I pulled up a map of Ludus on my display. It appeared as a three-dimensional globe floating in front of me, and I gave it a spin with my hand. Ludus was a relatively small planet by OASIS standards, about a third the size of Earth’s moon, with a circumference of exactly one thousand kilometers. A single contiguous continent covered the surface. There were no oceans, just a few dozen large lakes placed here and there. Since OASIS planets weren’t real, they didn’t have to obey the laws of nature. On Ludus, it was perpetually daytime, regardless of where you stood on the surface, and the sky was always a perfect cloudless blue. The stationary sun that hung overheard was nothing but a virtual light source, programmed into the imaginary sky.
On the map, the school campuses appeared as thousands of identical numbered rectangles dotting the planet’s surface. They were separated by rolling green fields, rivers, mountain ranges, and forests. The forests were of all shapes and sizes, and many of them bordered one of the schools. Next to the map, I pulled up the Tomb of Horrors module. Near the front, it contained a crude illustration of the hill concealing the tomb. I took a screenshot of this illustration and placed it in the corner of my display.
I frantically searched my favorite warez sites until I found a high-end image-recognition plug-in for the OASIS atlas. Once I downloaded the software via Guntorrent, it took me a few more minutes to figure out how to make it scan the entire surface of Ludus for a hill with large black stones arranged in a skull-like pattern. One with a size, shape, and appearance that matched the illustration from the Tomb of Horrors module.
After about ten minutes of searching, the software highlighted a possible match.
I held my breath as I placed the close-up image from the Ludus map beside the illustration from the D&D module. The shape of the hill and the skull pattern of the stones both matched the illustration perfectly.
I decreased the magnification on the map a bit, then pulled back far enough to confirm that the northern edge of the hill ended in a cliff of sand and crumbling gravel. Just like in the original Dungeons & Dragons module.
I let out a triumphant yell that echoed in the empty classroom and bounced off the walls of my tiny hideout. I’d done it. I’d actually found the Tomb of Horrors!
When I finally managed to calm down, I did some quick calculations. The hill was near the center of a large amoeba-shaped forest located on the opposite side of Ludus, over four hundred kilometers from my school. My avatar could run at a maximum speed of five kilometers an hour, so it would take me over three days to get there on foot if I ran nonstop the entire time. If I could teleport, I could be there within minutes. The fare wouldn’t be much for such a short distance, maybe a few hundred credits. Unfortunately, that was still more than my current OASIS account balance, which was a big fat zero.
I considered my options. Aech would lend me the money for the fare, but I didn’t want to ask for his help. If I couldn’t reach the tomb on my own, I didn’t deserve to reach it at all. Besides, I’d have to lie to Aech about what the money was for, and since I’d never asked him for a loan before, any excuse I gave would make him suspicious.
Thinking about Aech, I couldn’t help but smile. He was really going to freak when he found out about this. The tomb was hidden less than seventy kilometers from his school! Practically his backyard.
That thought triggered an idea, one that made me leap to my feet. I ran out of the classroom and down the hall.
Not only had I figured out a way to teleport to the other side of Ludus, I knew how to get my school to pay for it.
Each OASIS public school had a bunch of different athletic teams, including wrestling, soccer, football, baseball, volleyball, and a few other sports that couldn’t be played in the real world, like Quidditch and zero-gravity Capture the Flag. Students went out for these teams just like they did at schools in the real world, and they played using elaborate sports-capable haptic rigs that required them to actually do all of their own running, jumping, kicking, tackling, and so on. The teams had nightly practice, held pep rallies, and traveled to other schools on Ludus to compete against them. Our school gave out free teleportation vouchers to any student who wanted to attend an away game, so we could sit up in the stands and root for old OPS #1873. I’d only taken advantage of this once, when our Capture the Flag team had played against Aech’s school in the OPS championships.
When I arrived in the school office, I scanned the activities schedule and found what I was looking for right away. That evening, our football team was playing an away game against OPS #0571, which was located roughly an hour’s run from the forest where the tomb was hidden.
I reached out and selected the game, and a teleportation voucher instantly appeared in my avatar’s inventory, good for one free round-trip to OPS #0571.
I stopped at my locker long enough to drop off my textbooks and grab my flashlight, sword, shield, and armor. Then I sprinted out the front entrance and across the expansive green lawn in front of the school.
When I reached the red borderline that marked the edge of the school grounds, I glanced around to make sure no one was watching me, then stepped across the line. As I did, the WADE3 nametag floating above my head changed to read PARZIVAL. Now that I was off school grounds, I could use my avatar name once again. I could also turn off my nametag completely, which was what I did now, because I wanted to travel incognito.
The nearest transport terminal was a short walk from the school, at the end of a cobblestone path. It was a large domed pavilion supported by a dozen ivory pillars. Each pillar bore an OASIS teleportation icon, a capital “T” in the center of a blue hexagon. School had only been out for a few minutes now, so there was a steady stream of avatars filing into the terminal. Inside were long rows of blue teleportation booths. Their shape and color always reminded me of Doctor Who’s TARDIS. I stepped into the first empty booth I saw, and the doors closed automatically. I didn’t need to enter my destination on the touchscreen because it was already encoded on my voucher. I just slid the voucher into a slot and a world map of Ludus appeared on the screen, showing a line from my present location to my destination, a flashing green dot next to OPS #0571. The booth instantly calculated the distance I would be traveling (462 kilometers) and the amount my school would be invoiced for the fare (103 credits). The voucher was verified, the fare showed as PAID, and my avatar vanished.
I instantly reappeared in an identical booth, inside an identical transport terminal on the opposite side of the planet. As I ran outside, I spotted OPS #0571 off to the south. It looked exactly like my own school, except the surrounding landscape was different. I spotted some students from my school, walking toward the nearby football stadium, on their way to watch the game and root for our team. I wasn’t sure why they bothered. They could just as easily have watched the game via vidfeed. And any empty seats in the stands would be filled with randomly generated NPC fans who would wolf down virtual sodas and hot dogs while cheering wildly. Occasionally, they would even do “the wave.”
I was already running in the opposite direction, across a rolling green field that stretched out behind the school. A small mountain range loomed in the distance, and I could see the amoeba-shaped forest at its base.
I turned on my avatar’s autorun feature, then opened my inventory and selected three of the items listed there. My armor appeared on my body, my shield appeared in a sling on my back, and my sword appeared in its scabbard, hanging at my side.
I was almost to the edge of the forest when my phone rang. The ID said it was Aech. Probably calling to see why I hadn’t logged into the Basement yet. But if I answered the call, he would see a live video feed of my avatar, running across a field at top speed, with OPS #0571 shrinking in the distance behind me. I could conceal my current location by taking the call as audio only, but that might make him suspicious. So I let the call roll to my vidmail. Aech’s face appeared in a small window on my display. He was calling from a PvP arena somewhere. Dozens of avatars were locked in fierce combat on a multitiered playing field behind him.
“Yo, Z! What are you up to? Jerking off to Ladyhawke?” He flashed his Cheshire grin. “Give me a shout. I’m still planning to pop some corn and have a Spaced marathon. You down?” He hung up and his image winked out.
I sent a text-only reply, saying I had a ton of homework and couldn’t hang tonight. Then I pulled up the Tomb of Horrors module and began to read through it again, page by page. I did this slowly and carefully, because I was pretty sure it contained a detailed description of everything I was about to face.
“In the far reaches of the world, under a lost and lonely hill,” read the module’s introduction, “lies the sinister TOMB OF HORRORS. This labyrinthine crypt is filled with terrible traps, strange and ferocious monsters, rich and magical treasures, and somewhere within rests the evil Demi-Lich.”
That last bit worried me. A lich was an undead creature, usually an incredibly powerful wizard or king who had employed dark magic to bind his intellect to his own reanimated corpse, thus achieving a perverted form of immortality. I’d encountered liches in countless videogames and fantasy novels. They were to be avoided at all costs.
I studied the map of the tomb and the descriptions of its many rooms. The tomb’s entrance was buried in the side of a crumbling cliff. A tunnel led down into a labyrinth of thirty-three rooms and chambers, each filled with a variety of vicious monsters, deadly traps, and (mostly cursed) treasure. If you somehow managed to survive all of the traps and find your way through the labyrinth, you would eventually reach the crypt of Acererak the Demi-Lich. The room was littered with treasure, but if you touched it, the undead King Acererak appeared and opened up a can of undead whup-ass on you. If, by some miracle, you managed to defeat the lich, you could take his treasure and leave the dungeon. Mission accomplished, quest completed.