Ready Player One (Page 68)

“As soon as the Sixers catch wind of this, they’ll start preparing for an assault,” Art3mis said. “They’re gonna pull out all the stops.”

“They might just laugh it off,” I said. “They think their shield is impregnable.”

“It is,” Art3mis said. “So I hope you’re right about being able to shut it down.”

“Don’t worry.”

“Why would I be worried?” Art3mis snapped. “Maybe you’ve forgotten, but I’m homeless and on the run for my life right now! I’m currently logged in from a public terminal at an airport, paying for bandwidth by the minute. I can’t fight a war from here, much less try to clear the Third Gate. And I don’t have anywhere to go.”

Shoto nodded. “I don’t think I can stay where I am either. I’m in a rented booth at a public manga cafe in Osaka. I don’t have much privacy. And I don’t think it’s safe for me to stay here if the Sixers have agents out looking for me.”

Art3mis looked at me. “Any suggestions?”

“I hate to break it to you guys, but I’m homeless and logged in from a public terminal right now too,” I said. “I’ve been hiding out from the Sixers for over a year, remember?”

“I’ve got an RV,” Aech said. “You’re all welcome to crash with me. But I don’t think I can make it to Columbus, Vancouver, and Japan in the next thirty-six hours.”

“I think I might be able to help you guys out,” a deep voice said.

We all jumped and turned around just in time to see a tall, male, gray-haired avatar appear directly behind us. It was the Great and Powerful Og. Ogden Morrow’s avatar. And he didn’t materialize slowly, the way an avatar normally did when logging into a chat room. He simply popped into existence, as if he had been there all along and had only now decided to make himself visible.

“Have any of you ever been to Oregon?” he said. “It’s lovely this time of year.”

Chapter 33

We all stared at Ogden Morrow in stunned silence.

“How did you get in here?” Aech finally asked, once he’d managed to pick his jaw up off the floor. “This is a private chat room.”

“Yes, I know,” Morrow said, looking a bit embarrassed. “I’m afraid I’ve been eavesdropping on the four of you for quite some time now. And I hope you’ll accept my sincere apologies for invading your privacy. I did it with only the best intentions, I promise you.”

“With all due respect, sir,” Art3mis said. “You didn’t answer his question. How did you gain access to this chat room without an invitation? And without any of us even knowing you were here?”

“Forgive me,” he said. “I can see why this might concern you. But you needn’t worry. My avatar has many unique powers, including the ability to enter private chat rooms uninvited.” As Morrow spoke, he walked over to one of Aech’s bookshelves and began to browse through some vintage role-playing game supplements. “Prior to the original launch of the OASIS, when Jim and I created our avatars, we gave ourselves superuser access to the entire simulation. In addition to being immortal and invincible, our avatars could go pretty much anywhere and do pretty much anything. Now that Anorak is gone, my avatar is the only one with these powers.” He turned to face the four of us. “No one else has the ability to eavesdrop on you. Especially not the Sixers. OASIS chat-room encryption protocols are rock solid, I assure you.” He chuckled lightly. “My presence here notwithstanding.”

“He knocked over that stack of comic books!” I said to Aech. “After our first meeting in here, remember? I told you it wasn’t a software glitch.”

Og nodded and gave us a guilty shrug. “That was me. I can be pretty clumsy at times.”

There was another brief silence, during which I finally worked up the courage to speak to Morrow directly. “Mr. Morrow—,” I began.

“Please,” Morrow said, raising a hand. “Call me Og.”

“All right,” I said, laughing nervously. Even under the circumstances, I was completely starstruck. I couldn’t believe I was actually addressing the Ogden Morrow. “Og. Would you mind telling us why you’ve been eavesdropping on us?”

“Because I want to help you,” he replied. “And from what I heard a moment ago, it sounds as though you could all use my help.” We all exchanged nervous looks, and Og seemed to detect our skepticism. “Please, don’t misunderstand me,” he continued. “I’m not going to give you any clues, or provide you with any information to help you reach the egg. That would ruin all the fun, wouldn’t it?” He walked back over to us, and his tone turned serious. “Just before he died, I promised Jim that, in his absence, I would do everything I could to protect the spirit and integrity of his contest. That’s why I’m here.”

“But, sir—Og,” I said. “In your autobiography, you wrote that you and James Halliday didn’t speak during the last ten years of his life.”

Morrow gave me an amused smile. “Come on, kid,” he said. “You can’t believe everything you read.” He laughed. “Actually, that statement was mostly true. I didn’t speak with Jim for the last decade of his life. Not until just a few weeks before he died.” He paused, as if calling up the memory. “At the time, I didn’t even know he was sick. He just called me up out of the blue, and we met in a private chat room, much like this one. Then he told me about his illness, the contest, and what he had planned. He was worried there might still be a few bugs in the gates. Or that complications might arise after he was gone that would prevent the contest from proceeding as he’d intended.”

“You mean like the Sixers?” Shoto asked.

“Exactly,” Og said. “Like the Sixers. So Jim asked me to monitor the contest, and to intervene if it ever became necessary.” He scratched his beard. “To be honest, I didn’t really want the responsibility. But it was the dying wish of my oldest friend, so I agreed. And for the past six years, I’ve watched from the sidelines. And even though the Sixers have done everything to stack the odds against you, somehow you four have persevered. But now, after hearing you describe your current circumstances, I think the time has finally come for me to take action, to maintain the integrity of Jim’s game.”

Art3mis, Shoto, Aech, and I all exchanged looks of amazement, as if seeking reassurance from one another that this was all really happening.

“I want to offer the four of you sanctuary at my home here in Oregon,” Og said. “From here, you’ll be able to execute your plan and complete your quest in safety, without having to worry about Sixer agents tracking you down and kicking in your door. I can provide each of you with a state-of-the-art immersion rig, a fiber-optic connection to the OASIS, and anything else you might need.”

Another stunned silence. “Thank you, sir!” I finally blurted out, resisting the urge to fall to my knees and bow repeatedly.

“It’s the least I can do.”

“That’s an incredibly kind offer, Mr. Morrow,” Shoto said. “But I live in Japan.”

“I know, Shoto,” Og said. “I’ve already chartered a private jet for you. It’s waiting at the Osaka airport. If you send me your current location, I’ll arrange for a limo to pick you up and take you to the runway.”

Shoto was speechless for a second; then he bowed low. “Arigato, Morrow-san.”

“Don’t mention it, kid.” He turned to Art3mis. “Young lady, I understand that you’re currently at the Vancouver airport? I’ve made travel arrangements for you, as well. A driver is currently waiting for you in the baggage claim area, holding a sign with the name ‘Benatar’ on it. He’ll take you to the plane I’ve chartered for you.”

For a second I thought Art3mis might bow too. But then she ran over and threw her arms around Og in a bear hug. “Thank you, Og,” she said. “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

“You’re welcome, dear,” he said with an embarrassed laugh. When she finally released him, he turned to Aech and me. “Aech, I understand that you have a vehicle, and that you’re currently in the vicinity of Pittsburgh?” Aech nodded. “If you wouldn’t mind driving to Columbus to retrieve your friend Parzival here, I’ll arrange for a jet to pick up both of you at the Columbus airport. That is, if you boys don’t mind sharing a ride?”

“No, that sounds perfect,” Aech said, glancing at me sideways. “Thanks, Og.”

“Yes, thank you,” I repeated. “You’re a lifesaver.”

“I hope so.” He gave me a grim smile, then turned to address everyone. “Safe travels, all of you. I’ll see you soon.” And then he vanished, just as quickly as he’d appeared.

“Well, this blows,” I said, turning to Aech. “Art3mis and Shoto get limos, and I have to bum a ride to the airport with your ugly a*s? In some s**t-heap RV?”

“It’s not a s**t-heap,” Aech said, laughing. “And you’re welcome to take a cab, a*s**le.”

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