فصل 33

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فصل 33

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33

We all stared at Ogden Morrow in stunned silence.

“How did you get in here?” Aech finally asked, once he’d managed to pick his jaw up off the floor. “This is a private chat room.”

“Yes, I know,” Morrow said, looking a bit embarrassed. “I’m afraid I’ve been eavesdropping on the four of you for quite some time now. And I hope you’ll accept my sincere apologies for invading your privacy. I did it with only the best intentions, I promise you.”

“With all due respect, sir,” Art3mis said. “You didn’t answer his question. How did you gain access to this chat room without an invitation? And without any of us even knowing you were here?”

“Forgive me,” he said. “I can see why this might concern you. But you needn’t worry. My avatar has many unique powers, including the ability to enter private chat rooms uninvited.” As Morrow spoke, he walked over to one of Aech’s bookshelves and began to browse through some vintage role-playing game supplements. “Prior to the original launch of the OASIS, when Jim and I created our avatars, we gave ourselves superuser access to the entire simulation. In addition to being immortal and invincible, our avatars could go pretty much anywhere and do pretty much anything. Now that Anorak is gone, my avatar is the only one with these powers.” He turned to face the four of us. “No one else has the ability to eavesdrop on you. Especially not the Sixers. OASIS chat-room encryption protocols are rock solid, I assure you.” He chuckled lightly. “My presence here notwithstanding.”

“He knocked over that stack of comic books!” I said to Aech. “After our first meeting in here, remember? I told you it wasn’t a software glitch.”

Og nodded and gave us a guilty shrug. “That was me. I can be pretty clumsy at times.”

There was another brief silence, during which I finally worked up the courage to speak to Morrow directly. “Mr. Morrow—,” I began.

“Please,” Morrow said, raising a hand. “Call me Og.”

“All right,” I said, laughing nervously. Even under the circumstances, I was completely starstruck. I couldn’t believe I was actually addressing the Ogden Morrow. “Og. Would you mind telling us why you’ve been eavesdropping on us?”

“Because I want to help you,” he replied. “And from what I heard a moment ago, it sounds as though you could all use my help.” We all exchanged nervous looks, and Og seemed to detect our skepticism. “Please, don’t misunderstand me,” he continued. “I’m not going to give you any clues, or provide you with any information to help you reach the egg. That would ruin all the fun, wouldn’t it?” He walked back over to us, and his tone turned serious. “Just before he died, I promised Jim that, in his absence, I would do everything I could to protect the spirit and integrity of his contest. That’s why I’m here.”

“But, sir—Og,” I said. “In your autobiography, you wrote that you and James Halliday didn’t speak during the last ten years of his life.”

Morrow gave me an amused smile. “Come on, kid,” he said. “You can’t believe everything you read.” He laughed. “Actually, that statement was mostly true. I didn’t speak with Jim for the last decade of his life. Not until just a few weeks before he died.” He paused, as if calling up the memory. “At the time, I didn’t even know he was sick. He just called me up out of the blue, and we met in a private chat room, much like this one. Then he told me about his illness, the contest, and what he had planned. He was worried there might still be a few bugs in the gates. Or that complications might arise after he was gone that would prevent the contest from proceeding as he’d intended.”

“You mean like the Sixers?” Shoto asked.

“Exactly,” Og said. “Like the Sixers. So Jim asked me to monitor the contest, and to intervene if it ever became necessary.” He scratched his beard. “To be honest, I didn’t really want the responsibility. But it was the dying wish of my oldest friend, so I agreed. And for the past six years, I’ve watched from the sidelines. And even though the Sixers have done everything to stack the odds against you, somehow you four have persevered. But now, after hearing you describe your current circumstances, I think the time has finally come for me to take action, to maintain the integrity of Jim’s game.”

Art3mis, Shoto, Aech, and I all exchanged looks of amazement, as if seeking reassurance from one another that this was all really happening.

“I want to offer the four of you sanctuary at my home here in Oregon,” Og said. “From here, you’ll be able to execute your plan and complete your quest in safety, without having to worry about Sixer agents tracking you down and kicking in your door. I can provide each of you with a state-of-the-art immersion rig, a fiber-optic connection to the OASIS, and anything else you might need.”

Another stunned silence. “Thank you, sir!” I finally blurted out, resisting the urge to fall to my knees and bow repeatedly.

“It’s the least I can do.”

“That’s an incredibly kind offer, Mr. Morrow,” Shoto said. “But I live in Japan.”

“I know, Shoto,” Og said. “I’ve already chartered a private jet for you. It’s waiting at the Osaka airport. If you send me your current location, I’ll arrange for a limo to pick you up and take you to the runway.”

Shoto was speechless for a second; then he bowed low. “Arigato, Morrow-san.”

“Don’t mention it, kid.” He turned to Art3mis. “Young lady, I understand that you’re currently at the Vancouver airport? I’ve made travel arrangements for you, as well. A driver is currently waiting for you in the baggage claim area, holding a sign with the name ‘Benatar’ on it. He’ll take you to the plane I’ve chartered for you.”

For a second I thought Art3mis might bow too. But then she ran over and threw her arms around Og in a bear hug. “Thank you, Og,” she said. “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

“You’re welcome, dear,” he said with an embarrassed laugh. When she finally released him, he turned to Aech and me. “Aech, I understand that you have a vehicle, and that you’re currently in the vicinity of Pittsburgh?” Aech nodded. “If you wouldn’t mind driving to Columbus to retrieve your friend Parzival here, I’ll arrange for a jet to pick up both of you at the Columbus airport. That is, if you boys don’t mind sharing a ride?”

“No, that sounds perfect,” Aech said, glancing at me sideways. “Thanks, Og.”

“Yes, thank you,” I repeated. “You’re a lifesaver.”

“I hope so.” He gave me a grim smile, then turned to address everyone. “Safe travels, all of you. I’ll see you soon.” And then he vanished, just as quickly as he’d appeared.

“Well, this blows,” I said, turning to Aech. “Art3mis and Shoto get limos, and I have to bum a ride to the airport with your ugly ass? In some sh@t-heap RV?”

“It’s not a sh@t-heap,” Aech said, laughing. “And you’re welcome to take a cab, asshole.”

“This is gonna be interesting,” I said, stealing a quick glance at Art3mis. “The four of us are finally going to meet in person.”

“It will be an honor,” Shoto said. “I’m looking forward to it.”

“Yeah,” Art3mis said, locking eyes with me. “I can’t wait.”

After Shoto and Art3mis logged out, I gave Aech my current location. “It’s a Plug franchise. Call me when you get here, and I’ll meet you out front.”

“Will do,” he said. “Listen, I should warn you. I don’t look anything like my avatar.”

“So? Who does? I’m not really this tall. Or muscular. And my nose is slightly bigger—”

“I’m just warning you. Meeting me might be … kind of a shock for you.”

“OK. Then why don’t you just tell me what you look like right now?”

“I’m already on the road,” he said, ignoring my question. “I’ll see you in a few hours, OK?”

“OK. Drive safe, amigo.”

Despite what I’d said to Aech, knowing that I was about to meet him in person after all these years made me more nervous than I wanted to admit. But it was nothing compared to the apprehension I already felt building inside me at the prospect of meeting Art3mis once we reached Oregon. Trying to picture the actual moment filled me with a mixture of excitement and abject terror. What would she be like in person? Was the photo I’d seen in her file actually a fake? Did I still have any kind of chance with her at all?

With a Herculean effort, I managed to put her out of my mind by forcing myself to focus on the approaching battle.

As soon as I logged out of Aech’s Basement, I sent out my “Call to Arms” e-mail as a global announcement to every OASIS user. Knowing most of those e-mails wouldn’t get through the spam filters, I also posted it to every gunter message board. Then I made a short vidcap recording of my avatar reading it aloud and set it to run on a continuous loop on my POV channel.

The word spread quickly. Within an hour, our plan to assault Castle Anorak was the top story on every single newsfeed, accompanied by headlines like GUNTERS DECLARE ALL-OUT WAR ON THE SIXERS and TOP GUNTERS ACCUSE IOI OF KIDNAPPING AND MURDER and IS THE HUNT FOR HALLIDAY’S EGG FINALLY OVER?

Some of the newsfeeds were already running the video clip of Daito’s murder I’d sent them, along with the text of Sorrento’s memo, citing an anonymous source for both. So far, IOI had declined to comment on either. By now, Sorrento would know I’d somehow gained access to the Sixers’ private database. I wished I could see his face when he learned how I’d done it—that I’d spent an entire week just a few floors below his office.

I spent the next few hours outfitting my avatar and preparing myself mentally for what was to come. When I could no longer keep my eyes open, I decided to catch a quick nap while I waited for Aech to arrive. I disabled the auto-log-out feature on my account, then drifted off in the haptic chair with my new jacket draped over me as a blanket, clutching in one hand the pistol I’d purchased earlier that day.

I woke with a start sometime later to the sound of Aech’s ringtone. He was calling to let me know he’d arrived outside. I climbed out of the rig, collected my things, and returned the rented gear at the front desk. When I stepped out into the street, I saw that night had fallen. The frozen air hit me like a bucket of ice water.

Aech’s tiny RV was just a few yards away, parked at the curb. It was a mocha-colored SunRider, about twenty feet long, and at least two decades old. A patchwork of solar cells covered the RV’s roof and most of its body, along with a liberal amount of rust. The windows were tinted black, so I couldn’t see inside.

I took a deep breath and crossed the slush-covered sidewalk, feeling a strange combination of dread and excitement. As I approached the RV, a door near the center of the right side slid open and a short stepladder extended to the pavement. I climbed inside and the door slid shut behind me. I found myself in the RV’s tiny kitchen. It was dark except for the running lights set into the carpeted floor. To my left, I saw a small bedroom area at the back, wedged into a loft above the RV’s battery compartment. I turned and walked slowly across the darkened kitchen, then pulled back the beaded curtain covering the doorway to the cab.

A heavyset African American girl sat in the RV’s driver seat, clutching the wheel tightly and staring straight ahead. She was about my age, with short, kinky hair and chocolate-colored skin that appeared iridescent in the soft glow of the dashboard indicators. She was wearing a vintage Rush 2112 concert T-shirt, and the numbers were warped around her large bosom. She also had on faded black jeans and a pair of studded combat boots. She appeared to be shivering, even though it was nice and warm in the cab.

I stood there for a moment, staring at her in silence, waiting for her to acknowledge my presence. Eventually, she turned and smiled at me, and it was a smile I recognized immediately. That Cheshire grin I’d seen thousands of times before, on the face of Aech’s avatar, during the countless nights we’d spent together in the OASIS, telling bad jokes and watching bad movies. And her smile wasn’t the only thing I found familiar. I also recognized the set of her eyes and the lines of her face. There was no doubt in my mind. The young woman sitting in front of me was my best friend, Aech.

A wave of emotion washed over me. Shock gave way to a sense of betrayal. How could he—she—deceive me all these years? I felt my face flush with embarrassment as I remembered all of the adolescent intimacies I’d shared with Aech. A person I’d trusted implicitly. Someone I thought I knew.

When I didn’t say anything, her eyes dropped to her boots and stayed on them. I sat down heavily in the passenger seat, still staring over at her, still unsure of what to say. She kept stealing glances at me; then her eyes would dart away nervously. She was still trembling.

Whatever anger or betrayal I felt quickly evaporated.

I couldn’t help myself. I started to laugh. There was no meanness in it, and I knew she could tell that, because her shoulders relaxed a bit and she let out a relieved sigh. Then she started to laugh too. Half laughing and half crying, I thought.

“Hey, Aech,” I said, once our laughter subsided. “How goes it?”

“It’s going good, Z,” she said. “All sunshine and rainbows.” Her voice was familiar too. Just not quite as deep as it was online. All this time, she’d been using software to disguise it.

“Well,” I said. “Look at us. Here we are.”

“Yeah,” Aech replied. “Here we are.”

An uncomfortable silence descended. I hesitated a moment, unsure of what to do. Then I followed my instincts, crossed the small space between us, and put my arms around her. “It’s good to see you, old friend,” I said. “Thanks for coming to get me.”

She returned the hug. “It’s good to see you too,” she said. And I could tell she meant it.

I let go of her and stepped back. “Christ, Aech,” I said, smiling. “I knew you were hiding something. But I never imagined …”

“What?” she said, a bit defensively. “You never imagined what?”

“That the famous Aech, renowned gunter and the most feared and ruthless arena combatant in the entire OASIS, was, in reality, a …”

“A fat black chick?”

“I was going to say ‘young African American woman.’ ”

Her expression darkened. “There’s a reason I never told you, you know.”

“And I’m sure it’s a good one,” I said. “But it really doesn’t matter.”

“It doesn’t?”

“Of course not. You’re my best friend, Aech. My only friend, to be honest.”

“Well, I still want to explain.”

“OK. But can it wait until we’re in the air?” I said. “We’ve got a long way to travel. And I’ll feel a lot safer once we’ve left this city in the dust.”

“We’re on our way, amigo,” she said, putting the RV in gear.

Aech followed Og’s directions to a private hangar near the Columbus airport, where a small luxury jet was waiting for us. Og had arranged for Aech’s RV to be stored in a nearby hangar, but it had been her home for many years, and I could tell she was nervous about leaving it behind.

We both stared at the jet in wonder as we approached it. I’d seen airplanes in the sky before, of course, but I’d never seen one up close. Traveling by jet was something only rich people could afford. That Og could afford to charter three different jets to retrieve us without batting an eyelash was a testament to just how insanely wealthy he must be.

The jet was completely automated, so there was no crew on board. We were all alone. The placid voice of the autopilot welcomed us aboard, then told us to strap in and prepare for takeoff. We were up in the air within minutes.

It was the first time either of us had ever flown, and we both spent the first hour of the flight staring out the windows, overwhelmed by the view, as we hurtled westward through the atmosphere at ten thousand feet, on our way to Oregon. Finally, once some of the novelty had worn off, I could tell that Aech was ready to talk.

“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 s@xuality. At first, her mother refused to believe she was gay. 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 s@xual 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.

“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.

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