Ready Player One (Page 27)

Rumors also surfaced that Morrow had chosen to leave because he’d had a huge falling-out with Halliday. Neither of them would confirm or deny these rumors, and no one seemed to know what sort of dispute had ended their long friendship. But sources within the company said that at the time of Morrow’s resignation, he and Halliday had not spoken to each other directly in several years. Even so, when Morrow left GSS, he sold his entire share of the company directly to Halliday, for an undisclosed sum.

Ogden and Kira “retired” to their home in Oregon and started a nonprofit educational software company, Halcydonia Interactive, which created free interactive adventure games for kids. I’d grown up playing these games, all of which were set in the magical kingdom of Halcydonia. Morrow’s games had transported me out of my grim surroundings as a lonely kid growing up in the stacks. They’d also taught me how to do math and solve puzzles while building my self-esteem. In a way, the Morrows were among my very first teachers.

For the next decade, Ogden and Kira enjoyed a peaceful, happy existence, living and working in relative seclusion. They tried to have children, but it wasn’t in the cards for them. They’d begun to consider adoption when, in the winter of 2034, Kira was killed in a car accident on an icy mountain road just a few miles from their home.

After that, Ogden continued to run Halcydonia Interactive on his own. He managed to stay out of the limelight until the morning of Halliday’s death, when his home was besieged by the media. As Halliday’s former closest friend, everyone assumed he alone could explain why the deceased billionaire had put his entire fortune up for grabs. Morrow eventually held a press conference just to get everyone off his back. It was the last time he’d spoken to the media, until today. I’d watched the video of that press conference many, many times.

Morrow had begun it by reading a brief statement, saying that he hadn’t seen or spoken to Halliday in over a decade. “We had a falling-out,” he said, “and that is something I refuse to discuss, now or in the future. Suffice it to say, I have not communicated with James Halliday in over ten years.”

“Then why did Halliday leave you his vast collection of classic coin-operated videogames?” a reporter asked. “All of his other material possessions are to be auctioned off. If you were no longer friends, why are you the only person he left anything to?”

“I have no idea,” Morrow said simply.

Another reporter asked Morrow if he planned on looking for Halliday’s Easter egg himself, since he’d known Halliday so well and would therefore probably have a better chance than anyone of finding it. Morrow reminded the reporter that the contest rules laid out in Halliday’s will stated that no one who had ever worked for Gregarious Simulation Systems, or anyone in their immediate families, was eligible to take part in the contest.

“Did you have any idea what Halliday was working on all those years he was in seclusion?” another reporter asked.

“No. I suspected he might be working on some new game. Jim was always working on a new game. For him, making games was as necessary as breathing. But I never imagined he was planning something … of this magnitude.”

“As the person who knew James Halliday the best, do you have any advice for the millions of people who are now searching for his Easter egg? Where do you think people should start looking for it?”

“I think Jim made that pretty obvious,” Morrow replied, tapping a finger against his temple, just as Halliday had in the Anorak’s Invitation video. “Jim always wanted everyone to share his obsessions, to love the same things he loved. I think this contest is his way of giving the entire world an incentive to do just that.”

I closed my file on Morrow and checked my e-mail. The system informed me that I’d received over two million new unsolicited messages. These were automatically filed in a separate folder, so I could sort through them later. Only two new messages were left in my inbox, from people on my authorized contact list. One was from Aech. The other was from Art3mis.

I opened Aech’s message first. It was vidmail, and his avatar’s face appeared in a window. “Holy s**t!” he shouted. “I don’t believe this! Now you’ve cleared the m***********g First Gate and you still haven’t phoned me? Call my a*s! Now! The second you get this!”

I considered waiting a few days to call Aech back but quickly abandoned that idea. I needed to talk to someone about all this, and Aech was my best friend. If there was anyone I could trust, it was him.

He picked up on the first ring, and his avatar appeared in a new window in front of me. “You dog!” he shouted. “You brilliant, sly, devious dog!”

“Hey, Aech,” I said, trying to deadpan it. “What’s new?”

“What’s new? What’s new? You mean, other than, you know, seeing my best friend’s name appear at the top of the Scoreboard? Other than that, you mean?” He leaned forward so that his mouth completely filled the vidfeed window and shouted, “Other than that, not much! Not much new at all!”

I laughed. “Sorry it took me a while to call you. I had kind of a late night.”

“No s**t, you had a late night!” he said. “Look at you! How can you be so calm! Don’t you realize what this means? This is huge! This is beyond epic! I mean … congratu-freakin’-lations, man!” He began to bow repeatedly. “I am not worthy!”

“Cut it out, OK? It’s really not a big deal. I haven’t actually won anything yet.…”

“Not a big deal!” he cried. “Not. A. Big. Deal? Are you kidding me? You’re a legend now, man! You just became the first gunter in history to find the Copper Key! And clear the First Gate! You are a god, from this moment forth! Do you not realize this, fool?”

“Seriously. Stop it. I’m already freaked out enough as it is.”

“Have you seen the news? The whole world is freaking out! And the gunter boards are going apeshit! And everyone is talking about you, amigo.”

“I know. Listen, I hope you’re not pissed at me for keeping you in the dark. I felt really weird about not returning your calls or telling you what I was up to.…”

“Oh, come on!” He rolled his eyes dismissively. “You know damn well that if I’d been in your shoes, I would have done the same thing. That’s how the game is played. But”—his tone grew more serious—“I am curious to know how that Art3mis chick happened to find the Copper Key and clear the gate right after you did. Everyone seems to think you two were working together, but I know that’s horseshit. So what happened? Was she following you or something?”

I shook my head. “No, she found the key’s hiding place before I did. Last month, she said. She just wasn’t able to obtain the key until now.” I was silent for a second. “I can’t really go into the details without, you know—”

Aech held up both hands. “No worries. I totally understand. I wouldn’t want for you to accidentally drop any hints.” He flashed his trademark Cheshire grin, and his gleaming white teeth seemed to take up half of the vidfeed window. “Actually, I should let you know where I am right now.…”

He adjusted his vidfeed’s virtual camera so that it pulled back from a tight shot of his face to a much wider shot that revealed where he was—standing next to the flat-topped hill, just outside the entrance to the Tomb of Horrors.

My jaw dropped. “How in the hell—?”

“Well, when I saw your name all over the newsfeeds last night, it occurred to me that for as long as I’ve known you, you’ve never had the dough to do much traveling. Any traveling, really. So I figured that if you’d found the hiding place of the Copper Key, it probably had to be somewhere close to Ludus. Or maybe even on Ludus.”

“Well done,” I said, and I meant it.

“Not really. I spent hours racking my pea-sized brain before I finally thought to search the map of Ludus for the surface features described in the Tomb of Horrors module. But once I did, everything else clicked into place. And here I am.”


“Yeah, well, it was pretty easy once you pointed me in the right direction.” He glanced back over his shoulder at the tomb. “I’ve been searching for this place for years, and all this time it was within walking distance of my school! I feel like a total moron for not figuring it out on my own.”

“You’re not a moron,” I said. “You deciphered the Limerick on your own, otherwise you wouldn’t even know about the Tomb of Horrors module, right?”

“So, you’re not pissed?” he said. “That I took advantage of my inside info?”

I shook my head. “No way. I would have done the same thing.”

“Well, regardless, I owe you one. And I won’t forget it.”

I nodded toward the tomb behind him. “Have you been inside yet?”

“Yeah. I came back up here to call you, while I wait for the server to reset at midnight. The tomb is empty right now, because your friend, Art3mis, already blew through here earlier today.”

“We’re not friends,” I said. “She just showed up, a few minutes after I got the key.”

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