Ready player one, p.32
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       Ready Player One, p.32
 

           Ernest Cline

  shower of sparks, and to my surprise, they actually did some damage. When the smoke cleared I saw that the Mechagodzilla’s right arm now hung limp. It was nearly severed at the elbow.

  “Looks like you’ll be wiping with your left hand now, Sorrento!” Shoto shouted triumphantly. Then he fired Raideen’s boosters and headed in my direction, toward the castle. But Sorrento had already swiveled his mech’s head around and was now taking a bead on Shoto with two glowing blue eyes.

  “Shoto!” I shouted. “Look out!” But my voice was drowned out by the sound of the lightning weapon firing out of the metal dragon’s mouth. It nailed Shoto’s mech directly in the center of its back. The robot exploded in an orange ball of fire.

  I heard a brief screech of static on the comm channel. I called out Shoto’s name again, but he didn’t reply. Then a message flashed on my display, informing me that Shoto’s name had just disappeared from the Scoreboard.

  He was dead.

  This realization momentarily stunned me, which was unfortunate, because Sorrento’s lightning weapon was still firing, moving in a fast sweeping arc, cutting across the ground, then diagonally up the castle wall, toward me. I finally reacted—too late—and Sorrento nailed my mech in the lower torso, just a split second before the beam cut off.

  I looked down to discover that the bottom half of my robot had just been blasted away. Every warning indicator in my cockpit started to flash as my mech began to fall out of the sky in two smoking, burning halves.

  Somehow, I had the presence of mind to reach up and yank the ejection handle above my seat. The cockpit canopy popped off, and I jumped free of the falling mech a split second before it impacted on the castle steps, killing several dozen of the avatars crowded there.

  I fired my avatar’s jet boots just before I hit the ground, then quickly adjusted my immersion rig’s control setup, because I was now controlling my avatar instead of a giant robot. I managed to land on my feet in front of the castle, just clear of Leopardon’s flaming wreckage. A second after I landed, a shadow spilled over me, and I turned around to see Sorrento’s mech blotting out the sky. He raised its massive left foot, preparing to crush me.

  I took three running steps and jumped, firing my jet boots in midleap. The thrust threw me clear just as the Mechagodzilla’s huge clawed foot slammed down, forming a crater in the spot where I’d stood a second before. The metal beast let out another earsplitting shriek, followed by hollow, booming laughter. Sorrento’s laughter.

  I cut my jet-boot thrusters and tucked my avatar into a ball. I hit the ground rolling, tumbled forward, then came up on my feet. I squinted up at the metal lizard’s head. Its eyes weren’t glowing again—not yet. I could fire my jet boots again now and make it inside the castle before Sorrento could fire on me again. He wouldn’t be able to follow me inside—not without getting out of his oversize mech.

  I could hear Art3mis and Aech shouting at me on my comlink. They were already inside, standing in front of the gate, waiting for me.

  All I had to do was fly into the castle and join them. The three of us could open and enter the gate before Sorrento caught up with us. I was sure of it.

  But I didn’t move. Instead, I took out the Beta Capsule and held the small metal cylinder in the palm of my avatar’s hand.

  Sorrento had tried to kill me. And in the process, he’d murdered my aunt, along with several of my neighbors, including sweet old Mrs. Gilmore, who had never hurt a soul. He’d also had Daito killed, and even though I’d never met him, Daito had been my friend.

  And now Sorrento had just killed Shoto’s avatar, robbing him of his chance to enter the Third Gate. Sorrento didn’t deserve his power or his position. What he deserved, I decided in that moment, was public humiliation and defeat. He deserved to have his ass kicked while the whole world watched.

  I held the Beta Capsule high over my head and pressed its activation button.

  There was a blinding flash of light, and the sky turned crimson as my avatar changed, growing and morphing into a gigantic red-and-silver-skinned humanoid alien with glowing egg-shaped eyes, a strange finned head, and a glowing light embedded in the center of my chest. For the next three minutes, I was Ultraman.

  The Mechagodzilla stopped shrieking and thrashing. Its gaze had been pointed down at the ground, where my avatar had stood a second earlier. Now its head slowly tilted up, taking in the size of its new opponent, until our glowing eyes finally met. I now stood face-to-face with Sorrento’s mech, matching its height and size almost exactly.

  Sorrento’s mech took several awkward steps backward. Its eyes began to glow again.

  I crouched slightly and struck an offensive pose, noticing that a timer now appeared in the corner of my display, counting down from three minutes.

  2:59. 2:58. 2:57.

  Below the timer there was a menu listing Ultraman’s various energy attacks in Japanese. I quickly selected SPECIUM RAY and then held my arms up in front of me, one horizontal and the other vertical, forming a cross. A pulsing beam of white energy shot out of my forearms, striking the Mechagodzilla in its chest and knocking it backward. Thrown off balance, Sorrento lost control and tripped over his own mammoth feet. His mech tumbled to the ground, landing on its side.

  A cheer went up from the thousands of avatars watching from the chaotic battlefield around us.

  I launched myself into the air and flew half a kilometer straight upward. Then I dropped back down, feet first, aiming my heels directly at the Mechagodzilla’s curved spine. When my feet hit, I heard something inside the metal beast snap under my crushing weight. Smoke began to pour out of its mouth, and the blue glow in its eyes quickly dissipated.

  I executed a backflip and landed behind the supine mech in a crouch. Its single functioning arm flailed wildly while its tail and legs thrashed about. Sorrento appeared to be struggling with the controls in an effort to get the beast back on its feet.

  I selected YATSUAKI KOHRIN from my weapon menu: Ultra-Slice. A glowing circular saw blade of electric-blue energy appeared in my right hand, spinning fiercely. I hurled it at Sorrento, releasing it with a snap of my wrist, like a Frisbee. It whirred through the air and struck the Mechagodzilla in its stomach. The energy blade cut into its metal skin as if it were tofu, slicing the mech into two halves. Just before the entire machine exploded, the head detached and blasted away from the neck. Sorrento had ejected. But since the mech was lying flat, the head shot out on a trajectory parallel to the ground. Sorrento quickly adjusted for this, and the rockets sprouting from the head began to tilt it skyward. Before it could get very far, I crossed my arms again and fired another specium ray, nailing the retreating head like a clay pigeon. It disintegrated in an immensely satisfying explosion.

  The crowd went wild.

  I checked the Scoreboard and confirmed that Sorrento’s employee number had vanished. His avatar was dead. I couldn’t take too much satisfaction from this, though, because I knew he was probably already kicking one of his underlings out of a haptic chair so he could take control of a new avatar.

  The counter on my display had only fifteen seconds remaining when I deactivated the Beta Capsule. My avatar instantly shrank back to normal size, and my appearance returned to normal. Then I spun around, powered on my jet boots, and flew into the castle.

  When I reached the opposite end of the huge foyer, I found Aech and Art3mis standing in front of the crystal door, waiting for me. The smoking, bloodied bodies of over a dozen recently slain Sixer avatars lay scattered on the stone floor around them, slowly fading out of existence. Apparently, there had been a brief and decisive skirmish and I’d just missed it.

  “No fair,” I said, cutting my jet boots and dropping to the floor beside Aech. “You could have saved at least one of them for me.”

  Art3mis didn’t reply. She just gave me the finger.

  “Congrats on wasting Sorrento,” Aech said. “It was an epic throwdown, for sure. But you’re still a complete idiot. You know that, right?”
r />   “Yeah.” I shrugged. “I know.”

  “You’re such a selfish asshole!” Art3mis shouted. “What if you’d gotten yourself killed too?”

  “I didn’t, though. Did I?” I said, stepping around her to examine the crystal door. “So chill out and let’s open this thing.”

  I examined the keyhole in the center of the door, then looked at the words printed directly above it, etched into the door’s faceted surface. Charity. Hope. Faith.

  I took out my copy of the Crystal Key and held it up. Aech and Art3mis followed suit and held up their keys too.

  Nothing happened.

  We all exchanged concerned looks. Then an idea occurred to me, and I cleared my throat. “ ‘Three is a magic number,’ ” I said, reciting the first line of the Schoolhouse Rock! song. As soon as I spoke the words, the crystal door began to glow, and two additional keyholes appeared, on either side of the first.

  “That did it!” Aech whispered. “Holy shit. I can’t believe this. We’re really here. Standing in front of the Third Gate.”

  Art3mis nodded. “Finally.”

  I inserted my key in the center keyhole. Aech inserted his into the keyhole on the left, and Art3mis placed hers in the keyhole on the right.

  “Clockwise?” Art3mis said. “On the count of three?”

  Aech and I nodded. Art3mis counted to three, and we turned our keys in unison. There was a brief flash of blue light, during which all of our keys and the crystal door itself vanished. And then the Third Gate stood open in front of us, a crystal doorway leading into a spinning whirlpool of stars.

  “Wow,” I heard Art3mis whisper beside me. “Here we go.”

  As the three of us stepped forward, preparing to enter the gate, I heard an earsplitting boom. It sounded like the entire universe was cracking in half.

  And then we all died.

  When your avatar gets killed, your screen doesn’t fade to black right away. Instead, your point of view automatically shifts to a third-person perspective, treating you to a brief out-of-body replay of your avatar’s final fate.

  A split second after we heard the thunderous boom, my perspective shifted, and I found myself looking at our three avatars, standing there frozen in front of the open gate. Then an incinerating white light filled the world, accompanied by an earsplitting wall of sound. It was what I’d always pictured being fried in a nuclear blast would be like.

  For a brief moment, I saw our avatars’ skeletons suspended inside the transparent outlines of our motionless bodies. Then my avatar’s hit-point counter dropped to zero.

  The blast wave arrived a second later, disintegrating everything in its path—our avatars, the floor, the walls, the castle itself, and the thousands of avatars gathered around it. Everything was turned to a fine, atomized dust that hung suspended in the air for a second before slowly settling to earth.

  The entire surface of the planet had been wiped clean. The area around Castle Anorak, which had been crowded with warring avatars a split second before, was now a desolate and barren wasteland. Everyone and everything had been destroyed. Only the Third Gate remained, a crystal doorway floating in the air above the crater where the castle had stood a moment before.

  My initial shock quickly turned to dread as I realized what had just happened.

  The Sixers had detonated the Cataclyst.

  It was the only explanation. Only that incredibly powerful artifact could have done this. Not only had it killed every avatar in the sector, it had even destroyed Castle Anorak, a fortress that, until now, had proven itself to be indestructible.

  I stared at the open gate, floating in the empty air, and waited for the inevitable, final message to appear in the center of my display, the words I knew every other avatar in the sector must be seeing at this very moment: GAME OVER.

  But when words finally did appear on my display, it was another message entirely: CONGRATULATIONS! YOU HAVE AN EXTRA LIFE!

  Then, as I watched in amazement, my avatar reappeared, fading back into existence in the exact same location where I’d died a few seconds earlier. I was standing in front of the open gate again. But the gate was now floating in midair, suspended several dozen meters above the planet’s surface, over the crater that had been created by the destruction of the castle. As my avatar finished materializing, I looked down and realized that the floor I’d been standing on earlier was now gone. So were my jet boots, and everything else I’d been carrying.

  I seemed to hover in midair for a moment, like Wile E. Coyote in the old Roadrunner cartoons. Then I plummeted straight down. I made a desperate grab for the open gate in front of me, but it was well out of reach.

  I hit the ground hard and lost a third of my hit points from the impact. Then I slowly got to my feet and looked around. I was standing in a vast cube-shaped crater—the space where the foundation and lower basement levels of Castle Anorak had stood. It was completely barren and eerily silent. There was no rubble from the destroyed castle, and no wreckage from the thousands of spaceships and aircraft that had filled the sky a few moments ago. In fact, there was no sign at all of the grand battle that had just been fought here. The Cataclyst had vaporized everything.

  I looked down at my avatar and saw that I was now wearing a black T-shirt and blue jeans, the default outfit that appeared on every newly created avatar. Then I pulled up my stats and item inventory. My avatar had the same level and ability scores I’d had previously, but my inventory was completely empty except for one item—the quarter I’d obtained after playing my perfect game of Pac-Man on Archaide. Once I’d placed the quarter in my inventory, I hadn’t been able to remove it, so I’d never been able to have any divination or identification spells cast on it. I’d had no way of ascertaining the quarter’s true purpose or powers. During the tumultuous events of the past few months, I’d forgotten I even had the damn thing.

  But now I knew what the quarter was—a single-use artifact that gave my avatar an extra life. Until that moment, I hadn’t even known such a thing was possible. In the history of the OASIS, there was no record of any avatar ever acquiring an extra life.

  I selected the quarter in my inventory and tried again to remove it. This time, I was able to take it out and hold it in the palm of my avatar’s hand. Now that the artifact’s sole power had been used, it no longer possessed any magical properties. Now it was just a quarter.

  I looked straight up at the crystal gate floating twenty meters above me. It was still sitting there, wide open. But I had no idea how I was going to get up there to enter it. I had no jet boots, no ship, and no magic items or memorized spells. Nothing that would allow me to fly or levitate. And there wasn’t a single stepladder in sight.

  There I was, standing a stone’s throw from the Third Gate, but unable to reach it.

  “Hey, Z?” I heard a voice say. “Can you hear me?”

  It was Aech, but her voice was no longer altered to sound male. I could hear her perfectly, as if she were talking to me via comlink. But that didn’t make sense, because my avatar no longer had a comlink. And Aech’s avatar was dead.

  “Where are you?” I asked the empty air.

  “I’m dead, like everyone else,” Aech said. “Everyone but you.”

  “Then how can I hear you?”

  “Og patched all of us into your audio and video feeds,” she said. “So we can see what you see and hear what you hear.”

  “Oh,” I said.

  “Is that all right with you, Parzival?” I heard Og ask. “If it isn’t, just say so.”

  I thought about it for a moment. “No, it’s fine with me,” I said. “Shoto and Art3mis are listening in too?”

  “Yes,” Shoto said. “I’m here.”

  “Yeah, we’re here, all right,” Art3mis said, and I could hear the barely contained rage in her voice. “And we’re all dead as doornails. The question is, why aren’t you dead too, Parzival?”

  “Yeah, Z,” Aech said. “We are a bit curious about that. What happened?”

  I
took out the quarter and held it up in front of my eyes. “I was awarded this quarter on Archaide a few months ago, for playing a perfect game of Pac-Man. It was an artifact, but I never knew its purpose. Not until now. Turns out it gave me an extra life.”

  I heard only silence for a moment; then Aech began to laugh. “You lucky son of a bitch!” she said. “The newsfeeds are reporting that every single avatar in the sector was just killed. Over half the population of the OASIS.”

  “Was it the Cataclyst?” I asked.

  “It had to be,” Art3mis said. “The Sixers must have bought it when it went up for auction a few years ago. And they’ve been sitting on it all this time, waiting for the perfect moment to detonate it.”

  “But they just killed off all of their own troops, too,” Shoto said. “Why would they do that?”

  “I think most of them were already dead,” Art3mis said.

  “The Sixers had no choice,” I said. “It was the only way they could stop us. We’d already opened the Third Gate and were about to step inside when they detonated that thing—” I paused, realizing something. “How did they know we’d opened it? Unless—”

  “They were watching us,” Aech said. “The Sixers probably had remote surveillance cameras hidden all around the gate.”

  “So they saw us open it,” Art3mis said. “Which means they know how to open it now too.”

  “Who cares?” Shoto interjected. “Sorrento’s avatar is dead. And so are all of the other Sixers.”

  “Wrong,” Art3mis said. “Check the Scoreboard. There are still twenty Sixer avatars listed there, below Parzival. And their scores indicate that every single one of them has a copy of the Crystal Key.”

  “Shit!” Aech and Shoto said in unison.

  “The Sixers knew they might have to detonate the Cataclyst,” I said. “So they must have taken the precaution of moving some of their avatars outside of Sector Ten. They were probably waiting in a gunship just across the sector border, where it was safe.”

  “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.

 
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