They bowed in unison. Aech and Art3mis returned the bow, and I quickly followed suit. As we each introduced ourselves, Daito and Shoto bowed to us once again, and once again we each returned the gesture.

“All right,” Aech said, once all the bowing had ended. “Let’s get this party started. I’m sure you’ve all seen the news. The Sixers are swarming all over Ludus. Thousands of them. They’re conducting a systematic search of the entire surface of the planet. Even if they don’t know exactly what they’re looking for, it still won’t be long before they find the entrance to the tomb—”

“Actually,” Art3mis interrupted, “they already found it. Over thirty minutes ago.”

We all turned to look at her.

“That hasn’t been reported on the newsfeeds yet,” Daito said. “Are you sure?”

She nodded. “Afraid so. When I heard about the Sixers this morning, I decided to hide an uplink camera in some trees near the tomb entrance, to keep an eye on the area.” She opened a vidfeed window in the air in front of her and spun it around so the rest of us could see. It showed a wide shot of the flat-topped hill and the clearing around it, looking down from a spot in one of the trees high above. From this angle, it was easy to see that the large black stones on top of the hill were arranged to look like a human skull. We could also see that the entire area was crawling with Sixers, and more seemed to be arriving every second.

But the most disturbing thing we saw on the vidfeed was the large transparent dome of energy that now covered the entire hill.

“Son of a bitch,” Aech said. “Is that what I think it is?”

Art3mis nodded. “A force field. The Sixers installed it just after the first of them arrived. So …”

“So from here on out,” Daito said, “any gunter who finds the tomb won’t be able to get inside. Not unless they can somehow get through that force field.”

“Actually, they’ve put up two force fields,” Art3mis said. “A small field with a larger field over it. They lower them in sequence, whenever they want to let more Sixers enter the tomb. Like an air lock.” She pointed to the window. “Watch. They’re doing it now.”


A squadron of Sixers marched down the loading ramp of a gunship parked nearby. They were all lugging equipment containers. As they approached the outer force field, it vanished, revealing a smaller domed field inside the first. As soon as the squadron reached the wall of the inner force field, the outer field reappeared. A second later, the inner force field was dropped, allowing the Sixers to enter the tomb.

There was a long silence while we all contemplated this new development.

“I suppose it could be worse,” Aech said finally. “If the tomb were in a PvP zone, those ass**les would already have laser cannons and robot sentries mounted everywhere, to vaporize anyone who approached the area.”

He was right. Since Ludus was a safe zone, the Sixers couldn’t harm gunters who approached the tomb. But there was nothing to stop them from erecting a force field to keep them out. So that was exactly what they’d done.

“The Sixers have obviously been planning for this moment for some time now,” Art3mis said, closing her vidfeed window.

“They won’t be able to keep everyone out for very long,” Aech said. “When the clans find out about this, it’ll be all-out war. There will be thousands of gunters attacking that force field with everything they’ve got. RPGs. Fireballs. Cluster bombs. Nukes. It’s gonna get ugly. They’ll turn that forest into a wasteland.”

“Yeah, but in the meantime, Sixer avatars will be farming the Copper Key and then filing their avatars through the First Gate, one after another, in a freakin’ conga line.”

“But how can they do this?” Shoto asked, his young voice brimming with rage. He looked to his brother. “It’s not fair. They’re not playing fair.”

“They don’t have to. There are no laws in the OASIS, little brother,” Daito said. “The Sixers can do whatever they please. They won’t stop until someone stops them.”

“The Sixers have no honor,” Shoto said, scowling.

“You guys don’t know the half of it,” Aech said. “That’s why Parzival and I asked you all here.” He turned to me. “Z, do you want to tell them what happened?”

I nodded and turned to the others. First, I told them about the e-mail I’d received from IOI. They’d all received the same invitation, but had wisely ignored it. Then I related the details of my chat-room session with Sorrento, doing my best not to leave anything out. Finally, I told them how our conversation had ended—with a bomb detonating at my home address. By the time I’d finished, their avatars all wore looks of stunned disbelief.

“Jesus,” Art3mis whispered. “No joke? They tried to kill you?”

“Yeah. They would have succeeded, too, if I’d been at home. I was just lucky.”

“Now you all know how far the Sixers are willing to go to stop us from beating them to the egg,” Aech said. “If they’re able to locate any one of us, we’re dead meat.”

I nodded. “So you should all take precautions to protect yourselves and your identities,” I said. “If you haven’t already.”

They all nodded. There was another long silence.

“There’s still one thing I don’t understand,” Art3mis said a moment later. “How did the Sixers know to look for the tomb on Ludus? Did someone tip them off?” She glanced around at each of us, but there was no hint of accusation in her voice.

“They must have seen the rumors about Parzival and Aech that were posted on all of the gunter message boards,” Shoto said. “That’s how we knew to look there.”

Daito winced, then punched his little brother in the shoulder. “Didn’t I tell you to keep quiet, blabbermouth?” he hissed. Shoto looked sheepish and clammed up.

“What rumors?” Art3mis asked. She looked at me. “What’s he talking about? I haven’t had time to check the boards in a few days.”

“Several posts were made by gunters who claimed to know Parzival and Aech, saying they were both students on Ludus.” He turned to Aech and me. “My brother and I have spent the past two years searching for the Tomb of Horrors. We’ve scoured dozens of worlds looking for it. But we never thought to look on Ludus. Not until we heard that you attended school there.”

“It never occurred to me that attending school on Ludus was something I needed to keep a secret,” I said. “So I didn’t.”

“Yeah, and it’s lucky for us that you didn’t,” Aech said. He turned to the others. “Parzival unintentionally tipped me off about the tomb’s location, too. I never thought to look for it on Ludus, either, until his name appeared on the Scoreboard.”

Daito nudged his younger brother, and they both faced me and bowed. “You were the first to find the tomb’s hiding place, so we owe you our gratitude for leading us to it.”

I returned their bow. “Thanks, guys. But actually, Art3mis here found it first. Totally on her own. A month before I did.”

“Yeah, for all the good it did me,” Art3mis said. “I couldn’t defeat the lich at Joust. I’d been at it for weeks when this punk showed up and did it on his first try.” She explained how we met, and how she finally managed to beat the king the following day, right after the server reset at midnight.

“I have Aech here to thank for my jousting prowess,” I said. “We used to play all the time, here in the Basement. That’s the only reason I beat the king on my first attempt.”

“Ditto,” Aech said. He stretched out his hand and we bumped fists.

Daito and Shoto both smiled. “It was the same with us,” Daito said. “My brother and I have been playing Joust against one another for years, because the game was mentioned in Anorak’s Almanac.”

“Great,” Art3mis said, throwing up her hands. “Good for you guys. You were all prepared in advance. I’m so happy for you. Bravo.” She gave us all a sarcastic golf clap, which made everyone laugh. “Now, can we adjourn the Mutual Admiration Society and get back to the topic at hand?”

“Sure,” Aech said, smiling. “What was the topic at hand?”

“The Sixers?” Art3mis offered.

“Right! Of course!” Aech rubbed the back of his neck while biting his lower lip, something he always did when he was trying to gather his thoughts. “You said they found the tomb less than an hour ago, right? So any minute now, they’ll reach the throne room and face off against the lich. But what do you think happens when multiple avatars enter the burial chamber at the same time?”

I turned to Daito and Shoto. “Your names appeared on the Scoreboard on the same day, just a few minutes apart. So you entered the throne room together, didn’t you?”

Daito nodded. “Yes,” he said. “And when we stepped on the dais, two copies of the king appeared, one for each of us to play.”

“Great,” Art3mis said. “So it might be possible for hundreds of Sixers to joust for the Copper Key at the same time. Or even thousands.”

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