فصل 09

کتاب: بازیکن شماره یک آماده / فصل 10

فصل 09

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“Who the hell are you?” the silhouette demanded. The voice sounded like it belonged to a young woman. One who was itching for a fight.

When I failed to answer, a stocky female avatar stepped out of the shadows and into the chamber’s flickering torchlight. She had raven hair, styled Joan-of-Arc short, and appeared to be in her late teens or early twenties. As she got closer, I realized that I knew her. We’d never actually met, but I recognized her face from the dozens of screenshots she’d posted to her blog over the years.

It was Art3mis.

She wore a suit of scaled gunmetal-blue armor that looked more sci-fi than fantasy. Twin blaster pistols were slung low on her hips in quickdraw holsters, and there was a long, curved elvish sword in a scabbard across her back. She wore fingerless Road Warrior–style racing gloves and a pair of classic Ray-Ban shades. Overall, she seemed to be going for a sort of mid-’80s postapocalyptic cyberpunk girl-next-door look. And it was working for me, in a big way. In a word: hot.

As she walked toward me, the heels of her studded combat boots clicked on the stone floor. She halted just out of my sword’s reach but did not draw her own blade. Instead, she slid her shades up onto her avatar’s forehead—a blatant affectation, since sunglasses didn’t actually affect a player’s vision—and looked me up and down, making a show of sizing me up.

For a moment I was too star-struck to speak. To break my paralysis, I reminded myself that the person operating the avatar in front of me might not be a woman at all. This “girl,” whom I’d been cyber-crushing on for the past three years, might very well be an obese, hairy-knuckled guy named Chuck. Once I’d conjured up that sobering image, I was able to focus on my situation, and the question at hand: What was she doing here? After five years of searching, I thought it was highly improbable that we’d both discovered the Copper Key’s hiding place on the same night. Too big of a coincidence.

“Cat got your tongue?” she asked. “I said: Who. The hell. Are you?”

Like her, I had my avatar’s nametag switched off. Clearly, I wanted to remain anonymous, especially under the circumstances. Couldn’t she take the hint?

“Greetings,” I said, bowing slightly. “I am Juan Sánchez Villa-Lobos Ramírez.”

She smirked. “Chief metallurgist to King Charles the Fifth of Spain?”

“At your service,” I replied, grinning. She’d caught my obscure Highlander quote and thrown another right back at me. It was Art3mis, all right.

“Cute.” She glanced over my shoulder, up at the empty dais, then back at me. “So, spill it. How did you do?”

“Do at what?”

“Jousting against Acererak?” she said, as if it were obvious.

Suddenly, I understood. This wasn’t the first time she’d been here. I wasn’t the first gunter to decipher the Limerick and find the Tomb of Horrors. Art3mis had beaten me to it. And since she knew about the Joust game, she’d obviously already faced the lich herself. But if she already had the Copper Key, there wouldn’t be any reason for her to come back here. So she clearly didn’t have the key yet. She’d faced the lich at Joust and he’d beaten her. So she’d come back to try again. For all I knew, this could be her eighth or ninth attempt. And she obviously assumed the lich had beaten me, too.

“Hello?” she said, tapping her right foot impatiently. “I’m waiting?”

I considered making a break for it. Just running right past her, back out through the labyrinth and up to the surface. But if I ran, she might suspect that I had the key and decide to try to kill me to get it. The surface of Ludus was clearly marked as a safe zone on the OASIS map, so no player-versus-player combat was allowed. But I had no way of knowing if the same was true of this tomb, because it was underground, and it didn’t even appear on the planet map.

Art3mis looked like a formidable opponent. Body armor. Blaster pistols. And that elvish sword she was carrying might be vorpal. If even half of the exploits she’d mentioned on her blog were true, her avatar was probably at least fiftieth level. Or higher. If PvP combat was permitted down here, she’d kick my tenth-level ass.

So I had to play this cool. I decided to lie.

“I got creamed,” I said. “Joust isn’t really my game.”

She relaxed her posture slightly. That seemed to be the answer she wanted to hear. “Yeah, same here,” she said in a commiserating tone. “Halliday programmed old King Acererak with some pretty wicked AI, didn’t he? He’s insanely hard to beat.” She glanced down at my sword, which I was still brandishing defensively. “You can put that away. I’m not gonna bite you.”

I kept my sword raised. “Is this tomb in a PvP zone?”

“Dunno. You’re the first avatar I’ve ever run into down here.” She tilted her head slightly and smiled. “I suppose there’s only one way to find out.”

She drew her sword, lightning fast, and turned into a clockwise spin, bringing its glowing blade around and down at me, all in a single blur of motion. At the last second, I managed to tilt my own blade upward to awkwardly parry the attack. But both of our swords halted in midair, inches apart, as if held back by some invisible force. A message flashed on my display: PLAYER-VERSUS-PLAYER COMBAT NOT PERMITTED HERE!

I breathed a sigh of relief. (I wouldn’t learn until later that the keys were nontransferable. You couldn’t drop one of them, or give them to another avatar. And if you were killed while holding one, it vanished right along with your body.)

“Well, there you have it,” she said, grinning. “This is a no-PvP zone after all.” She whipped her sword around in a figure-eight pattern, then smoothly replaced it in the scabbard on her back. Very slick.

I sheathed my own sword too, but without any fancy moves. “Halliday must not have wanted anyone to duel for the right to joust the king,” I said.

“Yeah,” she said, grinning. “Lucky for you.”

“Lucky for me?” I replied, folding my arms. “How do you figure?”

She motioned to the empty dais behind me. “You must really be hurting for hit points right now, after fighting Acererak.”

So … if Acererak beat you at Joust, then you had to fight him. Good thing I won, I thought. Or else I’d probably be creating a new avatar right about now.

“I’ve got hit points galore,” I fibbed. “That lich was a total wuss.”

“Oh really?” she said suspiciously. “I’m fifty-second level, and he’s nearly killed me every time I’ve had to fight him. I have to stock up on extra healing potions every time I come down here.” She eyed me a moment, then said, “I also recognize your sword and the armor you’re wearing. You got them both right here in this dungeon, which means they’re better than whatever your avatar had before. You look like a low-level wimpazoid to me, Juan Ramírez. And I think you’re hiding something.”

Now that I knew she couldn’t attack me, I considered telling her the truth. Why not just whip out the Copper Key and show it to her? But I thought better of it. The smart move now was to split and head straight for Middletown while I still had a head start. She still didn’t have the key and might not get it for several more days. If I hadn’t already had so many hours of Joust practice under my belt, God knows how many attempts it would have taken me to beat Acererak.

“Think what you want, She-Ra,” I said, moving past her. “Maybe I’ll run in to you off-world sometime. We can duke it out then.” I gave her a small wave. “See ya ’round.”

“Where do you think you’re going?” she said, following me.

“Home,” I said, still walking.

“But what about the lich? And the Copper Key?” She motioned to the empty dais. “He’ll respawn in a few minutes. When the OASIS server clock hits midnight, the whole tomb resets. If you wait right here, you’ll get another shot at beating him, without having to make your way through all of those traps again first. That’s why I’ve been coming here just before midnight, every other day. So I can get in two attempts in a row, back-to-back.”

Clever. If I hadn’t succeeded on my first try, I wondered how long it would have taken me to figure that out. “I thought we could take turns playing against him,” I said. “I just played him, so it’ll be your turn at midnight, OK? Then I’ll come back after midnight tomorrow. We can alternate days until one of us beats him. Sound fair?”

“I suppose,” she said, studying me. “But you should stick around anyway. Something different might happen if there are two avatars here at midnight. Anorak probably prepared for that contingency. Maybe two instances of the lich will appear, one for each of us to play? Or maybe—”

“I prefer to play in private,” I said. “Let’s just take turns, OK?” I was almost to the exit when she stepped in front of me, blocking my path.

“Come on, hold up a second,” she said, her voice softening. “Please?”

I could have kept walking, right through her avatar. But I didn’t. I was desperate to get to Middletown and locate the First Gate, but I was also standing in front of the famous Art3mis, someone I’d fantasized about meeting for years. And she was even cooler in person than I’d imagined. I was dying to spend more time with her. I wanted, as the ’80s poet Howard Jones would say, to get to know her well. If I left now, I might never run into her again.

“Listen,” she said, glancing at her boots. “I apologize for calling you a low-level wimpazoid. That was not cool. I insulted you.”

“It’s OK. You were right, actually. I’m only tenth level.”

“Regardless, you’re a fellow gunter. And a clever one too, or you wouldn’t be standing here. So, I want you to know that I respect you, and acknowledge your skills. And I apologize for the trash talk.”

“Apology accepted. No worries.”

“Cool.” She looked relieved. Her avatar’s facial expressions were extremely realistic, which usually meant they were synched to those of their operator instead of controlled by software. She must’ve been using an expensive rig. “I was just a little freaked to find you here,” she said. “I mean, I knew someone else would find this place eventually. Just not this quickly. I’ve had this tomb all to myself for a while now.”

“How long?” I asked, not really expecting her to say.

She hesitated, then began to ramble. “Three weeks!” she said, exasperated. “I’ve been coming here for three freakin’ weeks, trying to beat that stupid lich at that asinine game! And his AI is ridiculous! I mean, you know. I’d never even played Joust before this, and now it’s driving me out of my gourd! I swear I was this close to finally beating his ass a few days ago, but then …” She raked her fingers through her hair in frustration. “Argh! I can’t sleep. I can’t eat. My grades are going down the tubes, because I’ve been ditching to practice Joust—”

I was about to ask if she went to school here on Ludus, but she continued to talk, faster and faster, as if a floodgate had opened in her brain. The words just poured out of her. She was barely pausing to breathe.

“—and I came here tonight, thinking this would be the night I finally beat that bastard and get the Copper Key, but when I got here, I saw that someone had already uncovered the entrance. So I realized my worst fear had finally come true. Someone else had found the tomb. So I ran all the way down here, totally freaking out. I mean, I wasn’t too worried, because I didn’t think anyone could possibly beat Acererak on their first try, but still—” She paused to take a deep breath and stopped abruptly.

“Sorry,” she said a second later. “I tend to ramble when I’m nervous. Or excited. And right now I’m sort of both, because I’ve been dying to talk to someone about all of this, but obviously I couldn’t tell a soul, right? You can’t just mention in casual conversation that you—” She cut herself off again. “Man, I’m such a motormouth! A jabberjaw. A flibbertigibbet.” She mimed zipping her lips, locking them, and tossing away the imaginary key. Without thinking, I mimed grabbing the key out of the air and unlocking her lips. This made her laugh—an honest, genuine laugh that involved a fair amount of snorting, which made me laugh too.

She was so charming. Her geeky demeanor and hyperkinetic speech pattern reminded me of Jordan, my favorite character in Real Genius. I’d never felt such an instant connection with another person, in the real world or in the OASIS. Not even with Aech. I felt light-headed.

When she finally got her laughter under control, she said, “I really need to set up a filter to edit out that laugh of mine.”

“No, you shouldn’t,” I said. “It’s a pretty great laugh, actually.” I was wincing at every word coming out of my mouth. “I have a dorky laugh too.”

Great, Wade, I thought. You just called her laugh “dorky.” Real smooth.

But she just gave me a shy smile and mouthed the words “thank you.”

I felt a sudden urge to kiss her. Simulation or not, I didn’t care. I was working up the courage to ask for her contact card when she stuck out her hand.

“I forgot to introduce myself,” she said. “I’m Art3mis.”

“I know,” I said, shaking her hand. “I’m actually a huge fan of your blog. I’ve been a loyal reader for years.”

“Seriously?” Her avatar actually seemed to blush.

I nodded. “It’s an honor to meet you,” I said. “I’m Parzival.” I realized that I was still holding her hand and made myself let go.

“Parzival, eh?” She tilted her head slightly. “Named after the knight of the Round Table who found the grail, right? Very cool.”

I nodded, now even more smitten. I almost always had to explain my name to people. “And Artemis was the Greek goddess of the hunt, right?”

“Right! But the normal spelling was already taken, so I had to use a leet spelling, with a number three in place of the ‘e.’ ”

“I know,” I said. “You mentioned that once on your blog. Two years ago.” I almost cited the date of the actual blog entry before I realized it would make me sound like even more of a cyber-stalking super-creep. “You said that you still run into noobs who prounounce it ‘Art-three-miss.’ ”

“That’s right,” she said, grinning at me. “I did.”

She stretched out a racing-gloved hand and offered me one of her contact cards. You could design your card to look like just about anything. Art3mis had coded hers to look like a vintage Kenner Star Wars action figure (still in the blister pack). The figure was a crude plastic rendering of her avatar, with the same face, hair, and outfit. Tiny versions of her guns and sword were included. Her contact info was printed on the card, above the figure:

Art3mis 52nd Level Warrior/Mage

(Vehicle Sold Separately)

On the back of the card were links to her blog, e-mail, and phone line.

Not only was this the first time a girl had ever given me her card, it was also, by far, the coolest contact card I had ever seen.

“This is, by far, the coolest contact card I have ever seen,” I said. “Thank you!”

I handed her one of my own cards, which I’d designed to look like an original Atari 2600 Adventure cartridge, with my contact info printed on the label:

Parzival 10th Level Warrior

(Use with Joystick Controller)

“This is awesome!” she said, looking it over. “What a wicked design!”

“Thanks,” I said, blushing under my visor. I wanted to propose marriage.

I added her card to my inventory, and it appeared on my item list, right below the Copper Key. Seeing the key listed there snapped me back to reality. What the hell was I doing, standing here making small talk with this girl when the First Gate was waiting for me? I checked the time. Less than five minutes until midnight.

“Listen, Art3mis,” I said. “It was truly awesome to meet you. But I gotta get going. The server is about to reset, and I want to clear out of here before all of those traps and undead respawn.”

“Oh … OK.” She actually sounded disappointed! “I should probably prepare for my Joust match anyway. But here, let me hit you with a Cure Serious Wounds spell before you go.”

Before I could protest, she laid a hand on my avatar’s chest and muttered a few arcane words. My hit-point counter was already at maximum, so the spell had no effect. But Art3mis didn’t know that. She was still under the assumption that I’d had to fight the lich.

“There you go,” she said, stepping back.

“Thanks,” I said. “But you shouldn’t have. We’re competitors, you know.”

“I know. But we can still be friends, right?”

“I hope so.”

“Besides, the Third Gate is still a long way off. I mean, it took five years for the two of us to get this far. And if I know Halliday’s game-design strategy, things are just going to get harder from here on out.” She lowered her voice. “Listen, are you sure you don’t want to stick around? I bet we can both play at once. We can give each other Jousting tips. I’ve started to spot some flaws in the king’s technique—”

Now I was starting to feel like a jerk for lying to her. “That’s a really kind offer. But I have to go.” I searched for a plausible excuse. “I’ve got school in the morning.”

She nodded, but her expression shifted back to one of suspicion. Then her eyes widened, as though an idea had just occurred to her. Her pupils began to dart around, focused on the space in front of her, and I realized she was looking something up in a browser window. A few seconds later, her face contorted in anger.

“You lying bastard!” she shouted. “You dishonest sack of crap!” She made her Web browser window visible to me and spun it around. It displayed the Scoreboard on Halliday’s website. In all the excitement, I’d forgotten to check it.

It looked just as it had for the past five years, with one change. My avatar’s name now appeared at the very top of the list, in first place, with a score of 10,000 points beside it. The other nine slots still contained Halliday’s initials, JDH, followed by zeros.

“Holy sh@t,” I muttered. When Anorak had handed me the Copper Key, I’d become the first gunter in history to score points in the contest. And, I realized, since the Scoreboard was viewable to the entire world, my avatar had just become famous.

I checked the newsfeed headlines just to be sure. Every single one of them contained my avatar’s name. Stuff like: MYSTERIOUS AVATAR “PARZIVAL” MAKES HISTORY and PARZIVAL FINDS COPPER KEY.

I stood there in a daze, forcing myself to breathe. Then Art3mis gave me a shove, which, of course, I didn’t feel. She did knock my avatar backward a few feet, though. “You beat him on your first try?” she shouted.

I nodded. “He won the first game, but I won the last two. Just barely, though.”

“Shiiiiiit!” she screamed, clenching her fists. “How in the hell did you beat him on your first try?” I got the distinct impression she wanted to sock me in the face.

“It was pure luck,” I said. “I used to play Joust all the time against a friend of mine. So I’d already had a ton of preparation. I’m sure if you’d had as much practice—”

“Please!” she growled, holding up a hand. “Do not patronize me, OK?” She let out what I can only describe as a howl of frustration. “I don’t believe this! Do you realize I’ve been trying to beat him for five goddamn weeks!”

“But a minute ago you said it was three weeks—”

“Don’t interrupt me!” She gave me another shove. “I’ve been practicing Joust nonstop for over a month now! I’m seeing flying ostriches in my goddamn sleep!”

“That can’t be pleasant.”

“And you just walk in here and nail it on the first try!” She started pounding her fist into the center of her forehead, and I realized she was pissed at herself, not me.

“Listen,” I said. “It really was luck. I’ve got a knack for classic arcade games. That’s my specialty.” I shrugged. “Stop hitting yourself like Rain Man, OK?”

She stopped and stared me. After a few seconds, she let out a long sigh. “Why couldn’t it be Centipede? Or Ms. Pac-Man? Or BurgerTime? Then I’d probably have already cleared the First Gate by now!”

“Well, I don’t know about that,” I said.

She glared at me a second, then gave me a devilish smile. She turned to face the exit and began to execute a series of elaborate gestures in the air in front of her while whispering the words of some incantation.

“Hey,” I said. “Hold on a sec. What are you doing?”

But I already knew. As she finished casting her spell, a giant stone wall appeared, completely covering the chamber’s only exit. sh@t! She’d cast a Barrier spell. I was trapped inside the room.

“Oh, come on!” I shouted. “Why did you do that?”

“You seemed to be in an awful big hurry to get out of here. My guess is that when Anorak gave you the Copper Key, he also gave you some sort of clue about the location of the First Gate. Right? That’s where you’re headed next, isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” I said. I thought about denying it, but what was the point now?

“So unless you can nullify my spell—and I’m betting you can’t, Mr. Tenth-Level Warrior—that barrier will keep you in here until just after midnight, when the server resets. All of those traps you disarmed on your way down here will reset. That should slow down your exit considerably.”

“Yes,” I said. “It will.”

“And while you’re busy making your way back up to the surface, I’ll have another shot at defeating Acererak. And this time I’m gonna destroy him. Then I’ll be right behind you, mister.”

I folded my arms. “If the king has been beating your ass for the past five weeks, what makes you think you’re finally going to win tonight?”

“Competition brings out the best in me,” she replied. “It always has. And now I’ve got some serious competition.”

I glanced over at the magical barrier she’d created. She was over fiftieth level, so it would remain in existence for the spell’s maximum duration: fifteen minutes. All I could do was stand there and wait for it to dissipate. “You’re evil, you know that?” I said.

She grinned and shook her head. “Chaotic Neutral, sugar.”

I grinned back at her. “I’m still going to beat you to the First Gate, you know.”

“Probably,” she said. “But this is just the beginning. You’ll still have to clear it. And there are still two more keys to find, and two more gates to clear. Plenty of time for me to catch up with you, and then leave you in the dust, ace.”

“We’ll see about that, lady.”

She motioned to the window displaying the Scoreboard. “You’re famous now,” she said. “You realize what that means, don’t you?”

“I haven’t had much time to think about it yet.”

“Well, I have. I’ve been thinking about it for the past five weeks. Your avatar’s name on that Scoreboard is going to change everything. The public will become obsessed with the contest again, just like when it first began. The media is already going berserk. By tomorrow, Parzival will be a household name.”

That thought made me a little queasy.

“You could become famous in the real world too,” she said. “If you reveal your true identity to the media.”

“I’m not an idiot.”

“Good. Because there are billions of dollars up for grabs, and now everyone is going to assume you know how and where to find the egg. There are a lot of people who would kill for that information.”

“I know that,” I said. “And I appreciate your concern. But I’ll be fine.”

But I didn’t feel fine. I hadn’t really considered any of this, maybe because I’d never really believed I would actually be in this position.

We stood there in silence, watching the clock and waiting. “What would you do if you won?” she suddenly asked. “How would you spend all that money?”

I had spent a lot of time thinking about that. I daydreamed about it all the time. Aech and I had made absurd lists of things we would do and buy if we won the prize.

“I don’t know,” I said. “The usual, I guess. Move into a mansion. Buy a bunch of cool sh@t. Not be poor.”

“Wow. Big dreamer,” she said. “And after you buy your mansion and your ‘cool sh@t,’ what will you do with the hundred and thirty billion you’ll have left over?”

Not wanting her to think I was some shallow idiot, I impulsively blurted out what I’d always dreamed of doing if I won. It was something I’d never told anyone.

“I’d have a nuclear-powered interstellar spacecraft constructed in Earth’s orbit,” I said. “I’d stock it with a lifetime supply of food and water, a self-sustaining biosphere, and a supercomputer loaded with every movie, book, song, videogame, and piece of artwork that human civilization has ever created, along with a stand-alone copy of the OASIS. Then I’d invite a few of my closest friends to come aboard, along with a team of doctors and scientists, and we’d all get the hell out of Dodge. Leave the solar system and start looking for an extrasolar Earthlike planet.”

I hadn’t thought this plan all the way through yet, of course. I still had a lot of details to work out.

She raised an eyebrow. “That’s pretty ambitious,” she said. “But you do realize that nearly half the people on this planet are starving, right?” I detected no malice in her voice. She sounded like she genuinely believed I might not be aware of this fact.

“Yes, I know,” I said defensively. “The reason so many people are starving is because we’ve wrecked the planet. The Earth is dying, you know? It’s time to leave.”

“That’s a pretty negative outlook,” she said. “If I win that dough, I’m going to make sure everyone on this planet has enough to eat. Once we tackle world hunger, then we can figure out how to fix the environment and solve the energy crisis.”

I rolled my eyes. “Right,” I said. “And after you pull off that miracle, you can genetically engineer a bunch of Smurfs and unicorns to frolic around this new perfect world you’ve created.”

“I’m being serious,” she said.

“You really think it’s that simple?” I said. “That you can just write a check for two hundred and forty billion dollars and fix all the world’s problems?”

“I don’t know. Maybe not. But I’m gonna give it a shot.”

“If you win.”

“Right. If I win.”

Just then, the OASIS server clock struck midnight. We both knew the second it happened, because the throne reappeared atop the dais, along with Acererak. He sat there motionless, looking just like he did when I’d first entered the room.

Art3mis glanced up at him, then back at me. She smiled and gave me a small wave. “I’ll see you around, Parzival.”

“Yeah,” I replied. “See ya.” She turned and began to walk toward the dais. I called after her. “Hey, Art3mis?”

She turned back. For some reason I felt compelled to help her, even though I knew I shouldn’t. “Try playing on the left side,” I said. “That’s how I won. I think he might be easier to beat if he’s playing the stork.”

She stared at me for a second, possibly trying to gauge whether I was messing with her. Then she nodded and ascended the dais. Acererak came to life as soon as she set foot on the first step.

“Greetings, Art3mis,” his voice boomed. “What is it that you seek?”

I couldn’t hear her reply, but a few seconds later the throne transformed into the Joust game, just as it had earlier. Art3mis said something to the lich and the two of them switched sides, so that she was on the left. Then they began to play.

I watched them play from a distance until a few minutes later, when her Barrier spell dissipated. I cast one last glance up at Art3mis, then threw open the door and ran out.

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