When Shoto saw that I’d finished reading, he closed the window. I hesitated a moment before asking, “Are you sure he didn’t really commit suicide? Because his avatar had been killed?”
“No,” Shoto said. “Daito did not commit seppuku. I’m sure of it. The Sixers broke into his apartment while we were engaged in combat with them on Frobozz. That’s how they were able to defeat his avatar. By killing him, in the real world.”
“I’m sorry, Shoto.” I didn’t know what else to say. I knew he was telling the truth.
“My real name is Akihide,” he said. “I want you to know my true name.”
I smiled, then bowed, briefly pressing my forehead to the floor. “I appreciate your trusting me with your true name,” I said. “My true name is Wade.” I could no longer see the point in keeping secrets.
“Thank you, Wade,” Shoto said, returning the bow.
“You’re welcome, Akihide.”
He was silent for a moment; then he cleared his throat and began to talk about Daito. The words poured out of him. It was obvious he needed to talk to someone about what had happened. About what he’d lost.
“Daito’s real name was Toshiro Yoshiaki. I didn’t even know that until last night, until I saw the news article.”
“But … I thought you were his brother?” I’d always assumed that Daito and Shoto lived together. That they shared an apartment or something.
“My relationship with Daito is difficult to explain.” He stopped to clear his throat. “We were not brothers. Not in real life. Just in the OASIS. Do you understand? We only knew each other online. I never actually met him.” He slowly raised his eyes to meet my gaze, to see if I was judging him.
I reached out and rested a hand on his shoulder. “Believe me, Shoto. I understand. Aech and Art3mis are my two best friends, and I’ve never met either of them in real life either. In fact, you are one of my closest friends too.”
He bowed his head. “Thank you.” I could tell by his voice that he was crying now.
“We’re gunters,” I said, trying to fill the awkward silence. “We live here, in the OASIS. For us, this is the only reality that has any meaning.”
Akihide nodded. A few moments later he continued to talk.
He told me how he and Toshiro had met, six years ago, when they were both enrolled in an OASIS support group for hikikomori, young people who had withdrawn from society and chosen to live in total isolation. Hikikomori locked themselves in a room, read manga, and cruised the OASIS all day, relying on their families to bring them food. There had been hikikomori in Japan since back before the turn of the century, but their number had skyrocketed after the hunt for Halliday’s Easter egg began. Millions of young men and women all over the country had locked themselves away from the world. They sometimes called these children the “missing millions.”
Akihide and Toshiro became best friends and spent almost every day hanging out together in the OASIS. When the hunt for Halliday’s Easter egg began, they’d immediately decided to join forces and search for it together. They made a perfect team, because Toshiro was a prodigy at videogames, while the much younger Akihide was well versed in American pop culture. Akihide’s grandmother had attended school in the United States, and both of his parents had been born there, so Akihide had been raised on American movies and television, and he’d grown up learning to speak English and Japanese equally well.
Akihide and Toshiro’s mutual love of samurai movies served as the inspiration for their avatars’ names and appearances. Shoto and Daito had grown so close that they were now like brothers, so when they created their new gunter identities, they decided that in the OASIS they were brothers, from that moment on.
After Shoto and Daito cleared the First Gate and became famous, they gave several interviews with the media. They kept their identities a secret, but they did reveal that they were both Japanese, which made them instant celebrities in Japan. They began to endorse Japanese products and had a cartoon and a live-action TV series based on their exploits. At the height of their fame, Shoto had suggested to Daito that perhaps it was time for them to meet in person. Daito had flown into a rage and stopped speaking to Shoto for several days. After that, Shoto had never suggested it again.
Eventually, Shoto worked his way up to telling me how Daito’s avatar had died. The two of them had been aboard the Kurosawa, cruising between planets in Sector Seven, when the Scoreboard informed them that Aech had obtained the Jade Key. When that happened, they knew the Sixers would use Fyndoro’s Tablet of Finding to pinpoint Aech’s exact location and that their ships would soon be converging on it.
In preparation for this, Daito and Shoto had spent the past few weeks planting microscopic tracking devices on the hulls of every Sixer gunship they could find. Using these devices, they were able to follow the gunships when they all abruptly changed course and headed for Frobozz.
As soon as Shoto and Daito learned that Frobozz was the Sixers’ destination, they’d easily deciphered the meaning of the Quatrain. And by the time they reached Frobozz, just a few minutes later, they’d already figured out what they needed to do to obtain the Jade Key.
They landed the Kurosawa next to an instance of the white house that was still deserted. Shoto ran inside to collect the nineteen treasures and get the key, while Daito remained outside to stand guard. Shoto worked quickly, and he only had two treasures left to collect when Daito informed him by comlink that ten Sixer gunships were closing in on their location. He told his brother to hurry and promised to hold off the enemy until Shoto had the Jade Key. Neither of them knew if they’d have another chance to reach it.
As Shoto scrambled to get the last two treasures and place them in the trophy case, he remotely activated one of the Kurosawa’s external cameras and used it to record a short video of Daito’s confrontation with the approaching Sixers. Shoto opened a window and played this video clip for me. But he averted his eyes until it was over. He obviously had no desire to watch it again.
On the vidfeed, I saw Daito standing alone in the field beside the white house. A small fleet of Sixer gunships was descending out of the sky, and they began to fire their laser cannons as soon as they were within range. A hailstorm of fiery red bolts began to rain down all around Daito. Behind him, in the distance, I could see more Sixer gunships setting down, and each one was off-loading squadrons of power-armored ground troops. Daito was surrounded.
The Sixers had obviously spotted the Kurosawa during its descent to the planet’s surface, and they’d made killing the two samurai a priority.
Daito didn’t hesitate to use the ace up his sleeve. He pulled out the Beta Capsule, held it aloft in his right hand, and activated it. His avatar instantly changed into Ultraman, a glowing-eyed red-and-silver alien superhero. As his avatar transformed, he also grew to a height of 156 feet.
The Sixer ground forces closing in on him froze in their tracks, staring up in frightened awe as Ultraman Daito snatched two gunships out of the sky and smashed them together, like a giant child playing with two tiny metal toys. He dropped the flaming wreckage to the ground and began to swat other Sixer gunships out of the sky like bothersome flies. The ships that escaped his deadly grasp banked around and sprayed him with laser bolts and machine-gun fire, but both deflected harmlessly off his armored alien skin. Daito let out a booming laugh that echoed across the landscape. Then he made a cross with his arms, intersecting at the wrists. A glowing energy beam blasted forth from his hands, vaporizing half a dozen gunships unlucky enough to fly through its path. Daito turned and swept the beam over the Sixer ground forces around him, frying them like terrified ants under a magnifying glass.
Daito appeared to be enjoying himself immensely. So much so that he paid little attention to the warning light embedded in the center of his chest, which had now begun to flash bright red. This was a signal that his three minutes as Ultraman had nearly elapsed and that his power was almost depleted. This time limit was Ultraman’s primary weakness. If Daito failed to deactivate the Beta Capsule and return to human form before his three minutes were up, his avatar would die. But it was obvious that if he changed back into his human form right now, in the middle of the massive Sixer onslaught, he’d be killed instantly too. And Shoto would never be able to reach the ship.
I could see the Sixer troops around Daito screaming into their comlinks for backup, and additional Sixer gunships were still arriving in droves. Daito was blasting them out of the sky one at a time, with perfectly aimed bursts of his specium ray. And with each blast he fired, the warning light on his chest pulsed faster.
Then Shoto emerged from the white house and told his brother via comlink that he’d acquired the Jade Key. In that same instant, the Sixer ground forces spotted Shoto, and sensing a much easier target, they began to redirect their fire at his avatar.
Shoto made a mad dash for the Kurosawa. When he activated the Boots of Speed he was wearing, his avatar became a barely visible blur racing across the open field. As Shoto ran, Daito repositioned his giant form to provide him with as much cover as possible. Still firing energy blasts, he was able to keep the Sixers at bay.
Then Daito’s voice broke in on the comlink. “Shoto!” he shouted. “I think someone is here! Someone is inside—”