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Ready Player One, Page 26

Ernest Cline

  The dropcop working on my door finished cutting his hole. The smoking circle of metal fell to the floor with a heavy metallic boom that made me jump in my chair.

  As the welder stepped back, another dropcop stepped forward and used a small canister to spray some sort of freezing foam around the edge of the hole, cooling off the metal so they wouldn’t burn themselves when they crawled inside. Which was what they were about to do.

  “Clear!” one of them shouted from out in the hallway. “No visible weapons!”

  One of the stun-gun wielding dropcops climbed through the hole first. Suddenly, he was standing right in front of me, his weapon leveled at my face.

  “Don’t move!” he shouted. “Or you get the juice, understand?”

  I nodded that yes, I understood. It occurred to me then that this cop was the first visitor I’d ever had in my apartment in all the time I’d lived there.

  The second dropcop to crawl inside wasn’t nearly as polite. Without a word, he walked over and jammed a ball gag in my mouth. This was standard procedure, because they didn’t want me to issue any more voice commands to my computer. They needn’t have bothered. The moment the first dropcop had entered my apartment, an incendiary device had detonated inside my computer. It was already melting to slag.

  When the dropcop finished strapping on the ball gag, he grabbed me by the exoskeleton of my haptic suit, yanked me out of my haptic chair like a rag doll, and threw me on the floor. The other dropcop hit the kill switch that opened my WarDoor, and the last two dropcops rushed in, followed by Wilson the suit.

  I curled into a ball on the floor and closed my eyes. I started to shake involuntarily. I tried to prepare myself for what I knew was about to happen next.

  They were going to take me outside.

  “Mr. Lynch,” Wilson said, smiling. “I hereby place you under corporate arrest.” He turned to the dropcops. “Tell the repo team to come on up and clear this place out.” He glanced around the room and noticed the thin line of smoke now pouring out of my computer. He looked at me and shook his head. “That was stupid. We could have sold that computer to help pay down your debt.”

  I couldn’t reply around the ball gag, so I just shrugged and gave him the finger.

  They tore off my haptic suit and left it for the repo team. I was totally naked underneath. They gave me a disposable slate-gray jumpsuit to put on, with matching plastic shoes. The suit felt like sandpaper, and it began to make me itch as soon as I put it on. They’d cuffed my hands, so it wasn’t easy to scratch.

  They dragged me out into the hall. The harsh fluorescents sucked the color out of everything and made it look like an old black-and-white film. As we rode the elevator down to the lobby, I hummed along with the Muzak as loudly as I could, to show them I wasn’t afraid. When one of the dropcops waved his stun gun at me, I stopped.

  They put a hooded winter coat on me in the lobby. They didn’t want me catching pneumonia now that I was company property. A human resource. Then they led me outside, and sunlight hit my face for the first time in over half a year.

  It was snowing, and everything was covered in a thin layer of gray ice and slush. I didn’t know what the temperature was, but I couldn’t remember ever feeling so cold. The wind cut right to my bones.

  They herded me over to their transport truck. Two new indents already sat in the back, strapped into plastic seats, both wearing visors. People they’d arrested earlier that morning. The dropcops were like garbage collectors, making their daily rounds.

  The indent on my right was a tall, thin guy, probably a few years older than me. He looked like he might be suffering from malnutrition. The other indent was morbidly obese, and I couldn’t be sure of the person’s gender. I decided to think of him as male. His face was obscured by a mop of dirty blond hair, and something that looked like a gas mask covered his nose and mouth. A thick black tube ran from the mask down to a nozzle on the floor. I wasn’t sure of its purpose until he lurched forward, drawing his restraints tight, and vomited into the mask. I heard a vacuum activate, sucking the indent’s regurgitated Oreos down the tube and into the floor. I wondered if they stored it in an external tank or just dumped it on the street. Probably a tank. IOI would probably have his vomit analyzed and put the results in his file.

  “You feel sick?” one of the dropcops asked as he removed my ball gag. “Tell me now and I’ll put a mask on you.”

  “I feel great,” I said, not very convincingly.

  “OK. But if I have to clean up your puke, I’ll make sure you regret it.”

  They shoved me inside and strapped me down directly across from the skinny guy. Two of the dropcops climbed into the back with us, stowing their plasma welders in a locker. The other two slammed the rear doors and climbed into the cab up front.

  As we pulled away from my apartment complex, I craned my neck to look through the transport’s tinted rear windows, up at the building where I’d lived for the past year. I was able to spot my window up on the forty-second floor, because of its spray-painted black glass. The repo team was probably already up there by now. All of my gear was being disassembled, inventoried, tagged, boxed, and prepared for auction. Once they finished emptying out my apartment, custodial bots would scour and disinfect it. A repair crew would patch the outer wall and replace the door. IOI would be billed, and the cost of the repairs would be added to my outstanding debt to the company.

  By midafternoon, the lucky gunter who was next on the apartment building’s waiting list would get a message informing him that a unit had opened up, and by this evening, the new tenant would probably already be moved in. By the time the sun went down, all evidence that I’d ever lived there would be totally erased.

  As the transport swung out onto High Street, I heard the tires crunch the salt crystals covering the frozen asphalt. One of the dropcops reached over and slapped a visor on my face. I found myself sitting on a sandy white beach, watching the sunset while waves crashed in front of me. This must be the simulation they used to keep indents calm during the ride downtown.

  Using my cuffed hand, I pushed the visor up onto my forehead. The dropcops didn’t seem to care or pay me any notice at all. So I craned my head again to stare out the window. I hadn’t been out here in the real world for a long time, and I wanted to see how it had changed.

  A thick film of neglect still covered everything in sight. The streets, the buildings, the people. Even the snow seemed dirty. It drifted down in gray flakes, like ash after a volcanic eruption.

  The number of homeless people seemed to have increased drastically. Tents and cardboard shelters lined the streets, and the public parks I saw seemed to have been converted into refugee camps. As the transport rolled deeper into the city’s skyscraper core, I saw people clustered on every street corner and in every vacant lot, huddled around burning barrels and portable fuel-cell heaters. Others waited in line at the free solar charging stations, wearing bulky, outdated visors and haptic gloves. Their hands made small, ghostly gestures as they interacted with the far more pleasant reality of the OASIS via one of GSS’s free wireless access points.

  Finally, we reached 101 IOI Plaza, in the heart of downtown.

  I stared out the window in silent apprehension as the corporate headquarters of Innovative Online Industries Inc. came into view: two rectangular skyscrapers flanking a circular one, forming the IOI corporate logo. The IOI skyscrapers were the three tallest buildings in the city, mighty towers of steel and mirrored glass joined by dozens of connective walkways and elevator trams. The top of each tower disappeared into the sodium-vapor-drenched cloud layer above. The buildings looked identical to their headquarters in the OASIS on IOI-1, but here in the real world they seemed much more impressive.

  The transport rolled into a parking garage at the base of the circular tower and descended a series of concrete ramps until we arrived in a large open area resembling a loading dock. A sign over a row of wide bay doors read IOI INDENTURED EMPLOYEE INDUCTION CENTER.

p; The other indents and I were herded off the transport, where a squad of stun gun–armed security guards was waiting to take custody of us. Our handcuffs were removed; then another guard began to swipe each of us with a handheld retina scanner. I held my breath as he held the scanner up to my eyes. A second later, the unit beeped and he read off the information on its display. “Lynch, Bryce. Age twenty-two. Full citizenship. No criminal record. Credit Default Indenturement.” He nodded to himself and tapped a series of icons on his clipboard. Then I was led into a warm, brightly lit room filled with hundreds of other new indents. They were all shuffling through a maze of guide ropes, like weary overgrown children at some nightmarish amusement park. There seemed to be an equal number of men and women, but it was hard to tell, because nearly everyone shared my pale complexion and total lack of body hair, and we all wore the same gray jumpsuits and gray plastic shoes. We looked like extras from THX 1138.

  The line fed into a series of security checkpoints. At the first checkpoint, each indent was given a thorough scan with a brand-new Meta-detector to make sure they weren’t hiding any electronic devices on or in their persons. While I waited for my turn, I saw several people pulled out of line when the scanner found a subcutaneous minicomputer or a voice-controlled phone installed as a tooth replacement. They were led into another room to have the devices removed. A dude just ahead of me in line actually had a top-of-the-line miniature Sinatro OASIS console concealed inside a prosthetic testicle. Talk about balls.

  Once I’d cleared a few more checkpoints, I was ushered into the testing area, a giant room filled with hundreds of small, soundproofed cubicles. I was seated in one of them and given a cheap visor and an even cheaper pair of haptic gloves. The gear didn’t give me access to the OASIS, but I still found it comforting to put it on.

  I was then given a battery of increasingly difficult aptitude tests intended to measure my knowledge and abilities in every area that might conceivably be of use to my new employer. These tests were, of course, cross-referenced with the fake educational background and work history that I’d given to my bogus Bryce Lynch identity.

  I made sure to ace all of the tests on OASIS software, hardware, and networking, but I intentionally failed the tests designed to gauge my knowledge of James Halliday and the Easter egg. I definitely didn’t want to get placed in IOI’s Oology Division. There was a chance I might run into Sorrento there. I didn’t think he’d recognize me—we’d never actually met in person, and I now barely resembled my old school ID photo—but I didn’t want to risk it. I was already tempting fate more than anyone in their right mind ever would.

  Hours later, when I finally finished the last exam, I was logged into a virtual chat room to meet with an indenturement counselor. Her name was Nancy, and in a hypnotic monotone, she informed me that, due to my exemplary test scores and impressive employment record, I had been “awarded” the position of OASIS Technical Support Representative II. I would be paid $28,500 a year, minus the cost of my housing, meals, taxes, medical, dental, optical, and recreation services, all of which would be deducted automatically from my pay. My remaining income (if there was any) would be applied to my outstanding debt to the company. Once my debt was paid in full, I would be released from indenturement. At that time, based on my job performance, it was possible I would be offered a permanent position with IOI.

  This was a complete joke, of course. Indents were never able to pay off their debt and earn their release. Once they got finished slapping you with pay deductions, late fees, and interest penalties, you wound up owing them more each month, instead of less. Once you made the mistake of getting yourself indentured, you would probably remain indentured for life. A lot of people didn’t seem to mind this, though. They thought of it as job security. It also meant they weren’t going to starve or freeze to death in the street.

  My “Indenturement Contract” appeared in a window on my display. It contained a long list of disclaimers and warnings about my rights (or lack thereof) as an indentured employee. Nancy told me to read it, sign it, and proceed to Indent Processing. Then she logged out of the chat room. I scrolled to the bottom of the contract without bothering to read it. It was over six hundred pages long. I signed the name Bryce Lynch, then verified my signature with a retinal scan.

  Even though I was using a fake name, I wondered if the contract might still be legally binding. I wasn’t sure, and I didn’t really care. I had a plan, and this was part of it.

  They led me down another corridor, into the Indenturement Processing Area. I was placed on a conveyor belt that carried me through a long series of stations. First, they took my jumpsuit and shoes and incinerated them. Then they ran me through a kind of human car wash—a series of machines that soaped, scrubbed, disinfected, rinsed, dried, and deloused me. Afterward, I was given a new gray jumpsuit and another pair of plastic slippers.

  At the next station, a bank of machines gave me a complete physical, including a battery of blood tests. (Luckily, the Genetic Privacy Act made it illegal for IOI to sample my DNA.) Then I was given a series of inoculations with an array of automated needle guns that shot me in both shoulders and both ass cheeks simultaneously.

  As I inched forward along the conveyor, flat-screen monitors mounted overhead showed the same ten-minute training film over and over, on an endless loop: “Indentured Servitude: Your Fast Track from Debt to Success!” The cast was made up of D-list television stars who cheerfully spouted corporate propaganda while relating the minutiae of IOI’s indenturement policy. After five viewings, I had every line of the damn thing memorized. By the tenth viewing, I was mouthing the words along with the actors.

  “What can I expect after I complete my initial processing and get placed in my permanent position?” asked Johnny, the training film’s main character.

  You can expect to spend the rest of your life as a corporate slave, Johnny, I thought. But I kept watching as, once again, the helpful IOI Human Resources rep pleasantly told Johnny all about the day-to-day life of an indent.

  Finally, I reached the last station, where a machine fitted me with a security anklet—a padded metal band that locked around my ankle, just above the joint. According to the training film, this device monitored my physical location and also granted or denied me access to different areas of the IOI office complex. If I tried to escape, remove the anklet, or cause trouble of any kind, the device was capable of delivering a paralyzing electrical shock. If necessary, it could also administer a heavy-duty tranquilizer directly into my bloodstream.

  After the anklet was on, another machine clamped a small electronic device onto my right earlobe, piercing it in two locations. I winced in pain and shouted a stream of profanity. I knew from the training film that I’d just been fitted with an OCT. OCT stood for “observation and communication tag.” But most indents just referred to it as “eargear.” It reminded me of the tags environmentalists used to put on endangered animals, to track their movements in the wild. The eargear contained a tiny comlink that allowed the main IOI Human Resources computer to make announcements and issue commands directly into my ear. It also contained a tiny forward-looking camera that let IOI supervisors see whatever was directly in front of me. Surveillance cameras were mounted in every room in the IOI complex, but that apparently wasn’t enough. They also had to mount a camera to the side of every indent’s head.

  A few seconds after my eargear was attached and activated, I began to hear the placid monotone of the HR mainframe, droning instructions and other information. The voice drove me nuts at first, but I gradually got used to it. I didn’t have much choice.

  As I stepped off the conveyor, the HR computer directed me to a nearby cafeteria that looked like something out of an old prison movie. I was given a lime green tray of food. A tasteless soyburger, a lump of runny mashed potatoes, and some unrecognizable form of cobbler for dessert. I devoured all of it in a few minutes. The HR computer complimented me on my healthy appetite. Then it informed me that I was now permitted to make a
five-minute visit to the bathroom. When I came out, I was directed onto an elevator with no buttons or floor indicator. When the doors slid open, I saw the following stenciled on the wall: INDENT HAB—BLOCK 05—TECHSUP REPS.

  I shuffled off the elevator and down the carpeted hallway. It was quiet and dark. The only illumination came from small path lighting embedded in the floor. I’d lost track of the time. It seemed like days had passed since I’d been pulled out of my apartment. I was dead on my feet.

  “Your first technical support shift begins in seven hours,” the HR computer droned softly in my ear. “You have until then to sleep. Turn left at the intersection in front of you and proceed to your assigned hab-unit, number 42G.”

  I continued to do as I was told. I thought I was already getting pretty good at it.

  The Hab Block reminded me of a mausoleum. It was a network of vaulted hallways, each lined with coffin-shaped sleeping capsules, row after row of them, stacked to the ceiling, ten high. Each column of hab-units was numbered, and the door of each capsule was lettered, A through J, with unit A at the bottom.

  I eventually reached my unit, near the top of column number forty-two. As I approached it, the hatch irised open with a hiss, and a soft blue light winked on inside. I ascended the narrow access ladder mounted between the adjacent rows of capsules, then stepped onto the short platform beneath the hatch to my unit. When I climbed inside the capsule, the platform retracted and the hatch irised shut at my feet.

  The inside of my hab-unit was an eggshell white injection-molded plastic coffin, a meter high, a meter wide, and two meters long. The floor of the capsule was covered with a gel-foam mattress pad and pillow. They both smelled like burned rubber, so I assumed they must be new.

  In addition to the camera attached to the side of my head, there was a camera mounted above the door of my hab-unit. The company didn’t bother hiding it. They wanted their indents to know they were being watched.

  The unit’s only amenity was the entertainment console—a large, flat touchscreen built into the wall. A wireless visor was snapped into a holder beside it. I tapped the touchscreen, activating the unit. My new employee number and position appeared at the top of the display: Lynch, Bryce T.—OASIS TECH REP II—IOI Employee #338645.

  A menu appeared below, listing the entertainment programming to which I presently had access. It took only a few seconds to peruse my limited options. I could view only one channel: IOI-N—the company’s twenty-four-hour news network. It provided a nonstop stream of company-related news and propaganda. I also had access to a library of training films and simulations, most of which were geared toward my new position as an OASIS technical support representative.

  When I tried to access one of the other entertainment libraries, Vintage Movies, the system informed me that I wouldn’t be granted access to a wider selection of entertainment options until I had received an above-average rating in three consecutive employee performance reviews. Then the system asked me if I wanted more information on the Indentured Employee Entertainment Reward Program. I didn’t.

  The only TV show I had access to was a company-produced sitcom called Tommy Queue. The synopsis said it was a “wacky situation comedy chronicling the misadventures of Tommy, a newly indentured OASIS tech rep struggling to achieve his goals of financial independence and on-the-job excellence!”

  I selected the first episode of Tommy Queue, then unsnapped the visor and put it on. As I expected, the show was really just a training film with a laugh track. I had absolutely no interest in it. I just wanted to go to sleep. But I knew I was being watched, and that every move I made was being scrutinized and logged. So I stayed awake as long as I could, ignoring one episode of Tommy Queue after another.

  Despite my best efforts, my thoughts drifted to Art3mis. Regardless of what I’d been telling myself, I knew she was the real reason I’d gone through with this lunatic plan. What the hell was wrong with me? There was a good chance I might never escape from this place. I felt buried under an avalanche of self-doubt. Had my dual obsessions with the egg and Art3mis finally driven me completely insane? Why would I take such an idiotic risk to win over someone I’d never actually met? Someone who appeared to have no interest in ever talking to me again?

  Where was she right now? Did she miss me?

  I continued to mentally torture myself like that until I finally drifted off to sleep.

  lOI’s Technical Support call center occupied three entire floors of the headquarters’ eastern I-shaped tower. Each of these floors contained a maze of numbered cubicles. Mine was stuck back in a remote corner, far from any windows. My cubicle was completely empty except for an adjustable office chair bolted to the floor. Several of the cubicles around me were unoccupied, awaiting the arrival of other new indents.

  I wasn’t permitted to have any decorations in my cubicle, because I hadn’t earned that privilege yet. If I obtained a sufficient number of “perk points” by getting high productivity and customer approval ratings, I could “spend” some of them to purchase the privilege of decorating my cube, perhaps with a potted plant or an inspirational poster of a kitten hanging from a clothesline.

  When I arrived in my cubicle, I grabbed my company-issued visor and gloves from the rack on the bare cube wall and put them on. Then I collapsed into my chair. My work computer was built into the chair’s circular base, and it activated itself automatically when I sat down. My employee ID was verified and I was automatically logged into my work account on the IOI intranet. I wasn’t allowed to have any outbound access to the OASIS. All I could really do was read work-related e-mails, view support documentation and procedural manuals, and check my call time statistics. That was it. And every move I made on the intranet was closely monitored, controlled, and logged.

  I put myself in the call queue and began my twelve-hour shift. I’d been an indent for only eight days now, but it already felt like I’d been imprisoned here for years.

  The first caller’s avatar appeared in front of me in my support chat room. His name and stats also appeared, floating in the air above him. He had the astoundingly clever name of “HotCock007.”

  I could see that it was going to be another fabulous day.

  HotCock007 was a hulking bald barbarian with studded black leather armor and lots of demon tattoos covering his arms and face. He was holding a gigantic bastard sword nearly twice as long as his avatar’s body.

  “Good morning, Mr. HotCock007,” I droned. “Thank you for calling technical support. I’m tech rep number 338645. How may I help you this evening?” The customer courtesy software filtered my voice, altering its tone and inflection to ensure that I always sounded cheerful and upbeat.

  “Uh, yeah …” HotCock007 began. “I just bought this bad-ass sword, and now I can’t even use it! I can’t even attack nothing with it. What the hell is wrong with this piece of shit? Is it broke?”

  “Sir, the only problem is that you’re a complete fucking moron,” I said.

  I heard a familiar warning buzzer and a message flashed on my display:



  IOI’s patented customer courtesy software had detected the inappropriate nature of my response and muted it, so the customer didn’t hear what I’d said. The software also logged my “courtesy violation” and forwarded it to Trevor, my section supervisor, so that he could bring it up during my next biweekly performance review.

  “Sir, did you purchase this sword in an online auction?”

  “Yeah,” HotCock007 replied. “Paid out the ass for it too.”

  “Just a moment, sir, while I examine the item.” I already knew what his problem was, but I needed to make sure before telling him or I’d get hit with a fine.

  I tapped the sword with my index finger, selecting it. A small window opened and displayed the item’s properties. The answer was right there, on the first line. This particular magic sword could only be used by an avatar who
was tenth level or higher. Mr. HotCock007 was only seventh level. I quickly explained this to him.