Sorrento couldn’t seem to tell whether or not I was joking. “No,” he said. “I’m afraid not. You’d have to relocate here to Columbus. But we’ll provide you with excellent living quarters here on the premises. And a private office, of course. Your own state-of-the-art immersion rig—”

“Hold on,” I said, holding up a hand. “You mean I’d have to live in the IOI skyscraper? With you? And all of the other Sux— oologists?”

He nodded. “Just until you help us find the egg.”

I resisted the urge to gag. “What about benefits? Would I get health care? Dental? Vision? Keys to the executive washroom? Shit like that?”

“Of course.” He was starting to sound impatient. “So? What do you say?”

“Can I think about it for a few days?”

“Afraid not,” he said. “This could all be over in a few days. We need your answer now.”

I leaned back and stared at the ceiling, pretending to consider the offer. Sorrento waited, watching me intently. I was about to give him my prepared answer when he raised a hand.

“Just listen to me a moment before you answer,” Sorrento said. “I know most gunters cling to the absurd notion that IOI is evil. And that the Sixers are ruthless corporate drones with no honor and no respect for the ‘true spirit’ of the contest. That we’re all sellouts. Right?”

I nodded, barely resisting the urge to say “That’s putting it mildly.”

“Well, that’s ridiculous,” he said, flashing an avuncular grin that I suspected was generated by whatever diplomacy software he was running. “The Sixers are really no different than a Gunter clan, albeit a well-funded one. We share all the same obsessions as gunters. And we have the same goal.”


What goal is that? I wanted to shout. To ruin the OASIS forever? To pervert and defile the only thing that has ever made our lives bearable?

Sorrento seemed to take my silence as a cue that he should continue. “You know, contrary to popular belief, the OASIS really won’t change that drastically when IOI takes control of it. Sure, we’ll have to start charging everyone a monthly user fee. And increase the sim’s advertising revenue. But we also plan to make a lot of improvements. Avatar content filters. Stricter construction guidelines. We’re going to make the OASIS a better place.”

No, I thought. You’re going to turn it into a fascist corporate theme park where the few people who can still afford the price of admission no longer have an ounce of freedom.

I’d heard as much of this jerk’s sales pitch as I could stand.

“OK,” I said. “Count me in. Sign me up. Whatever you guys call it. I’m in.”

Sorrento looked surprised. This clearly wasn’t the answer he’d been expecting. He smiled wide and was about to offer me his hand again when I cut him off.

“But I have three minor conditions,” I said. “First, I want a fifty-million-dollar bonus when I find the egg for you guys. Not twenty-five. Is that doable?”

He didn’t even hesitate. “Done. What are your other conditions?”

“I don’t want to be second-in-command,” I said. “I want your job, Sorrento. I want to be in charge of the whole shebang. Chief of operations. El Numero Uno. Oh, and I want everyone to have to call me El Numero Uno, too. Is that possible?”

My mouth seemed to be operating independent of my brain. I couldn’t help myself.

Sorrento’s smile had vanished. “What else?”

“I don’t want to work with you.” I leveled a finger at him. “You give me the creeps. But if your superiors are willing to fire your ass and give me your position, I’m in. It’s a done deal.”

Silence. Sorrento’s face was a stoic mask. He probably had certain emotions, like anger and rage, filtered out on his facial-recognition software.

“Could you check with your bosses and let me know if they’ll agree to that?” I asked. “Or are they monitoring us right now? I’m betting they are.” I waved to the invisible cameras. “Hi, guys! What do you say?”

There was a long silence, during which Sorrento simply glared at me. “Of course they’re monitoring us,” he said finally. “And they’ve just informed me that they’re willing to agree to each of your demands.” He didn’t sound all that upset.

“Really?” I said. “Great! When can I start? And more importantly, when can you leave?”

“Immediately,” he said. “The company will prepare your contract and send it to your lawyer for approval. Then we—they will fly you here to Columbus to sign the paperwork and close the deal.” He stood. “That should conclude—”

“Actually—” I held up a hand, cutting him off again. “I’ve spent the last few seconds thinking this over a bit more, and I’m gonna have to pass on your offer. I think I’d rather find the egg on my own, thanks.” I stood up. “You and the other Sux0rz can all go f**k a duck.”

Sorrento began to laugh. A long, hearty laugh that I found more than a little disturbing. “Oh, you’re good! That was so good! You really had us going there, kid!” When his laughter tapered off, he said, “That’s the answer I was expecting. So now, let me give you our second proposal.”

“There’s more?” I sat back down and put my feet up on his desk. “OK. Shoot.”

“We’ll wire five million dollars directly to your OASIS account, right now, in exchange for a walkthrough up to the First Gate. That’s it. All you have to do is give us detailed step-by-step instructions on how to do what you’ve already done. We’ll take it from there. You’ll be free to continue searching for the egg on your own. And our transaction will remain a complete secret. No one ever need know of it.”

I admit, I actually considered it for a second. Five million dollars would set me up for life. And even if I helped the Sixers clear the First Gate, there was no guarantee they’d be able to clear the other two. I still wasn’t even sure if I would be able to do that.

“Trust me, son,” Sorrento said. “You should take this offer. While you can.”

His paternal tone irked me to no end, and that helped to steel my resolve. I couldn’t sell out to the Sixers. If I did, and they did somehow manage to win the contest, I’d be the one responsible. There was no way I’d be able to live with that. I just hoped that Aech, Art3mis, and any other gunters they approached felt the same way.

“I’ll pass,” I said. I slid my feet off his desk and stood. “Thanks for your time.”

Sorrento looked at me sadly, then motioned for me to sit back down. “Actually, we’re not quite done here. We have one final proposal for you, Parzival. And I saved the best for last.”

“Can’t you take a hint? You can’t buy me. So piss off. Adios. Good. Bye.”

“Sit down, Wade.”

I froze. Had he just used my real name?

“That’s right,” Sorrento barked. “We know who you are. Wade Owen Watts. Born August twelfth, 2024. Both parents deceased. And we also know where you are. You reside with your aunt, in a trailer park located at 700 Portland Avenue in Oklahoma City. Unit 56-K, to be exact. According to our surveillance team, you were last seen entering your aunt’s trailer three days ago and you haven’t left since. Which means you’re still there right now.”

A vidfeed window opened directly behind him, displaying a live video image of the stacks where I lived. It was an aerial view, maybe being shot from a plane or a satellite. From this angle, they could only monitor the trailer’s two main exits. So they hadn’t seen me leave through the laundry room window each morning, or return through it each night. They didn’t know I was actually in my hideout right now.

“There you are,” Sorrento said. His pleasant, condescending tone had returned. “You should really get out more, Wade. It’s not healthy to spend all of your time indoors.” The image magnified a few times, zooming in on my aunt’s trailer. Then it switched over to thermal-imaging mode, and I could see the glowing outlines of over a dozen people, children and adults, sitting inside. Nearly all of them were motionless—probably logged into the OASIS.

I was too stunned to speak. How had they found me? It was supposed to be impossible for anyone to obtain your OASIS account information. And my address wasn’t even in my OASIS account. You didn’t have to provide it when you created your avatar. Just your name and retinal pattern. So how had they found out where I lived?

Somehow they must have gotten access to my school records.

“Your first instinct right now might be to log out and make a run for it,” Sorrento said. “I urge you not to make that mistake. Your trailer is currently wired with a large quantity of high explosives.” He pulled something that looked like a remote control out of his pocket and held it up. “And my finger is on the detonator. If you log out of this chatlink session, you will die within a few seconds. Do you understand what I’m saying to you, Mr. Watts?”

I nodded slowly, trying desperately to get a grip on the situation.

He was bluffing. He had to be bluffing. And even if he wasn’t, he didn’t know that I was actually half a mile away, in my hideout. Sorrento assumed that one of the glowing thermal outlines on the display was me.

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