Authors: Marie Lu
Tags: #YA, #Carly
I set to work unlocking the suitcase. I can’t hang on to it for much longer without attracting more suspicion. After several attempts, the suitcase finally pops open. Inside is the Play God power-up, blue and beautiful, its swirling clouds smudging underneath my fingertips.
I stare, heart pounding. I carefully stash each of my three new power-ups into my inventory, locked up behind multiple shells. Then I wait in my virtual room, sending out pings and invites every few seconds to the accounts of my teammates.
For a while, no one appears. Had it locked them out of everything? Were they caught?
Roshan materializes, followed by Hammie. Then, at last, Asher. They no longer look like security bots—they’ve thrown off the shell now. I break into a smile. I’ve never worked with anyone else on a hunt before—but now, with my teammates on my side, it seems that much easier.
Asher speaks first. “Well?” He peers at me with a raised eyebrow. “I hope you got something useful after all that trouble.”
I nod, then bring up my inventory to show them what I have.
Asher’s eyes widen, while Roshan mutters a swear. “Tremaine had better be telling the truth about the file he sent you,” he says.
“Truth or not,” Hammie adds, “the final will be an interesting one with these in the mix.”
“If these won’t help us beat Zero,” I say, “then nothing will.”
With all the
scandals happening, the final between Team Phoenix Riders and Team Andromeda is already poised to be the most widely watched game in Warcross history. The news is reporting nothing today except for footage and reels about the games, each station frantically trying to outdo the next, channels in every language and country. It feels like the entire world has paused to tune in. Across Tokyo, shops and restaurants close as if it’s a national holiday. People who can’t log in easily at home now crowd into internet cafés and bars, their lenses on. The city is lit up with icons, the symbols clustering in the areas where the most people have gathered.
I step away from the window of my hotel room and go back to sit on the couch. I’m holed up in one of Tokyo’s dozen downtowns, registered under a false name at this hotel. As far as I know, Hideo thinks I’ve headed back to New York. Since our conversation in the hospital, he has only sent me one message.
Stay away, Emika. Please believe me.
Now I stare at a transparent clock displayed near the center of my vision, counting down the time. Just a few short weeks ago, I’d accidentally glitched myself into the opening ceremony game for this year’s tournaments. Now, there are only five minutes until the final game starts. Five minutes before I need to glitch myself into the game—only this time, I’m doing it on purpose. I double-check everything, making sure I’ve turned on my recording function. I’m storing today’s game as a new Memory World in my account. If things go wrong in the game today because of Zero, at least I’ll have a recording to study.
That is, if his virus doesn’t hit me first.
Finally, words hover over my view.
Warcross Championships VIII Final
PHOENIX RIDERS vs ANDROMEDA
I take a deep breath. “Here we go,” I murmur. Then I reach out, tap the words with a finger, and the world around me goes dark.
I hear the whistle of the wind before I see anything. Then, the world fades into view and I’m standing on a ledge, looking down into a perfectly circular lake surrounded on all sides by sheer metal walls hundreds of feet high. When I look behind me, I realize that there is nothing but open ocean on the other side of the walls.
In the center of the circular lake, ten steel bridges—none of them connected—extend out to the walls like a star. They each lead to a tall, metal hangar door embedded in the wall, spaced out evenly. Security bots stand on either side of each enormous
door. As I watch, power-ups materialize over the steel walls and along the edge of the lake’s waters, the colorful marbles lining the bridges both over and under. I double-check the power-ups in my own inventory. All there.
Let’s tear through Tokyo from zero to sixty / yeah, like we’re running out of time in this city.
The intro music playing all around us makes the hairs rise on the back of my neck. Ren’s new track, to activate the rigged Artifacts.
Let’s go out with a bang / yeah, it’s time to go out with a bang.
It takes me a while to notice the roar of the audience’s cheers thundering all around the landscape. The ever-present announcer voices come on, as excited as ever.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” they declare. “Welcome to the Silver Circle!”
Down below, the players finally flicker into view. Each one appears standing on a bridge, near the center of the lake where they do not connect. The Andromedans are unmistakable in scarlet-red suits—their captain, Shahira, has her scarf pinned tightly back and her team’s scarlet-ruby Artifact hanging over her head, while their Fighter, Ivo Erikkson, has his hair slicked back and a scowl on. My heart sits in my throat as my gaze turns to my teammates. Their suits are blue, a stark contrast against the steel walls around them. Asher (bearing the Riders’ blue diamond Artifact over his head), Hammie, Roshan. Then, the two new additions. Jackie Nguyen, to replace Ren. And my replacement—Brennar Lyons, their new Architect.
It’s Asher, contacting me through an encrypted channel I set up for him. His message shows up as transparent white text in the bottom of my view.
I nod, even though I’m not sure I am.
I hope so,
I reply. I bring up my inventory of precious power-ups.
When I get in, pass me your Artifact.
Then I focus on Brennar and comb through his data. If I’m going to glitch myself into his place, I’d better make sure I can do it on my first try. What will happen today, if the Phoenix Riders don’t win the game? What will happen if Zero triggers his plans?
The announcers are introducing the players now. I strip down Brennar’s data, then make a frustrated sound.
I can’t glitch in until the game gets going,
I say to Asher.
He’s not activated yet.
I’ll be watching,
I’ll warn you if I see anything.
I take a deep breath and look back down at the scene. Each of the players stands at the edge of their bridge, looking down at the water below them, then glaring at one another. No one can reach the other—everyone is separated by a good fifty feet of space in the central gap. I can see Asher’s lips moving, giving each of the Riders their instructions. My attention shifts to the enormous metal doors lining the inside of the circular steel wall. Red lights start to flash at the top of each door. What’s kept inside? And where is Zero? My skin prickles in real life knowing that Zero is watching this game right now, perhaps watching it in the same way that I am. Waiting to disrupt it.
“Game! Set! Fight!” the announcer shouts. The invisible audience lets out a thunderous cheer.
At the same time, an earsplitting alarm goes off, echoing all across the world. It comes from the flashing red lights at the top of each of the ten steel doors. The players whirl around. Hammie is the first to start running toward her door along her bridge. I bring myself lower for a better view, until I’m hovering over the bridges.
The doors shudder in unison, then begin to pull up, the sound grating with their weight. Hammie’s run turns into a sprint. She shouts something back at the other Riders. The Andromedans are making their way down their respective bridges, too, and as the doors rise farther, I get a glimpse of what’s inside.
Metal legs, thick as buildings. Circular chrome joints, steel sinews. Then, as the doors rise higher, a barrel-like chest, each one different in design, with powerful arms hanging on either side. At the top, transparent glass lining the metal heads. My jaw drops as my gaze travels up. Ten mecha robots, each waiting to be boarded.
The waters in the lake and out in the open ocean churn furiously now, turning choppier as a storm approaches from the horizon, black and threatening. I double-tap on the area of my view where I can see Brennar running toward his mech. The world zooms in around me, and suddenly I’m directly above him, looking on as he approaches the steel door. He begins to climb the ladder along the side of the robot.
On the next bridge over, Hammie has reached the top of her mech and is now standing on its head. She searches for the entrance, finds it, pries something open—and hops in, disappearing from view. Seconds later, the inside of the mech’s eyes light up, bathing the metal around them with a green glow. A whirring sound starts—like some kind of turbo jet engine—and rises to a fever pitch. Her mech stirs to life, the joints moving as fluidly as if Hammie
the robot. It lifts one leg. Then another. The bridge trembles from each step.
Asher reaches his mech second. As he enters the robot, his Artifact also vanishes from view. I let out a breath in disappointment. The same will probably happen with Shahira—meaning that if I want to use my Artifact King power-up to steal her Artifact,
I’ll have to first get her out of the mech. Shahira hops into her robot a breath behind Asher, and then Franco, the Andromedans’ Architect, follows suit. I look down at Brennar. He’s almost there, but there’s no question that he’s slower than the others, having been yanked into the final tournament with no time at all to train. Even so—he wasn’t chosen as a wild card for nothing. He reaches the top of his mech, hops in, and starts the robot. Its eyes power up, glowing bright blue.
I bring up a grid over Brennar and his mech, and data about them pours into a green, rotating block of code over my view. I have to time this correctly. If I do it wrong, I might glitch myself into the scene outside of Brennar altogether, and I could be exposed to the entire audience. Zero would know instantly where I am and what I’m doing. And once I’m in as an actual player, I’ll have to move fast. In real life, Brennar will know right away when he’s no longer able to control his avatar. He’ll alert the security, and they will pause the game. They’ll find me and shut me out.
“Shahira is moving to strike!” the announcer exclaims, and my attention whirls momentarily to where Shahira’s mech is now running down the bridge toward the central gap. As she reaches the end of the bridge, her mech crouches down like a leopard ready to spring. Then, it gives a mighty leap into the air—and blade-like wings extend from either side of it, unfurling in a magnificent display. She launches into the air with a single swoop. As she goes, she grabs a speed power-up, and in a burst of temporary power, she leaps across the gap and onto the bridge where Asher’s mech now stands. The bridge shakes from her impact, and the sound reverberates across the virtual space.
I type faster. I have to get into this game. As Brennar’s mech steps forward, I bring up a lattice-like image of him inside it. Then I fly down as close as I can get to his mech. I hover right in front of
the robot’s eyes. Through them, I can see the outline of Brennar inside.
I mouth to myself.
Then I type a command. For a split second, Brennar sees me hovering outside of his mech. He blinks in shock at the sight.
The world rushes around me, and when I open my eyes, I am
the cockpit of the mech. More important, I’m inside of Brennar’s body, with complete control over his avatar.
I say to Asher.
he replies. And a second later, he turns to face Hammie’s mech, ready to pass her our Team’s Artifact. She’s ready for him, already anticipating his move. In a few strides, she’s at his side, clasping her mech’s metal hand with his. A flash of light illuminates them both for an instant, and then every player is alerted that our Artifact is now in Hammie’s hands.
She doesn’t waste a second. As Shahira barrels down on Asher, Hammie reaches for me. I take her mech’s hand. Another flash of light—and our Artifact is now with me. The crowd roars in excitement.
I bring up my deactivation hack, take a deep breath, and run it on the Artifact in my hand. It takes a few seconds. For a moment, I think it won’t work.
Then the Artifact sparks with electricity. A ream of garbled code appears in my view. The Artifact turns black. I run an analysis of it again—and smile when it doesn’t respond. Deactivated.
Now the countdown starts. I have only a minute or two, at most, before Brennar alerts everyone of what happened to him and then security resets me out of the game. I don’t know when, or if, Zero will know what I’ve done to our Artifact, but there’s no time to dwell on it now. I turn my attention to the inside of my mech.
The controls inside the mech are beautifully simple—designed
for each of us to understand it instantaneously. There are weapons built into the arms and shoulders, and when I move my arms and legs, the robot moves its arms and legs. I search for Shahira. She has engaged Asher in locked combat in the air over the lake, while Franco is heading toward Asher too in an attempt to overwhelm him. Others are turning their attention to me.
I have to get Shahira out of her mech.
Team Freeze, to disable the enemy team. Artifact King, to steal Shahira’s Artifact. And Play God, to permanently alter the landscape. I run forward with my mech along my bridge, look over at the scene, and get ready to activate my Freeze power-up.
“To your left!” Asher suddenly shouts at me. “He’s shifted toward you—”
I startle and swing my mech’s head around just in time to see Ivo Erikkson’s flying mech barreling down on me, its jaws open as if to take a bite. All I have time to do is brace for impact.
He hurtles into me. Metal slams against metal as we both go tumbling off the bridge and into the lake. The impact jars me hard; for an instant, all I can see is a blur of water outside my glass view.
Use the power-up,
my instinct says, but I push it down. If I do it now, Shahira will fall into the water and sink, then reset on the bridge. Instead, I aim my arm directly at Ivo’s head. Then I slam my fist down on a launch button.
A rocket fires at Ivo’s mech, slamming his head backward. He releases me. My mech is suddenly floating free in the water. No time to waste. I reach for my Play God power-up and activate it.
The world suddenly stops, as if paused mid-frame in a movie. In my view, a transparent number now counts down the seconds I have to alter the landscape. My fingers fly. I pull myself out of the water and settle on a bridge—then yank the bridges together so that they close the gap in the center. Metal
screeches as the bridges pop free from their columns. My gaze settles on where Shahira and Asher are still locked together in midair. I clap my hands together, then push them apart. Shahira’s mech goes flying off Asher’s, freeing him. At the same time, I bring her closer to me, forcing her mech to land on the now-connected bridge between us.
All around us, the audience’s gasp echoes. The announcer’s voice comes on, confused. “A power-up has been activated—we’re not sure where Brennar got this from, but he has used an item that has never appeared in a game since the genesis of the tournaments! We are standing by for more info—”
The security knows something is wrong now.
knows. And that means Zero probably knows, too. The timer runs out on my power-up. The world moves again. Shahira’s mech crouches, shaking its head for a moment as it tries to reorient itself. I immediately activate my second power-up. Team Freeze.