فصل 36

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فصل 36

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36

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 bit@h!” 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.”

“sh@t!” 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.”

“You’re right,” Aech said. “Which means there are twenty more Sixers headed your way right now, Z. So you need to get your ass moving and get inside that gate. This is probably going to be your only chance to clear it.” I heard her let out a defeated sigh. “It’s over for us. So we’re all rooting for you now, amigo. Good luck.”

“Thanks, Aech.”

“Gokouun o inorimasu,” Shoto said. “Do your best.”

“I will,” I said. Then I waited for Art3mis to give me her blessing too.

“Good luck, Parzival,” she said after a long pause. “Aech is right, you know. You’re never going to get another shot at this. And neither will any other gunter.” I heard her voice catch, as if she were choking back tears. Then she took a deep breath and said, “Don’t screw this up.”

“I won’t,” I said. “No pressure, right?”

I glanced back up at the open gate, suspended in the air above me, so far out of reach. Then I dropped my gaze and began to scan the area, desperately trying to figure out how I was going to get up there. Something caught my eye—just a few flickering pixels in the distance, near the opposite end of the crater. I ran toward them.

“Uh, not to be a backseat driver or anything,” Aech said. “But where the hell are you going?”

“All of my avatar’s items were destroyed by the Cataclyst,” I said. “So now I have no way to fly up there and reach the gate.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me!” Aech sighed. “Man, the hits just keep on coming!”

As I approached the object in the distance, it became gradually clearer. It was the Beta Capsule, floating just a few centimeters above the ground, spinning clockwise. The Cataclyst had destroyed everything in the sector that could be destroyed, but artifacts were indestructible. Just like the gate.

“It’s the Beta Capsule!” Shoto shouted. “It must have been thrown over here by the force of the blast. You can use it to become Ultraman and fly up to the gate!”

I nodded, raised the capsule over my head, then pressed the button on the side to activate it. But nothing happened. “sh@t!” I muttered, realizing why. “It won’t work. It can only be used once a day.” I stowed the Beta Capsule and started to scan the ground around me. “There must be other artifacts scattered around here,” I said. I began to run along the perimeter of the castle foundation, still scanning the ground. “Were any of you guys carrying artifacts? One that would give me the ability to fly? Or levitate? Or teleport?”

“No,” answered Shoto. “I didn’t have any artifacts.”

“My Sword of the Ba’Heer was an artifact,” Aech said. “But it won’t help you reach the gate.”

“But my Chucks will,” Art3mis said.

“Your ‘Chucks’?” I repeated.

“My shoes. Black Chuck Taylor All Stars. They bestow their wearer with both speed and flight.”

“Great! Perfect!” I said. “Now I just have to find them.” I continued to run forward, eyes sweeping the ground. I found Aech’s sword a minute later and added it to my inventory, but it took me another five minutes of searching before I found Art3mis’s magic sneakers, near the south end of the crater. I put them on, and they adjusted to fit my avatar’s feet perfectly. “I’ll get these back to you, Arty,” I said, just as I finished lacing them up. “Promise.”

“You better,” she said. “They were my favorites.”

I took three running steps, leapt into the air, and then I was flying. I swooped up and around, then turned back toward the gate, aiming straight for it. But at the last moment, I banked to the right, then arced back around. I stopped to hover in front of the open gate. The crystal doorway hung in the air directly ahead, just a few yards away. It reminded me of the floating door in the opening credits of the original Twilight Zone.

“What are you waiting for?” Aech shouted. “The Sixers could show up any minute now!”

“I know,” I said. “But there’s something I need to say to all of you before I go in.”

“Well?” Art3mis said. “Spit it out! The clock is ticking, fool!”

“OK, OK!” I said. “I just wanted to say that I know how the three of you must feel right now. It isn’t fair, the way this has played out. We should all be entering the gate together. So before I go in, I want you guys to know something. If I reach the egg, I’m going to split the prize money equally among the four of us.”

Stunned silence.

“Hello?” I said after a few seconds. “Did you guys hear me?”

“Are you insane?” Aech asked. “Why would you do that, Z?”

“Because it’s the only honorable thing to do,” I said. “Because I never would have gotten this far on my own. Because all four of us deserve to see what’s inside that gate and find out how the game ends. And because I need your help.”

“Could you repeat that last bit, please?” Art3mis asked.

“I need your help,” I said. “You guys are right. This is my only shot at clearing the Third Gate. There won’t be any second chances, for anyone. The Sixers will be here soon, and they’ll enter the gate as soon as they arrive. So I have to clear it before they do, on my first attempt. The odds of me pulling that off will increase drastically if the three of you are backing me up. So … what do you say?”

“Count me in, Z,” Aech said. “I was planning to coach your dumb ass anyway.”

“Count me in too,” said Shoto. “I’ve got nothing left to lose.”

“Let me get this straight,” Art3mis said. “We help you clear the gate, and in return, you agree to split the prize money with us?”

“Wrong,” I said. “If I win, I’m going to split the prize money with you guys, regardless of whether you help me or not. So helping me is probably in your best interest.”

“I don’t suppose we have time to get that in writing?” Art3mis said.

I thought for a moment, then accessed my POV channel’s control menu. I initiated a live broadcast, so everyone watching my channel (my ratings counter said I currently had more than two hundred million viewers) could hear what I was about to say. “Greetings,” I said. “This is Wade Watts, also known as Parzival. I want to let the whole world know that if and when I find Halliday’s Easter egg, I hereby vow to split my winnings equally with Art3mis, Aech, and Shoto. Cross my heart and hope to die. Gunter’s honor. Pinky swear. All of that crap. If I’m lying, I should be forever branded as a gutless Sixer-fellating punk.”

As I finished the broadcast, I heard Art3mis say, “Dude, are you nuts? I was kidding!”

“Oh,” I said. “Right. I knew that.”

I cracked my knuckles, then flew forward into the gate, and my avatar vanished into the whirlpool of stars.

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