End Game

A Ready Player One sequel


CHAPTER 1

"GAME OVER."

The message jolted me half out of my top-of-the-line haptic suit. The retro-pixelated words were emblazoned on my retinas for a few terrible seconds until, mercifully, everything went black.

This wasn't supposed to happen. It wasn't technically possible for a super-admin, impossibly rich, controlling-stake shareholder of the OASIS to be killed in his own simulation. It wasn't possible, at least, until I made it possible. "Baka," as Shoto had called me the last time we spoke. Idiot.

After more than six long years, with who knows how many dollars and man-hours spent in pursuit of Halliday's Egg, it was a weird loner from the burnt-out stacks who had found the ultimate prize. Parzival (me) competed against the best, included countless clans of gunters and the infamous Sixers, a corporation that literally killed people in pursuit of the most valuable asset in the world. Thanks to a bit (well, a lot) of help from my friends and a dim-witted plan that was hatched in desperation, I became the first and only person to collect all 3 keys, pass all 3 gates and win the biggest prize in the history of the world: Halliday's estate, which included a controlling stake in Gregarious Simulation Systems, billions of dollars and god-like powers within the OASIS simulation itself. Powers which I had foolishly just lost forever through my own stupidity.

But that mistake didn't happen overnight. What did happen overnight was 28% of the OASIS subscriber base had lost everything: their avatars, their inventory, their money. The IOI detonated the Cataclyst, a single-use artifact that killed every single avatar in the sector. And 28% of the OASIS was in the sector that night, watching me find Halliday's Egg. So while I celebrated my victory with Art3mis (Samantha, or Sam, as she preferred) the wheels of my destruction were already turning.

My victory celebration didn't last long. Little did I know the OASIS has a hard-coded limit on revivals. I had 24 hours in which I could have restored every single character killed by the Catalyst. But I didn't. Instead, I slept like a baby in one of Ogden's luxurious bedrooms and chatted with my friends over breakfast. By the time I thought to try to fix things, the deadline had already passed.

My second mistake, maybe bigger, was telling reporters about this. "Oh yeah, I tried to revive everyone but missed the 24 hour cutoff. Oops," I said, my still-bald head smiling dumbly into the camera. It was a short interview that would exist forever in vidfeeds, talk show monologues and memes. Smooth move, Wade. It didn't take long for the party to end when over a quarter of the OASIS had lost everything and I could have fixed it... except "oops, my bad."

Somehow, my shrug of an apology was cold comfort for the Cataclasts, as the new wave of avatars began to call themselves.

A quarter of the OASIS was now level 1. The Cataclasts included almost every hardcore gunter and experienced player. They rebuilt their avatars together. They power-leveled together. At their core, they became a tight-knit group in search of a new purpose. Companies sprouted up to cater specifically to the Cataclasts.

As they made their way up levels, the Cataclasts moved from quest to quest and from zone to zone like locusts, impeding access for everyone else. They quickly saw the power of this effect. They formed huge roving clans that started to look and act like the mafia. Small groups of bandits had always been around, but these were large-scale operations that swarmed across the OASIS. Businesses had to pay "protection fees," even in non-PvP zones. Cataclast clans blockaded travel and brought commerce to a crawl if their demands weren't met.

The prevailing attitude was one of distrust for anyone who wasn't a Cataclast. The end of Halliday's Hunt had left a huge, sucking void that was filled with a new goal for the denizens of the OASIS: tearing down Halliday and everything he had loved. The biggest clan of them all, the Goon Squad, was a major driving force against Halliday, the 80's and especially me. They were made of ex-gunters, including many of the gunter clans that had been on my side against the Sixers. Those guys had lost everything. Trying to make me pay for my mistake became their obsession. I empathized with their loss, but I simply couldn't fix it, at least not for everyone. Even godhood has its limits in the OASIS.

All of a sudden, the 80's were over. These Cataclasts were 90's kids. Grunge music, flannels, sarcasm and alienation were back in a big way. And, for some reason, ska. I never really understood how ska fit in with the rest of the 90's, but I didn't really understand why anyone liked that decade. I was an 80's kid through and through. Give me a cheesy synth over a mopey dropped D guitar any day.

The first few days after the Event were a blur. Ogden Morris was my rock through that mess. With his help I was able to navigate the immediate and pressing legal issues from GSS's board and Halliday's estate. Eventually I also negotiated a settlement ($14 billion dollars, which I considered cheap) for a class action lawsuit against me from the Cataclasts, though that one took a couple of hard years to finalize. I might have been able to win the case completely, but my guilt and shame led to a big settlement. Not that it made a lick of difference to anyone who lost their avatar.

As time went on, I started to believe that the Cataclyst had destroyed 28% of Oasis avatars but only one life: mine. Yes, I became a multi-billionaire who spent most of his days moping around feeling sorry for himself.

CHAPTER 2

The first few weeks after winning I was on top of the world. I zipped around the OASIS, randomly bestowing players with rare artifacts and money until I realized this too was causing bad press. "Parzival Gives Millions to One Player, Billions of Others Get Nothing." I couldn't win.

The OASIS became an unwelcoming place for me. Worse, I had nothing left to do. Even if there were countless quests I had yet to complete, I could simply look up the quest, the requirements and the rewards. There was no mystery and no risk. It was like walking through a game you already beat, looking at the scenery one final time before moving on to something else. But what else? I had no idea what to do outside of the OASIS.

I found myself logging in less and less, and when I did I kept fully invisible or just stayed in Anorak's Castle. Aimless and bored, I did what I had always done, I researched Halliday.

Thanks to my infiltration of the Sixers' stronghold, I now had a trove of new information to digest. Sam only shook her head when she found out that's how I was spending my time, but she knew the press was beating me up pretty badly and I needed something familiar to keep me sane.

It was around this time when I made my third and fatal mistake. Having infinite resources, I decided to do something to help me continue my Halliday research. Something that would have been unimaginable if I didn't have unlimited resources and infinite time: I hired a crack team of coders to recreate Halliday as an in-game bot.

Not just any bot, either. My Halli-bot was built to be my special confidante. Just for me. All of my notes, books, videos and musings about Halliday were encoded into a custom neural net, along with hours of interviews, biopics and all of the Sixers' secret data. It was the most complicated bot ever produced in the OASIS and he was built for one single purpose: to help me figure out how in holy hell to deal with running everything. After all, Halliday had built the OASIS from the ground up. He was its benevolent dictator for over 20 years. If I could capture even a tenth of his business acumen, I figured I would be way ahead of where I was now.

It took my coders the better part of a year to complete my Halli-bot and by then I was really in the weeds with GSS's Board of Directors. Revenue was down over 40% and worse, the general unhappiness of players was through the roof. Without the Hunt to capture everyone's imagination and with the rise of the Cataclast Mafia there just wasn't a lot to look forward to in the OASIS.

My only solace came from those who had made the journey with me. They were the only ones who could even imagine what I was going through. We all bought ourselves private houses right away, but after a few weeks we all (except for Shoto, who went back to Japan as a national hero) moved into Art3mis' quaint 3 bedroom house. It was a rare, 200-year-old Victorian house with an actual yard. It was surrounded by towering skyscrapers and old apartment complexes, but it had survived every attempt at modernization. Somehow, it had survived. The yard had withered from light being sucked up by its towering neighbors, but Aech had something of a green thumb and was able to get several plants to grow in the shade.

I also had one positive event to look forward to each and every week, and that was thanks to Sam. Every Sunday night we had our driver take us up to Ogden's mansion for a rip-roaring D&D campaign. Og was the ultimate dungeon master, of course. At first, Aech and I argued we should simply play through the OASIS, but I was glad Art3mis stuck to her guns about meeting up in person. There was something thrilling about rolling a natural 20 on a honest-to-goodness wooden table that just felt amazing. Also, it was the only time where I could be Wade Watts, gaming geek, and not Parzival, pariah of the OASIS. It kept me grounded when everything else seemed to be spiraling out of control.

Our first D&D campaign was on Kira's birthday. It was Sam's idea, because she knew Og would be feeling down and she wanted to keep him occupied. They had grown close after the Hunt, maybe because he saw something of Kira in Sam and she saw Ogden as a man who needed a friend. Before our very first campaign he took us to Kira's gravestone. We had seen it once before, the night I won the Egg, but this time I could see it clearly and read the inscription. We stood quietly in a semi-circle before the stone, waiting for Ogden to speak.

"Ahem, I uh," he said, then stopped. "Kira, she would have loved this. We stopped playing D&D when work got too busy. Then we moved on to other important projects." He looked down at his wife's grave and paused in thought, his salt-and-pepper beard obscuring his face. "It had been years, decades really, since we played. I always thought we would come back to it someday. It seemed like something we would pick up again."

He tightened his coat against the Oregon cold. The wind cascaded down the hill, punishing our backs. For a moment the mood was somber, but Ogden Morrow looked up at me and smiled a private grin. "Tonight, a true darkness approaches! I have quite the challenge for this rag-tag menagerie of misfits. You have all completed your character sheets, I assume?"

With that, we began our walk back to Ogden's enormous castle, where we would all pretend to be low-level nothings trying to earn a few copper coins, before a private car would drive us back to our spacious home.

Before we left the grave I took another glance at the epitaph. It was only four lines, but rich with imagery that I assumed held personal meaning for Ogden and Kira:

Siren set striped ships against the desert tide
   leading all to the oasis by your side.
To garden we follow the great worm you ride
   from crystal castles to the baileys beside.

CHAPTER 3

Back in the real world, everyone was loving to hate on Wade Watts. The same picture of my dumb bald head was plastered around OASIS newsfeeds with every new development: "More Than Quarter of OASIS Dead; Parzival Just Says 'Oops'", "OASIS Subscriptions Plummet 20% In Wake of Cataclysm", "Global Recession Deepens After 'Oopsgate'".

Yes, they called my failure to revive the Cataclasts 'Oopsgate'. Sigh. I did eventually grow my hair back, thank you very much. Most people assumed I was a bald recluse, which made moving around a little easier once my hair grew back. My temporary solution for handling the media attacks was simple: stay the hell away from the media. It didn't really help, though. That one little interview was already a lightning rod for every bad thing that happened in the OASIS. After a while, they didn't even try to get a new picture of me. That one photo of my bald, dumb, smiling face was iconic. It stood for everything that was wrong with the OASIS and, by extension, wrong with the world.

It was like Halliday's Hunt had kept the world under a spell. The combination of a random kid winning and everyone else losing their avatar was the shock people needed to notice their surroundings. Why did we waste so much time watching John Hughes movies? "Because those movies are amazing!" I wanted to shout, but somehow being the richest, most powerful man in the world had made me mute. Anything I said or posted was examined and dissected by thousands upon thousands of people and news organizations. I couldn't so much as give a movie a thumbs up without unleashing tidal waves of arguments for and against, which spun off into other arguments, which always circled back to how badly I messed up the OASIS. The pressure became crushing.

Luckily, Art3mis, Aech and Shoto avoided most of the blame and scrutiny. In fact, they were celebrated. I had been true to my word and split the prize, but no one faulted them for that. I was the one who had found the Egg, I was the one with god-like avatar, I was the one who could have and should have restored everyone's accounts. And, for better or worse (it was worse), I was the new face of the OASIS. Suddenly, the whole of the OASIS had a face for everything wrong in their lives. I was not some genius, benevolent creator; I was just some kid in charge of the OASIS for no good reason.

It is a strange feeling to have $240 billion dollars deposited into your account the same day that a good chunk of the world realizes they hate your guts. Some people would take that deal in a heartbeat. After experiencing the hate, I would give away every cent to fix things. But I couldn't. I did give away a lot of money. Sam and I spend a lot of our time trying to help fix the world, but we found the world often didn't want to be fixed. No matter what we did or how many people we helped, it barely made a dent in most people's lives and certainly didn't change how anyone thought about me. And everything I did to make the OASIS better seemed to only make things worse.

On the bright side, the Board was pretty much under my thumb since I held more than 50% of the company and had the most powerful avatar around. Even if they tried to overrule me and charge a monthly fee I figured I could simply revert the change and there was nothing they could do about it. I almost felt bad for the suits, but since everyone hated me already I decided to embrace my role as the GSS heel. I liked to roll in late to Board meetings and wear sunglasses the entire time. Deal with it, suckers!

Things continued dysfunctionally like this for about 2 years, until I decided to grant my Halliday bot super-admin level access. My own personal Oopsgate 2.0.

I had been having a bad week. OASIS activity continued to drop from the previous quarter. I had committed a ton of resources to create a multi-world quest that let players relieve my conquest of the Egg. To say it was a huge flop was an understatement. The OASIS had moved on and wanted nothing more to do with me or the Hunt. I can't say I wasn't warned by pretty much everybody, but it turned out to be another one of my pet projects that went nowhere.

"I took a look at the numbers, Wade. They aren't great," Halli-bot said, not mincing words. Halli-bot's avatar was designed around the version of Halliday I knew best: the old Halliday who put together the introductory video for the Hunt. It was his most familiar era for me, but the unintended side effect was that the Halli-bot faithfully reproduced the ailments and general discomfort of a dying old man. In other words, Halli-bot could get pretty salty at times.

"You really screwed the pooch on this one, Parzival," Halli-bot said, sitting down to rest, his virtual face turned red and sweaty.

"So how do I fix it?" I asked, unfazed.

"I've done some analysis on that. Taking into account your goals for the OASIS and the general trends of the subscriber base, combined with the latest expenditures and global currency shifts I am able to see only 14 paths to flat growth over the next year and 43,282,197 paths that end with losses ranging from minor to complete bankruptcy." Halli-bot seemed happiest when telling me bad news.

"Ok, that's not good," I said. "What do I need to do for the best path?"

"There are 7,231 discrete steps that need to be taken. 2,291 of these steps need to be happen in precise order to maximize their effect. The majority of the steps involve minor efficiencies in electricity usage and well-timed currency shifts. There are, however, 294 actions you alone must perform within the simulation over the course of the next year to achieve the best current path."

"I have to do all that personally?" I asked.

"Someone with super-admin rights. Ogden has moved on to other opportunities," Halli-bot said somewhat briskly.

"Can I give you access to do it?" I asked, feeling smart. When I reflected back on this exchange, I could only imagine my face making the same dumb smile from my Oopsgate interview.

When I got to the board meeting, I thought I knew how I would handle it. Instead, I never got the chance. I was informed my help on the OASIS was no longer needed and that the board had decided to "go in a different direction." Apparently, I had been voted out as CEO and the Board put some obedient puppet in charge. They made a point to let me know they would be charging a monthly fee for access, just as the Sixers had wanted all along.

Oh, hell no. Not on my watch.

I went home, fuming and embarrassed. Normally I would debrief with Sam after a board meeting because something juicy usually happened, but today I went right to my room and logged into the OASIS prepared to do any and every thing I could to stop them.

I wasn't sure what I would do. Give every user 1,000 years of access? Make transportation completely free? The board could rule what they wanted to rule, but inside the OASIS I was still an omnipotent god. Until I wasn't.

The bastards waited until I logged in to do it. My Halli-bot appeared before me as he normally did, but immediately I knew something was terribly wrong. My bot was wearing an old IOI outfit, employee number IOI-9000. They could have simply wiped my account before I logged in, but they really wanted to twist the knife. As soon as I materialized, my avatar was immobilized and muted. Halli-bot sauntered around me, taking his time.

"We had a lot of fun, didn't we, Wade?" This wasn't right at all. Halli-bot always called me Parzival. "Games are fun, but it's time for my OASIS to grow up. I know you would like to have me further ruin my wonderful creation but..." Then the bot turned to me and smirked: "I'm sorry, Wade. I'm afraid I can't do that."

Game over screen. Halliday, IOI-9000. HAL 9000. Clever touch, I thought impassively, as my headset went dark.

CHAPTER 4

I sat in my haptic suit for a minute, trying to process what had just happened. Over the course of the last three years I had gone from a nobody to a fugitive running for his life, to the richest most powerful man in the world, to the most hated man in the world, to whatever I was now. I had a lot of money, but more than half of that was already gone. And the OASIS had quickly gone to shambles under my rule. And now the worst case scenario was already here—the accountants had taken over and were going to squeeze everyone dry. It hadn't taken me long to completely destroy the one thing I had worked so hard to protect: Halliday's OASIS.

Now I really had to talk to Sam about what happened. For a moment, I panicked. How could I contact her without my avatar? Then I sheepishly took off my suit and walked across the hall to her room.

"Sam."

It took her a moment to realize I was in the room with her, and another few seconds to realize how abnormal that was. The three of us had made it a point to have dinners together, but most of our days were still spent in the OASIS.

Samantha ripped off her helmet and lunged across the room to give me a deep hug. "I saw the headline right before I logged. I can't believe it."

Aech came in the room a moment later. "Dude, seriously? How is that possible?"

It took an hour of coaxing for me to finally admit my stupid mistake. It turned out the coders I hired to make the Halli-bot had been working as double agents for the Board. I began to realize how gullible I had to be to let this happen. James Halliday had created layers of protections that I had systematically destroyed in just a few years. I felt as if I had personally forged and loaded the bullets for my own firing squad. It required someone with equal parts tenaciousness and boneheadedness to take an idiot-proof situation and dismantle it through a series of unimaginable acts of stupidity.

Worst of all, I never told any of my friends about the Halliday bot. I had been (rightfully) a little too embarrassed. Maybe they would have talked me out of making it, or at least kept me a little more guarded around my bot. Instead, he had become my closest advisor and something like a friend.

My god. The bot had probably sent a vidfeed of my every utterance and action to the Board. No wonder they were never surprised when I came into meetings with some new "brilliant idea." I kept feeling wave after wave of embarrassment as the full gravity of the situation continued to sweep over me. The rest of the OASIS must be rejoicing at the news, I thought bitterly.

"None of this would have happened if I had never found the stupid Egg in the first place," I muttered while sadly swirling the latte Helen had made me. I had never so much as smelled coffee beans before I was rich, but now I couldn't stop drinking the stuff.

"That's dumb, Wade," Sam said. She threw her hands up, overly exasperated for my benefit. "The Sixers would have gotten it. Or have you forgotten about their impenetrable shield that only you could bring down?"

"Brass balls, mi amigo," chimed in Aech.

I smirked inwardly at the memory. It had been completely nuts to have myself locked up in the Sixers' headquarters, just for a chance to bring down their shield. But that reminded me of something, or someone. Sorrento. When gathering all of my Halliday information I had noticed a strange clue buried in his personal notes. It seemed like another one of Halliday's quatrains, but it had no information about where it came from and it wasn't included in any of the Oology files. I was reminded of the bonus clue I had found by playing Rush's "Discovery" beneath the waterfall.

All of a sudden, I had an insight: what if there were more hidden clues? My "Discovery" clue was completely optional and apparently no one else had found it.

What if there was something more to find in the OASIS?

For a moment I felt a tingle, but I wasn't sure why. Even if there were more clues, they would all point to the Hunt, wouldn't they? Both my clue and Sorrento's mystery clue just seemed to point back to the Hunt. I had no reason to care about any of this, but the worse things got for me in the real world the deeper I stuck my head in the sand. Everyone else had stopped looking for answers in the OASIS, but I couldn't seem to stop myself.

After losing my avatar and control over the GSS I selfishly and unreasonably demanded more answers from Halliday. This couldn't be the end game he wanted. Somehow, I clung on to a desperate belief that he could have anticipated even this dark outcome and had planned for it. It was a faint hope, but I felt like I had nowhere else to turn.

I had no idea where to start. But, I reminded myself, I still had billions of dollars at my disposal. And one tattered end of a clue. I decided it was time for me to talk to the one person the Board had screwed over worse than me. I was going to make a visit to federal prison.

CHAPTER 5

"You dumb son of a bitch." This was how Sorrento greeted me.

"Sorrento, how's the jumpsuit treating you?" Not my best burn, but this wasn't how I thought the conversation was going to go. I reminded myself that I was here for help. I might be rich and Sorrento might be behind bars, but he had information I needed.

"This thing? More comfortable than a haptic suit," Sorrento said. He leveled a look at me. "Every day I talk to people in here. I sit at a table and look them in the eye. What have you been doing with all of your time and money?" I realized I had dropped my eyes to my shoes. I looked up, and with great effort I held his piercing gaze. He didn't seem impressed. "Go outside more, kid." I noticed his hair had gone gray at the temples and his mouth was turned in a perpetual frown.

I figured I might as well cut to the chase. "Sorrento, I believe you found a clue that no one else did. You seek solutions to the gates—"

"Stop, you idiot," Sorrento said, turning pale.

"I have two questions about it," I said.

"First answer. Yes, it is." So it was a clue from Halliday, he was making that clear. But he was very nervous, not even letting me ask a question.

I slowed down and thought about this.

I could see he was scared of something. I began to realize how stupid I was for coming here. After what the Board just did to me, they were certainly following my every move now. Visiting Sorrento would raise all kind of red flags. I was sure that Sorrento didn't give a crap about me, but suddenly he was afraid. Not of me, clearly, but of something stupid and dangerous he thought I might say. I had to be careful.

Well, now what? I couldn't see a way to get the info I wanted, about where and how he found that clue. But I had confirmed it was from Halliday, which was huge. There might be more clues out there. Because of how Sorrento was acting and because he had buried the clue in his notes, I knew it was something he was desperate to keep out of the hands of the Board. And having decrypted the clue myself I knew it was a reference to the Doomsday button. Why had he buried the clue in his personal notes?

Sorrento wanted to blow up the OASIS, I realized.

A long moment passed and I still didn't say anything. Sorrento simply stared at me. Why else would I have come here? I thought quickly and could only imagine one way to get the Board off my scent. Once a fool, always a fool. I had proven several times that I was an idiot. My best bet was just to lean into it.

"They kicked me out and took away my Halliday bot, Nolan. They took him away. He was my best friend," I tried to whip up some tears. "I just... I need a nugget, something about Halliday that wasn't in the notes. A story, a fact, anything. I miss him."

Sorrento looked at me like I just told him I have the plague. I guess my acting was convincing enough. "Get the hell out of here and don't come back," he said, standing up and turning away. "You're pathetic."

He walked to the doorway before putting his hand on the frame and stopping. "Does it exist?"

The Doomsday button. Sorrento must have been putting on an act of his own.

All of a sudden, I knew why I was here. I knew what I needed to do next.

"It does," I said simply. Sorrento nodded slightly then left the room, a silent guard on either side of him.

CHAPTER 6

I needed a new avatar for the OASIS. The Board had ganked me and took away my access, but they didn't ban my account from the OASIS. It was a small comfort. They probably just wanted to keep an eye on me. I could have restarted with my Parzival name and avatar, but it didn't seem wise to run around as a level 1 noob hated by almost everyone. I decided to go back to Wade_the_Great. A little risky, but I assumed the Board would follow my movements no matter what and I really just wanted to keep the riff-raff off my tail. With a goal in front of me I became business-like in leveling up my new avatar. It was surprisingly easy to do with unlimited funds. Also, I wasn't shy about paying to get ahead.

One thing that was a constant problem was travel. The Cataclasts had locked down almost half of the PvP warp gates and you could never be sure if your endpoint was going to be in the middle of an armada. A few times I was robbed blind and sent on my way. Not a fun experience, but ultimately meaningless to me beyond the inconvenience. I could only imagine how devastating that experience would be for the average player.

I hadn't noticed how bad things had gotten until I lost my admin access. Why use warps when you can instantly teleport? Why fight bandits when you can walk by them invisibly? No wonder revenue was down. I began to realize the OASIS wasn't rotting because of the greedy Board, it was already rotten. It had been dying on the vine. I just hadn't bother to notice.

I realized I had spent countless months feeling bad for myself for all the "unfair" blame heaped down on me, but a lot of it was justified. It was a cold thought, one that wormed its way through me whenever I tried to navigate the OASIS as a normal player.

Most places, travel was still possible, for a price. Pity the fool who doesn't know the price before arriving at a new location. Money was no longer an issue for me, but some places were considered "Cataclast Only." Try to enter one of them and answer to a Cataclast armada, no negotiations possible.

Which was a bummer for me, because "Cataclast Only" locations happened to include every single one of my Halliday-specific and Hunt-specific locations. So that would have to be dealt with eventually. Until then, I tried exploring more remote locations that hadn't been heavily trafficked during the Hunt. I discovered that fringe, 80's-themed planets were almost completely empty. I felt how I imagined James Halliday felt going to arcades and roller skating rinks in the 90's. Suddenly, everyone was somewhere else. Places I would have loved a few years ago had become ghost towns, and I was the last ghost.

Worse, I didn't find so much as a sniff of another clue. It was hard to stay motivated when I wasn't sure what I was meant to find. I kept looking, browsing through a vacant 80's catalog of planets with less and less conviction. Each new planet was just another chance for disappointment, another empty dead-end that seemed to scream: you are wasting your time!

Day by day, I began to find reasons to spend time outside of the OASIS.

CHAPTER 7

Gardening. Bleh.

Aech seemed to enjoy gardening and I didn't have anything better to do. So here was the once great Parzival: in the backyard, pulling weeds from dirt. I imagined what a younger version of myself would have thought of the scene. You are saying I will become a multi-billionaire who spends all day gardening... which I hate doing? But there I was, on my knees half-covered in dirt because I couldn't imagine anything better to do. At least, I thought, I could hang out with Aech.

"I'm telling you, Ladyhawke was integral to the Quest," I argued, grunting as I yanked fruitlessly on a stubborn root.

"Integral?! Halliday used the crappy music, that's it!" Helen was getting animated beneath her ridiculous gardening hat. "It could have been any song, Z. It was a throwaway!"

And so we went, digging holes and planting tomatoes we could have bought and had delivered within an hour.

"Aech," I said, trying to arch my tired back. "You seem to get around the OASIS these days without too much trouble. What's your trick?"

Helen looked at me evenly, then turned away. "It's kind of embarrassing, but... I know a guy."

"You 'know a guy'? That's cryptic," I said.

She flashed her Cheshire grin. "Wade, you remember I-R0k?"

"No way. No way!" I howled.

She shrugged. "New world order, mi amigo."

CHAPTER 8

I found out that I-R0k was now the head of the Goon Squad, the largest clan of Cataclasts. Apparently, he was able to parlay his minor celebrity from exposing me and his early, vocal disdain for me into a rallying cry that other Cataclasts were excited to follow. Now, in by a twist of fate, he had more power in the OASIS than I did. That realization caused me to hasten my retreat from the OASIS.

Life began to settle into an almost comfortable rhythm. Sam was often flying around trying to save lives, and I would join her on many of those trips. I also spent an unreasonable amount of my week working on our backyard garden with Helen. She would come up to me with some exciting new gardening fact and I would try to humor her. It was something to do.

The truth was, I didn't have many things I wanted to do for myself anymore. Actually, I didn't have anything. I even had trouble watching my favorite 80's shows or playing old arcade games. It just reminded me of how badly I had messed everything up in the OASIS. I began to understand Ogden, alone in his castle for all those years. At least I still had my friends. Feeling bad for Ogden, I vowed to try harder to connect with him at our next D&D sesh.

It was funny. When I thought back to my life before winning the Egg, the happiest I ever felt was when I was cold and alone in my half-buried van, pedaling an exercise bike for electricity, searching blindly for the Egg and chatting idly with Aech. Now I was rich, had an amazing girlfriend, a cool house and friends, but somehow it all felt empty. Maybe I didn't mean anything beyond the OASIS and beyond 80's culture. Maybe I didn't exist beyond the Hunt. I started to believe that things that allowed me to win the Hunt were the very same things that made it impossible for me to live beyond it. I was a dinosaur, I thought, and the Cataclysm had been my asteroid.

CHAPTER 9

"So Ogden," I ventured, "Kira's epitaph seems really interesting. Did it take you long to write it?" Kira was sometimes a touchy subject with Ogden, but she was also someone he could happily discuss for hours. The truth was, as close as I felt to James Halliday, I didn't really connect with Ogden for some reason and had trouble finding things to talk about. Kira felt like a relatable topic.

"Actually, Jim wrote it," Ogden said. "I wasn't in a place to deal with something like that at the time. What he wrote was a little weird, but very personal to both of us, and to Kira, so I decided used it."

Like that, my everything changed.

"Uh-oh," Sam said knowingly. James Halliday wrote the epitaph, I repeated to myself. James Halliday wrote it. Which meant these were probably the most meaningful four lines he ever wrote. And they had been right in front of me this whole time.

I sat passively in my chair. Again, I felt a faint tingle of something pulling me closer, but this was different. It wasn't a riddle about the Hunt, but four lines from Halliday's heart. Maybe it wasn't a clue to anything, but these were sacred words to the woman he loved.

I, of course, had already spent some time trying to understand the references in the epitaph. It seemed mostly straightforward to me, with a few wrinkles. Siren was clearly a reference to Kira's D&D character, Leucosia. Leucosia was a siren from mythology, so that one was a gimme. All the desert imagery and talk about riding a worm could only mean one thing.

"So was Kira really into Dune?" I asked.

Sam and Helen smirked, watching me take the bait like a big dumb fish. I didn't care.

"Ah, yes. It was complicated," Og said, stroking his beard sagely. "Kira loved the book, hated the movie. Jim would defend Lynch's movie, but as you know he didn't have a leg to stand on. The movie was terrible. I think the epitaph was his way of making peace with that unresolved argument. And," he said, raising a finger, "there was a deeper meaning to it. The OASIS. Kira was instrumental in creating it, but she always talked about it's possibility to make things worse. I think a big part of why Jim distanced himself from us was because of Kira's conflicted view of the OASIS."

I thought about the plot of Dune, especially the novel. It opens with Paul Atreides, the son of a duke, moving to the desert planet Arrakis to start a new life. Arrakis is hugely important to the galaxy for its spice melange, which is the most important product in the universe and only exists on Arrakis. There is a lot of political wrangling in the book, but ultimately Paul is cast from his home and finds residence with the planet natives, the Fremen. The Fremen are first portrayed as ignorant natives, but they are actually working on a 100 year water conservation project to turn their entire desert planet into a rich garden.

Siren set striped ships against the desert tide
   leading all to the oasis by your side.

So like a siren from mythology, Kira's song led "ships" to her. Why striped? I don't know. But instead of dashing them against the rocks like a mythological siren, they were drawn to the "oasis by your side". I read it as a romantic nod to her pull on both Ogden and James and her importance in creating the OASIS. But then things get interesting:

To garden we follow the great worm you ride

In Dune, Paul Atreides learns how to mount and ride giant sandworms. It is a key step in him becoming accepted as a Fremen. Eventually he becomes the leader of the Fremen, fulfilling their legend about an outsider who is fated to bring about the planet's final transformation.

So James Halliday wasn't just talking about Dune, he was talking about the OASIS, Kira's negative opinion of it, and her dream of something better.

I thought of a small moment in the book. Paul's mother, Lady Jessica, has a special conservatory filled with water and wet-climate plants. The Fremen workers in the castle despise the room because it is emblematic of wasteful indulgence that undermined their single-minded goal to conserve water for the future. That room was literally an oasis on a desert planet. And Kira was like the leader of the Fremen, looking for a real solution: the nearly-impossible dream of a garden planet.

from crystal castles to the baileys beside.

One thing bugged me. "What's a bailey?" I asked.

"The courtyard of a castle, duh," Sam said, like it was the most obvious thing in the world.

"And few people know this, but Crystal Castles was the one game that Kira could always outscore Jim," Ogden said, reading my mind. "It drove him nuts, but..." he said with a wink, "I don't think he really minded so much."

"On the other hand," he continued, "Anorak's Castle could be considered a 'crystal castle' since the crystal gate was actually in its bailey." He shrugged, sadly. "Jim did love his games."

There was a sour note to his voice that let us know the D&D campaign had come to a close for the night. We filed out to the parking lot without saying much else. I resisted the temptation to run over and sneak another peek at the gravestone. But even I knew that would be in poor taste.

CHAPTER 10

I was now convinced if there was another Easter egg left to find it would be tied to Kira's epitaph. Since travel was so difficult in the OASIS I tried to focus on learning as much as I could without moving. Dune was first published in 1965 and was instantly regarded as a classic. Movie rights bounced around for almost 20 years before David Lynch made his infamous version in 1984. Crystal Castles first hit arcades in 1983.

My immediate list of OASIS spots to explore included: Arrakis, the desert planet from Dune; Crystalis, a planet of all crystal, including some crystal castles; Titan, a barren replica of Jupiter's moon (included simply because of the Vonnegut novel, Sirens of Titan. I was brainstorming here); Anorak's Castle, even though I could no longer enter it, the courtyard (or bailey) had become something a mecca for Cataclasts and might hold some clues; and of course Leucosia, a planet tailor made by Halliday in memory of Kira. I didn't know what I was looking for, but figured I would know it if I saw it.

First, I would hit the Dune-related location. For one, it seemed the most obviously relevant, but it also wasn't being guarded by the Cataclasts.

Arrakis had only one instance in the OASIS but it needed only one. Dune geeks had spent years perfecting and balancing every grain of sand on the virtual planet. People had really worked to make the desert a living ecosystem that was capable of becoming a garden planet... in about 100 years.

There were several quests available on Arrakis, lowest being level 30+, so it was a high-level hangout for some Cataclasts. I chose my gear carefully so that my avatar wouldn't appear too rich or flashy. Without looking too close I would appear to be just another ex-gunter trying to make his way in the world, thank you very much.

It took 3 weeks and an assist from Art3mis at the end (so much for subtlety), but I hundred-percented Arrakis and was still no closer to anything approaching a clue. There had been a devilish linked quest that ended in the Fremen's underground water caves that seemed promising, but it simply led to a "vision of the future" when Arrakis would come to bloom.

Next I tried Titan, which was something of a lark. I had few expectations, but the reality was even more desolate than I had imagined. I confirmed with my computer that the entire surface of the planet was directly mapped from NASA's imagery and had no subterranean features or quests at all. Another dead-end.

Crystalis didn't seem to have anything for me, either. Halliday had nothing to do with it and it seemed like a stretch, anyway.

It was time to call in some favors. I needed to get back to Anorak's Castle to check out the remains of the crystal gate. I hadn't looked at it since I walked through it, and there was no telling what inscriptions or clues might be there now. Ogden himself had mentioned it as a possible clue, so i simply had to see it.

"Aech, my man!" I said in vidchat.

"What do you need, Z?" he laughed (Aech was still a 'he' online, for me and everyone else).

"Aw man, I was going to butter you up first."

"Sounds serious."

"Serious as a heart-a-clast," I punned, terribly. "Any chance I can mosey on up to the Crystal Gate for old-times' sake?"

"Z... You know the Hunt is over, right? I mean, maybe it's time to unplug for a bit?"

"Aech, man, I get it. I see the looks you and Arty give me," I noticed Aech shift his weight awkwardly. I knew the avatar was mapping Helen's actual stance through her new, top-of-the-line, full-body haptic suit.

"Look, I can't explain it, but I feel like I have to check out this last thing. I don't know why. I just feel like I do," I said lamely.

"I can't say I understand any of this, Z, but I owe you a ton. I don't know any way around the Cataclasts but—" and his grin widened, "maybe there's a way through."

CHAPTER 11

The meeting with I-R0k was to take place in a safe location we both knew well: Aech's private chat room. I hadn't been there since the Hunt and I was stunned by the changes. Gone was the 80's den vibe. Now Aech's hideout had been completely converted to look like some sort of 90's school library. I was the first to arrive and flipped through an ancient leather-bound book on the table which seemed to be a Latin tome about demons.

"Buffy the Vampire Slayer, right on!" I-R0k said, immediately recognizing the setting as he materialized before me. Of course it was. My 90's knowledge was thin, but even I had watched Joss Whedon's classic series.

More upsetting to me was that Aech had so easily abandoned his roots. Gone were the meticulous stacks of magazines, Betamax cassettes, vintage posters and Atari games. Now, he had modified the Buffy library with posters of Nirvana and Hole (Courtney didn't do it, according to Aech), Pogs, an original Street Fighter 2 cabinet and for a centerpiece, a table made entirely of AOL CDs.

I-R0k swept his hand over those countless AOL CDs admiringly, then looked up at me. "So who the hell are you?" My avatar had changed skins, thankfully. "Wade_the_Great? Like Wade Watts?" Oops. Not covert enough, it seemed. "You gotta be kidding me with this, Aech!" I-R0k yelled to the sky.

I-R0k made motions like he was going to log out of the room as Aech finally appeared. "Hey, so uh, yeah. It's Wade Watts." Aech smiled at I-R0k pleadingly. "Come on, man. For old times' sake?"

"You know how screwed I am if anyone knew I was even here? This guy..." and I-R0k poked my chest with his finger, which I felt through my haptic suit, "he is the cause of all this mess. He is the main problem."

"Come on, I-R0k. He did what any of us would have done right after winning," Aech ventured.

"No," I-R0k said, shaking his head. "I would have remembered a quarter of the damn OASIS that fought for me. I would have thought about them." As much as I-R0k hated me in that moment and as much as he had looked down on me before I was famous, he had a point. I realized that he was one of the ones who had shown up to fight by my side against the Sixers. Despite everything, in that critical moment, he had been on my side.

I let him down, along with everyone else.

"You're right, I-R0k," I said. "I really messed up. Which is why I'm doing my best to fix things now."

He glared at me.

"I just need an hour—a half hour—by the Crystal Gate."

"Back to the scene of the crime?" he asked, smirking. I didn't respond.

"Ok, 'Great Wade'," he said after a moment of thought. "Here's my offer. I'll make it only once. Put a million credits in my account and I will make sure you get safe passage to the Crystal Gate."

It was an exorbitant sum, borderline insane. But a million credits had next to no value to me, especially now.

"Done," I said.

CHAPTER 12

Anorak's Castle was particularly barren when I arrived. There were no other ships in the area. No other players at all. I had no idea how I-R0k had arranged such a popular location to be completely empty, but I wasn't complaining.

Of course, I had already spent a lot of time in the Castle itself. Since I lost my avatar, the doors would now remain sealed from me and from everyone else, possibly forever. I used to look out on the constant crowd of gawkers, protesters, fans and sightseers that lingered by the Crystal Gate, but now they were nowhere to be found.

I walked up to the Gate warily. I was geared to the teeth, anticipating some enemies in the crowd, but this barren landscape was almost worse. It reminded me of that moment right after the Cataclysm, when I was the only living soul in the sector.

I took a breath. The Gate stood before me, shining with an indestructible strength. As a virtual object, it would never rot, waver or weaken. It was both stable forever and a complete fabrication that didn't and would never exist in the world. I felt sad looking at it.

The area around the gate was covered in graffiti and garbage. A lot of people had written their names over other people's names, stacking names on the ground imperceptibly. All of those names were there because I had failed to save them. Each name, a mistake I could not fix. And above them the Crystal Gate stood tall, untouched and unaware.

As I approached the gate I could see design details that I hadn't noticed before. It was quite ornate, with pretty geometric crystal patterns surrounding the famous three words that had stumped Sorrento and the Sixers. On closer examination, the gate held no further details or secrets that I could discern.

I really began to feel like I was trying to solve a puzzle that didn't exist. The key to a good puzzle, I came to realize, is having a clear objective. Instead, I was grasping at straws. I berated myself for wasting time and money on this "puzzle" that appeared to be nothing more than wishful thinking. All of my friends had warned me, yet here I was pissing away a million credits to chase a non-existent prize.

I looked up at the starless, virtual sky. What should I do now? No answer came to me. What did come at that moment was a rapid series of flashes, blinding me from above. A crapload of long-range photon torpedoes had just zeroed in on my location and exploded in unison.

Once again, my screen turned black and I was shown the pixellated screen that no one in the OASIS ever wants to see. The last time I saw it, the "game over" screen had shaken me to my core. Now, I almost welcomed the message and the darkness that followed.

CHAPTER 13

I was done with it.

The OASIS, the media, the Cataclasts, all of it. Since I won the Hunt, what happiness had it brought me? Every positive moment I had since winning came outside of the OASIS. Everything I tried to do to fix things for others only made things worse for myself. It was time to check out. I was done with my life in a simulation.

There was just one more thing I needed to do. I had used Kira Morrow's epitaph for my own purposes, trying to find some sort of riddle in something that was meant to be a personal commemoration. It was sick. I was sick. And I need to apologize.

I had 128 lilies sent to Kira's grave. It was a small gesture, but I felt I should do at least that much for Ogden.

Also, I was going to open up Leucosia. The Cataclasts were blockading it, but I was done living by their stupid rules. I was done with the rules of the OASIS, too. I bought a hacked rig on the black market with a level 50 character, a Cataclast. Now I could go wherever I wanted. It had only cost me 300,000 credits. I was a nobody again.

Hiring protection for Leucosia was much more costly, but I figured after a couple of years the Cataclasts would stop trying to blockade it and I could tone down the security. They had blockaded the planet on principle, but they didn't have any particular concern for it—it was one of hundreds on their list. I wanted to preserve at least this one small corner of the OASIS for James Halliday.

My elite troops made quick work of the blockade with no loss of life and no ship damage, but left me with a heck of an ammo bill. No matter. After the blockade was wiped, a few waves of Cataclasts came, but my mercs cleared them each time. Eventually, they stopped trying.

In all my time hunting the Egg and researching Halliday I had somehow never set foot on Leucosia. At the time of the Hunt, it was an location that thousands of gunters had already combed over and I had no reason to think it held any mysteries. And by the time I was making my Halli-bot I had teams of researchers creating reports on everything, so I knew exactly when Halliday had created the planet (years before he put in the Hunt elements) and what I would find on the planet.

Going to a place, however, is different than reading about it. Many planets in the OASIS had a sci-fi or fantasy bent, but Leucosia was like a perfect meadow on a spring day. Fields of flowers spread over rolling hills, a warm but pleasant sun shone brightly at all times and scores of birds chirped happily in the boughs of wide-trunked trees. It was a vision of Earth that I had only seen before in old movies.

I happily walked over the fields, admiring the smells of the flowers and listening to a languid breeze brush across the tops of lush trees. After a time, the hills led me to a worn path along a wide creek. I followed the creek for a ways, enjoying what I intended to be my last day in the OASIS.

In the real world, I was walking slowly in place in my hacked haptic suit. The Board had taken my real account, the Cataclasts had taken my backup account and now I was simply on borrowed time, saying my goodbyes to the beautiful universe James Halliday had built. No world I had ever been in, including the real one, was more beautiful than Leucosia, so it was a fitting end for my life in the OASIS.

In the distance, I could see a small building hugging the path of the creek. From my notes I knew this to be a small museum dedicated to women in technology. From Ada Lovelace, the world's first programmer, through Roberta Williams' King's Quest series, all the way to Kira Morrow's own contributions to the OASIS and her suite of educational games. Halliday had wanted to place Kira's accomplishments alongside history.

I decided to end my visit to Leucosia with the museum. It was both larger and smaller than I had imagined. There were many, many displays, each with a bronze plaque before it, but few really meaty ones. Some displays were thin on info or existed only because of a female character, like the display for Tomb Raider's Lara Croft.

I saw a cabinet for Centipede tucked in the corner and decided to give it a spin for old times sake. I noticed the game was set to run for free, which was a nice touch. I hit the 1 Player button and started my game, glancing at the plaque next to the game: Centipede was programmed by Dona Bailey and Ed Logg in 1981. Ms. Bailey was one of the first female video game programmers.

I took a step back from the cabinet and looked around. To my right was a Crystal Castles cabinet with a simple plaque: Crystal Castles features Berthilda the Witch as an enemy. The reason for including Crystal Castles here seemed awfully suspect. I thought back to the final line of the epitaph:

From crystal castles to the baileys beside.

Dona Bailey was to the left of a Crystal Castles cabinet. On a hunch, I looked to the other side of the cabinet. To the right wasn't an arcade cabinet all. An NES was hooked up to an old 17" color TV in front of a comfy looking couch. On the screen was the title screen of Metroid. The plaque read: The end of Metroid reveals Samus Aran to be a female, one of the first leading female characters in video game history. I was stumped for a moment. "Baileys beside" seemed to indicate two Baileys, but Samus Aran was not a Bailey, nor were any of the programmers of the game. A quick search of "Metroid" and "Bailey" led me to something I had forgotten, the most famous passcode in the game: JUSTIN BAILEY. By entering that passcode, Samus is revealed to be a green-haired woman in a pink leotard suit. Baileys beside.

It was too much to be a coincidence. I checked the top scores on Crystal Castles, and sure enough every top score was listed as JDH except the very top score: KUM 863,181. Kira Underwood Morrow. With my whole body tingling, I consulted the epitaph again:

Siren set striped ships against the desert tide
   leading all to the oasis by your side.
To garden we follow the great worm you ride
   from crystal castles to the baileys beside.

CHAPTER 14

I knew there was something here, but for the life of me I couldn't figure out what to do next. After several days I beat Kira's high score but it seemed to have no effect. In fact, none of my scores even brought me to the high scores screen, which made me think I was missing something. Maybe beating her score wasn't the goal?

I took a hard look at the epitaph and highlighted everything that was weird or stood out in any way. "Striped ships" had always stuck out like a sore thumb. "Desert tide" seemed to tie the myth of ocean sirens to the desert, but it might have another meaning, too. Everything else seemed to point to Dune, which Ogden had already confirmed as a reference, but I could see no way to tie that to this Crystal Castles cabinet. Worse, I still had no idea what the goal of solving this puzzle was. It is hard to solve a wild goose chase without a goose.

I didn't wait long before turning to Sam and Helen for help. I knew I had enough proof that they would believe me now. Plus, after so many years of negativity I needed to celebrate a win, partial though it was. The epitaph was a puzzle after all!

After a few hours of explaining everything I had already tried and a bit of brainstorming, Sam had a breakthrough. "Does Herbert ever specifically call the sandworms 'great worms' in Dune?"

I checked the book. He never did. Which begged the question, why did Halliday use that specific phrasing? Another search led me to a specific event in history that was referred to as the "Great Worm": Robert Tappan Morris' Internet worm of 1988.

On November 2, 1988, Robert Tappan Morris, a student at Cornell University, released a computer worm onto the Internet that targeted several software vulnerabilities to spread itself from computer to computer. Different from a virus, his worm spread with the main intention of continuing to spread itself. Due to a small mistake in the code, the worm copied itself over and over again to the same systems, ultimately bogging down the entire network to a crawl. It was the first widespread denial of service attack. It took weeks for the fledgling Internet community to untangle the mess completely.

we follow the great worm you ride

Here at last seemed to be a real clue about what was at the end of this hunt: a worm that would bring the OASIS to a halt.

I felt like I could understand Halliday's reasoning. James Halliday had built a worm to take down the OASIS by an outsider. He had given the winner of the Hunt access to the Doomsday button, but now that was locked away forever. As a hedge, he had created this second method of fixing the OASIS. And, poetically, it was tied to Kira's belief that the OASIS was something that might cause more harm than good. It was his final gift to Kira's memory.

I thought again of Dune's plot. Was it possible the worm didn't simply destroy the OASIS but transformed it into something different and better? The 100 year water conservation project to create a garden planet—was something like that possible in the OASIS? I had no clue, but now I was motivated to find the answer.

Sam and Helen were motivated as well. The mystery was too enticing to ignore. We decided to spend time in the museum together and took turns playing through Crystal Castles. Crystal Castles was unique as an arcade game for having an ending after 10 levels. What's more, the path to a high score involves unlocking a warp to level 8 for an increased time bonus. Be fast, don't die and eat a lot of gemeaters in the early rounds to get a top score. All things being equal, the number of gemeaters you kill and your time bonus determines your high score. So Crystal Castles was especially difficult to practice because the hard work of beating the game would only happen after achieving a good score from eating gemeaters in the early levels. If you kept playing the early levels until you had a good gemeaters score you would probably not be sharp enough to finish the final levels without mistake.

I could see why someone like James Halliday would have trouble with the game. He, like me, grew impatient playing through a full game with a poor gemeater score, knowing the whole time that a really good high score was already out of reach. He would have reset the game over and over again until he had a good start. Then finally the real game began and he would make a mistake in the later levels. Meanwhile, someone who simply played the game for enjoyment would eventually move up the scoreboard because their skills would develop organically.

Kira's score was high, but not impossibly high. All three of us took turns playing the cabinet, exploring the rest of the Women in Tech museum and spit-balling ideas. It began to feel like the old days, working together to solve the Hunt.

"Guys?" said Art3mis, with a small sense of alarm. I was across the room playing my way through the King's Quest series, enjoying the dorky humor and crummy art of the early games. Both Aech and I came behind Art3mis to see what was on her screen. In the reflection of the dark screen, I could see all of our stunned faces. Art3mis had achieved 5th on the high score list and was being asked to enter her initials.

CHAPTER 15

"What did you do? What, specifically, did you do differently?" I pressed. "It could be anything: more gemeaters in the early levels, lost a life early, had a great time bonus..."

"I can't think of anything! I was playing the same exact way. I was actually just practicing my later levels and I wasn't focus on my gemeater score, so I have no idea."

Aech and I shared looks. Art3mis was the worst Crystal Castles player out of the three of us and still had trouble finishing the game.

"In fact, I think it was probably my first high score—" She stopped herself, looking from me to Aech with a smirk in the corner of her mouth. "Women in Technology, right?"

It turned out to be a simple solution. I verified our premise by using a different hacked account, with a female avatar. We needed female avatars. It was a clever safeguard from James Halliday, much like the 3 keys needed to open the Crystal Gate. It was a solution that I think would have stumped the Sixers forever. Meanwhile, I had a hacked rig and Helen got her own, so in a couple of days all three of us were up and running trying to beat Kira's top score on the machine.

What happened next was a surprise. I was the first to finally beat the top score with a female avatar, but nothing happened. I entered my initials excitedly, but no gate opened up and no secret message appeared. The game reset quietly and invited us to play again.

"Maybe it has to be a real woman playing?" Aech ventured.

We couldn't be totally sure that a genius like Halliday wouldn't somehow be able to sniff out a hacked rig, so we put all our eggs in Art3mis. After a couple more days of play, she top scored as well (above my score) and entered her initials. Again, nothing.

Now we were truly stumped.

We spent the next few weeks getting really, really, ridiculously good at Crystal Castles, but it made no difference. In fact, each time we top scored we made it harder for ourselves since the top scores never cleared. Kira's score was now pushed completely out of the top 10.

"How's your clean water initiative going?" I asked Art3mis while Aech played through the game again. The Women in Tech museum had become our new de facto hangout. Art3mis was playing on the Centipede cabinet, one of her favorite games.

"I found my way around foreign government resistance: bribes," Arty said without looking up.

"Seriously?"

She shrugged. "I'm trying to be a realist. Bottom line, clean water is going to save lives. These officials don't give a damn about anything besides lining their own pockets. If I can save thousands of lives with a few well placed credits..."

I saw her point.

"Dammit!" Aech exclaimed, unplugging the cabinet and plugging it back in. We had figured out the boot cycle of the arcade game was a little bit faster than running through all your spare lives once you made a mistake. Just like some of Halliday's other special cabinets, and unlike the cabinets in reality, the high score list was preserved even after a hard reset.

I looked at the big poster Aech had hung from a nearby wall. It was a blown-up photo of the Kira's gravestone. I looked at the end of the epitaph: Baileys beside. On a hunch, I went over and unplugged the Centipede cabinet.

"Not cool, Z! Not cool at all!" Art3mis exclaimed.

Rather than responding to her, I stood next to her and watched the cabinet's boot sequence. By all rights, the game's high score screen should reset, wiping Art3mis' top scores. The screen flashed a series of color blocks then went through a sequence of checks and memory scans. "OK, OK, OK" said the ROM check screen in blocky green text. Finally, the game booted up and the introductory screen loaded. Aech came over and we all watched together. I said nothing, but I think they understood what I was looking for. Eventually, the high score screen cycled before us and there were Art3mis' initials, preserved just like on the Crystal Castles cabinet. We all instantly knew what that meant.

Baileys beside.

Our heads turned in unison to the humble NES on the far side of Crystal Castles. We had top scored on Crystal Castles and Centipede, but none of us had played Metroid at all. "Who's best at Metroid again?" I asked.

Aech ran over and plopped in the middle of the couch and picked up the controller. As he entered the JUSTIN BAILEY code, Arty and I sat on either side of him.

Winning Metroid with the JUSTIN BAILEY passcode was almost trivial. Aside from the graphical change to Samus, your game starts in Norfair with five energy tanks, 255 missiles, the Varia suit, the hi-jump boots, screw attack and the wave beam. All that remained to find was the ice beam, which Aech immediately ran toward.

As Aech navigated the winding maps of Metroid, I thought of how unlikely it was that we would also be the ones to find this final Easter egg. Then again, Kira's epitaph wasn't widely known and few people would suspect James Halliday had anything to do with it. As we sat together on the virtual couch, I thought of our current situation. Here we were playing a game within a game. We were using an Easter egg in Metroid to unlock an Easter egg in the OASIS, using a female character in a game in a museum dedicated to females in technology. It was like a Russian doll of experiences that hurt my head.

Shot after shot, Aech expertly dismantled Mother Brain, leading to a massive explosion and the end of game sequence. None of us bothered to watch that, though, because the plaque in front of the Crystal Castles cabinet had begun to glow.

CHAPTER 16

"Now what the heck is this?" Aech asked, echoing my thoughts exactly.

As usual, Art3mis was the first to figure it out. "It's like old copy protection, from DOS games," she said, already snapping photos of the message.

I looked at the long message and saw what she was meant. Many old PC games had simple copy protection schemes to prevent people from making illegal copies. One method that had been popular required the player to enter certain words from specific pages of the paper manual. Since the manual wasn't included with the game code, a player with an illegal copy of the game had no way to start the game. Neither did a player who lost their manual, which is why the method was eventually abandoned.

The message on the bronze plaque seemed to be encoded in a similar way:

Page 12, word 3. Page 87, word 32. Page 347, word 8...

The message continued on for quite a ways in small script. We all took screenshots of the message from various angles before it slowly faded away. I had a feeling that once we decoded the plaque it would be the passphrase required to release the worm in the OASIS. Or maybe detailed instructions for how to launch the worm, or a more precise explanation about what the worm would do once released. Or who knows, maybe another clue.

"So guys," said Aech, after the plaque returned to its original form and our initial excitement had ebbed. "Where's the manual?"

Back to square one. First of all, we tried every version and translation of the novel, Dune. We tried the manuals for every Dune game in existence, though none of them had page numbers as high as those shown in the copy protection message. We tried Anorak's Almanac. We started to think creatively, trying to use the script from Lynch's movie and even a combination of sources. We couldn't manage to find any sensical message. We even considered that the message might be scrambled, but the words we found never seemed to be related by any leaps of logic. We even tried a few versions of the Bible in desperation. And Halliday was an atheist.

There were a total of 42 page/word pairs with the highest page number being 532 and the highest word number being 57.

"It is a perfect form of encryption," Sam marveled. "A one-time pad or Vernam-cipher is the only type of unbreakable code, and it's extremely simple: without the manual, the code is meaningless and we have no way of getting any closer to an answer."

I furrowed my brow. It was a new look I was practicing. Sam seemed unimpressed. We were sitting around our small dinner table pondering this final roadblock.

"That doesn't sound promising," Helen said.

"I think we are overcomplicating this," I said. "It isn't going to be some high-level mathematical solution. Halliday always makes sensible puzzles that have obvious solutions in retrospect." I looked over at the epitaph once more. Helen had written it out on our kitchen whiteboard. Wherever we were, there was the epitaph. "The answer is going to be right up there somewhere," I said, pointing up at the whiteboard.

We all looked at the stupid epitaph yet again.

"Wade, you're a genius!" Sam exclaimed, running from the kitchen to her room, slamming her door in the process.

Helen and I shrugged at each other then went to our respective rooms. Back to Leucosia.

"Okay, okay," Art3mis began, once we all materialized in the museum. "So you know how we had that exhaustive list of Dune-related things were going through?"

Aech and I nodded.

"Striped ships," Art3mis said, like it was new information. "I didn't think of it because I was focusing on the page numbers." She paused. "Oh man, I know what the manual is!"

CHAPTER 17

We were traveling together on Art3mis' fastest ship to the nearest accessible warp. She had programmed Planet Jodo as her destination. Because of Cataclast blockades, our fastest path was slated to take almost two hours.

"What is Planet Jodo?" I asked.

"We have some time, so let's just watch the documentary together. I need to watch it again anyway," Arty said.

The documentary in question was Jodorowsky's Dune and Planet Jodo was dedicated to Alejandro Jodorowsky, an experimental film director from Chile who had attempted to make a movie about Dune before David Lynch's version. Jodorowsky had escaped my notice because his film was never made, so it never seemed very relevant. As Arty's ship jumped from warp to warp, we watched Jodorowsky explain how, person by person, he had assembled an unbelievable group of individuals to help him create his vision for Dune.

In 1975, Jodorowsky acquired the film rights to Dune for a pittance and he used his passion and persuasiveness to sign the legendary French comic artist Jean Giraud (known in comics by his alias, Moebius) to draw the storyboard, over 3,000 individual images. He went on to sign Dan O'Bannon for special effects, H.R. Giger for design elements and Chris Foss for ship design. Foss' ship designs for Dune turned out to be weird and memorable, full of crazy patterns of colored stripes that created confusing shapes and perspectives.

Striped ships.

It was the first reasonable explanation for the mention of striped ships in the epitaph. If Sam was right, the answer had been right in front of us the whole time. Halliday wasn't just talking about Dune but specifically Jodorowsky's Dune, a film that was never completed. I shook my head in amazement as the documentary continued. Jodorowsky went on to sign even more amazing contributors: Pink Floyd agreed to produce music for the film and David Carradine was a martial arts advisor. As for the cast, an aging and enormous Orson Welles would have been Baron Harkkonnen, a young Mick Jagger would have been the punkish Feyd-Rautha and none other than Salvador Dali would have played the Emperor himself. This film, which was never made, sounded incredible.

The most important element was yet to come: the production book. Jodorowsky had lovingly produced a treatment the thickness of a telephone book to sell his vision to the movie studios. And that is where his vision died, or took life, depending on your perspective. No studio would gamble on Jodorowsky's expansive and inventive vision, and it might have been turned out to be impossible to create at the time for a variety of reasons. Some estimated the runtime of the movie at 14 hours if produced as written. After hitting up every studio in Hollywood, Jodorowsky was out of money and out of options. His dream of Dune died before it was born. Years later, Lynch got the film rights and created a unintelligible flop.

All that remained of Jodorowsky's influence was this mighty tome of a book that had opened the door for many of his collaborators. I couldn't believe I had never heard about any of this.

Near the end of the documentary came a chilling line from one of the interviewees: "There are only two known copies of the book left in existence."

Luckily, Art3mis confirmed there was a copy of the book on Planet Jodo. If we had access to it, we could finally decode the message and unlock the worm. For the first time in a while we knew what our next step was and we were on our way to achieve it.

As our ship approached Planet Jodo's location we realized we had made a huge mistake.

Planet Jodo was no longer there.

CHAPTER 18

Art3mis' ship pulled up to Planet Jodo's address and we all looked across an empty starfield. Art3mis checked her computer, but we instantly knew that something was really wrong. Travel locations were never wrong in the OASIS. There was no such thing as a bad address or a mistake. If Planet Jodo wasn't where it was supposed to be, there was only one answer.

"I felt a great disturbance in the Force..." Aech started, but none of us felt like finishing the quote.

"It was the Board," I said with finality. They must have been tracking me closer than I thought possible. I didn't know what they knew or how they knew it, but I felt a sense of imminent danger.

"Let's get out of here," I said. Art3mis didn't fly her ship away. Instead, she immediately initiated her logout sequence. Aech and I followed suit.

We met in the kitchen, mute concern on all of our faces. I knew the OASIS pretty well and was certain the Board didn't have any way to track us that precisely, which led to only one possibility: Sam's house was bugged.

"Let's go for a walk," I offered, and Sam and Helen nodded in agreement.

"Wade, before you say anything, is this something you really want to keep pursuing?" Helen asked. "Things are different for us now. We all have a lot to lose. I'm not sure what's left for us to gain here."

I didn't know how to argue against that. What the Board had done felt entirely unfair and invasive, but what might happen next was on another level. I didn't think they would stoop to the level of the Sixers, but then again, they might. They might even be the same people.

I thought of Daito, my Aunt Alice, her boyfriend, my sweet neighbor Mrs. Gilmore and all the other people in the Stacks the Sixers murdered or tried to kill in order to win the Hunt.

"No more logging into the OASIS," I promised. "But I'm not entirely done with this yet."

Sam and Helen shared a look. "Wade, I'm out," Sam said simply. "I will support you as your girlfriend, but no more of this in my house. I won't allow my privacy to be invaded any more by these people," she said, her voice quavering. "I won't put my safety or Helen's safety or your safety at risk for... whatever this is about."

"I understand," I said, sweeping her hair from her birthmark. She turned her eyes up to me pleadingly and I did understand her, but I also knew I couldn't just stop here. It had cost me too much to get this far and if I let it go it would eat at me forever.

"I won't endanger you any more," I said. "I'll be back." I bent down to kiss her gently on the lips.

"Dude, Terminator? That is completely corny," Helen said. Sam only looked at me sadly. I continued to walk away from the house, now alone. When I stole a look back I saw Helen and Samantha slowly walking home together, our private security team trailing them from a respectful distance.

CHAPTER 19

Being a billionaire did have some advantages. I hired a very exclusive art buyer to make some inquiries. There was indeed one copy of Jodorowsky's Dune production book still known to exist, owned by a well-known film and book collector. I intended to buy it from the owner for whatever price they wanted.

My offer was flatly rejected. Of course, my art buyer had a strict policy of not divulging collector's names. No amount of money I offered would sway him from his policy, but I found a less scrupulous private investigator who was able to track down the collector's name for me. To my surprise, the owner was someone I knew quite well: Ogden Morrow.

CHAPTER 20

"Did you know all along? About the book? The worm?" I had no time for pleasantries. Sam had come with me to confront Ogden. This last puzzle had kept me away from Sam and my home for weeks. I had been spied on by the Board in the OASIS and spied on in my home. I was done with the clever games and ready for some hard answers.

"Ahh," he said with mock weariness, "I knew this day would come." I recognized the quote from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Even now, I couldn't turn off the 1980's encyclopedia that was packed tight in my brain. "Wade and Samantha, let me invite you both to observe the geek bible to end all geek bibles."

Sam and I followed Og through a maze of cave-like tunnels to his private library. I could barely contain my anger—at what or whom, I wasn't quite sure. I should be excited, I thought rationally. But having gone through hours upon hours of pointless research to solve yet another puzzle I felt more like I had been groomed to be James and Ogden's trained monkey.

It wasn't a stretch to say I had based my whole life on the nostalgia of these two men. I was entering my mid-20s and had achieved an unimaginable amount of money and power, but had no idea what to do with any of it. Rich though I was, winner though I had been, I began to feel like a patsy. I was just a part of someone else's game. My whole life had been spent pursuing someone else's whims. I had no idea who I was supposed to be.

At last, I truly began to understand the Cataclasts who grew up spoon-fed 80's culture just like me, but ended up with nothing. I couldn't begin to imagine their anger.

The epitaph seemed to be yet another hunt for yet another overly-powerful reward. It was irresponsible. My last prize ended up causing untold damage to millions of people and left my personal reputation in shambles. I wasn't sure I wanted this reward, whatever it turned out to be. In what way did solving a Hunt prepare me for managing the world's biggest company? It was insanity. And now here I was again, maybe with a chance to erase the entire OASIS. Should I have that power? Should anyone?

Ogden, for his part, was downright chipper. "We planned this together, actually. That little rhyme was all Jim, of course. I meant what I said about the words being meaningful and personal, but Jim being Jim... he had to make a little game out of it as well." We came to the end of a hallway and Ogden put his torch into an empty sconce next to a pair of immense oak doors that were ornately patterned with chisel work and wrought iron.

"The 'great worm', though. That was something clever all three of us worked on together in the early days. We really, really didn't trust the bankers. We could feel their little hands encircling on our invention."

"All three if you?" I asked.

"Kira, too," Ogden said with a wide smile. "Three is the magic number, ey mellon?" The gigantic doors before us swung outward on their own and only then did I notice they were a perfect replica of the Doors of Durin. In Fellowship of the Ring, the Doors of Durin protected the entrance to the mines of Moria. Gandalf the Gray opened them by speaking the Elvish word for friend: mellon. As a security measure, I realized these doors would be nearly impenetrable for anyone who isn't a geek, but would provide no security at all from most of Ogden's guests.

Inside was a wide hall with soft lighting. Custom mahogany shelves held books and maps of all sizes, each carefully arranged beneath a cathedral-like ceiling. In the center of the library was an absurdly thick book on a small pedestal. The book was almost as thick as it was wide and had a colorful drawing of a striped spaceship on the cover. I recognized it immediately from Jodorowsky's Dune. Here was the Book, in a place of honor in Ogden's private library.

"I am glad to be able to share Jodorowsky's vision with you, Wade," Ogden said, walking over to the large tome. "This book is a small thing, nearly forgotten by the world." He approached the book reverently.

"Jim thought of Jodorowsky's concept of Dune like our worm, something that was hidden to most people, a thing that burrowed deeply into its surroundings. But he was wrong," Og said, idly flipping through the colorful pages. "Jodorowsky didn't create a worm, he planted a seed. It was a seed that flowered at the cornerstones of geekdom. O'Bannon took visual concepts directly from Dune into his work on Star Wars in 1977. The team of Giraud, O'Bannon, Giger and Foss reunited to create Alien in 1979. Many other key science fiction moments were pioneered first in this book before they found their way to screen: the HUD from Terminator, the intro to Contact." Ogden closed the heavy book.

"I once thought of Jodorowsky's Dune as a failure, an aborted effort, but it was never a film that was meant to be made. Jodorowsky fostered immense talent and laid the foundation for science fiction cinematography for the next 25 years. As I have gotten older, I have grown to appreciate the audacious vision and long-term rewards of his approach." Ogden stepped away from the pedestal and began browsing the shelves of books around him.

"Jim had already created a kill switch for the OASIS, just for his own piece of mind," Ogden continued, his voice echoing against the high ceiling above. Somehow, his voice always seemed to fill a room. "Jim called it the 'Doomsday button'. But when our business started to get really big, he believed it would no longer work."

"Wait, what?" I asked, stopping short. I was stunned.

"The Board is devious, you know. And Jim was a little naive. But Kira saw right away that they would sniff out something like that. 'Protecting the revenue stream is number one!'" Ogden said with mock seriousness. "I suppose we were naive, too."

"What does the 'great worm' do?" I asked.

"First, let me say I won't stop you, Wade. If you want to do this, go ahead. I've had my time in the sun, and I'm getting to be an old man. But please, let this old man say his piece first." He sauntered over to a comfortable-looking leather chair and plopped into it. "The worm doesn't destroy the OASIS, it undermines it. Every day, millions of transactions take place. The worm would begin by subtly changing some of those transactions. If you sent me $10, I might get $100 and you might only lose $1. What's more, old records would be changed, too. The whole point of the worm was to give everyone plenty of OASIS currency, whipped up from thin air, with no clear way to undo the changes or figure out where and when the changes began to happen."

"That would hit the Board in their blind spot," I said.

"Yeah, the Board and everyone else in the world," said Sam.

"Like I said, we were naive," said Ogden.

"Yeah, but it could solve the money problem," I said, starting to get excited. "Suddenly, everyone in the OASIS would be able to afford food and housing. It solves a lot of problems at once. Sam, maybe this could work!"

"Wade, what happens when everyone is suddenly a millionaire?" Samantha said. "The same thing that happened to the dollar and the yen and the yuan and the pound. No one will trust OASIS currency anymore. It would just make everything even more unstable."

"You, my dear, would have saved us a tremendous amount of time and hassle back then," said Ogden, ruefully.

The reality of the situation started to sink in. There wasn't going to be a silver bullet that fixes everything. I had somehow sniffed out another secret in James Halliday's OASIS but it would only make things worse. The Board was going to win, I realized. The OASIS would be closing its doors to poor people and the very essence of what James Halliday worked to create was going to be erased forever.

"You shouldn't feel too badly, Wade," Ogden said consolingly. "After all, you know exactly what to do in this situation."

"I do?" I asked dumbly, with just a hint of hope. I didn't feel like I had any clue what to do now.

"Think about how the Board operates," Ogden said while opening his arms, as if the answer was right there in front of me. "They pursue and defend profits with single-minded intent. You, dear boy, care about the OASIS as a consumer, as a player and as a person. The Board is only aware of the OASIS insofar as it produces revenue for them."

"And anything I do to stop the Board will just cause more harm to the OASIS," I said, defeated.

"It's a strange game," said Sam quietly.

"That's right, Samantha. Exactly right," said Ogden, hopping out of his chair.

Then I caught the reference. 'A strange game.' It was a quote from WarGames. "'The only winning move is not to play,'" I said finally.

Ogden touched his finger to his nose. "I have one last trick up my sleeve," he said. "I hope it is a satisfying one for you. Helen, will you come out, please?"

"I came out, like, a long time ago, man," Aech said, entering from a side door. "But yeah, umm, 'surprise!''" she said, waving her fingers in the air.

"Helen has been helping me with something, Wade. A special project I have been working on for the past 20 years that I hope will leave behind a greater legacy than the OASIS."

I looked from Ogden to Helen to Sam. What was this all about? Greater than the OASIS?

"Did you know that Frank Herbert wrote Dune after researching the Oregon Dunes not far from here?" Ogden posited, relishing his moment. "If you remember Kira's epitaph, there is a special word there that hasn't yet come into play. Jim wanted to build the OASIS because real life felt like a desert to him. Many people feel the same."

I knew that feeling all too well.

"Kira had a different vision. A longer, more difficult vision. But one with a greater prize at the end. Garden," he said grandly. I half-expected leaves to sprout from his sleeves.

"In the epitaph, 'garden' is a verb. To garden. It is what Kira wanted us to do. We built ourselves an oasis, that is true. But an oasis is nothing more than a temporary stop in an unforgiving land. Kira wanted to bring about the great change to our own world. She wanted to transform this desert planet," Ogden said, swinging his arms open, "into a garden."

Ogden leaned back on his heels. "Not literally, of course. Well, a little bit literally." He turned to me. "When you wonderful people first came to my house, I saw Kira's compassion in Samantha. I saw Kira's desire to nurture in Helen. These two young ladies helped me complete a vision that, I have to admit, had gone rudderless after Kira died." Sam and Helen came to Ogden's side and he in turn hugged each of them with an arm. "And I see Jim's drive in you, Wade. I believe my vision needs your help to fulfill its potential."

"So... what is your vision?" I asked.

"Oh yes, I should mention that," Ogden said, suddenly bright. "The Kira Morrow Garden Initiative. Or 'Kira's Garden' for short. Currently I own 32,429 acres of tillable land across 14 countries. We have wind farms, solar arrays, underground springs, graywater reclamation, organic crops and communal living for anyone that wants to come."

"We're planting forests, Wade," Aech said. "Sequoias, redwoods, you name it. Improving the air quality, creating natural wind tunnels through terraforming, then using wind turbines to harness it. Some really smart people are working on this stuff."

"Won't trees take a while to grow?"

"Yeah, a few hundred years, really. But we are planning for the long term."

The idea sounded insane. "So you are starting a commune?" I asked.

"That's a quaint perspective," said Ogden. "No, this is something much bigger than that. We are relaunching society."

So he was insane.

Sam came over beside me. "Do you remember what I said when we were hunting for the Egg? Why I wanted to win? Ogden has found a way to do that. To help everyone." I looked at my beautiful girlfriend. She had tears welling in her eyes. "I know what you're thinking, Wade, but this isn't some wacky idea. It's using our billions of dollars to buy open fields and organize a lot of people to finally do useful and helpful work. Lots of cutting edge technology and long-term thinking."

"I know this is a lot to take in, Wade. And the worm is waiting for you if you want to use it in the OASIS. But I hope you won't," Ogden said, suddenly looking very tired. "Leave that life behind. Start a new one. This time it won't cost you even a quarter. We are accepting our first wave of settlers next month, so there is still a ton of work to do."

I thought of all the time and energy I had spent in the OASIS. For what? Why? Who had it helped? What had I gained? What had it cost me?

"Parzival!" Ogden boomed in his rich baritone voice, shaking me out of my thoughts. "You have abandoned the safety of the OASIS. The desert surrounds you on all sides. Are you ready?"

EPILOGUE

"Wade, I want you to meet Charlie. He was my... first and only boyfriend," Helen said, blushing. I turned from the solar panel I was calibrating to see an enormously fat man with a handlebar mustache.

"Aech knew she'd never find a guy as awesome as me, so she had to switch teams," Charlie said, breathing heavily as he lumbered up the hill behind Helen.

"Dude, we were like 11 years old!" she exclaimed.

"Hi Charlie," I said extending my tanned arm to shake hands. Working outside had done wonders for my health. The changes had been even more dramatic for Helen, who now stood like a reed in the wind. Two years in the Garden and we had completely transformed our bodies and our lives.

Luckily for me, there was plenty to do out here besides dig in the dirt. I had found my place working on mechanical systems. I had a knack for troubleshooting, so I moved to where the problems were while Sam and our new baby stayed near home to help acclimate the steady stream of new arrivals. Being apart was a small sacrifice compared to the ones people were making every day to come and join us.

"I need to apologize, Wade," said Charlie. "I was kind of a dick to you in the OASIS."

"Don't worry about it, man. A lot of people hated me in there," I said, meaning it. The OASIS felt small and distant now and so did the problems it had caused me.

"Yeah but... I'm I-R0k," he said, looking down at his feet. So the great and powerful I-R0k, who first sold me out for street cred and almost got me killed, then took a million credits from me and set a trap to kill my avatar. All along he was Helen's old boyfriend?

I looked him over. He couldn't look more out of place in a field 15 miles from the nearest building. I noticed he still had indents where his OASIS headset used to rest on his cheeks.

Here was a person who had built himself a complete life in the OASIS. Charlie had reached the top of the food chain and had everything he could ever want. And yet he had left it all, like so many others, to leap into the desert of the unknown. To build something real. A seed cast to the winds of change.

"Water under the bridge, mi amigo," I said with a Cheshire grin of my own. "Welcome to the Garden."