Authors: Marie Lu
Tags: #YA, #Carly
“Why do you want me close?”
“The nature of the attacks makes me suspect that Zero is one of them.”
One of the professional players. Their names rush through my mind. “And what will I and the other hunters be competing for? What’s your bounty prize?”
“Each of you will see the prize amount as a pending number in your bank accounts.” Hideo leans forward and rests his elbows on his knees. He gives me a pointed look. “If you decide you want to turn this down, that this is more than you want to deal with, I’ll have you on a private flight back to New York. You can just treat this as a holiday before returning to your life. I’ll pay you a sum for participating, regardless, for catching a major security flaw in the game. Take your time to think it over.”
A sum for participating.
It’s as if Hideo were offering me pity money, an easy out if I don’t feel up to the challenge of his bounty. I imagine getting on a flight back to New York, returning to my old life while some other hunter catches Zero. A tingle runs through me at the chance to crack this problem, possibly the biggest puzzle I’ve ever been given the chance to solve.
I’m going to win this time.
“I’ve already thought it over,” I say. “I’m in.”
Hideo nods. “Instructions for the Wardraft will come your way shortly, as well as an invite to an opening game party. Meanwhile, make a list of anything you think you’ll need from me. Access codes, accounts, and so on.” He stands up. “Hold out your hand.”
I eye him warily, then put my hand forward. He takes it, turning it over so that my palm faces up.
He holds his own hand an inch above my palm, until a black rectangle resembling a credit card appears against my skin. Then he presses a finger lightly to my palm and signs his name against it. The feel of his skin moving against mine makes my breath catch.
The virtual credit card flashes blue for a moment, authorizing his signature, and then disappears.
“This is for you to buy whatever you need during your stay,” he says. “No limit, no questions asked. Just use your palm whenever you need to make a purchase, and the charge will go directly to this. Cancel it by signing your own name against your palm.” His eyes lock on mine. “And keep this discreet. I’d rather not broadcast our hunt to the public.”
What I wouldn’t have given, during my most difficult weeks, for a card like this. I take my hand back, the feeling of his signature still burning against my palm. “Of course.”
Hideo offers me his hand. His expression has turned serious again. “I look forward to our next meeting, then,” he says, with absolutely no indication in his tone that this is true. My eyes flicker again to his bruised knuckles before I shake his hand.
The last moments are a blur. Hideo returns to his meeting room without looking back at me. I’m escorted down to the lobby of the studio, where I sign some more papers before heading out to where my car is waiting. As I settle inside, I let out a long breath that I didn’t realize I was holding. My heart is still hammering in my chest, my hands shaky from our encounter. Not until we’ve left the studio behind do I reach into my pocket, grab my phone, and log in to my bank account. This morning, I had thirteen dollars. What sort of money is Hideo tempting me with?
Finally, the account page loads on my screen. I stare at it in stunned silence.
Pending deposit: $10,000,000.00 USD
I have to
load the screen a few more times before I can trust the number there. Sure enough, it doesn’t change. Ten million.
A ten-million-dollar bounty.
The highest bounty I’ve ever seen is five hundred thousand dollars. This number is off the charts. There must be more to this job than Hideo is letting on—it can’t possibly be as simple as catching a hacker who’s just trying to mess up the games, even if the games are the world championships.
What if it’s a more dangerous job than I think it is?
I shake my head. Warcross is Hideo’s life’s work. His main passion. I think back to the glint of intensity that I saw in Hideo’s eyes when he showed me the contact lenses. I
have a specific set of skills that appeals to him—I hunt criminals, I hack, I’m a Warcross fan who is
familiar with the game’s inner workings.
Maybe it’s been really hard for him to find hunters suitable for this job.
My thoughts return to our meeting. The perfect Hideo I’d pieced together from years of documentaries and articles doesn’t seem like the one I’d just met—condescending, unsmiling, cold, the reality of a mythical figure I’d built up in my head.
He doesn’t mean to be intimidating,
Kenn had insisted. But Hideo’s walls are nevertheless there, making his politeness seem insulting and his intentions vague. Maybe it’s all part of being so disgustingly wealthy that he doesn’t need to open himself up to anyone.
Or maybe he just doesn’t like me very much. I bristle at the thought. Fine. I don’t like him all that much, either.
Besides, I don’t need to like a client in order to work for him. I certainly don’t like the police who I’ve worked for. All I have to do is my job, keep him updated on my progress, and catch Zero before anyone else does. All I have to do is get the bounty.
Ten million dollars.
I think of Dad, sitting up late at night after he thought I’d gone to bed, resting his head wearily in his hands, staring at a never-ending stack of overdue bills. I think of him staring blearily at a glowing screen, placing yet another bet with money he didn’t have, hoping that this time,
he’d win it big.
Ten million dollars.
could win it big. I’d never have to worry about debt again. I could be safe for life. If I win this bounty, everything changes.
in my view as we pull up to my hotel. It’s from Kenn.
I don’t know what you said to him in there, but . . . well done.
Well done? For what?
You should know that Hideo has never hired someone that quickly. Ever.
Really? I thought I annoyed him.
Everyone thinks that. Don’t mind him. Look for a gift at your front door. Hideo had it sent for you the instant you left his office.
After that meeting, it’s hard to believe what Kenn is saying.
Welcome to the team.
By the time Jiro drops me off and I make my way up to my suite, the gift—a beautiful box made of black suede—is already sitting on my desk. Next to it is a glossy envelope emblazoned with a gold stamp of the Warcross logo. I stare at it for a long moment, then bend down and open the box.
It’s a brand-new, limited-edition electric skateboard, sleek and light, painted in elegant black and white. I test the weight of it in my hands, disbelieving, and then toss it down and hop on it. It responds to me like a dream.
Hideo’s bodyguards must have told him about my old, beat-up skateboard. This board is easily worth fifteen thousand dollars. I’d eyed it in catalogues before, fantasized about how it might ride.
I read the card included in the box.
For you. See you at the Wardraft.
One second, he’s interrogating me. The next, he’s sending gifts. My eyes go from the note to the envelope next to the box. Just a couple of days ago, I’d been standing in front of my apartment, looking in despair at a bright yellow eviction notice. Now I reach out for the envelope, tear it open, and pull out a thick, heavy black note with gold print.
Miss Emika Chen
is officially invited to participate
in the Wardraft as a Wild
on March 3rd
’VE WATCHED THE
Wardraft every single year. It always takes place in the Tokyo Dome a week after the all-star opening ceremony, with a packed stadium of fifty thousand screaming fans and all eyes trained on the wild-card players sitting in the stadium’s front rows, circling the central arena. One by one, the sixteen official Warcross teams choose their top picks from the wild cards.
Warcross fans know most of the wild cards by heart, because the wild cards tend to be some of the highest-scoring players in the game, those who are constantly on the leaderboards and have millions of followers. Last year, the number one draft pick was Ana Carolina Santos, representing Brazil. The year before that, Poland’s Penn Wachowski, who now plays for Team Stormchasers, was picked first. And the year before
it was South Korea’s Ki-woon “Kento” Park, who currently is on Team Andromeda.
But I’m used to watching this madness unfold from home, with my glasses on. This time, I’m going to be sitting in the front row of the Tokyo Dome.
My hands shake now as the car pulls into the streets near the dome. My eyes stay transfixed on the scenery outside. If Times Square had seemed crazy about Warcross, it’s nothing compared to Tokyo. Through my contact lenses, the entire main intersection of Shibuya is alight with hovering screens, rotating through each wild card’s photo and showing clips from past drafts. Thousands of screaming fans cluster in the streets below. The car drives through a special, blocked-off section where a squadron of police guides us through. As we pass by, people on the sidewalks wave at each of our cars, their faces lit with excitement. They can’t see through our tinted windows, but they know that this is the only route taken to escort the players to the dome.
Overhead, my photo appears, covering the entire side of a skyscraper. It’s an old picture of me as a high school sophomore, the last year I spent in school before I was expelled. I look grave in it, my hair pin-straight and at least a dozen different bright colors, my skin so pale it looks ashen. Headlines about me are sprinkled everywhere.
Emika Chen Nominated for Wardraft
From Penniless Glitch to Wild-Card Star!
Details in This Week’s Issue
HENKA GAMES STOCK JUMPS WITH EMIKA CHEN ADDITION
Seeing my face cover eighty stories is enough to make me nauseous. I force myself to look away from the madness outside and instead press my trembling hands together firmly in my lap.
Think of the ten million,
I repeat to myself. I glance outside again to see another billboard rotate onto a photo of DJ Ren, who’s wearing his giant headphones and hunched over his DJ equipment. Suddenly, it occurs to me that the other two bounty hunters, whoever they are, will probably be watching me at the Wardraft. Investigating me. Are they wild cards, too?
By the time we pull into the roped-off section of the Tokyo Dome’s side entrance, I’ve almost calmed the butterflies wreaking havoc in my stomach. In a blur, I look on as men in suits open my door, help me out of the car, and usher me down a red carpet that leads into the cool, dark recesses of the stadium’s rear.
Think badass thoughts,
I tell myself. My guides lead me into a narrow corridor with a ceiling that gradually slopes higher and higher. The sound of fifty thousand screams grows near. Then, as I enter the main space, the roar turns deafening.
The stadium is bathed in dim blue light. Dozens of colored spotlights sweep back and forth across the space. The aisles are jam-packed with viewers, waving homemade posters of their favorite wild-card players, all gathered here to see us in the flesh. With my contacts on, I can see enormous holographic screens lining the edge of the central arena. On each of these screens, footage plays of the wild cards in action during some of their most popular in-game moves. The players look like they are lunging right out of the screen as giant, three-dimensional figures, and each time they make a good move, the crowd screams at the top of their lungs.
A bubble pops up in my view. My level jumps by two.
Official Wardraft Participant! Congratulations!
+20,000 Points. Daily Score: +20,000
You leveled up! You’re on fire!
Level 28 |
You earned a treasure chest!
The front rows of the stadium are half full of wild-card players. As the guides usher me into a row, I scan the crowd around me and try to match up some of these people with their Warcross personas. My eyes register a few faces. Abeni Lea, representing Kenya. She’s ranked in the top fifty worldwide. Then there’s Ivo Erikkson, representing Sweden. Hazan Demir, a girl from Turkey. I swallow, wondering if it’d be silly to ask for their autographs.
Time to work,
I remind myself. Quietly, I make an up-swipe gesture with two fingers and bring up my shields, then hunt for the security that blankets the dome. Hideo gave me a special ID to get past it all, offering me access to the basic information that Henka Games stores about each user, but using the ID will also allow Hideo to track
more easily, something that might leave me vulnerable to hacking from Zero or another bounty hunter. So instead, I’ve edited my access to keep me off the grid. It’ll help me work better. If Hideo has a problem with that, he’ll just have to take it up with me later.
Soon, numbers and letters appear in random places around the dome, highlighting the areas where the code is generating bits of virtual reality over the actual scene. An overlay of the stadium’s blueprint hovers faintly over everything. Most importantly, basic data appears about every person in the arena, in tiny blue digits over each of their heads, so many that the data seems to blur into streaks.
Finally, I get to my seat. Behind us, the stadium lets out another piercing round of shrieks as the giant screens show a montage of Team Phoenix Riders’ best plays from last year.
” I turn as a girl nudges my side. She has reddish-blond hair tied back in a low, messy tail, and a smattering of freckles across her pale skin. She gives me a lopsided grin. When she speaks again, I see the transparent English translation in my view. “Are you Emika?” Her eyes wander up to my rainbow hair, then down to my arm of tattoos. “The one who broke into the opening ceremony?”
I nod. “Hi.”
The girl nods back. “I’m Ziggy Frost, from Bamberg, Germany.”
My eyes widen. “Right! I know you! You’re one of the best Thieves out there. I’ve watched so many of your games.”
I can tell she’s rapidly reading the German translation of my words that’s showing up in her view. Then she brightens until I think she might pop. She reaches forward and shoves someone sitting in the row in front of us. “Yuebin!” she exclaims. “Look. I have a fan.”
The guy she shoved gives an annoyed grunt and turns around in his seat. He smells faintly of cigarette smoke. “Good for you,” he mutters in Chinese as I read my translation of his words. His eyes shift to me. “Hey—aren’t you the girl who glitched into the opening game?”
Is this how I’m going to be known forever? The girl who glitched? “Hi,” I say, stretching a hand out. “I’m Emika Chen.”
“Ah! The American,” he replies, shaking my hand once. “You speak Mandarin?”
I shake my head. My dad knew exactly five Chinese phrases, and four of them were swears.
He shrugs at my response. “Ah, well. I’m Yuebin, from Beijing.”
I smile. “The top Fighter in the rankings?”
His grin widens. “Yes.” He reaches over and nudges Ziggy once. “See? You are not the only one with a fan.” Then he looks back at me. “So, you are a wild card now? I mean, congratulations, that is really great—but I don’t remember seeing you in the top rankings this year.”
“That’s because everyone wrote her in at the last minute,” Ziggy pipes up. “Hideo himself approved the nomination.” Yuebin lets out a whistle. “You must have really impressed him.”
So, the rumors about me
spread. This is not how I want everyone in Warcross to know me—the girl who glitched into a game out of sheer stupidity, then got into the Wardraft as a wild card because my stunt got me written in. What if Yuebin suspects that I’m in this draft for another reason?
Don’t be so obvious. To him, you’re just here to play Warcross,
I remind myself. I force a smile back at Ziggy and shrug. “It probably doesn’t matter. I bet I’ll be the last one picked.”
Ziggy just gives me a good-hearted laugh and pats my shoulder. “What is that saying? Never say never?” she replies. “Besides. Do you remember one year when that player—Leeroy something—actually got drafted into the Stormchasers, even though he always just charged in and messed up his entire team’s play? My God, he was terrible.” Too late, she realizes she’s accidentally insulted me again. “I mean, not that you are as
as Leeroy! My point is that you never know. I mean—well, you know what I mean.”
Yuebin gives her a wry look before smiling at me. “You will have to forgive Ziggy,” he says. “She never says the right thing at the right time.”
never the right thing at the right time.”
As they forget about me and fall into bickering, I quietly
review what data I can see about each of them. Their full names and addresses, their travel schedules, anything that could help me notice something suspicious about their behavior—I download all of this and store it away for later analysis. But even from a quick glance, neither of their profiles seems odd. No basic shields of any sort to protect their data. Yuebin even has a virus installed on his Link that’s slowing it down.