Chapter no 35

Ready Player One

A brilliant flash of light accompanied the detonation, momentarily blinding me. When it receded, my eyes focused back on the castle. The shield was down. Now, nothing separated the mighty Sixer and gunter armies but open ground and empty space.

For about five seconds, nothing happened. Time seemed to stop and everything was silent and still. Then all hell broke loose.

Sitting alone in the cockpit of my mech, I let out a silent cheer. Incredibly, my plan had worked. But I had no time to celebrate, because I was now standing smack-dab in the middle of the largest battle in the history of the OASIS.

I don’t know what I expected to happen next. I’d hoped maybe a tenth of the gunters present would join our assault on the Sixers. But in seconds it was clear that every single one of them intended to join the fight. A fierce battle cry rose from the sea of avatars around us and they all surged forward, converging on the Sixer army from every direction. Their total lack of hesitation astounded me, because it was obvious many of them were rushing toward certain death.

I watched in amazement as the two mighty forces clashed all around me, on the ground and in the sky. It was a chaotic, breathtaking scene, like several beehives and wasp nests had been smashed together and then dropped onto a giant anthill.

Art3mis, Aech, Shoto, and I stood at the center of it all. At first, I didn’t even move for fear of crushing the wave of gunters swarming around and over my robot’s feet. Sorrento, however, didn’t wait for anyone to get out of his way. He crushed several dozen avatars (including a few of his own troops) under his mech’s titanic feet as he lumbered toward us, each of his footfalls creating a small crater in the rocky surface.

“Uh-oh,” I heard Shoto mutter as his mech assumed a defensive posture. “Here he comes.”

The Sixer mechs were already taking an immense amount of fire from all directions. Sorrento was getting hit more than anyone, because his mech was the biggest target on the battlefield, and no gunter with a ranged weapon could seem to resist taking a shot at him. The intense barrage of projectiles, fireballs, magic missiles, and laser bolts quickly destroyed or disabled the other Sixer mechs (who never even got a chance to form Voltron). But Sorrento’s robot somehow remained undamaged. Every projectile that hit him seemed to ricochet harmlessly off his mech’s armored body. Dozens of spacecraft swooped and buzzed around him, peppering his mech with rocket fire, but their attacks also seemed to have little effect.

“It is on!” Aech shouted into his comlink. “It is on like Red Dawn!” And with that, he unleashed all of his Gundam’s considerable firepower at Sorrento. At the same moment, Shoto began firing Raideen’s bow, while Art3mis’s mech fired some sort of red energy beam that appeared to originate from Minerva X’s giant metal breasts. Not wanting to be left out, I fired Leopardon’s Arc Turn weapon, a gold boomerang that launched from the mech’s forehead.

All of our attacks were direct hits, but Art3mis’s beam weapon was the only one that seemed to do any real damage to Sorrento. She blasted a chunk out of the metal lizard’s right shoulder blade and disabled the cannon mounted there. But Sorrento didn’t pause in his approach. As he continued to close in on us, the Mechagodzilla’s eyes began to glow a bright blue. Then Sorrento opened its mouth, and a cascading bolt of blue lightning shot outward from the mech’s open maw. The beam struck the ground directly in front of us, then cut a deep smoking furrow in the earth as it continued to sweep forward, vaporizing every avatar and ship in its path. All four of us managed to leap out of the way by launching our robots skyward, though I nearly took a direct hit. The lightning weapon shut down a second later, but Sorrento continued to trudge forward. I noticed that his mech’s eyes were no longer glowing blue. Apparently, his lightning weapon had to recharge.

“I think we’ve reached the final boss,” Aech joked over the comlink. The four of us were now spread out and circling above Sorrento, making ourselves moving targets.

“Screw this, guys,” I said. “I don’t think we can destroy that thing.” “Astute observation, Z,” Art3mis said. “Got any bright ideas?”

I thought for a second. “How about I distract him while the three of you cut around and head for the castle entrance?”

“Sounds like a plan,” Shoto replied. But instead of heading for the castle, he banked and flew straight at Sorrento, closing the distance between them in the space of a few seconds.

“Go!” he shouted into his comlink. “This bastard is all mine!”

Aech cut across Sorrento’s right flank and Art3mis banked left, while I rocketed upward and over him. Below me, I could see Shoto facing off against Sorrento, and the difference in the size of their mechs was disturbing. Shoto’s robot looked like an action figure next to Sorrento’s massive metal dragon. Nevertheless, Shoto cut his thrusters and dropped to the ground directly in front of the Mechagodzilla.

“Hurry,” I heard Aech shout. “The castle entrance is wide open!”

From my vantage point in the sky above, I could see that the Sixer forces surrounding the castle were already being overrun by the endless mob of enemy avatars. The Sixers’ lines were broken, and hundreds of gunters were streaming past them now, running up to the open castle entrance only to discover once they reached it that they couldn’t cross the threshold because they didn’t possess a copy of the Crystal Key.

Aech swung around directly in front of me. Still a hundred feet off the ground, he popped the hatch of his Gundam’s cockpit and leapt out, whispering the robot’s command word in the same instant. As the giant robot shrank back to its original size, he snatched it out of the air and stowed it in his inventory. Now flying by some magical means, Aech’s avatar swooped down, passed over the bottleneck of gunters clustered at the castle entrance, and disappeared through the open double doors. A second later, Art3mis executed a similar maneuver, stowing her own mech in midair and then flying into the castle right behind Aech.

I dropped Leopardon into a sharp dive and prepared to follow them. “Shoto,” I shouted into my comm. “We’re going inside now! Let’s go!” “Go ahead,” Shoto replied. “I’ll be right behind you.” But something

about the tone of his voice bothered me, and I pulled out of my dive and swung my mech back around. Shoto was hovering above Sorrento, near his right flank. Sorrento slowly turned his mech around and began to stomp back toward the castle. I could see now that his mech’s weakness was its lack of speed. The Mechagodzilla’s slow movement and attacks counterbalanced its seeming invulnerability.

“Shoto!” I shouted. “What are you waiting for? Let’s go!”

“Go on without me,” Shoto said. “I owe this son of a bitch some payback.”

Before I could reply, Shoto dove at Sorrento, swinging a giant sword in each of his mech’s hands. The blades both cut into Sorrento’s right side, creating a shower of sparks, and to my surprise, they actually did some damage. When the smoke cleared I saw that the Mechagodzilla’s right arm now hung limp. It was nearly severed at the elbow.

“Looks like you’ll be wiping with your left hand now, Sorrento!” Shoto shouted triumphantly. Then he fired Raideen’s boosters and headed in my direction, toward the castle. But Sorrento had already swiveled his mech’s head around and was now taking a bead on Shoto with two glowing blue eyes.

“Shoto!” I shouted. “Look out!” But my voice was drowned out by the sound of the lightning weapon firing out of the metal dragon’s mouth. It nailed Shoto’s mech directly in the center of its back. The robot exploded in an orange ball of fire.

I heard a brief screech of static on the comm channel. I called out Shoto’s name again, but he didn’t reply. Then a message flashed on my display, informing me that Shoto’s name had just disappeared from the Scoreboard.

He was dead.

This realization momentarily stunned me, which was unfortunate, because Sorrento’s lightning weapon was still firing, moving in a fast sweeping arc, cutting across the ground, then diagonally up the castle wall, toward me. I finally reacted—too late—and Sorrento nailed my mech in the lower torso, just a split second before the beam cut off.

I looked down to discover that the bottom half of my robot had just been blasted away. Every warning indicator in my cockpit started to flash as my mech began to fall out of the sky in two smoking, burning halves.

Somehow, I had the presence of mind to reach up and yank the ejection handle above my seat. The cockpit canopy popped off, and I jumped free of the falling mech a split second before it impacted on the castle steps, killing several dozen of the avatars crowded there.

I fired my avatar’s jet boots just before I hit the ground, then quickly adjusted my immersion rig’s control setup, because I was now controlling my avatar instead of a giant robot. I managed to land on my feet in front of the castle, just clear of Leopardon’s flaming wreckage. A second after I

landed, a shadow spilled over me, and I turned around to see Sorrento’s mech blotting out the sky. He raised its massive left foot, preparing to crush me.

I took three running steps and jumped, firing my jet boots in midleap. The thrust threw me clear just as the Mechagodzilla’s huge clawed foot slammed down, forming a crater in the spot where I’d stood a second before. The metal beast let out another earsplitting shriek, followed by hollow, booming laughter. Sorrento’s laughter.

I cut my jet-boot thrusters and tucked my avatar into a ball. I hit the ground rolling, tumbled forward, then came up on my feet. I squinted up at the metal lizard’s head. Its eyes weren’t glowing again—not yet. I could fire my jet boots again now and make it inside the castle before Sorrento could fire on me again. He wouldn’t be able to follow me inside—not without getting out of his oversize mech.

I could hear Art3mis and Aech shouting at me on my comlink. They were already inside, standing in front of the gate, waiting for me.

All I had to do was fly into the castle and join them. The three of us could open and enter the gate before Sorrento caught up with us. I was sure of it.

But I didn’t move. Instead, I took out the Beta Capsule and held the small metal cylinder in the palm of my avatar’s hand.

Sorrento had tried to kill me. And in the process, he’d murdered my aunt, along with several of my neighbors, including sweet old Mrs. Gilmore, who had never hurt a soul. He’d also had Daito killed, and even though I’d never met him, Daito had been my friend.

And now Sorrento had just killed Shoto’s avatar, robbing him of his chance to enter the Third Gate. Sorrento didn’t deserve his power or his position. What he deserved, I decided in that moment, was public humiliation and defeat. He deserved to have his ass kicked while the whole world watched.

I held the Beta Capsule high over my head and pressed its activation button.

There was a blinding flash of light, and the sky turned crimson as my avatar changed, growing and morphing into a gigantic red-and-silver-skinned humanoid alien with glowing egg-shaped eyes, a strange finned head, and a glowing light embedded in the center of my chest. For the next three minutes, I was Ultraman.

The Mechagodzilla stopped shrieking and thrashing. Its gaze had been pointed down at the ground, where my avatar had stood a second earlier. Now its head slowly tilted up, taking in the size of its new opponent, until our glowing eyes finally met. I now stood face-to-face with Sorrento’s mech, matching its height and size almost exactly.

Sorrento’s mech took several awkward steps backward. Its eyes began to glow again.

I crouched slightly and struck an offensive pose, noticing that a timer now appeared in the corner of my display, counting down from three minutes.

2:59. 2:58. 2:57.

Below the timer there was a menu listing Ultraman’s various energy attacks in Japanese. I quickly selected SPECIUM RAY and then held my arms up in front of me, one horizontal and the other vertical, forming a cross. A pulsing beam of white energy shot out of my forearms, striking the Mechagodzilla in its chest and knocking it backward. Thrown off balance, Sorrento lost control and tripped over his own mammoth feet. His mech tumbled to the ground, landing on its side.

A cheer went up from the thousands of avatars watching from the chaotic battlefield around us.

I launched myself into the air and flew half a kilometer straight upward. Then I dropped back down, feet first, aiming my heels directly at the Mechagodzilla’s curved spine. When my feet hit, I heard something inside the metal beast snap under my crushing weight. Smoke began to pour out of its mouth, and the blue glow in its eyes quickly dissipated.

I executed a backflip and landed behind the supine mech in a crouch. Its single functioning arm flailed wildly while its tail and legs thrashed about. Sorrento appeared to be struggling with the controls in an effort to get the beast back on its feet.

I selected YATSUAKI KOHRIN from my weapon menu: Ultra-Slice. A glowing circular saw blade of electric-blue energy appeared in my right hand, spinning fiercely. I hurled it at Sorrento, releasing it with a snap of my wrist, like a Frisbee. It whirred through the air and struck the Mechagodzilla in its stomach. The energy blade cut into its metal skin as if it were tofu, slicing the mech into two halves. Just before the entire machine exploded, the head detached and blasted away from the neck. Sorrento had ejected. But since the mech was lying flat, the head shot out on a trajectory

parallel to the ground. Sorrento quickly adjusted for this, and the rockets sprouting from the head began to tilt it skyward. Before it could get very far, I crossed my arms again and fired another specium ray, nailing the retreating head like a clay pigeon. It disintegrated in an immensely satisfying explosion.

The crowd went wild.

I checked the Scoreboard and confirmed that Sorrento’s employee number had vanished. His avatar was dead. I couldn’t take too much satisfaction from this, though, because I knew he was probably already kicking one of his underlings out of a haptic chair so he could take control of a new avatar.

The counter on my display had only fifteen seconds remaining when I deactivated the Beta Capsule. My avatar instantly shrank back to normal size, and my appearance returned to normal. Then I spun around, powered on my jet boots, and flew into the castle.

When I reached the opposite end of the huge foyer, I found Aech and Art3mis standing in front of the crystal door, waiting for me. The smoking, bloodied bodies of over a dozen recently slain Sixer avatars lay scattered on the stone floor around them, slowly fading out of existence. Apparently, there had been a brief and decisive skirmish and I’d just missed it.

“No fair,” I said, cutting my jet boots and dropping to the floor beside Aech. “You could have saved at least one of them for me.”

Art3mis didn’t reply. She just gave me the finger.

“Congrats on wasting Sorrento,” Aech said. “It was an epic throwdown, for sure. But you’re still a complete idiot. You know that, right?”

“Yeah.” I shrugged. “I know.”

“You’re such a selfish asshole!” Art3mis shouted. “What if you’d gotten yourself killed too?”

“I didn’t, though. Did I?” I said, stepping around her to examine the crystal door. “So chill out and let’s open this thing.”

I examined the keyhole in the center of the door, then looked at the words printed directly above it, etched into the door’s faceted surface. Charity. Hope. Faith.

I took out my copy of the Crystal Key and held it up. Aech and Art3mis followed suit and held up their keys too.

Nothing happened.

We all exchanged concerned looks. Then an idea occurred to me, and I cleared my throat. “ ‘Three is a magic number,’ ” I said, reciting the first line of the Schoolhouse Rock! song. As soon as I spoke the words, the crystal door began to glow, and two additional keyholes appeared, on either side of the first.

“That did it!” Aech whispered. “Holy shit. I can’t believe this. We’re really here. Standing in front of the Third Gate.”

Art3mis nodded. “Finally.”

I inserted my key in the center keyhole. Aech inserted his into the keyhole on the left, and Art3mis placed hers in the keyhole on the right.

“Clockwise?” Art3mis said. “On the count of three?”

Aech and I nodded. Art3mis counted to three, and we turned our keys in unison. There was a brief flash of blue light, during which all of our keys and the crystal door itself vanished. And then the Third Gate stood open in front of us, a crystal doorway leading into a spinning whirlpool of stars.

“Wow,” I heard Art3mis whisper beside me. “Here we go.”

As the three of us stepped forward, preparing to enter the gate, I heard an earsplitting boom. It sounded like the entire universe was cracking in half.

And then we all died.

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