فصل 28

کتاب: بازیکن شماره یک آماده / فصل 29

فصل 28

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28

When the IOI corporate police came to arrest me, I was right in the middle of the movie Explorers (1985, directed by Joe Dante). It’s about three kids who build a spaceship in their backyard and then fly off to meet aliens. Easily one of the greatest kid flicks ever made. I’d gotten into the habit of watching it at least once a month. It kept me centered.

I had a thumbnail of my apartment building’s external security camera feed at the edge of my display, so I saw the IOI Indentured Servant Retrieval Transport pull up out front, siren wailing and lights flashing. Then four jackbooted, riot-helmeted dropcops jumped out and ran into the building, followed by a guy in a suit. I continued to watch them on the lobby camera as they waved their IOI badges, blew past the security station, and filed onto the elevator.

Now they were on their way up to my floor.

“Max,” I muttered, noting the fear in my own voice. “Execute security macro number one: Crom, strong in his mountain.” This voice command instructed my computer to execute a long series of preprogrammed actions, both online and in the real world.

“You g-g-got it, Chief!” Max replied cheerfully, and a split second later, my apartment’s security system switched into lockdown mode. My reinforced plate-titanium WarDoor swung down from the ceiling, slamming and locking into place over my apartment’s built-in security door.

On the security camera mounted in the hallway outside my apartment, I watched the four dropcops get off the elevator and sprint down the hallway to my door. The two guys in front were carrying plasma welders. The other two held industrial-strength VoltJolt stun guns. The suit, who brought up the rear, was carrying a digital clipboard.

I wasn’t surprised to see them. I knew why they were here. They were here to cut open my apartment and pull me out of it, like a chunk of Spam being removed from a can.

When they reached my door, my scanner gave them the once-over, and their ID data flashed on my display, informing me that all five of these men were IOI credit officers with a valid indenturement arrest warrant for one Bryce Lynch, the occupant of this apartment. So, in keeping with local, state, and federal law, my apartment building’s security system immediately opened both of my security doors to grant them entrance. But the WarDoor that had just slammed into place kept them outside.

Of course, the dropcops expected me to have redundant security, which is why they’d brought plasma welders.

The IOI drone in the suit squeezed past the dropcops and gingerly pressed his thumb to my door intercom. His name and corporate title appeared on my display: Michael Wilson, IOI Credit and Collections Division, Employee # IOI-481231.

Wilson looked up into the lens of my hallway camera and smiled pleasantly. “Mr. Lynch,” he said. “My name is Michael Wilson, and I’m with the Credit and Collections division of Innovative Online Industries.” He consulted his clipboard. “I’m here because you have failed to make the last three payments on your IOI Visa card, which has an outstanding balance in excess of twenty thousand dollars. Our records also show that you are currently unemployed and have therefore been classified as impecunious. Under current federal law, you are now eligible for mandatory indenturement. You will remain indentured until you have paid your debt to our company in full, along with all applicable interest, processing and late fees, and any other charges or penalties that you incur henceforth.” Wilson motioned toward the dropcops. “These gentlemen are here to assist me in apprehending you and escorting you to your new place of employment. We request that you open your door and grant us access to your residence. Please be aware that we are authorized to seize any personal belongings you have inside. The sale value of these items will, of course, be deducted from your outstanding credit balance.”

As far as I could tell, Wilson recited all of this without taking a single breath, speaking in the flat monotone of someone who repeats the same sentences all day long.

After a brief pause, I replied through the intercom. “Sure thing, guys. Just give me a minute to get my pants on. Then I’ll be right out.”

Wilson frowned. “Mr. Lynch, if you do not grant us access to your residence within ten seconds, we are authorized to enter by force. The cost of any damage resulting from our forced entry, including all property damage and repair labor, will be added to your outstanding balance. Thank you.”

Wilson stepped away from the intercom and nodded to the others. One of the dropcops immediately powered up his welder, and when the tip began to glow molten orange, he began cutting through my War-Door’s titanium plating. The other welder moved a few feet farther down and began to cut a hole right through the wall of my apartment. These guys had access to the building’s security specs, so they knew the walls of each apartment were lined with steel plating and a layer of concrete, which they could cut through much more quickly than the titanium WarDoor.

Of course, I’d taken the precaution of reinforcing my apartment’s walls, floor, and ceiling, with a titanium alloy SageCage, which I’d assembled piece by piece. Once they cut through my wall, they would have to cut through the cage, too. But this would buy me only five or six extra minutes, at the most. Then they would be inside.

I’d heard that dropcops had a nickname for this procedure—cutting an indent out of a fortified residence so they could arrest him. They called it doing a C-section.

I dry-swallowed two of the antianxiety pills I’d ordered in preparation for this day. I’d already taken two earlier that morning, but they didn’t seem to be working.

Inside the OASIS, I closed all the windows on my display and set my account’s security level to maximum. Then I pulled up the Scoreboard, just to check it one last time and reassure myself that nothing had changed and that the Sixers still hadn’t won. The top ten rankings had been static for several days now.

HIGH SCORES:

  1. Art3mis 354,000
  2. Parzival 353,000
  3. IOI-655321 352,000
  4. Aech 352,000
  5. IOI-643187 349,000
  6. IOI-621671 348,000
  7. IOI-678324 347,000
  8. Shoto 347,000
  9. IOI-637330 346,000

  10. IOI-699423 346,000

Art3mis, Aech, and Shoto had all cleared the Second Gate and obtained the Crystal Key within forty-eight hours of receiving my e-mail. When Art3mis received the 25,000 points for reaching the Crystal Key, it had put her back in first place, due to the point bonuses she’d already received for finding the Jade Key first, and the Copper Key second.

Art3mis, Aech, and Shoto had all tried to contact me since receiving my e-mail, but I hadn’t answered any of their phone calls, e-mails, or chat requests. I saw no reason to tell them what I intended to do. They couldn’t do anything to help me and would probably just try to talk me out of it.

There was no turning back now, anyway.

I closed the Scoreboard and took a long look around my stronghold, wondering if it was for the last time. Then I took several quick deep breaths, like a deep-sea diver preparing to submerge, and tapped the logout icon on my display. The OASIS vanished, and my avatar reappeared inside my virtual office, a standalone simulation stored on my console’s hard drive. I opened a console window and keyed in the command word to activate my computer’s self-destruct sequence: sh@tSTORM.

A progress meter appeared on my display, showing that my hard drive was now being zeroed out and wiped clean.

“Good-bye, Max,” I whispered.

“Adios, Wade,” Max said, just a few seconds before he was deleted.

Sitting in my haptic chair, I could already feel the heat coming from the other side of the room. When I pulled off my visor, I saw smoke pouring in through the holes being cut in the door and the wall. It was starting to get too thick for my apartment’s air purifiers to handle. I began to cough.

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.

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