Ready Player Two

I materialized inside my stronghold on Falco, the small asteroid in Sector Fourteen that still served as my avatar’s home inside the OASIS. I’d tried relocating to Castle Anorak after I inherited it, but I didn’t really like the décor or the general vibe over there. I felt more at home here, in my old digs, which I’d designed and built myself.

I was seated in my command center. This was the same spot where my avatar had been sitting the previous night, when I’d reached my twelve-hour ONI usage limit and the system had automatically logged me out.

The control panels arrayed in front of me were crammed with switches, buttons, keyboards, joysticks, and display screens. The bank of security monitors on my left were linked to virtual cameras placed throughout the interior and exterior of my stronghold. To my right, another bank of monitors displayed vidfeeds from the real-world cameras mounted on the interior and exterior of my immersion vault. My sleeping body was visible from several different angles, along with a detailed readout of its vital signs.

I gazed out the transparent dome at the barren, cratered landscape surrounding my stronghold. This had been my avatar’s home during the final year of Halliday’s contest, and I’d cracked one of its major riddles while sitting in this very chair. I hoped the familiar setting would help me make a breakthrough in my quest for the Seven Shards. So far it hadn’t worked.

I accessed the teleportation menu on my avatar’s superuser HUD, then scrolled down the list of bookmarked locations until I found the listing for the planet Gregarious in Sector One, the home of Gregarious Simulation

Systems’s virtual offices inside the OASIS. When I selected it and tapped the Teleport icon, my avatar was instantly transported to a set of previously saved coordinates, hundreds of millions of virtual kilometers away.

If I’d been a normal OASIS user, this trip would have cost me some serious coin. But since I wore the Robes of Anorak, I could teleport anywhere at any time, for free. It was a far cry from the days when I was a broke schoolkid stranded on Ludus.

My avatar reappeared on the top floor of Gregarious Tower, a virtual replica of the real GSS skyscraper in downtown Columbus. Our head of operations, Faisal Sodhi, was standing in the reception area waiting for me.

“Mr. Watts!” Faisal said. “Good to see you, sir.”

“It’s good to see you, too, man,” I replied. I’d given up on trying to convince Faisal to address me as Wade or Z years ago.

He walked over to greet me and I shook his outstretched hand. Being able to shake hands without any danger of spreading disease had always been one of the perks of the OASIS. But in the old days, before the ONI was released, it always felt like you were shaking hands with a mannequin, even with the best haptic gloves available. Without the sensation of skin-to-skin human contact, the ancient greeting lost most of its meaning. After we’d introduced the ONI, shaking hands had come back in vogue, along with high fives and fist bumps, because now they felt real.

The conference room itself was protected by both magical and technological means. We held our co-owners meetings here instead of in a standard OASIS chatroom because it allowed all sorts of additional security measures to be taken, to prevent anyone from recording or eavesdropping on us, including our own employees.

“Are the others already here?” I asked, nodding toward the closed doors behind him.

“Ms. Aech and Mr. Shoto both arrived a few minutes ago,” he said, opening the doors. “But Ms. Cook called to say she’s running a bit late.”

I nodded and went into the conference room. Aech and Shoto were standing over by the wraparound floor-to-ceiling windows, grazing from a ridiculously large assortment of snack trays that were laid out nearby, while they admired the impressive view. Gregarious Tower was surrounded by

acres of pristine forestland, with snowcapped mountain peaks ringing the horizon. There were no other structures in sight. By design, everything about the view was calming and peaceful. Unfortunately, the same could never be said of the meetings we held here.

“Z!” Aech and Shoto shouted in unison when they spotted me. I walked over and received high fives from each of them.

“How goes it, mis amigos?”

“It’s way too early for this shit, man,” Aech groaned. She was in L.A., where it was currently ten o’clock in the morning. Aech liked to stay up late and sleep in even later.

“Yeah,” Shoto added, after a quarter-second delay from his translator software. “And it’s also way too late for this shit.” He was in Japan, where it was the middle of the night. But Shoto was nocturnal by nature. He was just complaining because he’d grown to dread these meetings, just like me and Aech.

“Arty’s running late,” Aech said. “She’s supposed to be logging in from Liberia, I think.”

“Yeah,” I said, rolling my eyes. “That’s the most recent stop on her ongoing tour of the world’s most depressing places.”

I still couldn’t fathom why Samantha felt the need to endure all of the hassles and risks of real-world travel when she could have visited safely via telepresence robot, or experienced any location in the world by downloading an .oni clip recorded there. She also could have visited any of those countries inside the OASIS. There was an incredibly detailed recreation of the Earth in Sector Ten called EEarth (short for “Ersatz Earth”), that was constantly being updated with data taken from live satellite imagery, drone footage, and traffic, security, and smartphone-camera feeds to make it as accurate as possible. Visiting Dubai, Bangkok, or Delhi on EEarth was a lot easier and safer than visiting them in reality. But Samantha felt it was imperative for her to witness the true state of the world with her own two eyes, even when it came to the most dangerous, war-torn countries. In other words, she was crazy.

No, she’s selfless and principled, replied a nagging little voice in my head. And you’re neither of those things. Is it any wonder she dumped you?

I clenched my teeth. These co-owners meetings were always bad for my self-esteem, and not just because it forced me to see Art3mis. Aech and Shoto were also living glamorous and fulfilling post-contest lives. The reclusive, obsessive existence I’d carved out for myself seemed painfully bleak by comparison.

These days, if I wanted to hang out with Aech or Shoto, I had to make an appointment several weeks in advance. But I didn’t mind. I was grateful they still made time to hang out with me at all. Unlike me, they had more than two friends. And they also spent a lot more of their time offline than I did. Instead of downloading pieces of other people’s lives off the ONI-net, Aech and Shoto were out in the world having (and recording) experiences of their own. In fact, they were two of the most popular celebrity posters on the ONI-net. Every clip either of them threw up went viral within a few seconds, regardless of its content.

Like Art3mis, they were brilliant, charismatic people, leading rock-star lives while also working to improve the lives of the less fortunate. More than once it had occurred to me that my friends were my one saving grace. The thing I took the most pride in—even more than winning Halliday’s fortune—was the three people I’d chosen to share that fortune with. Aech, Shoto, and Art3mis were all kinder, wiser, and saner than I was or ever would be.

After the contest ended, Helen legally changed her name to Aech, with no surname, just like Sting and Madonna. And since her true identity, appearance, and gender were now public knowledge in the wake of Halliday’s contest, she’d promptly ditched the world-famous white male avatar she’d used to mask her true identity since childhood. Like Samantha and Shoto and many other real-world celebrities, Aech now used an OASIS ravatar—an avatar that re-created her unaltered real-world appearance, and was updated each and every time she logged in to the simulation.

I had never been a huge fan of my real-world appearance, so I still used the same OASIS avatar I always had—an idealized version of myself. A bit taller, fitter, and more handsome.

These days, Aech spent most of her real-world time chilling in her Santa Monica beach house, or touring with her new fiancée, Endira Vinayak, a famous singer and Bollywood star.

Becoming a billionaire hadn’t altered Aech’s personality at all, as far as I could tell. She still liked to have ridiculous arguments about old movies. She still loved to get her kills on in PvP arena tournaments, and she remained one of the league’s highest-ranked combatants, in both the Deathmatch and Capture the Flag leagues. In other words, Aech was still a total badass. Except now she was a total badass who also happened to be insanely rich and world famous.

I still considered Aech my best friend, but we weren’t nearly as close now as we’d been in the old days. I hadn’t seen her in person in over two years, although we still got together online once or twice a month. But these meet-ups were always my suggestion, and I was beginning to worry that Aech only spent time with me out of some lingering sense of obligation. Or because she was worried about me. Either way, I didn’t care. I was just grateful that she still made time for me, and that she still wanted me in her life.

I saw Shoto even less frequently than Aech, which was understandable. His life had changed drastically in the years since the contest. Shoto’s parents had helped him manage his inheritance when he was still a minor, but he’d turned eighteen a year ago, making him a legal adult in Japan. Now he had full control of his own life, and his share of Halliday’s fortune.

To celebrate, he legally adopted his avatar’s name, just like Aech. Then he got married to a young woman named Kiki, whom he met when he relocated to Hokkaido. He and his new bride moved into a remodeled Japanese castle right on the shore. Then, about five months ago, during one of our GSS meetings, Shoto announced that he was going to become a father. He and Kiki had just learned that they were going to have a boy, and together they had already decided to name him Toshiro. But in confidence, Shoto told us he’d already decided to nickname the baby “Little Daito,” so that was what I called him too.

It was still hard to believe that Shoto would be a father in a few months, at such a young age. I was concerned for him, though I had no idea why. It wasn’t like he wouldn’t be able to afford to send Little Daito to a good school. I just didn’t understand why he was in such a big hurry, until he sat me down and explained it to me. Japan was in the midst of an “underpopulation crisis” because so many of its citizens had opted to stop

having children over the past three decades. As the country’s wealthiest and most famous young couple, he and Kiki felt obligated to lead by example and reproduce as quickly as possible. So they had. And after Little Daito arrived, they planned to start working on a Little Shoto—or perhaps a Little Kiki.

In addition to his preparations for fatherhood, Shoto continued to oversee operations at GSS’s Hokkaido division, where he produced a wildly popular series of award-winning OASIS quests based on his favorite anime and samurai films. He’d become one of my favorite quest developers, and I was lucky enough to be one of his go-to beta testers, so we still got to hang out in the OASIS at least once or twice a month.

We rarely talked about Shoto’s late brother, Daito, or his murder. But the last time we had, Shoto told me he was still in mourning for him, and that he feared he always would be. I understood what he meant, because I felt the same way about my aunt Alice, and my old downstairs neighbor, Mrs. Gilmore. Both of them had been murdered, too, by the same man: Nolan Sorrento, the former head of operations at Innovative Online Industries.

After Halliday’s contest, Sorrento had been convicted of thirty-seven separate counts of first-degree homicide. He was now serving time on death row in a maximum-security prison in Chillicothe, Ohio, about fifty miles south of Columbus.

During his trial, IOI’s lawyers had managed to convince the jury that Sorrento had gone rogue, and that he’d acted without the IOI board’s knowledge or consent when he ordered his underlings to throw Daito off his forty-third-floor balcony. They also claimed that Sorrento had acted alone when he’d detonated a bomb outside my aunt’s trailer in the stacks, killing over three dozen people and injuring hundreds of others.

After Sorrento’s conviction and incarceration, IOI managed to settle all of the wrongful-death suits filed against them. Then they tried to go back to business as usual. But by then, they’d already lost their position as the world’s largest manufacturer of OASIS immersion hardware, thanks to the release of our ONI headsets. And thanks to the rollout of our free global Internet initiative, their ISP business had also shriveled.

Meanwhile, IOI also had the audacity to file a separate corporate lawsuit against me. They claimed that even though I’d created a false identity and

used it to masquerade as an indentured servant to infiltrate their company headquarters, the indenturement contract I’d signed was still legally binding. Which meant, they argued, that I was still technically IOI’s property when I won Halliday’s contest, and so his fortune and his company should now also be classified as IOI’s property. Since the U.S. legal system still insisted on giving corporations even more rights than its citizens, this idiotic lawsuit dragged on for months…right up until GSS completed its hostile takeover of IOI. Then, as IOI’s new owners, we withdrew the lawsuit. We also fired the old IOI board of directors, their attorneys, and everyone else who had worked with or under Nolan Sorrento.

Now the Sixers were a distant memory, and Innovative Online Industries was just another wholly owned subsidiary of Gregarious Simulation Systems. GSS was now far and away the largest corporation in the world. And if we kept growing at our current rate, before too long we might be the only one. That was the reason a lot of our own users had started to refer to GSS as the “New Sixers” and me, Aech, Shoto, and Samantha as the “Four Nerds of the Apocalypse.”

Two-Face was right. You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.

I made small talk with Aech and Shoto for a few more minutes, until the conference room doors swung open and Samantha’s avatar, Art3mis, strolled in. She glanced in our direction, but didn’t offer anything in the way of a greeting. Faisal walked in after her and closed the doors behind him.

We all took our usual seats, which put me and Art3mis on opposite sides of the circular conference table—as far away from each other as possible, but also directly facing each other.

“Thank you all for coming,” Faisal said, taking a seat next to Samantha. “I think we’re ready to call this co-owners meeting to order. We only have a few items to cover today—the first one being our quarterly revenue report.” An array of charts and graphs appeared on the large screen behind him. “As usual, it’s all good news. ONI headset sales remain steady, and immersion-vault sales have nearly doubled since last quarter. OASIS Advertising and Surreal Estate revenue also both remain at an all-time high.”

Faisal continued to detail how great our company was doing, but I didn’t hear much of what he was saying. I was too busy stealing glances at Art3mis across the table. I knew she wouldn’t catch me, because she made a point of never looking in my direction.

Her avatar looked the same as it always had, with one minor change. After the contest, she’d added the reddish-purple birthmark that covered the left half of her real face to her avatar’s face as well. So now there was no discernible difference between her avatar’s appearance and her appearance in real life. When she gave interviews, she often spoke about what it had been like for her to grow up hating her birthmark, and how she’d spent most of her life trying to conceal it. But now she wore it like a badge of honor, in reality and in the OASIS. And as a result, she’d somehow transformed her birthmark into an internationally recognized trademark.

I glanced up at the name tag floating above her avatar’s head. It had a thin rectangular border around it, which indicated that the avatar’s operator was not using an ONI headset to experience the OASIS. We’d added this feature due to overwhelming customer demand. OASIS users with this name-tag border were now known as Ticks. (A truncation of the word “haptics.”) Most Ticks were people who had already used up their twelve hours of ONI time and had logged back in with a haptic rig to squeeze in a few more hours of conventional OASIS time before bed. Full-time Ticks like Samantha, who never used an ONI headset at all, now comprised less than five percent of our user base. Despite Samantha’s best efforts, there were fewer and fewer ONI holdouts every year.

“I’m also happy to report that our newest server farm is now online, upping our data-storage capacity by another million yottabytes,” Faisal said. “Our data engineers estimate that this should be more than enough to meet our storage needs for the coming year, if user population growth remains steady.”

Another side effect of releasing the headsets had been a huge increase in the company’s data-storage needs, due to the enormous UBS (user brain scan) files that were stored in every ONI user’s account, which got updated every time they logged in or out of the OASIS. So as the total number of ONI users continued to increase, so did our massive data-storage requirements.

Compounding this problem was the fact that we didn’t purge any OASIS user’s account data when they died in the real world, including those huge UBS files. Faisal explained to me that this was because we own all of that data, and it was extremely valuable to the company for several reasons, including shit like “user marketing trend analysis.” But the main reason we held on to those ONI user brain scans was because that data helped our neural-interface engineers improve the safety and operability of the ONI headset. That was why our neural-interface software and the hardware both worked so flawlessly on such a wide variety of people. Because we had such a huge pool of willing guinea pigs who didn’t mind giving us complete access to the contents of their skull, as long we gave them access to our high-quality sensory-immersive bread-and-circus simulator.

My thoughts always seemed to gravitate to a dark place during these meetings.

“If none of you have any questions, we can move on to the final item on our agenda,” Faisal said. No one spoke up, so he continued. “Fantastic! There’s just one more thing that needs your approval—the ONI headset firmware update we’re planning to roll out tomorrow. Very little has been changed since our last update earlier this year. Our engineers have just added a few more security measures to prevent illegal overclocking.”

“That was the same reason for your last two updates, wasn’t it?” Art3mis asked. She had a talent for making her questions sound like accusations.

“Yes, it was,” Faisal replied. “Unfortunately, each time we implement a new set of security measures, hackers quickly figure out new workarounds. But we’re hoping this update finally does the trick, and puts an end to overclocking once and for all.”

There had only been a handful of deaths caused by the ONI since its release, and every last one of them had been due to overclocking—hacking an ONI headset’s firmware to exceed the daily twelve-hour limit. Despite our safety warnings and disclaimers, there were always a few users who chose to ignore them. Some people were convinced that they were special, and that their brains could handle fourteen or even sixteen hours of consecutive ONI usage with no ill side effects—and a few of them actually

could, for a day or two. But when they pushed their luck too far, they ended up lobotomizing themselves. And that was very bad for business.

Thanks to our ironclad end-user license agreement, GSS couldn’t be held legally responsible for any of these deaths. But we still wanted to protect the overclockers from themselves, so we updated the ONI firmware whenever a new exploit was discovered.

Ever since the ONI’s introduction, there had been an urban legend floating around the OASIS, claiming that Halliday himself had exceeded the ONI’s daily usage limit when he was testing the first prototype headset, and that this is what had caused his terminal cancer. But it was complete bullshit. According to all of the intensive studies and tests we’d conducted, there was no link between the OASIS Neural Interface and the lymphoma that had ended Halliday’s life.

Faisal called for a vote on the ONI firmware upgrade. Aech, Shoto, and I all voted to approve it, while Art3mis chose to abstain. She always abstained from any vote related to the ONI headsets, even in instances like this, when we were voting to enact new safety measures.

“Fantastic!” Faisal said, maintaining a cheerful tone despite the tension in the room. “That was our last order of business. If no one has anything further, we can adjourn—”

“Oh, I have something further,” Art3mis announced, cutting him off. Aech, Shoto, and I all let out a sigh—unintentionally in unison.

Art3mis ignored us and continued.

“Studies have shown that the human brain doesn’t finish developing until around the age of twenty-five,” she said. “I think that should be the age limit for using an ONI headset, but I know you’ll never agree to that. So, as a compromise, and for the safety of our youngest customers, I propose that, going forward, we only allow ONI headsets to be used by people who are eighteen or older. At least until we have a better understanding of the ONI’s long-term neurological and psychological effects.”

Shoto, Aech, and I exchanged weary looks. Faisal kept a sunny smile plastered on his face, even though he was clearly growing tired of this crap too.

“Aech, Shoto, and I are all under twenty-five,” I said. “Are you suggesting that we’ve all suffered brain damage from using the ONI?”

“Well,” she replied with a smirk, “that would certainly explain some of the decisions you’ve made over the past three years.”

“Arty,” Aech said, “every time the four of us meet, you propose some new limitation on the ONI headsets. And every time, you get outvoted three-to-one.”

“I’m not asking any of you to give up your precious ONI habit, OK?” Art3mis said. “I’m talking about kids who aren’t even old enough to vote yet. We’re turning an entire generation of children into ONI junkies, before they even have a chance to experience life in the real world.”

“News flash,” I said, as soon as she stopped speaking. “Life in the real world totally sucks for most people. And reality went to shit long before we started selling those headsets, Arty….”

For the first time in years, Art3mis locked eyes with me.

“You,” she said, leveling a finger at me. “You don’t get to call me Arty anymore. And are you seriously trying to lecture me about the state of the real world?” She gestured at our surroundings. “You still spend all of your time hiding in here. Meanwhile, I’m out there trying to save the real world. Reality! Our reality!”

She pointed at me again. “Maybe you don’t see the danger, because you won’t. You love your magic dream machine too much to see what it’s done to humanity. But I see it. And so does Ogden Morrow. That’s why he’s never put on an ONI headset either! And I bet that’s why he won’t work here anymore, even as a consultant. He doesn’t want to help you bring about the end of human civilization either.” She shook her head at me. “What a huge disappointment we must be to him….”

She folded her arms and kept her eyes fixed on me, waiting for my response. I clenched and unclenched my jaw a few times, to keep myself from screaming in frustration. Then I switched on my emotion-suppressing software and did one of the breathing exercises Sean had taught me, to calm myself down.

My immediate instinct was to bring up Samantha’s grandmother. Her father’s mother, Evelyn Opal Cook, was the one who raised Samantha after

her parents died. Her grandma had never shared Samantha’s prejudice against the ONI. Quite the opposite. She’d ordered one of the first headsets off the assembly line, and she used it every day for the rest of her life. Unfortunately, that wasn’t long. Just two years.

When Evelyn was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, she started using her ONI headset for the maximum of twelve hours every day, to disconnect her mind from her chemotherapy-ravaged body as often and for as long as she possibly could. In the OASIS, Evelyn had a perfectly healthy body that never felt any trace of pain. While her body battled its disease, she could leave both behind and go for a run on any beach in the world, or picnic on a mountaintop. Or dance the night away in Paris with her friends. The OASIS Neural Interface allowed her to keep on living a joyous, happy life for half of each day, right up until she’d finally succumbed to her illness a little over a year ago. According to her nurses, Evelyn passed away peacefully and painlessly, because she’d been using her ONI headset at the time, to talk to Samantha inside the OASIS. The neural interface had allowed her to continue to communicate with her granddaughter long after her physical body had grown so weak she’d lost the power of speech.

I’d made the mistake of mentioning Samantha’s grandmother once before, during one of our previous arguments about the ONI. Samantha had gone ballistic. Then she’d warned me never to mention her grandmother’s name again. So I didn’t. No. I didn’t say anything. I did my deep-breathing exercises and I bit my goddamn tongue.

“What about education?” Shoto said when I failed to hold up my half of the argument. “People can learn all sorts of valuable skills through ONI playback. How to grow food or speak a foreign language. Doctors can learn how to perform new medical procedures from the best surgeons in their field. Why should people be denied access to such an important tool for learning just because of their age?”

“The main thing the ONI is teaching people is how to ignore the real world,” Samantha said. “That’s why it’s falling apart.”

“The world was already falling apart,” Aech said. “Remember?”

“And the ONI might be the thing that saves us,” I said. “It has spiritual, psychological, and cultural benefits that are still revealing themselves to us.

In a very true sense, the ONI has the ability to free our minds, by temporarily liberating them from their containers.”

Art3mis tried to interrupt, but I kept on talking over her.

“ONI users around the world are developing a whole new kind of empathy that you can’t even begin to understand, until you’ve experienced it yourself….”

She mimed jerking off.

“Oh please,” she said, with an exaggerated roll of her eyes. “Spare me your transhumanist hive-mind bullshit, Locutus. I’m still not buying it.”

“You can’t deny that the OASIS Neural Interface has improved the quality of millions of people’s lives,” Aech interjected. “Numerous studies have shown a drastic increase in empathy and environmental conservation among daily ONI users, along with an overwhelming drop in racist, sexist, and homophobic ideologies. And that’s all around the world, across all age groups and social strata. For the first time in human history, we have technology that gives us the ability to live in someone else’s skin for a little while. And we’ve seen a huge drop in hate crimes around the globe too. And crime rates in general—”

“Yes,” Art3mis said, cutting her off. “When you turn half of the world’s population into zombified ONI addicts, crime rates are going to drop. The flu outbreak that killed both of my parents made crime rates drop, too, Aech.”

I lowered my eyes to the table and clenched my teeth to keep my mouth shut. Aech cleared her throat, but then opted not to respond either. But Shoto couldn’t help himself.

“Odd for you to bring that up, Arty,” he replied. “Since we know that ONI technology is our best protection against other deadly pandemics like the one that killed your parents. They don’t happen anymore, thanks to us. By moving most human social interaction online and making so much tourism virtual, we’ve cut travel drastically and limited the spread of nearly all infectious diseases. Including sexually transmitted ones, since now most people have sex inside the OASIS.” He smiled. “Thanks to the ONI, people can still go to packed concerts and crowd surf without any fear of microscopic death. It brings people together and connects them….”

“The ONI has helped drastically lower the global birth rate too,” Aech added. “We’re already on our way to solving the overpopulation problem.”

“Yes, but at what cost?” Samantha asked in exasperation. “A world where people don’t go outside or touch each other anymore? Where everyone sleeps their lives away while reality collapses all around them?” She shook her head. “Sometimes I think my parents are better off. They don’t have to live in this utopia you’ve all created.”

“You’ve never even put on an ONI headset,” I said, throwing my hands up. “So when you spout these half-baked proclamations, you literally have no idea what you’re talking about. You never have.”

Art3mis stared at me in silence for a moment. Then she glanced over at Aech and Shoto.

“This is hopeless,” she said. “I’m debating a group of drug dealers who are all getting high on their own supply. You’re just as addicted as your customers.” She turned to Faisal. “Let’s get this vote on the record, so I can get the fuck out of here.”

Faisal nodded and, still smiling cheerfully, he called for an official vote on Art3mis’s proposed ONI age restriction. She was outvoted once again, three nays to her one aye.

“All right,” Faisal said. “With that out of the way, this meeting can now be adjourned.”

Without another word, Samantha logged out and her avatar vanished.

“Thank God!” Aech said, massaging her neck with one hand. She turned to me. “Why do you always have to get her all riled up like that?”

“Me? You were the one who pissed her off this time!” I pointed at Faisal. “Have him read back the transcript.”

“No thanks,” Aech said. “I gotta bounce out and blaze. All this drama rattles my nerves. But the three of us should catch up sometime soon. Hang out in the Basement for old time’s sake. Watch some bad movies. Play some RiskI’ll text y’all, OK?”

“Sounds good,” I said.

Aech and I bumped fists, then she gave Shoto a high five before teleporting away.

“I gotta get going too,” Faisal said. “More prep to do for the update.” He walked over and shook hands with each of us and then he teleported away too.

As soon as we were alone, Shoto turned to me.

“Do you think Arty is right?” he asked. “Are we giving up on the real world?”

“Of course not,” I replied. “Art3mis means well, but she has absolutely no idea what she’s talking about.” I grinned at him. “She’s still stuck in the past, and we’re already living large in the future, my friend.”

“Maybe you’re right,” he said, nodding. His expression suddenly brightened. “Hey, I’m almost finished coding my new Macross Plus quest! Wanna help me playtest it when it’s done?”

“Oh hell yes!” I said. “Count me in.”

“Great! I’ll text you later this week when it’s ready,” he said. “Later, Z.” He waved and vanished from the conference room, leaving me alone.

I stood there motionless for a long time, listening to the echo of Samantha’s accusations ricochet around inside my head until the noise finally faded away.

You'll Also Like