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:
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:
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 shit,” 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. Shit! 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.”