As I learned more about how these early role-playing games worked, I realized that a D&D module was the primitive equivalent of a quest in the OASIS. And D&D characters were just like avatars. In a way, these old role-playing games had been the first virtual-reality simulations, created long before computers were powerful enough to do the job. In those days, if you wanted to escape to another world, you had to create it yourself, using your brain, some paper, pencils, dice, and a few rule books. This realization kind of blew my mind. It changed my whole perspective on the Hunt for Halliday’s Easter egg. From then on, I began to think of the Hunt as an elaborate D&D module. And Halliday was obviously the dungeon master, even if he was now controlling the game from beyond the grave.
I found a digital copy of the sixty-seven-year-old Tomb of Horrors module buried deep in an ancient FTP archive. As I studied it, I began to develop a theory: Somewhere in the OASIS, Halliday had re-created the Tomb of Horrors, and he’d hidden the Copper Key inside it.
I spent the next few months studying the module and memorizing all of its maps and room descriptions, in anticipation of the day I would finally figure out where it was located. But that was the rub: The Limerick didn’t appear to give any hint as to where Halliday had hidden the damn thing. The only clue seemed to be “you have much to learn if you hope to earn a place among the high scorers.”
I recited those words over and over in my head until I wanted to howl in frustration. Much to learn. Yeah, OK, fine. I have much to learn about what?
There were literally thousands of worlds in the OASIS, and Halliday could have hidden his re-creation of the Tomb of Horrors on any one of them. Searching every planet, one by one, would take forever. Even if I’d had the means to do so.
A planet named Gygax in Sector Two seemed like the obvious place to start looking. Halliday had coded the planet himself, and he’d named it after Gary Gygax, one of the creators of Dungeons & Dragons and the author of the original Tomb of Horrors module. According to Gunterpedia (a gunter wiki), the planet Gygax was covered with re-creations of old D&D modules, but Tomb of Horrors was not one of them. There didn’t appear to be a re-creation of the tomb on any of the other D&D-themed worlds in the OASIS either. Gunters had turned all of those planets upside down and scoured every square inch of their surfaces. Had a re-creation of the Tomb of Horrors been hidden on one of them, it would have been found and logged long ago.
So the tomb had to be hidden somewhere else. And I didn’t have the first clue where. But I told myself that if I just kept at it and continued doing research, I’d eventually learn what I needed to know to figure out the tomb’s hiding place. In fact, that was probably what Halliday meant by “you have much to learn if you hope to earn a place among the high scorers.”
If any other gunters out there shared my interpretation of the Limerick, so far they’d been smart enough to keep quiet about it. I’d never seen any posts about the Tomb of Horrors on any gunter message boards. I realized, of course, that this might be because my theory about the old D&D module was completely lame and totally off base.
So I’d continued to watch and read and listen and study, preparing for the day when I finally stumbled across the clue that would lead me to the Copper Key.
And then it finally happened. Right while I was sitting there daydreaming in Latin class.
Our teacher, Ms. Rank, was standing at the front of the class, slowly conjugating Latin verbs. She said them in English first, then in Latin, and each word automatically appeared on the board behind her as she spoke it. Whenever we were doing tedious verb conjugation, I always got the lyrics to an old Schoolhouse Rock! song stuck in my head: “To run, to go, to get, to give. Verb! You’re what’s happenin’!”
I was quietly humming this tune to myself when Ms. Rank began to conjugate the Latin for the verb “to learn.” “To Learn. Discere,” she said. “Now, this one should be easy to remember, because it’s similar to the English word ‘discern,’ which also means ‘to learn.’ ”
Hearing her repeat the phrase “to learn” was enough to make me think of the Limerick. You have much to learn if you hope to earn a place among the high scorers.
Ms. Rank continued, using the verb in a sentence. “We go to school to learn,” she said. “Petimus scholam ut litteras discamus.”
And that was when it hit me. Like an anvil falling out of the sky, directly onto my skull. I gazed around at my classmates. What group of people has “much to learn”?
Students. High-school students.
I was on a planet filled with students, all of whom had “much to learn.”
What if the Limerick was saying that the tomb was hidden right here, on Ludus? The very planet where I’d been twiddling my thumbs for the past five years?
Then I remembered that ludus was also a Latin word, meaning “school.” I pulled up my Latin dictionary to double-check the definition, and that was when I discovered the word had more than one meaning. Ludus could mean “school,” but it could also mean “sport” or “game.”
I fell out of my folding chair and landed with a thud on the floor of my hideout. My OASIS console tracked this movement and attempted to make my avatar drop to the floor of my Latin classroom, but the classroom conduct software prevented it from moving and a warning flashed on my display: PLEASE REMAIN SEATED DURING CLASS!
I told myself not to get too excited. I might be jumping to conclusions. There were hundreds of private schools and universities located on other planets inside the OASIS. The Limerick might refer to one of them. But I didn’t think so. Ludus made more sense. James Halliday had donated billions to fund the creation of the OASIS public school system here, as a way to demonstrate the huge potential of the OASIS as an educational tool. And prior to his death, Halliday had set up a foundation to ensure that the OASIS public school system would always have the money it needed to operate. The Halliday Learning Foundation also provided impoverished children around the globe with free OASIS hardware and Internet access so that they could attend school inside the OASIS.
GSS’s own programmers had designed and constructed Ludus and all of the schools on it. So it was entirely possible that Halliday was the one who’d given the planet its name. And he would also have had access to the planet’s source code, if he’d wanted to hide something here.
The realizations continued to detonate in my brain like atomic bombs going off, one after another.
According to the original D&D module, the entrance to the Tomb of Horrors was hidden near “a low, flat-topped hill, about two hundred yards wide and three hundred yards long.” The top of the hill was covered with large black stones that were arranged in such a way that, if you viewed them from a great height, they resembled the eye sockets, nose holes, and teeth of a human skull.
But if there was a hill like that hidden somewhere on Ludus, wouldn’t someone have stumbled across it by now?
Maybe not. Ludus had hundreds of large forests scattered all over its surface, in the vast sections of empty land that stood between the thousands of school campuses. Some of these forests were enormous, covering dozens of square miles. Most students never even set foot inside them, because there was nothing of interest to do or see there. Like its fields and rivers and lakes, Ludus’s forests were just computer-generated landscaping, placed there to fill up the empty space.
Of course, during my avatar’s long stay on Ludus, I’d explored a few of the forests within walking distance of my school, out of boredom. But all they contained were thousands of randomly generated trees and the occasional bird, rabbit, or squirrel. (These tiny creatures weren’t worth any experience points if you killed them. I’d checked.)
So it was entirely possible that somewhere, hidden in one of Ludus’s large, unexplored patches of forestland, there was a small stone-covered hill that resembled a human skull.
I tried pulling up a map of Ludus on my display, but I couldn’t. The system wouldn’t let me, because class was still in session. The hack I used to access books in the school’s online library didn’t work for the OASIS atlas software.
“Shit!” I blurted out in frustration. The classroom conduct software filtered this out, so neither Ms. Rank nor my classmates heard it. But another warning flashed on my display: PROFANITY MUTED—MISCONDUCT WARNING!
I looked at the time on my display. Exactly seventeen minutes and twenty seconds left until the end of the school day. I sat there with clenched teeth and counted off each second, my mind still racing.
Ludus was an inconspicuous world in Sector One. There wasn’t supposed to be anything but schools here, so this was the last place a gunter would think to look for the Copper Key. It was definitely the last place I had ever thought to look, and that alone proved it was a perfect hiding place. But why would Halliday have chosen to hide the Copper Key here? Unless …
He’d wanted a schoolkid to find it.
I was still reeling from the implications of that thought when the bell finally rang. Around me, the other students began to file out of the room or vanish in their seats. Ms. Rank’s avatar also disappeared, and in moments I was all alone in the classroom.