Ready Player One (Page 72)
I transformed the Marveller back into its robot configuration, then joined the long parade of spacecraft. My ship stood out in the vast array of vessels, since it was the only giant robot. A cloud of smaller ships quickly formed around me, piloted by curious avatars zooming in for a closer look at Leopardon. I had to mute my comlink because so many different people were trying to hail me, asking who the hell I was and where I’d picked up such a sweet ride.
As the planet Chthonia grew larger in my cockpit window, the density and number of ships around me seemed to increase exponentially. When I finally entered the planet’s atmosphere and began to descend toward the surface, it was like flying through a swarm of metal insects. When I reached the area around Castle Anorak, I had a hard time believing my eyes. A concentrated, pulsing mass of ships and avatars covered the ground and filled the air. It was like some otherworldly Woodstock. Shoulder-to-shoulder avatars stretched to the horizon in all directions. Thousands more floated and flew through the air above, dodging the constant influx of ships. And at the center of all this insanity stood Castle Anorak itself, an onyx jewel gleaming beneath the Sixers’ transparent spherical shield. Every few seconds some hapless avatar or ship would inadvertently fly or careen into the shield and get vaporized, like a fly hitting a bug zapper.
When I got closer, I spotted an open patch of ground directly in front of the castle’s entrance, just outside the shield wall. Three giant figures stood side by side at the center of the clearing. The crowd around them was continuously surging inward and then receding as avatars pushed back against each other to try to keep a respectful distance from Aech, Art3mis, and Shoto, who each sat inside their own gleaming giant robot.
This was my first opportunity to see which robots Aech, Art3mis, and Shoto had selected after clearing the Second Gate, and it took me a moment to place the towering female robot Art3mis was piloting. It was black and chrome in color, with elaborate boomerang-shaped headgear and symmetrical red breastplates that made it look like a female version of Tranzor Z. Then I realized it was the female version of Tranzor Z, an obscure character from the original Mazinger Z anime series known as Minerva X.
Aech had selected an RX-78 Gundam mech from the original Mobile Suit Gundam anime series, one of his longtime favorites. (Even though I now knew Aech was actually a female in real life, her avatar was still male, so I decided to continue to refer to him as such.)
Shoto stood several heads taller than both of them, concealed inside the cockpit of Raideen, the enormous red-and-blue robot from the mid-’70s Brave Raideen anime series. The massive mech clutched his signature golden bow in one hand and had a large spiked shield strapped to the other.
A roar swept through the crowd as I flew in low over the shield and rocketed to a halt above the others. I rotated my orientation so that Leopardon was upright, then cut the engines and dropped the remaining distance to the surface. My robot landed on one knee, and the impact shook the ground. As I stood it upright, the sea of onlookers began to chant my avatar’s name. Par-zi-val! Par-zi-val!
As the chanting faded back to a dull roar, I turned to face my companions.
“Nice entrance, ya big show-off,” Art3mis said, using our private comlink channel. “Did you show up late on purpose?”
“Not my fault, I swear,” I said, trying to play it cool. “There was a long line at the stargate.”
Aech nodded his mech’s massive head. “Every transport terminal on the planet has been spitting out avatars since last night,” he said, motioning to the scene around us with his Gundam’s massive hand. “This is unreal. I’ve never seen so many ships or avatars in one place.”
“Me neither,” Art3mis said. “I’m surprised the GSS servers can handle the load, with so much activity in one sector. But there doesn’t seem to be any lag at all.”
I took a long look at the sea of avatars around us, then shifted my attention to the castle. Thousands of flying avatars and ships continued to buzz around the shield, occasionally firing bullets, lasers, missiles, and other projectiles at it, all of which impacted harmlessly on the surface. Inside the sphere, thousands of power-armored Sixer avatars stood in silent formation, completely encircling the castle. Interspersed through their ranks were rows of hover tanks and gunships. In any other setting, the Sixer army would have appeared formidable. Maybe even unstoppable. But in the face of the endless mob that now surrounded them, the Sixers looked woefully outnumbered and outmatched.
“So, Parzival,” said Shoto, turning his robot’s huge head in my direction. “It’s showtime, old friend. If that sphere doesn’t come down like you promised, this is going to be pretty embarrassing.”
“ ‘Han will have that shield down,’ ” Aech quoted. “ ‘We’ve got to give him more time!’ ”
I laughed, then used my robot’s right hand to tap the back of its left wrist, indicating the time. “Aech is right. It’s still six minutes to noon.”
The end of my sentence was drowned out by another roar from the crowd. Directly in front of us, inside the sphere, the massive front doors of Castle Anorak had just swung open, and now a single Sixer avatar was emerging from within.
Grinning at the din of booing and hissing that greeted his arrival, Sorrento waved his hand at the Sixer troops stationed directly in front of the castle and they immediately scattered, clearing a large open space. Sorrento stepped forward into it, positioning himself directly opposite us, just a few dozen yards away, on the other side of the shield. Ten other Sixer avatars emerged from the castle and positioned themselves behind Sorrento, each of them standing a good distance apart.
“I have a bad feeling about this,” Art3mis muttered into her headset.
“Yeah,” Aech whispered. “Me too.”
Sorrento surveyed the scene, then smiled up at us. When he spoke, his voice was amplified through powerful speakers mounted on the Sixer gunships and hover tanks, allowing him to be heard by everyone in the area. And since there were cameras and reporters from every major newsfeed outlet present, I knew his words were being broadcast to the entire world.
“Welcome to Castle Anorak,” Sorrento said. “We’ve been expecting you.” He made a sweeping gesture, indicating the angry mob that surrounded him. “I must say, we are a bit surprised so many of you showed up here today. By now it must be obvious, to even the most ignorant among you, that nothing can get past our shield.”
His proclamation was met with a deafening roar of shouted threats, insults, and colorful profanity. I waited a moment, then raised both of my robot’s hands, calling for quiet. Once a semblance of silence had descended, I got on the public comm channel, which had the same effect as turning on a giant PA system. I dialed my headset volume down to kill the feedback, then said, “You’re wrong, Sorrento. We’re coming in. At noon. All of us.”
A roar of approval erupted from the assembled gunters. Sorrento didn’t bother waiting for it to die down. “You’re welcome to try,” he said, still grinning. Then he produced an item from his inventory and placed it on the ground in front of him. I zoomed in for a closer look and felt the muscles in my jaw tighten. It was a toy robot. A bipedal dinosaur with armor-plated skin and a pair of large cannons mounted on its shoulder blades. I recognized it immediately, from several turn-of-the-century Japanese monster flicks.
It was Mechagodzilla.
“Kiryu!” Sorrento shouted, his voice still amplified. At the sound of the command word, his tiny robot instantly grew in size until it stood almost as tall as Castle Anorak itself, twice the height of the “giant” robots that Aech, Shoto, Art3mis, and I piloted. The mechanical lizard’s armored head almost touched the top of the spherical shield.
An awestruck silence fell over the crowd, followed by a rumble of fearful recognition from the thousands of gunters present. They all recognized this giant metal behemoth. And they all knew it was nearly indestructible.
Sorrento entered the mech through an access door in one of its massive heels. A few seconds later, the beast’s eyes began to glow bright yellow. Then it threw back its head, opened its jagged maw, and let out a piercing metallic roar.
On cue, the ten Sixer avatars standing behind Sorrento pulled out their toy robots and activated them, too. Five of them had the huge robotic lions that could form Voltron. The other five had giant mechs from Robotech and Neon Genesis Evangelion.
“Oh s**t,” I heard Art3mis and Aech whisper in unison.
“Come on!” Sorrento shouted defiantly. His challenge echoed across the crowded landscape.
Many of the gunters on the front lines took an involuntary step backward. A few others turned and ran for their lives. But Aech, Shoto, Art3mis, and I held our ground.
I checked the time on my display. Less than a minute to go now. I pressed a button on Leopardon’s control panel, and my giant robot drew its gleaming sword.
I didn’t witness it firsthand, but I can tell you with some certainty that this is what happened next:
The Sixers had erected a large armored bunker behind Castle Anorak, filled with pallets of weapons and battle gear that had been teleported in by the Sixers before they activated their shield. There was also a long rack of thirty Supply Droids, which had been installed along the bunker’s eastern wall. Due to a lack of imagination on the part of the Supply Droids’ original designer, they all looked exactly like the robot Johnny Five from the 1986 film Short Circuit. The Sixers used these droids primarily as gofers, to run errands and fill equipment and ammo requisitions for the troops stationed outside.