I spent about fifteen minutes composing one last e-mail, which I addressed to every single OASIS user. Once I was happy with the wording, I stored it in my Drafts folder. Then I logged into Aech’s Basement.

When my avatar appeared inside the chat room, I saw that Aech, Art3mis, and Shoto were already there waiting for me.

Chapter 32

“Z!” Aech shouted as my avatar appeared. “What the hell, man? Where have you been? I’ve been trying to reach you for over a week!”

“So have I,” Shoto added. “Where were you? And how did you get those files from the Sixer database?”

“It’s a long story,” I said. “First things first.” I addressed Shoto and Art3mis. “Have you two left your homes?”

They both nodded.

“And you’re each logged in from a safe location?”

“Yes,” Shoto said. “I’m in a manga cafe right now.”

“And I’m at the Vancouver airport,” Art3mis said. It was the first time I’d heard her voice in months. “I’m logged in from a germ-ridden public OASIS booth right now. I ran out of my house with nothing but the clothes on my back, so I hope that Sixer data you sent us is legit.”

“It is,” I said. “Trust me.”


“How can you be sure of that?” Shoto asked.

“Because I hacked into the Sixer Database and downloaded it myself.”

They all stared at me in silence. Aech raised an eyebrow. “And how, exactly, did you manage that, Z?”

“I assumed a fake identity and masqueraded as an indentured servant to infiltrate IOI’s corporate headquarters. I’ve been there for the past eight days. I just now escaped.”

“Holy shit!” Shoto whispered. “Seriously?”

I nodded.

“Dude, you have balls of solid adamantium,” Aech said. “Respect.”

“Thanks. I think.”

“Let’s assume you’re not totally bullshitting us,” Art3mis said. “How does a lowly indent get access to secret Sixer dossier files and company memos?”

I turned to face her. “Indents have limited access to the company intranet via their hab-unit entertainment system, from behind the IOI firewall. From there, I was able to use a series of back doors and system exploits left by the original programmers to tunnel through the network and hack directly into the Sixers’ private database.”

Shoto looked at me in awe. “You did that? All by yourself?”

“That is correct, sir.”

“It’s a miracle they didn’t catch you and kill you,” Art3mis said. “Why would you take such a stupid risk?”

“Why do you think? To try and find a way to get through their shield and reach the Third Gate.” I shrugged. “It was the only plan I could come up with on such short notice.”

“Z,” Aech said, grinning, “you are one crazy son of a bitch.” He walked over and gave me a high five. “But that’s why I love you, man!”

Art3mis scowled at me. “Of course, when you found out they had secret files on each of us, you just couldn’t resist looking at them, could you?”

“I had to look at them!” I said. “To find out how much they knew about each of us! You would have done the same thing.”

She leveled a finger at me. “No, I wouldn’t have. I respect other people’s privacy!”

“Art3mis, chill out!” Aech interjected. “He probably saved your life, you know.”

She seemed to consider this. “Fine,” she said. “Forget it.” But I could tell she was still pissed off.

I didn’t know what to say, so I kept plowing forward.

“I’m sending each of you a copy of all the Sixer data I smuggled out. Ten zettabytes of it. You should have it now.” I waited while each of them checked their inbox. “The size of their database on Halliday is unreal. His whole life is in there. They’ve collected interviews with everyone Halliday ever knew. It could take months to read through them all.”

I waited for a few minutes, watching their eyes scan over the data.

“Whoa!” Shoto said. “This is incredible.” He looked over at me. “How the hell did you escape from IOI with all of this stuff?”

“By being extra sneaky.”

“Aech is right,” Art3mis said, shaking her head. “You are certifiably nuts.” She hesitated for a second, then added, “Thanks for the warning, Z. I owe you one.”

I opened my mouth to say “you’re welcome,” but no words came out.

“Yes,” Shoto said. “So do I. Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it, guys,” I finally managed to say.

“Well?” Aech said. “Hit us with the bad news already. How close are the Sixers to clearing the Third Gate?”

“Dig this,” I said, grinning. “They haven’t even figured out how to open it yet.”

Art3mis and Shoto stared at me in disbelief. Aech smiled wide, then began to bob his head and press his palms to the sky, as if dancing to some unheard rave track. “Oh yes! Oh yes!” he sang.

“You’re kidding, right?” Shoto asked.

I shook my head.

“You’re not kidding?” Art3mis said. “How is that possible? Sorrento has the Crystal Key and he knows where the gate is. All he has to do is open the damn thing and step inside, right?”

“That was true for the first two gates,” I replied. “But Gate Three is different.” I opened a large vidfeed window in the air beside me. “Check this out. It’s from the Sixers’ video archive. It’s a vidcap of their first attempt to open the gate.”

I hit Play. The video clip opened with a shot of Sorrento’s avatar standing outside the front gates of Castle Anorak. The castle’s front entrance, which had been impregnable for so many years, swung open as Sorrento approached, like an automatic door at a supermarket. “The castle entrance will open for an avatar who holds a copy of the Crystal Key,” I explained. “If an avatar doesn’t have a copy of the key, he can’t cross the threshold and enter the castle, even if the doors are already open.”

We all watched the vidcap as Sorrento passed through the entrance and into the large gold-lined foyer that lay beyond. Sorrento’s avatar crossed the polished floor and approached the large crystal door set into the north wall. There was a keyhole in the very center of the door, and directly above it, three words were etched into the door’s glittering, faceted surface: CHARITY. HOPE. FAITH.

Sorrento stepped forward, holding out his copy of the Crystal Key. He slid the key into the keyhole and turned it. Nothing happened.

Sorrento glanced up at the three words printed on the gate. “Charity, hope, faith,” he said, reading them aloud. Once again, nothing happened.

Sorrento removed the key, recited the three words again, then reinserted the key and turned it. Still nothing.

I studied Aech, Art3mis, and Shoto as they watched the video. Their excitement and curiosity had already shifted into concentration as they attempted to solve the puzzle before them. I paused the video. “Whenever Sorrento is logged in, he has a team of consultants and researchers watching his every move,” I said. “You can hear their voices on some of the vidcaps, feeding him suggestions and advice through his comlink. So far, they haven’t been much help. Watch—”

On the video, Sorrento was making another attempt to open the gate. He did everything exactly as before, except this time, when he inserted the Crystal Key, he turned it counterclockwise instead of clockwise.

“They try every asinine thing you can imagine,” I said. “Sorrento recites the words on the gate in Latin. And Elvish. And Klingon. Then they get hung up on reciting First Corinthians 13:13, a Bible verse that contains the words ‘charity, hope, and faith.’ Apparently, ‘charity, hope, and faith’ are also the names of three martyred Catholic saints. The Sixers have been trying to attach some significance to that for the past few days.”

“Morons,” Aech said. “Halliday was an atheist.”

“They’re getting desperate now,” I said. “Sorrento has tried everything but genuflecting, doing a little dance, and sticking his pinky finger in the keyhole.”

“That’s probably next up on his agenda,” Shoto said, grinning.

“Charity, hope, faith,” Art3mis said, reciting the words slowly. She turned to me. “Where do I know that from?”

“Yeah,” Aech said. “Those words do sound familiar.”

“It took me a while to place them too,” I said.

They all looked at me expectantly.

“Say them in reverse order,” I suggested. “Better yet, sing them in reverse order.”

Art3mis’s eyes narrowed. “Faith, hope, charity,” she said. She repeated them a few times, recognition growing in her face. Then she sang: “Faith and hope and charity …”

Aech picked up the next line: “The heart and the brain and the body …”

“Give you three … as a magic number!” Shoto finished triumphantly.

“Schoolhouse Rock!” they all shouted in unison.

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