فصل 14

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فصل 14

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14

As I finished connecting to the chatlink session, my avatar materialized on a grand observation deck with a stunning view of over a dozen OASIS worlds suspended in black space beyond the curved window. I appeared to be on a space station or a very large transport ship; I couldn’t tell which.

Chatlink sessions worked differently from chat rooms, and they were a lot more expensive to host. When you opened a chatlink, an insubstantial copy of your avatar was projected into another OASIS location. Your avatar wasn’t actually there, and so it appeared to other avatars as a slightly transparent apparition. But you could still interact with the environment in a limited way—walking through doors, sitting in chairs, and so forth. Chatlinks were primarily used for business purposes, when a company wanted to host a meeting in a specific OASIS location without spending the time and money to transport everyone’s avatars to it. This was the first time I’d ever used one.

I turned around and saw that my avatar was standing in front of a large C-shaped reception desk. The IOI corporate logo—giant, overlapping chrome letters twenty feet tall—floated above it. As I approached the desk, an impossibly beautiful blonde receptionist stood to greet me. “Mr. Parzival,” she said, bowing slightly. “Welcome to Innovative Online Industries! Just a moment. Mr. Sorrento is already on his way to greet you.”

I wasn’t sure how that could be, since I hadn’t warned them I was coming. While I waited, I tried to activate my avatar’s vidfeed recorder, but IOI had disabled recording in this chatlink session. They obviously didn’t want me to have video evidence of what was about to go down. So much for my plan to post the interview on YouTube.

Less than a minute later, another avatar appeared, through a set of automatic doors on the opposite side of the observation deck. He headed right for me, boots clicking on the polished floor. It was Sorrento. I recognized him because he wasn’t using a standard-issue Sixer avatar—one of the perks of his position. His avatar’s face matched the photos of him I’d seen online. Blond hair and brown eyes, a hawkish nose. He did wear the standard Sixer uniform—a navy blue bodysuit with gold epaulettes at the shoulders and a silver IOI logo on his right breast, with his employee number printed beneath it: 655321.

“At last!” he said as he walked up, grinning like a jackal. “The famous Parzival has graced us with his presence!” He extended a gloved right hand. “Nolan Sorrento, chief of operations. It’s an honor to meet you.”

“Yeah,” I said, doing my best to sound aloof. “Likewise, I guess.” Even as a chatlink projection, my avatar could still mime shaking his outstretched hand. Instead I just stared down at it as if he were offering me a dead rat. He dropped it after a few seconds, but his smile didn’t falter. It broadened.

“Please follow me.” He led me across the deck and back through the automatic doors, which slid open to reveal a large launching bay. It contained a single interplanetary shuttlecraft emblazoned with the IOI logo. Sorrento began to board it, but I halted at the foot of the ramp.

“Why bother bringing me here via a chatlink?” I asked, motioning to the bay around us. “Why not just give me your sales pitch in a chat room?”

“Please, indulge me,” he said. “This chatlink is part of our sales pitch. We want to give you the same experience you’d have if you came to visit our headquarters in person.”

Right, I thought. If I had come here in person, my avatar would be surrounded by thousands of Sixers and I’d be at your mercy.

I joined him inside the shuttle. The ramp retracted and we launched out of the bay. Through the ship’s wraparound windows I saw that we were leaving one of the Sixers’ orbital space stations. Looming directly ahead of us was the planet IOI-1, a massive chrome globe. It reminded me of the killer floating spheres in the Phantasm films. Gunters referred to IOI-1 as “the Sixer homeworld.” The company had constructed it shortly after the contest began, to serve as IOI’s online base of operations.

Our shuttle, which seemed to be flying on automatic pilot, quickly reached the planet and began to skim its mirrored surface. I stared out the window as we did one complete orbit. As far as I knew, no gunter had ever been given this kind of tour.

From pole to pole, IOI-1 was covered with armories, bunkers, warehouses, and vehicle hangars. I also saw airfields dotting the surface, where rows of gleaming gunships, spacecraft, and mechanized battle tanks stood waiting for action. Sorrento said nothing as we surveyed the Sixer armada. He just let me take it all in.

I’d seen screenshots of IOI-1’s surface before, but they’d been low-res and taken from high orbit, just beyond the planet’s impressive defense grid. The larger clans had been openly plotting to nuke the Sixer Operations Complex for several years now, but they’d never managed to get past the defense grid or reach the planet’s surface.

As we completed our orbit, the IOI Operations Complex swung into view ahead of us. It consisted of three mirror-surfaced towers—two rectangular skyscrapers on either side of a circular one. Seen from above, these three buildings formed the IOI logo.

The shuttle slowed and hovered above the O-shaped tower, then spiraled down to a small landing pad on the roof. “Impressive digs, wouldn’t you agree?” Sorrento said, finally breaking his silence as we touched down and the ramp lowered.

“Not bad.” I was proud of the calm in my voice. In truth, I was still reeling from everything I’d just seen. “This is an OASIS replica of the real IOI towers located in downtown Columbus, right?” I said.

Sorrento nodded. “Yes, the Columbus complex is our company headquarters. Most of my team works in this central tower. Our close proximity to GSS eliminates any possibility of system lag. And, of course, Columbus doesn’t suffer from the rolling power blackouts that plague most major U.S. cities.”

He was stating the obvious. Gregarious Simulation Systems was located in Columbus, and so was their main OASIS server vault. Redundant mirror servers were located all over the world, but they were all linked to the main node in Columbus. This was why, in the decades since the simulation’s launch, the city had become a kind of high-tech Mecca. Columbus was where an OASIS user could get the fastest, most reliable connection to the simulation. Most gunters dreamed of moving there someday, me included.

I followed Sorrento off the shuttle and into an elevator adjacent to the landing pad. “You’ve become quite the celebrity these past few days,” he said as we began to descend. “It must be very exciting for you. Probably a little scary, too, huh? Knowing you now possess information that millions of people would be willing to kill for?”

I’d been waiting for him to say something like this, so I had a reply prepared. “Do you mind skipping the scare tactics and the head games? Just tell me the details of your offer. I have other matters to attend to.”

He grinned at me like I was a precocious child. “Yes, I’m sure you do,” he said. “But please don’t jump to any conclusions about our offer. I think you’ll be quite surprised.” Then, with a sudden touch of steel in his tone, he added, “In fact, I’m certain of it.”

Doing my best to hide the intimidation I felt, I rolled my eyes and said, “Whatever, man.”

A tone sounded as we reached the 106th floor, and the elevator doors swished open. I followed Sorrento past another receptionist and down a long, brightly lit corridor. The decor was something out of a utopian sci-fi flick. High-tech and immaculate. We passed several other Sixer avatars as we walked, and the moment they saw Sorrento, they each snapped to rigid attention and saluted him, as if he were some high-ranking general. Sorrento didn’t return these salutes or acknowledge his underlings in any way.

Eventually, he led me into a huge open room that appeared to occupy most of the 106th floor. It contained a vast sea of high-walled cubicles, each containing a single person strapped into a high-end immersion rig.

“Welcome to IOI’s Oology Division,” Sorrento said with obvious pride.

“So, this is Sux0rz Central, eh?” I said, glancing around.

“There’s no need to be rude,” Sorrento said. “This could be your team.”

“Would I get my very own cubicle?”

“No. You’d have your own office, with a very nice view.” He grinned. “Not that you’d spend much time looking at it.”

I motioned to one of the new Habashaw immersion rigs. “Nice gear,” I said. It really was, too. State-of-the-art.

“Yes, it is nice, isn’t it?” he said. “Our immersion rigs are heavily modified, and they’re all networked together. Our systems allow multiple operators to control any one of our oologist’s avatars. So depending on the obstacles an avatar encounters during their quest, control can be instantly transferred to the team member with the skills best suited to deal with the situation.”

“Yeah, but that’s cheating,” I said.

“Oh, come on now,” he said, rolling his eyes. “There’s no such thing. Halliday’s contest doesn’t have any rules. That’s one of the many colossal mistakes the old fool made.” Before I could reply, Sorrento started walking again, leading me on through the maze of cubicles. “All of our oologists are voice-linked to a support team,” he continued. “Composed of Halliday scholars, videogame experts, pop-culture historians, and cryptologists. They all work together to help each of our avatars overcome any challenge and solve every puzzle they encounter.” He turned and grinned at me. “As you can see, we’ve covered all the bases, Parzival. That’s why we’re going to win.”

“Yeah,” I said. “You guys have been doing a bang-up job so far. Bravo. Now, why is it that we’re talking again? Oh, right. You guys have no clue where the Copper Key is, and you need my help to find it.”

Sorrento narrowed his eyes; then he began to laugh. “I like you, kid,” he said, grinning at me. “You’re bright. And you’ve got cojones. Two qualities I greatly admire.”

We continued walking. A few minutes later, we arrived in Sorrento’s enormous office. Its windows afforded a stunning view of the surrounding “city.” The sky was filled with aircars and spacecraft, and the planet’s simulated sun was just beginning to set. Sorrento sat down behind his desk and offered me the chair directly across from him.

Here we go, I thought as I sat down. Play it cool, Wade.

“So I’ll just cut to the chase,” he said. “IOI wants to recruit you. As a consultant, to assist with our search for Halliday’s Easter egg. You’ll have all of our company’s vast resources at your disposal. Money, weapons, magic items, ships, artifacts. You name it.”

“What would my title be?”

“Chief oologist,” he replied. “You’d be in charge of the entire division, second-in-command only to me. I’m talking about five thousand highly trained combat-ready avatars, all taking orders directly from you.”

“Sounds pretty sweet,” I said, trying hard to sound nonchalant.

“Of course it does. But there’s more. In exchange for your services, we’re willing to pay you two million dollars a year, with a one-million-dollar signing bonus up front. And if and when you help us find the egg, you’ll get a twenty-five-million-dollar bonus.”

I pretended to add all of those numbers up on my fingers. “Wow,” I said, trying to sound impressed. “Can I work from home, too?”

Sorrento couldn’t seem to tell whether or not I was joking. “No,” he said. “I’m afraid not. You’d have to relocate here to Columbus. But we’ll provide you with excellent living quarters here on the premises. And a private office, of course. Your own state-of-the-art immersion rig—”

“Hold on,” I said, holding up a hand. “You mean I’d have to live in the IOI skyscraper? With you? And all of the other Sux— oologists?”

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? sh@t 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 fu@k 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 trailers 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.

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