فصل 07

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فصل 07

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7

Our teacher, Ms. Rank, was standing at the front of the class, slowly conjugating Latin verbs. She said them in English first, then in Latin, and each word automatically appeared on the board behind her as she spoke it. Whenever we were doing tedious verb conjugation, I always got the lyrics to an old Schoolhouse Rock! song stuck in my head: “To run, to go, to get, to give. Verb! You’re what’s happenin’!”

I was quietly humming this tune to myself when Ms. Rank began to conjugate the Latin for the verb “to learn.” “To Learn. Discere,” she said. “Now, this one should be easy to remember, because it’s similar to the English word ‘discern,’ which also means ‘to learn.’ ”

Hearing her repeat the phrase “to learn” was enough to make me think of the Limerick. You have much to learn if you hope to earn a place among the high scorers.

Ms. Rank continued, using the verb in a sentence. “We go to school to learn,” she said. “Petimus scholam ut litteras discamus.”

And that was when it hit me. Like an anvil falling out of the sky, directly onto my skull. I gazed around at my classmates. What group of people has “much to learn”?

Students. High-school students.

I was on a planet filled with students, all of whom had “much to learn.”

What if the Limerick was saying that the tomb was hidden right here, on Ludus? The very planet where I’d been twiddling my thumbs for the past five years?

Then I remembered that ludus was also a Latin word, meaning “school.” I pulled up my Latin dictionary to double-check the definition, and that was when I discovered the word had more than one meaning. Ludus could mean “school,” but it could also mean “sport” or “game.”

Game.

I fell out of my folding chair and landed with a thud on the floor of my hideout. My OASIS console tracked this movement and attempted to make my avatar drop to the floor of my Latin classroom, but the classroom conduct software prevented it from moving and a warning flashed on my display: PLEASE REMAIN SEATED DURING CLASS!

I told myself not to get too excited. I might be jumping to conclusions. There were hundreds of private schools and universities located on other planets inside the OASIS. The Limerick might refer to one of them. But I didn’t think so. Ludus made more sense. James Halliday had donated billions to fund the creation of the OASIS public school system here, as a way to demonstrate the huge potential of the OASIS as an educational tool. And prior to his death, Halliday had set up a foundation to ensure that the OASIS public school system would always have the money it needed to operate. The Halliday Learning Foundation also provided impoverished children around the globe with free OASIS hardware and Internet access so that they could attend school inside the OASIS.

GSS’s own programmers had designed and constructed Ludus and all of the schools on it. So it was entirely possible that Halliday was the one who’d given the planet its name. And he would also have had access to the planet’s source code, if he’d wanted to hide something here.

The realizations continued to detonate in my brain like atomic bombs going off, one after another.

According to the original D&D module, the entrance to the Tomb of Horrors was hidden near “a low, flat-topped hill, about two hundred yards wide and three hundred yards long.” The top of the hill was covered with large black stones that were arranged in such a way that, if you viewed them from a great height, they resembled the eye sockets, nose holes, and teeth of a human skull.

But if there was a hill like that hidden somewhere on Ludus, wouldn’t someone have stumbled across it by now?

Maybe not. Ludus had hundreds of large forests scattered all over its surface, in the vast sections of empty land that stood between the thousands of school campuses. Some of these forests were enormous, covering dozens of square miles. Most students never even set foot inside them, because there was nothing of interest to do or see there. Like its fields and rivers and lakes, Ludus’s forests were just computer-generated landscaping, placed there to fill up the empty space.

Of course, during my avatar’s long stay on Ludus, I’d explored a few of the forests within walking distance of my school, out of boredom. But all they contained were thousands of randomly generated trees and the occasional bird, rabbit, or squirrel. (These tiny creatures weren’t worth any experience points if you killed them. I’d checked.)

So it was entirely possible that somewhere, hidden in one of Ludus’s large, unexplored patches of forestland, there was a small stone-covered hill that resembled a human skull.

I tried pulling up a map of Ludus on my display, but I couldn’t. The system wouldn’t let me, because class was still in session. The hack I used to access books in the school’s online library didn’t work for the OASIS atlas software.

“sh@t!” I blurted out in frustration. The classroom conduct software filtered this out, so neither Ms. Rank nor my classmates heard it. But another warning flashed on my display: PROFANITY MUTED—MISCONDUCT WARNING!

I looked at the time on my display. Exactly seventeen minutes and twenty seconds left until the end of the school day. I sat there with clenched teeth and counted off each second, my mind still racing.

Ludus was an inconspicuous world in Sector One. There wasn’t supposed to be anything but schools here, so this was the last place a gunter would think to look for the Copper Key. It was definitely the last place I had ever thought to look, and that alone proved it was a perfect hiding place. But why would Halliday have chosen to hide the Copper Key here? Unless …

He’d wanted a schoolkid to find it.

I was still reeling from the implications of that thought when the bell finally rang. Around me, the other students began to file out of the room or vanish in their seats. Ms. Rank’s avatar also disappeared, and in moments I was all alone in the classroom.

I pulled up a map of Ludus on my display. It appeared as a three-dimensional globe floating in front of me, and I gave it a spin with my hand. Ludus was a relatively small planet by OASIS standards, about a third the size of Earth’s moon, with a circumference of exactly one thousand kilometers. A single contiguous continent covered the surface. There were no oceans, just a few dozen large lakes placed here and there. Since OASIS planets weren’t real, they didn’t have to obey the laws of nature. On Ludus, it was perpetually daytime, regardless of where you stood on the surface, and the sky was always a perfect cloudless blue. The stationary sun that hung overheard was nothing but a virtual light source, programmed into the imaginary sky.

On the map, the school campuses appeared as thousands of identical numbered rectangles dotting the planet’s surface. They were separated by rolling green fields, rivers, mountain ranges, and forests. The forests were of all shapes and sizes, and many of them bordered one of the schools. Next to the map, I pulled up the Tomb of Horrors module. Near the front, it contained a crude illustration of the hill concealing the tomb. I took a screenshot of this illustration and placed it in the corner of my display.

I frantically searched my favorite warez sites until I found a high-end image-recognition plug-in for the OASIS atlas. Once I downloaded the software via Guntorrent, it took me a few more minutes to figure out how to make it scan the entire surface of Ludus for a hill with large black stones arranged in a skull-like pattern. One with a size, shape, and appearance that matched the illustration from the Tomb of Horrors module.

After about ten minutes of searching, the software highlighted a possible match.

I held my breath as I placed the close-up image from the Ludus map beside the illustration from the D&D module. The shape of the hill and the skull pattern of the stones both matched the illustration perfectly.

I decreased the magnification on the map a bit, then pulled back far enough to confirm that the northern edge of the hill ended in a cliff of sand and crumbling gravel. Just like in the original Dungeons & Dragons module.

I let out a triumphant yell that echoed in the empty classroom and bounced off the walls of my tiny hideout. I’d done it. I’d actually found the Tomb of Horrors!

When I finally managed to calm down, I did some quick calculations. The hill was near the center of a large amoeba-shaped forest located on the opposite side of Ludus, over four hundred kilometers from my school. My avatar could run at a maximum speed of five kilometers an hour, so it would take me over three days to get there on foot if I ran nonstop the entire time. If I could teleport, I could be there within minutes. The fare wouldn’t be much for such a short distance, maybe a few hundred credits. Unfortunately, that was still more than my current OASIS account balance, which was a big fat zero.

I considered my options. Aech would lend me the money for the fare, but I didn’t want to ask for his help. If I couldn’t reach the tomb on my own, I didn’t deserve to reach it at all. Besides, I’d have to lie to Aech about what the money was for, and since I’d never asked him for a loan before, any excuse I gave would make him suspicious.

Thinking about Aech, I couldn’t help but smile. He was really going to freak when he found out about this. The tomb was hidden less than seventy kilometers from his school! Practically his backyard.

That thought triggered an idea, one that made me leap to my feet. I ran out of the classroom and down the hall.

Not only had I figured out a way to teleport to the other side of Ludus, I knew how to get my school to pay for it.

Each OASIS public school had a bunch of different athletic teams, including wrestling, soccer, football, baseball, volleyball, and a few other sports that couldn’t be played in the real world, like Quidditch and zero-gravity Capture the Flag. Students went out for these teams just like they did at schools in the real world, and they played using elaborate sports-capable haptic rigs that required them to actually do all of their own running, jumping, kicking, tackling, and so on. The teams had nightly practice, held pep rallies, and traveled to other schools on Ludus to compete against them. Our school gave out free teleportation vouchers to any student who wanted to attend an away game, so we could sit up in the stands and root for old OPS #1873. I’d only taken advantage of this once, when our Capture the Flag team had played against Aech’s school in the OPS championships.

When I arrived in the school office, I scanned the activities schedule and found what I was looking for right away. That evening, our football team was playing an away game against OPS #0571, which was located roughly an hour’s run from the forest where the tomb was hidden.

I reached out and selected the game, and a teleportation voucher instantly appeared in my avatar’s inventory, good for one free round-trip to OPS #0571.

I stopped at my locker long enough to drop off my textbooks and grab my flashlight, sword, shield, and armor. Then I sprinted out the front entrance and across the expansive green lawn in front of the school.

When I reached the red borderline that marked the edge of the school grounds, I glanced around to make sure no one was watching me, then stepped across the line. As I did, the WADE3 nametag floating above my head changed to read PARZIVAL. Now that I was off school grounds, I could use my avatar name once again. I could also turn off my nametag completely, which was what I did now, because I wanted to travel incognito.

The nearest transport terminal was a short walk from the school, at the end of a cobblestone path. It was a large domed pavilion supported by a dozen ivory pillars. Each pillar bore an OASIS teleportation icon, a capital “T” in the center of a blue hexagon. School had only been out for a few minutes now, so there was a steady stream of avatars filing into the terminal. Inside were long rows of blue teleportation booths. Their shape and color always reminded me of Doctor Who’s TARDIS. I stepped into the first empty booth I saw, and the doors closed automatically. I didn’t need to enter my destination on the touchscreen because it was already encoded on my voucher. I just slid the voucher into a slot and a world map of Ludus appeared on the screen, showing a line from my present location to my destination, a flashing green dot next to OPS #0571. The booth instantly calculated the distance I would be traveling (462 kilometers) and the amount my school would be invoiced for the fare (103 credits). The voucher was verified, the fare showed as PAID, and my avatar vanished.

I instantly reappeared in an identical booth, inside an identical transport terminal on the opposite side of the planet. As I ran outside, I spotted OPS #0571 off to the south. It looked exactly like my own school, except the surrounding landscape was different. I spotted some students from my school, walking toward the nearby football stadium, on their way to watch the game and root for our team. I wasn’t sure why they bothered. They could just as easily have watched the game via vidfeed. And any empty seats in the stands would be filled with randomly generated NPC fans who would wolf down virtual sodas and hot dogs while cheering wildly. Occasionally, they would even do “the wave.”

I was already running in the opposite direction, across a rolling green field that stretched out behind the school. A small mountain range loomed in the distance, and I could see the amoeba-shaped forest at its base.

I turned on my avatar’s autorun feature, then opened my inventory and selected three of the items listed there. My armor appeared on my body, my shield appeared in a sling on my back, and my sword appeared in its scabbard, hanging at my side.

I was almost to the edge of the forest when my phone rang. The ID said it was Aech. Probably calling to see why I hadn’t logged into the Basement yet. But if I answered the call, he would see a live video feed of my avatar, running across a field at top speed, with OPS #0571 shrinking in the distance behind me. I could conceal my current location by taking the call as audio only, but that might make him suspicious. So I let the call roll to my vidmail. Aech’s face appeared in a small window on my display. He was calling from a PvP arena somewhere. Dozens of avatars were locked in fierce combat on a multitiered playing field behind him.

“Yo, Z! What are you up to? Jerking off to Ladyhawke?” He flashed his Cheshire grin. “Give me a shout. I’m still planning to pop some corn and have a Spaced marathon. You down?” He hung up and his image winked out.

I sent a text-only reply, saying I had a ton of homework and couldn’t hang tonight. Then I pulled up the Tomb of Horrors module and began to read through it again, page by page. I did this slowly and carefully, because I was pretty sure it contained a detailed description of everything I was about to face.

“In the far reaches of the world, under a lost and lonely hill,” read the module’s introduction, “lies the sinister TOMB OF HORRORS. This labyrinthine crypt is filled with terrible traps, strange and ferocious monsters, rich and magical treasures, and somewhere within rests the evil Demi-Lich.”

That last bit worried me. A lich was an undead creature, usually an incredibly powerful wizard or king who had employed dark magic to bind his intellect to his own reanimated corpse, thus achieving a perverted form of immortality. I’d encountered liches in countless videogames and fantasy novels. They were to be avoided at all costs.

I studied the map of the tomb and the descriptions of its many rooms. The tomb’s entrance was buried in the side of a crumbling cliff. A tunnel led down into a labyrinth of thirty-three rooms and chambers, each filled with a variety of vicious monsters, deadly traps, and (mostly cursed) treasure. If you somehow managed to survive all of the traps and find your way through the labyrinth, you would eventually reach the crypt of Acererak the Demi-Lich. The room was littered with treasure, but if you touched it, the undead King Acererak appeared and opened up a can of undead whup-ass on you. If, by some miracle, you managed to defeat the lich, you could take his treasure and leave the dungeon. Mission accomplished, quest completed.

If Halliday had re-created the Tomb of Horrors just as it was described in the module, I was in big trouble. My avatar was a third-level wimp, with nonmagical weapons and twenty-seven measly hit points. Nearly all of the traps and monsters described in the module could kill me easily. And if I somehow managed to make it past all of them and reach the crypt, the ultrapowerful lich could kill my avatar in seconds, just by looking at him.

But I had a few things going for me. First, I really didn’t have much to lose. If my avatar was killed, I would lose my sword, shield, and leather armor, and the three levels I’d managed to gain over the past few years. I’d have to create a new first-level avatar, which would spawn at my last log-in location, in front of my school locker. But then I could just return to the tomb and try again. And again and again, every night, collecting XPs and increasing in levels until I finally figured out where the Copper Key was hidden. (There was no such thing as a backup avatar. OASIS users could have only one avatar at a time. It was possible for hackers to use modded visors to spoof their retinal patterns and thus create a second account for themselves. But if you got caught, you’d be banned from the OASIS for life, and you’d also be disqualified from participating in Halliday’s contest. No gunter would ever take that risk.)

My other advantage (I hoped) was that I knew exactly what to expect once I entered the tomb, because the module provided me with a detailed map of the entire labyrinth. It also told me where all the traps were located, and how to disarm or avoid them. I also knew which rooms contained monsters, and where all of the weapons and treasure were hidden. Unless, of course, Halliday had changed things around. Then I was screwed. But at the moment, I was far too excited to be worried. After all, I’d just made the biggest, most important discovery of my life. I was just a few minutes away from the hiding place of the Copper Key!

I finally reached the edge of the forest and ran inside. It was filled with thousands of perfectly rendered maples, oaks, spruces, and tamaracks. The trees looked as though they had been generated and placed using standard OASIS landscape templates, but the detail put into them was stunning. I stopped to examine one of the trees closely and saw ants crawling along the intricate ridges in its bark. I took this as a sign I was on the right track.

There was no path through the forest, so I kept the map in the corner of my display and followed it to the skull-topped hill that marked the tomb entrance. It was right where the map said it would be, in a large glade at the center of the forest. As I stepped into the clearing, my heart felt like it was trying to beat its way out of my rib cage.

I climbed up onto the low hilltop, and it was like stepping into the illustration from the D&D module. Halliday had reproduced everything exactly. Twelve massive black stones were arranged on the hilltop in the same pattern, resembling the features of a human skull.

I walked to the northern edge of the hilltop and descended the crumbling cliff face I found there. By consulting the module map, I was able to locate the exact spot in the cliff where the entrance to the tomb was supposed to be buried. Then, using my shield as a shovel, I began to dig. Within a few minutes, I uncovered the mouth of a tunnel that led into a dark underground corridor. The floor of the corridor was a mosaic of colorful stones, with a winding path of red tiles set into it. Once again, just like in the D&D module.

I moved the Tomb of Horrors dungeon map to the top right corner of my display and made it slightly transparent. Then I strapped my shield to my back and took out my flashlight. I glanced around once more to make sure no one was watching me; then, clutching my sword in my other hand, I entered the Tomb of Horrors.

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