“Yikes,” Aech said. “Only one credit. Just like Black Tiger.”

I remembered the now-useless extra life quarter in my inventory and took it out. But when I dropped it into the coin slot, it fell right through into the coin return. I reached down to remove it and saw a sticker on the coin mechanism: TOKENS ONLY.

“So much for that idea,” I said. “And I don’t see a token machine anywhere around here.”

“Looks like you only get one game,” Aech said. “All or nothing.”

“Guys, I haven’t played Tempest in years,” I said. “I’m screwed. There’s no way I’m going to beat Halliday’s high score on my first attempt.”

“You don’t have to,” Art3mis said. “Look at the copyright year.”

I glanced at the bottom of the screen: ©MCMLXXX ATARI.

“Nineteen eighty?” Aech said. “How does that help him?”

“Yeah,” I said. “How does that help me?”

“That means this is the very first version of Tempest,” Art3mis said. “The version that shipped with a bug in the game code. When Tempest first hit the arcades, kids discovered that if you died with a certain score, the machine would give you a bunch of free credits.”

“Oh,” I said, somewhat ashamed. “I didn’t know that.”


“You would,” Art3mis said, “if you’d researched the game as much as I did.”

“Damn, girl,” Aech said. “You’ve got some serious knowledge.”

“Thanks,” she said. “It helps to be an obsessive-compulsive geek. With no life.” Everyone laughed at that, except me. I was much too nervous.

“OK, Arty,” I said. “What do I need to do to get those free games?”

“I’m looking it up in my quest journal right now,” she said. I could hear paper rustling. It sounded like she was flipping through the pages of an actual book.

“You just happen to have a hard copy of your journal with you?” I asked.

“I’ve always kept my journal longhand, in spiral notebooks,” she said. “Good thing, too, since my OASIS account and everything in it was just erased.” More flipping of pages. “Here it is! First, you need to rack up over one hundred eighty thousand points. Once you’ve done that, make sure you end the game with a score where the last two digits are oh six, eleven, or twelve. If you do that, you’ll get forty free credits.”

“You’re absolutely positive?”

“Positively absolutely.”

“OK,” I said. “Here goes.”

I began to run through my pregame ritual. Stretching, cracking my knuckles, rolling my head and neck left and right.

“Christ, will you get on with it?” Aech said. “The suspense is killing me here!”

“Quiet!” Shoto said. “Give the man some room to breathe, will you?”

Everyone remained silent while I finished psyching myself up. “Here goes nothing,” I said. Then I hit the flashing Player One button.

Tempest used old-school vector graphics, so the game’s images were created from glowing neon lines drawn against a pitch-black screen. You’re given a top-down view of a three-dimensional tunnel, and you use a spinning rotary dial to control a “shooter” that travels around the rim of the tunnel. The object of the game is to shoot the enemies crawling up out of the tunnel toward you while dodging their fire and avoiding other obstacles. As you proceed from one level to the next, the tunnels take on gradually more complex geometric shapes, and the number of enemies and obstacles crawling up toward you multiplies drastically.

Halliday had put this Tempest machine on Tournament settings, so I couldn’t start the game any higher than level nine. It took me about fifteen minutes to get my score up above 180,000, and I lost two lives in the process. I was even rustier than I thought. When my score hit 189,412, I intentionally impaled my shooter on a spike, using up my last remaining life. The game prompted me to enter my initials, and I nervously tapped them in: W-O-W.

When I finished, the game’s credit counter jumped from zero up to forty.

The sound of my friends’ wild cheers filled my ears, nearly giving me a heart attack. “Art3mis, you’re a genius,” I said, once the noise died down.

“I know.”

I tapped the Player One button again and began a second game, now focused on beating Halliday’s high score. I still felt anxious, but considerably less so. If I didn’t manage to get the high score this time, I had thirty-nine more chances.

During a break between waves, Art3mis spoke up. “So, your initials are W-O-W? What does the O stand for?”

“Obtuse,” I said.

She laughed. “No, seriously.”


“Owen,” she repeated. “Wade Owen Watts. That’s nice.” Then she fell silent again as the next wave began. I finished my second game a few minutes later, with a score of 219,584. Not horrible, but a far cry from my goal.

“Not bad,” Aech said.

“Yeah, but not that good, either,” Shoto observed. Then he seemed to remember that I could hear him. “I mean—much better, Parzival. You’re doing great.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence, Shoto.”

“Hey, check this out,” Art3mis said, reading from her journal. “The creator of Tempest, Dave Theurer, originally got the idea for the game from a nightmare he had about monsters crawling up out of a hole in the ground and chasing after him.” She laughed her little musical laugh, which I hadn’t heard in so long. “Isn’t that cool, Z?” she said.

“That is cool,” I replied. Somehow, just hearing her voice set me at ease. I think she knew this, and that was why she kept talking to me. I felt reenergized. I hit the Player One button again and began my third game.

They all watched me play in complete silence. Nearly an hour later, I lost my last man. My final score was 437,977.

As soon as the game ended, Aech’s voice cut in. “Bad news, amigo,” she said.


“We were right. When the Cataclyst went off, the Sixers had a group of avatars in reserve, waiting just outside the sector. Right after the detonation, they reentered the sector and headed straight for Chthonia. They …” Her voice trailed off.

“They what?”

“They just entered the gate, about five minutes ago,” Art3mis answered. “The gate closed after you went in, but when the Sixers arrived, they used three of their own keys to reopen it.”

“You mean the Sixers are already inside the gate? Right now?”

“Eighteen of them,” Aech said. “When they stepped through the gate, each one entered a stand-alone simulation. A separate instance of the gate. All eighteen of them are playing Tempest right now, just like you. Trying to beat Halliday’s high score. And all of them used the exploit to get forty free credits. Most of them aren’t doing that well, but one of them has some serious skill. We think Sorrento is probably operating that avatar. He just started his second game—”

“Wait a second!” I interrupted. “How can you possibly know all this?”

“Because we can see them,” Shoto said. “Everyone logged into the OASIS right now can see them. They can see you, too.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“The moment someone enters the Third Gate, a live vidfeed of their avatar appears at the top of the Scoreboard,” Art3mis said. “Apparently, Halliday wanted clearing the final gate to be a spectator sport.”

“Wait,” I said. “You mean to tell me that the entire world has been watching me play Tempest for the past hour?”

“Correct,” Art3mis said. “And they’re watching you stand there and jabber back at us right now too. So watch what you say.”

“Why didn’t you guys tell me?” I shouted.

“We didn’t want to make you nervous,” Aech said. “Or distract you.”

“Oh, great! Perfect! Thank you!” I was shouting, somewhat hysterically.

“Calm down, Parzival,” Art3mis said. “Get your head back in the game. This a race now. There are eighteen Sixer avatars right behind you. So you need to make this next game count. Understand?”

“Yeah,” I said, exhaling slowly. “I understand.” I took another deep breath and pressed the Player One button once again.

As usual, competition brought out the best in me. This time, I managed to slip into the zone. Spinner, zapper, super-zapper, clear a level, avoid the spikes. My hands began to work the controls without my even having to think about it. I forgot about what was at stake, and I forgot about the millions of people watching me. I lost myself in the game.

I’d been playing just over an hour and had just cleared level 81 when I heard another wild burst of cheering in my ears. “You did it, man!” I heard Shoto shout.

My eyes darted up to the top of the screen. My score was 802,488.

I kept playing, instinctively wanting to get the highest score possible. But then I heard Art3mis loudly clear her throat, and I realized there was no need to go any further. In fact, I was now wasting valuable seconds, burning away whatever lead I still had on the Sixers. I quickly depleted my two extra lives, and GAME OVER flashed on the screen. I entered my initials again, and they appeared at the top of the list, just above Halliday’s high score. Then the monitor went blank, and a message appeared in the center of the screen:

Most Popular