“That did it!” Aech whispered. “Holy shit. I can’t believe this. We’re really here. Standing in front of the Third Gate.”
Art3mis nodded. “Finally.”
I inserted my key in the center keyhole. Aech inserted his into the keyhole on the left, and Art3mis placed hers in the keyhole on the right.
“Clockwise?” Art3mis said. “On the count of three?”
Aech and I nodded. Art3mis counted to three, and we turned our keys in unison. There was a brief flash of blue light, during which all of our keys and the crystal door itself vanished. And then the Third Gate stood open in front of us, a crystal doorway leading into a spinning whirlpool of stars.
“Wow,” I heard Art3mis whisper beside me. “Here we go.”
As the three of us stepped forward, preparing to enter the gate, I heard an earsplitting boom. It sounded like the entire universe was cracking in half.
And then we all died.
When your avatar gets killed, your screen doesn’t fade to black right away. Instead, your point of view automatically shifts to a third-person perspective, treating you to a brief out-of-body replay of your avatar’s final fate.
A split second after we heard the thunderous boom, my perspective shifted, and I found myself looking at our three avatars, standing there frozen in front of the open gate. Then an incinerating white light filled the world, accompanied by an earsplitting wall of sound. It was what I’d always pictured being fried in a nuclear blast would be like.
For a brief moment, I saw our avatars’ skeletons suspended inside the transparent outlines of our motionless bodies. Then my avatar’s hit-point counter dropped to zero.
The blast wave arrived a second later, disintegrating everything in its path—our avatars, the floor, the walls, the castle itself, and the thousands of avatars gathered around it. Everything was turned to a fine, atomized dust that hung suspended in the air for a second before slowly settling to earth.
The entire surface of the planet had been wiped clean. The area around Castle Anorak, which had been crowded with warring avatars a split second before, was now a desolate and barren wasteland. Everyone and everything had been destroyed. Only the Third Gate remained, a crystal doorway floating in the air above the crater where the castle had stood a moment before.
My initial shock quickly turned to dread as I realized what had just happened.
The Sixers had detonated the Cataclyst.
It was the only explanation. Only that incredibly powerful artifact could have done this. Not only had it killed every avatar in the sector, it had even destroyed Castle Anorak, a fortress that, until now, had proven itself to be indestructible.
I stared at the open gate, floating in the empty air, and waited for the inevitable, final message to appear in the center of my display, the words I knew every other avatar in the sector must be seeing at this very moment: GAME OVER.
But when words finally did appear on my display, it was another message entirely: CONGRATULATIONS! YOU HAVE AN EXTRA LIFE!
Then, as I watched in amazement, my avatar reappeared, fading back into existence in the exact same location where I’d died a few seconds earlier. I was standing in front of the open gate again. But the gate was now floating in midair, suspended several dozen meters above the planet’s surface, over the crater that had been created by the destruction of the castle. As my avatar finished materializing, I looked down and realized that the floor I’d been standing on earlier was now gone. So were my jet boots, and everything else I’d been carrying.
I seemed to hover in midair for a moment, like Wile E. Coyote in the old Roadrunner cartoons. Then I plummeted straight down. I made a desperate grab for the open gate in front of me, but it was well out of reach.
I hit the ground hard and lost a third of my hit points from the impact. Then I slowly got to my feet and looked around. I was standing in a vast cube-shaped crater—the space where the foundation and lower basement levels of Castle Anorak had stood. It was completely barren and eerily silent. There was no rubble from the destroyed castle, and no wreckage from the thousands of spaceships and aircraft that had filled the sky a few moments ago. In fact, there was no sign at all of the grand battle that had just been fought here. The Cataclyst had vaporized everything.
I looked down at my avatar and saw that I was now wearing a black T-shirt and blue jeans, the default outfit that appeared on every newly created avatar. Then I pulled up my stats and item inventory. My avatar had the same level and ability scores I’d had previously, but my inventory was completely empty except for one item—the quarter I’d obtained after playing my perfect game of Pac-Man on Archaide. Once I’d placed the quarter in my inventory, I hadn’t been able to remove it, so I’d never been able to have any divination or identification spells cast on it. I’d had no way of ascertaining the quarter’s true purpose or powers. During the tumultuous events of the past few months, I’d forgotten I even had the damn thing.
But now I knew what the quarter was—a single-use artifact that gave my avatar an extra life. Until that moment, I hadn’t even known such a thing was possible. In the history of the OASIS, there was no record of any avatar ever acquiring an extra life.
I selected the quarter in my inventory and tried again to remove it. This time, I was able to take it out and hold it in the palm of my avatar’s hand. Now that the artifact’s sole power had been used, it no longer possessed any magical properties. Now it was just a quarter.
I looked straight up at the crystal gate floating twenty meters above me. It was still sitting there, wide open. But I had no idea how I was going to get up there to enter it. I had no jet boots, no ship, and no magic items or memorized spells. Nothing that would allow me to fly or levitate. And there wasn’t a single stepladder in sight.
There I was, standing a stone’s throw from the Third Gate, but unable to reach it.
“Hey, Z?” I heard a voice say. “Can you hear me?”
It was Aech, but her voice was no longer altered to sound male. I could hear her perfectly, as if she were talking to me via comlink. But that didn’t make sense, because my avatar no longer had a comlink. And Aech’s avatar was dead.
“Where are you?” I asked the empty air.
“I’m dead, like everyone else,” Aech said. “Everyone but you.”
“Then how can I hear you?”
“Og patched all of us into your audio and video feeds,” she said. “So we can see what you see and hear what you hear.”
“Oh,” I said.
“Is that all right with you, Parzival?” I heard Og ask. “If it isn’t, just say so.”
I thought about it for a moment. “No, it’s fine with me,” I said. “Shoto and Art3mis are listening in too?”
“Yes,” Shoto said. “I’m here.”
“Yeah, we’re here, all right,” Art3mis said, and I could hear the barely contained rage in her voice. “And we’re all dead as doornails. The question is, why aren’t you dead too, Parzival?”
“Yeah, Z,” Aech said. “We are a bit curious about that. What happened?”
I took out the quarter and held it up in front of my eyes. “I was awarded this quarter on Archaide a few months ago, for playing a perfect game of Pac-Man. It was an artifact, but I never knew its purpose. Not until now. Turns out it gave me an extra life.”
I heard only silence for a moment; then Aech began to laugh. “You lucky son of a bitch!” she said. “The newsfeeds are reporting that every single avatar in the sector was just killed. Over half the population of the OASIS.”
“Was it the Cataclyst?” I asked.
“It had to be,” Art3mis said. “The Sixers must have bought it when it went up for auction a few years ago. And they’ve been sitting on it all this time, waiting for the perfect moment to detonate it.”
“But they just killed off all of their own troops, too,” Shoto said. “Why would they do that?”
“I think most of them were already dead,” Art3mis said.
“The Sixers had no choice,” I said. “It was the only way they could stop us. We’d already opened the Third Gate and were about to step inside when they detonated that thing—” I paused, realizing something. “How did they know we’d opened it? Unless—”
“They were watching us,” Aech said. “The Sixers probably had remote surveillance cameras hidden all around the gate.”
“So they saw us open it,” Art3mis said. “Which means they know how to open it now too.”
“Who cares?” Shoto interjected. “Sorrento’s avatar is dead. And so are all of the other Sixers.”
“Wrong,” Art3mis said. “Check the Scoreboard. There are still twenty Sixer avatars listed there, below Parzival. And their scores indicate that every single one of them has a copy of the Crystal Key.”
“Shit!” Aech and Shoto said in unison.
“The Sixers knew they might have to detonate the Cataclyst,” I said. “So they must have taken the precaution of moving some of their avatars outside of Sector Ten. They were probably waiting in a gunship just across the sector border, where it was safe.”