Ready Player One (Page 67)

“See?” I said. “I knew you guys would get it. You’re a smart bunch.”

“ ‘Three Is a Magic Number,’ music and lyrics by Bob Dorough,” Art3mis recited, as if pulling the information from a mental encyclopedia. “Written in 1973.”

I smiled at her. “I have a theory. I think this might be Halliday’s way of telling us how many keys are required to open the Third Gate.”

Art3mis grinned, then sang, “It takes three.”

“No more, no less,” continued Shoto.

“You don’t have to guess,” added Aech.

“Three,” I finished, “is the magic number.” I took out my own copy of the Crystal Key and held it up. The others did the same. “We have four copies of the key. If at least three of us can reach the gate, we can get it open.”

“What then?” Aech asked. “Do we all enter the gate at the same time?”

“What if only one of us can enter the gate once it’s open?” Art3mis said.

“I doubt Halliday would have set it up like that,” I said.

“Who knows what that crazy b*****d was thinking?” Art3mis said. “He’s toyed with us every step of the way, and now he’s doing it again. Why else would he require three copies of the Crystal Key to open the final gate?”

“Maybe because he wanted to force us to work together?” I suggested.

“Or he just wanted the contest to end with a big, dramatic finale,” Aech offered. “Think about it. If three avatars enter the Third Gate at the exact same moment, then it becomes a race to see who can clear the gate and reach the egg first.”

“Halliday was one crazy, sadistic b*****d,” Art3mis muttered.

“Yeah,” Aech said, nodding. “You got that right.”

“Look at it this way,” Shoto said. “If Halliday hadn’t set up the Third Gate to require three keys … the Sixers might have already found the egg by now.”

“But the Sixers have a dozen avatars with copies of the Crystal Key,” Aech said. “They could open the gate right now, if they were smart enough to figure out how.”

“Dilettantes,” Art3mis said. “It’s their own fault for not knowing all the Schoolhouse Rock! lyrics by heart. How did those fools even get this far?”

“By cheating,” I said. “Remember?”

“Oh, that’s right. I keep forgetting.” She grinned at me, and I felt my knees go all rubbery.

“Just because the Sixers haven’t opened the gate yet doesn’t mean they won’t figure it out eventually,” Shoto said.

I nodded. “Shoto’s right. Sooner or later they’ll make the Schoolhouse Rock! connection. So we can’t waste any more time.”

“Well, what are we waiting for?” Shoto said excitedly. “We know where the gate is and how to open it! So let’s do it! And may the best gunter win!”

“You’re forgetting something, Shoto-san,” Aech said. “Parzival here still hasn’t told us how we’re going to get past that shield, fight our way through the Sixers’ army, and get inside the castle.” He turned to me. “You do have a plan for that, don’t you, Z?”

“Of course,” I said. “I was just getting to that.” I made a sweeping gesture with my right hand, and a three-dimensional hologram of Castle Anorak appeared, floating in the air in front of me. The transparent blue sphere generated by the Orb of Osuvox appeared around the castle, surrounding it both above- and belowground. I pointed to it. “This shield is going to drop on its own, at noon on Monday, about thirty-six hours from now. And then we’re going to walk right through the castle’s front entrance.”

“The shield is going to drop? On its own?” Art3mis repeated. “The clans have been lobbing nukes at that sphere for the past two weeks, and they haven’t even scratched it. How are you going to get it to ‘drop on its own’?”

“I’ve already taken care of it,” I said. “You guys are gonna have to trust me.”

“I trust you, Z,” Aech said. “But even if that shield does drop, to reach the castle, we’ll still have to fight our way through the largest army in the OASIS.” He pointed to the hologram, which showed the Sixer troop positions around the castle, just inside the sphere. “What about these fools? And their tanks? And their gunships?”

“Obviously, we’re going to need a little help,” I said.

“A lot of help,” Art3mis clarified.

“And who, exactly, are we going to convince to help us wage war against the entire Sixer army?” Aech asked.

“Everyone,” I said. “Every single gunter on the grid.” I opened another window, displaying the brief e-mail I’d composed just before logging into the Basement. “I’m going to send this message out tonight, to every single OASIS user.”

Fellow gunters,

It is a dark day. After years of deception, exploitation, and knavery, the Sixers have finally managed to buy and cheat their way to the entrance of the Third Gate.

As you know, IOI has barricaded Castle Anorak in an attempt to prevent anyone else from reaching the egg. We’ve also learned that they’ve used illegal methods to uncover the identities of gunters they consider a threat, with the intention of abducting and murdering them.

If gunters around the world don’t join forces to stop the Sixers, they will reach the egg and win the contest. And then the OASIS will fall under IOI’s imperialist rule.

The time is now. Our assault on the Sixer army will begin tomorrow at noon, OST.

Join us!

Sincerely,

Aech, Art3mis, Parzival, and Shoto

“Knavery?” Art3mis said after she’d finished reading it. “Were you using a thesaurus when you wrote this?”

“I was trying to make it sound, you know, grand,” I said. “Official.”

“Me likey, Z,” Aech said. “It really gets the blood stirring.”

“Thanks, Aech.”

“So that’s it? This is your plan?” Art3mis said. “Spam the entire OASIS, asking for help?”

“More or less, yeah. That’s the plan.”

“And you really think everyone will just show up and help us fight the Sixers?” she said. “Just for the hell of it?”

“Yes,” I said. “I do.”

Aech nodded. “He’s right. No one wants the Sixers to win the contest. And they definitely don’t want IOI to take control of the OASIS. People will jump at a chance to help bring the Sixers down. And what gunter is gonna pass up a chance to fight in such an epic, history-making battle?”

“But won’t the clans think we’re just trying to manipulate them?” Shoto said. “So that we can reach the gate ourselves?”

“Of course,” I said. “But most of them have already given up. Everyone knows the end of the Hunt is at hand. Don’t you think most people would rather see one of us win the contest, instead of Sorrento and the Sixers?”

Art3mis considered it for a moment. “You’re right. That e-mail just might work.”

“Z,” Aech said, slapping me on the back, “you are an evil, sublime genius! When that e-mail goes out, the media will go apeshit! The word will spread like wildfire. By this time tomorrow, every avatar in the OASIS will be headed to Chthonia.”

“Let’s hope so,” I said.

“Oh, they’ll show up, all right,” Art3mis said. “But how many of them will actually fight, once they see what we’re up against? Most of them will probably set up lawn chairs and eat popcorn while they watch us get our a***s kicked.”

“That’s definitely a possibility,” I said. “But the clans will help us, for sure. They’ve got nothing to lose. And we don’t have to defeat the entire Sixer army. We just have to punch a hole through it, get inside the castle, and reach the gate.”

“Three of us have to reach the gate,” Aech said. “If only one or two of us make it inside, we’re screwed.”

“Correct,” I said. “So we should all try extremely hard not to get killed.”

Art3mis and Aech both laughed nervously. Shoto just shook his head. “Even if we get the gate open, we still have to contend with the gate itself,” he said. “It’s bound to be harder to clear than the first two.”

“Let’s worry about the gate later,” I said. “Once we reach it.”

“Fine,” Shoto said. “Let’s do this thing.”

“I second that,” Aech said.

“So, you two are actually gonna go along with this?” Art3mis said.

“You got a better idea, sister?” Aech asked.

She shrugged. “No. Not really.”

“OK then,” Aech said. “It’s settled.”

I closed the e-mail. “I’m sending each of you a copy of this message,” I said. “Start sending it out tonight, to everyone on your contact list. Post it on your blogs. Broadcast it on your POV channels. We’ve got thirty-six hours to spread the word. That should be enough time for everyone to gear up and get their avatars to Chthonia.”

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