Ready Player Two

Like Marty McFly, I wokup at exactly 10:28 a.m., to the song “Back in Time” by Huey Lewis and the News.

This was courtesy of my vintage flip-clock radio—a Panasonic RC-6015, the model Marty owns in the film. I’d had it modified to play the same song at the same time Marty hears it, after he finally makes it back to the future.

I threw back the silk sheets of my king-size bed and lowered my feet to the preheated marble floor. The house computer saw that I was awake and automatically drew back the bedroom’s wraparound window shades, revealing a stunning 180-degree view of my sprawling woodland estate, and of the jagged Columbus skyline on the horizon.

I still couldn’t quite believe it. Waking up in this room, to this sight, every day. Not long ago, just opening my eyes here had been enough to put a grin on my face and a spring in my step.

But today, it wasn’t helping. Today I was just alone, in an empty house, in a world teetering on the brink of collapse. And on days like this, the four hours I had to wait until I could put my ONI headset back on and escape into the OASIS stretched out in front of me like an eternity.

My gaze focused on the Gregarious Simulation Systems building, a shining arrowhead of mirrored glass rising from the center of downtown. GSS HQ was just a few blocks from the old IOI skyscraper complex where I’d briefly been an indentured servant. Now it belonged to GSS too. We’d turned all three buildings into free BodyLocker hotels for the homeless. You can probably guess which one of the four of us spearheaded that initiative.

Following the skyline a few more centimeters to the right, I could also make out the silhouette of the converted Hilton hotel where I’d rented an apartment during the final year of the contest. It was a tourist attraction now. People actually bought tickets to see the tiny ten-by-ten efficiency where I’d locked myself away from the world to focus on my search for Halliday’s Easter egg. I’m not sure any of those people realized that was the darkest, loneliest time in my life.

By all appearances, my life was completely different now. Except that here I was, standing at the window, moping around, already jonesing for my ONI fix.

I’d had the Portland Avenue Stacks in Oklahoma City where I’d grown up demolished years ago, so that I could erect a memorial for my mother and my aunt and Mrs. Gilmore and all of the other poor souls unfortunate enough to have died in that hellhole. I paid to have all of its residents relocated to a new housing complex I had built for them on the city outskirts. It still warmed my heart to know that all of the former residents of the stacks had, like me, become something they’d never imagined they could be—homeowners.

Even though the stacks where I’d grown up no longer existed in the real world, I could still visit them anytime I pleased, because there was a highly accurate OASIS re-creation of the Portland Avenue Stacks just as I remembered them, constructed from photos and video of the real location taken before the bombing. It was now a popular OASIS tourist attraction and school field-trip destination.

I still went there occasionally myself. I would sit inside the meticulous re-creation of my old hideout, marveling at the journey that had led me from there to where I was now. The real van that I’d used as my hideout had been extracted from the junk pile and airlifted to Columbus, so it could be put on display in the GSS Museum. But I preferred to visit the simulation of my hideout over the real deal, because in the OASIS, my hideout was still buried in a pile of abandoned vehicles at the base of the Portland Avenue Stacks, which still stood intact, as they had throughout my childhood, before Sorrento’s bombs brought them crashing down and brought my childhood to its end.

Sometimes I wandered over to the replica of my aunt Alice’s old stack. I would climb the stairs to her trailer, go inside, curl up in the corner of the laundry room where I used to sleep, and apologize to my mother and my aunt Alice for indirectly causing their deaths. I didn’t know where else to go to talk to them. Neither of them had a grave or a tombstone I could visit. Neither did my father. All three of them had been cremated—my aunt Alice at the time of her death, and my parents after the fact, courtesy of the city’s free cremation and remains-recycling program. Now all they were was dust in the wind.

Those visits made me understand why Halliday had re-created Middletown in such loving detail, when it had been the setting of so many of his own unhappy childhood memories. He wanted to be able to revisit his own past, to get back in touch with the person he used to be, before the world had changed him.

“T-T-Top o’ the morning, Wade!” a familiar voice stuttered as I stepped into the bathroom. I glanced sideways to see Max, my long-suffering system-agent software, smiling at me from the surface of the giant smart mirror above the sink.

“Morning, Max,” I muttered. “What’s up?”

“The opposite of down,” he replied. “That was easy! Ask me another one. Go ahead.”

When I didn’t respond, he made a heavy-metal face and started to play air guitar while shouting: “Wade’s World! Wade’s Word! Party time! Excellent!”

I rolled my eyes in his direction and manually flushed the toilet for effect.

“Jeez,” Max said. “Tough crowd. Wake up on the wrong side of the coffin again today?”

“Yeah, it kinda feels like it,” I said. “Start morning playlist, please.”

“This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” by Talking Heads began to play over the house speakers, and I immediately felt more relaxed.

“Gracias, Max.”

“De nada, my little enchilada.”

I’d reinstalled MaxHeadroom v3.4.1 as my system-agent software a few months ago. I thought his presence might help me recapture the same mindset I’d had during Halliday’s contest. And it had worked, to a degree. It was like visiting with an old friend. And in truth, I needed the company. Even though, in the back of my mind, I knew that talking to your system-agent software was only slightly less weird than talking to yourself.

Max read me the day’s headlines as I dressed in my workout clothes. I told him to skip all of the stories that involved war, disease, or famine. So he started reading me the weather report. I told him not to bother, then I put on my brand-new Okagami NexSpex augmented-reality glasses and headed downstairs. Max came along with me, reappearing on a network of antique CRT monitors mounted along my route.

Even in the middle of the daytime, Halliday’s old mansion felt deserted. The housekeeping was all done by high-end humanoid robots who did most of their work while I slept, so I almost never saw them. I had a personal cook named Demetri, but he rarely left the kitchen. The team of security guards who manned the front gates and patrolled the grounds were human, too, but they only entered the house if an alarm went off or I summoned them.

Most of the time it was just me, all by my lonesome, in a giant house with over fifty rooms, including two kitchens, four dining rooms, fourteen bedrooms, and a total of twenty-one bathrooms. I still had no idea why there were so many toilets—or where they were all located. I chalked it up to the previous owner’s well-known eccentricity.

I’d moved into James Halliday’s old estate the week after I won his contest. The house was located on the northeastern outskirts of Columbus, and it was completely empty at the time. At his request, all of Halliday’s possessions had been auctioned off after his death five years earlier. But the deed to the house and the thirty acres of land it stood on had remained a part of his estate, so I’d inherited it along with the rest of his assets. Samantha, Aech, and Shoto had all been kind enough to sell their shares of the property back to me, making me its sole owner. Now I lived in the same secluded fortress where my childhood hero had locked himself away from the world for the latter part of his life. The place where he had created the three keys and gates…

To my knowledge, Halliday had never given this place a name. But I thought it needed one, so I’d christened it Monsalvat, after the secluded castle where Sir Parzival finally locates the Holy Grail in some versions of the Arthurian legend.

I’d been living at Monsalvat for over three years now, but most of the house still remained empty and undecorated. It didn’t look that way to me, though, because the AR specs I wore decorated the house for me on the fly as I walked around it. It covered the sprawling mansion’s bare walls with grand tapestries, priceless paintings, and framed movie posters. It filled each of the empty rooms with illusory furniture and elegant décor.

That is, until I instructed my AR system to repurpose all that empty space, just as I was about to do now, for my morning run.

“Load Temple of Doom,” I said as I reached the bottom of the grand staircase.

The empty foyer and dimly lit hallways of the mansion were instantly transformed into a vast subterranean labyrinth of caverns and corridors. And when I glanced down at myself, the workout clothes I’d been wearing had been replaced with a perfectly rendered Indiana Jones costume, complete with a worn leather jacket, a bull-whip on my right hip, and a battered fedora.

Indy’s theme music began to play as I jogged down the corridor, and a variety of obstacles and enemies started to appear in front of me, forcing me to either dodge them or attack them with my imaginary whip. I earned points for every obstacle I avoided and for every enemy I vanquished. I could also earn bonus points for keeping my heart rate up, and for freeing the captive children being used as slave labor in the temple from their holding cells, which were scattered along my path. I ran a total of five miles like this, sprinting from one end of my house to the other and back again. And I managed to beat my previous high score.

I ended the game program and took off my AR goggles, then I toweled off and drank some water before heading to my workout room. On the way there, I stopped by the garage to admire my car collection. Of all my daily rituals, it was the one that never failed to make me smile.

The estate’s enormous garage now contained four classic movie car replicas—the same four movie cars that had inspired my avatar’s OASIS mash-up vehicle, ECTO-88. I owned screen-accurate replicas of Doc Brown’s 1982 DeLorean DMC-12 time machine (pre–hover conversion); the Ghostbusters’ 1959 Cadillac hearse Ectomobile, Ecto-1; the black 1982 Pontiac Firebird Trans-Am Knight Industries 2000, KITT (with Super-Pursuit Mode); and finally, sitting down at the far end, a replica of Dr. Buckaroo Banzai’s matter-penetrating Jet Car, built from a heavily modified 1982 Ford F-series pickup truck, with air scoops from a DC-3 transport plane bolted onto its frame, along with a World War II German fighter plane cockpit, a turbine-powered jet engine, and parachute packs for rapid deceleration.

I had never driven any of these cars. I just came out to the garage to admire them. Sometimes I sat inside them with all of the screens and control panels lit up while I listened to old movie soundtracks and brainstormed ideas for the next chapter in my ongoing ECTO-88 film series

—a project I’d started working on after my therapist suggested that I might benefit from having a creative outlet.

GSS already owned the media companies that owned the movie studios that held the rights to Back to the Future, Ghostbusters, Knight Rider, and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, and by paying hefty licensing fees to the estates of Christopher Lloyd, David Hasselhoff, Peter Weller, Dan Aykroyd, and Bill Murray, I was able to cast computer-generated FActors (facsimile actors) of each of them in my film. They were basically nonplayer characters with just enough artificial intelligence to take verbal directions after I placed them on my virtual movie sets inside GSS’s popular Cinemaster movie-creation software.

This allowed me to finally bring my longstanding fanboy dream to life: an epic cross-over film about Dr. Emmett Brown and Dr. Buckaroo Banzai teaming up with Knight Industries to create a unique interdimensional time vehicle for the Ghostbusters, who must use it to save all ten known dimensions from a fourfold cross-rip that could tear apart the fabric of the space-time continuum.

I’d already written, produced, and directed two ECTO-88 films. They’d both done pretty well by today’s standards—getting people to pay for or sit

through a movie was tough these days, with the reams of inexpensive ONI-net options out there—but the films didn’t make enough to cover my runaway production costs and all those special-effects sequences. I didn’t care what my homemade movies grossed, of course. All that mattered was the fulfillment I got out of making them, watching them, and letting other fans experience them. Now I was working on ECTO-88 Part III—the last chapter of my supremely nerdy trilogy.

I went over and said hello to KITT, and he wished me a good morning. Then Max appeared on one of his cockpit screens, and complimented KITT on his new onboard hard drive. KITT thanked him and the two of them began to discuss the hard drive’s specs, like two gearheads obsessing about engines. And they kept at it, even after I walked out of the garage.

Next it was time for weight training, in the spare dining room I’d converted into a personal gym. Max occasionally offered words of encouragement as I pumped iron, with some snarky commentary mixed in. He made for a pretty good personal trainer. But after a few minutes I muted him to watch another Peter Davison–era episode of Doctor Who. It had been one of Kira Morrow’s favorite shows, and Davison had been her third-favorite Doctor, after Jodie Whittaker and David Tennant.

Research, I reminded myself. You have to keep up with your research.

But I couldn’t seem to focus on the episode. All I could think about was the quarterly GSS co-owners meeting scheduled for later that day, because it meant I would be seeing Samantha for the first time since our last meeting, three months ago.

Actually, our meetings were held in the OASIS, so I would only be seeing her avatar. But that didn’t really lessen my anxiety. Samantha and I first met online. We got to know each other through our OASIS avatars long before we met in the real world.



Samantha Evelyn Cook and I met in person for the first time at Ogden Morrow’s home in the mountains of Oregon, right after she’d helped me

win Halliday’s contest.

Aech and Shoto were there, too, and we all spent the next seven days as Og’s honored guests, getting to know one another in person. After everything the four of us had been through together inside the OASIS, we already shared a strong bond. But the time we spent together in the real world that week transformed us into a family—albeit a highly dysfunctional one.

That was also the week Samantha and I fell in love.

Before we met in the Earl, I’d already convinced myself that I’d fallen in love with her inside the OASIS. And in my own naïve, adolescent way maybe I had. But when the two of us finally began to spend time together in reality, I fell in love with her all over again. And I fell much harder, much faster the second time, because our connection was now physical as well as psychological, the way nature originally intended.

And this time, she fell in love with me too.

Right before she kissed me for the first time, she told me I was her best friend, and her favorite person. So I think she’d already started to fall in love with me inside the OASIS too. But unlike me, she’d been smart enough not to trust or act on those feelings until the filter of our avatars had been removed and we finally met in reality.

“You can’t know if you’re in love with someone if you’ve never actually touched them,” she told me. And as usual, she was right. Once she and I started touching each other, we both found it difficult to stop.

We lost our virginity to each other three days after that first kiss. Then we spent the rest of that week sneaking off to make the beast with two backs at every opportunity. Like Depeche Mode, we just couldn’t get enough.

Og’s estate was designed to resemble Rivendell from the Lord of the Rings films and, like its fictional counterpart, it was nestled in a deep valley, so the acoustics of the place caused loud sounds to carry a long distance and echo off the adjacent mountain walls. But our friends and our host generously pretended not to hear all of the noise we must have made.

I’d never experienced such dizzying happiness and euphoria. And I’d never felt so desired and so loved. When she put her arms around me, I

never wanted her to let go.

One night, we decided that “Space Age Love Song” by A Flock of Seagulls was our song, and then we listened to it over and over again, for hours, while we talked or made love. Now I couldn’t stand to hear that song anymore. I had it filtered out in my OASIS settings, to ensure that I never heard it again.

Aech, Shoto, Samantha, and I also spent that week answering an endless barrage of questions from the media, giving statements to various law-enforcement officials, and signing a mountain of paperwork for the lawyers managing Halliday’s estate, who were now tasked with dividing it equally among the four of us.

We all grew extremely fond of Ogden Morrow during our brief stay at his home. He was the father figure none of us had ever had, and we were all so grateful for his help during and after the contest that we decided to make him an honorary member of the High Five. He graciously accepted. (And since there were now only four of us, Og’s induction into the High Five also prevented our nickname from becoming a misnomer.)

We also invited Og to return to Gregarious Simulation Systems as our chief adviser. After all, he was the company’s co-founder, and the only one of us with any experience running it. But Og declined our offer, saying he had no desire to come out of retirement. Though he did still promise to give us advice, whenever we felt like asking for it.

The morning we finally left Og’s estate and went our separate ways, he walked down to his private runway to bid us all farewell. He gave each of us one of his bear hugs, promising to stay in touch via the OASIS.

“Everything will be fine,” he assured us. “You’re all going to do a fantastic job!”

At the time, we had plenty of reasons to doubt his prediction. But we all acted as though we believed him, and that his faith in us was justified.

“Our future’s so bright, we gotta wear shades!” Aech declared as she slipped on a pair of Ray-Bans and boarded her jet, bound for her ancestral homeland.

When Samantha and I kissed each other goodbye on the runway that morning, I never would have imagined it would be our last kiss. But I

discovered the OASIS Neural Interface headset the very next day, and everything changed.

I knew Samantha might be upset with me for testing the ONI before discussing it with her first. But since it had worked flawlessly and I wasn’t harmed in any way, I assumed she would forgive my risky behavior. Instead she got so pissed off she hung up on me before I even had a chance to finish describing all of the different things I’d experienced with the ONI—and the ones I had chosen not to experience.

Aech and Shoto reacted to my news far more enthusiastically. They both dropped everything and flew to Columbus to try the ONI out for themselves. And when they did, they were just as blown away by the experience as I had been. It was transcendental technology. The OASIS Neural Interface was the ultimate prosthesis. One that could temporarily cure any ailment or injury of the human body by disconnecting the mind and reconnecting it to a new, perfectly healthy, fully functional body inside the OASIS—a simulated body that would never feel any pain, through which you could experience every pleasure imaginable. The three of us talked ourselves into a frenzy, listing all the ways this device was going to change everything.

But when Samantha finally arrived on the scene, things began to go drastically downhill.

I still remember every word of our exchange that day, because I’d brazenly recorded it with an ONI headset while it was happening. In the three years since, I’d relived our conversation on an almost weekly basis. To me, it felt like our breakup had just happened a few days ago. Because for me, it had.

Take that stupid thing o!” Samantha says, glancing up at the ONI headset Im wearing. The original headset I found in Hallidays vault lies on the conference table between us, along with three duplicates, fresh from the 3-D printer.

No,” I say angrily. I want to record how ridiculous youre being right now, so you can play it back later and see for yourself.

Aech and Shoto are sitting between us, on either side of the conference table, swiveling their heads back and forth like theyre watching a tennis match. Shoto is

hearing our conversation with a slight delay, through the Mandarax translator earpiece hes wearing.

I told you,” Samantha says, snatching one of the headsets off the table, I am never going to let one of these things take control of my brain. Not ever.

She hurls the headset against the wall, but it doesnt break. Theyre very durable. How can you form an educated opinion when you havent even tried it?” Aech

asks quietly.

Ive never tried sning paint thinner either,” Samantha snaps back. She sighs in frustration and runs her hands through her hair. I dont know why I cant make you guys understand. This is the last thing humanity needs. Cant you see that? The world is a complete mess right now.

She pulls up half a dozen dierent world newsfeeds on the conference-room viewscreen, lling it with images of poverty, famine, disease, war, and a wide array of natural disasters. Even with the audio muted, the barrage of images was pretty horric.

Half the world already spends every waking moment ignoring reality inside the OASIS. We already peddle the Opiate of the Masses. And now you want to up the dosage?

I roll my eyes and shake my head. I can feel my adrenaline rising.

Thats total bullshit, Arty, and you know it,” I say. We could turn off the OASIS tomorrow, and it wouldnt solve any of humanitys problems. It would just rob people of the only escape they have. I mean, I get where youre coming fromand I agree that everyone should balance their time in the OASIS with equal time in reality. But its not our place to mandate how our users live their lives. Growing up in the stacks would have been hell for me if I hadnt had access to the OASIS. It literally saved my life. And Ive heard Aech say the same thing.

We both glance over at Aech. She nods in agreement.

We werent all lucky enough to grow up in some ritzy Vancouver suburb like you, Samantha,” I say. Who are you to judge how other people deal with reality?

Samantha clenches her jaw and narrows her eyes at me, but she still doesnt reply. And I apparently take this as my cue to shove my foot even further into my mouth. All the way, in fact.

ONI technology is also going to save hundreds of millions of lives,” I say self-righteously. By preventing the spread of all sorts of infectious diseaseslike the u

pandemic that killed both of your parents.” Now its my turn to level a nger at her. How can you be against an invention that couldve prevented their deaths?

She snaps her head around and looks at me in wounded surprise, like Ive just slapped her across the face. Then her gaze hardens and thats itthe exact instant her love for me disappears. Im too amped up on adrenaline to notice it there in the moment, but I spot it plain as day on every single one of my repeat viewings. The sudden change in her eyes says it all. One second she loves me, and the next she loves me not.

She never responds to my question. She just stares daggers at me in silence, until Shoto nally chimes in.

Were going to make trillions of dollars selling these headsets, Arty,” he says calmly. We can use that money to help the world. To try and x all of the things that need xing.

Samantha shakes her head. No amount of money will be able to undo the damage these headsets are going to cause,” she replies, sounding defeated now. You guys read Ogs email. He thinks releasing the ONI is a bad idea too.

Og hasnt even tried the ONI,” I say, letting too much anger creep into my voice. Hes like you. Condemning it without even trying to understand its potential.

Of course I understand its potential, you idiot!” Samantha shouts. She looks around the table. Christ! Havent any of you rewatched The Matrix lately? Or Sword Art Online? Plugging your brain and your nervous system directly into a computer simulation is never a good idea! Were talking about giving complete control of our minds to a machine. Turning ourselves into cyborgs…”

Come on,” Aech says. Youre overreacting—”

No!” she shouts back. Im not.” Then she takes a deep breath before glancing around the table at all three of us. Dont you see? This is why Halliday never released the ONI technology himself. He knew it would only hasten the collapse of human civilization, by encouraging people to spend even more time escaping from reality. He didnt want to be the one responsible for opening Pandoras box.” She looks at me, and now her eyes are lling with tears. I thought you wanted to live here. In the real world. With me. But you havent learned a goddamn thing, have you?

She reaches over and brings her st down on the power button of the data drive connected to my ONI headset, ending my recording.



When we held an official vote on the matter, Aech, Shoto, and I voted to patent the ONI headset and release it to the world, with Samantha being the lone voice of dissent.

She couldn’t forgive me. She told me so right after I cast my vote against her. Right before she dumped me.

“We can’t be together anymore, Wade,” she said evenly, her voice suddenly devoid of emotion. “Not when we disagree on something so basic. And so important. Your actions today will have disastrous consequences. I’m sorry you can’t see that.”

Once my brain finally processed what had happened, I collapsed into a chair, clutching my chest. I was devastated. I was still in love with her. I knew I’d broken her heart. But I also believed releasing the ONI was the right thing to do. If I’d withheld it from billions of suffering people just to preserve our relationship, what would that have made me?

When I got her on the phone and tried to tell her this, she got furious once again. She said that was the one who was being selfish, refusing to see the danger in what we were doing. Then she stopped speaking to me altogether.

Luckily, my new ONI headset offered an easy, ready-made escape from my misery. With the press of a button, it literally took my mind off of my broken heart, and focused it elsewhere. I could put on the headset and relive another person’s happy memories anytime I pleased. Or I could just log in to the OASIS, where I was treated like a god, and where everything now felt completely real—as real as the most vivid dreams feel while you’re having them.

When the Shard Riddle appeared, I’d seized on it as another distraction. But now, over three years later, my ongoing obsession with solving it had become a forced and desperate exercise and I knew it. It was really just an attempt to forget the mess I’d made of my personal life. Not that I ever would have admitted it out loud.

None of these distractions helped me fix what was broken, of course. I still thought about Samantha every day. And I still wondered what I could’ve done differently.

These days, I told myself that Samantha would’ve broken up with me eventually anyway. By the end of that first week at Og’s estate, I’d already begun to wonder if she was having second thoughts. She’d started to pick up on my annoying idiosyncrasies. My inability to recognize social cues. My total and complete lack of cool around strangers. My neediness and emotional immaturity. She was probably already looking for an excuse to dump my socially awkward ass, and when I chose to vote against her on releasing the ONI, it just fast-forwarded the inevitable.

Since our breakup, I’d seen Samantha only via her OASIS avatar, and only during our co-owners meetings. Even then, she rarely spoke to me directly or made eye contact. She seemed to be doing her best to pretend I didn’t exist.

After our split, she became laser focused on carrying out her master plan

—the plan she’d told me about during our first meeting, when we discussed what we’d do if either of us managed to win Halliday’s contest.

“If I win that dough, I’m going to make sure everyone on this planet has enough to eat,” she’d proclaimed. “Once we tackle world hunger, then we can figure out how to fix the environment and solve the energy crisis.”

True to her word, she created the Art3mis Foundation, a global charity organization devoted to ending world hunger, saving the environment, and solving the energy crisis, and donated nearly all of her massive income to it.

She still kept an apartment on the top floor of the Art3mis Foundation building in downtown Columbus, a few blocks from GSS. But she spent very little time there. She traveled constantly, visiting the world’s most troubled and impoverished nations to focus media attention on their plight, and to oversee the Art3mis Foundation’s aid efforts.

She also used her newfound fame and wealth to champion a whole host of environmental and humanitarian causes around the world, and seemingly overnight, she transformed herself into a sort of rock-star philanthropist and humanitarian. She was like Oprah, Joan Jett, and Mother Teresa all rolled

into one. She now had billions of admirers, and in spite of everything I couldn’t help but be one of them.

But she wasn’t the only one trying to make the world a better place.

Aech, Shoto, and I were each doing our part too.

Shoto created his own charity organization called the Daisho Council, which provided free food, housing, healthcare, and counseling to the millions of isolated Japanese kids known as hikikomori, who lived in self-imposed seclusion from the outside world. Aech set up a similar charity in North America called Helen’s House, which provided a safe haven for homeless LBGTQIA kids throughout the United States and Canada, along with another foundation devoted to providing impoverished African nations with self-sustaining technology and resources. And for kicks, she called it the Wakandan Outreach Initiative.

I’d founded the Parzival Relief Organization, a nonprofit that provided free food, electricity, Internet access, and ONI headsets to orphaned and impoverished kids around the world. (It was honestly the sort of help I would’ve wanted to receive if I had still been a kid living in the stacks.)

We’d also started funneling cash to the struggling U.S. government and its citizens, who had been surviving on foreign aid for decades. We paid off the national debt and provided aerial-defense drones and tactical telebots to help reestablish the rule of law in the rural areas where local infrastructure had collapsed along with the power grid. Human law enforcement officers no longer had to risk their own lives to uphold the law. Our police telebots were able to carry out their mission to serve and protect without putting any human lives at risk. Their programming and their operational fail-safes prevented them from harming anyone in the line of duty.

Together, Samantha, Aech, Shoto, and I donated billions of dollars every year. But plenty of rich people (like Ogden Morrow) had been throwing mountains of money at these same problems for decades, with little effect. And so far, the High Five’s own noble efforts weren’t moving the dial much either. For the time being we were holding chaos and collapse at bay, but humanity’s perilous predicament just kept on getting worse.

The reason for this was painfully obvious to me. We’d already passed the point of no return. The world’s population was fast approaching ten billion people, and Mother Earth was making it abundantly clear that she

could no longer sustain all of us—especially not after we’d spent the past two centuries poisoning her oceans and atmosphere with wild industrial abandon. We had made our bed, and now we were going to die in it.

That was why I was still working on my backup plan, the one I’d shared with Samantha that first night we met.

Over the past three years, I had funded the construction of a small nuclear-powered interstellar spacecraft in low Earth orbit. It housed a self-sustaining biosphere, which could provide long-term living space and life support for a crew of up to two dozen human passengers—including Aech and Shoto, who had joined me in footing the enormous construction bill.

I’d christened my ship the Vonnegut, like my old Firefly-class spaceship in the OASIS, which I’d named after my favorite author.

If the Vonnegut’s fusion engines functioned as they were supposed to, and the radiation shielding held up, and the ship’s armored hull didn’t get punctured by any micrometeors or crushed by an asteroid, we would reach Proxima Centauri in approximately forty-seven years. There, we would search for a habitable Earthlike planet where we could make a new home for ourselves, our children, and the frozen human embryos we were going to bring along. (We’d been accepting embryo donations for over a year by this point, from every country around the world, with the hope of ensuring genetic diversity.)

The ship’s onboard computer contained a new standalone virtual-reality simulation for us to access on our long journey. After much debate over what we should call our new virtual realm, we finally agreed upon the name ARC@DIA. (It was Aech’s idea to replace the in the middle with an @ sign, to give the name a l33t flourish and to help distinguish it from the geographic region in central Greece, the Duran Duran side project, the city on Gallifrey, the alternate plane of reality in Dungeons & Dragons, and all of the other Arcadias out there.) The addition of the @ was also fitting because, as Aech put it, “ARC@DIA will be where it’s at!”

ARC@DIA was going to serve as our own private scaled-down version of the OASIS during the voyage. It was still a work in progress, and likely would be until the day we departed. Due to various space and hardware limitations, our simulation wasn’t nearly as big—about half the size of one OASIS sector. But that was still a vast amount of virtual space for us and

our tiny crew to inhabit. We had enough room to upload copies of more than two hundred of our favorite OASIS planets, along with their NPCs. We didn’t bother transferring any of the business content or retail planets over. Where we were going, we wouldn’t need stores or commerce. Besides, we had to be sparing with our data-storage space, since we were bringing along a backup copy of the entire ONI-net file database too. It was updated every night, along with new OASIS content.

There was one other thing that made our simulation different from its predecessor. Unlike the OASIS, ARC@DIA could only be accessed via a neural-interface headset. (We didn’t want to waste any time, space, or money bringing outdated haptic technology along.)

The Vonnegut was still about a year from being complete, but Aech, Shoto, and I were in no rush. We weren’t eager to leave the Earth behind for a long, cramped, and perilous voyage. And we weren’t ready to give up on Planet Earth yet either. Not while there was still a chance we could save it. What we were doing was doomsday-prepping on a multibillionaire scale, packing the ultimate bugout bag—the means to escape the planet if, and when, everything went to shit.

We’d concealed the details of the Vonnegut Project from the world (and from Samantha) for as long as we could. But eventually word of what we were up to leaked to the press. Of course, Samantha was furious when she found out we’d spent over three hundred billion dollars to build a ship to escape our dying planet instead of using that money and manpower to help her try to save it.

I told her we were saving a spot for her on the Vonnegut’s crew, but you can imagine how that went over. She stormed out, then she crucified us in the press. She accused us of sabotaging humanity by releasing the ONI to the masses and then using the profits to build a lifeboat to save our own skin.

But I didn’t see it that way. And thankfully, neither did Aech or Shoto. We admired Samantha’s optimism, and maybe—on a good day—even shared in it. But with Earth teetering on the brink of destruction, leaving our eggs in one basket was foolish. Sending a small contingent of humanity out into space was the only responsible thing to do—and at this precarious

moment in history, we were the only three people on the planet with the resources to do it.

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