I suddenly felt ill, and I was also having a difficult time breathing. I realized I must be having some sort of panic attack. A total and complete freak-out. A massive mental meltdown. Whatever you want to call it. I went a little nuts.
I tried calling Aech, but he didn’t pick up. Either he was still pissed off at me, or he had other, more pressing matters to attend to. I was about to call Shoto, but then I remembered that his brother’s avatar had just been killed. He probably wasn’t in a very receptive mood.
I considered flying to Benatar to try to get Art3mis to talk to me, but then I came to my senses. She’d had the Jade Key in her possession for several days, and she still hadn’t been able to clear the Second Gate. Learning that the Sixers had done it in less than twenty-four hours had probably driven her into a psychotic rage. Or maybe a catatonic stupor. She probably didn’t feel like talking to anyone right now, least of all me.
I tried calling her anyway. As usual, she didn’t answer.
I was so desperate to hear a familiar voice that I resorted to talking to Max. In my current state, even his glib computer-generated voice was somehow comforting. Of course, it didn’t take long for Max to run out of preprogrammed replies; and when he started to repeat himself the illusion that I was talking to another person was shattered, and I felt even more alone. You know you’ve totally screwed up your life when your whole world turns to shit and the only person you have to talk to is your system agent software.
I couldn’t go back to sleep, so I stayed up watching the newsfeeds and scanning the gunter message boards. The Sixer armada remained on Frobozz, and their avatars were still farming copies of the Jade Key.
Sorrento had obviously learned from his previous mistake. Now that the Sixers alone knew the location of the Second Gate, they weren’t going to be stupid enough to reveal its location to the world by trying to barricade it with their armada. But they were still taking full advantage of the situation. As the day progressed, the Sixers continued to walk additional avatars through the Second Gate. After Sorrento made it through, another ten Sixers cleared it during the following twenty-four hours. As each Sixer score increased by 200,000 points, Art3mis, Aech, Shoto, and I were all pushed farther and farther down the Scoreboard until we’d been knocked out of the top ten entirely, and the Scoreboard’s main page displayed nothing but IOI employee numbers.
The Sixers now ruled the roost.
Then, when I was sure things couldn’t possibly get any worse, they did. They got much, much worse. Two days after he cleared the Second Gate, Sorrento’s score jumped another 30,000 points, indicating that he had just acquired the Crystal Key.
I sat there in my stronghold, staring at the monitors, watching all of this unfold in stunned horror. There was no denying it. The end of the contest was at hand. And it wasn’t going to end like I’d always thought it would, with some noble, worthy gunter finding the egg and winning the prize. I’d been kidding myself for the past five and a half years. We all had. This story was not going to have a happy ending. The bad guys were going to win.
I spent the next twenty-four hours in a frantic funk, obsessively checking the Scoreboard every five seconds, expecting the end to come at any moment.
Sorrento, or one of his many “Halliday experts,” had obviously been able to decipher the riddle and locate the Second Gate. But even though the proof was right there on the Scoreboard, I still had a hard time believing it. Up until now, the Sixers had only made progress by tracking Art3mis, Aech, or me. How had those same clueless asshats found the Second Gate on their own? Maybe they’d just gotten lucky. Or perhaps they’d discovered some new and innovative way to cheat. How else could they have solved the riddle so quickly, when Art3mis hadn’t been able to do it with several days’ head start?
My brain felt like hammered Play-Doh. I couldn’t make any sense of the clue printed on the Jade Key. I was completely out of ideas. Even lame ones. I didn’t know what to do or where to look next.
As the night went on, the Sixers continued to acquire copies of the Crystal Key. Each time one of their scores increased it was like a knife in my heart. But I couldn’t make myself stop checking the Scoreboard. I was utterly transfixed.
I felt myself inching toward complete hopelessness. My efforts over the past five years had been for nothing. I’d foolishly underestimated Sorrento and the Sixers. And I was about to pay the ultimate price for my hubris. Those soulless corporate lackeys were closing in on the egg at this very moment. I could sense it, with every fiber of my being.
I’d already lost Art3mis, and now I was going to lose the contest, too.
I’d already decided what I was going to do when it happened. First, I would choose one of the kids in my official fan club, someone with no money and a first-level newbie avatar, and give her every item I owned. Then I would activate the self-destruct sequence on my stronghold and sit in my command center while the whole place went up in a massive thermonuclear explosion. My avatar would die and GAME OVER would appear in the center of my display. Then I would rip off my visor and leave my apartment for the first time in six months. I would ride the elevator up to the roof. Or maybe I would even take the stairs. Get a little exercise.
There was an arboretum on the roof of my apartment building. I had never visited it, but I’d seen photos and admired the view via webcam. A transparent Plexiglas barrier had been installed around the ledge to keep people from jumping, but it was a joke. At least three determined individuals had managed to climb over it since I’d moved in.
I would sit up there and breathe the unfiltered city air for a while, feeling the wind on my skin. Then I would scale the barrier and hurl myself over the side.
This was my current plan.
I was trying to decide what tune I should whistle as I plummeted to my death when my phone rang. It was Shoto. I wasn’t in the mood to talk, so I let his call roll to vidmail, then watched as Shoto recorded his message. It was brief. He said he needed to come to my stronghold to give me something. Something Daito had left to me in his will.
When I returned his call to arrange a meeting, I could tell Shoto was an emotional wreck. His quiet voice was filled with pain, and the depth of his despair was apparent on the features of his avatar’s face. He seemed utterly despondent. In even worse shape than I was.
I asked Shoto why his brother had bothered to make out a “will” for his avatar, instead of just leaving his possessions in Shoto’s care. Then Daito could simply create a new avatar and reclaim the items his brother was holding for him. But Shoto told me that his brother would not be creating a new avatar. Not now, or ever. When I asked why, he promised to explain when he saw me in person.
Max alerted me when Shoto arrived an hour or so later. I granted his ship clearance to enter Falco’s airspace and told him to park in my hangar.
Shoto’s vessel was a large interplanetary trawler named the Kurosawa, modeled after a ship called the Bebop in the classic anime series Cowboy Bebop. Daito and Shoto had used it as their mobile base of operations for as long as I’d known them. The ship was so big that it barely fit through my hangar doors.
I was standing on the runway to greet Shoto as he emerged from the Kurosawa. He was dressed in black mourning robes, and his face bore the same inconsolable expression I’d seen when we spoke on the phone.
“Parzival-san,” he said, bowing low.
“Shoto-san.” I returned the bow respectfully, then stretched out my palm, a gesture he recognized from the time we’d spent questing together. Grinning, he reached out and slipped me some skin. But then his dark expression immediately resurfaced. This was the first time I’d seen Shoto since the quest we’d shared on Tokusatsu (not counting those “Daisho Energy Drink” commercials he and his brother appeared in), and his avatar seemed to be a few inches taller than I remembered.
I led him up to one of my stronghold’s rarely used “sitting rooms,” a re-creation of the living room set from Family Ties. Shoto recognized the decor and nodded his silent approval. Then, ignoring the furniture, he seated himself in the center of the floor. He sat seiza-style, folding his legs under his thighs. I did the same, positioning myself so that our avatars faced each other. We sat in silence for a while. When Shoto was finally ready to speak, he kept his eyes on the floor.
“The Sixers killed my brother last night,” he said, almost whispering.
At first, I was too stunned to reply. “You mean they killed his avatar?” I asked, even though I could already tell that wasn’t what he meant.
Shoto shook his head. “No. They broke into his apartment, pulled him out of his haptic chair, and threw him off his balcony. He lived on the forty-third floor.”
Shoto opened a browser window in the air beside us. It displayed a Japanese newsfeed article. I tapped it with my index finger, and the Mandarax software translated the text to English. The headline was ANOTHER OTAKU SUICIDE. The brief article below said that a young man, Toshiro Yoshiaki, age twenty-two, had jumped to his death from his apartment, located on the forty-third floor of a converted hotel in Shinjuku, Tokyo, where he lived alone. I saw a school photo of Toshiro beside the article. He was a young Japanese man with long, unkempt hair and bad skin. He didn’t look anything like his OASIS avatar.