As I sat under the tree, I sorted through the millions of messages still clogging my inbox. I’d been sifting through them all week. I’d received notes from people all over the globe. Letters of congratulation. Pleas for help. Death threats. Interview requests. Several long, incoherent diatribes from gunters whose quest for the egg had clearly driven them insane. I’d also received invitations to join four of the biggest gunter clans: the Oviraptors, Clan Destiny, the Key Masters, and Team Banzai. I told each of them thanks, but no thanks.
When I got tired of reading my “fan mail,” I sorted out all the messages that were tagged as “business related” and began reading through those. I discovered that I’d received several offers from movie studios and book publishers, all interested in buying the rights to my life story. I deleted them all, because I’d decided never to reveal my true identity to the world. At least, not until after I found the egg.
I’d also received several endorsement-deal offers from companies who wanted to use Parzival’s name and face to sell their services and products. An electronics retailer was interested in using my avatar to promote their line of OASIS immersion hardware so they could sell “Parzival-approved” haptic rigs, gloves, and visors. I also had offers from a pizza-delivery chain, a shoe manufacturer, and an online store that sold custom avatar skins. There was even a toy company that wanted to manufacture a line of Parzival lunch boxes and action figures. These companies were offering to pay me in OASIS credits, which would be transferred directly to my avatar’s account.
I couldn’t believe my luck.
I replied to every single one of the endorsement inquires, saying that I would accept their offers under the following conditions: I wouldn’t have to reveal my true identity, and I would only do business through my OASIS avatar.
I started receiving replies within the hour, with contracts attached. I couldn’t afford to have a lawyer look them over, but they all expired within a year’s time, so I just went ahead and signed them electronically and e-mailed them back along with a three-dimensional model of my avatar, to be used for the commercials. I also received requests for an audio clip of my avatar’s voice, so I sent them a synthesized clip of a deep baritone that made me sound like one of those guys who did voice-overs for movie trailers.
Once they received everything, my avatar’s new sponsors informed me that they’d wire my first round of payments to my OASIS account within the next forty-eight hours. The amount of money I was going to receive wouldn’t be enough to make me rich. Not by a long shot. But to a kid who’d grown up with nothing, it seemed like a fortune.
I did some quick calculations. If I lived frugally, I would have enough to move out of the stacks and rent a small efficiency apartment somewhere. For a year, at least. The very thought filled me with nervous excitement. I’d dreamed of escaping the stacks for as long as I could remember, and now it appeared that dream was about to come true.
With the endorsement deals taken care of, I continued to sort through my e-mail messages. When I sorted the remaining messages by sender, I discovered that I’d received over five thousand e-mails from Innovative Online Industries. Actually, they’d sent me five thousand copies of the same e-mail. They’d been resending the same message all week, since my name first appeared on the Scoreboard. And they were still resending it, once every minute.
The Sixers were mail-bombing me, to make sure they got my attention.
The e-mails were all marked Maximum Priority, with the subject line URGENT BUSINESS PROPOSITION—PLEASE READ IMMEDIATELY!
The second I opened one, a delivery confirmation was sent back to IOI, letting them know that I was finally reading their message. After that, they stopped resending it.
First, allow me to congratulate you on your recent accomplishments, which we at Innovative Online Industries hold in the highest regard.
On behalf of IOI, I wish to make you a highly lucrative business proposition, the exact details of which we can discuss in a private chatlink session. Please use the attached contact card to reach me at your earliest convenience, regardless of the day or hour.
Given our reputation within the gunter community, I would understand if you were hesitant to speak with me. However, please be aware that if you choose not to accept our proposal, we intend to approach each of your competitors. At the very least, we hope you’ll do us the honor of being the first to hear our generous offer. What have you got to lose?
Thank you for your kind attention. I look forward to speaking with you.
Head of Operations
Innovative Online Industries
Despite the message’s reasonable tone, the threat behind it was crystal clear. The Sixers wanted to recruit me. Or they wanted to pay me to tell them how to find the Copper Key and clear the First Gate. And if I refused, they would go after Art3mis, then Aech, Daito, Shoto, and every other gunter who managed to get their name up on the Scoreboard. These shameless corporate sleazebags wouldn’t stop until they found someone dumb enough or desperate enough to give in and sell them the information they needed.
My first impulse was to delete every single copy of the e-mail and pretend I’d never received it, but I changed my mind. I wanted to know exactly what IOI was going to offer. And I couldn’t pass up the chance to meet Nolan Sorrento, the Sixers’ infamous leader. There was no danger meeting with him via chatlink, as long as I was careful about what I said.
I considered teleporting to Incipio before my “interview,” to buy a new skin for my avatar. Maybe a tailored suit. Something flashy and expensive. But then I thought better of it. I had nothing to prove to that corporate asshat. After all, I was famous now. I would roll into the meeting wearing my default skin and a f**k-off attitude. I would listen to their offer, then tell them to kiss my simulated ass. Maybe I’d record the whole thing and post it on YouTube.
I prepped for the meeting by pulling up a search engine and learning everything I could about Nolan Sorrento. He had a PhD in Computer Science. Prior to becoming head of operations at IOI, he’d been a high-profile game designer, overseeing the creation of several third-party RPGs that ran inside the OASIS. I’d played all of his games, and they were actually pretty good. He’d been a decent coder, back before he sold his soul. It was obvious why IOI had hired him to lead their lackeys. They figured a game designer would have the best chance of solving Halliday’s grand videogame puzzle. But Sorrento and the Sixers had been at it for over five years and still had nothing to show for their efforts. And now that gunter avatar names were appearing on the Scoreboard left and right, the IOI brass had to be freaking out. Sorrento was probably catching all kinds of heat from his superiors. I wondered if it had been Sorrento’s idea to try to recruit me, or if he’d been ordered to do it.
Once I’d done my homework on Sorrento, I felt like I was ready to sit down with the devil. I pulled up the contact card attached to Sorrento’s e-mail and tapped the chatlink invitation icon at the bottom.
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.