فصل 30

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فصل 30

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30

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 sh@t? Is it broke?”

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

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

COURTESY VIOLATION—FLAGS: fu@kING, MORON LAST RESPONSE MUTED—VIOLATION LOGGED

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.

“What?! That ain’t fair! The guy who sold it to me didn’t say nothing about that!”

“Sir, it’s always advisable to make sure your avatar can actually use an item before you purchase it.”

“Goddammit!” he shouted. “Well, what am I supposed to do with it now?”

“You could shove it up your ass and pretend you’re a corn dog.”

COURTESY VIOLATION—RESPONSE MUTED—VIOLATION LOGGED.

I tried again. “Sir, you might want to keep the item stored in your inventory until your avatar has attained tenth level. Or you may wish to put the item back up for auction yourself and use the proceeds to purchase a similar weapon. One with a power level commensurate to that of your avatar.”

“Huh?” HotCock007 responded. “Whaddya mean?”

“Save it or sell it.”

“Oh.”

“Can I help you with anything else today, sir?”

“No, I don’t guess—”

“Great. Thank you for calling technical support. Have an outstanding day.”

I tapped the disconnect icon on my display, and HotCock007 vanished. Call Time: 2:07. As the next customer’s avatar appeared—a red-skinned, large-breasted alien female named Vartaxxx—the customer satisfaction rating that HotCock007 had just given me appeared on my display. It was a 6, out of a possible score of 10. The system then helpfully reminded me that I needed to keep my average above 8.5 if I wanted to get a raise after my next review.

Doing tech support here was nothing like working from home. Here, I couldn’t watch movies, play games, or listen to music while I answered the endless stream of inane calls. The only distraction was staring at the clock. (Or the IOI stock ticker, which was always at the top of every indent’s display. You couldn’t get rid of it.)

During each shift, I was given three five-minute restroom breaks. Lunch was thirty minutes. I usually ate in my cubicle instead of the cafeteria, so I wouldn’t have to listen to the other tech reps bit@h about their calls or boast about how many perk points they’d earned. I’d grown to despise the other indents almost as much as the customers.

I fell asleep five separate times during my shift. Each time, when the system saw that I’d drifted off, it sounded a warning klaxon in my ears, jolting me back awake. Then it noted the infraction in my employee data file. My narcolepsy had become such a consistent problem during my first week that I was now being issued two little red pills each day to help me stay awake. I took them too. But not until after I got off work.

When my shift finally ended, I ripped off my headset and visor and walked back to my hab-unit as quickly as I could. This was the only time each day I ever hurried anywhere. When I reached my tiny plastic coffin, I crawled inside and collapsed on the mattress, facedown, in the same exact position as the night before. And the night before that. I lay there for a few minutes, staring at the time readout on my entertainment console out of the corner of my eye. When it reached 7:07 p.m., I rolled over and sat up.

“Lights,” I said softly. This had become my favorite word over the past week. In my mind, it had become synonymous with freedom.

The lights embedded in the shell of my hab-unit shut off, plunging the tiny compartment into darkness. If someone had been watching either of my live security vidfeeds, they would have seen a brief flash as the cameras switched to night-vision mode. Then I would have been clearly visible on their monitors once again. But, thanks to some sabotage I’d performed earlier in the week, the security cameras in my hab-unit and my eargear were now no longer performing their assigned tasks. So for the first time that day, I wasn’t being watched.

That meant it was time to rock.

I tapped the entertainment center console’s touchscreen. It lit up, presenting me with the same choices I’d had on my first night here: a handful of training films and simulations, including the complete run of Tommy Queue episodes.

If anyone checked the usage logs for my entertainment center, they would show that I watched Tommy Queue every night until I fell asleep, and that once I’d worked my way through all sixteen episodes, I’d started over at the beginning. The logs would also show that I fell asleep at roughly the same time every night (but not at exactly the same time), and that I slept like the dead until the following morning, when my alarm sounded.

Of course, I hadn’t really been watching their inane corporate sh@tcom every night. And I wasn’t sleeping, either. I’d actually been operating on about two hours of sleep a night for the past week, and it was beginning to take its toll on me.

But the moment the lights in my hab-unit went out, I felt energized and wide awake. My exhaustion seemed to vanish as I began to navigate through the entertainment center operation menus from memory, the fingers of my right hand dancing rapidly across the touchscreen.

About seven months earlier, I’d obtained a set of IOI intranet passwords from the L33t Hax0rz Warezhaus, the same black-market data auction site where I’d purchased the information needed to create a new identity. I kept an eye on all of the black-market data sites, because you never knew what might be up for sale on them. OASIS server exploits. ATM hacks. Celebrity s@x tapes. You name it. I’d been browsing through the L33t Hax0rz Warezhaus auction listings when one in particular caught my eye: IOI Intranet Access Passwords, Back Doors, and System Exploits. The seller claimed to be offering classified proprietary information on IOI’s intranet architecture, along with a series of administrative access codes and system exploits that could “give a user carte blanche inside the company network.”

I would have assumed the data was bogus had it not been listed on such a respected site. The anonymous seller claimed to be a former IOI contract programmer and one of the lead architects of its company intranet. He was probably a turncoat—a programmer who intentionally coded back doors and security holes into a system he designed, so that he could later sell them on the black market. It allowed him to get paid for the same job twice, and to salve any guilt he felt about working for a demonic multinational corporation like IOI.

The obvious problem, which the seller didn’t bother to point out in the auction listing, was that these codes were useless unless you already had access to the company intranet. IOI’s intranet was a high-security, standalone network with no direct connections to the OASIS. The only way to get access to IOI’s intranet was to become one of their legitimate employees (very difficult and time-consuming). Or you could join the company’s ever-growing ranks of indentured servants.

I’d decided to bid on the IOI access codes anyway, on the off chance they might come in handy someday. Since there was no way to verify the data’s authenticity, the bidding stayed low, and I won the auction for a few thousand credits. The codes arrived in my inbox a few minutes after the auction ended. Once I’d finished decrypting the data, I examined it all thoroughly. Everything looked legit, so I filed the info away for a rainy day and forgot about it—until about six months later, when I saw the Sixer barricade around Castle Anorak. The first thing I thought of was the IOI access codes. Then the wheels in my head began to turn and my ridiculous plan began to take shape.

I would alter the financial records on my bogus Bryce Lynch identity and allow myself to become indentured by IOI. Once I infiltrated the building and got behind the company firewall, I would use the intranet passwords to hack into the Sixers’ private database, then figure a way to bring down the shield they’d erected over Anorak’s castle.

I didn’t think anyone would anticipate this move, because it was so clearly insane.

I didn’t test the IOI passwords until the second night of my indenturement. I was understandably anxious, because if it turned out I’d been sold bogus data and none of the passwords worked, I would have sold myself into lifelong slavery.

Keeping my eargear camera pointed straight ahead, away from the screen, I pulled up the entertainment console’s viewer settings menu, which allowed me to make adjustments to the display’s audio and video output: volume and balance, brightness and tint. I cranked each option up to its highest setting, then tapped the Apply button at the bottom of the screen three times. I set the volume and brightness controls to their lowest settings and tapped the Apply button again. A small window appeared in the center of the screen, prompting me for a maintenance-tech ID number and access password. I quickly entered the ID number and the long alphanumeric password that I’d memorized. I checked both for errors out of the corner of my eye, then tapped OK. The system paused for what seemed like a very long time. Then, to my great relief, the following message appeared:

MAINTENANCE CONTROL PANEL—ACCESS GRANTED

I now had access to a maintenance service account designed to allow repairmen to test and debug the entertainment unit’s various components. I was now logged in as a technician, but my access to the intranet was still pretty limited. Still, it gave me all the elbow room I needed. Using an exploit left by one of the programmers, I was now able to create a bogus admin account. Once that was set up, I had access to just about everything.

My first order of business was to get some privacy.

I quickly navigated through several dozen submenus until I reached the control panel for the Indent Monitoring System. When I entered my employee number my indent profile appeared on the display, along with a mug shot they’d taken of me during my initial processing. The profile listed my indent account balance, pay grade, blood type, current performance review rating—every scrap of data the company had on me. At the top right of my profile were two vidfeed windows, one fed by the camera in my eargear, the other linked to the camera in my hab-unit. My eargear vidfeed was currently aimed at a section of the wall. The hab-unit camera window showed a view of the back of my head, which I’d positioned to block the entertainment center’s display screen.

I selected both vidfeed cameras and accessed their configuration settings. Using one of the turncoat’s exploits, I performed a quick hack that caused my eargear and hab-unit cameras to display the archived video from my first night of indenturement instead of a live feed. Now, if someone checked my camera feeds, they’d see me lying asleep in my hab-unit, not sitting up all night, furiously hacking my way through the company intranet. Then I programmed the cameras to switch to the prerecorded feeds whenever I shut out the lights in my hab-unit. The split-second jump cut in the feed would be masked by the momentary video distortion that occurred when the cameras switched into night-vision mode.

I kept expecting to be discovered and locked out of the system, but it never happened. My passwords continued to work. I’d spent the past six nights laying siege to the IOI intranet, digging deeper and deeper into the network. I felt like a convict in an old prison movie, returning to my cell each night to tunnel through the wall with a teaspoon.

Then, last night, just before I’d succumbed to exhaustion, I’d finally managed to navigate my way through the intranet’s labyrinth of firewalls and into the main Oology Division database. The mother lode. The Sixers’ private file pile. And tonight, I would finally be able to explore it.

I knew that I needed to be able to take some of the Sixers’ data with me when I escaped, so earlier in the week, I’d used my intranet admin account to submit a bogus hardware requisition form. I had a ten-zettabyte flash drive delivered to a nonexistent employee (“Sam Lowery”) in an empty cubicle a few rows away from my own. Making sure to keep my eargear camera pointed in the other direction, I’d ducked into the cube, grabbed the tiny drive, pocketed it, and smuggled it back to my hab-unit. That night, after I shut off the lights and disabled the security cameras, I unlocked my entertainment unit’s maintenance access panel and installed the flash drive into an expansion slot used for firmware upgrades. Now I could download data from the intranet directly to that drive.

I put on the entertainment center’s visor and gloves, then stretched out on my mattress. The visor presented me with a three-dimensional view of the Sixers’ database, with dozens of overlapping data windows suspended in front of me. Using my gloves, I began to manipulate these windows, navigating my way through the database’s file structure. The largest section of the database appeared to be devoted to information on Halliday. The amount of data they had on him was staggering. It made my grail diary look like a set of CliffsNotes. They had things I’d never seen. Things I didn’t even know existed. Halliday’s grade-school report cards, home movies from his childhood, e-mails he’d written to fans. I didn’t have time to read over it all, but I copied the really interesting stuff over to my flash drive, to (hopefully) study later.

I focused on isolating the data related to Castle Anorak and the forces the Sixers had positioned in and around it. I copied all of the intel on their weapons, vehicles, gunships, and troop numbers. I also snagged all of the data I could find on the Orb of Osuvox, the artifact they were using to generate the shield around the castle, including exactly where they were keeping it and the employee number of the Sixer wizard they had operating it.

Then I hit the jackpot—a folder containing hundreds of hours of OASIS simcap recordings documenting the Sixers’ initial discovery of the Third Gate and their subsequent attempts to open it. As everyone now suspected, the Third Gate was located inside Castle Anorak. Only avatars who possessed a copy of the Crystal Key could cross the threshold of the castle’s front entrance. To my disgust, I learned that Sorrento had been the first avatar to set foot inside Castle Anorak since Halliday’s death.

The castle entrance led into a massive foyer whose walls, floor, and ceiling were all made of gold. At the north end of the chamber, a large crystal door was set into the wall. It had a small keyhole at its very center.

The moment I saw it, I knew I was looking at the Third Gate.

I fast-forwarded through several other recent simcap files. From what I could tell, the Sixers still hadn’t figured out how to open the gate. Simply inserting the Crystal Key into the keyhole had no effect. They’d had their entire team trying to figure out why for several days now, but still hadn’t made any progress.

While the data and video on the Third Gate was copying over to my flash drive, I continued to delve deeper into the Sixer database. Eventually, I uncovered a restricted area called the Star Chamber. It was the only area of the database I couldn’t seem to access. So I used my admin ID to create a new “test account,” then gave that account superuser access and full administrator privileges. It worked and I was granted access. The information inside the restricted area was divided into two folders: Mission Status and Threat Assessments. I opened the Threat Assessments folder first, and when I saw what was inside, I felt the blood drain from my face. There were five file folders, labeled Parzival, Art3mis, Aech, Shoto, and Daito. Daito’s folder had a large red “X” over it.

I opened the Parzival folder first. A detailed dossier appeared, containing all of the information the Sixers had collected on me over the past few years. My birth certificate. My school transcripts. At the bottom there was a link to a simcap of my entire chatlink session with Sorrento, ending with the bomb detonating in my aunt’s trailer. After I’d gone into hiding, they’d lost track of me. They had collected thousands of screenshots and vidcaps of my avatar over the past year, and loads of data on my stronghold on Falco, but they didn’t know anything about my location in the real world. My current whereabouts were listed as “unknown.”

I closed the window, took a deep breath, and opened the file on Art3mis.

At the very top was a school photo of a young girl with a distinctly sad smile. To my surprise, she looked almost identical to her avatar. The same dark hair, the same hazel eyes, and the same beautiful face I knew so well—with one small difference. Most of the left half of her face was covered with a reddish-purple birthmark. I would later learn that these types of birthmark were sometimes referred to as “port wine stains.” In the photo, she wore a sweep of her dark hair down over her left eye to try to conceal the mark as much as possible.

Art3mis had led me to believe that in reality she was somehow hideous, but now I saw that nothing could have been further from the truth. To my eyes, the birthmark did absolutely nothing to diminish her beauty. If anything, the face I saw in the photo seemed even more beautiful to me than that of her avatar, because I knew this one was real.

The data below the photo said that her real name was Samantha Evelyn Cook, that she was a twenty-year-old Canadian citizen, five feet and seven inches tall, and that she weighed one hundred and sixty-eight pounds. The file also contained her home address—2206 Greenleaf Lane, Vancouver, British Columbia—along with a lot of other information, including her blood type and her school transcripts going all the way back to kindergarten.

I found an unlabeled video link at the bottom of her dossier, and when I selected it, a live vidfeed of a small suburban house appeared on my display. After a few seconds, I realized I was looking at the house where Art3mis lived.

As I dug further into her file, I learned that they’d had her under surveillance for the past five months. They had her house bugged too, because I found hundreds of hours of audio recordings made while she was logged into the OASIS. They had complete text transcripts of every audible word she’d spoken while clearing the first two gates.

I opened Shoto’s file next. They knew his real name, Akihide Karatsu, and they also appeared to have his home address, an apartment building in Osaka, Japan. His file also contained a school photo, showing a thin, stoic boy with a shaved head. Like Daito, he looked nothing like his avatar.

Aech seemed to be the one they knew the least about. His file contained very little information, and no photo—just a screenshot of his avatar. His real name was listed as “Henry Swanson,” but that was an alias used by Jack Burton in Big Trouble in Little China, so I knew it must be a fake. His address was listed as “mobile,” and below it there was a link labeled “Recent Access Points.” This turned out to be a list of the wireless node locations Aech had recently used to access his OASIS account. They were all over the place: Boston; Washington, D.C.; New York City; Philadelphia; and most recently, Pittsburgh.

Now I began to understand how the Sixers had been able to locate Art3mis and Shoto. IOI owned hundreds of regional telecom companies, effectively making them the largest Internet service provider in the world. It was pretty difficult to get online without using a network they owned and operated. From the looks of it, IOI had been illegally eavesdropping on most of the world’s Internet traffic in an attempt to locate and identify the handful of gunters they considered to be a threat. The only reason they hadn’t been able to locate me was because I’d taken the paranoia-induced precaution of leasing a direct fiber-optic connection to the OASIS from my apartment complex.

I closed Aech’s file, then opened the folder labeled Daito, already dreading what I might find there. Like the others, they had his real name, Toshiro Yoshiaki, and his home address. Two news articles about his “suicide” were linked at the bottom of his dossier, along with an unlabeled video clip, time-stamped on the day he’d died. I clicked on it. It was handheld video camera footage showing three large men in black ski masks (one of whom was operating the camera) waiting silently in a hallway. They appeared to receive an order via their radio earpieces, then used a key card to open the door of a tiny one-room apartment. Daito’s apartment. I watched in horror as they rushed in, yanked him out of his haptic chair, and threw him off the balcony.

The bastards even filmed him plummeting to his death. Probably at Sorrento’s request.

A wave of nausea washed over me. When it finally passed, I copied the contents of all five dossiers over to my flash drive, then opened the Mission Status folder. It appeared to contain an archive of the Oology Division’s status reports, intended for the Sixers’ top brass. The reports were arranged by date, with the most recent one listed first. When I opened it, I saw that it was a directive memo sent from Nolan Sorrento to the IOI Board of Executives. In it, Sorrento proposed sending agents to abduct Art3mis and Shoto from their homes to force them to help IOI open the Third Gate. Once the Sixers had obtained the egg and won the contest, Art3mis and Shoto would “be disposed of.”

I sat there in stunned silence. Then I read the memo again, feeling a combination of rage and panic.

According to the time stamp, Sorrento had sent the memo just after eight o’clock, less than five hours ago. So his superiors probably hadn’t even seen it yet. When they did, they would still want to meet to discuss Sorrento’s suggested course of action. So they probably wouldn’t send their agents after Art3mis and Shoto until sometime tomorrow.

I still had time to warn them. But to do that, I would have to drastically alter my escape plan.

Before my arrest, I’d set up a timed funds transfer that would deposit enough money in my IOI credit account to pay off my entire debt, forcing IOI to release me from indenturement. But that transfer wouldn’t happen for another five days. By then, the Sixers would probably have Art3mis and Shoto locked in a windowless room somewhere.

I couldn’t spend the rest of the week exploring the Sixer database, like I’d planned. I had to grab as much data as I could and make my escape now.

I gave myself until dawn.

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