I didn’t think the Sixers would be foolish enough to try to barricade all 512 instances of the white house. That strategy had worked for them on Ludus, but only for a few hours, and they’d only had one location to barricade. The entire planet of Frobozz was in a PvP zone, and both magic and technology functioned here, which meant that all bets were off. There would be hordes of gunters arriving here soon, armed to the teeth, and if the Sixers tried to keep all of them at bay, it would mean war on a scale never before seen in the history of the OASIS.
As I continued running across the field and up the ramp of my ship, I spotted a large squadron of gunships, about a hundred or so, descending from the sky directly above my location. They appeared to be headed straight for me.
Max had already powered up the Vonnegut’s engines, so I shouted for him to lift off as soon as I was aboard. When I reached the cockpit controls, I threw the throttle wide open, and the descending swarm of Sixer gunships banked hard to follow me. As my ship blasted its way skyward, I began to take heavy fire from several directions. But I was lucky. My ship was fast, and my shields were top-of-the-line, so they managed to hold up long enough for me to reach orbit. But they failed a few seconds later, and the Vonnegut’s hull suffered an alarming amount of damage in the handful of seconds it took me to make the jump to light speed.
It was a close call. The bastards almost got me.
My ship was in bad shape, so instead of returning directly to my stronghold, I headed to Joe’s Garage, an orbital starship repair shop over in Sector Ten. Joe’s was an honest NPC-operated establishment, with reasonable rates and lightning-fast service. I used them whenever the Vonnegut needed repairs or upgrades.
While Joe and his boys worked on my ship, I sent Aech a brief e-mail to say thanks. I told him that whatever debt he felt he owed me was now most definitely paid in full. I also copped to being a colossally insensitive, self-centered ass**le and begged him to forgive me.
As soon as the repairs to my ship were finished, I headed back to my stronghold. Then I spent the rest of the day glued to the newsfeeds. The word about Frobozz was out, and every gunter with the means had already teleported there. Thousands of others were arriving by spacecraft every minute, to do battle with the Sixers and secure their own copy of the Jade Key.
The newsfeeds were airing live coverage of the hundreds of large-scale battles breaking out on Frobozz, around nearly every instance of the “dwelling long neglected.” The big gunter clans had once again banded together to launch a coordinated attack on the Sixers’ forces. It was the beginning of what would come to be known as the Battle of Frobozz, and casualties were already mounting on both sides.
I also kept a close eye on the Scoreboard, waiting to see evidence that the Sixers had begun to collect copies of the Jade Key while their forces held the opposition at bay. As I feared, the next score to increase was the one beside Sorrento’s IOI employee number. It jumped 17,000 points, moving him into fourth place.
Now that the Sixers knew exactly where and how to obtain the Jade Key, I expected to see their other avatars’ scores begin to jump as Sorrento’s underlings followed his lead. But to my surprise, the next avatar to snag the Jade Key was none other than Shoto. He did it less than twenty minutes after Sorrento.
Somehow, Shoto had managed to evade the hordes of Sixers currently swarming all over the planet, enter an instance of the white house, collect all nineteen of the required treasures, and obtain his copy of the key.
I continued to watch the Scoreboard, expecting to see his brother Daito’s score increase as well. But that never happened.
Instead, a few minutes after Shoto obtained his copy of the key, Daito’s name disappeared from the Scoreboard entirely. There was only one possible explanation: Daito had just been killed.
Over the next twelve hours, chaos continued to reign on Frobozz as every gunter in the OASIS scrambled to reach the planet and join the fray.
The Sixers had dispersed their grand army across the globe in a bold attempt to blockade all 512 copies of the Zork playing field. But their forces, as vast and well-equipped as they were, were spread far too thin this time. Only seven more of their avatars managed to obtain the Jade Key that day. And when the gunter clans began their coordinated attack on the Sixers’ forces, the “boobs in blue” began to suffer heavy casualties and were forced to pull back.
Within a matter of hours, the Sixer high command decided to deploy a new strategy. It had quickly become obvious that they wouldn’t be able to maintain over five hundred different blockades or fend off the massive influx of gunters. So they regrouped all of their forces around ten adjacent instances of the Zork playing field near the planet’s south pole. They installed powerful force shields over each of them and stationed armored battalions outside the shield walls.
This scaled-down strategy worked, and the Sixers’ forces proved sufficient to hold those ten locations and prevent any other gunters from getting inside (and there wasn’t much reason for other gunters to try, since over five hundred other instances of Zork now stood wide open and unprotected). Now that the Sixers could operate undisturbed, they basically formed ten lines of avatars outside each white house and began to run them through the process of obtaining the Jade Key, one after another. Everyone could plainly see what they were doing, because the digits beside each IOI employee number on the Scoreboard began to increase by 15,000 points.
At the same time, hundreds of gunter scores were increasing as well. Now that the location of the Jade Key was public knowledge, deciphering the Quatrain and figuring out how to obtain the key was relatively easy. It was there for the taking to anyone who had already cleared the First Gate.
As the Battle of Frobozz drew to a close, the rankings on the Scoreboard stood like this:
1. Art3mis 129,000
2. Parzival 128,000
3. Aech 127,000
4. IOI-655321 122,000
5. Shoto 122,000
6. IOI-643187 120,000
7. IOI-621671 120,000
8. IOI-678324 120,000
9. IOI-637330 120,000
10. IOI-699423 120,000
Even though Shoto had matched Sorrento’s score of 122,000 points, Sorrento had achieved that score first, which must be the reason he’d remained in the higher slot. The relatively small point bonuses Art3mis, Aech, Shoto, and I had received for being the first to reach the Copper and Jade keys were what kept our names in the hallowed “High Five” slots. Sorrento had now earned one of these bonuses too. Seeing his IOI employee number above Shoto’s name made me cringe.
Scrolling down, I saw that the Scoreboard was now over five thousand names long, with more being added every hour as new avatars finally managed to defeat Acererak at Joust and collect their own instance of the Copper Key.
No one on the message boards seemed to know what had happened to Daito, but the common assumption was that he’d been killed by the Sixers during the first few minutes of the Battle of Frobozz. Rumors about exactly how he had died were running rampant, but no one had actually been witness to his demise. Except for maybe Shoto, and he’d vanished. I sent him a few chat requests, but got no reply. Like me, I assumed he was focusing all of his energy on finding the Second Gate before the Sixers did.
I sat in my stronghold, staring at the Jade Key and reciting the words etched into its spine, over and over, like a maddening mantra:
Continue your quest by taking the test
Continue your quest by taking the test
Continue your quest by taking the test
Yes, but what test? What test was I supposed to take? The Kobayashi Maru? The Pepsi Challenge? Could the clue have been any more vague?
I reached under my visor and rubbed my eyes in frustration. I decided I needed to take a break and get some sleep. I pulled up my avatar’s inventory and placed the Jade Key back inside. As I did, I noticed the silver foil wrapper in the inventory slot beside it—the wrapper that had covered the Jade Key when it first appeared in my hand.
I knew the secret to deciphering the riddle must involve the wrapper in some way, but I still couldn’t sort out how. I wondered if it might be a reference to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, but then decided against it. There hadn’t been any golden ticket inside the wrapper. It must have some other purpose or meaning.
I stared at the wrapper and pondered this until I could no longer keep my eyes open. Then I logged out and went to sleep.
A few hours later, at 6:12 a.m. OST, I was jolted awake by the gut-wrenching sound of my Scoreboard alarm alerting me that one of the top rankings had changed again.
Filled with a growing sense of dread, I logged in and pulled up the Scoreboard, unsure of what to expect. Maybe Art3mis had finally cleared Gate Two? Or perhaps Aech or Shoto had achieved that honor.
But all of their scores remained unchanged. To my horror, I saw that it was Sorrento’s score that had increased, by 200,000 points. And two gate icons now appeared beside it.
Sorrento had just become the first person to find and clear the Second Gate. As a result, his avatar now stood in first place, at the top of the Scoreboard.
I sat there frozen, staring at Sorrento’s employee number, silently weighing the repercussions of what had just happened.
Upon exiting the gate, Sorrento would have been given a clue as to the location of the Crystal Key. The key that would open the third and final gate. So now the Sixers were the only ones who possessed that clue. Which meant they were now closer to finding Halliday’s Easter egg than anyone had ever been.