“You’re right,” Aech said. “Which means there are twenty more Sixers headed your way right now, Z. So you need to get your ass moving and get inside that gate. This is probably going to be your only chance to clear it.” I heard her let out a defeated sigh. “It’s over for us. So we’re all rooting for you now, amigo. Good luck.”

“Thanks, Aech.”

“Gokouun o inorimasu,” Shoto said. “Do your best.”

“I will,” I said. Then I waited for Art3mis to give me her blessing too.

“Good luck, Parzival,” she said after a long pause. “Aech is right, you know. You’re never going to get another shot at this. And neither will any other gunter.” I heard her voice catch, as if she were choking back tears. Then she took a deep breath and said, “Don’t screw this up.”

“I won’t,” I said. “No pressure, right?”

I glanced back up at the open gate, suspended in the air above me, so far out of reach. Then I dropped my gaze and began to scan the area, desperately trying to figure out how I was going to get up there. Something caught my eye—just a few flickering pixels in the distance, near the opposite end of the crater. I ran toward them.

“Uh, not to be a backseat driver or anything,” Aech said. “But where the hell are you going?”

“All of my avatar’s items were destroyed by the Cataclyst,” I said. “So now I have no way to fly up there and reach the gate.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me!” Aech sighed. “Man, the hits just keep on coming!”

As I approached the object in the distance, it became gradually clearer. It was the Beta Capsule, floating just a few centimeters above the ground, spinning clockwise. The Cataclyst had destroyed everything in the sector that could be destroyed, but artifacts were indestructible. Just like the gate.


“It’s the Beta Capsule!” Shoto shouted. “It must have been thrown over here by the force of the blast. You can use it to become Ultraman and fly up to the gate!”

I nodded, raised the capsule over my head, then pressed the button on the side to activate it. But nothing happened. “Shit!” I muttered, realizing why. “It won’t work. It can only be used once a day.” I stowed the Beta Capsule and started to scan the ground around me. “There must be other artifacts scattered around here,” I said. I began to run along the perimeter of the castle foundation, still scanning the ground. “Were any of you guys carrying artifacts? One that would give me the ability to fly? Or levitate? Or teleport?”

“No,” answered Shoto. “I didn’t have any artifacts.”

“My Sword of the Ba’Heer was an artifact,” Aech said. “But it won’t help you reach the gate.”

“But my Chucks will,” Art3mis said.

“Your ‘Chucks’?” I repeated.

“My shoes. Black Chuck Taylor All Stars. They bestow their wearer with both speed and flight.”

“Great! Perfect!” I said. “Now I just have to find them.” I continued to run forward, eyes sweeping the ground. I found Aech’s sword a minute later and added it to my inventory, but it took me another five minutes of searching before I found Art3mis’s magic sneakers, near the south end of the crater. I put them on, and they adjusted to fit my avatar’s feet perfectly. “I’ll get these back to you, Arty,” I said, just as I finished lacing them up. “Promise.”

“You better,” she said. “They were my favorites.”

I took three running steps, leapt into the air, and then I was flying. I swooped up and around, then turned back toward the gate, aiming straight for it. But at the last moment, I banked to the right, then arced back around. I stopped to hover in front of the open gate. The crystal doorway hung in the air directly ahead, just a few yards away. It reminded me of the floating door in the opening credits of the original Twilight Zone.

“What are you waiting for?” Aech shouted. “The Sixers could show up any minute now!”

“I know,” I said. “But there’s something I need to say to all of you before I go in.”

“Well?” Art3mis said. “Spit it out! The clock is ticking, fool!”

“OK, OK!” I said. “I just wanted to say that I know how the three of you must feel right now. It isn’t fair, the way this has played out. We should all be entering the gate together. So before I go in, I want you guys to know something. If I reach the egg, I’m going to split the prize money equally among the four of us.”

Stunned silence.

“Hello?” I said after a few seconds. “Did you guys hear me?”

“Are you insane?” Aech asked. “Why would you do that, Z?”

“Because it’s the only honorable thing to do,” I said. “Because I never would have gotten this far on my own. Because all four of us deserve to see what’s inside that gate and find out how the game ends. And because I need your help.”

“Could you repeat that last bit, please?” Art3mis asked.

“I need your help,” I said. “You guys are right. This is my only shot at clearing the Third Gate. There won’t be any second chances, for anyone. The Sixers will be here soon, and they’ll enter the gate as soon as they arrive. So I have to clear it before they do, on my first attempt. The odds of me pulling that off will increase drastically if the three of you are backing me up. So … what do you say?”

“Count me in, Z,” Aech said. “I was planning to coach your dumb ass anyway.”

“Count me in too,” said Shoto. “I’ve got nothing left to lose.”

“Let me get this straight,” Art3mis said. “We help you clear the gate, and in return, you agree to split the prize money with us?”

“Wrong,” I said. “If I win, I’m going to split the prize money with you guys, regardless of whether you help me or not. So helping me is probably in your best interest.”

“I don’t suppose we have time to get that in writing?” Art3mis said.

I thought for a moment, then accessed my POV channel’s control menu. I initiated a live broadcast, so everyone watching my channel (my ratings counter said I currently had more than two hundred million viewers) could hear what I was about to say. “Greetings,” I said. “This is Wade Watts, also known as Parzival. I want to let the whole world know that if and when I find Halliday’s Easter egg, I hereby vow to split my winnings equally with Art3mis, Aech, and Shoto. Cross my heart and hope to die. Gunter’s honor. Pinky swear. All of that crap. If I’m lying, I should be forever branded as a gutless Sixer-fellating punk.”

As I finished the broadcast, I heard Art3mis say, “Dude, are you nuts? I was kidding!”

“Oh,” I said. “Right. I knew that.”

I cracked my knuckles, then flew forward into the gate, and my avatar vanished into the whirlpool of stars.

Chapter 37

I found myself standing in a vast, dark, empty space. I couldn’t see the walls or ceiling, but there appeared to be a floor, because I was standing on something. I waited a few seconds, unsure of what to do. Then a booming electronic voice echoed through the void. It sounded as if it were being generated by a primitive speech synthesizer, like those used in Q*Bert and Gorf. “Beat the high score or be destroyed!” the voice announced. A shaft of light appeared, shining down from somewhere high above. There, in front of me, at the base of this long pillar of light, stood an old coin-operated arcade game. I recognized its distinctive, angular cabinet immediately. Tempest. Atari. 1980.

I closed my eyes and dropped my head. “Crap,” I muttered. “This is not my best game, gang.”

“Come on,” I heard Art3mis whisper. “You had to know Tempest was going to factor into the Third Gate somehow. It was so obvious!”

“Oh really?” I said. “Why?”

“Because of the quote on the last page of the Almanac,” she replied. “ ‘I must uneasy make, lest too light winning make the prize light.’ ”

“I know the quote,” I said, annoyed. “It’s from Shakespeare. But I figured it was just Halliday’s way of letting us know how difficult he was going to make the Hunt.”

“It was,” Art3mis said. “But it was also a clue. That quote was taken from Shakespeare’s final play, The Tempest.”

“Shit!” I hissed. “How the hell did I miss that?”

“I never made that connection either,” Aech confessed. “Bravo, Art3mis.”

“The game Tempest also appears briefly in the music video for the song ‘Subdivisions’ by Rush,” she added. “One of Halliday’s favorites. Pretty hard to miss.”

“Whoa,” Shoto said. “She’s good.”

“OK!” I shouted. “It should have been obvious. No need to rub it in!”

“I take it you’ve haven’t had much practice at this game, Z?” Aech said.

“A little, a long time ago,” I said. “But not nearly enough. Look at the high score.” I pointed at the monitor. The high score was 728,329. The initials next to it were JDH—James Donovan Halliday. And, as I feared, the credit counter at the bottom of the screen had a numeral one in front of it.

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