The ability to mute my peers was one of my favorite things about attending school online, and I took advantage of it almost daily. The best thing about it was that they could see that you’d muted them, and they couldn’t do a damn thing about it. There was never any fighting on school grounds. The simulation simply didn’t allow it. The entire planet of Ludus was a no-PvP zone, meaning that no player-versus-player combat was permitted. At this school, the only real weapons were words, so I’d become skilled at wielding them.

I’d attended school in the real world up until the sixth grade. It hadn’t been a very pleasant experience. I was a painfully shy, awkward kid, with low self-esteem and almost no social skills—a side effect of spending most of my childhood inside the OASIS. Online, I didn’t have a problem talking to people or making friends. But in the real world, interacting with other people—especially kids my own age—made me a nervous wreck. I never knew how to act or what to say, and when I did work up the courage to speak, I always seemed to say the wrong thing.

My appearance was part of the problem. I was overweight, and had been for as long as I could remember. My bankrupt diet of government-subsidized sugar-and-starch-laden food was a contributing factor, but I was also an OASIS addict, so the only exercise I usually got back then was running away from bullies before and after school. To make matters worse, my limited wardrobe consisted entirely of ill-fitting clothes from thrift stores and donation bins—the social equivalent of having a bull’s-eye painted on my forehead.

Even so, I tried my best to fit in. Year after year, my eyes would scan the lunchroom like a T-1000, searching for a clique that might accept me. But even the other outcasts wanted nothing to do with me. I was too weird, even for the weirdos. And girls? Talking to girls was out of the question. To me, they were like some exotic alien species, both beautiful and terrifying. Whenever I got near one of them, I invariably broke out in a cold sweat and lost the ability to speak in complete sentences.

For me, school had been a Darwinian exercise. A daily gauntlet of ridicule, abuse, and isolation. By the time I entered sixth grade, I was beginning to wonder if I’d be able to maintain my sanity until graduation, still six long years away.

Then, one glorious day, our principal announced that any student with a passing grade-point average could apply for a transfer to the new OASIS public school system. The real public school system, the one run by the government, had been an underfunded, overcrowded train wreck for decades. And now the conditions at many schools had gotten so terrible that every kid with half a brain was being encouraged to stay at home and attend school online. I nearly broke my neck sprinting to the school office to submit my application. It was accepted, and I transferred to OASIS Public School #1873 the following semester.

Prior to my transfer, my OASIS avatar had never left Incipio, the planet at the center of Sector One where new avatars were spawned at the time of their creation. There wasn’t much to do on Incipio except chat with other noobs or shop in one of the giant virtual malls that covered the planet. If you wanted to go somewhere more interesting, you had to pay a teleportation fare to get there, and that cost money, something I didn’t have. So my avatar was stranded on Incipio. That is, until my new school e-mailed me a teleportation voucher to cover the cost of my avatar’s transport to Ludus, the planet where all of the OASIS public schools were located.

There were hundreds of school campuses here on Ludus, spread out evenly across the planet’s surface. The schools were all identical, because the same construction code was copied and pasted into a different location whenever a new school was needed. And since the buildings were just pieces of software, their design wasn’t limited by monetary constraints, or even by the laws of physics. So every school was a grand palace of learning, with polished marble hallways, cathedral-like classrooms, zero-g gymnasiums, and virtual libraries containing every (school board–approved) book ever written.

On my first day at OPS #1873, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. Now, instead of running a gauntlet of bullies and drug addicts on my walk to school each morning, I went straight to my hideout and stayed there all day. Best of all, in the OASIS, no one could tell that I was fat, that I had acne, or that I wore the same shabby clothes every week. Bullies couldn’t pelt me with spitballs, give me atomic wedgies, or pummel me by the bike rack after school. No one could even touch me. In here, I was safe.

When I arrived in my World History classroom, several students were already seated at their desks. Their avatars all sat motionless, with their eyes closed. This was a signal that they were “engaged,” meaning they were currently on phone calls, browsing the Web, or logged into chat rooms. It was poor OASIS etiquette to try to talk to an engaged avatar. They usually just ignored you, and you’d get an automated message telling you to piss off.

I took a seat at my desk and tapped the Engage icon at the edge of my display. My own avatar’s eyes slid shut, but I could still see my surroundings. I tapped another icon, and a large two-dimensional Web browser window appeared, suspended in space directly in front of me. Windows like this one were visible to only my avatar, so no one could read over my shoulder (unless I selected the option to allow it).


My homepage was set to the Hatchery, one of the more popular gunter message forums. The Hatchery’s site interface was designed to look and operate like an old pre-Internet dial-up bulletin board system, complete with the screech of a 300-baud modem during the log-in sequence. Very cool. I spent a few minutes scanning the most recent message threads, taking in the latest gunter news and rumors. I rarely posted anything to the boards, even though I made sure to check them every day. I didn’t see much of interest this morning. The usual gunter clan flame wars. Ongoing arguments about the “correct” interpretation of some cryptic passage in Anorak’s Almanac. High-level avatars bragging about some new magic item or artifact they’d obtained. This crap had been going on for years now. In the absence of any real progress, gunter subculture had become mired in bravado, bullshit, and pointless infighting. It was sad, really.

My favorite message threads were those devoted to bashing the Sixers. “Sixers” was the derogatory nickname gunters had given to employees of Innovative Online Industries. IOI (pronounced eye-oh-eye) was a global communications conglomerate and the world’s largest Internet service provider. A large portion of IOI’s business centered around providing access to the OASIS and on selling goods and services inside it. For this reason, IOI had attempted several hostile takeovers of Gregarious Simulation Systems, all of which had failed. Now they were trying to seize control of GSS by exploiting a loophole in Halliday’s will.

IOI had created a new department within the company that they called their “Oology Division.” (“Oology” was originally defined as “the science of studying birds’ eggs,” but in recent years it had taken on a second meaning: the “science” of searching for Halliday’s Easter egg.) IOI’s Oology Division had but one purpose: to win Halliday’s contest and seize control of his fortune, his company, and the OASIS itself.

Like most gunters, I was horrified at the thought of IOI taking control of the OASIS. The company’s PR machine had made its intentions crystal clear. IOI believed that Halliday never properly monetized his creation, and they wanted to remedy that. They would start charging a monthly fee for access to the simulation. They would plaster advertisements on every visible surface. User anonymity and free speech would become things of the past. The moment IOI took it over, the OASIS would cease to be the open-source virtual utopia I’d grown up in. It would become a corporate-run dystopia, an overpriced theme park for wealthy elitists.

IOI required its egg hunters, which it referred to as “oologists,” to use their employee numbers as their OASIS avatar names. These numbers were all six digits in length, and they also began with the numeral “6,” so everyone began calling them the Sixers. These days, most gunters referred to them as “the Sux0rz.” (Because they sucked.)

To become a Sixer, you had to sign a contract stipulating, among other things, that if you found Halliday’s egg, the prize would become the sole property of your employer. In return, IOI gave you a bimonthly paycheck, food, lodging, health-care benefits, and a retirement plan. The company also provided your avatar with high-end armor, vehicles, and weapons, and covered all of your teleportation fares. Joining the Sixers was a lot like joining the military.

Sixers weren’t hard to spot, because they all looked identical. They were all required to use the same hulking male avatar (regardless of the operator’s true gender), with close-cropped dark hair and facial features left at the system default settings. And they all wore the same navy blue uniform. The only way to tell these corporate drones apart was by checking the six-digit employee number stamped on their right breast, just beneath the IOI corporate logo.

Like most gunters, I loathed the Sixers and was disgusted by their very existence. By hiring an army of contract egg hunters, IOI was perverting the entire spirit of the contest. Of course, it could be argued that all the gunters who had joined clans were doing the same thing. There were now hundreds of gunter clans, some with thousands of members, all working together to find the egg. Each clan was bound by an ironclad legal agreement stating that if one clan member won the contest, all members would share the prize. Solos like me didn’t care much for the clans, either, but we still respected them as fellow gunters—unlike the Sixers, whose goal was to hand the OASIS over to an evil multinational conglomerate intent on ruining it.

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