But now I knew there must be a way to enter Castle Anorak. Because the Third Gate was hidden somewhere inside.
When I got back to my ship, I blasted off and set a course for Chthonia in Sector Ten. Then I began to scan the newsfeeds, intending to check out the media frenzy my return to first place was generating. But my score wasn’t the top story. No, the big news that afternoon was that the hiding place of Halliday’s Easter egg had, at long last, finally been revealed to the world. It was, the news anchors said, located somewhere on the planet Chthonia, inside Castle Anorak. They knew this because the entire Sixer army was now encamped around the castle.
They’d arrived earlier that day, shortly after I’d cleared the Second Gate.
I knew the timing couldn’t be a coincidence. My progress must have prompted the Sixers to end their covert attempts to clear the Third Gate and make its location public by barricading it before I or anyone else could reach it.
When I arrived at Chthonia a few minutes later, I did a cloaked flyby of the castle, just to gauge the lay of the land for myself. It was even worse than I’d imagined.
The Sixers had installed some type of magical shield over Castle Anorak, a semitransparent dome that completely covered the castle and the area around it. Encamped inside the shield wall was the entire Sixer army. A vast collection of troops, tanks, weapons, and vehicles surrounded the castle on all sides.
Several gunter clans were already on the scene, and they were making their first attempts to bring down the shield by launching high-yield nukes at it. Each detonation was followed by a brief atomic light show, and then the blast would dissipate harmlessly against the shield.
The attacks on the shield continued for the next few hours as the news spread and more and more gunters arrived on Chthonia. The clans launched every type of weapon they could think of at the shield, but nothing affected it. Not nukes, not fireballs, and not magic missiles. Eventually, a team of gunters tried to dig a tunnel under the dome wall, and that was when it was discovered that the shield was actually a complete sphere surrounding the castle, above- and belowground.
Later that night, several high-level gunter wizards finished casting a series of divination spells on the castle and announced on the message boards that the shield around the castle was generated by a powerful artifact called the Orb of Osuvox, which could only be operated by a wizard who was ninety-ninth level. According to the artifact’s item description, it could create a spherical shield around itself, with a circumference of up to half a kilometer. This shield was impenetrable and indestructible and could vaporize just about anything that touched it. It could also be kept up indefinitely, as long as the wizard operating the orb remained immobile and kept both hands on the artifact.
In the days that followed, gunters tried everything they could think of to penetrate the shield. Magic. Technology. Teleportation. Counterspells. Other artifacts. Nothing worked. There was no way to get inside.
An air of hopelessness quickly swept through the gunter community. Solos and clansmen alike were ready to throw in the towel. The Sixers had the Crystal Key and exclusive access to the Third Gate. Everyone agreed that The End was near, that the Hunt was “all over but the crying.”
During all of these developments, I somehow managed to keep my cool. There was a chance the Sixers hadn’t even figured out how to open the Third Gate yet. Of course, they had plenty of time now. They could be slow and methodical. Sooner or later, they would stumble on the solution.
But I refused to give up. Until an avatar reached Halliday’s Easter egg, anything was still possible.
Like any classic videogame, the Hunt had simply reached a new, more difficult level. A new level often required an entirely new strategy.
I began to formulate a plan. A bold, outrageous plan that would require epic amounts of luck to pull off. I set this plan in motion by e-mailing Art3mis, Aech, and Shoto. My message told them exactly where to find the Second Gate and how to obtain the Crystal Key. Once I was sure all three of them had received my message, I initiated the next phase of my plan. This was the part that terrified me, because I knew there was a good chance it was going to end up getting me killed. But at this point, I no longer cared.
I was going to reach the Third Gate, or die trying.
Going outside is highly overrated.
—Anorak’s Almanac, Chapter 17, Verse 32
When the IOI corporate police came to arrest me, I was right in the middle of the movie Explorers (1985, directed by Joe Dante). It’s about three kids who build a spaceship in their backyard and then fly off to meet aliens. Easily one of the greatest kid flicks ever made. I’d gotten into the habit of watching it at least once a month. It kept me centered.
I had a thumbnail of my apartment building’s external security camera feed at the edge of my display, so I saw the IOI Indentured Servant Retrieval Transport pull up out front, siren wailing and lights flashing. Then four jackbooted, riot-helmeted dropcops jumped out and ran into the building, followed by a guy in a suit. I continued to watch them on the lobby camera as they waved their IOI badges, blew past the security station, and filed onto the elevator.
Now they were on their way up to my floor.
“Max,” I muttered, noting the fear in my own voice. “Execute security macro number one: Crom, strong in his mountain.” This voice command instructed my computer to execute a long series of preprogrammed actions, both online and in the real world.
“You g-g-got it, Chief!” Max replied cheerfully, and a split second later, my apartment’s security system switched into lockdown mode. My reinforced plate-titanium WarDoor swung down from the ceiling, slamming and locking into place over my apartment’s built-in security door.
On the security camera mounted in the hallway outside my apartment, I watched the four dropcops get off the elevator and sprint down the hallway to my door. The two guys in front were carrying plasma welders. The other two held industrial-strength VoltJolt stun guns. The suit, who brought up the rear, was carrying a digital clipboard.
I wasn’t surprised to see them. I knew why they were here. They were here to cut open my apartment and pull me out of it, like a chunk of Spam being removed from a can.
When they reached my door, my scanner gave them the once-over, and their ID data flashed on my display, informing me that all five of these men were IOI credit officers with a valid indenturement arrest warrant for one Bryce Lynch, the occupant of this apartment. So, in keeping with local, state, and federal law, my apartment building’s security system immediately opened both of my security doors to grant them entrance. But the WarDoor that had just slammed into place kept them outside.
Of course, the dropcops expected me to have redundant security, which is why they’d brought plasma welders.
The IOI drone in the suit squeezed past the dropcops and gingerly pressed his thumb to my door intercom. His name and corporate title appeared on my display: Michael Wilson, IOI Credit and Collections Division, Employee # IOI-481231.
Wilson looked up into the lens of my hallway camera and smiled pleasantly. “Mr. Lynch,” he said. “My name is Michael Wilson, and I’m with the Credit and Collections division of Innovative Online Industries.” He consulted his clipboard. “I’m here because you have failed to make the last three payments on your IOI Visa card, which has an outstanding balance in excess of twenty thousand dollars. Our records also show that you are currently unemployed and have therefore been classified as impecunious. Under current federal law, you are now eligible for mandatory indenturement. You will remain indentured until you have paid your debt to our company in full, along with all applicable interest, processing and late fees, and any other charges or penalties that you incur henceforth.” Wilson motioned toward the dropcops. “These gentlemen are here to assist me in apprehending you and escorting you to your new place of employment. We request that you open your door and grant us access to your residence. Please be aware that we are authorized to seize any personal belongings you have inside. The sale value of these items will, of course, be deducted from your outstanding credit balance.”
As far as I could tell, Wilson recited all of this without taking a single breath, speaking in the flat monotone of someone who repeats the same sentences all day long.
After a brief pause, I replied through the intercom. “Sure thing, guys. Just give me a minute to get my pants on. Then I’ll be right out.”
Wilson frowned. “Mr. Lynch, if you do not grant us access to your residence within ten seconds, we are authorized to enter by force. The cost of any damage resulting from our forced entry, including all property damage and repair labor, will be added to your outstanding balance. Thank you.”
Wilson stepped away from the intercom and nodded to the others. One of the dropcops immediately powered up his welder, and when the tip began to glow molten orange, he began cutting through my War-Door’s titanium plating. The other welder moved a few feet farther down and began to cut a hole right through the wall of my apartment. These guys had access to the building’s security specs, so they knew the walls of each apartment were lined with steel plating and a layer of concrete, which they could cut through much more quickly than the titanium WarDoor.
Of course, I’d taken the precaution of reinforcing my apartment’s walls, floor, and ceiling, with a titanium alloy SageCage, which I’d assembled piece by piece. Once they cut through my wall, they would have to cut through the cage, too. But this would buy me only five or six extra minutes, at the most. Then they would be inside.