“Hello?” she said, tapping her right foot impatiently. “I’m waiting?”

I considered making a break for it. Just running right past her, back out through the labyrinth and up to the surface. But if I ran, she might suspect that I had the key and decide to try to kill me to get it. The surface of Ludus was clearly marked as a safe zone on the OASIS map, so no player-versus-player combat was allowed. But I had no way of knowing if the same was true of this tomb, because it was underground, and it didn’t even appear on the planet map.

Art3mis looked like a formidable opponent. Body armor. Blaster pistols. And that elvish sword she was carrying might be vorpal. If even half of the exploits she’d mentioned on her blog were true, her avatar was probably at least fiftieth level. Or higher. If PvP combat was permitted down here, she’d kick my tenth-level ass.

So I had to play this cool. I decided to lie.

“I got creamed,” I said. “Joust isn’t really my game.”

She relaxed her posture slightly. That seemed to be the answer she wanted to hear. “Yeah, same here,” she said in a commiserating tone. “Halliday programmed old King Acererak with some pretty wicked AI, didn’t he? He’s insanely hard to beat.” She glanced down at my sword, which I was still brandishing defensively. “You can put that away. I’m not gonna bite you.”

I kept my sword raised. “Is this tomb in a PvP zone?”

“Dunno. You’re the first avatar I’ve ever run into down here.” She tilted her head slightly and smiled. “I suppose there’s only one way to find out.”

She drew her sword, lightning fast, and turned into a clockwise spin, bringing its glowing blade around and down at me, all in a single blur of motion. At the last second, I managed to tilt my own blade upward to awkwardly parry the attack. But both of our swords halted in midair, inches apart, as if held back by some invisible force. A message flashed on my display: PLAYER-VERSUS-PLAYER COMBAT NOT PERMITTED HERE!

I breathed a sigh of relief. (I wouldn’t learn until later that the keys were nontransferable. You couldn’t drop one of them, or give them to another avatar. And if you were killed while holding one, it vanished right along with your body.)

“Well, there you have it,” she said, grinning. “This is a no-PvP zone after all.” She whipped her sword around in a figure-eight pattern, then smoothly replaced it in the scabbard on her back. Very slick.


I sheathed my own sword too, but without any fancy moves. “Halliday must not have wanted anyone to duel for the right to joust the king,” I said.

“Yeah,” she said, grinning. “Lucky for you.”

“Lucky for me?” I replied, folding my arms. “How do you figure?”

She motioned to the empty dais behind me. “You must really be hurting for hit points right now, after fighting Acererak.”

So … if Acererak beat you at Joust, then you had to fight him. Good thing I won, I thought. Or else I’d probably be creating a new avatar right about now.

“I’ve got hit points galore,” I fibbed. “That lich was a total wuss.”

“Oh really?” she said suspiciously. “I’m fifty-second level, and he’s nearly killed me every time I’ve had to fight him. I have to stock up on extra healing potions every time I come down here.” She eyed me a moment, then said, “I also recognize your sword and the armor you’re wearing. You got them both right here in this dungeon, which means they’re better than whatever your avatar had before. You look like a low-level wimpazoid to me, Juan Ramírez. And I think you’re hiding something.”

Now that I knew she couldn’t attack me, I considered telling her the truth. Why not just whip out the Copper Key and show it to her? But I thought better of it. The smart move now was to split and head straight for Middletown while I still had a head start. She still didn’t have the key and might not get it for several more days. If I hadn’t already had so many hours of Joust practice under my belt, God knows how many attempts it would have taken me to beat Acererak.

“Think what you want, She-Ra,” I said, moving past her. “Maybe I’ll run in to you off-world sometime. We can duke it out then.” I gave her a small wave. “See ya ’round.”

“Where do you think you’re going?” she said, following me.

“Home,” I said, still walking.

“But what about the lich? And the Copper Key?” She motioned to the empty dais. “He’ll respawn in a few minutes. When the OASIS server clock hits midnight, the whole tomb resets. If you wait right here, you’ll get another shot at beating him, without having to make your way through all of those traps again first. That’s why I’ve been coming here just before midnight, every other day. So I can get in two attempts in a row, back-to-back.”

Clever. If I hadn’t succeeded on my first try, I wondered how long it would have taken me to figure that out. “I thought we could take turns playing against him,” I said. “I just played him, so it’ll be your turn at midnight, OK? Then I’ll come back after midnight tomorrow. We can alternate days until one of us beats him. Sound fair?”

“I suppose,” she said, studying me. “But you should stick around anyway. Something different might happen if there are two avatars here at midnight. Anorak probably prepared for that contingency. Maybe two instances of the lich will appear, one for each of us to play? Or maybe—”

“I prefer to play in private,” I said. “Let’s just take turns, OK?” I was almost to the exit when she stepped in front of me, blocking my path.

“Come on, hold up a second,” she said, her voice softening. “Please?”

I could have kept walking, right through her avatar. But I didn’t. I was desperate to get to Middletown and locate the First Gate, but I was also standing in front of the famous Art3mis, someone I’d fantasized about meeting for years. And she was even cooler in person than I’d imagined. I was dying to spend more time with her. I wanted, as the ’80s poet Howard Jones would say, to get to know her well. If I left now, I might never run into her again.

“Listen,” she said, glancing at her boots. “I apologize for calling you a low-level wimpazoid. That was not cool. I insulted you.”

“It’s OK. You were right, actually. I’m only tenth level.”

“Regardless, you’re a fellow gunter. And a clever one too, or you wouldn’t be standing here. So, I want you to know that I respect you, and acknowledge your skills. And I apologize for the trash talk.”

“Apology accepted. No worries.”

“Cool.” She looked relieved. Her avatar’s facial expressions were extremely realistic, which usually meant they were synched to those of their operator instead of controlled by software. She must’ve been using an expensive rig. “I was just a little freaked to find you here,” she said. “I mean, I knew someone else would find this place eventually. Just not this quickly. I’ve had this tomb all to myself for a while now.”

“How long?” I asked, not really expecting her to say.

She hesitated, then began to ramble. “Three weeks!” she said, exasperated. “I’ve been coming here for three freakin’ weeks, trying to beat that stupid lich at that asinine game! And his AI is ridiculous! I mean, you know. I’d never even played Joust before this, and now it’s driving me out of my gourd! I swear I was this close to finally beating his ass a few days ago, but then …” She raked her fingers through her hair in frustration. “Argh! I can’t sleep. I can’t eat. My grades are going down the tubes, because I’ve been ditching to practice Joust—”

I was about to ask if she went to school here on Ludus, but she continued to talk, faster and faster, as if a floodgate had opened in her brain. The words just poured out of her. She was barely pausing to breathe.

“—and I came here tonight, thinking this would be the night I finally beat that bastard and get the Copper Key, but when I got here, I saw that someone had already uncovered the entrance. So I realized my worst fear had finally come true. Someone else had found the tomb. So I ran all the way down here, totally freaking out. I mean, I wasn’t too worried, because I didn’t think anyone could possibly beat Acererak on their first try, but still—” She paused to take a deep breath and stopped abruptly.

“Sorry,” she said a second later. “I tend to ramble when I’m nervous. Or excited. And right now I’m sort of both, because I’ve been dying to talk to someone about all of this, but obviously I couldn’t tell a soul, right? You can’t just mention in casual conversation that you—” She cut herself off again. “Man, I’m such a motormouth! A jabberjaw. A flibbertigibbet.” She mimed zipping her lips, locking them, and tossing away the imaginary key. Without thinking, I mimed grabbing the key out of the air and unlocking her lips. This made her laugh—an honest, genuine laugh that involved a fair amount of snorting, which made me laugh too.

She was so charming. Her geeky demeanor and hyperkinetic speech pattern reminded me of Jordan, my favorite character in Real Genius. I’d never felt such an instant connection with another person, in the real world or in the OASIS. Not even with Aech. I felt light-headed.

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