“OK, Aech,” I said. “Tell me your story.”
She flashed her Cheshire grin and took a deep breath. “The whole thing was originally my mother’s idea,” she said. Then she launched into an abbreviated version of her life story. Her real name, she said, was Helen Harris, and she was only a few months older than I was. She’d grown up in Atlanta, raised by a single mother. Her father had died in Afghanistan when she was still a baby. Her mother, Marie, worked from home, in an online data-processing center. In Marie’s opinion, the OASIS was the best thing that had ever happened to both women and people of color. From the very start, Marie had used a white male avatar to conduct all of her online business, because of the marked difference it made in how she was treated and the opportunities she was given.
When Aech first logged into the OASIS, she followed her mother’s advice and created a Caucasian male avatar. “H” had been her mother’s nickname for her since she was a baby, so she’d decided to use it as the name of her online persona. A few years later, when she started attending school online, her mother lied about her daughter’s race and gender on the application. Aech was required to provide a photo for her school profile, so she’d submitted a photorealistic rendering of her male avatar’s face, which she’d modeled after her own features.
Aech told me that she hadn’t seen or spoken to her mother since leaving home on her eighteenth birthday. That was the day Aech had finally come out to her mother about her sexuality. At first, her mother refused to believe she was g*y. But then Helen revealed that she’d been dating a girl she met online for nearly a year.
As Aech explained all of this, I could tell she was studying my reaction. I wasn’t all that surprised, really. Over the past few years, Aech and I had discussed our mutual admiration for the female form on numerous occasions. I was actually relieved to know that Aech hadn’t been deceiving me, at least not on that account.
“How did your mother react when she found out you had a girlfriend?” I asked.
“Well, it turns out that my mother had her own set of deep-seated prejudices,” Aech said. “She kicked me out of the house and said she never wanted to see me again. I was homeless for a little while. I lived in a series of shelters. But eventually I earned enough competing in the OASIS arena leagues to buy my RV, and I’ve been living in it ever since. I usually only stop moving when the RV’s batteries need to recharge.”
As we continued to talk, going through the motions of getting to know each other, I realized that we already did know each other, as well as any two people could. We’d known each other for years, in the most intimate way possible. We’d connected on a purely mental level. I understood her, trusted her, and loved her as a dear friend. None of that had changed, or could be changed by anything as inconsequential as her gender, or skin color, or sexual orientation.
The rest of the flight seemed to go by in a blink. Aech and I quickly fell into our old familiar rhythm, and before long it was like we were back in the Basement, trash-talking each other over a game of Quake or Joust. Any fears I had about the resiliency of our friendship in the real world had vanished by the time our jet touched down on Og’s private runway in Oregon.
We’d been flying west across the country, just a few hours ahead of the sunrise, so it was still dark when we landed. Aech and I both froze in our tracks as we stepped off the plane, gazing in wonder at the scene around us. Even in the dim moonlight, the view was breathtaking. The dark, towering silhouettes of the Wallowa Mountains surrounded us on all sides. Rows of blue runway lights stretched out along the valley floor behind us, delineating Og’s private landing strip. Directly ahead, a steep cobblestone staircase at the edge of the runway led up to a grand, floodlit mansion constructed on a plateau near the base of the mountain range. Several waterfalls were visible in the distance, spilling off the peaks beyond Morrow’s mansion.
“It looks just like Rivendell,” Aech said, taking the words right out of my mouth.
I nodded. “It looks exactly like Rivendell in the Lord of the Rings movies,” I said, still staring up at it in awe. “Og’s wife was a big Tolkien fan, remember? He built this place for her.”
We heard an electric hum behind us as the jet’s staircase retracted and the hatch closed. The engines powered back up and the jet rotated, preparing to take off again. We stood and watched it launch back up into the clear, starry sky. Then we turned and began to mount the staircase leading up to the house. When we finally reached the top, Ogden Morrow was there waiting for us.
“Welcome, my friends!” Og bellowed, extending both his hands in greeting. He was dressed in a plaid bathrobe and bunny slippers. “Welcome to my home!”
“Thank you, sir,” Aech said. “Thanks for inviting us here.”
“Ah, you must be Aech,” he replied, clasping her hand. If he was surprised by her appearance, he didn’t show it. “I recognize your voice.” He gave her a wink, followed by a bear hug. Then he turned and hugged me, too. “And you must be Wade—I mean, Parzival! Welcome! Welcome! It’s truly an honor to meet you both!”
“The honor is ours,” I said. “We really can’t thank you enough for helping us.”
“You’ve already thanked me enough, so stop it!” he said. He turned and led us across an expansive green lawn, toward his enormous house. “I can’t tell you how good it is to have visitors. Sad to say, I’ve been all alone here since Kira died.” He was silent a moment; then he laughed. “Alone except for my cooks, maids, and gardeners, of course. But they all live here too, so they don’t really count as visitors.”
Neither I nor Aech knew how to reply, so we just kept smiling and nodding. Eventually, I worked up the courage to speak. “Have the others arrived yet? Shoto and Art3mis?”
Something about the way I said “Art3mis” made Morrow chuckle, long and loud. After a few seconds, I realized Aech was laughing at me too.
“What?” I said. “What’s so funny?”
“Yes,” Og said, grinning. “Art3mis arrived first, several hours ago, and Shoto’s plane got here about thirty minutes before you arrived.”
“Are we going to meet them now?” I asked, doing an extremely poor job of hiding my apprehension.
Og shook his head. “Art3mis felt that meeting you two right now would be an unnecessary distraction. She wanted to wait until after the ‘big event.’ And Shoto seemed to agree.” He studied me for a moment. “It probably is for the best, you know. You’ve all got a big day ahead of you.”
I nodded, feeling a strange combination of relief and disappointment.
“Where are they now?” Aech asked.
Og raised a fist triumphantly in the air. “They’re already logged in, preparing for your assault on the Sixers!” His voice echoed across the grounds and off the high stone walls of his mansion. “Follow me! The hour draws near!”
Og’s enthusiasm pulled me back into the moment, and I felt a nervous knot form in the pit of my stomach. We followed our bathrobed benefactor across the expansive moonlit courtyard. As we approached the main house, we passed a small gated-in garden filled with flowers. The garden was in a strange location, and I couldn’t figure out its purpose until I saw the large tombstone at its center. Then I realized it must be Kira Morrow’s grave. But even in the bright moonlight, it was still too dark for me to make out the inscription on the headstone.
Og led us through the mansion’s lavish front entrance. The lights were off inside, but instead of turning them on, Morrow took an honest-to-God torch off the wall and used it to illuminate our way. Even in dim torchlight, the grandeur of the place amazed me. Giant tapestries and a huge collection of fantasy artwork covered the walls, while gargoyle statues and suits of armor lined the hallways.
As we followed Og, I worked up enough courage to speak to him. “Listen, I know this probably isn’t the time,” I said. “But I’m a huge fan of your work. I grew up playing Halcydonia Interactive’s educational games. They taught me how to read, write, do math, solve puzzles …” I proceeded to ramble on as we walked, raving about all of my favorite Halcydonia titles and geeking out on Og in a classically embarrassing fashion.
Aech must have thought I was brown-nosing, because she snickered throughout my stammering monologue, but Og was very cool about it. “That’s wonderful to hear,” he said, seeming genuinely pleased. “My wife and I were very proud of those games. I’m so glad you have fond memories of them.”
We rounded a corner, and Aech and I both froze before the entrance of a giant room filled with row after row of old videogames. We both knew it must be James Halliday’s classic videogame collection—the collection he’d willed to Morrow after his death. Og glanced around and saw us lingering by the entrance, then hurried back to retrieve us.
“I promise to give you a tour later, when all the excitement is over,” Og said, his breathing a bit labored. He was moving quickly for a man his age and size. He led us down a spiral stone staircase to an elevator that carried us down several more floors to Og’s basement. The decor here was much more modern. We followed Og through a maze of carpeted hallways until we reached a row of seven circular doorways, each numbered.