“At last!” he said as he walked up, grinning like a jackal. “The famous Parzival has graced us with his presence!” He extended a gloved right hand. “Nolan Sorrento, chief of operations. It’s an honor to meet you.”

“Yeah,” I said, doing my best to sound aloof. “Likewise, I guess.” Even as a chatlink projection, my avatar could still mime shaking his outstretched hand. Instead I just stared down at it as if he were offering me a dead rat. He dropped it after a few seconds, but his smile didn’t falter. It broadened.

“Please follow me.” He led me across the deck and back through the automatic doors, which slid open to reveal a large launching bay. It contained a single interplanetary shuttlecraft emblazoned with the IOI logo. Sorrento began to board it, but I halted at the foot of the ramp.

“Why bother bringing me here via a chatlink?” I asked, motioning to the bay around us. “Why not just give me your sales pitch in a chat room?”

“Please, indulge me,” he said. “This chatlink is part of our sales pitch. We want to give you the same experience you’d have if you came to visit our headquarters in person.”

Right, I thought. If I had come here in person, my avatar would be surrounded by thousands of Sixers and I’d be at your mercy.

I joined him inside the shuttle. The ramp retracted and we launched out of the bay. Through the ship’s wraparound windows I saw that we were leaving one of the Sixers’ orbital space stations. Looming directly ahead of us was the planet IOI-1, a massive chrome globe. It reminded me of the killer floating spheres in the Phantasm films. Gunters referred to IOI-1 as “the Sixer homeworld.” The company had constructed it shortly after the contest began, to serve as IOI’s online base of operations.

Our shuttle, which seemed to be flying on automatic pilot, quickly reached the planet and began to skim its mirrored surface. I stared out the window as we did one complete orbit. As far as I knew, no gunter had ever been given this kind of tour.

From pole to pole, IOI-1 was covered with armories, bunkers, warehouses, and vehicle hangars. I also saw airfields dotting the surface, where rows of gleaming gunships, spacecraft, and mechanized battle tanks stood waiting for action. Sorrento said nothing as we surveyed the Sixer armada. He just let me take it all in.

I’d seen screenshots of IOI-1’s surface before, but they’d been low-res and taken from high orbit, just beyond the planet’s impressive defense grid. The larger clans had been openly plotting to nuke the Sixer Operations Complex for several years now, but they’d never managed to get past the defense grid or reach the planet’s surface.

As we completed our orbit, the IOI Operations Complex swung into view ahead of us. It consisted of three mirror-surfaced towers—two rectangular skyscrapers on either side of a circular one. Seen from above, these three buildings formed the IOI logo.


The shuttle slowed and hovered above the O-shaped tower, then spiraled down to a small landing pad on the roof. “Impressive digs, wouldn’t you agree?” Sorrento said, finally breaking his silence as we touched down and the ramp lowered.

“Not bad.” I was proud of the calm in my voice. In truth, I was still reeling from everything I’d just seen. “This is an OASIS replica of the real IOI towers located in downtown Columbus, right?” I said.

Sorrento nodded. “Yes, the Columbus complex is our company headquarters. Most of my team works in this central tower. Our close proximity to GSS eliminates any possibility of system lag. And, of course, Columbus doesn’t suffer from the rolling power blackouts that plague most major U.S. cities.”

He was stating the obvious. Gregarious Simulation Systems was located in Columbus, and so was their main OASIS server vault. Redundant mirror servers were located all over the world, but they were all linked to the main node in Columbus. This was why, in the decades since the simulation’s launch, the city had become a kind of high-tech Mecca. Columbus was where an OASIS user could get the fastest, most reliable connection to the simulation. Most gunters dreamed of moving there someday, me included.

I followed Sorrento off the shuttle and into an elevator adjacent to the landing pad. “You’ve become quite the celebrity these past few days,” he said as we began to descend. “It must be very exciting for you. Probably a little scary, too, huh? Knowing you now possess information that millions of people would be willing to kill for?”

I’d been waiting for him to say something like this, so I had a reply prepared. “Do you mind skipping the scare tactics and the head games? Just tell me the details of your offer. I have other matters to attend to.”

He grinned at me like I was a precocious child. “Yes, I’m sure you do,” he said. “But please don’t jump to any conclusions about our offer. I think you’ll be quite surprised.” Then, with a sudden touch of steel in his tone, he added, “In fact, I’m certain of it.”

Doing my best to hide the intimidation I felt, I rolled my eyes and said, “Whatever, man.”

A tone sounded as we reached the 106th floor, and the elevator doors swished open. I followed Sorrento past another receptionist and down a long, brightly lit corridor. The decor was something out of a utopian sci-fi flick. High-tech and immaculate. We passed several other Sixer avatars as we walked, and the moment they saw Sorrento, they each snapped to rigid attention and saluted him, as if he were some high-ranking general. Sorrento didn’t return these salutes or acknowledge his underlings in any way.

Eventually, he led me into a huge open room that appeared to occupy most of the 106th floor. It contained a vast sea of high-walled cubicles, each containing a single person strapped into a high-end immersion rig.

“Welcome to IOI’s Oology Division,” Sorrento said with obvious pride.

“So, this is Sux0rz Central, eh?” I said, glancing around.

“There’s no need to be rude,” Sorrento said. “This could be your team.”

“Would I get my very own cubicle?”

“No. You’d have your own office, with a very nice view.” He grinned. “Not that you’d spend much time looking at it.”

I motioned to one of the new Habashaw immersion rigs. “Nice gear,” I said. It really was, too. State-of-the-art.

“Yes, it is nice, isn’t it?” he said. “Our immersion rigs are heavily modified, and they’re all networked together. Our systems allow multiple operators to control any one of our oologist’s avatars. So depending on the obstacles an avatar encounters during their quest, control can be instantly transferred to the team member with the skills best suited to deal with the situation.”

“Yeah, but that’s cheating,” I said.

“Oh, come on now,” he said, rolling his eyes. “There’s no such thing. Halliday’s contest doesn’t have any rules. That’s one of the many colossal mistakes the old fool made.” Before I could reply, Sorrento started walking again, leading me on through the maze of cubicles. “All of our oologists are voice-linked to a support team,” he continued. “Composed of Halliday scholars, videogame experts, pop-culture historians, and cryptologists. They all work together to help each of our avatars overcome any challenge and solve every puzzle they encounter.” He turned and grinned at me. “As you can see, we’ve covered all the bases, Parzival. That’s why we’re going to win.”

“Yeah,” I said. “You guys have been doing a bang-up job so far. Bravo. Now, why is it that we’re talking again? Oh, right. You guys have no clue where the Copper Key is, and you need my help to find it.”

Sorrento narrowed his eyes; then he began to laugh. “I like you, kid,” he said, grinning at me. “You’re bright. And you’ve got cojones. Two qualities I greatly admire.”

We continued walking. A few minutes later, we arrived in Sorrento’s enormous office. Its windows afforded a stunning view of the surrounding “city.” The sky was filled with aircars and spacecraft, and the planet’s simulated sun was just beginning to set. Sorrento sat down behind his desk and offered me the chair directly across from him.

Here we go, I thought as I sat down. Play it cool, Wade.

“So I’ll just cut to the chase,” he said. “IOI wants to recruit you. As a consultant, to assist with our search for Halliday’s Easter egg. You’ll have all of our company’s vast resources at your disposal. Money, weapons, magic items, ships, artifacts. You name it.”

“What would my title be?”

“Chief oologist,” he replied. “You’d be in charge of the entire division, second-in-command only to me. I’m talking about five thousand highly trained combat-ready avatars, all taking orders directly from you.”

“Sounds pretty sweet,” I said, trying hard to sound nonchalant.

“Of course it does. But there’s more. In exchange for your services, we’re willing to pay you two million dollars a year, with a one-million-dollar signing bonus up front. And if and when you help us find the egg, you’ll get a twenty-five-million-dollar bonus.”

I pretended to add all of those numbers up on my fingers. “Wow,” I said, trying to sound impressed. “Can I work from home, too?”

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