As we pulled into the Columbus bus terminal, my OASIS connection cut out. As I pulled off my visor and filed off the bus with the other passengers, the reality of my situation finally began to hit home. I was now a fugitive, living under an assumed name. Powerful people were out looking for me. People who wanted me dead.

As I stepped off the bus, I suddenly felt as though a heavy weight were resting on my chest. I was having a hard time breathing. Maybe I was having a panic attack. I forced myself to take deep breaths and tried to calm down. All I had to do was to get to my new apartment, set up my rig, and log back into the OASIS. Then everything would be all right. I would be back in familiar surroundings. I would be safe.

I hailed an autocab and entered my new address on the touchscreen. The synthesized voice of the cab’s computer told me the drive would take an estimated thirty-two minutes with the current traffic conditions. During the ride, I stared out the window at the dark city streets. I still felt light-headed and anxious. I kept glancing at the meter to see how much farther we had to go. Finally, the cab pulled up in front of my new apartment building, a slate-gray monolith on the banks of the Scioto, just at the edge of the Twin Rivers ghetto. I noticed a discolored outline on the building’s façade where the Hilton logo used to be, back when the place had been a hotel.

I thumbed my fare and climbed out of the cab. Then I took one last look around, inhaled one final breath of fresh air, and carried my bag through the front door and into the lobby. When I stepped inside the security checkpoint cage, my fingerprints and retinal patterns were scanned, and my new name flashed on the monitor. A green light lit up and the cage door slid open, allowing me to continue on to the elevators.

My apartment was on the forty-second floor, number 4211. The security lock mounted outside required another retinal scan. Then the door slid open and the interior lights switched on. There was no furniture in the cube-shaped room, and only one window. I stepped inside, closed the door, and locked it behind me. Then I made a silent vow not to go outside again until I had completed my quest. I would abandon the real world altogether until I found the egg.

Level Two

I’m not crazy about reality, but it’s still the only place to get a decent meal.

—Groucho Marx

Chapter 17

Art3mis: You there?

Parzival: Yes! Hey! I can’t believe you finally responded to one of my chat requests.


Art3mis: Only to ask you to cut it out. It’s a bad idea for us to start chatting.

Parzival: Why? I thought we were friends.

Art3mis: You seem like a great guy. But we’re competitors. Rival gunters. Sworn enemies. You know the drill.

Parzival: We don’t have to talk about anything related to the Hunt.…

Art3mis: Everything is related to the Hunt.

Parzival: Come on. At least give it at shot. Let’s start over. Hi, Art3mis! How have you been?

Art3mis: Fine. Thanks for asking. You?

Parzival: Outstanding. Listen, why are we using this ancient text-only chat interface? I can host a virtual chat room for us.

Art3mis: I prefer this.

Parzival: Why?

Art3mis: As you may recall, I tend to ramble in real time. When I have to type out everything I want to say, I come off as less of a flibbertigibbet.

Parzival: I don’t think you’re a flibbertigibbet. You’re enchanting.

Art3mis: Did you just use the word “enchanting”?

Parzival: What I typed is right there in front of you, isn’t it?

Art3mis: That’s very sweet. But you’re full of crap.

Parzival: I am totally and completely serious.

Art3mis: So, how’s life at the top of the Scoreboard, hotshot? Sick of being famous yet?

Parzival: I don’t feel famous.

Art3mis: Are you kidding? The whole world is dying to find out who you really are. You’re a rock star, man.

Parzival: You’re just as famous as I am. And if I’m such a rock star, how come the media always portrays me as some unwashed geek who never goes outside?

Art3mis: I take it you saw that SNL skit they did about us?

Parzival: Yes. Why does everyone assume I’m an antisocial nut job?

Art3mis: You’re not antisocial?

Parzival: No! Maybe. OK, yes. But I have excellent personal hygiene.

Art3mis: At least they got your gender correct. Everyone thinks I’m a man in real life.

Parzival: That’s because most gunters are male, and they can’t accept the idea that a woman has beaten and/or outsmarted them.

Art3mis: I know. Neanderthals.

Parzival: So you’re telling me, definitively, that you are a female? IRL?

Art3mis: You should have already figured that out on your own, Clouseau.

Parzival: I did. I have.

Art3mis: Have you?

Parzival: Yes. After analyzing the available data, I’ve concluded that you must be a female.

Art3mis: Why must I?

Parzival: Because I don’t want to find out that I’ve got a crush on some 300 lb. dude named Chuck who lives in his mother’s basement in suburban Detroit.

Art3mis: You’ve got a crush on me?

Parzival: You should have already figured that out on your own, Clouseau.

Art3mis: What if I were a 300 lb. gal named Charlene, who lives in her mom’s basement in suburban Detroit? Would you still have a crush on me then?

Parzival: I don’t know. Do you live in your mother’s basement?

Art3mis: No.

Parzival: Yeah. Then I probably still would.

Art3mis: So I’m supposed to believe you’re one of those mythical guys who only cares about a woman’s personality, and not about the package it comes in?

Parzival: Why is it that you assume I’m a man?

Art3mis: Please. It’s obvious. I get nothing but boy-vibes coming from you.

Parzival: Boy-vibes? What, do I use masculine sentence structure or something?

Art3mis: Don’t change the subject. You were saying you have a crush on me?

Parzival: I’ve had a crush on you since before we even met. From reading your blog and watching your POV. I’ve been cyber-stalking you for years.

Art3mis: But you still don’t really know anything about me. Or my real personality.

Parzival: This is the OASIS. We exist as nothing but raw personality in here.

Art3mis: I beg to differ. Everything about our online personas is filtered through our avatars, which allows us to control how we look and sound to others. The OASIS lets you be whoever you want to be. That’s why everyone is addicted to it.

Parzival: So, IRL, you’re nothing like the person I met that night in the tomb?

Art3mis: That was just one side of me. The side I chose to show you.

Parzival: Well, I liked that side. And if you showed me your other sides, I’m sure I’d like those, too.

Art3mis: You say that now. But I know how these things work. Sooner or later, you’ll demand to see a picture of the real me.

Parzival: I’m not the sort who makes demands. Besides, I’m definitely not going to show you a photo of me.

Art3mis: Why? Are you butt ugly?

Parzival: You’re such a hypocrite!

Art3mis: So? Answer the question, Claire. Are you ugly?

Parzival: I must be.

Art3mis: Why?

Parzival: The female of the species has always found me repellent.

Art3mis: I don’t find you repellent.

Parzival: Of course not. That’s because you’re an obese man named Chuck who likes to chat up ugly young boys online.

Art3mis: So you’re a young man?

Parzival: Relatively young.

Art3mis: Relative to what?

Parzival: To a fifty-three-year-old guy like you, Chuck. Does your mom let you live in that basement rent-free or what?

Art3mis: Is that really what you’re picturing?

Parzival: If it were, I wouldn’t be chatting with you right now.

Art3mis: So what do you imagine I look like, then?

Parzival: Like your avatar, I suppose. Except, you know, without the armor, guns, or glowing sword.

Art3mis: You’re kidding, right? That’s the first rule of online romances, pal. No one ever looks anything like their avatar.

Parzival: Are we going to have an online romance?

Art3mis: No way, ace. Sorry.

Parzival: Why not?

Art3mis: No time for love, Dr. Jones. My cyber- p**n  addiction eats up most of my free time. And searching for the Jade Key takes up the rest. That’s what I should be doing right now, in fact.

Parzival: Yeah. So should I. But talking to you is more fun.

Art3mis: How about you?

Parzival: How about me what?

Art3mis: Do you have time for an online romance?

Parzival: I’ve got time for you.

Art3mis: You’re too much.

Parzival: I’m not even laying it on thick yet.

Art3mis: Do you have a job? Or are you still in high school?

Parzival: High school. I graduate next week.

Art3mis: You shouldn’t reveal stuff like that! I could be a Sixer spy trying to profile you.

Parzival: The Sixers already profiled me, remember? They blew up my house. Well, it was a trailer. But they blew it up.

Art3mis: I know. I’m still freaked out about that. I can only imagine how you feel.

Parzival: Revenge is a dish best served cold.

Art3mis: Bon appetit. What do you do when you’re not hunting?

Parzival: I refuse to answer any more questions until you start reciprocating.

Art3mis: Fine. Quid pro quo, Dr. Lecter. We’ll take turns asking questions. Go ahead.

Parzival: Do you work, or go to school?

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