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Thousands play mysterious online game Microsoft now reveals is promo for new operating system

A mysterious online countdown. USB drives containing cipher keys. Notes and videos from a woman who calls herself Loki. Bloggers' reports of extravagant gifts, marked with a return address for Microsoft's headquarters.

And all trails leading to a Web site for something called Vanishing Point.

After weeks of sifting through clues, bloggers, gamers and technology enthusiasts got some relief this week when Microsoft Corp. revealed that Vanishing Point is part of a viral-marketing campaign for Vista, the new PC operating system set for a consumer launch later this month.

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