فصل 18

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فصل 18

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18

It was a Friday night, and I was spending another solitary evening doing research, working my way through every episode of Whiz Kids, an early-’80s TV show about a teenage hacker who uses his computer skills to solve mysteries. I’d just finished watching the episode “Deadly Access” (a crossover with Simon & Simon) when an e-mail arrived in my inbox. It was from Ogden Morrow. The subject line read “We Can Dance If We Want To.”

There was no text in the body of the e-mail. Just a file attachment—an invitation to one of the most exclusive gatherings in the OASIS: Ogden Morrow’s birthday party. In the real world, Morrow almost never made public appearances, and in the OASIS, he came out of hiding only once a year, to host this event.

The invitation featured a photo of Morrow’s world-famous avatar, the Great and Powerful Og. The gray-bearded wizard was hunched over an elaborate DJ mixing board, one headphone pressed to his ear, biting his lower lip in auditory ecstasy as his fingers scratched ancient vinyl on a set of silver turntables. His record crate bore a DON’T PANIC sticker and an anti-Sixer logo—a yellow number six with a red circle-and-slash over it. The text at the bottom read

Ogden Morrow’s ’80s Dance Party in celebration of his 73rd birthday! Tonight—10pm OST at the Distracted Globe ADMIT ONE

I was flabbergasted. Ogden Morrow had actually taken the time to invite me to his birthday party. It felt like the greatest honor I’d ever received.

I called Art3mis, and she confirmed that she’d received the same e-mail. She said she couldn’t pass up an invitation from Og himself, despite the obvious risks. So, naturally, I told her I would meet her there at the club. It was the only way I could avoid looking like a total wuss.

I knew that if Og had invited the two of us, he’d probably also invited the other members of the High Five. But Aech probably wouldn’t show up, because he competed in a globally televised arena deathmatch every Friday night. And Shoto and Daito never entered a PvP zone unless it was absolutely necessary.

The Distracted Globe was a famous zero-gravity dance club on the planet Neonoir in Sector Sixteen. Ogden Morrow had coded the place himself decades ago and was still its sole owner. I’d never visited the Globe before. I wasn’t much for dancing, or for socializing with the twinked-out wannabe-gunter überdorks who were known to frequent the place. But Og’s birthday party was a special event, and so the usual clientele would be banished for the evening. Tonight, the club would be packed with celebrities—movie stars, musicians, and at least two members of the High Five.

I spent over an hour tweaking my avatar’s hair and trying on different skins to wear to the club. I finally settled on some classic ’80s-era attire: a light gray suit, exactly like the one Peter Weller wore in Buckaroo Banzai, complete with a red bow tie, along with a pair of vintage white Adidas high-tops. I also loaded my inventory with my best suit of body armor and a large amount of weaponry. One of the reasons the Globe was such a hip, exclusive club was because it was located in a PvP zone, one where both magic and technology functioned. So it was extremely dangerous to go there. Especially for a famous gunter like me.

There were hundreds of cyberpunk-themed worlds spread throughout the OASIS, but Neonoir was one of the largest and oldest. Seen from orbit, the planet was a shiny onyx marble covered in overlapping spider-webs of pulsating light. It was always night on Neonoir, the world over, and its surface was an uninterrupted grid of interconnected cities packed with impossibly large skyscrapers. Its skies were filled with a continuous stream of flying vehicles whirring through the vertical cityscapes, and the streets below teemed with leather-clad NPCs and mirror-shaded avatars, all sporting high-tech weaponry and subcutaneous implants as they spouted city-speak straight out of Neuromancer.

The Distracted Globe was located at the western-hemisphere intersection of the Boulevard and the Avenue, two brightly lit streets that stretched completely around the planet along its equator and prime meridian. The club itself was a massive cobalt blue sphere, three kilometers in diameter, floating thirty meters off the ground. A floating crystal staircase led up to the club’s only entrance, a circular opening at the bottom of the sphere.

I made a big entrance when I arrived in my flying DeLorean, which I’d obtained by completing a Back to the Future quest on the planet Zemeckis. The DeLorean came outfitted with a (nonfunctioning) flux capacitor, but I’d made several additions to its equipment and appearance. First, I’d installed an artificially intelligent onboard computer named KITT (purchased in an online auction) into the dashboard, along with a matching red Knight Rider scanner just above the DeLorean’s grill. Then I’d outfitted the car with an oscillation overthruster, a device that allowed it to travel through solid matter. Finally, to complete my ’80s super-vehicle theme, I’d slapped a Ghostbusters logo on each of the DeLorean’s gull-wing doors, then added personalized plates that read ECTO-88.

I’d had it only a few weeks now, but my time-traveling, Ghost Busting, Knight Riding, matter-penetrating DeLorean had already become my avatar’s trademark.

I knew that leaving my sweet ride parked in a PvP zone was an open invitation for some moron to try to boost it. The DeLorean had several antitheft systems installed, and the ignition system was booby-trapped Max Rockatansky–style so that if any other avatar tried to start the car, the plutonium chamber would detonate in a small thermonuclear explosion. But keeping my car safe wouldn’t be a problem here on Neonoir. As soon as I climbed out of the DeLorean I cast a Shrink spell on it, instantly reducing it to the size of a Matchbox car. Then I put the DeLorean in my pocket. Magic zones had their advantages.

Thousands of avatars were packed up against the velvet rope force fields that kept everyone without an invitation at bay. As I walked toward the entrance, the crowd bombarded me with a mix of insults, autograph requests, death threats, and tearful declarations of undying love. I had my body shield activated, but surprisingly, no one took a shot at me. I flashed the cyborg doorman my invitation, then mounted the long crystal staircase leading up into the club.

Entering the Distracted Globe was more than a little disorienting. The inside of the giant sphere was completely hollow, and its curved interior surface served as the club’s bar and lounge area. The moment you passed through the entrance, the laws of gravity changed. No matter where you walked, your avatar’s feet always adhered to the interior of the sphere, so you could walk in a straight line, up to the “top” of the club, then back down the other side, ending up right back where you started. The huge open space in the center of the sphere served as the club’s zero-gravity “dance floor.” You reached it simply by jumping off the ground, like Superman taking flight, and then swimming through the air, into the spherical zero-g “groove zone.”

As I stepped through the entrance, I glanced up—or in the direction that was currently “up” to me at the moment—and took a long look around. The place was packed. Hundreds of avatars milled around like ants crawling around the inside of a giant balloon. Others were already out on the dance floor—spinning, flying, twisting, and tumbling in time with the music, which thumped out of floating spherical speakers that drifted throughout the club.

In the middle of all the dancers, a large clear bubble was suspended in space, at the absolute center of the club. This was the “booth” where the DJ stood, surrounded by turntables, mixers, decks, and dials. At the center of all that gear was the opening DJ, R2-D2, hard at work, using his various robotic arms to work the turntables. I recognized the tune he was playing: the ’88 remix of New Order’s “Blue Monday,” with a lot of Star Wars droid sound samples mixed in.

As I made my way to the nearest bar, the avatars I passed all stopped to stare and point in my direction. I didn’t pay them much notice, because I was busy scanning the club for Art3mis.

When I reached the bar, I ordered a Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster from the female Klingon bartender and downed half of it. Then I grinned as R2 cued up another classic ’80s tune. “ ‘Union of the Snake,’ ” I recited, mostly out of habit. “Duran Duran. Nineteen eighty-three.”

“Not bad, ace,” said a familiar voice, speaking just loud enough to be heard over the music. I turned to see Art3mis standing behind me. She was wearing evening attire: a gunmetal blue dress that looked like it was spray-painted on. Her avatar’s dark hair was styled in a pageboy cut, perfectly framing her gorgeous face. She looked devastating.

She shouted at the barkeep. “Glenmorangie. On the rocks.”

I smiled to myself. Connor MacLeod’s favorite drink. Man, did I love this girl.

She winked at me as her drink appeared. Then she clinked her glass against mine and downed its contents in one swallow. The chattering of the avatars around us grew in volume. Word that Parzival and Art3mis were here, chatting each other up at the bar, was already spreading through the entire club.

Art3mis glanced up at the dance floor, then back at me. “So how about it, Percy?” she said. “Feel like cutting a rug?”

I scowled. “Not if you keep calling me ‘Percy.’ ”

She laughed. Just then, the current song ended, and the club grew silent. All eyes turned upward, toward the DJ booth, where R2-D2 was currently dissolving in a shower of light, like someone “beaming out” in an original Star Trek episode. Then a huge cheer went up as a familiar gray-haired avatar beamed in, appearing behind the turntables. It was Og.

Hundreds of vidfeed windows materialized in the air, all over the club. Each displayed a live close-up image of Og in the booth, so that everyone could see his avatar clearly. The old wizard was wearing baggy jeans, sandals, and a faded Star Trek: The Next Generation T-shirt. He waved to the assembled, then cued up his first track, a dance remix of “Rebel Yell” by Billy Idol.

A cheer swept across the dance floor.

“I love this song!” Art3mis shouted. Her eyes darted up to the dance floor. I looked at her uncertainly. “What’s wrong?” she said with mock sympathy. “Can’t the boy dance?”

She abruptly locked into the beat, bobbing her head, gyrating her hips. Then she pushed off from the floor with both feet and began to float upward, drifting toward the groove zone. I stared up at her, temporarily frozen, mustering my courage.

“All right,” I muttered to myself. “What the hell.”

I bent my knees and pushed off hard from the floor. My avatar took flight, drifting upward and sliding alongside Art3mis. The avatars who were already on the dance floor moved aside to clear a path for us, a tunnel leading to the center of the dance floor. I could see Og hovering in his bubble, just a short distance above us. He was spinning around like a dervish, remixing the song on the fly while simultaneously adjusting the gravity vortex of the dance floor, so that he was actually spinning the club itself, like an ancient vinyl disc.

Art3mis winked at me, and then her legs melted together to form a mermaid’s tail. She flapped her new tail fin once and shot ahead of me, her body undulating and thrusting in time with the machine-gun beat as she swam through the air. Then she spun back around to face me, suspended and floating, smiling and holding out her hand, beckoning me to join her. Her hair floated in a halo around her head, like she was underwater.

When I reached her, she took my hand. As she did, her mermaid tail vanished and her legs reappeared, whirling and scissoring to the beat.

Not trusting my instincts any further, I loaded up a piece of high-end avatar dance software called Travoltra, which I’d downloaded and tested earlier that evening. The program took control of Parzival’s movements, synching them up with the music, and all four of my limbs were transformed into undulating cosine waves. Just like that, I became a dancing fool.

Art3mis’s eyes lit up in surprise and delight, and she began to mirror my movements, the two of us orbiting each other like accelerated electrons. Then Art3mis began shape-shifting.

Her avatar lost its human form and dissolved into a pulsing amorphous blob that changed its size and color in synch with the music. I selected the mirror partner option on my dance software and began to do the same. My avatar’s limbs and torso began to flow and spin like taffy, encircling Art3mis, while strange color patterns flowed and shifted across my skin. I looked like Plastic Man, if he were tripping out of his mind on LSD. Then everyone else on the dance floor also began to shape-shift, melting into prismatic blobs of light. Soon, the center of the club looked like some otherworldly lava lamp.

When the song ended, Og took a bow, then queued up a slow song. “Time After Time” by Cyndi Lauper. All around us, avatars began to pair up.

I gave Art3mis a courtly bow and stretched out my hand. She smiled and took it. I pulled her close and we began to drift together. Og set the dance floor’s gravity on a counterclockwise spin, making all of our avatars slowly rotate around the club’s invisible central axis, like motes of dust floating inside a snow globe.

And then, before I could stop myself, the words just came out.

“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 fu@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.

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