“I’m in love with you, Arty.”
She didn’t respond at first. She just looked at me in shock as our avatars continued to drift in orbit around each other, moving on autopilot. Then she switched to a private voice channel, so no one could eavesdrop on our conversation.
“You aren’t in love with me, Z,” she said. “You don’t even know me.”
“Yes I do,” I insisted. “I know you better than I’ve ever known anyone in my entire life.”
“You only know what I want you to know. You only see what I want you to see.” She placed a hand on her chest. “This isn’t my real body, Wade. Or my real face.”
“I don’t care! I’m in love with your mind—with the person you are. I couldn’t care less about the packaging.”
“You’re just saying that,” she said. There was an unsteadiness in her voice. “Trust me. If I ever let you see me in person, you would be repulsed.”
“Why do you always say that?”
“Because I’m hideously deformed. Or I’m a paraplegic. Or I’m actually sixty-three years old. Take your pick.”
“I don’t care if you’re all three of those things. Tell me where to meet you and I’ll prove it. I’ll get on a plane right now and fly to wherever you are. You know I will.”
She shook her head. “You don’t live in the real world, Z. From what you’ve told me, I don’t think you ever have. You’re like me. You live inside this illusion.” She motioned to our virtual surroundings. “You can’t possibly know what real love is.”
“Don’t say that!” I was starting to cry and didn’t bother hiding it from her. “Is it because I told you I’ve never had a real girlfriend? And that I’m a virgin? Because—”
“Of course not,” she said. “That isn’t what this is about. At all.”
“Then what is it about? Tell me. Please.”
“The Hunt. You know that. We’ve both been neglecting our quests to hang out with each other. We should be focused on finding the Jade Key right now. You can bet that’s what Sorrento and the Sixers are doing. And everyone else.”
“To hell with our competition! And the egg!” I shouted. “Didn’t you hear what I just said? I’m in love with you! And I want to be with you. More than anything.”
She just stared at me. Or rather, her avatar stared blankly back at my avatar. Then she said, “I’m sorry, Z. This is all my fault. I let this get way out of hand. It has to stop.”
“What do you mean? What has to stop?”
“I think we should take a break. Stop spending so much time together.”
I felt like I’d been punched in the throat. “Are you breaking up with me?”
“No, Z,” she said firmly. “I am not breaking up with you. That would be impossible, because we are not together.” There was suddenly venom in her voice. “We’ve never even met!”
“So then … you’re just going to … stop talking to me?”
“Yes. I think that would be for the best.”
“For how long?”
“Until the Hunt is over.”
“But, Arty … That could take years.”
“I realize that. And I’m sorry. But this is how it has to be.”
“So winning that money is more important to you than me?”
“It’s not about the money. It’s about what I could do with it.”
“Right. Saving the world. You’re so f**king noble.”
“Don’t be a jerk,” she said. “I’ve been searching for the egg for over five years. So have you. Now we’re closer than ever to finding it. I can’t just throw my chance away.”
“I’m not asking you to.”
“Yes, you are. Even if you don’t realize it.”
The Cyndi Lauper song ended and Og queued up another dance track—“James Brown Is Dead” by L.A. Style. The club erupted in applause.
I felt like a large wooden stake had been driven into my chest.
Art3mis was about to say something more—good-bye, I think—when we heard a thunderous boom directly up above us. At first, I thought it was Og, train-wrecking into a new dance track. But then I looked up and saw the large chunks of rubble tumbling at high speed onto the dance floor as avatars scattered to get out of the way. A gaping hole had just been blasted in the roof of the club, near the top of the globe. And a small army of Sixers was now pouring through it, swooping into the club on jet packs, firing blaster pistols as they came.
Total chaos broke out. Half of the avatars in the club swarmed toward the exit, while the other half drew weapons or began to cast spells, firing laser bolts, bullets, and fireballs back at the invading Sixers. There were more than a hundred of them, all armed to the teeth.
I couldn’t believe the Sixers’ bravado. Why would they be dumb enough to attack a room full of high-level gunters, on their own turf? They might kill a few of us, but they were going to lose some or all of their own avatars in the process. And for what?
Then I realized that most of the Sixers’ incoming fire seemed to be directed at me and Art3mis. They were here to kill the two of us.
The news that Art3mis and I were here must have already hit the newsfeeds. And when Sorrento had learned that the top two gunters on the Scoreboard were hanging out in an unshielded PvP zone, he must have decided that it was too juicy a target to pass up. This was the Sixers’ chance to take out their two biggest competitors in one shot. It was worth wasting a hundred or so of their highest-level avatars.
I knew my own recklessness had brought them down on us. I cursed myself for being so foolish. Then I drew my blasters and began to unload them at the cluster of Sixers nearest to me while also doing my best to dodge their incoming fire. I glanced over at Art3mis just in time to see her incinerate a dozen Sixers in the space of five seconds, using balls of blue plasma that she hurled out of her palms, while ignoring the steady stream of laser bolts and magic missiles ricocheting off her transparent body shield. I was taking heavy fire too. So far my own body shield was holding up, but it wasn’t going to last much longer. Failure warnings were already flashing on my display, and my hit-point counter was starting to plummet.
In seconds, the situation escalated into the largest confrontation I’d ever witnessed. And it already seemed clear that Art3mis and I were going to be on the losing side.
I noticed that the music still hadn’t stopped.
I glanced up at the DJ booth just in time to see it crack open as the Great and Powerful Og emerged from within. He looked really, really annoyed.
“You jerks think you can crash my birthday party?” he shouted. His avatar was still wearing a mic, so his words blasted over the club’s speaker array, reverberating like the voice of God. The melee seemed to halt for a split second as all eyes turned to look at Og, who was now floating at the center of the dance floor. He stretched out his arms as he turned to face the onslaught of Sixers.
A dozen tines of red lightning erupted from each of Og’s fingertips, branching out in all directions. Each tine struck a different Sixer avatar in the chest while somehow arcing harmlessly around everyone else.
In a millisecond, every single Sixer in the club was completely vaporized. Their avatars froze and glowed bright red for a few seconds, then simply vanished.
I was awestruck. It was the most incredible display of power by an avatar I’d ever seen.
“Nobody busts into my joint uninvited!” Og shouted, his voice echoing through the now-silent club. The remaining avatars (the ones who hadn’t fled the club in terror or been killed in the brief battle) let out a victorious cheer. Og flew back into the DJ booth, which closed up around him like a transparent cocoon. “Let’s get this party going again, shall we?” he said, dropping a needle on a techno remix of “Atomic” by Blondie. It took a moment for the shock to wear off, but then everyone started to dance again.
I looked around for Art3mis, but she seemed to have vanished. Then I spotted her avatar flying out of the new exit the Sixer attack had created. She stopped and hovered outside a moment, just long enough to glance back at me.
My computer woke me up just before sundown, and I began my daily ritual.
“I’m up!” I shouted at the darkness. In the weeks since Art3mis had dumped me, I’d had a hard time getting out of bed in the morning. So I’d disabled my alarm’s snooze feature and instructed the computer to blast “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” by Wham! I loathed that song with every fiber of my being, and getting up was the only way to silence it. It wasn’t the most pleasant way to start my day, but it got me moving.
The song cut off, and my haptic chair reshaped and reoriented itself, transforming from a bed back into its chair configuration, lifting me into a sitting position as it did so. The computer began to bring the lights up slowly, allowing my eyes to adjust. No outside light ever penetrated my apartment. The single window had once provided a view of the Columbus skyline, but I’d spray-painted it completely black a few days after I moved in. I’d decided that everything outside the window was a distraction from my quest, so I didn’t need to waste time staring at it. I didn’t want to hear the outside world, either, but I hadn’t been able to improve upon the apartment’s existing soundproofing. So I had to live with the muffled sounds of wind and rain, and of street and air traffic. Even these could be a distraction. At times, I’d slip into a kind of trance, sitting with my eyes closed, oblivious to the passage of time, listening to the sounds of the world outside my room.