PLAYER TWO GAME OVER appeared on the screen, and the lich let out a long bloodcurdling howl of rage. He smashed an angry fist into the side of the Joust cabinet, shattering it into a million tiny pixels that scattered and bounced across the floor. Then he turned to face me. “Congratulations, Parzival,” he said, bowing low. “You played well.”
“Thank you, noble Acererak,” I replied, resisting the urge to jump up and down and shake my ass victoriously in his general direction. Instead, I solemnly returned his bow. As I did, the lich transformed into a tall human wizard dressed in flowing black robes. I recognized him immediately. It was Halliday’s avatar, Anorak.
I stared at him, utterly speechless. For years gunters had speculated that Anorak still roamed the OASIS, now as an autonomous NPC. Halliday’s ghost in the machine.
“Now,” the wizard said, speaking with Halliday’s familiar voice. “Your reward.”
The chamber filled with the sound of a full orchestra. Triumphant horns were quickly joined by a stirring string section. I recognized the music. It was the last track from John Williams’s original Star Wars score, used in the scene where Princess Leia gives Luke and Han their medals (and Chewbacca, as you may recall, gets the shaft).
As the music built to a crescendo, Anorak stretched out his right hand. There, resting in his open palm, was the Copper Key, the item for which millions of people had been searching for the past five years. As he handed it to me, the music faded out, and in the same instant, I heard a chime sound. I’d just gained fifty thousand experience points, enough to raise my avatar all the way up to tenth level.
“Farewell, Sir Parzival,” Anorak said. “I bid you good luck on your quest.” And before I could ask what I was supposed to do next, or where I could find the first gate, his avatar vanished in a flash of light, accompanied by a teleportation sound effect I knew was lifted from the old ’80s Dungeons & Dragons cartoon.
I found myself standing alone on the empty dais. I looked down at the Copper Key in my hand and felt overcome with wonder and elation. It looked just as it had in Anorak’s Invitation: a simple antique copper key, its oval-shaped bow embossed with the roman numeral “I.” I turned it over in my avatar’s hand, watching the torchlight play across the roman numeral, and that was when I spotted two small lines of text engraved into the metal. I tilted the key up to the light and read them aloud: “What you seek lies hidden in the trash on the deepest level of Daggorath.”
I didn’t even need to read it a second time. I instantly understood its meaning. I knew exactly where I needed to go and what I would have to do once I got there.
“Hidden in the trash” was a reference to the ancient TRS-80 line of computers made by Tandy and Radio Shack in the ’70s and ’80s. Computer users of that era had given the TRS-80 the derogatory nickname of “Trash 80.”
What you seek lies hidden in the trash.
Halliday’s first computer had been a TRS-80, with a whopping 16K of RAM. And I knew exactly where to find a replica of that computer in the OASIS. Every gunter did.
In the early days of the OASIS, Halliday had created a small planet named Middletown, named after his hometown in Ohio. The planet was the site of a meticulous re-creation of his hometown as it was in the late 1980s. That saying about how you can never go home again? Halliday had found a way. Middletown was one of his pet projects, and he’d spent years coding and refining it. And it was well known (to gunters, at least) that one of the most detailed and accurate parts of the Middletown simulation was the re-creation of Halliday’s boyhood home.
I’d never been able to visit it, but I’d seen hundreds of screenshots and vidcaps of the place. Inside Halliday’s bedroom was a replica of his first computer, a TRS-80 Color Computer 2. I was positive that was where he’d hidden the First Gate. And the second line of text inscribed on the Copper Key told me how to reach it:
On the deepest level of Daggorath.
Dagorath was a word in Sindarin, the Elvish language J. R. R. Tolkien had created for The Lord of the Rings. The word dagorath meant “battle,” but Tolkien had spelled the word with just one “g,” not two. “Daggorath” (with two “g”s) could refer only to one thing: an incredibly obscure computer game called Dungeons of Daggorath released in 1982. The game had been made for just one platform, the TRS-80 Color Computer.
Halliday had written in Anorak’s Almanac that Dungeons of Daggorath was the game that made him decide he wanted to become a videogame designer.
And Dungeons of Daggorath was one of the games sitting in the shoebox next to the TRS-80 in the re-creation of Halliday’s childhood bedroom.
So all I had to do was teleport to Middletown, go to Halliday’s house, sit down at his TRS-80, play the game, reach the bottom level of the dungeon, and … that was where I’d find the First Gate.
At least, that was my interpretation.
Middletown was in Sector Seven, a long way from Ludus. But I’d collected more than enough gold and treasure to pay for the teleportation fare to get there. By my avatar’s previous standards, I was now filthy rich.
I checked the time: 11:03 p.m., OST (OASIS Server Time, which also happened to be Eastern Standard Time). I had eight hours before I had to be at school. That might be enough time. I could go for it, right now. Sprint like hell, back up through the dungeon to the surface, then hightail it back to the nearest transport terminal. From there, I could teleport directly to Middletown. If I left right now, I should be able to reach Halliday’s TRS-80 in under an hour.
I knew I should get some sleep first. I’d been logged into the OASIS for almost fifteen solid hours. And tomorrow was Friday. I could teleport to Middletown right after school and then I’d have the whole weekend to tackle the First Gate.
But who was I kidding? There was no way I’d be able to sleep tonight, or sit through school tomorrow. I had to go now.
I began to sprint for the exit, but then stopped in the middle of the chamber. Through the open door, I saw a long shadow bouncing on the wall, accompanied by the echo of approaching footsteps.
A few seconds later, the silhouette of an avatar appeared in the doorway. I was about to reach for my sword when I realized I was still holding the Copper Key in my hand. I shoved it into a pouch on my belt and fumbled my sword out of its scabbard. As I raised my blade, the avatar spoke.
“Who the hell are you?” the silhouette demanded. The voice sounded like it belonged to a young woman. One who was itching for a fight.
When I failed to answer, a stocky female avatar stepped out of the shadows and into the chamber’s flickering torchlight. She had raven hair, styled Joan-of-Arc short, and appeared to be in her late teens or early twenties. As she got closer, I realized that I knew her. We’d never actually met, but I recognized her face from the dozens of screenshots she’d posted to her blog over the years.
It was Art3mis.
She wore a suit of scaled gunmetal-blue armor that looked more sci-fi than fantasy. Twin blaster pistols were slung low on her hips in quickdraw holsters, and there was a long, curved elvish sword in a scabbard across her back. She wore fingerless Road Warrior–style racing gloves and a pair of classic Ray-Ban shades. Overall, she seemed to be going for a sort of mid-’80s postapocalyptic cyberpunk girl-next-door look. And it was working for me, in a big way. In a word: hot.
As she walked toward me, the heels of her studded combat boots clicked on the stone floor. She halted just out of my sword’s reach but did not draw her own blade. Instead, she slid her shades up onto her avatar’s forehead—a blatant affectation, since sunglasses didn’t actually affect a player’s vision—and looked me up and down, making a show of sizing me up.
For a moment I was too star-struck to speak. To break my paralysis, I reminded myself that the person operating the avatar in front of me might not be a woman at all. This “girl,” whom I’d been cyber-crushing on for the past three years, might very well be an obese, hairy-knuckled guy named Chuck. Once I’d conjured up that sobering image, I was able to focus on my situation, and the question at hand: What was she doing here? After five years of searching, I thought it was highly improbable that we’d both discovered the Copper Key’s hiding place on the same night. Too big of a coincidence.
“Cat got your tongue?” she asked. “I said: Who. The hell. Are you?”
Like her, I had my avatar’s nametag switched off. Clearly, I wanted to remain anonymous, especially under the circumstances. Couldn’t she take the hint?
“Greetings,” I said, bowing slightly. “I am Juan Sánchez Villa-Lobos Ramírez.”
She smirked. “Chief metallurgist to King Charles the Fifth of Spain?”
“At your service,” I replied, grinning. She’d caught my obscure Highlander quote and thrown another right back at me. It was Art3mis, all right.
“Cute.” She glanced over my shoulder, up at the empty dais, then back at me. “So, spill it. How did you do?”
“Do at what?”
“Jousting against Acererak?” she said, as if it were obvious.
Suddenly, I understood. This wasn’t the first time she’d been here. I wasn’t the first gunter to decipher the Limerick and find the Tomb of Horrors. Art3mis had beaten me to it. And since she knew about the Joust game, she’d obviously already faced the lich herself. But if she already had the Copper Key, there wouldn’t be any reason for her to come back here. So she clearly didn’t have the key yet. She’d faced the lich at Joust and he’d beaten her. So she’d come back to try again. For all I knew, this could be her eighth or ninth attempt. And she obviously assumed the lich had beaten me, too.