I replied to Art3mis first. I told her that the Sixers knew who she was and where she lived and that they had her under constant surveillance. I also warned her about their plans to abduct her from her home. I pulled a copy of her dossier off the flash drive and attached it to my message as proof. Then I politely suggested that she leave home immediately and get the hell out of Dodge.
Don’t stop to pack a suitcase, I wrote. Don’t say good-bye to anyone. Leave right now, and get somewhere safe. Make sure you aren’t followed. Then find a secure non-IOI-controlled Internet connection and get back online. I’ll meet you in Aech’s Basement as soon as I can. Don’t worry—I have some good news too.
At the bottom of the message, I added a short postscript: PS—I think you look even more beautiful in real life.
I sent similar e-mails to Shoto and Aech (minus the postscript), along with copies of their Sixer dossiers. Then I pulled up the United States Citizen Registry database and attempted to log in. To my great relief, the passwords I’d purchased still worked, and I was able to access the fake Bryce Lynch citizen profile I’d created. It now contained the ID photo taken during my indent processing, and the words WANTED FUGITIVE were superimposed over my face. IOI had already reported Mr. Lynch as an escaped indent.
It didn’t take me very long to completely erase the Bryce Lynch identity and copy my fingerprints and retinal patterns back over to my original citizen profile. When I logged out of the database a few minutes later, Bryce Lynch no longer existed. I was Wade Watts once again.
I hailed an autocab outside the Mailbox, making sure to select one operated by a local cab company and not a SupraCab, which was a wholly owned subsidiary of IOI.
When I got in, I held my breath as I pressed my thumb to the ID scanner. The display flashed green. The system recognized me as Wade Watts, not as the fugitive indent Bryce Lynch.
“Good morning, Mr. Watts,” the autocab said. “Where to?”
I gave the cab the address of a clothing store on High Street, close to the OSU campus. It was a place called Thr3ads, which specialized in “high-tech urban street wear.” I ran inside and bought a pair of jeans and a sweater. Both items were “dichotomy wear,” meaning they were wired for OASIS use. They didn’t have haptics, but the pants and shirt could link up with my portable immersion rig, letting it know what I was doing with my torso, arms, and legs, making it easier to control my avatar than with a gloves-only interface. I also bought a few packs of socks and underwear, a simulated leather jacket, a pair of boots, and a black knit-wool cap to cover my freezing, stubble-covered noggin.
I emerged from the store a few minutes later dressed in my new threads. As the frigid wind enveloped me again I zipped up my new jacket and pulled on the wool cap. Much better. I tossed the maintenance-tech jumpsuit and plastic indent shoes in a trash can, then began to walk up High Street, scanning the storefronts. I kept my head down to avoid making eye contact with the stream of sullen university students filing past me.
A few blocks later, I ducked into a Vend-All franchise. Inside there were rows of vending machines that sold everything under the sun. One of them, labeled DEFENSE DISPENSER, offered self-defense equipment: lightweight body armor, chemical repellents, and a wide selection of handguns. I tapped the screen set into the front of the machine and scrolled through the catalog. After a moment’s deliberation, I purchased a flak vest and a Glock 47C pistol, along with three clips of ammo. I also bought a small canister of mace, then paid for everything by pressing my right palm to a hand scanner. My identity was verified and my criminal record was checked.
NAME: WADE WATTS
OUTSTANDING WARRANTS: NONE
CREDIT RATING: EXCELLENT
PURCHASE RESTRICTIONS: NONE
THANK YOU FOR YOUR BUSINESS!
I heard a heavy metallic thunk as my purchases slid into the steel tray near my knees. I pocketed the mace and put the flak vest on underneath my new shirt. Then I removed the Glock from its clear plastic blister packaging. This was the first time I’d ever held a real gun. Even so, the weapon felt familiar in my hands, because I’d fired thousands of virtual firearms in the OASIS. I pressed a small button set into the barrel and the gun emitted a tone. I held the pistol grip firmly for a few seconds, first in my right hand, then my left. The weapon emitted a second tone, letting me know it had finished scanning my handprints. I was now the only person who could fire it. The weapon had a built-in timer that would prevent it from firing for another twelve hours (a “cooling-off period”), but I still felt better having it on me.
I walked to an OASIS parlor located a few blocks away, a franchise outlet called the Plug. The dingy backlit sign, which featured a smiling anthropomorphic fiber-optic cable, promised Lightning-Fast OASIS Access! Cheap Gear Rental! and Private Immersion Bays! Open 24-7-365! I’d seen a lot of banner ads for the Plug online. They had a reputation for high prices and outdated hardware, but their connections were supposed to be fast, reliable, and lag-free. For me, their major selling point was that they were one of the few OASIS parlor chains not owned by IOI or one of its subsidiaries.
The motion detector emitted a beep as I stepped through the front door. There was a small waiting area off to my right, currently empty. The carpet was stained and worn, and the whole place reeked of industrial-strength disinfectant. A vacant-eyed clerk glanced up at me from behind a bulletproof Plexiglas barrier. He was in his early twenties, with a Mohawk and dozens of facial piercings. He was wearing a bifocal visor, which gave him a semitransparent view of the OASIS while also allowing him to see his real-world surroundings. When he spoke, I saw that his teeth had all been sharpened to points. “Welcome to the Plug,” he said in a flat monotone. “We have several bays free, so there’s no waiting. Package pricing information is displayed right here.” He pointed to the display screen mounted on the counter directly in front of me; then his eyes glazed over as he refocused his attention on the world inside his visor.
I scanned my choices. A dozen immersion rigs were available, of varying quality and price. Economy, Standard, Deluxe. I was given detailed specs on each. You could rent by the minute, or pay a flat hourly rate. A visor and a pair of haptic gloves were included in the rental price, but a haptic suit cost extra. The rental contract contained a lot of fine print about the additional charges you would incur if you damaged the equipment, and a lot of legalese stating that the Plug could not be held responsible for anything you did, under any circumstances, especially if it was something illegal.
“I’d like to rent one of the deluxe rigs for twelve hours,” I said.
The clerk raised his visor. “You have to pay in advance, you realize?”
I nodded. “I also want to rent a fat-pipe connection. I need to upload a large amount of data to my account.”
“Uploading costs extra. How much data?”
“Damn,” he whispered. “What you uploading? The Library of Congress?”
I ignored the question. “I also want the Mondo Upgrade Package,” I said.
“Sure thing,” the clerk replied warily. “Your total comes to eleven thousand big ones. Just put your thumb on the drum and we’ll get you all fixed up.”
He looked more than a little surprised when the transaction cleared. Then he shrugged and handed me a key card, a visor, and some gloves. “Bay fourteen. Last door on your right. The restroom is at the end of the hall. If you leave any kind of mess in the bay, we’ll have to keep your deposit. Vomit, urine, se**n, that kinda thing. And I’m the guy who has to clean it up, so do me a solid and show some restraint, will ya?”
“You got it.”
Bay fourteen was a soundproofed ten-by-ten room with a late-model haptic rig in the center. I locked the door behind me and climbed into the rig. The vinyl on the haptic chair was worn and cracked. I slid the data drive into a slot on the front of the OASIS console and smiled as it locked into place.
“Max?” I said to the empty air, once I’d logged back in. This booted up a backup of Max that I kept stored in my OASIS account.
Max’s smiling face appeared on all of my command center monitors. “H-h-hey there, compadre!” he stuttered. “H-h-how goes it?”
“Things are looking up, pal. Now strap in. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
I opened up my OASIS account manager and initiated the upload from my flash drive. I paid GSS a monthly fee for unlimited data storage on my account, and I was about to test its limits. Even using the Plug’s high-bandwidth fiber-optic connection, the total estimated upload time for ten zettabytes of data was over three hours. I reordered the upload sequence so the files I needed access to right away would get transferred first. As soon as data was uploaded to my OASIS account I had immediate access to it and could also transfer it to other users instantaneously.
First, I e-mailed all of the major newsfeeds a detailed account of how IOI had tried to kill me, how they had killed Daito, and how they were planning to kill Art3mis and Shoto. I attached one of the video clips I’d retrieved from the Sixer database to the message—the video camera footage of Daito’s execution. I also attached a copy of the memo Sorrento had sent to the IOI board, suggesting that they abduct Art3mis and Shoto. Finally, I attached the simcap of my chatlink session with Sorrento, but I bleeped the part where he said my real name and blurred the image of my school photo. I wasn’t yet ready to reveal my true identity to the world. I planned to release the unedited video later, once the rest of my plan had played out. Then it wouldn’t matter.