Wade, Art3mis, Aech, and Shoto stare at Morrow in shock. Aech asks how he got there, and Morrow admits that he’s been spying on them using the special powers that only his avatar possesses. He assures them that he is the only avatar with access to private chatrooms, and adds that he was eavesdropping because he wanted to help them. He won’t give them any clues, but promised Halliday that he would protect the “integrity” of the contest, which is what he is doing now. Wade asks about Morrow’s falling out with Halliday, and Morrow replies that they didn’t speak for ten years, until a few weeks before Halliday’s death. Halliday asked Morrow to watch over the contest, and although Morrow was reluctant, he agreed.
Given the amount of attention, controversy, and drama that the hunt has generated, it is little wonder that Morrow has kept his distance and tried not to directly intervene in it. On the other hand, he is clearly loyal enough to Halliday to want to ensure that the Sixers don’t get away with manipulating the competition to their advantage. Rather than supporting an individual user, Morrow supports the rights of gunters to pursue the hunt on its own terms, rather than gaming the system through unjust means.
Morrow tells the crew that he wants to offer them his home in Oregon as a “sanctuary” where they will be safe from the Sixers. He tells Shoto that he has already arranged for a private jet to fly him from Osaka, and has done the same for Art3mis. Morrow knows that Aech is in Pittsburgh, and asks him to pick up Wade in Columbus, where a jet will be waiting to take both of them to Oregon. The team thank Morrow, who disappears. Shoto and Art3mis log out, at which point Aech warns Wade that he doesn’t look anything like his avatar and that meeting in real life might come as a shock. Wade is nervous about the prospect of encountering both Aech and Art3mis in real life.
Both Aech and Wade are anxious to meet each other. Although readers do not yet know why this is the case for Aech, Wade’s nervousness is surely rooted in the fact that Aech is his best friend and “only” friend, so the stakes are extremely high. If Aech and Wade do not get along in real life, this will seriously undermine Wade’s theory that the OASIS is a true representation of people’s personalities and that it is possible to truly get to know someone through it.
Wade sends his “Call to Arms” email, also posting it to the gunter message boards. Immediately the news channels begin reporting that the gunters have “declared all-out war on the Sixers.” Wade spends a few hours preparing his avatar for battle, then falls asleep in the Plug’s rig, clutching his gun. He wakes up to the sound of Aech calling him. He returns his rented gear and goes outside, seeing Aech’s RV on the street. He enters the RV to find a heavy, short-haired African American girl sitting in the driver’s seat, wearing a vintage Rush 2112 concert t-shirt. She turns around and Wade can tell immediately from her smile that she is Aech.
Even though Aech looks nothing like her avatar, there are clues that immediately indicate that they are one and the same person. The fact that Wade can tell from her smile that it really is Aech shows that their connection is formed of something far deeper than superficial matters. Wade knows Aech’s personality so well that he is immediately able to recognize her inside a body that he never imagined would be hers.
Despite her smile, Aech seems nervous. Wade cannot help but start laughing, which quickly makes Aech laugh too. When she speaks, her voice is higher than it is in the OASIS. Aech asks if Wade is shocked that she is actually a “fat black chick.” Wade replies that it doesn’t matter, Aech is still his best friend. The two of them drive to the private hangar where Morrow’s private jet is waiting. It is the first time either Wade or Aech have flown in a plane, and for a while they are stunned into silence by the view. However, eventually Wade asks Aech to tell her story.
Here readers are reminded of the combination of advancement and deprivation that characterize life in 2045. Aech and Wade may have access to certain advanced forms of technology, but due to their poverty and the energy crisis, they have never been inside a plane. Again, the contrast between their lives inside and outside the OASIS is extreme.
Aech’s real name is Helen Harris. Her father died in Afghanistan, and she was raised in Atlanta by a single mother, Marie, who worked in an online data-processing center. Marie used a white male avatar in the OASIS because it made other people treat her better. Aech did the same, and Marie helped her lie on her public school record, allowing her to assume a white male identity. On Aech’s 18th birthday, she came out to her mother as gay and admitted that she’d been dating a girl she met in the OASIS for a year. Marie was furious and kicked Aech out of her house. Aech was homeless for a while, and started competing in the OASIS arena leagues in order to earn credits. She saved up enough to buy an RV and has remained on the move ever since.
Although Marie understood what it was like to be discriminated against based on her race and gender, this did not enable her to feel empathy when it came to her daughter’s sexual orientation. Indeed, Marie’s eagerness to embrace the opportunity to live as a white man inside the OASIS suggests that she was less focused on eradicating prejudice than she was on getting ahead personally. This quality is not reflected in her daughter, who has proven to be selfless and generous throughout the novel.
As Aech and Wade talk, Wade realizes that nothing in their friendship has really changed; they are as close as ever. Landing in Oregon, both of them are stunned by Morrow’s mansion. Aech compares it to Rivendell, the beautiful Elven town in the Lord of the Rings movies. Morrow greets them warmly and tells them it’s nice to have visitors, as apart from his household help, he has been alone since Kira’s death. He tells them that Art3mis and Shoto have already arrived, but that Art3mis said it would be too distracting for them all to meet before the battle and suggested they wait until after. Wade feels both relieved and disappointed.
At this late stage in the novel, readers get a glimpse of another utopia: Morrow’s mansion. Wade’s comparison of the house to Rivendell (which is also a utopia) demonstrates that he perceives the house as an oasis of beauty, peace, and security. Of course, there will prove to be a great contrast between this haven and the chaos that will come in the final struggle to secure Halliday’s egg inside the OASIS.
Morrow leads them through the mansion’s grand entrance. As they walk, Wade nervously confesses his love of Halcydonia Interactive. Aech laughs at Wade’s enthusiasm, but Morrow accepts the compliment graciously. He promises to give Aech and Wade a full tour of the mansion later, but for now he sets them up in state-of-the-art OASIS immersion bays. Wade and Aech wish each other good luck before disappearing into the bays. Morrow tells Wade: “The whole world is rooting for the four of you. Try not to let them down.”
Although they have not known each other long, Morrow has quickly become a kind of father figure to Wade. This is emphasized by Wade’s confession about Halcydonia Interactive, which is a software company that makes educational games for children. Morrow may not have been directly present in Wade’s childhood, but he played an indirect role in raising and educating him.
Before Morrow leaves, Wade asks him what happened to his friendship with Halliday. Morrow explains that Halliday had been in love with Kira since high school, but he was never brave enough to tell her how he felt. He only confessed his feelings to Morrow just before his death. It was painful for Halliday to watch his best friend marry Kira, the only woman he would ever love. Morrow wishes Wade luck once more, and Wade asks what he will do during the fight. Morrow smiles and says that he is planning to watch, and that it looks like it will be “the most epic battle in videogame history.” Wade steps into the bay, dons the immersion gear, and logs in.
Wade has spent his life idolizing Halliday, but in this passage it becomes clear that Halliday’s life was far from perfect, and that he may well have died with serious regrets. Although Halliday achieved much in the world of video gaming and collecting, he never confessed his true feelings to the woman he loved and he drove his best friend away in the process. He may be a hero to Wade, but his life was also deeply tragic.