Ready Player One (Page 33)

Revealing my identity to the world so that I could accuse one of the world’s most powerful corporations of blackmail and murder didn’t seem like the smartest move. No one would believe me. I could barely believe it myself. IOI had actually tried to kill me. To prevent me from winning a videogame contest. It was insane.

I seemed to be safe in my hideout for the moment, but I knew I couldn’t stay in the stacks much longer. When the Sixers found out I was still alive, they would come back here looking for me. I needed to get the hell out of Dodge. But I couldn’t do that until I had some money, and my first endorsement checks wouldn’t be deposited for another day or two. I would just have to lie low until then. But right now, I needed to talk to Aech, to warn him that he was next on the Sixers’ hit list.

I was also desperate to see a friendly face.

Chapter 15

I grabbed my OASIS console and powered it on, then pulled on my visor and gloves. As I logged in, my avatar reappeared on Ludus, on the hilltop where I’d been sitting prior to my chat-room session with Sorrento. The moment my audio kicked in, I heard the earsplitting roar of engines coming from somewhere directly overheard. I stepped out from under the tree and looked up. I saw a squadron of Sixer gunships flying in formation, zooming south at low altitude, their sensors scanning the surface as they went.

I was about to duck back under the tree, out of sight, when I remembered that all of Ludus was a no-PvP zone. The Sixers couldn’t harm me here. Even so, my nerves were still on edge. I continued to scan the sky and quickly spotted two more Sixer gunship squadrons off near the eastern horizon. A moment later, several more squadrons dropped in from orbit to the north and west. It looked like an alien invasion.

An icon flashed on my display, informing me that I had a new text message from Aech: Where the hell are you? Call me ASAFP!

I tapped his name on my contact list, and he answered on the first ring. His avatar’s face appeared in my vidfeed window. He was wearing a grim expression.

“Did you hear the news?” he asked.

“What news?”

“The Sixers are on Ludus. Thousands of them. More arriving every minute. They’re searching the planet, looking for the tomb.”

“Yeah. I’m on Ludus right now. Sixer gunships everywhere.”

Aech scowled. “When I find I-r0k, I’m going to kill him. Slowly. Then, when he creates a new avatar, I’m going to hunt him down and kill him again. If that moron had kept his mouth shut, the Sixers never would have thought to look here.”

“Yeah. His forum posts were what tipped them off. Sorrento said so himself.”

“Sorrento? As in Nolan Sorrento?”

I told him everything that had happened in the past few hours.

“They blew up your house?”

“Actually, it was a trailer,” I said. “In a trailer park. They killed a lot of people here, Aech. It’s probably already on the newsfeeds.” I took a deep breath. “I’m freaking out. I’m scared.”

“I don’t blame you,” he said. “Thank God you weren’t home when it happened.…”

I nodded. “I almost never log in from home. Luckily, the Sixers didn’t know that.”

“What about your family?”

“It was my aunt’s place. She’s dead, I think. We … we weren’t very close.” This was a huge understatement, of course. My aunt Alice had never shown me much kindness, but she still hadn’t deserved to die. But most of the wrenching guilt I now felt had to do with Mrs. Gilmore, and the knowledge that my actions had gotten her killed. She was one of the sweetest people I’d ever known.

I realized that I was sobbing. I muted my audio so Aech wouldn’t hear, then took several deep breaths until I got myself under control again.

“I can’t believe this!” Aech growled. “Those evil p****s. They’re gonna pay, Z. Count on it. We will make them pay for this.”

I couldn’t see how, but I didn’t argue. I knew he was just trying to make me feel better.

“Where are you right now?” Aech asked. “Do you need help? Like, a place to stay or something? I can wire you some money if you need it.”

“No, I’m OK,” I said. “But thanks, man. I really appreciate the offer.”

“De nada, amigo.”

“Listen, did the Sixers send you the same e-mail they sent me?”

“Yeah. Thousands of them. But I decided it was best to ignore them.”

I frowned. “I wish I’d been smart enough to do that.”

“Dude, you had no way of knowing they were gonna try and kill you! Besides, they already had your home address. If you’d ignored their e-mails, they probably would have set off that bomb anyway.”

“Listen, Aech … Sorrento said that your school records contained a fake home address, and that they don’t know where to find you. But he might have been lying. You should leave home. Go somewhere safe. As soon as possible.”

“Don’t worry about me, Z. I stay mobile. Those bastards will never find me.”

“If you say so,” I replied, wondering what exactly he meant. “But I need to warn Art3mis, too. And Daito and Shoto, if I can reach them. The Sixers are probably doing everything they can to learn their identities too.”

“That gives me an idea,” he said. “We should invite all three of them to meet us in the Basement later tonight. Say around midnight? A private chat-room session. Just the five of us.”

My mood brightened at the prospect of seeing Art3mis again. “Do you think they’ll all agree to come?”

“Yeah, if we let them know their lives depend on it.” He smirked. “And we’re going to have the world’s top five gunters together in one chat room. Who’s gonna sit that out?”

I sent Art3mis a short message, asking her to meet us in Aech’s private chat room at midnight. She replied just a few minutes later, promising to be there. Aech told me he’d managed to reach Daito and Shoto, and they had both also agreed to attend. The meeting was set.

I didn’t feel like being alone, so I logged into the Basement about an hour early. Aech was already there, surfing the newsfeeds on the ancient RCA television. Without saying a word, he got up and gave me a hug. Even though I couldn’t actually feel it, I found it surprisingly comforting. Then we both sat down and watched the news coverage together while we waited for the others to arrive.

Every channel was airing OASIS footage showing the hordes of Sixer spacecraft and troops that were currently arriving on Ludus. It was easy for everyone to guess why they were there, and so now every gunter in the simulation was also headed for Ludus. Transport terminals all over the planet were jammed with incoming avatars.

“So much for keeping the tomb’s location a secret,” I said, shaking my head.

“It was bound to leak out eventually,” Aech said, shutting off the TV. “I just didn’t think it would happen this fast.”

We both heard an entrance alert chime as Art3mis materialized at the top of the staircase. She was wearing the same outfit she’d had on the night we met. She waved to me as she descended the steps. I waved back, then made introductions.

“Aech, meet Art3mis. Art3mis, this is my best friend, Aech.”

“Pleasure to meet you,” Art3mis said, extending her right hand.

Aech shook it. “Likewise.” He flashed his Cheshire grin. “Thanks for coming.”

“Are you kidding? How could I miss it? The very first meeting of the High Five.”

“The High Five?” I said.

“Yeah,” Aech said. “That’s what they’re calling us on all of the message boards now. We hold the top five high-score slots on the Scoreboard. So we’re the High Five.”

“Right,” I said. “At least for the time being.”

Art3mis grinned at that, then turned and began to wander around the Basement, admiring the ’80s decor. “Aech, this is, by far, the coolest chat room I’ve ever seen.”

“Thank you.” He bowed his head. “Kind of you to say.”

She stopped to browse through the shelf of role-playing game supplements. “You’ve re-created Morrow’s basement perfectly. Every last detail. I want to live here.”

“You’ve got a permanent spot on the guest list. Log in and hang out anytime.”

“Really?” she said, clearly delighted. “Thank you! I will. You’re the man, Aech.”

“Yes,” he said, smiling. “It’s true. I am.”

They really seemed to be hitting it off, and it was making me crazy jealous. I didn’t want Art3mis to like Aech, or vice versa. I wanted her all to myself.

Daito and Shoto logged in a moment later, appearing simultaneously at the top of the basement staircase. Daito was the taller of the two, and appeared to be in his late teens. Shoto was a foot shorter and looked much younger. Maybe about thirteen. Both avatars looked Japanese, and they bore a striking resemblance to one another, like snapshots of the same young man taken five years apart. They wore matching suits of traditional samurai armor, and each had both a short wakizashi and a longer katana strapped to his belt.

“Greetings,” the taller samurai said. “I am Daito. And this is my little brother, Shoto. Thank you for the invitation. We are honored to meet all three of you.”

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