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Ready Player One

Ernest Cline

  He nodded. “Just until you help us find the egg.”

  I resisted the urge to gag. “What about benefits? Would I get health care? Dental? Vision? Keys to the executive washroom? Shit like that?”

  “Of course.” He was starting to sound impatient. “So? What do you say?”

  “Can I think about it for a few days?”

  “Afraid not,” he said. “This could all be over in a few days. We need your answer now.”

  I leaned back and stared at the ceiling, pretending to consider the offer. Sorrento waited, watching me intently. I was about to give him my prepared answer when he raised a hand.

  “Just listen to me a moment before you answer,” Sorrento said. “I know most gunters cling to the absurd notion that IOI is evil. And that the Sixers are ruthless corporate drones with no honor and no respect for the ‘true spirit’ of the contest. That we’re all sellouts. Right?”

  I nodded, barely resisting the urge to say “That’s putting it mildly.”

  “Well, that’s ridiculous,” he said, flashing an avuncular grin that I suspected was generated by whatever diplomacy software he was running. “The Sixers are really no different than a Gunter clan, albeit a well-funded one. We share all the same obsessions as gunters. And we have the same goal.”

  What goal is that? I wanted to shout. To ruin the OASIS forever? To pervert and defile the only thing that has ever made our lives bearable?

  Sorrento seemed to take my silence as a cue that he should continue. “You know, contrary to popular belief, the OASIS really won’t change that drastically when IOI takes control of it. Sure, we’ll have to start charging everyone a monthly user fee. And increase the sim’s advertising revenue. But we also plan to make a lot of improvements. Avatar content filters. Stricter construction guidelines. We’re going to make the OASIS a better place.”

  No, I thought. You’re going to turn it into a fascist corporate theme park where the few people who can still afford the price of admission no longer have an ounce of freedom.

  I’d heard as much of this jerk’s sales pitch as I could stand.

  “OK,” I said. “Count me in. Sign me up. Whatever you guys call it. I’m in.”

  Sorrento looked surprised. This clearly wasn’t the answer he’d been expecting. He smiled wide and was about to offer me his hand again when I cut him off.

  “But I have three minor conditions,” I said. “First, I want a fifty-million-dollar bonus when I find the egg for you guys. Not twenty-five. Is that doable?”

  He didn’t even hesitate. “Done. What are your other conditions?”

  “I don’t want to be second-in-command,” I said. “I want your job, Sorrento. I want to be in charge of the whole shebang. Chief of operations. El Numero Uno. Oh, and I want everyone to have to call me El Numero Uno, too. Is that possible?”

  My mouth seemed to be operating independent of my brain. I couldn’t help myself.

  Sorrento’s smile had vanished. “What else?”

  “I don’t want to work with you.” I leveled a finger at him. “You give me the creeps. But if your superiors are willing to fire your ass and give me your position, I’m in. It’s a done deal.”

  Silence. Sorrento’s face was a stoic mask. He probably had certain emotions, like anger and rage, filtered out on his facial-recognition software.

  “Could you check with your bosses and let me know if they’ll agree to that?” I asked. “Or are they monitoring us right now? I’m betting they are.” I waved to the invisible cameras. “Hi, guys! What do you say?”

  There was a long silence, during which Sorrento simply glared at me. “Of course they’re monitoring us,” he said finally. “And they’ve just informed me that they’re willing to agree to each of your demands.” He didn’t sound all that upset.

  “Really?” I said. “Great! When can I start? And more importantly, when can you leave?”

  “Immediately,” he said. “The company will prepare your contract and send it to your lawyer for approval. Then we—they will fly you here to Columbus to sign the paperwork and close the deal.” He stood. “That should conclude—”

  “Actually—” I held up a hand, cutting him off again. “I’ve spent the last few seconds thinking this over a bit more, and I’m gonna have to pass on your offer. I think I’d rather find the egg on my own, thanks.” I stood up. “You and the other Sux0rz can all go fuck a duck.”

  Sorrento began to laugh. A long, hearty laugh that I found more than a little disturbing. “Oh, you’re good! That was so good! You really had us going there, kid!” When his laughter tapered off, he said, “That’s the answer I was expecting. So now, let me give you our second proposal.”

  “There’s more?” I sat back down and put my feet up on his desk. “OK. Shoot.”

  “We’ll wire five million dollars directly to your OASIS account, right now, in exchange for a walkthrough up to the First Gate. That’s it. All you have to do is give us detailed step-by-step instructions on how to do what you’ve already done. We’ll take it from there. You’ll be free to continue searching for the egg on your own. And our transaction will remain a complete secret. No one ever need know of it.”

  I admit, I actually considered it for a second. Five million dollars would set me up for life. And even if I helped the Sixers clear the First Gate, there was no guarantee they’d be able to clear the other two. I still wasn’t even sure if I would be able to do that.

  “Trust me, son,” Sorrento said. “You should take this offer. While you can.”

  His paternal tone irked me to no end, and that helped to steel my resolve. I couldn’t sell out to the Sixers. If I did, and they did somehow manage to win the contest, I’d be the one responsible. There was no way I’d be able to live with that. I just hoped that Aech, Art3mis, and any other gunters they approached felt the same way.

  “I’ll pass,” I said. I slid my feet off his desk and stood. “Thanks for your time.”

  Sorrento looked at me sadly, then motioned for me to sit back down. “Actually, we’re not quite done here. We have one final proposal for you, Parzival. And I saved the best for last.”

  “Can’t you take a hint? You can’t buy me. So piss off. Adios. Good. Bye.”

  “Sit down, Wade.”

  I froze. Had he just used my real name?

  “That’s right,” Sorrento barked. “We know who you are. Wade Owen Watts. Born August twelfth, 2024. Both parents deceased. And we also know where you are. You reside with your aunt, in a trailer park located at 700 Portland Avenue in Oklahoma City. Unit 56-K, to be exact. According to our surveillance team, you were last seen entering your aunt’s trailer three days ago and you haven’t left since. Which means you’re still there right now.”

  A vidfeed window opened directly behind him, displaying a live video image of the stacks where I lived. It was an aerial view, maybe being shot from a plane or a satellite. From this angle, they could only monitor the trailer’s two main exits. So they hadn’t seen me leave through the laundry room window each morning, or return through it each night. They didn’t know I was actually in my hideout right now.

  “There you are,” Sorrento said. His pleasant, condescending tone had returned. “You should really get out more, Wade. It’s not healthy to spend all of your time indoors.” The image magnified a few times, zooming in on my aunt’s trailer. Then it switched over to thermal-imaging mode, and I could see the glowing outlines of over a dozen people, children and adults, sitting inside. Nearly all of them were motionless—probably logged into the OASIS.

  I was too stunned to speak. How had they found me? It was supposed to be impossible for anyone to obtain your OASIS account information. And my address wasn’t even in my OASIS account. You didn’t have to provide it when you created your avatar. Just your name and retinal pattern. So how had they found out where I lived?

  Somehow they must have gotten access to my school records.

  “Your first instinct right now might be to log out and make a
run for it,” Sorrento said. “I urge you not to make that mistake. Your trailer is currently wired with a large quantity of high explosives.” He pulled something that looked like a remote control out of his pocket and held it up. “And my finger is on the detonator. If you log out of this chatlink session, you will die within a few seconds. Do you understand what I’m saying to you, Mr. Watts?”

  I nodded slowly, trying desperately to get a grip on the situation.

  He was bluffing. He had to be bluffing. And even if he wasn’t, he didn’t know that I was actually half a mile away, in my hideout. Sorrento assumed that one of the glowing thermal outlines on the display was me.

  If a bomb really did go off in my aunt’s trailer, I’d be safe down here, under all these junk cars. Wouldn’t I? Besides, they would never kill all those people just to get to me.

  “How—?” That was all I could get out.

  “How did we find out who you are? And where you live?” He grinned. “Easy. You screwed up, kid. When you enrolled in the OASIS public school system, you gave them your name and address. So they could mail you your report cards, I suppose.”

  He was right. My avatar’s name, my real name, and my home address were all stored in my private student file, which only the principal could access. It was a stupid mistake, but I’d enrolled the year before the contest even began. Before I became a gunter. Before I learned to conceal my real-world identity.

  “How did you find out I attend school online?” I asked. I already knew the answer, but I needed to stall for time.

  “There’s been a rumor circulating on the gunter message boards the past few days that you and your pal Aech both go to school on Ludus. When we heard that, we decided to contact a few OPS administrators and offer them a bribe. Do you know how little a school administrator makes a year, Wade? It’s scandalous. One of your principals was kind enough to search the student database for the avatar name Parzival, and guess what?”

  Another window appeared beside the live video feed of the stacks. It displayed my entire student profile. My full name, avatar name, student alias (Wade3), date of birth, Social Security number, and home address. My school transcripts. It was all there, along with an old yearbook photo, taken over five years ago—right before I’d transferred to school in the OASIS.

  “We have your friend Aech’s school records too. But he was smart enough to give a fake name and address when he enrolled. So finding him will take a bit longer.”

  He paused to let me reply, but I remained silent. My pulse was racing, and I had to keep reminding myself to breathe.

  “So, that brings me to our final proposal.” Sorrento rubbed his hands together excitedly, like a kid about to open a present. “Tell us how to reach the First Gate. Right now. Or we will kill you. Right now.”

  “You’re bluffing,” I heard myself say. But I didn’t think he was. Not at all.

  “No, Wade. I’m not. Think about it. With everything else that’s going on in the world, do you think anyone will care about an explosion in some ghetto-trash rat warren in Oklahoma City? They’ll assume it was a drug-lab accident. Or maybe a domestic terrorist cell trying to build a homemade bomb. Either way, it will just mean there are a few hundred less human cockroaches out there collecting food vouchers and using up precious oxygen. No one will care. And the authorities won’t even blink.”

  He was right, and I knew it. I tried to stall for a few seconds so I could figure out what to do. “You’d kill me?” I said. “To win a videogame contest?”

  “Don’t pretend to be naïve, Wade,” Sorrento said. “There are billions of dollars at stake here, along with control of one of the world’s most profitable corporations, and of the OASIS itself. This is much more than a videogame contest. It always has been.” He leaned forward. “But you can still come out a winner here, kid. If you help us, we’ll still give you the five million. You can retire at age eighteen and spend the rest of your days living like royalty. Or you can die in the next few seconds. It’s your call. But ask yourself this question—if your mother were still alive, what would she want you to do?”

  That last question would really have pissed me off if I hadn’t been so scared. “What’s to stop you from killing me after I give you what you want?” I asked.

  “Regardless of what you may think, we don’t want to have to kill anyone unless it’s absolutely necessary. Besides, there are two more gates, right?” He shrugged. “We might need your help to figure those out too. Personally, I doubt it. But my superiors feel differently. Regardless, you don’t really have a choice at this point, do you?” He lowered his voice, as if he were about to share a secret. “So here’s what’s going to happen next. You’re going to give me step-by-step instructions on how to obtain the Copper Key and clear the First Gate. And you’re going to stay logged into this chatlink session while we verify everything you tell us. Log out before I say it’s OK, and your whole world goes boom. Understand? Now start talking.”

  I considered giving them what they wanted. I really did. But I thought it through, and I couldn’t come up with a single good reason why they would let me live, even if I helped them clear the First Gate. The only move that made sense was to kill me and take me out of the running. They sure as hell weren’t going to give me five million dollars, or leave me alive to tell the media how IOI had blackmailed me. Especially if there really was a remote-controlled bomb planted in my trailer to serve as evidence.

  No. The way I saw it, there were really only two possibilities: Either they were bluffing or they were going to kill me, whether I helped them or not.

  I made my decision and summoned my courage.

  “Sorrento,” I said, trying to hide the fear in my voice, “I want you and your bosses to know something. You’re never going to find Halliday’s egg. You know why? Because he was smarter than all of you put together. It doesn’t matter how much money you have or who you try to blackmail. You’re going to lose.”

  I tapped my Log-out icon, and my avatar began to dematerialize in front of him. He didn’t seem surprised. He just looked at me sadly and shook his head. “Stupid move, kid,” he said, just before my visor went black.

  I sat there in the darkness of my hideout, wincing and waiting for the detonation. But a full minute passed and nothing happened.

  I slid my visor up and pulled off my gloves with shaking hands. As my eyes began to adjust to the darkness, I let out a tentative sigh of relief. It had been a bluff after all. Sorrento had been playing an elaborate mind game with me. An effective one too.

  As I was gulping down a bottle of water, I realized that I should log back in and warn Aech and Art3mis. The Sixers would go after them next.

  I was pulling my gloves back on when I heard the explosion.

  I felt the shock wave a split second after I heard the detonation and instinctively dropped to the floor of my hideout with my arms wrapped over my head. In the distance, I could hear the sound of rending metal as several trailer stacks began to collapse, ripping free of their scaffolding and crashing against one another like massive dominoes. These horrific sounds continued for what seemed like a very long time. Then it was silent again.

  I eventually overcame my paralysis and opened the rear door of the van. In a nightmare-like daze, I made my way to the outskirts of the junk pile, and from there, I could see a giant pillar of smoke and flames rising from the opposite end of the stacks.

  I followed the stream of people already running in that direction, along the northern perimeter of the stacks. The stack containing my aunt’s trailer had collapsed into a fiery, smoking ruin, along with all of the stacks adjacent to it. There was nothing there now but a massive pile of twisted, flaming metal.

  I kept my distance, but a large crowd of people had already gathered up ahead of me, standing as close to the blaze as they dared. No one bothered trying to enter the wreckage to look for survivors. It was obvious there weren’t going to be any.

  An ancient propane tank attached to one of the crushed tr
ailers detonated in a small explosion, causing the crowd to scatter and dive for cover. Several more tanks detonated in rapid succession. After that, the onlookers moved much farther back and kept their distance.

  The residents who lived in the nearby stacks knew that if the fire spread, they were in big trouble. So a lot of people were already scrambling to fight the blaze, using garden hoses, buckets, empty Big Gulp cups, and whatever else they could find. Before long, the flames were contained and the fire began to die out.

  As I watched in silence, I could already hear the people around me murmuring, saying that it was probably another meth-lab accident, or that some idiot must have been trying to build a homemade bomb. Just as Sorrento had predicted.

  That thought snapped me out of my daze. What was I thinking? The Sixers had just tried to kill me. They probably still had agents lurking here in the stacks, checking to make sure I was dead. And like a total idiot I was standing right out in the open.

  I faded away from the crowd and hurried back to my hideout, being careful not to run, constantly glancing over my shoulder to make sure I wasn’t being followed. Once I was back inside the van, I slammed and locked the door, then curled into a quivering ball in the corner. I stayed like that for a long time.

  Eventually, the shock began to wear off, and the reality of what had just happened started to sink in. My aunt Alice and her boyfriend Rick were dead, along with everyone who had lived in our trailer, and in the trailers below and around it. Including sweet old Mrs. Gilmore. And if I had been at home, I would be dead now too.

  I was jacked up on adrenaline, unsure of what to do next, overcome by a paralyzing mixture of fear and rage. I thought about logging into the OASIS to call the police, but then considered how they would react when I told them my story. They’d think I was a raving nut job. And if I called the media, they’d react the same way. There was no way anyone would believe my story. Not unless I revealed that I was Parzival, and maybe not even then. I didn’t have a shred of proof against Sorrento and the Sixers. All traces of the bomb they’d planted were probably melting into slag right now.

  Revealing my identity to the world so that I could accuse one of the world’s most powerful corporations of blackmail and murder didn’t seem like the smartest move. No one would believe me. I could barely believe it myself. IOI had actually tried to kill me. To prevent me from winning a videogame contest. It was insane.

  I seemed to be safe in my hideout for the moment, but I knew I couldn’t stay in the stacks much longer. When the Sixers found out I was still alive, they would come back here looking for me. I needed to get the hell out of Dodge. But I couldn’t do that until I had some money, and my first endorsement checks wouldn’t be deposited for another day or two. I would just have to lie low until then. But right now, I needed to talk to Aech, to warn him that he was next on the Sixers’ hit list.

  I was also desperate to see a friendly face.

  I grabbed my OASIS console and powered it on, then pulled on my visor and gloves. As I logged in, my avatar reappeared on Ludus, on the hilltop where I’d been sitting prior to my chat-room session with Sorrento. The moment my audio kicked in, I heard the earsplitting roar of engines coming from somewhere directly overheard. I stepped out from under the tree and looked up. I saw a squadron of Sixer gunships flying in formation, zooming south at low altitude, their sensors scanning the surface as they went.

  I was about to duck back under the tree, out of sight, when I remembered that all of Ludus was a no-PvP zone. The Sixers couldn’t harm me here. Even so, my nerves were still on edge. I continued to scan the sky and quickly spotted two more Sixer gunship squadrons off near the eastern horizon. A moment later, several more squadrons dropped in from orbit to the north and west. It looked like an alien invasion.

  An icon flashed on my display, informing me that I had a new text message from Aech: Where the hell are you? Call me ASAFP!

  I tapped his name on my contact list, and he answered on the first ring. His avatar’s face appeared in my vidfeed window. He was wearing a grim expression.

  “Did you hear the news?” he asked.

  “What news?”

  “The Sixers are on Ludus. Thousands of them. More arriving every minute. They’re searching the planet, looking for the tomb.”

  “Yeah. I’m on Ludus right now. Sixer gunships everywhere.”

  Aech scowled. “When I find I-r0k, I’m going to kill him. Slowly. Then, when he creates a new avatar, I’m going to hunt him down and kill him again. If that moron had kept his mouth shut, the Sixers never would have thought to look here.”

  “Yeah. His forum posts were what tipped them off. Sorrento said so himself.”

  “Sorrento? As in Nolan Sorrento?”

  I told him everything that had happened in the past few hours.

  “They blew up your house?”

  “Actually, it was a trailer,” I said. “In a trailer park. They killed a lot of people here, Aech. It’s probably already on the newsfeeds.” I took a deep breath. “I’m freaking out. I’m scared.”

  “I don’t blame you,” he said. “Thank God you weren’t home when it happened.…”

  I nodded. “I almost never log in from home. Luckily, the Sixers didn’t know that.”

  “What about your family?”

  “It was my aunt’s place. She’s dead, I think. We … we weren’t very close.” This was a huge understatement, of course. My aunt Alice had never shown me much kindness, but she still hadn’t deserved to die. But most of the wrenching guilt I now felt had to do with Mrs. Gilmore, and the knowledge that my actions had gotten her killed. She was one of the sweetest people I’d ever known.

  I realized that I was sobbing. I muted my audio so Aech wouldn’t hear, then took several deep breaths until I got myself under control again.

  “I can’t believe this!” Aech growled. “Those evil pricks. They’re gonna pay, Z. Count on it. We will make them pay for this.”

  I couldn’t see how, but I didn’t argue. I knew he was just trying to make me feel better.

  “Where are you right now?” Aech asked. “Do you need help? Like, a place to stay or something? I can wire you some money if you need it.”

  “No, I’m OK,” I said. “But thanks, man. I really appreciate the offer.”

  “De nada, amigo.”

  “Listen, did the Sixers send you the same e-mail they sent me?”

  “Yeah. Thousands of them. But I decided it was best to ignore them.”

  I frowned. “I wish I’d been smart enough to do that.”

  “Dude, you had no way of knowing they were gonna try and kill you! Besides,