“And while you’re busy making your way back up to the surface, I’ll have another shot at defeating Acererak. And this time I’m gonna destroy him. Then I’ll be right behind you, mister.”
I folded my arms. “If the king has been beating your ass for the past five weeks, what makes you think you’re finally going to win tonight?”
“Competition brings out the best in me,” she replied. “It always has. And now I’ve got some serious competition.”
I glanced over at the magical barrier she’d created. She was over fiftieth level, so it would remain in existence for the spell’s maximum duration: fifteen minutes. All I could do was stand there and wait for it to dissipate. “You’re evil, you know that?” I said.
She grinned and shook her head. “Chaotic Neutral, sugar.”
I grinned back at her. “I’m still going to beat you to the First Gate, you know.”
“Probably,” she said. “But this is just the beginning. You’ll still have to clear it. And there are still two more keys to find, and two more gates to clear. Plenty of time for me to catch up with you, and then leave you in the dust, ace.”
“We’ll see about that, lady.”
She motioned to the window displaying the Scoreboard. “You’re famous now,” she said. “You realize what that means, don’t you?”
“I haven’t had much time to think about it yet.”
“Well, I have. I’ve been thinking about it for the past five weeks. Your avatar’s name on that Scoreboard is going to change everything. The public will become obsessed with the contest again, just like when it first began. The media is already going berserk. By tomorrow, Parzival will be a household name.”
That thought made me a little queasy.
“You could become famous in the real world too,” she said. “If you reveal your true identity to the media.”
“I’m not an idiot.”
“Good. Because there are billions of dollars up for grabs, and now everyone is going to assume you know how and where to find the egg. There are a lot of people who would kill for that information.”
“I know that,” I said. “And I appreciate your concern. But I’ll be fine.”
But I didn’t feel fine. I hadn’t really considered any of this, maybe because I’d never really believed I would actually be in this position.
We stood there in silence, watching the clock and waiting. “What would you do if you won?” she suddenly asked. “How would you spend all that money?”
I had spent a lot of time thinking about that. I daydreamed about it all the time. Aech and I had made absurd lists of things we would do and buy if we won the prize.
“I don’t know,” I said. “The usual, I guess. Move into a mansion. Buy a bunch of cool shit. Not be poor.”
“Wow. Big dreamer,” she said. “And after you buy your mansion and your ‘cool shit,’ what will you do with the hundred and thirty billion you’ll have left over?”
Not wanting her to think I was some shallow idiot, I impulsively blurted out what I’d always dreamed of doing if I won. It was something I’d never told anyone.
“I’d have a nuclear-powered interstellar spacecraft constructed in Earth’s orbit,” I said. “I’d stock it with a lifetime supply of food and water, a self-sustaining biosphere, and a supercomputer loaded with every movie, book, song, videogame, and piece of artwork that human civilization has ever created, along with a stand-alone copy of the OASIS. Then I’d invite a few of my closest friends to come aboard, along with a team of doctors and scientists, and we’d all get the hell out of Dodge. Leave the solar system and start looking for an extrasolar Earthlike planet.”
I hadn’t thought this plan all the way through yet, of course. I still had a lot of details to work out.
She raised an eyebrow. “That’s pretty ambitious,” she said. “But you do realize that nearly half the people on this planet are starving, right?” I detected no malice in her voice. She sounded like she genuinely believed I might not be aware of this fact.
“Yes, I know,” I said defensively. “The reason so many people are starving is because we’ve wrecked the planet. The Earth is dying, you know? It’s time to leave.”
“That’s a pretty negative outlook,” she said. “If I win that dough, I’m going to make sure everyone on this planet has enough to eat. Once we tackle world hunger, then we can figure out how to fix the environment and solve the energy crisis.”
I rolled my eyes. “Right,” I said. “And after you pull off that miracle, you can genetically engineer a bunch of Smurfs and unicorns to frolic around this new perfect world you’ve created.”
“I’m being serious,” she said.
“You really think it’s that simple?” I said. “That you can just write a check for two hundred and forty billion dollars and fix all the world’s problems?”
“I don’t know. Maybe not. But I’m gonna give it a shot.”
“If you win.”
“Right. If I win.”
Just then, the OASIS server clock struck midnight. We both knew the second it happened, because the throne reappeared atop the dais, along with Acererak. He sat there motionless, looking just like he did when I’d first entered the room.
Art3mis glanced up at him, then back at me. She smiled and gave me a small wave. “I’ll see you around, Parzival.”
“Yeah,” I replied. “See ya.” She turned and began to walk toward the dais. I called after her. “Hey, Art3mis?”
She turned back. For some reason I felt compelled to help her, even though I knew I shouldn’t. “Try playing on the left side,” I said. “That’s how I won. I think he might be easier to beat if he’s playing the stork.”
She stared at me for a second, possibly trying to gauge whether I was messing with her. Then she nodded and ascended the dais. Acererak came to life as soon as she set foot on the first step.
“Greetings, Art3mis,” his voice boomed. “What is it that you seek?”
I couldn’t hear her reply, but a few seconds later the throne transformed into the Joust game, just as it had earlier. Art3mis said something to the lich and the two of them switched sides, so that she was on the left. Then they began to play.
I watched them play from a distance until a few minutes later, when her Barrier spell dissipated. I cast one last glance up at Art3mis, then threw open the door and ran out.
It took me a little over an hour to make my way back through the tomb and up to the surface. The instant I crawled outside, a MESSAGES WAITING indicator began to flash on my display. I realized then that Halliday had placed the tomb inside a null-communication zone, so no one could receive calls, texts, or e-mail while they were inside. Probably to prevent gunters from calling for help or advice.
I checked my messages and saw that Aech had been trying to reach me since the moment my name appeared on the Scoreboard. He’d called over a dozen times and had also sent several text messages asking me what in the sweet name of Christ was going on and screaming at me in ALL CAPS to call him back right now. Just as I’d finished deleting these messages, I received another incoming call. It was Aech trying once again to reach me. I decided not to pick up. Instead, I sent him a short text message, promising to call as soon as I could.
As I ran out of the forest, I kept the Scoreboard up in the corner of my display so I’d know immediately if Art3mis won her Joust match and obtained the key. When I finally reached the transport terminal and jumped into the nearest booth, it was just after two o’clock in the morning.
I entered my destination on the booth’s touchscreen, and a map of Middletown appeared on the display. I was prompted to select one of the planet’s 256 transport terminals as my arrival point.
When Halliday had created Middletown, he hadn’t placed just a single re-creation of his hometown there. He’d made 256 identical copies of it, spread out evenly across the planet’s surface. I didn’t think it would matter which copy of his hometown I went to, so I selected one at random, near the equator. Then I tapped CONFIRM to pay the fare, and my avatar vanished.
A millisecond later, I was standing inside a vintage 1980s phone booth located inside an old Greyhound bus station. I opened the door and stepped out. It was like stepping out of a time machine. Several NPCs milled around, all dressed in mid-1980s attire. A woman with a giant ozone-depleting hairdo bobbed her head to an oversize Walkman. A kid in a gray Members Only jacket leaned against the wall, working on a Rubik’s Cube. A Mohawked punk rocker sat in a plastic chair, watching a Riptide rerun on a coin-operated television.
I located the exit and headed for it, drawing my sword as I went. The entire surface of Middletown was a PvP zone, so I had to proceed with caution.
Shortly after the Hunt began, this planet had turned into Grand Central Station, and all 256 copies of Halliday’s hometown had been scoured and ransacked by an endless parade of gunters, all searching for keys and clues. The popular theory on the message boards was that Halliday had created multiple copies of his hometown so that several avatars could search it at the same time without fighting over a single location. Of course, all of this searching had yielded a big fat doughnut. No keys. No clues. No egg. Since then, interest in the planet had waned dramatically. But some gunters probably still came here on occasion.