Ready Player One (Page 35)
“Yeah,” Shoto said. “But to get the key, each Sixer has to beat the lich at Joust, which we all know isn’t easy.”
“The Sixers are using hacked immersion rigs,” I said. “Sorrento was boasting about it to me. They’ve got it set up so that different users can control the actions of every one of their avatars. So they can just have their best Joust players take control of each Sixer avatar during the match against Acererak. One after the other.”
“Cheating bastards,” Aech repeated.
“The Sixers have no honor,” Daito said, shaking his head.
“Yeah,” Art3mis said, rolling her eyes. “We’ve established that.”
“It gets worse,” I said. “Every Sixer has a support team made up of Halliday scholars, videogame experts, and cryptologists who are there to help them beat every challenge and solve every puzzle they encounter. Playing through the WarGames simulation will be a piece of cake for them. Someone will just feed them the dialogue.”
“Unbelievable,” Aech muttered. “How are we supposed to compete with that?”
“We can’t,” Art3mis said. “Once they have the Copper Key, they’ll probably locate the First Gate just as quickly as we all did. It won’t take them very long to catch up with us. And once they have the riddle about the Jade Key, they’ll have their eggheads working around the clock to decipher it.”
“If they find the Jade Key’s hiding place before we do, they’ll barricade it, too,” I said. “And then the five of us will be in the same boat everyone else is in right now.”
Art3mis nodded. Aech kicked the coffee table in frustration. “This isn’t even remotely fair,” he said. “The Sixers have a huge advantage over all of us. They’ve got an endless supply of money, weapons, vehicles, and avatars. There are thousands of them, all working together.”
“Right,” I said. “And each of us is on our own. Well, except for you two.” I nodded at Daito and Shoto. “But you know what I mean. They’ve got us outnumbered and outgunned, and that isn’t going to change anytime soon.”
“What are you suggesting?” Daito asked. He suddenly sounded uneasy.
“I’m not suggesting anything,” I said. “I’m just stating the facts, as I see them.”
“Good,” Daito replied. “Because it sounded like you were about to propose some sort of alliance between the five of us.”
Aech studied him carefully. “So? Would that be such a terrible idea?”
“Yes, it would,” Daito said curtly. “My brother and I hunt alone. We don’t want or need your help.”
“Oh really?” Aech said. “A second ago, you admitted needing Parzival’s help to find the Tomb of Horrors.”
Daito’s eyes narrowed. “We would have found it on our own eventually.”
“Right,” Aech said. “It probably would have only taken you another five years.”
“Come on, Aech,” I said, stepping between them. “This isn’t helping.”
Aech and Daito glared at each other in silence, while Shoto stared up at his brother uncertainly. Art3mis just stood back and watched, looking somewhat amused.
“We didn’t come here to be insulted,” Daito said finally. “We’re leaving.”
“Hold on, Daito,” I said. “Just wait a second, will you? Let’s just talk this out. We shouldn’t part as enemies. We’re all on the same side here.”
“No,” Daito said. “We’re not. You’re all strangers to us. For all we know, any one of you could be a Sixer spy.”
Art3mis laughed out loud at that, then covered her mouth. Daito ignored her. “This is pointless,” he said. “Only one person can be the first to find the egg and win the prize,” he said. “And that person will be either me or my brother.”
And with that, Daito and Shoto both abruptly logged out.
“That went well,” Art3mis said, once their avatars had vanished.
I nodded. “Yeah, real smooth, Aech. Way to build bridges.”
“What did I do?” he said defensively. “Daito was being a complete a*s**le! Besides, it’s not like we were asking him to team up, anyway. I’m an avowed solo. And so are you. And Art3mis here looks like the lone-wolf type too.”
“Guilty as charged,” she said, grinning. “But even so, there is an argument to be made for forming an alliance against the Sixers.”
“Maybe,” Aech said. “But think about it. If you find the Jade Key before either of us do, are you going to be generous and tell us where it is?”
Art3mis smirked. “Of course not.”
“Me neither,” Aech said. “So there’s no point in discussing an alliance.”
Art3mis shrugged. “Well, then it looks like the meeting is over. I should probably get going.” She winked at me. “The clock is ticking. Right, boys?”
“Tick tock,” I said.
“Good luck, fellas.” She gave us both a wave. “See ya around.”
“See ya,” we both answered in unison.
I watched her avatar slowly disappear, then turned to find Aech smiling at me. “What are you grinning about?” I asked.
“You’ve got a crush on her, don’t you?”
“What? On Art3mis? No—”
“Don’t deny it, Z. You were making googly eyes at her the whole time she was here.” He did his impression of this, clasping both hands to his chest and batting his eyelashes like a silent film star. “I recorded the whole chat session. Do you want me to play it back for you, so you can see how silly you looked?”
“Stop being a dick.”
“It’s understandable, man,” Aech said. “That girl is super cute.”
“So, have you had any luck with the new riddle?” I said, deliberately changing the subject. “That quatrain about the Jade Key?”
“ ‘A poem or stanza with four lines and an alternating rhyme scheme,’ ” I recited. “It’s called a quatrain.”
Aech rolled his eyes. “You’re too much, man.”
“What? That’s the proper term for it, asshead!”
“It’s just a riddle, dude. And no. I haven’t had any luck figuring it out yet.”
“Me neither,” I said. “So we probably shouldn’t be standing around jabbering at each other. Time to put our noses to the grindstone.”
“I concur,” he said. “But—”
Just then, a stack of comic books on the other side of the room slid off the end table where they were piled and crashed to the floor, as if something had knocked them over. Aech and I both jumped, then exchanged confused looks.
“What the hell was that?” I said.
“I don’t know.” Aech walked over and examined the scattered comics. “Maybe a software glitch or something?”
“I’ve never seen a chat-room glitch like that,” I said, scanning the empty room. “Could someone else be in here? An invisible avatar, eavesdropping on us?”
Aech rolled his eyes. “No way, Z,” he said. “You’re getting way too paranoid. This is an encrypted private chat room. No one can enter without my permission. You know that.”
“Right,” I said, still freaked out.
“Relax. It was a glitch.” He rested a hand on my shoulder. “Listen. Let me know if you change your mind about needing a loan. Or a place to crash. OK?”
“I’ll be all right,” I said. “But thanks, amigo.”
We bumped fists again, like the Wonder Twins activating their powers.
“I’ll catch you later. Good luck, Z.”
“Same to you, Aech.”
A few hours later, the remaining slots on the Scoreboard began to fill up, one after another, in rapid succession. Not with avatar names, but with IOI employee numbers. Each would appear with a score of 5,000 points (which now appeared to be the fixed value for obtaining the Copper Key); then the score would jump by another 100,000 points a few hours later, once that Sixer had cleared the First Gate. By the end of the day, the Scoreboard looked like this:
1. Parzival 110,000
2. Art3mis 109,000
3. Aech 108,000
4. Daito 107,000
5. Shoto 106,000
6. IOI-655321 105,000
7. IOI-643187 105,000
8. IOI-621671 105,000
9. IOI-678324 105,000
10. IOI-637330 105,000
I recognized the first Sixer employee number to appear, because I’d seen it printed on Sorrento’s uniform. He’d probably insisted that his avatar be the first to obtain the Copper Key and clear the gate. But I had a hard time believing he’d done it on his own. There was no way he was that good at Joust. Or that he knew WarGames by heart. But I now knew that he didn’t have to be. When he reached a challenge he couldn’t handle, like winning at Joust, he could just hand control of his avatar off to one of his underlings. And during the WarGames challenge he’d probably just had someone feeding him all of the dialogue via his hacked immersion rig.
Once the remaining empty slots were filled, the Scoreboard began to grow in length, to display rankings beyond tenth place. Before long, twenty avatars were listed on the Scoreboard. Then thirty. Over the next twenty-four hours, over sixty Sixer avatars cleared the First Gate.