Ready Player One (Page 32)
If a bomb really did go off in my aunt’s trailer, I’d be safe down here, under all these junk cars. Wouldn’t I? Besides, they would never kill all those people just to get to me.
“How—?” That was all I could get out.
“How did we find out who you are? And where you live?” He grinned. “Easy. You screwed up, kid. When you enrolled in the OASIS public school system, you gave them your name and address. So they could mail you your report cards, I suppose.”
He was right. My avatar’s name, my real name, and my home address were all stored in my private student file, which only the principal could access. It was a stupid mistake, but I’d enrolled the year before the contest even began. Before I became a gunter. Before I learned to conceal my real-world identity.
“How did you find out I attend school online?” I asked. I already knew the answer, but I needed to stall for time.
“There’s been a rumor circulating on the gunter message boards the past few days that you and your pal Aech both go to school on Ludus. When we heard that, we decided to contact a few OPS administrators and offer them a bribe. Do you know how little a school administrator makes a year, Wade? It’s scandalous. One of your principals was kind enough to search the student database for the avatar name Parzival, and guess what?”
Another window appeared beside the live video feed of the stacks. It displayed my entire student profile. My full name, avatar name, student alias (Wade3), date of birth, Social Security number, and home address. My school transcripts. It was all there, along with an old yearbook photo, taken over five years ago—right before I’d transferred to school in the OASIS.
“We have your friend Aech’s school records too. But he was smart enough to give a fake name and address when he enrolled. So finding him will take a bit longer.”
He paused to let me reply, but I remained silent. My pulse was racing, and I had to keep reminding myself to breathe.
“So, that brings me to our final proposal.” Sorrento rubbed his hands together excitedly, like a kid about to open a present. “Tell us how to reach the First Gate. Right now. Or we will kill you. Right now.”
“You’re bluffing,” I heard myself say. But I didn’t think he was. Not at all.
“No, Wade. I’m not. Think about it. With everything else that’s going on in the world, do you think anyone will care about an explosion in some ghetto-trash rat warren in Oklahoma City? They’ll assume it was a drug-lab accident. Or maybe a domestic terrorist cell trying to build a homemade bomb. Either way, it will just mean there are a few hundred less human cockroaches out there collecting food vouchers and using up precious oxygen. No one will care. And the authorities won’t even blink.”
He was right, and I knew it. I tried to stall for a few seconds so I could figure out what to do. “You’d kill me?” I said. “To win a videogame contest?”
“Don’t pretend to be naïve, Wade,” Sorrento said. “There are billions of dollars at stake here, along with control of one of the world’s most profitable corporations, and of the OASIS itself. This is much more than a videogame contest. It always has been.” He leaned forward. “But you can still come out a winner here, kid. If you help us, we’ll still give you the five million. You can retire at age eighteen and spend the rest of your days living like royalty. Or you can die in the next few seconds. It’s your call. But ask yourself this question—if your mother were still alive, what would she want you to do?”
That last question would really have pissed me off if I hadn’t been so scared. “What’s to stop you from killing me after I give you what you want?” I asked.
“Regardless of what you may think, we don’t want to have to kill anyone unless it’s absolutely necessary. Besides, there are two more gates, right?” He shrugged. “We might need your help to figure those out too. Personally, I doubt it. But my superiors feel differently. Regardless, you don’t really have a choice at this point, do you?” He lowered his voice, as if he were about to share a secret. “So here’s what’s going to happen next. You’re going to give me step-by-step instructions on how to obtain the Copper Key and clear the First Gate. And you’re going to stay logged into this chatlink session while we verify everything you tell us. Log out before I say it’s OK, and your whole world goes boom. Understand? Now start talking.”
I considered giving them what they wanted. I really did. But I thought it through, and I couldn’t come up with a single good reason why they would let me live, even if I helped them clear the First Gate. The only move that made sense was to kill me and take me out of the running. They sure as hell weren’t going to give me five million dollars, or leave me alive to tell the media how IOI had blackmailed me. Especially if there really was a remote-controlled bomb planted in my trailer to serve as evidence.
No. The way I saw it, there were really only two possibilities: Either they were bluffing or they were going to kill me, whether I helped them or not.
I made my decision and summoned my courage.
“Sorrento,” I said, trying to hide the fear in my voice, “I want you and your bosses to know something. You’re never going to find Halliday’s egg. You know why? Because he was smarter than all of you put together. It doesn’t matter how much money you have or who you try to blackmail. You’re going to lose.”
I tapped my Log-out icon, and my avatar began to dematerialize in front of him. He didn’t seem surprised. He just looked at me sadly and shook his head. “Stupid move, kid,” he said, just before my visor went black.
I sat there in the darkness of my hideout, wincing and waiting for the detonation. But a full minute passed and nothing happened.
I slid my visor up and pulled off my gloves with shaking hands. As my eyes began to adjust to the darkness, I let out a tentative sigh of relief. It had been a bluff after all. Sorrento had been playing an elaborate mind game with me. An effective one too.
As I was gulping down a bottle of water, I realized that I should log back in and warn Aech and Art3mis. The Sixers would go after them next.
I was pulling my gloves back on when I heard the explosion.
I felt the shock wave a split second after I heard the detonation and instinctively dropped to the floor of my hideout with my arms wrapped over my head. In the distance, I could hear the sound of rending metal as several trailer stacks began to collapse, ripping free of their scaffolding and crashing against one another like massive dominoes. These horrific sounds continued for what seemed like a very long time. Then it was silent again.
I eventually overcame my paralysis and opened the rear door of the van. In a nightmare-like daze, I made my way to the outskirts of the junk pile, and from there, I could see a giant pillar of smoke and flames rising from the opposite end of the stacks.
I followed the stream of people already running in that direction, along the northern perimeter of the stacks. The stack containing my aunt’s trailer had collapsed into a fiery, smoking ruin, along with all of the stacks adjacent to it. There was nothing there now but a massive pile of twisted, flaming metal.
I kept my distance, but a large crowd of people had already gathered up ahead of me, standing as close to the blaze as they dared. No one bothered trying to enter the wreckage to look for survivors. It was obvious there weren’t going to be any.
An ancient propane tank attached to one of the crushed trailers detonated in a small explosion, causing the crowd to scatter and dive for cover. Several more tanks detonated in rapid succession. After that, the onlookers moved much farther back and kept their distance.
The residents who lived in the nearby stacks knew that if the fire spread, they were in big trouble. So a lot of people were already scrambling to fight the blaze, using garden hoses, buckets, empty Big Gulp cups, and whatever else they could find. Before long, the flames were contained and the fire began to die out.
As I watched in silence, I could already hear the people around me murmuring, saying that it was probably another meth-lab accident, or that some idiot must have been trying to build a homemade bomb. Just as Sorrento had predicted.
That thought snapped me out of my daze. What was I thinking? The Sixers had just tried to kill me. They probably still had agents lurking here in the stacks, checking to make sure I was dead. And like a total idiot I was standing right out in the open.
I faded away from the crowd and hurried back to my hideout, being careful not to run, constantly glancing over my shoulder to make sure I wasn’t being followed. Once I was back inside the van, I slammed and locked the door, then curled into a quivering ball in the corner. I stayed like that for a long time.
Eventually, the shock began to wear off, and the reality of what had just happened started to sink in. My aunt Alice and her boyfriend Rick were dead, along with everyone who had lived in our trailer, and in the trailers below and around it. Including sweet old Mrs. Gilmore. And if I had been at home, I would be dead now too.
I was jacked up on adrenaline, unsure of what to do next, overcome by a paralyzing mixture of fear and rage. I thought about logging into the OASIS to call the police, but then considered how they would react when I told them my story. They’d think I was a raving nut job. And if I called the media, they’d react the same way. There was no way anyone would believe my story. Not unless I revealed that I was Parzival, and maybe not even then. I didn’t have a shred of proof against Sorrento and the Sixers. All traces of the bomb they’d planted were probably melting into slag right now.