Then I lunged with my rapier, launching into a rapid series of attacks that forced my opponent to parry and retreat backward across the length of the banquet hall, until I finally had him cornered. I could have just killed him at that point and completed the quest. But the Flicksync gave you bonus points for correctly reciting all of your character’s dialogue, and I was trying to get a perfect score this time around.
“Offer me money!” I demanded, slicing open the Six-Fingered Man’s left cheek.
“Yes!” he hissed, wincing in pain. “Power too,” I added. “Promise me that!”
I flicked my sword once again, giving him a matching wound on his right cheek.
“All that I have and more!” he whispered. “Please!” “Offer me anything I ask for….”
“Anything you want,” the Six-Fingered Man replied. “I want my father back, you son of a bitch!”
And with that, I ran the Six-Fingered Man through, plunging the point of my rapier into his stomach. I savored the expression on his face for a moment, then I pulled the sword free and kicked him backward. The NPC fell to the stone floor, let out a groan, and died. His corpse immediately faded out of existence, leaving behind a pile of the items he’d been
carrying. I scooped them up, then turned and sprinted out of the room and down the hall to Buttercup’s bridal suite. Once there, I completed the quest by helping her and Westley escape out the window. Fezzik was waiting for us down below, holding the reins of four white horses. We rode them out of the kingdom to freedom, while the song “Storybook Love” played on the soundtrack.
When the song ended, so did the quest. The horses and the other characters vanished and my avatar’s appearance returned to normal. I found myself standing alone outside the quest portal I’d originally entered, on the eastern shore of the kingdom of Guilder.
A chime sounded and a message appeared on my HUD, congratulating me on completing the Princess Bride quest with a perfect score of one million points. Then the message disappeared and…that was it.
I waited for a full minute, but nothing else happened. I sat down on the beach and let out a sigh.
This wasn’t my first visit to the planet Florin. I had already completed this quest with a perfect score three times before, each time playing as a different character—first as Westley, then as Buttercup, then as Fezzik. The Princess Bride had been one of Kira Underwood’s all-time favorite films, and she’d helped create all of the interactive OASIS quests based on it. (Including the controversial gender-swapped The Prince Groom, in which Buttercup is the swashbuckling heroine and Westley serves as the damsel in distress.) I’d thought that solving one of these quests with a perfect score might yield some clue related to the Seven Shards. But I’d come up empty-handed each and every time. Today was my final attempt. Inigo had been the only other playable character, and the most difficult one with which to obtain a perfect score. Now, after nearly a dozen attempts, I’d finally done it. And once again I had nothing to show for my efforts.
I got to my feet and took a deep breath. Then I teleported back to my command center on Falco.
Once my avatar finished rematerializing, I settled into the comfy TNG-era captain’s chair I’d installed there. I stared out at the cratered landscape in silent frustration for a moment. Then I opened up my grail diary, and once again I began scanning the vast mountain of data I’d collected over the
past eight years, about James Halliday and his life, work, associates, and interests—although for the past three years, nearly all of the new material I’d added pertained to one associate in particular. The Siren herself, Kira Morrow, née Underwood.
I’d started my grail diary in an old spiral notebook when I was thirteen and still living in the stacks outside Oklahoma City. I’d been forced to burn the original the night before I infiltrated IOI headquarters, to prevent it from falling into the Sixers’ hands. But I’d made hi-res scans of the notebook’s pages beforehand and stored them in my OASIS account. Those scans were all still there, in the digital version of my grail diary, which appeared as a jumble of cascading windows floating in front of me. It contained countless documents, diagrams, photos, maps, and media files, all indexed and cross-referenced for easy browsing.
The four-line Shard Riddle was displayed in a window that always remained on top:
Seek the Seven Shards of the Siren’s Soul
On the seven worlds where the Siren once played a role For each fragment my heir must pay a toll
To once again make the Siren whole
When the riddle had first appeared shortly after the ONI’s launch, I’d gone back and re-analyzed the free digital copy of Anorak’s Almanac available on Halliday’s old website, just to make sure it hadn’t been updated with any new information or clues. It hadn’t. Every word of the Almanac was still the same. The famous series of notched letters I’d found scattered throughout its text during Halliday’s contest were still there, but no new ones had been added.
One of the superuser abilities the Robes of Anorak gave me was the ability to simply wish for things out loud. If it could, the system would almost always grant my wish. But whenever I tried wishing for information about the Seven Shards, a message would flash across my HUD:
NICE TRY, CHEATER!
So I had no choice but to keep on searching for the shards myself. And once I committed to that quest, I gave it my absolute all. I did my due diligence.
I studied every reference to the number 7 in Anorak’s Almanac. I also played and solved every videogame in his collection that was related to the number 7. The Seven Cities of Gold (1984), The Seven Spirits of Ra (1987), Kid Kool and the Quest for the Seven Wonder Herbs (1988), The Seven Gates of Jambala (1989), Ishar 3: The Seven Gates of Infinity (1994), Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars (1996). Then I went overboard and also played any game that had the number 7 in its title, like Sigma 7, Stellar 7, Lucky 7, Force 7, Pitman 7, and Escape from Pulsar 7.
I even subjected myself to Keeper of the Seven Keys, a four-part concept album by Helloween, a German power-metal band from Hamburg, founded in 1984. I was not a fan of mid-’80s German power metal, but Halliday used to listen to it for hours when he was programming his first games, so I knew there was a chance he’d drawn inspiration from it.
If Halliday had left behind any additional clues about the location of the Seven Shards, I wasn’t able to find them. It was frustrating. And more than a little humiliating.
I considered calling it quits and giving up on the shards altogether. I mean, why was I wasting my time trying to solve Halliday’s insipid side quest anyway? What was I hoping would happen when I completed it? I had already achieved wealth and fame in reality, and in the OASIS my avatar was already all-powerful and invulnerable. I had nothing more to prove to anyone. I had already beaten the odds and accomplished the impossible once. I didn’t need to do it again.
There was nothing else I needed—except more time. I had a finite amount of it left, and when it was gone, I wouldn’t be able to buy any more of it. Time was precious. And yet here I was, wasting whole years of it on another one of Halliday’s glorified videogames…
Still, I’d never shaken my curiosity about the Siren’s Soul, or the nagging suspicion that something terrible would happen if I failed to obtain it. That was what ultimately prompted me to offer a billion-dollar reward for any information that would help me locate one of the Seven Shards. But I’d posted that reward two years ago, and it had yet to be claimed.
When I’d offered the reward, I’d set up a separate email address where people could send in any potential leads. It still received hundreds of submissions every day, but so far every last one had proven to be a dead end. I’d had to set up an elaborate series of email filters to sort out all the duplicate and obviously bogus submissions. These days very few emails got past these filters and made it to my inbox.
I often wondered if the whole idea of the reward was hopeless to begin with. The answer was right there, in the third line of the Shard Riddle: “For each fragment my heir must pay a toll….”
If I, Wade Watts, the sole heir to Halliday’s fortune, was the “heir” the riddle was referring to, then I would be the only person in the world who could find the Seven Shards, since I would be the only one who could “once again make the Siren whole.”
For all I knew, the shards and their locations might be invisible to everyone else. That would explain why the millions of gunters out there who were scouring the OASIS night and day for any trace of the shards had all come up empty-handed for three years running now.
On the other hand, if I alone had the ability to obtain the Siren’s Soul, why had Halliday posted the Shard Riddle on his website, for the whole world to see? He could’ve just emailed it to my OASIS account. Or mentioned it in his video message about the ONI. It was entirely possible that anyone could find the shards, and Halliday had simply hidden them fiendishly well—just as he’d done with his “three hidden keys” and “three secret gates.” And the first two lines of the Shard Riddle were infuriatingly vague: “Seek the Seven Shards of the Siren’s Soul on the seven worlds where the Siren once played a role.”
If I was interpreting these lines correctly, the Seven Shards were hidden on seven planets inside the OASIS—seven worlds where the Siren, aka Leucosia, aka Kira Morrow, “once played a role.”
Unfortunately, that didn’t narrow things down too much. As GSS’s chief art director during the development of the OASIS and its first three years of operation, Kira had played a key role in the design and construction of every single planet added to the simulation during that time. (In interviews, Ogden Morrow had always gone out of his way to stress the importance of his wife’s contribution to the creation of the OASIS, while Halliday rarely
even acknowledged it. Which was no surprise, since he had a history of doing the same thing to Og, and everyone else who worked for them at GSS.) Even after Kira left the company, the GSS artists who had worked under her continued to use the world-builder templates she’d created, so in a way, she’d “played a role” in creating nearly every planet in the OASIS.
However, by conducting extensive research into Kira’s life and interests, and by studying her GSS employee file and OASIS work account activity logs, I’d narrowed my search area down to a list of the nine most likely candidates and concentrated my efforts there.
Florin, the planet I’d just returned from, was Kira’s re-creation of the fictional Renaissance-era kingdom featured in The Princess Bride, one of her favorite films. There wasn’t much to do there, aside from visiting the various locations from the movie and completing the Flicksyncs.
The planet Thra was a meticulous re-creation of the fantasy world depicted in The Dark Crystal, another of her favorite films. Her parents had named her Karen, but after she saw The Dark Crystal for the first time at age eleven, she’d insisted that her friends and family call her Kira, the name of the film’s Gelfling heroine. (She’d also renamed the family dog Fizzgig.) And when Karen turned eighteen, she’d legally changed her first name to Kira. Decades later, when Kira helped launch the OASIS, Thra was the first planet she’d created inside the simulation, entirely on her own. And since the plot of The Dark Crystal concerned a quest to find a missing “crystal shard,” it seemed like an extremely likely candidate.
But I’d now played through every quest anchored there, and explored the entire kingdom, and done everything I could think of that might loosely be defined as “paying a toll.” I’d visited every instance of Aughra’s observatory I could find. I’d played the proper tune on Jen’s flute. But her basket was always empty, and there were never any shards to be found there.
Mobius Prime was another OASIS world created solely by Kira Morrow, as a tribute to her favorite videogame character, Sonic the Hedgehog. The planet was a re-creation of the fictional future Earth where most of Sonic’s adventures took place, and it featured reproductions of all of the different levels featured in early 2-D and 3-D Sonic games, along
with environments and characters from the cartoons and comic books based on them.
Several Sonic the Hedgehog games involved a quest to collect seven “Chaos Emeralds” that could be harnessed to obtain special powers. Inside the OASIS, dozens of different quests on Mobius Prime allowed you to collect the seven Chaos Emeralds, and I’d completed all of them. But if there was a way to trade the emeralds for one of the shards, I still hadn’t discovered it.
I’d had a similarly frustrating experience on the planet Usagi, which was Kira’s tribute to Sailor Moon, her favorite anime series. One of the most difficult quests on Usagi involved collecting seven “Rainbow Crystals,” which could then be combined to form an incredibly powerful artifact known as the “Legendary Silver Crystal.” After a frustrating number of attempts, I’d finally managed to complete this quest, in the hope that once I obtained the Legendary Silver Crystal it would transform into one of the Seven Shards. But all I had to show for my efforts was an impressive familiarity with obscure Sailor Moon trivia and an inexplicable desire to cosplay as Tuxedo Mask (which I may or may not have acted upon in the solitude and privacy of my own home).
I’d also spent several months scouring the planet Gallifrey in Sector Seven. It was Kira’s re-creation of the Time Lord’s home world in the long-running Doctor Who television series, which now comprised over a thousand individual episodes. In the decades since she’d first constructed it, thousands of other OASIS users had made their own contributions to Gallifrey, making it one of the most densely packed worlds in the simulation—and one of the most difficult places in which to conduct a thorough search.
Halcydonia was the planet on the list that I probably knew the best, because I’d practically grown up there. It was also the only OASIS planet that Ogden and Kira Morrow had co-created, without any outside assistance. When Og and Kira got married and sold all of their GSS shares to Halliday, they moved to Oregon and founded a nonprofit educational software company, Halcydonia Interactive, which produced a series of award-winning educational OASIS adventure games that anyone could download and play for free. I’d played these games throughout my
childhood, and they had transported me out of my bleak existence in the stacks and whisked me off to the magical faraway kingdom of Halcydonia, where learning was “an endless adventure!”
Halcydonia Interactive’s games were still archived as free standalone quest portals on the planet Halcydonia in Sector One, located in prime surreal estate a short distance from Incipio, making it extremely cheap and easy for newly spawned and/or perpetually broke avatars to reach it. According to the planet’s colophon, Halcydonia hadn’t been altered or updated since Kira’s death in a car accident in 2034. But I still thought there was a chance Halliday had hidden one of the shards there.
Even though Kira Morrow wasn’t directly involved in the creation of the last few planets on my list, the private usage logs on her long-dormant OASIS account indicated she’d spent a great deal of time on each of them.
(I’d attempted to access Halliday and Morrow’s private OASIS account logs, too, only to find them both blank. Unlike all other OASIS users, their avatars’ movements and interactions within the simulation weren’t logged. And, as I mentioned earlier, once I inherited the Robes of Anorak, the same became true of my own usage log. There were no new entries after that. Plenty of subpoenas had verified this fact. Aech, Shoto, and Art3mis didn’t have the ability to conceal their usage logs from the feds, our high-level OASIS admins, or from me. So unbeknownst to them, I was able to see how much time they spent inside the OASIS each day, as well as where they went and what they did while they were there. I’d stopped checking Aech and Shoto’s logs years ago—partly out of respect for their privacy, but mostly because I quickly discovered that I didn’t want or need to know when they were ducking me to spend time hanging out with other people. But I still checked Art3mis’s usage logs at least once a week. I couldn’t resist. But they never told me much of anything about her life—aside from the fact that she still had a weakness for Flicksyncs based on old Whit Stillman movies. She still reenacted the film Metropolitan once or twice a month, usually in the middle of the night. Probably because she couldn’t sleep. And she didn’t have anyone to talk to….)
One of the locations that showed up most frequently in Kira’s OASIS account logs was the planet Miyazaki in Sector Twenty-Seven. It was a bizarre and beautiful world that paid tribute to the work of Hayao Miyazaki,
the famous Japanese animator behind anime masterpieces like Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Kiki’s Delivery Service. Visiting Miyazaki was like plunging your senses into a surreal mash-up of all of the different animated realities created inside Studio Ghibli’s films. (An experience that became substantially more intense with an ONI headset.) Kira had visited Miyazaki on a weekly basis for several years. And now I was able to say the same thing. But like Bono before me, I still hadn’t found what I was looking for.
Then there was Middle-earth. All three versions of it…
Kira Morrow had been a well-known Tolkien fanatic. She famously reread The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings every year from the time she was sixteen onward. And after they married, Og built Kira a real-world replica of Rivendell in the mountains of Oregon, where they lived together happily until her death. Og still lived there now, and Kira was buried on the property. I’d visited her grave myself, during the week we’d all spent there.
According to Kira’s access logs, one of her favorite OASIS destinations had been Arda, the three-planet system in Sector Seven that re-created
J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth fantasy world in the First, Second, and Third Ages of its fictional history. Created with an almost fanatical devotion by millions of Tolkien fans, many of whom were still revising and improving the simulations to this day, the Ardas drew largely on Tolkien’s original writings on Middle-earth, but they took inspiration from the many films, television shows, and videogames set there as well.
So far, I’d spent most of my time on Arda III. It depicted the Third Age of Middle-earth, which was when all of the events described in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings took place, and Kira had visited it far more frequently than Arda I or Arda II—though she spent a great deal of time on each of them as well.
I wish I could say that I’d scoured every inch of all three versions of Middle-earth. But I hadn’t. Not by a long shot. I’d completed all the major quests on Arda II and III, and about half of the most popular quests on Arda I, but they were three of the most detailed worlds in the whole simulation, and at my current pace, completing every quest they contained could take me several more years.
Chthonia was the last planet on my list, and the one I was most confident belonged there. It was Halliday’s re-creation of the fantasy world he’d created for his epic Advanced Dungeons & Dragons campaign back in high school, in which both Kira and Og had participated. Chthonia would later serve as the setting for many of Halliday’s earliest videogames, including Anorak’s Quest and its many sequels.
Chthonia was the very first planet Halliday had created, making it the oldest world in the simulation. And when he, Ogden, and Kira had created their OASIS avatars, they’d each named them after the characters they’d played in their Chthonia campaign. Halliday’s character had been a dark-robed magic user named Anorak, whom he’d played as an NPC while serving as Dungeon Master. Ogden Morrow had played a wisecracking wizard named “the Great and Powerful Og.” And Kira’s character had been a powerful druid called Leucosia, named after one of the Sirens of Greek mythology.
Of course, Chthonia was also where Halliday had hidden the Third Gate in his Easter-egg hunt, inside Castle Anorak. Because of this, many gunters believed it was unlikely he would’ve chosen to hide one of the Seven Shards there too. But I wasn’t so sure. Chthonia was clearly a world where the “Siren once played a role.” A very important role, from Halliday’s perspective. So I kept Chthonia on my list and searched the planet from top to bottom.
I hadn’t limited my search to just these nine planets, of course. I’d looked for the Seven Shards on dozens of other OASIS worlds as well, to no avail.
I let out a sigh and rubbed my temples, wishing for the thousandth time that I hadn’t sabotaged my friendship with Og, so that I could call him and ask for his help. Of course, asking for his help was precisely what had ended our friendship. Og had never been comfortable talking about Kira, and he’d communicated this to me in every way possible. But I’d been too fixated to hear him.
Thinking back on my behavior made me wince with shame now. Why would a retired billionaire want to spend his twilight years being hounded for information about his dead wife? It was no wonder he’d stopped speaking to me. I’d given him no real choice.
I realized that Og’s birthday was coming up again soon. If I patched things up with him, maybe he would start inviting me to his yearly birthday party at the Distracted Globe again.
I’d spent the past year trying to work up the nerve to call Og and apologize. Promise never to ask him about Kira or Halliday again. He might listen. If I just swallowed my pride, I could probably mend our friendship. But to do so, I’d also have to obey his wishes and abandon my search for the Seven Shards.
I closed my grail diary and stood up. Just seven more days, I promised myself. Another week. If I hadn’t made any progress by then, I’d hang it up for good and make my amends with Og.
I had made this promise to myself many times before, but this time I intended to keep it.
I pulled up my bookmarked destinations to teleport back to the Third Age of Middle-earth and get back to work. But as I went to select it, I noticed a small shard icon blinking at the edge of my heads-up display. I tapped it and my email client opened in a window in front of me. There was a single message waiting in my SSoSS Tip Submission account, stamped with a long system-generated ID number. Some gunter out there had just submitted a potential lead about the Seven Shards of the Siren’s Soul—one that had made it past all the filters and reached my inbox. This hadn’t happened in months.
I tapped the message to open it and began to read:
Dear Mr. Watts,
After three years of searching, I’ve ﬁnally discovered where one of the Seven Shards of the Siren’s Soul is hidden and how to reach it. It’s located on the planet Middletown, inside the guest bedroom at the Barnett residence, where Kira Underwood lived during her year as an exchange student at Middletown High School.
I can make the shard appear, but I can’t pick it up. Probably because I’m not you— Halliday’s “heir.” If you’d like me to show you what I mean, I can.
I know you probably receive a lot of bogus leads, but I promise this isn’t one of them.
Your Fan, L0hengrin
I did a double-take when I read the sender’s name. L0hengrin was the host of a popular gunter-themed YouTube show called The L0w-Down. She had about fifty million subscribers, and I’d recently become one of them. For me, this was a huge endorsement.
Most gunter shows were hosted by clueless fame-seekers spouting a steady stream of complete nonsense about the Seven Shards, when they weren’t waging epic flame wars with viewers or rival hosts, or posting tearful apology videos in another desperate bid to win back followers.
But The L0w-Down was different. L0hengrin had an incredibly upbeat personality, and an infectious brand of enthusiasm that reminded me of how I’d felt in the early days of the contest. The brief voice over that opened her show seemed to sum up her life’s philosophy: “Some people define themselves by railing against all of the things they hate, while explaining why everyone else should hate it too. But not me. I prefer to lead with my love—to define myself through joyous yawps of admiration, instead of cynical declarations of disdain.”
L0hengrin also possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of James Halliday’s life and his work. And she appeared to know just as much about Og and Kira Morrow.
My appreciation for L0hengrin and her show may have been slightly colored by the fact that I’d developed a mild crush on her. She was cute, smart, funny, and fearless. She was also a vocal High Five superfan. Her own gunter clan called themselves “The L0w Five.” Most flattering of all, her avatar’s name was a not-so-subtle tribute to my own, because in several German versions of the King Arthur legend, Lohengrin was the name of Parzival’s son.
L0hengrin had proven herself to be a loyal fan too. Her support of me hadn’t wavered over the past few years, despite the disastrous PR decisions I’d made. And she didn’t seem to care about the army of Parzival haters who attacked her on her meed feed every time she mentioned me on her show.
Like many of L0hengrin’s regular viewers, I was more than a little curious about her real-world identity. On her show, L0hengrin never talked about her real life, or her real name, age, or gender. She only appeared as her OASIS avatar, which usually looked and sounded exactly like Helen Slater in The Legend of Billie Jean—a teenage girl with short blond hair, piercing blue eyes, and a faint Southern accent. But like Ranma Saotome in Ranma 1/2, L0hengrin was also famous for changing her avatar’s gender, unexpectedly and without warning—sometimes in midsentence. When she transformed into a male, she seemed to prefer the likeness of a young James Spader, especially his look from the 1985 film Tuff Turf. Regardless of her avatar’s current gender, L0hengrin’s public profile specified that her preferred gender pronouns were she and her. In her one-line user bio, she described herself as “A wild-eyed pistol-waver who ain’t afraid to die.”
My robes gave me the ability to bypass the system’s built-in security measures and access any OASIS user’s private account information, including their true identity and real-world address. But despite my curiosity, I’d never accessed L0hengrin’s account. Not because doing so would violate GSS company policy and several federal laws. That had never stopped me in the past. I told myself that I was respecting her privacy
—but really I was just worried that learning L0hengrin’s true identity might ruin my enjoyment of her show, robbing me of one of the few pleasures I had in life that didn’t involve the ONI.
I reread her note several times, oscillating between skepticism and exhilaration. I knew the exact location she was talking about. I’d visited the Barnett residence in the Middletown simulation a few times during Halliday’s contest and found nothing of interest there. It was just an undecorated guest bedroom, because the Middletown simulation re-created Halliday’s hometown as it was in the fall of 1986, two years before Kira had moved there as a British exchange student during the 1988–89 school year. That was one reason I’d never considered Middletown a likely candidate for one of the “seven worlds where the Siren once played a role.” I’d also figured it was unlikely he would have chosen to hide one of the Seven Shards on the same planet he’d used as the location of the First Gate. But then again, it did have a certain symmetry to it. After all, that was where Halliday and Og and Kira all met. That was where it all began.
I closed L0hengrin’s message and weighed my options. There was really only one way to find out for certain whether she was telling the truth. I pulled up a three-dimensional map of the OASIS, then used my superuser HUD to pinpoint the current location of L0hengrin’s avatar. Just as I hoped, she was still on Middletown, in one of the 256 copies of Halliday’s hometown spread out across the planet’s surface.
I made my avatar invisible and undetectable, then teleported to her exact location.