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Ready Player One, Page 29

Ernest Cline


  Sorrento stepped forward, holding out his copy of the Crystal Key. He slid the key into the keyhole and turned it. Nothing happened.

  Sorrento glanced up at the three words printed on the gate. “Charity, hope, faith,” he said, reading them aloud. Once again, nothing happened.

  Sorrento removed the key, recited the three words again, then reinserted the key and turned it. Still nothing.

  I studied Aech, Art3mis, and Shoto as they watched the video. Their excitement and curiosity had already shifted into concentration as they attempted to solve the puzzle before them. I paused the video. “Whenever Sorrento is logged in, he has a team of consultants and researchers watching his every move,” I said. “You can hear their voices on some of the vidcaps, feeding him suggestions and advice through his comlink. So far, they haven’t been much help. Watch—”

  On the video, Sorrento was making another attempt to open the gate. He did everything exactly as before, except this time, when he inserted the Crystal Key, he turned it counterclockwise instead of clockwise.

  “They try every asinine thing you can imagine,” I said. “Sorrento recites the words on the gate in Latin. And Elvish. And Klingon. Then they get hung up on reciting First Corinthians 13:13, a Bible verse that contains the words ‘charity, hope, and faith.’ Apparently, ‘charity, hope, and faith’ are also the names of three martyred Catholic saints. The Sixers have been trying to attach some significance to that for the past few days.”

  “Morons,” Aech said. “Halliday was an atheist.”

  “They’re getting desperate now,” I said. “Sorrento has tried everything but genuflecting, doing a little dance, and sticking his pinky finger in the keyhole.”

  “That’s probably next up on his agenda,” Shoto said, grinning.

  “Charity, hope, faith,” Art3mis said, reciting the words slowly. She turned to me. “Where do I know that from?”

  “Yeah,” Aech said. “Those words do sound familiar.”

  “It took me a while to place them too,” I said.

  They all looked at me expectantly.

  “Say them in reverse order,” I suggested. “Better yet, sing them in reverse order.”

  Art3mis’s eyes narrowed. “Faith, hope, charity,” she said. She repeated them a few times, recognition growing in her face. Then she sang: “Faith and hope and charity …”

  Aech picked up the next line: “The heart and the brain and the body …”

  “Give you three … as a magic number!” Shoto finished triumphantly.

  “Schoolhouse Rock!” they all shouted in unison.

  “See?” I said. “I knew you guys would get it. You’re a smart bunch.”

  “ ‘Three Is a Magic Number,’ music and lyrics by Bob Dorough,” Art3mis recited, as if pulling the information from a mental encyclopedia. “Written in 1973.”

  I smiled at her. “I have a theory. I think this might be Halliday’s way of telling us how many keys are required to open the Third Gate.”

  Art3mis grinned, then sang, “It takes three.”

  “No more, no less,” continued Shoto.

  “You don’t have to guess,” added Aech.

  “Three,” I finished, “is the magic number.” I took out my own copy of the Crystal Key and held it up. The others did the same. “We have four copies of the key. If at least three of us can reach the gate, we can get it open.”

  “What then?” Aech asked. “Do we all enter the gate at the same time?”

  “What if only one of us can enter the gate once it’s open?” Art3mis said.

  “I doubt Halliday would have set it up like that,” I said.

  “Who knows what that crazy bastard was thinking?” Art3mis said. “He’s toyed with us every step of the way, and now he’s doing it again. Why else would he require three copies of the Crystal Key to open the final gate?”

  “Maybe because he wanted to force us to work together?” I suggested.

  “Or he just wanted the contest to end with a big, dramatic finale,” Aech offered. “Think about it. If three avatars enter the Third Gate at the exact same moment, then it becomes a race to see who can clear the gate and reach the egg first.”

  “Halliday was one crazy, sadistic bastard,” Art3mis muttered.

  “Yeah,” Aech said, nodding. “You got that right.”

  “Look at it this way,” Shoto said. “If Halliday hadn’t set up the Third Gate to require three keys … the Sixers might have already found the egg by now.”

  “But the Sixers have a dozen avatars with copies of the Crystal Key,” Aech said. “They could open the gate right now, if they were smart enough to figure out how.”

  “Dilettantes,” Art3mis said. “It’s their own fault for not knowing all the Schoolhouse Rock! lyrics by heart. How did those fools even get this far?”

  “By cheating,” I said. “Remember?”

  “Oh, that’s right. I keep forgetting.” She grinned at me, and I felt my knees go all rubbery.

  “Just because the Sixers haven’t opened the gate yet doesn’t mean they won’t figure it out eventually,” Shoto said.

  I nodded. “Shoto’s right. Sooner or later they’ll make the Schoolhouse Rock! connection. So we can’t waste any more time.”

  “Well, what are we waiting for?” Shoto said excitedly. “We know where the gate is and how to open it! So let’s do it! And may the best gunter win!”

  “You’re forgetting something, Shoto-san,” Aech said. “Parzival here still hasn’t told us how we’re going to get past that shield, fight our way through the Sixers’ army, and get inside the castle.” He turned to me. “You do have a plan for that, don’t you, Z?”

  “Of course,” I said. “I was just getting to that.” I made a sweeping gesture with my right hand, and a three-dimensional hologram of Castle Anorak appeared, floating in the air in front of me. The transparent blue sphere generated by the Orb of Osuvox appeared around the castle, surrounding it both above- and belowground. I pointed to it. “This shield is going to drop on its own, at noon on Monday, about thirty-six hours from now. And then we’re going to walk right through the castle’s front entrance.”

  “The shield is going to drop? On its own?” Art3mis repeated. “The clans have been lobbing nukes at that sphere for the past two weeks, and they haven’t even scratched it. How are you going to get it to ‘drop on its own’?”

  “I’ve already taken care of it,” I said. “You guys are gonna have to trust me.”

  “I trust you, Z,” Aech said. “But even if that shield does drop, to reach the castle, we’ll still have to fight our way through the largest army in the OASIS.” He pointed to the hologram, which showed the Sixer troop positions around the castle, just inside the sphere. “What about these fools? And their tanks? And their gunships?”

  “Obviously, we’re going to need a little help,” I said.

  “A lot of help,” Art3mis clarified.

  “And who, exactly, are we going to convince to help us wage war against the entire Sixer army?” Aech asked.

  “Everyone,” I said. “Every single gunter on the grid.” I opened another window, displaying the brief e-mail I’d composed just before logging into the Basement. “I’m going to send this message out tonight, to every single OASIS user.”

  Fellow gunters,

  It is a dark day. After years of deception, exploitation, and knavery, the Sixers have finally managed to buy and cheat their way to the entrance of the Third Gate.

  As you know, IOI has barricaded Castle Anorak in an attempt to prevent anyone else from reaching the egg. We’ve also learned that they’ve used illegal methods to uncover the identities of gunters they consider a threat, with the intention of abducting and murdering them.

  If gunters around the world don’t join forces to stop the Sixers, they will reach the egg and win the contest. And then the OASIS will fall under IOI’s imperialist rule.

  The time is now. Our assault on the Sixer army will begin tomorr
ow at noon, OST.

  Join us!


  Aech, Art3mis, Parzival, and Shoto

  “Knavery?” Art3mis said after she’d finished reading it. “Were you using a thesaurus when you wrote this?”

  “I was trying to make it sound, you know, grand,” I said. “Official.”

  “Me likey, Z,” Aech said. “It really gets the blood stirring.”

  “Thanks, Aech.”

  “So that’s it? This is your plan?” Art3mis said. “Spam the entire OASIS, asking for help?”

  “More or less, yeah. That’s the plan.”

  “And you really think everyone will just show up and help us fight the Sixers?” she said. “Just for the hell of it?”

  “Yes,” I said. “I do.”

  Aech nodded. “He’s right. No one wants the Sixers to win the contest. And they definitely don’t want IOI to take control of the OASIS. People will jump at a chance to help bring the Sixers down. And what gunter is gonna pass up a chance to fight in such an epic, history-making battle?”

  “But won’t the clans think we’re just trying to manipulate them?” Shoto said. “So that we can reach the gate ourselves?”

  “Of course,” I said. “But most of them have already given up. Everyone knows the end of the Hunt is at hand. Don’t you think most people would rather see one of us win the contest, instead of Sorrento and the Sixers?”

  Art3mis considered it for a moment. “You’re right. That e-mail just might work.”

  “Z,” Aech said, slapping me on the back, “you are an evil, sublime genius! When that e-mail goes out, the media will go apeshit! The word will spread like wildfire. By this time tomorrow, every avatar in the OASIS will be headed to Chthonia.”

  “Let’s hope so,” I said.

  “Oh, they’ll show up, all right,” Art3mis said. “But how many of them will actually fight, once they see what we’re up against? Most of them will probably set up lawn chairs and eat popcorn while they watch us get our asses kicked.”

  “That’s definitely a possibility,” I said. “But the clans will help us, for sure. They’ve got nothing to lose. And we don’t have to defeat the entire Sixer army. We just have to punch a hole through it, get inside the castle, and reach the gate.”

  “Three of us have to reach the gate,” Aech said. “If only one or two of us make it inside, we’re screwed.”

  “Correct,” I said. “So we should all try extremely hard not to get killed.”

  Art3mis and Aech both laughed nervously. Shoto just shook his head. “Even if we get the gate open, we still have to contend with the gate itself,” he said. “It’s bound to be harder to clear than the first two.”

  “Let’s worry about the gate later,” I said. “Once we reach it.”

  “Fine,” Shoto said. “Let’s do this thing.”

  “I second that,” Aech said.

  “So, you two are actually gonna go along with this?” Art3mis said.

  “You got a better idea, sister?” Aech asked.

  She shrugged. “No. Not really.”

  “OK then,” Aech said. “It’s settled.”

  I closed the e-mail. “I’m sending each of you a copy of this message,” I said. “Start sending it out tonight, to everyone on your contact list. Post it on your blogs. Broadcast it on your POV channels. We’ve got thirty-six hours to spread the word. That should be enough time for everyone to gear up and get their avatars to Chthonia.”

  “As soon as the Sixers catch wind of this, they’ll start preparing for an assault,” Art3mis said. “They’re gonna pull out all the stops.”

  “They might just laugh it off,” I said. “They think their shield is impregnable.”

  “It is,” Art3mis said. “So I hope you’re right about being able to shut it down.”

  “Don’t worry.”

  “Why would I be worried?” Art3mis snapped. “Maybe you’ve forgotten, but I’m homeless and on the run for my life right now! I’m currently logged in from a public terminal at an airport, paying for bandwidth by the minute. I can’t fight a war from here, much less try to clear the Third Gate. And I don’t have anywhere to go.”

  Shoto nodded. “I don’t think I can stay where I am either. I’m in a rented booth at a public manga cafe in Osaka. I don’t have much privacy. And I don’t think it’s safe for me to stay here if the Sixers have agents out looking for me.”

  Art3mis looked at me. “Any suggestions?”

  “I hate to break it to you guys, but I’m homeless and logged in from a public terminal right now too,” I said. “I’ve been hiding out from the Sixers for over a year, remember?”

  “I’ve got an RV,” Aech said. “You’re all welcome to crash with me. But I don’t think I can make it to Columbus, Vancouver, and Japan in the next thirty-six hours.”

  “I think I might be able to help you guys out,” a deep voice said.

  We all jumped and turned around just in time to see a tall, male, gray-haired avatar appear directly behind us. It was the Great and Powerful Og. Ogden Morrow’s avatar. And he didn’t materialize slowly, the way an avatar normally did when logging into a chat room. He simply popped into existence, as if he had been there all along and had only now decided to make himself visible.

  “Have any of you ever been to Oregon?” he said. “It’s lovely this time of year.”

  We all stared at Ogden Morrow in stunned silence.

  “How did you get in here?” Aech finally asked, once he’d managed to pick his jaw up off the floor. “This is a private chat room.”

  “Yes, I know,” Morrow said, looking a bit embarrassed. “I’m afraid I’ve been eavesdropping on the four of you for quite some time now. And I hope you’ll accept my sincere apologies for invading your privacy. I did it with only the best intentions, I promise you.”

  “With all due respect, sir,” Art3mis said. “You didn’t answer his question. How did you gain access to this chat room without an invitation? And without any of us even knowing you were here?”

  “Forgive me,” he said. “I can see why this might concern you. But you needn’t worry. My avatar has many unique powers, including the ability to enter private chat rooms uninvited.” As Morrow spoke, he walked over to one of Aech’s bookshelves and began to browse through some vintage role-playing game supplements. “Prior to the original launch of the OASIS, when Jim and I created our avatars, we gave ourselves superuser access to the entire simulation. In addition to being immortal and invincible, our avatars could go pretty much anywhere and do pretty much anything. Now that Anorak is gone, my avatar is the only one with these powers.” He turned to face the four of us. “No one else has the ability to eavesdrop on you. Especially not the Sixers. OASIS chat-room encryption protocols are rock solid, I assure you.” He chuckled lightly. “My presence here notwithstanding.”

  “He knocked over that stack of comic books!” I said to Aech. “After our first meeting in here, remember? I told you it wasn’t a software glitch.”

  Og nodded and gave us a guilty shrug. “That was me. I can be pretty clumsy at times.”

  There was another brief silence, during which I finally worked up the courage to speak to Morrow directly. “Mr. Morrow—,” I began.

  “Please,” Morrow said, raising a hand. “Call me Og.”

  “All right,” I said, laughing nervously. Even under the circumstances, I was completely starstruck. I couldn’t believe I was actually addressing the Ogden Morrow. “Og. Would you mind telling us why you’ve been eavesdropping on us?”

  “Because I want to help you,” he replied. “And from what I heard a moment ago, it sounds as though you could all use my help.” We all exchanged nervous looks, and Og seemed to detect our skepticism. “Please, don’t misunderstand me,” he continued. “I’m not going to give you any clues, or provide you with any information to help you reach the egg. That would ruin all the fun, wouldn’t it?” He walked back over to us, and his tone turned serious. “Just before he died, I promise
d Jim that, in his absence, I would do everything I could to protect the spirit and integrity of his contest. That’s why I’m here.”

  “But, sir—Og,” I said. “In your autobiography, you wrote that you and James Halliday didn’t speak during the last ten years of his life.”

  Morrow gave me an amused smile. “Come on, kid,” he said. “You can’t believe everything you read.” He laughed. “Actually, that statement was mostly true. I didn’t speak with Jim for the last decade of his life. Not until just a few weeks before he died.” He paused, as if calling up the memory. “At the time, I didn’t even know he was sick. He just called me up out of the blue, and we met in a private chat room, much like this one. Then he told me about his illness, the contest, and what he had planned. He was worried there might still be a few bugs in the gates. Or that complications might arise after he was gone that would prevent the contest from proceeding as he’d intended.”

  “You mean like the Sixers?” Shoto asked.

  “Exactly,” Og said. “Like the Sixers. So Jim asked me to monitor the contest, and to intervene if it ever became necessary.” He scratched his beard. “To be honest, I didn’t really want the responsibility. But it was the dying wish of my oldest friend, so I agreed. And for the past six years, I’ve watched from the sidelines. And even though the Sixers have done everything to stack the odds against you, somehow you four have persevered. But now, after hearing you describe your current circumstances, I think the time has finally come for me to take action, to maintain the integrity of Jim’s game.”

  Art3mis, Shoto, Aech, and I all exchanged looks of amazement, as if seeking reassurance from one another that this was all really happening.

  “I want to offer the four of you sanctuary at my home here in Oregon,” Og said. “From here, you’ll be able to execute your plan and complete your quest in safety, without having to worry about Sixer agents tracking you down and kicking in your door. I can provide each of you with a state-of-the-art immersion rig, a fiber-optic connection to the OASIS, and anything else you might need.”

  Another stunned silence. “Thank you, sir!” I finally blurted out, resisting the urge to fall to my knees and bow repeatedly.

  “It’s the least I can do.”

  “That’s an incredibly kind offer, Mr. Morrow,” Shoto said. “But I live in Japan.”

  “I know, Shoto,” Og said. “I’ve already chartered a private jet for you. It’s waiting at the Osaka airport. If you send me your current location, I’ll arrange for a limo to pick you up and take you to the runway.”

  Shoto was speechless for a second; then he bowed low. “Arigato, Morrow-san.”

  “Don’t mention it, kid.” He turned to Art3mis. “Young lady, I understand that you’re currently at the Vancouver airport? I’ve made travel arrangements for you, as well. A driver is currently waiting for you in the baggage claim area, holding a sign with the name ‘Benatar’ on it. He’ll take you to the plane I’ve chartered for you.”

  For a second I thought Art3mis might bow too. But then she ran over and threw her arms around Og in a bear hug. “Thank you, Og,” she said. “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

  “You’re welcome, dear,” he said with an embarrassed laugh. When she finally released him, he turned to Aech and me. “Aech, I understand that you have a vehicle, and that you’re currently in the vicinity of Pittsburgh?” Aech nodded. “If you wouldn’t mind driving to Columbus to retrieve your friend Parzival here, I’ll arrange for a jet to pick up both of you at the Columbus airport. That is, if you boys don’t mind sharing a ride?”

  “No, that sounds perfect,” Aech said, glancing at me sideways. “Thanks, Og.”

  “Yes, thank you,” I repeated. “You’re a lifesaver.”

  “I hope so.” He gave me a grim smile, then turned to address everyone. “Safe travels, all of you. I’ll see you soon.” And then he vanished, just as quickly as he’d appeared.

  “Well, this blows,” I said, turning to Aech. “Art3mis and Shoto get limos, and I have to bum a ride to the airport with your ugly ass? In some shit-heap RV?”