Ready Player One (Page 64)

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.

Chapter 31

I worked frantically for the next four hours. Most of that time was spent copying as much data as possible from the Sixer database to my stolen flash drive. Once that task was completed, I submitted an Executive Oologist Supply Requisition Order. This was an online form that Sixer commanders used to request weapons or equipment inside the OASIS. I selected a very specific item, then scheduled its delivery for noon two days from now.

When I finally finished, it was six thirty in the morning. The next tech-support shift change was now only ninety minutes away, and my hab-unit neighbors would start waking up soon. I was out of time.

I pulled up my indenturement profile, accessed my debt statement, and zeroed out my outstanding balance—money I’d never actually borrowed to begin with. Then I selected the Indentured Servant Observation and Communications Tag control settings submenu, which operated both my eargear and security anklet. Finally, I did something I’d been dying to do for the past week—I disabled the locking mechanisms on both devices.

I felt a sharp pain as the eargear clamps retracted and pulled free of the cartilage on my left ear. The device bounced off my shoulder and landed in my lap. In the same instant, the shackle on my right ankle clicked open and fell off, revealing a band of abraded red skin.

I’d now passed the point of no return. IOI security techs weren’t the only ones who had access to my eargear’s vidfeed. The Indentured Servant Protection Agency also used it to monitor and record my daily activities, to ensure that my human rights were being observed. Now that I’d removed the device, there would be no digital record of what happened to me from this moment forward. If IOI security caught me before I made it out of the building, carrying a stolen flash drive filled with highly incriminating company data, I was dead. The Sixers could torture and kill me, and no one would ever know.

I performed a few final tasks related to my escape plan, then logged out of the IOI intranet for the last time. I pulled off my visor and gloves and opened the maintenance access panel next to the entertainment center console. There was a small empty space below the entertainment module, between the prefab wall of my hab-unit and the one adjacent to it. I removed the thin, neatly folded bundle I’d hidden there. It was a vacuum-sealed IOI maintenance-tech uniform, complete with a cap and an ID badge. (Like the flash drive, I’d obtained these items by submitting an intranet requisition form, then had them delivered to an empty cubicle on my floor.) I pulled off my indent jumpsuit and used it to wipe the blood off my ear and neck. Then I removed two Band-Aids from under my mattress and slapped them over the holes in my earlobe. Once I was dressed in my new maintenance-tech threads, I carefully removed the flash drive from its expansion slot and pocketed it. Then I picked up my eargear and spoke into it. “I need to use the bathroom,” I said.

The hab-unit door irised open at my feet. The hallway was dark and deserted. I stuffed my eargear and indent jumpsuit under the mattress and put the anklet in the pocket of my new uniform. Then, reminding myself to breathe, I crawled outside and descended the ladder.

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 a*s 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.

Use the arrow keys or the WASD keys to navigate to previous chap/next chap.