Ready Player One (Page 18)
“I seek the Copper Key,” I replied. Then I remembered I was speaking to a king, so I quickly bowed my head, dropped to one knee, and added, “Your Majesty.”
“Of course you do,” Acererak said, motioning for me to rise. “And you’ve come to the right place.” He stood, and his mummified skin cracked like old leather as he moved. I clutched my sword more tightly, still anticipating an attack.
“How can I know that you are worthy of possessing the Copper Key?” he asked.
Holy s**t! How the hell was I supposed to answer that? And what if I gave the wrong answer? Would he suck out my soul and incinerate me?
I racked my brain for a suitable reply. The best I could come up with was, “Allow me to prove my worth, noble Acererak.”
The lich let out a long, disturbing cackle that echoed off the chamber’s stone walls. “Very well!” he said. “You shall prove your worth by facing me in a joust!”
I’d never heard of an undead lich king challenging someone to a joust. Especially not in a subterranean burial chamber. “All right,” I said uncertainly. “But won’t we be needing horses for that?”
“Not horses,” he replied, stepping away from his throne. “Birds.”
He waved a skeletal hand at his throne. There was a brief flash of light, accompanied by a transformation sound effect (which I was pretty sure had been lifted from the old Super Friends cartoon). The throne melted and morphed into an old coin-operated videogame cabinet. Two joysticks protruded from its control panel, one yellow and one blue. I couldn’t help but grin as I read the name on the game’s backlit marquee: JOUST. Williams Electronics, 1982.
“Best two out of three games,” Acererak rasped. “If you win, I shall grant you what you seek.”
“What if you win?” I asked, already knowing the answer.
“If I am victorious,” the lich said, the rubies in his eye sockets blazing even brighter, “then you shall die!” A ball of swirling orange flame appeared in his right hand. He raised it threateningly.
“Of course,” I said. “That was my first guess. Just wanted to double-check.”
The fireball in Acererak’s hand vanished. He stretched out his leathery palm, which now held two shiny quarters. “The games are on me,” he said. He stepped up to the Joust machine and dropped both quarters into the left coin slot. The game emitted two low electronic chimes and the credit counter jumped from zero to two.
Acererak took hold of the yellow joystick on the left side of the control panel and closed his bony fingers around it. “Art thou ready?” he croaked.
“Yeah,” I said, taking a deep breath. I cracked my knuckles and grabbed the Player Two joystick with my left hand, poising my right hand over the Flap button.
Acererak rocked his head from left to right, cracking his neck. It sounded like a snapping tree branch. Then he slapped the Two Player button and the joust began.
Joust was a classic ’80s arcade game with a strange premise. Each player controls a knight armed with a lance. Player One is mounted on an ostrich, while Player Two is mounted on a stork. You flap your wings to fly around the screen and “joust” with the other player, and also against several computer-controlled enemy knights (who are all mounted on buzzards). When you crash into an opponent, whoever’s lance is higher on the screen wins the joust. The loser is killed and loses a life. Whenever you kill one of the enemy knights, his buzzard craps out a green egg that quickly hatches into another enemy knight if you don’t scoop it up in time. There’s also a winged pterodactyl that appears once in a while to wreak havoc.
I hadn’t played Joust in over a year. It was one of Aech’s favorite games, and for a while he’d had a Joust cabinet in his chat room. He used to challenge me to a game whenever he wanted to settle an argument or some asinine pop-culture dispute. For a few months, we played almost every day. In the beginning, Aech was slightly better than I was, and he had a habit of gloating over his victories. This had really irked me, so I started practicing Joust on my own, playing a few games a night against an AI opponent. I honed my skills until I finally got good enough to beat Aech, repeatedly and consistently. Then I began to gloat over him, savoring my revenge. The last time we’d played, I’d rubbed his nose in defeat so mercilessly that he’d flipped out and vowed never to play me again. Since then, we’d used Street Fighter II to settle our disputes.
My Joust skills were a lot rustier than I thought. I spent the first five minutes just trying to relax and to reacquaint myself with the controls and the rhythm of the game. During this time, Acererak managed to kill me twice, mercilessly slamming his winged mount into mine at the perfect trajectory. He handled the game’s controls with the calculated perfection of a machine. Which, of course, was exactly what he was—cutting-edge NPC artificial intelligence, programmed by Halliday himself.
By the end of our first game, the moves and tricks I’d picked up during all those marathon bouts with Aech were starting to come back to me. But Acererak didn’t need a warm-up. He was in perfect form from the outset, and there was no way I could make up for my weak showing at the start of the game. He killed off my last man before I even cleared 30,000 points. Embarrassing.
“One game down, Parzival,” he said, flashing a rictus grin. “One more to go.”
He didn’t waste time by making me stand there and watch him play out the rest of his game. He reached up and found the power switch at the rear of the game cabinet, then flipped it off and back on. After the screen cycled through its chromatic Williams Electronics boot-up sequence, he snatched two more quarters out of thin air and dropped them into the game.
“Art thou ready?” he inquired again, hunching over the control panel.
I hesitated a moment, then asked, “Actually, would you mind if we switched sides? I’m used to playing on the left.”
It was true. When Aech and I played in the Basement, I always took the ostrich side. Being on the right side during the first game had screwed up my rhythm a bit.
Acererak appeared to consider my request for a moment. Then he nodded. “Certainly,” he said. He stepped back from the cabinet and we switched sides. It suddenly occurred to me just how absurd this scene was: a guy wearing a suit of armor, standing next to an undead king, both hunched over the controls of a classic arcade game. It was the sort of surreal image you’d expect to see on the cover of an old issue of Heavy Metal or Dragon magazine.
Acererak slapped the Two Player button, and my eyes locked on the screen.
The next game started out badly for me too. My opponent’s movements were relentless and precise, and I spent the first few waves just trying to evade him. I was also distracted by the incessant click of his skeletal index finger as he tapped his Flap button.
I unclenched my jaw and cleared my mind, forcing myself not to think about where I was, who I was playing against, or what was at stake. I tried to imagine that I was back in the Basement, playing against Aech.
It worked. I slipped into the zone, and the tide began to turn in my favor. I began to find the flaws in the lich’s playing style, the holes in his programming. This was something I’d learned over the years, mastering hundreds of different videogames. There was always a trick to beating a computer-controlled opponent. At a game like this, a gifted human player could always triumph over the game’s AI, because software couldn’t improvise. It could either react randomly, or in a limited number of predetermined ways, based on a finite number of preprogrammed conditions. This was an axiom in videogames, and would be until humans invented true artificial intelligence.
Our second game came right down to the wire, but by the end of it, I’d spotted a pattern to the lich’s playing technique. By changing my ostrich’s direction at a certain moment, I could get him to slam his stork into one of the oncoming buzzards. By repeating this move, I was able to pick off his extra lives, one by one. I died several times myself in the process, but I finally took him down during the tenth wave, with no extra lives of my own to spare.
I stepped back from the machine and sighed with relief. I could feel rivulets of sweat running down my forehead and around the edge of my visor. I wiped at my face with the sleeve of my shirt, and my avatar mimicked this motion.
“Good game,” Acererak said. Then, to my surprise, he offered me his withered claw of a hand. I shook it, chuckling nervously as I did so.
“Yeah,” I replied. “Good game, man.” It occurred to me that, in a weird way, I was actually playing against Halliday. I quickly pushed the thought out of my head, afraid I might psych myself out.
Acererak once again produced two quarters and dropped them into the Joust machine. “This one is for all the marbles,” he said. “Art thou ready?”
I nodded. This time, I took the liberty of slapping the Two Player button myself.
Our final tie-breaking game lasted longer than the first two combined. During the final wave, so many buzzards filled the screen that it was hard to move without getting dusted by one of them. The lich and I faced off one final time, at the very top of the playing field, both of us incessantly hitting our Flap buttons while slamming our joysticks left and right. Acererak made a final, desperate move to avoid my charge and dropped a micrometer too low. His final mount died in a tiny pixelated explosion.