A few months after we’d all cleared the First Gate, an anonymous avatar had placed an ultrapowerful artifact up for auction. It was called Fyndoro’s Tablet of Finding, and it had unique powers that could give its owner a huge advantage in the hunt for Halliday’s Easter egg.
Most of the virtual items in the OASIS were created by the system at random, and they would “drop” when you killed an NPC or completed a quest. The rarest such items were artifacts, superpowerful magic items that gave their owners incredible abilities. Only a few hundred of these artifacts existed, and most of them dated back to the earliest days of the OASIS, when it was still primarily an MMO game. Every artifact was unique, meaning that only one copy of it existed in the entire simulation. Usually, the way to obtain an artifact was to defeat some godlike villain at the end of a high-level quest. If you got lucky, the bad guy would drop an artifact when you killed him. You could also obtain an artifact by killing an avatar who had one in its inventory, or by purchasing one in an online auction.
Since artifacts were so rare, it was always big news when one went up for auction. Some had been known to sell for hundreds of thousands of credits, depending on their powers. The record had been set three years ago when an artifact called the Cataclyst was auctioned off. According to its auction listing, the Cataclyst was a sort of magical bomb, and it could be used only once. When it was detonated, it would kill every single avatar and NPC in the sector, including its owner. There was no defense against it. If you were unlucky enough to be in the same sector when it went off, you were a goner, regardless of how powerful or well protected you were.
The Cataclyst had sold to an anonymous bidder for just over a million credits. The artifact still hadn’t been detonated, so its new owner still had it sitting around somewhere, waiting for the right time to use it. It was something of a running joke now. When a gunter was surrounded by avatars she didn’t like, she would claim to have the Cataclyst in her inventory and threaten to detonate it. But most people suspected that the item had actually fallen into the Sixers’ hands, along with countless other powerful artifacts.
Fyndoro’s Tablet of Finding wound up selling for even more than the Cataclyst. According to the auction description, the tablet was a flat circle of polished black stone, and it had one very simple power. Once a day, its owner could write any avatar’s name on its surface, and the tablet would display that avatar’s location at that exact moment. However, this power had range limitations. If you were in a different OASIS sector than the avatar you were trying to find, the tablet would tell you only which sector your target was currently in. If you were already in the same sector, the tablet would tell you what planet your target was currently on (or closest to, if they were out in space). If you were already on the same planet as your target when you used the tablet, it would show you their exact coordinates on a map.
As the artifact’s seller made sure to point out in his auction listing, if you used the tablet’s power in conjunction with the Scoreboard, it arguably became the most valuable artifact in the entire OASIS. All you had to do was watch the top rankings on the Scoreboard and wait until someone’s score increased. The second that happened, you could write that avatar’s name on the tablet and it would tell you where they were at that exact moment, thus revealing the location of the key they’d just found, or the gate they’d just exited. Due to the artifact’s range limitations, it might take two or three attempts to narrow down the exact location of a key or a gate, but even so, that was still information a lot of people would be willing to kill for.
When Fyndoro’s Tablet of Finding went up for auction, a huge bidding war broke out between several of the large gunter clans. But when the auction finally ended, the tablet wound up selling to the Sixers for almost two million credits. Sorrento himself used his own IOI account to bid on the tablet. He waited until the last few seconds of the auction and then outbid everyone. He could have bid anonymously, but he obviously wanted the world to know who now possessed the artifact. It was also his way of letting
those of us in the High Five know that from that moment forward, whenever one of us found a key or cleared a gate, the Sixers would be tracking us. And there was nothing we could do about it.
At first, I was worried the Sixers would also try to use the tablet to hunt down each of our avatars and kill us one at a time. But locating our avatars wouldn’t do them any good unless we happened to be in a PvP zone at the time and were stupid enough to stay put until the Sixers could reach us. And since the tablet could be used only once a day, they would also run the risk of missing their window of opportunity if the Scoreboard changed on the same day they tried to use the tablet to locate one of us. They didn’t take the chance. They kept the artifact in reserve and waited for their moment.
Less than a half hour after Art3mis’s score increase, the entire Sixer fleet was spotted converging on Sector Seven. The moment the Scoreboard changed, the Sixers had obviously used Fyndoro’s Tablet of Finding to try to ascertain Art3mis’s exact location. Luckily, the Sixer avatar using the tablet (probably Sorrento himself) happened to be in a different sector from Art3mis, so the tablet didn’t reveal what planet she was on. It only told the Sixers which sector she was currently in. And so the entire Sixer fleet had immediately hightailed it to Sector Seven.
Thanks to their complete lack of subtlety, the whole world now knew the Jade Key must be hidden somewhere in that sector. Naturally, thousands of gunters began to converge on it too. The Sixers had narrowed the search area for everyone. Luckily, Sector Seven contained hundreds of planets, moons, and other worlds, and the Jade Key could have been hidden on any one of them.
I spent the rest of the day in shock, reeling at the news that I’d been dethroned. That was exactly how the newsfeed headlines put it: PARZIVAL DETHRONED! ART3MIS NEW #1 GUNTER! SIXERS CLOSING IN!
Once I finally got a grip, I pulled up the Scoreboard and made myself stare at it for thirty solid minutes while I mentally berated myself.
You’ve got no one but yourself to blame, I told myself. You let success go to your head. You slacked off on your research. What, did you think lightning would strike twice? That eventually you’d just stumble across the clue you needed to find the Jade Key? Sitting in first place all that time gave you a false sense of security. But you don’t have that problem now, do you, asshead? No, because instead of buckling down and focusing on your quest like you should have, you pissed away your lead. You wasted almost half a year screwing around and pining over some girl you’ve never even met in person. The girl who dumped you. The same girl who is going to end up beating you.
Now … get your head back in the game, moron. Find that key.
Suddenly, I wanted to win the contest more than ever. Not just for the money. I wanted to prove myself to Art3mis. And I wanted the Hunt to be over, so that she would talk to me again. So that I could finally meet her in person, see her true face, and try to make sense of how I felt about her.
I cleared the Scoreboard off my display and opened up my grail diary, which had now grown into a vast mountain of data containing every scrap of information I’d collected since the contest began. It appeared as a jumble of cascading windows floating in front of me, displaying text, maps, photos, and audio and video files, all indexed, cross-referenced, and pulsing with life.
I kept the Quatrain open in a window that was always on top. Four lines of text. Twenty-four words. Thirty-four syllables. I’d stared at them so often and for so long that they’d nearly lost all meaning. Looking at them again now, I had to resist the urge to scream in rage and frustration.
The captain conceals the Jade Key in a dwelling long neglected
But you can only blow the whistle once the trophies are all collected
I knew the answer was right there in front of me. Art3mis had already figured it out.
I read over my notes about John Draper, aka Captain Crunch, and the toy plastic whistle that had made him famous in the annals of hacker lore. I still believed that these were the “captain” and “whistle” Halliday was referring to. But the rest of the Quatrain’s meaning remained a mystery.
But now I possessed a new piece of information—the key was somewhere in Sector Seven. So I pulled up my OASIS atlas and began to search for planets with names I thought might somehow be related to the Quatrain. I found a few worlds named after famous hackers, like Woz and Mitnick, but none named after John Draper. Sector Seven also contained hundreds of worlds named after old Usenet newsgroups, and on one of these, the planet alt.phreaking, there was a statue of Draper posing with an ancient rotary phone in one hand and a Cap’n Crunch whistle in the other. But the statue had been erected three years after Halliday’s death, so I knew it was a dead end.
I read through the Quatrain yet again, and this time the last two lines jumped out at me:
But you can only blow the whistle once the trophies are all collected
Trophies. Somewhere in Sector Seven. I needed to find a collection of trophies in Sector Seven.
I did a quick search of my files on Halliday. From what I could tell, the only trophies he’d ever owned were the five Game Designer of the Year awards he’d won back around the turn of the century. These trophies were still on display in the GSS Museum in Columbus, but there were replicas of them on display inside the OASIS, on a planet called Archaide.
And Archaide was located in Sector Seven.
The connection seemed thin, but I still wanted to check it out. At the very least, it would make me feel like I was doing something productive for the
next few hours.
I glanced over at Max, who was currently doing the samba on one of my command center’s monitors. “Max, prep the Vonnegut for takeoff. If you’re not too busy.”
Max stopped dancing and smirked at me. “You got it, El Comanchero!”
I got up and walked over to my stronghold’s elevator, which I’d modeled after the turbolift on the original Star Trek series. I rode down four levels to my armory, a massive vault filled with storage shelves, display cases, and weapon racks. I pulled up my avatar’s inventory display, which appeared as a classic “paper doll” diagram of my avatar, onto which I could drag and drop various items and pieces of equipment.
Archaide was located in a PvP zone, so I decided to upgrade my gear and wear my Sunday best. I put on my gleaming +10 Hale Mail powered armor, then strapped on my favorite set of blaster pistols and slung a pump-action pistol-grip shotgun across my back, along with a +5 Vorpal Bastard Sword. I also grabbed a few other essential items. An extra pair of antigrav boots. A Ring of Magic Resistance. An Amulet of Protection. Some Gauntlets of Giant Strength. I hated the idea of needing something and not having it with me, so I usually ended up carrying enough equipment for three gunters. When I ran out of room on my avatar’s body, I stored the additional gear in my Backpack of Holding.
Once I was properly outfitted, I hopped back on the elevator, and a few seconds later I arrived at the entrance of my hangar, located on the bottom level of my stronghold. Pulsing blue lights lined the runway, which ran up the center of the hangar to a massive pair of armored doors at the far end. These doors opened into the launch tunnel, which led up to a matching set of armored doors set into the asteroid’s surface.
Standing on the left side of the runway was my battle-worn X-wing fighter. Parked on the right side was my DeLorean. Sitting on the runway itself was my most frequently used spacecraft, the Vonnegut. Max had already powered up the engines, and they emitted a low, steady roar that filled the hangar. The Vonnegut was a heavily modified Firefly-class transport vessel, modeled after the Serenity in the classic Firefly TV series. The ship had been named the Kaylee when I’d first obtained it, but I’d immediately rechristened it after one of my favorite twentieth-century novelists. Its new name was stenciled on the side of its battered gray hull.
I’d looted the Vonnegut from a cadre of Oviraptor clansmen who had foolishly attempted to hijack my X-wing while I was cruising through a large group of worlds in Sector Eleven known as the Whedonverse. The Oviraptors were cocky bastards with no clue who it was they were messing with. I was in a foul mood even before they’d opened fire on me. Otherwise, I probably would have just evaded them by jumping to light speed. But that day I decided to take their attack personally.
Ships were like most other items in the OASIS. Each one had specific attributes, weapons, and speed capabilities. My X-wing was far more maneuverable than the Oviraptors’ large transport ship, so it was no trouble for me to avoid the barrage from their aftermarket guns, while I bombarded them with laser bolts and proton torpedoes. After I disabled their engines, I boarded the ship and proceeded to kill every avatar there. The captain tried to apologize when he saw who I was, but I wasn’t in a forgiving mood. After I’d dispatched the crew, I parked my X-wing in the cargo hold and then cruised home in my new ship.
As I approached the Vonnegut, the loading ramp extended to the hangar floor. By the time I reached the cockpit, the ship was already lifting off. I heard the landing gear retract with a thud just as I seated myself at the controls.
“Max, lock up the house, and set a course for Archaide.”
“Aye, C-c-captain,” Max stuttered from one of the cockpit monitors. The hangar doors slid open, and the Vonnegut rocketed out the launch tunnel and up into the starry sky. As the ship cleared the surface, the armored tunnel doors slammed closed behind it.
I spotted several ships camped out in a high orbit above Falco. The usual suspects: crazed fans, wannabe disciples, and aspiring bounty hunters. A few of them, the ones currently turning to follow me, were tagalongs— people who spent most of their time trying to tail prominent gunters and gather intel on their movements so they could sell the information later. I was always able to lose these idiots by jumping to light speed. A lucky thing for them. If I couldn’t lose someone who was trying to tail me, I usually had no choice but to stop and kill them.
As the Vonnegut made the jump to light speed, each of the planets on my viewscreen became a long streak of light. “Li-li-light speed engaged, Captain,” Max reported. “ETA to Archaide is estimated at fifty-three minutes. Fifteen if you want to use the nearest stargate.”
Stargates were strategically located throughout each sector. They were really just giant spaceship-sized teleporters, but since they charged by the mass of your ship and the distance you wanted to travel, they were normally used only by corporations or extremely wealthy avatars with credits to burn. I was neither, but under the circumstances, I was willing to splurge a little.
“Let’s take the stargate, Max. We’re in kind of a hurry.”