فصل 15

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فصل 15

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15

I grabbed my OASIS console and powered it on, then pulled on my visor and gloves. As I logged in, my avatar reappeared on Ludus, on the hilltop where I’d been sitting prior to my chat-room session with Sorrento. The moment my audio kicked in, I heard the earsplitting roar of engines coming from somewhere directly overheard. I stepped out from under the tree and looked up. I saw a squadron of Sixer gunships flying in formation, zooming south at low altitude, their sensors scanning the surface as they went.

I was about to duck back under the tree, out of sight, when I remembered that all of Ludus was a no-PvP zone. The Sixers couldn’t harm me here. Even so, my nerves were still on edge. I continued to scan the sky and quickly spotted two more Sixer gunship squadrons off near the eastern horizon. A moment later, several more squadrons dropped in from orbit to the north and west. It looked like an alien invasion.

An icon flashed on my display, informing me that I had a new text message from Aech: Where the hell are you? Call me ASAFP!

I tapped his name on my contact list, and he answered on the first ring. His avatar’s face appeared in my vidfeed window. He was wearing a grim expression.

“Did you hear the news?” he asked.

“What news?”

“The Sixers are on Ludus. Thousands of them. More arriving every minute. They’re searching the planet, looking for the tomb.”

“Yeah. I’m on Ludus right now. Sixer gunships everywhere.”

Aech scowled. “When I find I-r0k, I’m going to kill him. Slowly. Then, when he creates a new avatar, I’m going to hunt him down and kill him again. If that moron had kept his mouth shut, the Sixers never would have thought to look here.”

“Yeah. His forum posts were what tipped them off. Sorrento said so himself.”

“Sorrento? As in Nolan Sorrento?”

I told him everything that had happened in the past few hours.

“They blew up your house?”

“Actually, it was a trailer,” I said. “In a trailer park. They killed a lot of people here, Aech. It’s probably already on the newsfeeds.” I took a deep breath. “I’m freaking out. I’m scared.”

“I don’t blame you,” he said. “Thank God you weren’t home when it happened.…”

I nodded. “I almost never log in from home. Luckily, the Sixers didn’t know that.”

“What about your family?”

“It was my aunt’s place. She’s dead, I think. We … we weren’t very close.” This was a huge understatement, of course. My aunt Alice had never shown me much kindness, but she still hadn’t deserved to die. But most of the wrenching guilt I now felt had to do with Mrs. Gilmore, and the knowledge that my actions had gotten her killed. She was one of the sweetest people I’d ever known.

I realized that I was sobbing. I muted my audio so Aech wouldn’t hear, then took several deep breaths until I got myself under control again.

“I can’t believe this!” Aech growled. “Those evil pricks. They’re gonna pay, Z. Count on it. We will make them pay for this.”

I couldn’t see how, but I didn’t argue. I knew he was just trying to make me feel better.

“Where are you right now?” Aech asked. “Do you need help? Like, a place to stay or something? I can wire you some money if you need it.”

“No, I’m OK,” I said. “But thanks, man. I really appreciate the offer.”

“De nada, amigo.”

“Listen, did the Sixers send you the same e-mail they sent me?”

“Yeah. Thousands of them. But I decided it was best to ignore them.”

I frowned. “I wish I’d been smart enough to do that.”

“Dude, you had no way of knowing they were gonna try and kill you! Besides, they already had your home address. If you’d ignored their e-mails, they probably would have set off that bomb anyway.”

“Listen, Aech … Sorrento said that your school records contained a fake home address, and that they don’t know where to find you. But he might have been lying. You should leave home. Go somewhere safe. As soon as possible.”

“Don’t worry about me, Z. I stay mobile. Those bastards will never find me.”

“If you say so,” I replied, wondering what exactly he meant. “But I need to warn Art3mis, too. And Daito and Shoto, if I can reach them. The Sixers are probably doing everything they can to learn their identities too.”

“That gives me an idea,” he said. “We should invite all three of them to meet us in the Basement later tonight. Say around midnight? A private chat-room session. Just the five of us.”

My mood brightened at the prospect of seeing Art3mis again. “Do you think they’ll all agree to come?”

“Yeah, if we let them know their lives depend on it.” He smirked. “And we’re going to have the world’s top five gunters together in one chat room. Who’s gonna sit that out?”

I sent Art3mis a short message, asking her to meet us in Aech’s private chat room at midnight. She replied just a few minutes later, promising to be there. Aech told me he’d managed to reach Daito and Shoto, and they had both also agreed to attend. The meeting was set.

I didn’t feel like being alone, so I logged into the Basement about an hour early. Aech was already there, surfing the newsfeeds on the ancient RCA television. Without saying a word, he got up and gave me a hug. Even though I couldn’t actually feel it, I found it surprisingly comforting. Then we both sat down and watched the news coverage together while we waited for the others to arrive.

Every channel was airing OASIS footage showing the hordes of Sixer spacecraft and troops that were currently arriving on Ludus. It was easy for everyone to guess why they were there, and so now every gunter in the simulation was also headed for Ludus. Transport terminals all over the planet were jammed with incoming avatars.

“So much for keeping the tomb’s location a secret,” I said, shaking my head.

“It was bound to leak out eventually,” Aech said, shutting off the TV. “I just didn’t think it would happen this fast.”

We both heard an entrance alert chime as Art3mis materialized at the top of the staircase. She was wearing the same outfit she’d had on the night we met. She waved to me as she descended the steps. I waved back, then made introductions.

“Aech, meet Art3mis. Art3mis, this is my best friend, Aech.”

“Pleasure to meet you,” Art3mis said, extending her right hand.

Aech shook it. “Likewise.” He flashed his Cheshire grin. “Thanks for coming.”

“Are you kidding? How could I miss it? The very first meeting of the High Five.”

“The High Five?” I said.

“Yeah,” Aech said. “That’s what they’re calling us on all of the message boards now. We hold the top five high-score slots on the Scoreboard. So we’re the High Five.”

“Right,” I said. “At least for the time being.”

Art3mis grinned at that, then turned and began to wander around the Basement, admiring the ’80s decor. “Aech, this is, by far, the coolest chat room I’ve ever seen.”

“Thank you.” He bowed his head. “Kind of you to say.”

She stopped to browse through the shelf of role-playing game supplements. “You’ve re-created Morrow’s basement perfectly. Every last detail. I want to live here.”

“You’ve got a permanent spot on the guest list. Log in and hang out anytime.”

“Really?” she said, clearly delighted. “Thank you! I will. You’re the man, Aech.”

“Yes,” he said, smiling. “It’s true. I am.”

They really seemed to be hitting it off, and it was making me crazy jealous. I didn’t want Art3mis to like Aech, or vice versa. I wanted her all to myself.

Daito and Shoto logged in a moment later, appearing simultaneously at the top of the basement staircase. Daito was the taller of the two, and appeared to be in his late teens. Shoto was a foot shorter and looked much younger. Maybe about thirteen. Both avatars looked Japanese, and they bore a striking resemblance to one another, like snapshots of the same young man taken five years apart. They wore matching suits of traditional samurai armor, and each had both a short wakizashi and a longer katana strapped to his belt.

“Greetings,” the taller samurai said. “I am Daito. And this is my little brother, Shoto. Thank you for the invitation. We are honored to meet all three of you.”

They bowed in unison. Aech and Art3mis returned the bow, and I quickly followed suit. As we each introduced ourselves, Daito and Shoto bowed to us once again, and once again we each returned the gesture.

“All right,” Aech said, once all the bowing had ended. “Let’s get this party started. I’m sure you’ve all seen the news. The Sixers are swarming all over Ludus. Thousands of them. They’re conducting a systematic search of the entire surface of the planet. Even if they don’t know exactly what they’re looking for, it still won’t be long before they find the entrance to the tomb—”

“Actually,” Art3mis interrupted, “they already found it. Over thirty minutes ago.”

We all turned to look at her.

“That hasn’t been reported on the newsfeeds yet,” Daito said. “Are you sure?”

She nodded. “Afraid so. When I heard about the Sixers this morning, I decided to hide an uplink camera in some trees near the tomb entrance, to keep an eye on the area.” She opened a vidfeed window in the air in front of her and spun it around so the rest of us could see. It showed a wide shot of the flat-topped hill and the clearing around it, looking down from a spot in one of the trees high above. From this angle, it was easy to see that the large black stones on top of the hill were arranged to look like a human skull. We could also see that the entire area was crawling with Sixers, and more seemed to be arriving every second.

But the most disturbing thing we saw on the vidfeed was the large transparent dome of energy that now covered the entire hill.

“Son of a bit@h,” Aech said. “Is that what I think it is?”

Art3mis nodded. “A force field. The Sixers installed it just after the first of them arrived. So …”

“So from here on out,” Daito said, “any gunter who finds the tomb won’t be able to get inside. Not unless they can somehow get through that force field.”

“Actually, they’ve put up two force fields,” Art3mis said. “A small field with a larger field over it. They lower them in sequence, whenever they want to let more Sixers enter the tomb. Like an air lock.” She pointed to the window. “Watch. They’re doing it now.”

A squadron of Sixers marched down the loading ramp of a gunship parked nearby. They were all lugging equipment containers. As they approached the outer force field, it vanished, revealing a smaller domed field inside the first. As soon as the squadron reached the wall of the inner force field, the outer field reappeared. A second later, the inner force field was dropped, allowing the Sixers to enter the tomb.

There was a long silence while we all contemplated this new development.

“I suppose it could be worse,” Aech said finally. “If the tomb were in a PvP zone, those assholes would already have laser cannons and robot sentries mounted everywhere, to vaporize anyone who approached the area.”

He was right. Since Ludus was a safe zone, the Sixers couldn’t harm gunters who approached the tomb. But there was nothing to stop them from erecting a force field to keep them out. So that was exactly what they’d done.

“The Sixers have obviously been planning for this moment for some time now,” Art3mis said, closing her vidfeed window.

“They won’t be able to keep everyone out for very long,” Aech said. “When the clans find out about this, it’ll be all-out war. There will be thousands of gunters attacking that force field with everything they’ve got. RPGs. Fireballs. Cluster bombs. Nukes. It’s gonna get ugly. They’ll turn that forest into a wasteland.”

“Yeah, but in the meantime, Sixer avatars will be farming the Copper Key and then filing their avatars through the First Gate, one after another, in a freakin’ conga line.”

“But how can they do this?” Shoto asked, his young voice brimming with rage. He looked to his brother. “It’s not fair. They’re not playing fair.”

“They don’t have to. There are no laws in the OASIS, little brother,” Daito said. “The Sixers can do whatever they please. They won’t stop until someone stops them.”

“The Sixers have no honor,” Shoto said, scowling.

“You guys don’t know the half of it,” Aech said. “That’s why Parzival and I asked you all here.” He turned to me. “Z, do you want to tell them what happened?”

I nodded and turned to the others. First, I told them about the e-mail I’d received from IOI. They’d all received the same invitation, but had wisely ignored it. Then I related the details of my chat-room session with Sorrento, doing my best not to leave anything out. Finally, I told them how our conversation had ended—with a bomb detonating at my home address. By the time I’d finished, their avatars all wore looks of stunned disbelief.

“Jesus,” Art3mis whispered. “No joke? They tried to kill you?”

“Yeah. They would have succeeded, too, if I’d been at home. I was just lucky.”

“Now you all know how far the Sixers are willing to go to stop us from beating them to the egg,” Aech said. “If they’re able to locate any one of us, we’re dead meat.”

I nodded. “So you should all take precautions to protect yourselves and your identities,” I said. “If you haven’t already.”

They all nodded. There was another long silence.

“There’s still one thing I don’t understand,” Art3mis said a moment later. “How did the Sixers know to look for the tomb on Ludus? Did someone tip them off?” She glanced around at each of us, but there was no hint of accusation in her voice.

“They must have seen the rumors about Parzival and Aech that were posted on all of the gunter message boards,” Shoto said. “That’s how we knew to look there.”

Daito winced, then punched his little brother in the shoulder. “Didn’t I tell you to keep quiet, blabbermouth?” he hissed. Shoto looked sheepish and clammed up.

“What rumors?” Art3mis asked. She looked at me. “What’s he talking about? I haven’t had time to check the boards in a few days.”

“Several posts were made by gunters who claimed to know Parzival and Aech, saying they were both students on Ludus.” He turned to Aech and me. “My brother and I have spent the past two years searching for the Tomb of Horrors. We’ve scoured dozens of worlds looking for it. But we never thought to look on Ludus. Not until we heard that you attended school there.”

“It never occurred to me that attending school on Ludus was something I needed to keep a secret,” I said. “So I didn’t.”

“Yeah, and it’s lucky for us that you didn’t,” Aech said. He turned to the others. “Parzival unintentionally tipped me off about the tomb’s location, too. I never thought to look for it on Ludus, either, until his name appeared on the Scoreboard.”

Daito nudged his younger brother, and they both faced me and bowed. “You were the first to find the tomb’s hiding place, so we owe you our gratitude for leading us to it.”

I returned their bow. “Thanks, guys. But actually, Art3mis here found it first. Totally on her own. A month before I did.”

“Yeah, for all the good it did me,” Art3mis said. “I couldn’t defeat the lich at Joust. I’d been at it for weeks when this punk showed up and did it on his first try.” She explained how we met, and how she finally managed to beat the king the following day, right after the server reset at midnight.

“I have Aech here to thank for my jousting prowess,” I said. “We used to play all the time, here in the Basement. That’s the only reason I beat the king on my first attempt.”

“Ditto,” Aech said. He stretched out his hand and we bumped fists.

Daito and Shoto both smiled. “It was the same with us,” Daito said. “My brother and I have been playing Joust against one another for years, because the game was mentioned in Anorak’s Almanac.”

“Great,” Art3mis said, throwing up her hands. “Good for you guys. You were all prepared in advance. I’m so happy for you. Bravo.” She gave us all a sarcastic golf clap, which made everyone laugh. “Now, can we adjourn the Mutual Admiration Society and get back to the topic at hand?”

“Sure,” Aech said, smiling. “What was the topic at hand?”

“The Sixers?” Art3mis offered.

“Right! Of course!” Aech rubbed the back of his neck while biting his lower lip, something he always did when he was trying to gather his thoughts. “You said they found the tomb less than an hour ago, right? So any minute now, they’ll reach the throne room and face off against the lich. But what do you think happens when multiple avatars enter the burial chamber at the same time?”

I turned to Daito and Shoto. “Your names appeared on the Scoreboard on the same day, just a few minutes apart. So you entered the throne room together, didn’t you?”

Daito nodded. “Yes,” he said. “And when we stepped on the dais, two copies of the king appeared, one for each of us to play.”

“Great,” Art3mis said. “So it might be possible for hundreds of Sixers to joust for the Copper Key at the same time. Or even thousands.”

“Yeah,” Shoto said. “But to get the key, each Sixer has to beat the lich at Joust, which we all know isn’t easy.”

“The Sixers are using hacked immersion rigs,” I said. “Sorrento was boasting about it to me. They’ve got it set up so that different users can control the actions of every one of their avatars. So they can just have their best Joust players take control of each Sixer avatar during the match against Acererak. One after the other.”

“Cheating bastards,” Aech repeated.

“The Sixers have no honor,” Daito said, shaking his head.

“Yeah,” Art3mis said, rolling her eyes. “We’ve established that.”

“It gets worse,” I said. “Every Sixer has a support team made up of Halliday scholars, videogame experts, and cryptologists who are there to help them beat every challenge and solve every puzzle they encounter. Playing through the WarGames simulation will be a piece of cake for them. Someone will just feed them the dialogue.”

“Unbelievable,” Aech muttered. “How are we supposed to compete with that?”

“We can’t,” Art3mis said. “Once they have the Copper Key, they’ll probably locate the First Gate just as quickly as we all did. It won’t take them very long to catch up with us. And once they have the riddle about the Jade Key, they’ll have their eggheads working around the clock to decipher it.”

“If they find the Jade Key’s hiding place before we do, they’ll barricade it, too,” I said. “And then the five of us will be in the same boat everyone else is in right now.”

Art3mis nodded. Aech kicked the coffee table in frustration. “This isn’t even remotely fair,” he said. “The Sixers have a huge advantage over all of us. They’ve got an endless supply of money, weapons, vehicles, and avatars. There are thousands of them, all working together.”

“Right,” I said. “And each of us is on our own. Well, except for you two.” I nodded at Daito and Shoto. “But you know what I mean. They’ve got us outnumbered and outgunned, and that isn’t going to change anytime soon.”

“What are you suggesting?” Daito asked. He suddenly sounded uneasy.

“I’m not suggesting anything,” I said. “I’m just stating the facts, as I see them.”

“Good,” Daito replied. “Because it sounded like you were about to propose some sort of alliance between the five of us.”

Aech studied him carefully. “So? Would that be such a terrible idea?”

“Yes, it would,” Daito said curtly. “My brother and I hunt alone. We don’t want or need your help.”

“Oh really?” Aech said. “A second ago, you admitted needing Parzival’s help to find the Tomb of Horrors.”

Daito’s eyes narrowed. “We would have found it on our own eventually.”

“Right,” Aech said. “It probably would have only taken you another five years.”

“Come on, Aech,” I said, stepping between them. “This isn’t helping.”

Aech and Daito glared at each other in silence, while Shoto stared up at his brother uncertainly. Art3mis just stood back and watched, looking somewhat amused.

“We didn’t come here to be insulted,” Daito said finally. “We’re leaving.”

“Hold on, Daito,” I said. “Just wait a second, will you? Let’s just talk this out. We shouldn’t part as enemies. We’re all on the same side here.”

“No,” Daito said. “We’re not. You’re all strangers to us. For all we know, any one of you could be a Sixer spy.”

Art3mis laughed out loud at that, then covered her mouth. Daito ignored her. “This is pointless,” he said. “Only one person can be the first to find the egg and win the prize,” he said. “And that person will be either me or my brother.”

And with that, Daito and Shoto both abruptly logged out.

“That went well,” Art3mis said, once their avatars had vanished.

I nodded. “Yeah, real smooth, Aech. Way to build bridges.”

“What did I do?” he said defensively. “Daito was being a complete asshole! Besides, it’s not like we were asking him to team up, anyway. I’m an avowed solo. And so are you. And Art3mis here looks like the lone-wolf type too.”

“Guilty as charged,” she said, grinning. “But even so, there is an argument to be made for forming an alliance against the Sixers.”

“Maybe,” Aech said. “But think about it. If you find the Jade Key before either of us do, are you going to be generous and tell us where it is?”

Art3mis smirked. “Of course not.”

“Me neither,” Aech said. “So there’s no point in discussing an alliance.”

Art3mis shrugged. “Well, then it looks like the meeting is over. I should probably get going.” She winked at me. “The clock is ticking. Right, boys?”

“Tick tock,” I said.

“Good luck, fellas.” She gave us both a wave. “See ya around.”

“See ya,” we both answered in unison.

I watched her avatar slowly disappear, then turned to find Aech smiling at me. “What are you grinning about?” I asked.

“You’ve got a crush on her, don’t you?”

“What? On Art3mis? No—”

“Don’t deny it, Z. You were making googly eyes at her the whole time she was here.” He did his impression of this, clasping both hands to his chest and batting his eyelashes like a silent film star. “I recorded the whole chat session. Do you want me to play it back for you, so you can see how silly you looked?”

“Stop being a di@k.”

“It’s understandable, man,” Aech said. “That girl is super cute.”

“So, have you had any luck with the new riddle?” I said, deliberately changing the subject. “That quatrain about the Jade Key?”

“Quatrain?”

“ ‘A poem or stanza with four lines and an alternating rhyme scheme,’ ” I recited. “It’s called a quatrain.”

Aech rolled his eyes. “You’re too much, man.”

“What? That’s the proper term for it, asshead!”

“It’s just a riddle, dude. And no. I haven’t had any luck figuring it out yet.”

“Me neither,” I said. “So we probably shouldn’t be standing around jabbering at each other. Time to put our noses to the grindstone.”

“I concur,” he said. “But—”

Just then, a stack of comic books on the other side of the room slid off the end table where they were piled and crashed to the floor, as if something had knocked them over. Aech and I both jumped, then exchanged confused looks.

“What the hell was that?” I said.

“I don’t know.” Aech walked over and examined the scattered comics. “Maybe a software glitch or something?”

“I’ve never seen a chat-room glitch like that,” I said, scanning the empty room. “Could someone else be in here? An invisible avatar, eavesdropping on us?”

Aech rolled his eyes. “No way, Z,” he said. “You’re getting way too paranoid. This is an encrypted private chat room. No one can enter without my permission. You know that.”

“Right,” I said, still freaked out.

“Relax. It was a glitch.” He rested a hand on my shoulder. “Listen. Let me know if you change your mind about needing a loan. Or a place to crash. OK?”

“I’ll be all right,” I said. “But thanks, amigo.”

We bumped fists again, like the Wonder Twins activating their powers.

“I’ll catch you later. Good luck, Z.”

“Same to you, Aech.”

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