فصل 34

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فصل 34

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34

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 sh@tstorm 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.

I transformed the Marveller back into its robot configuration, then joined the long parade of spacecraft. My ship stood out in the vast array of vessels, since it was the only giant robot. A cloud of smaller ships quickly formed around me, piloted by curious avatars zooming in for a closer look at Leopardon. I had to mute my comlink because so many different people were trying to hail me, asking who the hell I was and where I’d picked up such a sweet ride.

As the planet Chthonia grew larger in my cockpit window, the density and number of ships around me seemed to increase exponentially. When I finally entered the planet’s atmosphere and began to descend toward the surface, it was like flying through a swarm of metal insects. When I reached the area around Castle Anorak, I had a hard time believing my eyes. A concentrated, pulsing mass of ships and avatars covered the ground and filled the air. It was like some otherworldly Woodstock. Shoulder-to-shoulder avatars stretched to the horizon in all directions. Thousands more floated and flew through the air above, dodging the constant influx of ships. And at the center of all this insanity stood Castle Anorak itself, an onyx jewel gleaming beneath the Sixers’ transparent spherical shield. Every few seconds some hapless avatar or ship would inadvertently fly or careen into the shield and get vaporized, like a fly hitting a bug zapper.

When I got closer, I spotted an open patch of ground directly in front of the castle’s entrance, just outside the shield wall. Three giant figures stood side by side at the center of the clearing. The crowd around them was continuously surging inward and then receding as avatars pushed back against each other to try to keep a respectful distance from Aech, Art3mis, and Shoto, who each sat inside their own gleaming giant robot.

This was my first opportunity to see which robots Aech, Art3mis, and Shoto had selected after clearing the Second Gate, and it took me a moment to place the towering female robot Art3mis was piloting. It was black and chrome in color, with elaborate boomerang-shaped headgear and symmetrical red breastplates that made it look like a female version of Tranzor Z. Then I realized it was the female version of Tranzor Z, an obscure character from the original Mazinger Z anime series known as Minerva X.

Aech had selected an RX-78 Gundam mech from the original Mobile Suit Gundam anime series, one of his longtime favorites. (Even though I now knew Aech was actually a female in real life, her avatar was still male, so I decided to continue to refer to him as such.)

Shoto stood several heads taller than both of them, concealed inside the cockpit of Raideen, the enormous red-and-blue robot from the mid-’70s Brave Raideen anime series. The massive mech clutched his signature golden bow in one hand and had a large spiked shield strapped to the other.

A roar swept through the crowd as I flew in low over the shield and rocketed to a halt above the others. I rotated my orientation so that Leopardon was upright, then cut the engines and dropped the remaining distance to the surface. My robot landed on one knee, and the impact shook the ground. As I stood it upright, the sea of onlookers began to chant my avatar’s name. Par-zi-val! Par-zi-val!

As the chanting faded back to a dull roar, I turned to face my companions.

“Nice entrance, ya big show-off,” Art3mis said, using our private comlink channel. “Did you show up late on purpose?”

“Not my fault, I swear,” I said, trying to play it cool. “There was a long line at the stargate.”

Aech nodded his mech’s massive head. “Every transport terminal on the planet has been spitting out avatars since last night,” he said, motioning to the scene around us with his Gundam’s massive hand. “This is unreal. I’ve never seen so many ships or avatars in one place.”

“Me neither,” Art3mis said. “I’m surprised the GSS servers can handle the load, with so much activity in one sector. But there doesn’t seem to be any lag at all.”

I took a long look at the sea of avatars around us, then shifted my attention to the castle. Thousands of flying avatars and ships continued to buzz around the shield, occasionally firing bullets, lasers, missiles, and other projectiles at it, all of which impacted harmlessly on the surface. Inside the sphere, thousands of power-armored Sixer avatars stood in silent formation, completely encircling the castle. Interspersed through their ranks were rows of hover tanks and gunships. In any other setting, the Sixer army would have appeared formidable. Maybe even unstoppable. But in the face of the endless mob that now surrounded them, the Sixers looked woefully outnumbered and outmatched.

“So, Parzival,” said Shoto, turning his robot’s huge head in my direction. “It’s showtime, old friend. If that sphere doesn’t come down like you promised, this is going to be pretty embarrassing.”

“ ‘Han will have that shield down,’ ” Aech quoted. “ ‘We’ve got to give him more time!’ ”

I laughed, then used my robot’s right hand to tap the back of its left wrist, indicating the time. “Aech is right. It’s still six minutes to noon.”

The end of my sentence was drowned out by another roar from the crowd. Directly in front of us, inside the sphere, the massive front doors of Castle Anorak had just swung open, and now a single Sixer avatar was emerging from within.

Sorrento.

Grinning at the din of booing and hissing that greeted his arrival, Sorrento waved his hand at the Sixer troops stationed directly in front of the castle and they immediately scattered, clearing a large open space. Sorrento stepped forward into it, positioning himself directly opposite us, just a few dozen yards away, on the other side of the shield. Ten other Sixer avatars emerged from the castle and positioned themselves behind Sorrento, each of them standing a good distance apart.

“I have a bad feeling about this,” Art3mis muttered into her headset.

“Yeah,” Aech whispered. “Me too.”

Sorrento surveyed the scene, then smiled up at us. When he spoke, his voice was amplified through powerful speakers mounted on the Sixer gunships and hover tanks, allowing him to be heard by everyone in the area. And since there were cameras and reporters from every major newsfeed outlet present, I knew his words were being broadcast to the entire world.

“Welcome to Castle Anorak,” Sorrento said. “We’ve been expecting you.” He made a sweeping gesture, indicating the angry mob that surrounded him. “I must say, we are a bit surprised so many of you showed up here today. By now it must be obvious, to even the most ignorant among you, that nothing can get past our shield.”

His proclamation was met with a deafening roar of shouted threats, insults, and colorful profanity. I waited a moment, then raised both of my robot’s hands, calling for quiet. Once a semblance of silence had descended, I got on the public comm channel, which had the same effect as turning on a giant PA system. I dialed my headset volume down to kill the feedback, then said, “You’re wrong, Sorrento. We’re coming in. At noon. All of us.”

A roar of approval erupted from the assembled gunters. Sorrento didn’t bother waiting for it to die down. “You’re welcome to try,” he said, still grinning. Then he produced an item from his inventory and placed it on the ground in front of him. I zoomed in for a closer look and felt the muscles in my jaw tighten. It was a toy robot. A bipedal dinosaur with armor-plated skin and a pair of large cannons mounted on its shoulder blades. I recognized it immediately, from several turn-of-the-century Japanese monster flicks.

It was Mechagodzilla.

“Kiryu!” Sorrento shouted, his voice still amplified. At the sound of the command word, his tiny robot instantly grew in size until it stood almost as tall as Castle Anorak itself, twice the height of the “giant” robots that Aech, Shoto, Art3mis, and I piloted. The mechanical lizard’s armored head almost touched the top of the spherical shield.

An awestruck silence fell over the crowd, followed by a rumble of fearful recognition from the thousands of gunters present. They all recognized this giant metal behemoth. And they all knew it was nearly indestructible.

Sorrento entered the mech through an access door in one of its massive heels. A few seconds later, the beast’s eyes began to glow bright yellow. Then it threw back its head, opened its jagged maw, and let out a piercing metallic roar.

On cue, the ten Sixer avatars standing behind Sorrento pulled out their toy robots and activated them, too. Five of them had the huge robotic lions that could form Voltron. The other five had giant mechs from Robotech and Neon Genesis Evangelion.

“Oh sh@t,” I heard Art3mis and Aech whisper in unison.

“Come on!” Sorrento shouted defiantly. His challenge echoed across the crowded landscape.

Many of the gunters on the front lines took an involuntary step backward. A few others turned and ran for their lives. But Aech, Shoto, Art3mis, and I held our ground.

I checked the time on my display. Less than a minute to go now. I pressed a button on Leopardon’s control panel, and my giant robot drew its gleaming sword.

I didn’t witness it firsthand, but I can tell you with some certainty that this is what happened next:

The Sixers had erected a large armored bunker behind Castle Anorak, filled with pallets of weapons and battle gear that had been teleported in by the Sixers before they activated their shield. There was also a long rack of thirty Supply Droids, which had been installed along the bunker’s eastern wall. Due to a lack of imagination on the part of the Supply Droids’ original designer, they all looked exactly like the robot Johnny Five from the 1986 film Short Circuit. The Sixers used these droids primarily as gofers, to run errands and fill equipment and ammo requisitions for the troops stationed outside.

At exactly one minute to noon, one of the Supply Droids, designation SD-03, powered itself on and disengaged from its charging dock. Then it rolled forward on its tank treads, across the bunker floor, to the armory cage at its opposite end. Two robotic sentries stood outside the armory’s entrance. SD-03 transmitted its equipment requisition order to them—an order that I myself had submitted on the Sixer intranet two days earlier. The sentries verified the requisition and stepped aside, permitting SD-03 to roll into the cage. It continued past long storage racks that held a wide array of weaponry: magic swords, shields, powered armor suits, plasma rifles, railguns, and countless other weapons. Finally, the droid rolled to a stop. The rack in front of it held five large octahedron-shaped devices, each roughly the size of a soccer ball. Each device had a small control panel set into one of its eight sides, along with a serial number. SD-03 found the serial number that matched the one on my requisition form. Then, following a set of instructions I’d programmed into it, the little droid used its clawlike index finger to enter a series of commands on the device’s control panel. When it finished, a small light above the keypad turned from green to red. Then SD-03 lifted the octahedron in its arms. As it exited the armory, one antimatter friction-induction bomb was subtracted from the Sixers’ computerized inventory.

SD-03 then rolled out of the bunker and began to climb a series of ramps and staircases the Sixers had built onto the castle’s outer walls to provide access to the upper levels. Along the way, the droid rolled through several security checkpoints. Each time, robotic sentries scanned its security clearance and found that the droid was allowed to go anywhere it damn well pleased. When SD-03 reached Castle Anorak’s uppermost level, it rolled out onto a large observation platform located there.

At this point, SD-03 may have drawn a few curious looks from the squadron of elite Sixer avatars guarding the platform. I have no way of knowing. But even if the guards somehow anticipated what was about to happen and opened fire on the little droid, it was too late for them to stop it now.

SD-03 continued rolling directly to the center of the roof, where a high-level Sixer wizard sat holding the Orb of Osuvox—the artifact generating the spherical shield around the castle.

Then, executing the last of the instructions I’d programmed into it two days earlier, SD-03 lifted the antimatter friction-induction bomb up over its head and detonated it.

The explosion vaporized the supply droid, along with all the avatars stationed on the platform, including the Sixer wizard who was operating the Orb of Osuvox. The moment he died, the artifact deactivated and fell to the now-empty platform.

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