Authors: Marie Lu
Tags: #YA, #Carly
My point of view—Ren—nods. “It’ll play the instant the championship final’s world loads.”
The authority in the mystery figure’s voice makes me freeze. This is Zero, in real life, flesh and blood.
Ren obliges. A second later, music is piping through my earphones, the familiar beat of his track. When it hits the chorus, he pauses it, then brings up a ream of glowing code for everyone to see. “This will start the countdown on the rigged Artifacts,” he says.
I suck my breath in sharply. Rigged Artifacts? The teams in the finals will have rigged Artifacts?
Rigged to do what?
“Good,” Zero says. He looks around the room at each person in turn. As he does, they each bring up a hovering copy of an assignment, syncing with one another and checking their progress. In my view, Ren brings up a copy of it, too. My eyes widen as I read it. This is what I’ve been looking for.
It details what Zero is going to do.
During the final game, Zero is going to switch out the Artifacts and replace them with rigged ones. Corrupted ones. Ones containing a virus on them that will sweep through to every active NeuroLink user.
It’s why Zero had been gathering so much data inside each of the Warcross worlds. Why he was assigning locations to his followers. They’re making sure the virus will trigger in each location, that no security shields can stop them.
My breaths come short and quick now, my eyes darting frantically across the text. What will the virus do? Destroy the NeuroLink? What does he
from destroying it? What will it do to people who are logged on during the final tournament?
The final tournament.
It’s no coincidence that he chose this time to unleash a virus. The maximum number of NeuroLink users will be online around the world at the height of this final game.
Why would Zero, someone clearly skilled in technology, want to destroy this technology?
In the Memory, Ren speaks up again. “One more you should check,” he’s saying. “Emika Chen. The other wild card.”
Zero turns to him. “You’ve found something?”
“She’s connected to Hideo outside of the tournament, in more ways than one. She’s sniffing out your trail. If she finds something significant and alerts him to it, he’ll find a way to stop all this.”
A chill sweeps through me at his words. Ren had found me first; he had alerted Zero to me, possibly even at the same time that I’d alerted Hideo to
“I’ll look into her.” Zero’s voice is calm. “We’ll be watching their comings and goings, and if she tries to alert him, I will know. We can always make this a double assassination.”
The Memory ends. It fades around me until I’m back in my hospital room. I sit there with my heart pounding, head whirling, feeling more alone than ever.
A double assassination.
This meeting must have happened
before the first attempt on Hideo’s life—I’d shared information with him, and in return, they’d tried to kill him. Then Zero had appeared to me, warning me to stay out of it, offering for me to join him instead.
The house bombing.
Zero has no qualms about coming after me, too.
Instinctively, I reach to connect with Hideo.
I should send all of this to him right now—tell him everything about Zero’s planned virus, the rigged Artifacts. But if I contact him, Zero might know. And if he sees Hideo do something about the final game to stop this plan, then Zero will definitely know that I’ve been communicating with Hideo. He might change their plan, and then everything I’ve already discovered will be useless.
I have to stop this without tipping off Zero, without Hideo’s involvement. And that means I have to find my way into the final game and stop Zero from planting those rigged Artifacts.
I let out a long, shaky breath.
in over my head. And a small, scared part of my mind reminds me that, if I just
right now, just leave like Hideo had insisted I do, Zero might return my Memories to me.
But I can't stand the thought of leaving. If I do, what will happen? My gaze now returns to the box sitting at my side. All I can concentrate on are the shattered remains of my precious things. All I can linger on is the thought of Zero hidden behind his insufferable mask, frustratingly opaque, telling me what to do. My temper stirs, and my fists tighten.
Hideo wants me off the official games and the hunt. Zero has warned me to stay away. But I’ve never been good at following instructions. I’m a bounty hunter. And if my bounty’s still out there somewhere, I have to finish this.
I get out of bed, walk to the corner of the room underneath
the security cam, reach up, and yank its wires out. It goes dark. Then I call Roshan and Hammie. When they answer, my voice comes out as a hush.
“Ready to hear the truth?” I say.
“Ready,” Roshan replies.
“Good. Because I could really use some help.”
Common sense would
tell me that this is absolutely the worst possible time to log back in to the Dark World. I almost died in an explosion, I’m no longer on the job, and a hacker and his crew are after me, turning me from the hunter into the bounty, ready to take me out the instant I show some sign of continuing on their trail. There might even be assassins after me by now—I’m probably on the assassination lottery list in the Pirate’s Den.
But I’m out of time.
Now my virtual boots slosh through puddles in the Silk Road’s potholes as I pass street after street of neon-red signs, all listing the names and info of people who have been exposed in the Dark World. There is more traffic in this section of the Silk Road, a jumble of anonymous users crowding into alleys and in front of doorways, creating the sense of a night market. Wayward strings of lightbulbs hang overhead, beyond which I can see the
mirrored, upside-down version of the city hanging down toward us from the sky.
I glance warily at the stalls I pass. Some sell virtual Warcross items laid neatly out on tables, everything from gold rings to glittering capes, leather boots and platinum armor, healing elixirs and treasure chests. Others sell illegal, real-world items. One offers outlawed guns and bullets, promising overnight delivery for cases of thirty and up. Another sells drugs—the stall is set up as professionally as any online shopping site, where you add grams of cocaine and meth to your shopping cart, get the packages delivered to your doorstep two days later, and leave customer reviews for the vendor without ever endangering your identity. A third stall hawks diet pills not approved by health departments, while another offers discounts to watch a famous Dark World girl’s R-rated livestream. I grimace and look away. There are stalls for stolen artwork, poached ivory, currency exchange between virtual notes and bitcoins and Japanese yen, and, of course, gambling on both Warcross and Darkcross games.
I see bets being cast right now for the final tournament—and the amounts are astronomical. A number hovers over each stall, telling me how many people are currently considering purchases at that vendor. The number over the betting stall says
. Ten thousand people making bets at this one little gambling stall alone. I can only imagine how many bets people are casting right now in larger gambling shops like the Pirate’s Den. It’s another reminder of how many people will be on the NeuroLink during the final game, and it makes me move faster.
I stop at a currency stall to exchange a huge chunk of my money for notes. Even now, converting this much money physically hurts—what I wouldn’t have given just a few months ago to
hang on to this much for the rest of my life. But I trade it anyway, looking on as the numbers in my view change from one type to another. Then I continue on. Finally, I reach the intersection of the Silk Road and Big Top Alley. When I look down the alley, I see the vendor I’m looking for: the Emerald Emporium, home to expensive, valuable, and very, very rare power-ups.
The outside looks like an enormous circus tent, painted with broad black-and-gold stripes that glitter under the strings of lights. The flaps of the tent’s entrance curve to both sides, revealing a yawning, pitch-black hole into which a velvet carpet extends. An immediate, instinctive fear hits the back of my stomach at the sight. Dad and I had once gone hiking in the woods at midnight, and when we had to walk through the black space of a gnarled tree trunk, I’d nearly had a panic attack. Everything in darkness looks like fragments of monsters. The entrance to this circus triggers the same sort of fear—stepping into the black unknown, beyond which is something dangerous. In fact, this intimidating entrance is all part of the vendor’s security shell, to deter window-shoppers. If you’re too scared to enter, then you’re probably too scared to make purchases.
A pair of twins on stilts stand on either side of the entrance. They lean down toward me as I approach, their faces painted white and their eyes completely black. “Password,” they say in unison, their frowns identical. At the same time, a transparent, hovering box appears in the center of my vision.
I type in the password for today, a string of thirty-five jumbled letters, numbers, and symbols. The twins consider for a moment—and then move aside, silently holding out their long arms for me to enter the Emporium. I take a deep breath and step forward.
Inside is completely black. I continue walking, counting my
steps out carefully. When I finish taking ten steps, I stop and turn to my right. I take eight more. Stop, turn left. Fifteen steps. I continue walking in a long, elaborate combination like this until I finally take twenty steps forward and stop completely. For users who don’t know how to get past this second security shell, they’ll get trapped entirely in the darkness. It’ll then take them weeks to reclaim their lost avatar and account.
I reach out and knock. To my relief, a
sounds out as I do so, as if I were knocking on wood. A gate slides up, and I enter the enormous belly of a circus, the space lit up with hundreds of dangling bulbs.
Shelves and pedestals are everywhere, displaying glass jars inside which are power-ups of all kinds—scarlet gems and white marbles, rainbow-hued balls of fuzz and blue-striped cubes, black-and-white-checkered spheres, and clear, soap-like bubbles. Some of these power-ups have only been seen once in games, never to be offered again, while others are prototypes, still in development at Henka Games but yet somehow now in the hands of hackers who are selling them here. Over each one hovers its name in gold letters, along with its starting bid price.
Sudden Death: N46,550. Alien Attack: N150,000.
Clusters of anonymous avatars gather in front of the rare ones, chattering excitedly. Security bots glide around the floor, looking like ladies with mechanical jaws and long-nosed masks and black parasols. I study their movements. There is always a pattern to the way they move, however randomly. A shopping cart icon floats in my view now, as well as a field that I can type an amount into. I look around, admiring each of the glass jars on display, before I finally find one on a pedestal, inside which is a marble that looks like a frozen crystal ball, its surface adorned with beautiful feathers of frost.
Team Freeze: N201,000.
This will, according to the accompanying description above it, immobilize the entire enemy team for five full seconds.
The people gathered around this glass jar all have auction paddles, and I realize that an auction is happening for it right now. I join in, accepting a paddle from a nearby security-bot lady. There are five bots patrolling this auction now, two of them drifting over from an auction that had finished moments earlier. Standing next to the glass jar is a little girl, the auctioneer, wearing a top hat nearly as tall as herself. “Two hundred and fifty-one thousand notes!” she says at a loud, rapid clip. “Do I hear two fifty-two?” Someone raises their paddle. “Two fifty-two! Do I hear two fifty-three?”
The bidding goes on and on, until it narrows down to a battle between two users. I watch them carefully. The highest bid is now 295,000 notes, and the second user is hesitating on raising the bid to 300,000. The little girl continues to shout out the number, waiting for someone to take it. No one does. The highest-bidding avatar straightens, puffing his chest out in excitement.
“No one for three hundred thousand?” the little girl says, looking around. “Two ninety-five going once, going twice—”
I raise my paddle and call out, “Four hundred.”
All eyes whirl to me in shock. Murmurs ripple through the crowd. The little girl points at me and smiles. “Four hundred!” she exclaims. “Now we’re flying! Do I hear four hundred and one?” She looks around the tent, but no one budges. The other avatar glares at me with a look of murder, but I’m careful not to stare back.
“Sold!” The little girl claps in my direction. My shopping cart icon suddenly updates, the number
now showing, and my number of notes drops by 400,000. At the same time, the Team Freeze power-up vanishes from the glass jar on the pedestal, and
the other avatars start to wander off, muttering. The losing bidder lingers, though, his eyes still on me—as are the eyes of the security bots.
I thank the auctioneer, then go to look at the rest of the jars. I can still afford to spend another million notes, and I need to gather as much help as I can get.
I join a second auction happening for a power-up that looks like a round, growling, fuzzy black creature with two large paws. Artifact King. If your enemy’s Artifact is within your line of sight, then using this power-up will automatically teleport that Artifact straight into your hands, instantly winning your team the game.
This time, the starting bid is 500,000 notes.
Again, the auctioneer calls out the rapidly rising bids. Again, it boils down to a few active bidders. I’m one of them. The bid rises to 720,000 as I face off against one other opponent, and yet still, he won’t back down. Finally, in frustration, I throw down an amount that I know is much more than the power-up is worth.
for eight eighty!” the auctioneer exclaims. 880,000 notes.
I wince at the dent this makes in my funds, then check my backpack to make sure both items are properly stored. In real life, I run a scan to see if anyone is trying to break into my inventory. Rich users will sometimes come in here and clear out several big items. Other users will then lie in wait until the rich user has turned his back, then hack into his inventory and steal those power-ups. A couple of avatars have already turned their attention to me after my two purchases, and their interest makes the hairs rise on the back of my neck.
I have less than 200,000 notes left, which won’t buy me anything big enough to be worth using in the final game. So instead I look around, wondering who I might be able to target in order
to steal myself one more valuable power-up. Finally, I settle on an auction happening for an item that makes me light up. I’ve never even heard of this one before—leading me to believe it has to be a prototype or even an illegal, user-created item.
Play God: N751,000. 14 Bids.
This power-up gives you the temporary power to manipulate anything and everything in a Warcross level. Perfect.
The auction is almost done, having narrowed to two users, but this time I stand by as an onlooker, watching behind the security bots as the price continues to climb. Eventually, it tapers off, stuck on nearly a million notes as one of the users hesitates.
“Do I hear a million?” the auctioneer shouts. “An even million? No?” He counts down—and when it looks like no one else will take it, he points out the winner. “
for nine ninety!”
The winning bidder is a tall man wearing a plaid coat. As he pockets the power-up and turns away, I edge my way closer without drawing the attention of the security bots. In real life, I’m typing furiously, trying to find a moment when the man is alone and vulnerable. The security bots continue their randomized rotations; some of the assets being used to guard this auction now drift off to patrol another one that has just started.
At last, I see my window—a gap where two security bots have turned away and left a narrow, clear path to the man. I head toward him, increasing my pace as I draw closer. Then, right as he’s about to turn around, I lunge forward and grab for his suitcase.
An ordinary avatar wouldn’t have nearly the strength to do such a thing. But I’ve built up years of code on my avatar, programming myself for just this kind of grab. So when my hand closes on
his suitcase’s handle, I twist hard—and the suitcase comes away in my grasp.
The man’s no fool, though. No one who spends a million notes on a power-up can be. Instantly, two other avatars near us whirl on me. He has hidden security of his own here. I twirl barely out of their reach before I make a beeline for the exit. If I can get back inside the black tunnel, where the security bots can’t go, I can make it out of here with my items intact.
One of the avatars whips out a dagger and lunges, ready to tear through me. I sidestep, but the second avatar catches me by the leg and yanks me off balance. The world topples around me, and I’m suddenly staring at the room from the floor. I kick out—at the same time, I type frantically. But nothing I can do right now will increase my security beyond what it already is; there’s simply no time. Around us, the security bots have noticed the scuffle and gather instantaneously near the entrance, sealing the tent in. Others rush to me, the mechanical women’s eyes flashing, their black parasols spinning like razor-sharp blades. Their hands clamp down on my arms. I kick out as the man bends down to grab the suitcase’s handle. His two helpers seize my backpack.
Suddenly, one of the security bots holding me slashes out at the man with the edge of her parasol. I yelp as it slices clean through his arm. They are pixels, of course—but the man still falls backward, his left hand now cut off from the rest of the space, useless. I look at the bot in surprise, but it ignores me and attacks the other two avatars before turning on the other bots.
Em!” it shouts at me.
My heart leaps. It’s not a bot at all. It’s Roshan’s voice.
I scramble to my feet and hurtle toward the exit. Another bot covers my escape—it’s Hammie. Then, a third.
protection throws off the attacks from the others, which don’t seem ready to counterattack several of their own. I slip between two security bots that have rushed into the fray but are still unsure how to handle the hijacked bots. Then I’m at the entrance, and the sounds of everything behind me fade away.
I follow the number of steps and turns out of the entrance, and then burst through the front tent flaps to find myself deposited back in the narrow alley. The twins standing at the entrance don’t pay attention to me. Hastily, I bring up a dialog and log myself out of the Dark World. Everything around me turns black—and an instant later, I’m back in my virtual personal room.
I still have the suitcase. I still have my backpack. My items are here.