فصل 29

کتاب: بازیکن شماره یک آماده / فصل 30

فصل 29

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  • زمان مطالعه 17 دقیقه
  • سطح خیلی سخت

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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 Others waited in line at the free solar charging stations, wearing bulky, outdated visors and haptic gloves.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.

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.

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