“Word,” Aech said, nodding his agreement. We bumped fists. More snickering from the crowd, now directed at I-r0k.

I-r0k glared at us a moment. “OK. Let’s see who the real poseur is,” he said. “Check this out, girls.” Grinning, he produced an item from his inventory and held it up. It was an old Atari 2600 game, still in the box. He purposefully covered the game’s title with his hand, but I recognized the cover artwork anyway. It was a painting of a young man and woman in ancient Greek attire, both brandishing swords. Lurking behind them were a minotaur and a bearded guy with an eye patch. “Know what this is, hotshot?” I-r0k said, challenging me. “I’ll even give you a clue.… It’s an Atari game, released as part of a contest. It contained several puzzles, and if you solved them, you could win a prize. Sound familiar?”

I-r0k was always trying to impress us with some clue or piece of Halliday lore he foolishly believed he’d been the first to uncover. Gunters loved to play the game of one-upmanship and were constantly trying to prove they had acquired more obscure knowledge than everyone else. But I-r0k totally sucked at it.

“You’re joking, right?” I said. “You just now discovered the Swordquest series?”

I-r0k deflated.

“You’re holding Swordquest: Earthworld,” I continued. “The first game in the Swordquest series. Released in 1982.” I smiled wide. “Can you name the next three games in the series?”

His eyes narrowed. He was, of course, stumped. Like I said, he was a total poseur.

“Anyone else?” I said, opening the question up to the floor. The gunters in the crowd eyed each other, but no one spoke up.

“Fireworld, Waterworld, and Airworld,” Aech answered.

“Bingo!” I said, and we bumped fists again. “Although Airworld was never actually finished, because Atari fell on hard times and canceled the contest before it was completed.”

I-r0k quietly put the game box back in his inventory.


“You should join up with the Sux0rz, I-r0k,” Aech said, laughing. “They could really use someone with your vast stores of knowledge.”

I-r0k flipped him the bird. “If you two fags already knew about the Swordquest contest, how come I’ve never once heard you mention it?”

“Come on, I-r0k,” Aech said, shaking his head. “Swordquest: Earthworld was Atari’s unofficial sequel to Adventure. Every gunter worth their salt knows about that contest. How much more obvious can you get?”

I-r0k tried to save some face. “OK, if you’re both such experts, who programmed all of the Swordquest games?”

“Dan Hitchens and Tod Frye,” I recited. “Try asking me something difficult.”

“I got one for you,” Aech interjected. “What were the prizes Atari gave out to the winner of each contest?”

“Ah,” I said. “Good one. Let’s see.… The prize for the Earthworld contest was the Talisman of Penultimate Truth. It was solid gold and encrusted with diamonds. The kid who won it melted it down to pay for college, as I recall.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Aech prodded. “Quit stalling. What about the other two?”

“I’m not stalling. The Fireworld prize was the Chalice of Light, and the Waterworld prize was supposed to be the Crown of Life, but it was never awarded, due to the cancellation of the contest. Same goes for the Airworld prize, which was supposed to be a Philosopher’s Stone.”

Aech grinned and gave me a double high five, then added, “And if the contest hadn’t been canceled, the winners of the first four rounds would have competed for the grand prize, the Sword of Ultimate Sorcery.”

I nodded. “The prizes were all mentioned in the Swordquest comic books that came with the games. Comic books which happen to be visible in the treasure room in the final scene of Anorak’s Invitation, by the way.”

The crowd burst into applause. I-r0k lowered his head in shame.

Since I’d become a gunter, it had been obvious to me that Halliday had drawn inspiration for his contest from the Swordquest contest. I had no idea if he’d borrowed any of the puzzles from them too, but I’d studied the games and their solutions thoroughly, just to be safe.

“Fine. You win,” I-r0k said. “But you both obviously need to get a life.”

“And you,” I said, “obviously need to find a new hobby. Because you clearly lack the intelligence and commitment to be a gunter.”

“No doubt,” Aech said. “Try doing some research for a change, I-r0k. I mean, did you ever hear of Wikipedia? It’s free, douchebag.”

I-r0k turned and walked over to the long boxes of comic books stacked on the other side of the room, as if he’d lost interest in the discussion. “Whatever,” he said over his shoulder. “If I didn’t spend so much time offline, getting laid, I’d probably know just as much worthless shit as you two do.”

Aech ignored him and turned back to me. “What were the names of the twins who appeared in the Swordquest comic books?”

“Tarra and Torr.”

“Damn, Z! You are the man.”

“Thanks, Aech.”

A message flashed on my display, informing me that the three-minute-warning bell had just rung in my classroom. I knew Aech and I-r0k were seeing the same warning, because our schools operated on the same schedule.

“Time for another day of higher learning,” Aech said, standing up.

“Drag,” I-r0k said. “See you losers later.” He gave me the finger; then his avatar disappeared as he logged out of the chat room. The other gunters began to log out and vanish too, until only Aech and I remained.

“Seriously, Aech,” I said. “Why do you let that moron hang out here?”

“Because he’s fun to beat at videogames. And his ignorance gives me hope.”

“How so?”

“Because if most of the other gunters out there are as clueless as I-r0k—and they are, Z, believe me—that means you and I really do have a shot at winning the contest.”

I shrugged. “I guess that’s one way to look at it.”

“Wanna hang after school again tonight? Around seven or so? I’ve got a few errands to run, but then I’m gonna tackle some of the stuff on my need-to-watch list. A Spaced marathon, perhaps?”

“Oh, hell yes,” I said. “Count me in.”

We logged out simultaneously, just as the final bell began to ring.

Chapter 4

My avatar’s eyes slid open, and I was back in my World History classroom. The seats around me were now filled with other students, and our teacher, Mr. Avenovich, was materializing at the front of the classroom. Mr. A’s avatar looked like a portly, bearded college professor. He sported an infectious grin, wire-rimmed spectacles, and a tweed jacket with patches on the elbows. When he spoke, he somehow always managed to sound like he was reading a passage from Dickens. I liked him. He was a good teacher.

Of course, we didn’t know who Mr. Avenovich really was or where he lived. We didn’t know his real name, or even if “he” was really a man. For all we knew, he could have been a small Inuit woman living in Anchorage, Alaska, who had adopted this appearance and voice to make her students more receptive to her lessons. But for some reason, I suspected that Mr. Avenovich’s avatar looked and sounded just like the person operating it.

All of my teachers were pretty great. Unlike their real-world counterparts, most of the OASIS public school teachers seemed to genuinely enjoy their job, probably because they didn’t have to spend half their time acting as babysitters and disciplinarians. The OASIS software took care of that, ensuring that students remained quiet and in their seats. All the teachers had to do was teach.

It was also a lot easier for online teachers to hold their students’ attention, because here in the OASIS, the classrooms were like holodecks. Teachers could take their students on a virtual field trip every day, without ever leaving the school grounds.

During our World History lesson that morning, Mr. Avenovich loaded up a stand-alone simulation so that our class could witness the discovery of King Tut’s tomb by archaeologists in Egypt in AD 1922. (The day before, we’d visited the same spot in 1334 BC and had seen Tutankhamen’s empire in all its glory.)

In my next class, Biology, we traveled through a human heart and watched it pumping from the inside, just like in that old movie Fantastic Voyage.

In Art class we toured the Louvre while all of our avatars wore silly berets.

In my Astronomy class we visited each of Jupiter’s moons. We stood on the volcanic surface of Io while our teacher explained how the moon had originally formed. As our teacher spoke to us, Jupiter loomed behind her, filling half the sky, its Great Red Spot churning slowly just over her left shoulder. Then she snapped her fingers and we were standing on Europa, discussing the possibility of extraterrestrial life beneath the moon’s icy crust.

I spent my lunch period sitting in one of the green fields bordering the school, staring at the simulated scenery while I munched on a protein bar with my visor on. It beat staring at the inside of my hideout. I was a senior, so I was allowed to go off-world during lunch if I wanted to, but I didn’t have that kind of spare dough to blow.

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