Every single newsfeed seemed to be showing a screenshot of the Scoreboard. And my avatar’s name was there at the top, in first place. Art3mis was still in second place, but the score beside her name had now increased to 109,000, just 1,000 points less than mine. And, like me, she had a copper-colored gate icon beside her score now too.
So she’d done it. While I’d slept, she’d deciphered the inscription on the Copper Key. Then she’d gone to Middletown, located the gate, and made it all the way through WarGames, just a few hours after I had.
I no longer felt quite so impressed with myself.
I flipped past a few more channels before stopping on one of the major newsfeed networks, where I saw two men sitting in front of a screenshot of the Scoreboard. The man on the left, some middle-aged intellectual type billed as “Edgar Nash, Gunter Expert” appeared to be explaining the scores to the newsfeed anchor beside him.
“—appears that the avatar named Parzival received slightly more points for being the first to find the Copper Key,” Nash said, pointing to the Scoreboard. “Then, early this morning, Parzival’s score increased another one hundred thousand points, and a Copper Gate icon appeared beside his score. The same change occurred to Art3mis’s score a few hours later. This seems to indicate that both of them have now completed the first of the three gates.”
“The famous Three Gates that James Halliday spoke of in the Anorak’s Invitation video?” the anchor said.
“The very same.”
“But Mr. Nash. After five years, how is it that two avatars accomplished this feat on the same day, within just a few hours of each other?”
“Well, I think there’s only one plausible answer. These two people, Parzival and Art3mis, must be working together. They’re probably both members of what is known as a ‘gunter clan.’ These are groups of egg hunters who—”
I frowned and changed the channel, surfing the feeds until I saw an overly enthusiastic reporter interviewing Ogden Morrow via satellite. The Ogden Morrow.
“—joining us live from his home in Oregon. Thanks for being with us today, Mr. Morrow!”
“No problem,” Morrow replied. It had been almost six years since Morrow had last spoken to the media, but he didn’t seem to have aged a day. His wild gray hair and long beard made him look like a cross between Albert Einstein and Santa Claus. That comparison was also a pretty good description of his personality.
The reporter cleared his throat, obviously a bit nervous. “Let me start off by asking what your reaction is to the events of the last twenty-four hours. Were you surprised to see those names appear on Halliday’s Scoreboard?”
“Surprised? Yes, a little, I suppose. But ‘excited’ is probably a better word. Like everyone else, I’ve been watching and waiting for this to happen. Of course, I wasn’t sure if I’d still be alive when it finally did! I’m glad that I am. It’s all very exciting, isn’t it?”
“Do you think these two gunters, Parzival and Art3mis, are working together?”
“I have no idea. I suppose it’s possible.”
“As you know, Gregarious Simulation Systems keeps all OASIS user records confidential, so we have no way of knowing their true identities. Do you think either of them will come forward and reveal themselves to the public?”
“Not if they’re smart, they won’t,” Morrow said, adjusting his wire-rimmed spectacles. “If I were in their shoes, I’d do everything possible to remain anonymous.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because once the world discovers who they really are, they’ll never have a moment’s peace afterward. If people think you can help them find Halliday’s egg, they’ll never leave you alone. Trust me, I know from experience.”
“Yes, I suppose you do.” The reporter flashed a fake smile. “However, this network has contacted both Parzival and Art3mis via e-mail, and we’ve extended generous monetary offers to each of them in return for an exclusive interview, either in the OASIS or here in the real world.”
“I’m sure they’re receiving many such offers. But I doubt they’ll accept,” Morrow said. Then he looked straight into the camera, and I felt as if he was now speaking directly to me. “Anyone smart enough to accomplish what they have should know better than to risk everything by talking to the vultures in the media.”
The reporter chuckled uncomfortably. “Ah, Mr. Morrow … I really don’t think that’s called for.”
Morrow shrugged. “Too bad. I do.”
The reporter cleared his throat again. “Well, moving on … Do you have any predictions about what changes we might see on the Scoreboard in the weeks to come?”
“I’m betting that those other eight empty slots will fill up pretty quickly.”
“What makes you think so?”
“One person can keep a secret, but not two,” he replied, staring directly into the camera again. “I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong. But I am sure of one thing. The Sixers are going to use every dirty trick at their disposal to learn the location of the Copper Key and the First Gate.”
“You’re referring to the employees of Innovative Online Industries?”
“Yes. IOI. The Sixers. Their sole purpose is to exploit loopholes in the contest rules and subvert the intention of Jim’s will. The very soul of the OASIS is at stake here. The last thing Jim would have wanted is for his creation to fall into the hands of a fascist multinational conglomerate like IOI.”
“Mr. Morrow, IOI owns this network.…”
“Of course they do!” Morrow shouted gleefully. “They own practically everything! Including you, pretty boy! I mean, did they tattoo a UPC code on your ass when they hired you to sit there and spout their corporate propaganda?”
The reporter began to stutter, glancing nervously at something off camera.
“Quick!” Morrow said. “You better cut me off before I say anything else!” He broke up into gales of laughter just as the network cut his satellite feed.
The reporter took a few seconds to regroup, then said, “Thank you again for joining us today, Mr. Morrow. Unfortunately that’s all the time we have to speak with him. Now let’s go back to Judy, who is standing by with a panel of renowned Halliday scholars—”
I smiled and closed the vidfeed window, pondering the old man’s advice. I’d always suspected that Morrow knew more about the contest than he was letting on.
Morrow and Halliday had grown up together, founded a company together, and changed the world together. But Morrow had led a very different life from Halliday’s—one involving a much greater connection to humanity. And a great deal more tragedy.
During the mid-’90s, back when Gregarious Simulation Systems was still just Gregarious Games, Morrow had moved in with his high-school sweetheart, Kira Underwood. Kira was born and raised in London. (Her birth name was Karen, but she’d insisted on being called Kira ever since her first viewing of The Dark Crystal.) Morrow met her when she spent her junior year as an exchange student at his high school. In his autobiography, Morrow wrote that she was the “quintessential geek girl,” unabashedly obsessed with Monty Python, comic books, fantasy novels, and videogames. She and Morrow shared a few classes at school, and he was smitten with her almost immediately. He invited her to attend his weekly Dungeons & Dragons gaming sessions (just as he’d done with Halliday a few years earlier), and to his surprise, she accepted. “She became the lone female in our weekly gaming group,” Morrow wrote. “And every single one of the guys developed a massive crush on her, including Jim. She was actually the one who gave him the nickname ‘Anorak,’ a British slang term for an obsessive geek. I think Jim adopted it as the name of his D and D character to impress her. Or maybe it was his way of trying to let her know he was in on the joke. The opposite sex made Jim extremely nervous, and Kira was the only girl I ever saw him speak to in a relaxed manner. But even then, it was only in character, as Anorak, during the course of our gaming sessions. And he would only address her as Leucosia, the name of her D and D character.”
Ogden and Kira began dating. By the end of the school year, when it was time for her to return home to London, the two of them had openly declared their love for each other. They kept in touch during their remaining year of school by e-mailing every day, using an early pre-Internet computer bulletin board network called FidoNet. When they both graduated from high school, Kira returned to the States, moved in with Morrow, and became one of Gregarious Games’ first employees. (For the first two years, she was their entire art department.) They got engaged a few years after the launch of the OASIS. They were married a year later, at which time Kira resigned from her position as an artistic director at GSS. (She was a millionaire now too, thanks to her company stock options.) Morrow stayed on at GSS for five more years. Then, in the summer of 2022, he announced he was leaving the company. At the time, he claimed it was for “personal reasons.” But years later, Morrow wrote in his autobiography that he’d left GSS because “we were no longer in the videogame business,” and because he felt that the OASIS had evolved into something horrible. “It had become a self-imposed prison for humanity,” he wrote. “A pleasant place for the world to hide from its problems while human civilization slowly collapses, primarily due to neglect.”