition to posting her (often hysterical) interpretations of passages in the Almanac, she also linked to the books, movies, TV shows, and music she was currently studying as part of her Halliday research. I assumed that all of these posts were filled with misdirection and misinformation, but they were still highly entertaining.
It probably goes without saying that I had a massive cyber-crush on Art3mis.
She occasionally posted screenshots of her raven-haired avatar, and I sometimes (always) saved them to a folder on my hard drive. Her avatar had a pretty face, but it wasn’t unnaturally perfect. In the OASIS, you got used to seeing freakishly beautiful faces on everyone. But Art3mis’s features didn’t look as though they’d been selected from a beauty drop-down menu on some avatar creation template. Her face had the distinctive look of a real person’s, as if her true features had been scanned in and mapped onto her avatar. Big hazel eyes, rounded cheekbones, a pointy chin, and a perpetual smirk. I found her unbearably attractive.
Art3mis’s body was also somewhat unusual. In the OASIS, you usually saw one of two body shapes on female avatars: the absurdly thin yet wildly popular supermodel frame, or the top-heavy, wasp-waisted p**n starlet physique (which looked even less natural in the OASIS than it did in the real world). But Art3mis’s frame was short and Rubenesque. All curves.
I knew the crush I had on Art3mis was both silly and ill-advised. What did I really know about her? She’d never revealed her true identity, of course. Or her age or location in the real world. There was no telling what she really looked like. She could be fifteen or fifty. A lot of gunters even questioned whether she was really female, but I wasn’t one of them. Probably because I couldn’t bear the idea that the girl with whom I was virtually smitten might actually be some middle-aged dude named Chuck, with back hair and male-pattern baldness.
In the years since I’d first started reading Arty’s Missives, it had become one of the most popular blogs on the Internet, now logging several million hits a day. And Art3mis was now something of a celebrity, at least in gunter circles. But fame hadn’t gone to her head. Her writing was still as funny and self-deprecating as ever. Her newest blog post was titled “The John Hughes Blues,” and it was an in-depth treatise on her six favorite John Hughes teen movies, which she divided into two separate trilogies: The “Dorky Girl Fantasies” trilogy (Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, and Some Kind of Wonderful) and the “Dorky Boy Fantasies” trilogy (The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off).
Just as I’d finished reading it, an instant message window popped up on my display. It was my best friend, Aech. (OK, if you want to split hairs, he was my only friend, not counting Mrs. Gilmore.)
Aech: Top o’ the morning, amigo.
Parzival: Hola, compadre.
Aech: What are you up to?
Parzival: Just surfing the turf. You?
Aech: Got the Basement online. Come and hang out before school, fool.
Parzival: Sweet! I’ll be there in a sec.
I closed the IM window and checked the time. I still had about half an hour until class started. I grinned and tapped a small door icon at the edge of my display, then selected Aech’s chat room from my list of favorites.
The system verified that I was on the chat room’s access list and allowed me to enter. My view of the classroom shrank from the limits of my peripheral vision to a small thumbnail window in the lower right of my display, allowing me to monitor what was in front of my avatar. The rest of my field of vision was now filled with the interior of Aech’s chat room. My avatar appeared just inside the “entrance,” a door at the top of a carpeted staircase. The door didn’t lead anywhere. It didn’t even open. This was because the Basement and its contents didn’t exist as a part of the OASIS. Chat rooms were stand-alone simulations—temporary virtual spaces that avatars could access from anywhere in OASIS. My avatar wasn’t actually “in” the chat room. It only appeared that way. Wade3/Parzival was still sitting in my World History classroom with his eyes closed. Logging into a chat room was a little like being in two places at once.
Aech had named his chat room the Basement. He’d programmed it to look like a large suburban rec room, circa the late 1980s. Old movie and comic book posters covered the wood-paneled walls. A vintage RCA television stood in the center of the room, hooked up to a Betamax VCR, a LaserDisc player, and several vintage videogame consoles. Bookshelves lined the far wall, filled with role-playing game supplements and back issues of Dragon magazine.
Hosting a chat room this large wasn’t cheap, but Aech could afford it. He made quite a bit of dough competing in televised PvP arena games after school and on the weekends. Aech was one of the highest-ranked combatants in the OASIS, in both the Deathmatch and Capture the Flag leagues. He was even more famous than Art3mis.
Over the past few years, the Basement had become a highly exclusive hangout for elite gunters. Aech granted access only to people he deemed worthy, so being invited to hang out in the Basement was a big honor, especially for a third-level nobody like me.
As I descended the staircase, I saw a few dozen other gunters milling around, with avatars that varied wildly in appearance. There were humans, cyborgs, demons, dark elves, Vulcans, and vampires. Most of them were gathered around the row of old arcade games against the wall. A few others stood by the ancient stereo (currently blasting “The Wild Boys” by Duran Duran), browsing through Aech’s giant rack of vintage cassette tapes.
Aech himself was sprawled on one of the chat room’s three couches, which were arrayed in a U-shape in front of the TV. Aech’s avatar was a tall, broad-shouldered Caucasian male with dark hair and brown eyes. I’d asked him once if he looked anything like his avatar in real life, and he’d jokingly replied, “Yes. But in real life, I’m even more handsome.”
As I walked over, he glanced up from the Intellivision game he was playing. His distinctive Cheshire grin stretched from ear to ear. “Z!” he shouted. “What is up, amigo?” He stretched out his right hand and gave me five as I dropped onto the couch opposite him. Aech had started calling me “Z” shortly after I met him. He liked to give people single-letter nicknames. Aech pronounced his own avatar’s name just like the letter “H.”
“What up, Humperdinck?” I said. This was a game we played. I always called him by some random H name, like Harry, Hubert, Henry, or Hogan. I was making guesses at his real first name, which, he’d once confided to me, began with the letter “H.”
I’d known Aech for a little over three years. He was also a student on Ludus, a senior at OPS #1172, which was on the opposite side of the planet from my school. We’d met one weekend in a public gunter chat room and hit it off immediately, because we shared all of the same interests. Which is to say one interest: a total, all-consuming obsession with Halliday and his Easter egg. A few minutes into our first conversation, I knew Aech was the real deal, an elite gunter with some serious mental kung fu. He had his ’80s trivia down cold, and not just the canon stuff, either. He was a true Halliday scholar. And he’d apparently seen the same qualities in me, because he’d given me his contact card and invited me to hang out in the Basement whenever I liked. He’d been my closest friend ever since.
Over the years, a friendly rivalry had gradually developed between us. We did a lot of trash-talking about which one of us would get his name up on the Scoreboard first. We were constantly trying to out-geek each other with our knowledge of obscure gunter trivia. Sometimes we even conducted our research together. This usually consisted of watching cheesy ’80s movies and TV shows here in his chat room. We also played a lot of videogames, of course. Aech and I had wasted countless hours on two-player classics like Contra, Golden Axe, Heavy Barrel, Smash TV, and Ikari Warriors. Aside from yours truly, Aech was the best all-around gamer I’d ever encountered. We were evenly matched at most games, but he could trounce me at certain titles, especially anything in the first-person shooter genre. That was his area of expertise, after all.