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Ready Player One, Page 28

Ernest Cline

  I passed a few other indents on my way to the elevators, but as usual, none of them made eye contact. This was a huge relief, because I was worried someone might recognize me and notice that I didn’t belong in a maintenance-tech uniform. When I stepped in front of the express elevator door, I held my breath as the system scanned my maintenance-tech ID badge. After what felt like an eternity, the doors slid open.

  “Good morning, Mr. Tuttle,” the elevator said as I stepped inside. “Floor please?”

  “Lobby,” I said hoarsely, and the elevator began to descend.

  “Harry Tuttle” was the name printed on my maintenance tech ID badge. I’d given the fictional Mr. Tuttle complete access to the entire building, then reprogrammed my indent anklet so that it was encoded with the Tuttle ID, making it function just like one of the security bracelets that maintenance techs wore. When the doors and elevators scanned me to make sure I had the proper security clearance, the anklet in my pocket told them that yes, I sure did, instead of doing what it was supposed to do, which was zap my ass with a few thousand volts and incapacitate me until the security guards arrived.

  I rode the elevator down in silence, trying not to stare at the camera mounted above the doors. Then I realized the video being shot of me would be scrutinized when this was all over. Sorrento himself would probably see it, and so would his superiors. So I looked directly into the lens of the camera, smiled, and scratched the bridge of my nose with my middle finger.

  The elevator reached the lobby and the doors slid open. I half expected to find an army of security guards waiting for me outside, their guns leveled at my face. But there was only a crowd of IOI middle-management drones waiting to get on the elevator. I stared at them blankly for a second, then stepped out of the car. It was like crossing the border into another country.

  A steady stream of overcaffeinated office workers scurried across the lobby and in and out of the elevators and exits. These were regular employees, not indents. They were allowed to go home at the end of their shifts. They could even quit if they wanted to. I wondered if it bothered any of them, knowing that thousands of indentured slaves lived and toiled here in the same building, just a few floors away from them.

  I spotted two security guards stationed near the reception desk and gave them a wide berth, weaving my way through the thick crowd, crossing the immense lobby to the long row of automatic glass doors that led outside, to freedom. I forced myself not to run as I pushed through the arriving workers. Just a maintenance tech here, folks, heading home after a long night of rebooting routers. That’s all. I am definitely not an indent making a daring escape with ten zettabytes of stolen company data in his pocket. Nosiree.

  Halfway to the doors, I noticed an odd sound and glanced down at my feet. I was still wearing my disposable plastic indent slippers. Each footfall made a shrill squeak on the waxed marble floor, standing out amid the rumble of sensible business footwear. Every step I took seemed to scream: Hey, look! Over here! A guy in the plastic slippers!

  But I kept walking. I was almost to the doors when someone placed a hand on my shoulder. I froze. “Sir?” I heard someone say. It was a woman’s voice.

  I almost bolted out the door, but something about the woman’s tone stopped me. I turned and saw the concerned face of a tall woman in her midforties. Dark blue business suit. Briefcase. “Sir, your ear is bleeding.” She pointed at it, wincing. “A lot.”

  I reached up and touched my earlobe, and my hand came away red. At some point, the Band-Aids I’d applied had fallen off.

  I was paralyzed for a second, unsure of what to do. I wanted to give her an explanation, but couldn’t think of one. So I simply nodded, muttered “thanks,” then turned around and, as calmly as possible, walked outside.

  The frozen morning wind was so fierce that it nearly knocked me over. When I regained my balance, I bounded down the tiered steps, pausing briefly to drop my anklet into a trash receptacle. I heard it hit the bottom with a satisfying thud.

  Once I reached the street, I headed north, walking as fast as my feet would carry me. I was somewhat conspicuous because I was the only person not wearing a coat of some kind. My feet quickly went numb, because I also wasn’t wearing socks under my plastic indent slippers.

  My entire body was shivering by the time I finally reached the warm confines of the Mailbox, a post office box rental outlet located four blocks from the IOI plaza. The week before my arrest, I’d rented a post office box here online and had a top-of-the-line portable OASIS rig shipped to it. The Mailbox was completely automated, so there were no employees to contend with, and when I walked in there were no customers either. I located my box, punched in the key code, and retrieved the portable OASIS rig. I sat down on the floor and ripped open the package right there. I rubbed my frozen hands together until the feeling returned to my fingers, then put on the gloves and visor and used the rig to log into the OASIS. Gregarious Simulation Systems was located less than a mile away, so I was able to use one of their complimentary wireless access points instead of one of the city nodes owned by IOI.

  My heart was pounding as I logged in. I’d been offline for eight whole days—a personal record. As my avatar slowly materialized on my stronghold’s observation deck, I looked down at my virtual body, admiring it like a favorite suit I hadn’t worn in a while. A window immediately appeared on my display, informing me that I’d received several messages from Aech and Shoto. And, to my surprise, there was even a message from Art3mis. All three of them wanted to know where I was and what the hell had happened to me.

  I replied to Art3mis first. I told her that the Sixers knew who she was and where she lived and that they had her under constant surveillance. I also warned her about their plans to abduct her from her home. I pulled a copy of her dossier off the flash drive and attached it to my message as proof. Then I politely suggested that she leave home immediately and get the hell out of Dodge.

  Don’t stop to pack a suitcase, I wrote. Don’t say good-bye to anyone. Leave right now, and get somewhere safe. Make sure you aren’t followed. Then find a secure non-IOI-controlled Internet connection and get back online. I’ll meet you in Aech’s Basement as soon as I can. Don’t worry—I have some good news too.

  At the bottom of the message, I added a short postscript: PS—I think you look even more beautiful in real life.

  I sent similar e-mails to Shoto and Aech (minus the postscript), along with copies of their Sixer dossiers. Then I pulled up the United States Citizen Registry database and attempted to log in. To my great relief, the passwords I’d purchased still worked, and I was able to access the fake Bryce Lynch citizen profile I’d created. It now contained the ID photo taken during my indent processing, and the words WANTED FUGITIVE were superimposed over my face. IOI had already reported Mr. Lynch as an escaped indent.

  It didn’t take me very long to completely erase the Bryce Lynch identity and copy my fingerprints and retinal patterns back over to my original citizen profile. When I logged out of the database a few minutes later, Bryce Lynch no longer existed. I was Wade Watts once again.

  I hailed an autocab outside the Mailbox, making sure to select one operated by a local cab company and not a SupraCab, which was a wholly owned subsidiary of IOI.

  When I got in, I held my breath as I pressed my thumb to the ID scanner. The display flashed green. The system recognized me as Wade Watts, not as the fugitive indent Bryce Lynch.

  “Good morning, Mr. Watts,” the autocab said. “Where to?”

  I gave the cab the address of a clothing store on High Street, close to the OSU campus. It was a place called Thr3ads, which specialized in “high-tech urban street wear.” I ran inside and bought a pair of jeans and a sweater. Both items were “dichotomy wear,” meaning they were wired for OASIS use. They didn’t have haptics, but the pants and shirt could link up with my portable immersion rig, letting it know what I was doing with my torso, arms, and legs, making it easier to control my avatar than with a gloves-only interface. I a
lso bought a few packs of socks and underwear, a simulated leather jacket, a pair of boots, and a black knit-wool cap to cover my freezing, stubble-covered noggin.

  I emerged from the store a few minutes later dressed in my new threads. As the frigid wind enveloped me again I zipped up my new jacket and pulled on the wool cap. Much better. I tossed the maintenance-tech jumpsuit and plastic indent shoes in a trash can, then began to walk up High Street, scanning the storefronts. I kept my head down to avoid making eye contact with the stream of sullen university students filing past me.

  A few blocks later, I ducked into a Vend-All franchise. Inside there were rows of vending machines that sold everything under the sun. One of them, labeled DEFENSE DISPENSER, offered self-defense equipment: lightweight body armor, chemical repellents, and a wide selection of handguns. I tapped the screen set into the front of the machine and scrolled through the catalog. After a moment’s deliberation, I purchased a flak vest and a Glock 47C pistol, along with three clips of ammo. I also bought a small canister of mace, then paid for everything by pressing my right palm to a hand scanner. My identity was verified and my criminal record was checked.







  I heard a heavy metallic thunk as my purchases slid into the steel tray near my knees. I pocketed the mace and put the flak vest on underneath my new shirt. Then I removed the Glock from its clear plastic blister packaging. This was the first time I’d ever held a real gun. Even so, the weapon felt familiar in my hands, because I’d fired thousands of virtual firearms in the OASIS. I pressed a small button set into the barrel and the gun emitted a tone. I held the pistol grip firmly for a few seconds, first in my right hand, then my left. The weapon emitted a second tone, letting me know it had finished scanning my handprints. I was now the only person who could fire it. The weapon had a built-in timer that would prevent it from firing for another twelve hours (a “cooling-off period”), but I still felt better having it on me.

  I walked to an OASIS parlor located a few blocks away, a franchise outlet called the Plug. The dingy backlit sign, which featured a smiling anthropomorphic fiber-optic cable, promised Lightning-Fast OASIS Access! Cheap Gear Rental! and Private Immersion Bays! Open 24-7-365! I’d seen a lot of banner ads for the Plug online. They had a reputation for high prices and outdated hardware, but their connections were supposed to be fast, reliable, and lag-free. For me, their major selling point was that they were one of the few OASIS parlor chains not owned by IOI or one of its subsidiaries.

  The motion detector emitted a beep as I stepped through the front door. There was a small waiting area off to my right, currently empty. The carpet was stained and worn, and the whole place reeked of industrial-strength disinfectant. A vacant-eyed clerk glanced up at me from behind a bulletproof Plexiglas barrier. He was in his early twenties, with a Mohawk and dozens of facial piercings. He was wearing a bifocal visor, which gave him a semitransparent view of the OASIS while also allowing him to see his real-world surroundings. When he spoke, I saw that his teeth had all been sharpened to points. “Welcome to the Plug,” he said in a flat monotone. “We have several bays free, so there’s no waiting. Package pricing information is displayed right here.” He pointed to the display screen mounted on the counter directly in front of me; then his eyes glazed over as he refocused his attention on the world inside his visor.

  I scanned my choices. A dozen immersion rigs were available, of varying quality and price. Economy, Standard, Deluxe. I was given detailed specs on each. You could rent by the minute, or pay a flat hourly rate. A visor and a pair of haptic gloves were included in the rental price, but a haptic suit cost extra. The rental contract contained a lot of fine print about the additional charges you would incur if you damaged the equipment, and a lot of legalese stating that the Plug could not be held responsible for anything you did, under any circumstances, especially if it was something illegal.

  “I’d like to rent one of the deluxe rigs for twelve hours,” I said.

  The clerk raised his visor. “You have to pay in advance, you realize?”

  I nodded. “I also want to rent a fat-pipe connection. I need to upload a large amount of data to my account.”

  “Uploading costs extra. How much data?”

  “Ten zettabytes.”

  “Damn,” he whispered. “What you uploading? The Library of Congress?”

  I ignored the question. “I also want the Mondo Upgrade Package,” I said.

  “Sure thing,” the clerk replied warily. “Your total comes to eleven thousand big ones. Just put your thumb on the drum and we’ll get you all fixed up.”

  He looked more than a little surprised when the transaction cleared. Then he shrugged and handed me a key card, a visor, and some gloves. “Bay fourteen. Last door on your right. The restroom is at the end of the hall. If you leave any kind of mess in the bay, we’ll have to keep your deposit. Vomit, urine, semen, that kinda thing. And I’m the guy who has to clean it up, so do me a solid and show some restraint, will ya?”

  “You got it.”



  Bay fourteen was a soundproofed ten-by-ten room with a late-model haptic rig in the center. I locked the door behind me and climbed into the rig. The vinyl on the haptic chair was worn and cracked. I slid the data drive into a slot on the front of the OASIS console and smiled as it locked into place.

  “Max?” I said to the empty air, once I’d logged back in. This booted up a backup of Max that I kept stored in my OASIS account.

  Max’s smiling face appeared on all of my command center monitors. “H-h-hey there, compadre!” he stuttered. “H-h-how goes it?”

  “Things are looking up, pal. Now strap in. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

  I opened up my OASIS account manager and initiated the upload from my flash drive. I paid GSS a monthly fee for unlimited data storage on my account, and I was about to test its limits. Even using the Plug’s high-bandwidth fiber-optic connection, the total estimated upload time for ten zettabytes of data was over three hours. I reordered the upload sequence so the files I needed access to right away would get transferred first. As soon as data was uploaded to my OASIS account I had immediate access to it and could also transfer it to other users instantaneously.

  First, I e-mailed all of the major newsfeeds a detailed account of how IOI had tried to kill me, how they had killed Daito, and how they were planning to kill Art3mis and Shoto. I attached one of the video clips I’d retrieved from the Sixer database to the message—the video camera footage of Daito’s execution. I also attached a copy of the memo Sorrento had sent to the IOI board, suggesting that they abduct Art3mis and Shoto. Finally, I attached the simcap of my chatlink session with Sorrento, but I bleeped the part where he said my real name and blurred the image of my school photo. I wasn’t yet ready to reveal my true identity to the world. I planned to release the unedited video later, once the rest of my plan had played out. Then it wouldn’t matter.

  I spent about fifteen minutes composing one last e-mail, which I addressed to every single OASIS user. Once I was happy with the wording, I stored it in my Drafts folder. Then I logged into Aech’s Basement.

  When my avatar appeared inside the chat room, I saw that Aech, Art3mis, and Shoto were already there waiting for me.

  “Z!” Aech shouted as my avatar appeared. “What the hell, man? Where have you been? I’ve been trying to reach you for over a week!”

  “So have I,” Shoto added. “Where were you? And how did you get those files from the Sixer database?”

  “It’s a long story,” I said. “First things first.” I addressed Shoto and Art3mis. “Have you two left your homes?”

  They both nodded.

  “And you’re each logged in from a safe location?”

�� Shoto said. “I’m in a manga cafe right now.”

  “And I’m at the Vancouver airport,” Art3mis said. It was the first time I’d heard her voice in months. “I’m logged in from a germ-ridden public OASIS booth right now. I ran out of my house with nothing but the clothes on my back, so I hope that Sixer data you sent us is legit.”

  “It is,” I said. “Trust me.”

  “How can you be sure of that?” Shoto asked.

  “Because I hacked into the Sixer Database and downloaded it myself.”

  They all stared at me in silence. Aech raised an eyebrow. “And how, exactly, did you manage that, Z?”

  “I assumed a fake identity and masqueraded as an indentured servant to infiltrate IOI’s corporate headquarters. I’ve been there for the past eight days. I just now escaped.”

  “Holy shit!” Shoto whispered. “Seriously?”

  I nodded.

  “Dude, you have balls of solid adamantium,” Aech said. “Respect.”

  “Thanks. I think.”

  “Let’s assume you’re not totally bullshitting us,” Art3mis said. “How does a lowly indent get access to secret Sixer dossier files and company memos?”

  I turned to face her. “Indents have limited access to the company intranet via their hab-unit entertainment system, from behind the IOI firewall. From there, I was able to use a series of back doors and system exploits left by the original programmers to tunnel through the network and hack directly into the Sixers’ private database.”

  Shoto looked at me in awe. “You did that? All by yourself?”

  “That is correct, sir.”

  “It’s a miracle they didn’t catch you and kill you,” Art3mis said. “Why would you take such a stupid risk?”

  “Why do you think? To try and find a way to get through their shield and reach the Third Gate.” I shrugged. “It was the only plan I could come up with on such short notice.”

  “Z,” Aech said, grinning, “you are one crazy son of a bitch.” He walked over and gave me a high five. “But that’s why I love you, man!”

  Art3mis scowled at me. “Of course, when you found out they had secret files on each of us, you just couldn’t resist looking at them, could you?”

  “I had to look at them!” I said. “To find out how much they knew about each of us! You would have done the same thing.”

  She leveled a finger at me. “No, I wouldn’t have. I respect other people’s privacy!”

  “Art3mis, chill out!” Aech interjected. “He probably saved your life, you know.”

  She seemed to consider this. “Fine,” she said. “Forget it.” But I could tell she was still pissed off.

  I didn’t know what to say, so I kept plowing forward.

  “I’m sending each of you a copy of all the Sixer data I smuggled out. Ten zettabytes of it. You should have it now.” I waited while each of them checked their inbox. “The size of their database on Halliday is unreal. His whole life is in there. They’ve collected interviews with everyone Halliday ever knew. It could take months to read through them all.”

  I waited for a few minutes, watching their eyes scan over the data.

  “Whoa!” Shoto said. “This is incredible.” He looked over at me. “How the hell did you escape from IOI with all of this stuff?”

  “By being extra sneaky.”

  “Aech is right,” Art3mis said, shaking her head. “You are certifiably nuts.” She hesitated for a second, then added, “Thanks for the warning, Z. I owe you one.”

  I opened my mouth to say “you’re welcome,” but no words came out.

  “Yes,” Shoto said. “So do I. Thanks.”

  “Don’t mention it, guys,” I finally managed to say.

  “Well?” Aech said. “Hit us with the bad news already. How close are the Sixers to clearing the Third Gate?”

  “Dig this,” I said, grinning. “They haven’t even figured out how to open it yet.”

  Art3mis and Shoto stared at me in disbelief. Aech smiled wide, then began to bob his head and press his palms to the sky, as if dancing to some unheard rave track. “Oh yes! Oh yes!” he sang.

  “You’re kidding, right?” Shoto asked.

  I shook my head.

  “You’re not kidding?” Art3mis said. “How is that possible? Sorrento has the Crystal Key and he knows where the gate is. All he has to do is open the damn thing and step inside, right?”

  “That was true for the first two gates,” I replied. “But Gate Three is different.” I opened a large vidfeed window in the air beside me. “Check this out. It’s from the Sixers’ video archive. It’s a vidcap of their first attempt to open the gate.”

  I hit Play. The video clip opened with a shot of Sorrento’s avatar standing outside the front gates of Castle Anorak. The castle’s front entrance, which had been impregnable for so many years, swung open as Sorrento approached, like an automatic door at a supermarket. “The castle entrance will open for an avatar who holds a copy of the Crystal Key,” I explained. “If an avatar doesn’t have a copy of the key, he can’t cross the threshold and enter the castle, even if the doors are already open.”

  We all watched the vidcap as Sorrento passed through the entrance and into the large gold-lined foyer that lay beyond. Sorrento’s avatar crossed the polished floor and approached the large crystal door set into the north wall. There was a keyhole in the very center of the door, and directly above it, three words were etched into the door’s glittering, faceted surface: CHARITY. HOPE.