I knew that I needed to be able to take some of the Sixers’ data with me when I escaped, so earlier in the week, I’d used my intranet admin account to submit a bogus hardware requisition form. I had a ten-zettabyte flash drive delivered to a nonexistent employee (“Sam Lowery”) in an empty cubicle a few rows away from my own. Making sure to keep my eargear camera pointed in the other direction, I’d ducked into the cube, grabbed the tiny drive, pocketed it, and smuggled it back to my hab-unit. That night, after I shut off the lights and disabled the security cameras, I unlocked my entertainment unit’s maintenance access panel and installed the flash drive into an expansion slot used for firmware upgrades. Now I could download data from the intranet directly to that drive.
I put on the entertainment center’s visor and gloves, then stretched out on my mattress. The visor presented me with a three-dimensional view of the Sixers’ database, with dozens of overlapping data windows suspended in front of me. Using my gloves, I began to manipulate these windows, navigating my way through the database’s file structure. The largest section of the database appeared to be devoted to information on Halliday. The amount of data they had on him was staggering. It made my grail diary look like a set of CliffsNotes. They had things I’d never seen. Things I didn’t even know existed. Halliday’s grade-school report cards, home movies from his childhood, e-mails he’d written to fans. I didn’t have time to read over it all, but I copied the really interesting stuff over to my flash drive, to (hopefully) study later.
I focused on isolating the data related to Castle Anorak and the forces the Sixers had positioned in and around it. I copied all of the intel on their weapons, vehicles, gunships, and troop numbers. I also snagged all of the data I could find on the Orb of Osuvox, the artifact they were using to generate the shield around the castle, including exactly where they were keeping it and the employee number of the Sixer wizard they had operating it.
Then I hit the jackpot—a folder containing hundreds of hours of OASIS simcap recordings documenting the Sixers’ initial discovery of the Third Gate and their subsequent attempts to open it. As everyone now suspected, the Third Gate was located inside Castle Anorak. Only avatars who possessed a copy of the Crystal Key could cross the threshold of the castle’s front entrance. To my disgust, I learned that Sorrento had been the first avatar to set foot inside Castle Anorak since Halliday’s death.
The castle entrance led into a massive foyer whose walls, floor, and ceiling were all made of gold. At the north end of the chamber, a large crystal door was set into the wall. It had a small keyhole at its very center.
The moment I saw it, I knew I was looking at the Third Gate.
I fast-forwarded through several other recent simcap files. From what I could tell, the Sixers still hadn’t figured out how to open the gate. Simply inserting the Crystal Key into the keyhole had no effect. They’d had their entire team trying to figure out why for several days now, but still hadn’t made any progress.
While the data and video on the Third Gate was copying over to my flash drive, I continued to delve deeper into the Sixer database. Eventually, I uncovered a restricted area called the Star Chamber. It was the only area of the database I couldn’t seem to access. So I used my admin ID to create a new “test account,” then gave that account superuser access and full administrator privileges. It worked and I was granted access. The information inside the restricted area was divided into two folders: Mission Status and Threat Assessments. I opened the Threat Assessments folder first, and when I saw what was inside, I felt the blood drain from my face. There were five file folders, labeled Parzival, Art3mis, Aech, Shoto, and Daito. Daito’s folder had a large red “X” over it.
I opened the Parzival folder first. A detailed dossier appeared, containing all of the information the Sixers had collected on me over the past few years. My birth certificate. My school transcripts. At the bottom there was a link to a simcap of my entire chatlink session with Sorrento, ending with the bomb detonating in my aunt’s trailer. After I’d gone into hiding, they’d lost track of me. They had collected thousands of screenshots and vidcaps of my avatar over the past year, and loads of data on my stronghold on Falco, but they didn’t know anything about my location in the real world. My current whereabouts were listed as “unknown.”
I closed the window, took a deep breath, and opened the file on Art3mis.
At the very top was a school photo of a young girl with a distinctly sad smile. To my surprise, she looked almost identical to her avatar. The same dark hair, the same hazel eyes, and the same beautiful face I knew so well—with one small difference. Most of the left half of her face was covered with a reddish-purple birthmark. I would later learn that these types of birthmark were sometimes referred to as “port wine stains.” In the photo, she wore a sweep of her dark hair down over her left eye to try to conceal the mark as much as possible.
Art3mis had led me to believe that in reality she was somehow hideous, but now I saw that nothing could have been further from the truth. To my eyes, the birthmark did absolutely nothing to diminish her beauty. If anything, the face I saw in the photo seemed even more beautiful to me than that of her avatar, because I knew this one was real.
The data below the photo said that her real name was Samantha Evelyn Cook, that she was a twenty-year-old Canadian citizen, five feet and seven inches tall, and that she weighed one hundred and sixty-eight pounds. The file also contained her home address—2206 Greenleaf Lane, Vancouver, British Columbia—along with a lot of other information, including her blood type and her school transcripts going all the way back to kindergarten.
I found an unlabeled video link at the bottom of her dossier, and when I selected it, a live vidfeed of a small suburban house appeared on my display. After a few seconds, I realized I was looking at the house where Art3mis lived.
As I dug further into her file, I learned that they’d had her under surveillance for the past five months. They had her house bugged too, because I found hundreds of hours of audio recordings made while she was logged into the OASIS. They had complete text transcripts of every audible word she’d spoken while clearing the first two gates.
I opened Shoto’s file next. They knew his real name, Akihide Karatsu, and they also appeared to have his home address, an apartment building in Osaka, Japan. His file also contained a school photo, showing a thin, stoic boy with a shaved head. Like Daito, he looked nothing like his avatar.
Aech seemed to be the one they knew the least about. His file contained very little information, and no photo—just a screenshot of his avatar. His real name was listed as “Henry Swanson,” but that was an alias used by Jack Burton in Big Trouble in Little China, so I knew it must be a fake. His address was listed as “mobile,” and below it there was a link labeled “Recent Access Points.” This turned out to be a list of the wireless node locations Aech had recently used to access his OASIS account. They were all over the place: Boston; Washington, D.C.; New York City; Philadelphia; and most recently, Pittsburgh.
Now I began to understand how the Sixers had been able to locate Art3mis and Shoto. IOI owned hundreds of regional telecom companies, effectively making them the largest Internet service provider in the world. It was pretty difficult to get online without using a network they owned and operated. From the looks of it, IOI had been illegally eavesdropping on most of the world’s Internet traffic in an attempt to locate and identify the handful of gunters they considered to be a threat. The only reason they hadn’t been able to locate me was because I’d taken the paranoia-induced precaution of leasing a direct fiber-optic connection to the OASIS from my apartment complex.
I closed Aech’s file, then opened the folder labeled Daito, already dreading what I might find there. Like the others, they had his real name, Toshiro Yoshiaki, and his home address. Two news articles about his “suicide” were linked at the bottom of his dossier, along with an unlabeled video clip, time-stamped on the day he’d died. I clicked on it. It was handheld video camera footage showing three large men in black ski masks (one of whom was operating the camera) waiting silently in a hallway. They appeared to receive an order via their radio earpieces, then used a key card to open the door of a tiny one-room apartment. Daito’s apartment. I watched in horror as they rushed in, yanked him out of his haptic chair, and threw him off the balcony.
The bastards even filmed him plummeting to his death. Probably at Sorrento’s request.
A wave of nausea washed over me. When it finally passed, I copied the contents of all five dossiers over to my flash drive, then opened the Mission Status folder. It appeared to contain an archive of the Oology Division’s status reports, intended for the Sixers’ top brass. The reports were arranged by date, with the most recent one listed first. When I opened it, I saw that it was a directive memo sent from Nolan Sorrento to the IOI Board of Executives. In it, Sorrento proposed sending agents to abduct Art3mis and Shoto from their homes to force them to help IOI open the Third Gate. Once the Sixers had obtained the egg and won the contest, Art3mis and Shoto would “be disposed of.”
I sat there in stunned silence. Then I read the memo again, feeling a combination of rage and panic.