فصل 32

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فصل 32

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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 sh@t!” 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 bullsh@tting 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 bit@h.” 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.

“See?” I said. “I knew you guys would get it. You’re a smart bunch.”

“ ‘Three Is a Magic Number,’ music and lyrics by Bob Dorough,” Art3mis recited, as if pulling the information from a mental encyclopedia. “Written in 1973.”

I smiled at her. “I have a theory. I think this might be Halliday’s way of telling us how many keys are required to open the Third Gate.”

Art3mis grinned, then sang, “It takes three.”

“No more, no less,” continued Shoto.

“You don’t have to guess,” added Aech.

“Three,” I finished, “is the magic number.” I took out my own copy of the Crystal Key and held it up. The others did the same. “We have four copies of the key. If at least three of us can reach the gate, we can get it open.”

“What then?” Aech asked. “Do we all enter the gate at the same time?”

“What if only one of us can enter the gate once it’s open?” Art3mis said.

“I doubt Halliday would have set it up like that,” I said.

“Who knows what that crazy bastard was thinking?” Art3mis said. “He’s toyed with us every step of the way, and now he’s doing it again. Why else would he require three copies of the Crystal Key to open the final gate?”

“Maybe because he wanted to force us to work together?” I suggested.

“Or he just wanted the contest to end with a big, dramatic finale,” Aech offered. “Think about it. If three avatars enter the Third Gate at the exact same moment, then it becomes a race to see who can clear the gate and reach the egg first.”

“Halliday was one crazy, sadistic bastard,” Art3mis muttered.

“Yeah,” Aech said, nodding. “You got that right.”

“Look at it this way,” Shoto said. “If Halliday hadn’t set up the Third Gate to require three keys … the Sixers might have already found the egg by now.”

“But the Sixers have a dozen avatars with copies of the Crystal Key,” Aech said. “They could open the gate right now, if they were smart enough to figure out how.”

“Dilettantes,” Art3mis said. “It’s their own fault for not knowing all the Schoolhouse Rock! lyrics by heart. How did those fools even get this far?”

“By cheating,” I said. “Remember?”

“Oh, that’s right. I keep forgetting.” She grinned at me, and I felt my knees go all rubbery.

“Just because the Sixers haven’t opened the gate yet doesn’t mean they won’t figure it out eventually,” Shoto said.

I nodded. “Shoto’s right. Sooner or later they’ll make the Schoolhouse Rock! connection. So we can’t waste any more time.”

“Well, what are we waiting for?” Shoto said excitedly. “We know where the gate is and how to open it! So let’s do it! And may the best gunter win!”

“You’re forgetting something, Shoto-san,” Aech said. “Parzival here still hasn’t told us how we’re going to get past that shield, fight our way through the Sixers’ army, and get inside the castle.” He turned to me. “You do have a plan for that, don’t you, Z?”

“Of course,” I said. “I was just getting to that.” I made a sweeping gesture with my right hand, and a three-dimensional hologram of Castle Anorak appeared, floating in the air in front of me. The transparent blue sphere generated by the Orb of Osuvox appeared around the castle, surrounding it both above- and belowground. I pointed to it. “This shield is going to drop on its own, at noon on Monday, about thirty-six hours from now. And then we’re going to walk right through the castle’s front entrance.”

“The shield is going to drop? On its own?” Art3mis repeated. “The clans have been lobbing nukes at that sphere for the past two weeks, and they haven’t even scratched it. How are you going to get it to ‘drop on its own’?”

“I’ve already taken care of it,” I said. “You guys are gonna have to trust me.”

“I trust you, Z,” Aech said. “But even if that shield does drop, to reach the castle, we’ll still have to fight our way through the largest army in the OASIS.” He pointed to the hologram, which showed the Sixer troop positions around the castle, just inside the sphere. “What about these fools? And their tanks? And their gunships?”

“Obviously, we’re going to need a little help,” I said.

“A lot of help,” Art3mis clarified.

“And who, exactly, are we going to convince to help us wage war against the entire Sixer army?” Aech asked.

“Everyone,” I said. “Every single gunter on the grid.” I opened another window, displaying the brief e-mail I’d composed just before logging into the Basement. “I’m going to send this message out tonight, to every single OASIS user.”

Fellow gunters,

It is a dark day. After years of deception, exploitation, and knavery, the Sixers have finally managed to buy and cheat their way to the entrance of the Third Gate.

As you know, IOI has barricaded Castle Anorak in an attempt to prevent anyone else from reaching the egg. We’ve also learned that they’ve used illegal methods to uncover the identities of gunters they consider a threat, with the intention of abducting and murdering them.

If gunters around the world don’t join forces to stop the Sixers, they will reach the egg and win the contest. And then the OASIS will fall under IOI’s imperialist rule.

The time is now. Our assault on the Sixer army will begin tomorrow at noon, OST.

Join us!

Sincerely,

Aech, Art3mis, Parzival, and Shoto

“Knavery?” Art3mis said after she’d finished reading it. “Were you using a thesaurus when you wrote this?”

“I was trying to make it sound, you know, grand,” I said. “Official.”

“Me likey, Z,” Aech said. “It really gets the blood stirring.”

“Thanks, Aech.”

“So that’s it? This is your plan?” Art3mis said. “Spam the entire OASIS, asking for help?”

“More or less, yeah. That’s the plan.”

“And you really think everyone will just show up and help us fight the Sixers?” she said. “Just for the hell of it?”

“Yes,” I said. “I do.”

Aech nodded. “He’s right. No one wants the Sixers to win the contest. And they definitely don’t want IOI to take control of the OASIS. People will jump at a chance to help bring the Sixers down. And what gunter is gonna pass up a chance to fight in such an epic, history-making battle?”

“But won’t the clans think we’re just trying to manipulate them?” Shoto said. “So that we can reach the gate ourselves?”

“Of course,” I said. “But most of them have already given up. Everyone knows the end of the Hunt is at hand. Don’t you think most people would rather see one of us win the contest, instead of Sorrento and the Sixers?”

Art3mis considered it for a moment. “You’re right. That e-mail just might work.”

“Z,” Aech said, slapping me on the back, “you are an evil, sublime genius! When that e-mail goes out, the media will go apesh@t! The word will spread like wildfire. By this time tomorrow, every avatar in the OASIS will be headed to Chthonia.”

“Let’s hope so,” I said.

“Oh, they’ll show up, all right,” Art3mis said. “But how many of them will actually fight, once they see what we’re up against? Most of them will probably set up lawn chairs and eat popcorn while they watch us get our asses kicked.”

“That’s definitely a possibility,” I said. “But the clans will help us, for sure. They’ve got nothing to lose. And we don’t have to defeat the entire Sixer army. We just have to punch a hole through it, get inside the castle, and reach the gate.”

“Three of us have to reach the gate,” Aech said. “If only one or two of us make it inside, we’re screwed.”

“Correct,” I said. “So we should all try extremely hard not to get killed.”

Art3mis and Aech both laughed nervously. Shoto just shook his head. “Even if we get the gate open, we still have to contend with the gate itself,” he said. “It’s bound to be harder to clear than the first two.”

“Let’s worry about the gate later,” I said. “Once we reach it.”

“Fine,” Shoto said. “Let’s do this thing.”

“I second that,” Aech said.

“So, you two are actually gonna go along with this?” Art3mis said.

“You got a better idea, sister?” Aech asked.

She shrugged. “No. Not really.”

“OK then,” Aech said. “It’s settled.”

I closed the e-mail. “I’m sending each of you a copy of this message,” I said. “Start sending it out tonight, to everyone on your contact list. Post it on your blogs. Broadcast it on your POV channels. We’ve got thirty-six hours to spread the word. That should be enough time for everyone to gear up and get their avatars to Chthonia.”

“As soon as the Sixers catch wind of this, they’ll start preparing for an assault,” Art3mis said. “They’re gonna pull out all the stops.”

“They might just laugh it off,” I said. “They think their shield is impregnable.”

“It is,” Art3mis said. “So I hope you’re right about being able to shut it down.”

“Don’t worry.”

“Why would I be worried?” Art3mis snapped. “Maybe you’ve forgotten, but I’m homeless and on the run for my life right now! I’m currently logged in from a public terminal at an airport, paying for bandwidth by the minute. I can’t fight a war from here, much less try to clear the Third Gate. And I don’t have anywhere to go.”

Shoto nodded. “I don’t think I can stay where I am either. I’m in a rented booth at a public manga cafe in Osaka. I don’t have much privacy. And I don’t think it’s safe for me to stay here if the Sixers have agents out looking for me.”

Art3mis looked at me. “Any suggestions?”

“I hate to break it to you guys, but I’m homeless and logged in from a public terminal right now too,” I said. “I’ve been hiding out from the Sixers for over a year, remember?”

“I’ve got an RV,” Aech said. “You’re all welcome to crash with me. But I don’t think I can make it to Columbus, Vancouver, and Japan in the next thirty-six hours.”

“I think I might be able to help you guys out,” a deep voice said.

We all jumped and turned around just in time to see a tall, male, gray-haired avatar appear directly behind us. It was the Great and Powerful Og. Ogden Morrow’s avatar. And he didn’t materialize slowly, the way an avatar normally did when logging into a chat room. He simply popped into existence, as if he had been there all along and had only now decided to make himself visible.

“Have any of you ever been to Oregon?” he said. “It’s lovely this time of year.”

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