Ready Player One (Page 69)

“This is gonna be interesting,” I said, stealing a quick glance at Art3mis. “The four of us are finally going to meet in person.”

“It will be an honor,” Shoto said. “I’m looking forward to it.”

“Yeah,” Art3mis said, locking eyes with me. “I can’t wait.”

After Shoto and Art3mis logged out, I gave Aech my current location. “It’s a Plug franchise. Call me when you get here, and I’ll meet you out front.”

“Will do,” he said. “Listen, I should warn you. I don’t look anything like my avatar.”

“So? Who does? I’m not really this tall. Or muscular. And my nose is slightly bigger—”

“I’m just warning you. Meeting me might be … kind of a shock for you.”

“OK. Then why don’t you just tell me what you look like right now?”

“I’m already on the road,” he said, ignoring my question. “I’ll see you in a few hours, OK?”

“OK. Drive safe, amigo.”

Despite what I’d said to Aech, knowing that I was about to meet him in person after all these years made me more nervous than I wanted to admit. But it was nothing compared to the apprehension I already felt building inside me at the prospect of meeting Art3mis once we reached Oregon. Trying to picture the actual moment filled me with a mixture of excitement and abject terror. What would she be like in person? Was the photo I’d seen in her file actually a fake? Did I still have any kind of chance with her at all?

With a Herculean effort, I managed to put her out of my mind by forcing myself to focus on the approaching battle.

As soon as I logged out of Aech’s Basement, I sent out my “Call to Arms” e-mail as a global announcement to every OASIS user. Knowing most of those e-mails wouldn’t get through the spam filters, I also posted it to every gunter message board. Then I made a short vidcap recording of my avatar reading it aloud and set it to run on a continuous loop on my POV channel.

The word spread quickly. Within an hour, our plan to assault Castle Anorak was the top story on every single newsfeed, accompanied by headlines like GUNTERS DECLARE ALL-OUT WAR ON THE SIXERS and TOP GUNTERS ACCUSE IOI OF KIDNAPPING AND MURDER and IS THE HUNT FOR HALLIDAY’S EGG FINALLY OVER?

Some of the newsfeeds were already running the video clip of Daito’s murder I’d sent them, along with the text of Sorrento’s memo, citing an anonymous source for both. So far, IOI had declined to comment on either. By now, Sorrento would know I’d somehow gained access to the Sixers’ private database. I wished I could see his face when he learned how I’d done it—that I’d spent an entire week just a few floors below his office.

I spent the next few hours outfitting my avatar and preparing myself mentally for what was to come. When I could no longer keep my eyes open, I decided to catch a quick nap while I waited for Aech to arrive. I disabled the auto-log-out feature on my account, then drifted off in the haptic chair with my new jacket draped over me as a blanket, clutching in one hand the pistol I’d purchased earlier that day.

I woke with a start sometime later to the sound of Aech’s ringtone. He was calling to let me know he’d arrived outside. I climbed out of the rig, collected my things, and returned the rented gear at the front desk. When I stepped out into the street, I saw that night had fallen. The frozen air hit me like a bucket of ice water.

Aech’s tiny RV was just a few yards away, parked at the curb. It was a mocha-colored SunRider, about twenty feet long, and at least two decades old. A patchwork of solar cells covered the RV’s roof and most of its body, along with a liberal amount of rust. The windows were tinted black, so I couldn’t see inside.

I took a deep breath and crossed the slush-covered sidewalk, feeling a strange combination of dread and excitement. As I approached the RV, a door near the center of the right side slid open and a short stepladder extended to the pavement. I climbed inside and the door slid shut behind me. I found myself in the RV’s tiny kitchen. It was dark except for the running lights set into the carpeted floor. To my left, I saw a small bedroom area at the back, wedged into a loft above the RV’s battery compartment. I turned and walked slowly across the darkened kitchen, then pulled back the beaded curtain covering the doorway to the cab.

A heavyset African American girl sat in the RV’s driver seat, clutching the wheel tightly and staring straight ahead. She was about my age, with short, kinky hair and chocolate-colored skin that appeared iridescent in the soft glow of the dashboard indicators. She was wearing a vintage Rush 2112 concert T-shirt, and the numbers were warped around her large bosom. She also had on faded black jeans and a pair of studded combat boots. She appeared to be shivering, even though it was nice and warm in the cab.

I stood there for a moment, staring at her in silence, waiting for her to acknowledge my presence. Eventually, she turned and smiled at me, and it was a smile I recognized immediately. That Cheshire grin I’d seen thousands of times before, on the face of Aech’s avatar, during the countless nights we’d spent together in the OASIS, telling bad jokes and watching bad movies. And her smile wasn’t the only thing I found familiar. I also recognized the set of her eyes and the lines of her face. There was no doubt in my mind. The young woman sitting in front of me was my best friend, Aech.

A wave of emotion washed over me. Shock gave way to a sense of betrayal. How could he—she—deceive me all these years? I felt my face flush with embarrassment as I remembered all of the adolescent intimacies I’d shared with Aech. A person I’d trusted implicitly. Someone I thought I knew.

When I didn’t say anything, her eyes dropped to her boots and stayed on them. I sat down heavily in the passenger seat, still staring over at her, still unsure of what to say. She kept stealing glances at me; then her eyes would dart away nervously. She was still trembling.

Whatever anger or betrayal I felt quickly evaporated.

I couldn’t help myself. I started to laugh. There was no meanness in it, and I knew she could tell that, because her shoulders relaxed a bit and she let out a relieved sigh. Then she started to laugh too. Half laughing and half crying, I thought.

“Hey, Aech,” I said, once our laughter subsided. “How goes it?”

“It’s going good, Z,” she said. “All sunshine and rainbows.” Her voice was familiar too. Just not quite as deep as it was online. All this time, she’d been using software to disguise it.

“Well,” I said. “Look at us. Here we are.”

“Yeah,” Aech replied. “Here we are.”

An uncomfortable silence descended. I hesitated a moment, unsure of what to do. Then I followed my instincts, crossed the small space between us, and put my arms around her. “It’s good to see you, old friend,” I said. “Thanks for coming to get me.”

She returned the hug. “It’s good to see you too,” she said. And I could tell she meant it.

I let go of her and stepped back. “Christ, Aech,” I said, smiling. “I knew you were hiding something. But I never imagined …”

“What?” she said, a bit defensively. “You never imagined what?”

“That the famous Aech, renowned gunter and the most feared and ruthless arena combatant in the entire OASIS, was, in reality, a …”

“A fat black chick?”

“I was going to say ‘young African American woman.’ ”

Her expression darkened. “There’s a reason I never told you, you know.”

“And I’m sure it’s a good one,” I said. “But it really doesn’t matter.”

“It doesn’t?”

“Of course not. You’re my best friend, Aech. My only friend, to be honest.”

“Well, I still want to explain.”

“OK. But can it wait until we’re in the air?” I said. “We’ve got a long way to travel. And I’ll feel a lot safer once we’ve left this city in the dust.”

“We’re on our way, amigo,” she said, putting the RV in gear.

Aech followed Og’s directions to a private hangar near the Columbus airport, where a small luxury jet was waiting for us. Og had arranged for Aech’s RV to be stored in a nearby hangar, but it had been her home for many years, and I could tell she was nervous about leaving it behind.

We both stared at the jet in wonder as we approached it. I’d seen airplanes in the sky before, of course, but I’d never seen one up close. Traveling by jet was something only rich people could afford. That Og could afford to charter three different jets to retrieve us without batting an eyelash was a testament to just how insanely wealthy he must be.

The jet was completely automated, so there was no crew on board. We were all alone. The placid voice of the autopilot welcomed us aboard, then told us to strap in and prepare for takeoff. We were up in the air within minutes.

It was the first time either of us had ever flown, and we both spent the first hour of the flight staring out the windows, overwhelmed by the view, as we hurtled westward through the atmosphere at ten thousand feet, on our way to Oregon. Finally, once some of the novelty had worn off, I could tell that Aech was ready to talk.

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