“And here we are!” Morrow said, gesturing with the torch. “These are my OASIS immersion bays. They’re all top-of-the-line Habashaw rigs. OIR-Ninety-four hundreds.”
“Ninety-four hundreds? No kidding?” Aech let out a low whistle. “Wicked.”
“Where are the others?” I asked, looking around nervously.
“Art3mis and Shoto are already in bays two and three,” he said. “Bay one is mine. You two can take your pick of the others.”
I stared at the doors, wondering which one Art3mis was behind.
Og motioned to the end of the hall. “You’ll find haptic suits of all sizes in the dressing rooms. Now, get yourselves suited and booted!”
He smiled wide when Aech and I emerged from the dressing rooms a few minutes later, each dressed in brand-new haptic suits and gloves.
“Excellent!” Og said. “Now grab a bay and log in. The clock is ticking!”
Aech turned to face me. I could tell she wanted to say something, but words seemed to fail her. After a few seconds she stuck out her gloved hand. I took it.
“Good luck, Aech,” I said.
“Good luck, Z,” she replied. Then she turned to Og and said, “Thanks again, Og.” Before he could respond, she stood on her tiptoes and kissed him on the cheek. Then she disappeared through the door to bay four and it hissed shut behind her.
Og grinned after her, then turned to face me. “The whole world is rooting for the four of you. Try not to let them down.”
“We’ll do our best.”
“I know you will.” He offered me his hand and I shook it.
I took a step toward my immersion bay, then turned back. “Og, can I ask you one question?” I said.
He raised an eyebrow. “If you’re going to ask me what’s inside the Third Gate, I have no idea,” he said. “And even if I did, I wouldn’t tell you. You should know that.…”
I shook my head. “No, that’s not it. I wanted to ask what it was that ended your friendship with Halliday. In all the research I’ve done, I’ve never been able to find out. What happened?”
Morrow studied me for a moment. He’d been asked this question in interviews many times before and had always ignored it. I don’t know why he decided to tell me. Maybe he’d been waiting all these years to tell someone.
“It was because of Kira. My wife.” He paused a moment, then cleared his throat and continued. “Like me, he’d been in love with her since high school. Of course, he never had the courage to act on it. So she never knew how he felt about her. And neither did I. He didn’t tell me about it until the last time I spoke to him, right before he died. Even then, it was hard for him to communicate with me. Jim was never very good with people, or with expressing his emotions.”
I nodded silently and waited for him to continue.
“Even after Kira and I got engaged, I think Jim still harbored some fantasy of stealing her away from me. But once we got married, he abandoned that notion. He told me he’d stopped speaking to me because of the overwhelming jealousy he felt. Kira was the only woman he ever loved.” Morrow’s voice caught in his throat. “I can understand why Jim felt that way. Kira was very special. It was impossible not to fall in love with her.” He smiled at me. “You know what it’s like to meet someone like that, don’t you?”
“I do,” I said. Then, when I realized he had no more to say on the subject, I said, “Thank you, Mr. Morrow. Thank you for telling me all of that.”
“You’re quite welcome,” he said. Then he walked over to his immersion bay, and the door irised open. Inside, I could see that his rig had been modified to include several strange components, including an OASIS console modified to look like a vintage Commodore 64. He glanced back at me. “Good luck, Parzival. You’re going to need it.”
“What are you going to do?” I asked. “During the fight?”
“Sit back and watch, of course!” he said. “This looks to be the most epic battle in videogame history.” He grinned at me one last time, then stepped through the door and was gone, leaving me alone in the dimly lit hallway.
I spent a few minutes thinking about everything Morrow had told me. Then I walked over to my own immersion bay and stepped inside.
It was a small spherical room. A gleaming haptic chair was suspended on a jointed hydraulic arm attached to the ceiling. There was no omnidirectional treadmill, because the room itself served that function. While you were logged in, you could walk or run in any direction and the sphere would rotate around and beneath you, preventing you from ever touching the wall. It was like being inside a giant hamster ball.
I climbed into the chair and felt it adjust to fit the contours of my body. A robotic arm extended from the chair and slipped a brand-new Oculance visor onto my face. It, too, adjusted so that it fit perfectly. The visor scanned my retinas and the system prompted me to speak my new pass phrase: “Reindeer Flotilla Setec Astronomy.”
I took a deep breath as the system logged me in.
I was ready to rock.
My avatar was buffed to the eyeballs and armed to the teeth. I was packing as many magic items and as much firepower as I could squeeze into my inventory.
Everything was in place. Our plan was in motion. It was time to go.
I entered my stronghold’s hangar and pressed a button on the wall to open the launch doors. They slid back, slowly revealing the launch tunnel leading up to Falco’s surface. I walked to the end of the runway, past my X-wing and the Vonnegut. I wouldn’t be taking either of them today. They were both good ships, with formidable weapons and defenses, but neither craft would offer much protection in the epic shitstorm that was about to unfold on Chthonia. Fortunately, I now had a new mode of transportation.
I removed the twelve-inch Leopardon robot from my avatar’s inventory and set it down gently on the runway. Shortly before I’d been arrested by IOI, I’d taken some time to examine the toy Leopardon robot and ascertain its powers. As I suspected, the robot was actually a powerful magical item. It hadn’t taken me long to figure out the command word required to activate it. Just like in Toei’s original Supaidaman TV series, you summoned the robot simply by shouting its name. I did this now, taking the precaution of backing away from the robot a good distance before shouting “Leopardon!”
I heard a piercing shriek that sounded like rending metal. A second later, the once-tiny robot had grown to a height of almost a hundred meters. The top of the robot’s head now protruded through the open launch doors in the hangar ceiling.
I gazed up at the towering robot, admiring the attention to detail Halliday had put into coding it. Every feature of the original Japanese mech had been re-created, including its giant gleaming sword and spiderweb-embossed shield. A tiny access door was set into the robot’s massive left foot, and it opened as I approached, revealing a small elevator inside. It carried me up through the interior of the robot’s leg and torso, to the cockpit located inside its armored chest. As I seated myself in the captain’s chair, I spotted a silver control bracelet in a clear case on the wall. I took it out and snapped it onto my avatar’s wrist. The bracelet would allow me to use voice commands to control the robot while I was outside it.
Several rows of buttons were set into the command console in front of me, all labeled in Japanese. I pressed one of them and the engines roared to life. Then I hit the throttle and the twin rocket boosters in each of the robot’s feet ignited, launching it upward, out of my stronghold and into Falco’s star-filled sky.
I noticed that Halliday had added an old eight-track tape player to the cockpit control panel. There was also a rack of eight-track tapes mounted over my right shoulder. I grabbed one and slapped it into the deck. Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap by AC/DC began to blast out of the robot’s internal and external speakers, so loud it made my chair vibrate.
As soon as the robot was clear of my hangar, I shouted “Change Marveller!” into the control bracelet (the voice commands appeared to work only if you shouted them). The robot’s legs, arms, and head folded inward and locked into new positions, transforming the robot into a starship known as the Marveller. Once the transformation was complete, I left Falco’s orbit and set a course for the nearest stargate.
When I emerged from the stargate in Sector Ten, my radar screen lit up like a Christmas tree. Thousands of space vehicles of every make and model were crawling through the starry blackness around me, everything from single-seater craft to giant moon-sized freighters. I’d never seen so many starships in one place. A steady stream of them poured out of the stargate, while others converged on the area from every direction in the sky. All of the ships gradually funneled together, forming a long, haphazard caravan of vessels stretching toward Chthonia, a tiny blue-brown orb floating in the distance. It looked like every single person in the OASIS was headed for Castle Anorak. I felt a brief surge of exhilaration, even though I knew Art3mis’s warning might still prove true—there was a chance most of these avatars were here only to watch the show and had no intention of actually risking their lives to fight the Sixers.
Art3mis. After all this time, she was now in a room just a few feet away from me. We would actually be meeting in person as soon as this fight was over. The thought should have terrified me, but instead I felt a zen calm wash over me: Whatever was going to happen down on Chthonia, everything I’d risked had already been worth it.