Read Warcross Online

Authors: Marie Lu

Tags: #YA, #Carly

Warcross (11 page)

Then again, maybe they’re both hiding behind this façade. It’s hard to tell without breaking into all of their info—personal emails, private messages, stored Memories—encrypted things even Henka Games isn’t allowed to have access to. I need a way in, a weakness, like how I’d stolen the power-up during the opening ceremony game. I need another break in the pattern.

The stadium’s main lights dim, and the sweeping lights change color. All of the seats are filled now. The audience’s cheers grow louder. I look down the line of seats and follow it around the edge of the central arena, trying to recognize some of the other wild cards and match them up with the top-ranking players I know. Beside me, Ziggy and Yuebin finally stop arguing and sit up straighter in anticipation.

“Ladies and gentlemen!”

The lights now sweep to the center of the arena, where an announcer wearing a Warcross logo T-shirt stands. “Warcross fans around the world!” he says in a booming voice. “Welcome to the Wardraft! We’re about to add some wild cards into the mix of your favorite Warcross teams!”

The audience roars with approval. My heart is beating so fast now that it leaves me feeling weak.

“Let’s introduce the most important person in here!” he points up at the same time the colorful spotlights shift to focus on a roped-off section of the stadium, a fancy seating area encased
inside a glass box. Hovering over the box is a virtual sign that says
Official Seats,
meant to be for Henka Games studio executives. Inside, a young man watches, one hand in his pocket, the other holding a glass. Two bodyguards flank him. Around us, the holograms change to show his face. “The one who made it all possible—Hideo Tanaka!”

The stadium explodes into the loudest cheers I’ve ever heard, followed by a thunderous chant of “Hih-
day
-oh! Hih-
day
-oh!” that makes the arena tremble. Hideo lifts his glass to toast the crowd, as if this level of insanity were perfectly normal, and then sits back down to watch. I force myself to look away.

“There are sixteen official Warcross teams,” the announcer now goes on. “And each team gets a total of
five
official players. We’ve already chosen the returning veteran players, but every team tonight has at least one open spot—and we have forty wild cards for them to choose from. By the end of the draft, all forty will belong on a team.” He waves a hand at our front-row seats. “Let’s do a quick introduction!”

The spotlight changes to focus on the first wild-card player, and the music in the stadium shifts to a new song. The player is a boy with brown hair, who blinks at the sudden light on him. “Rob Gennings, representing Canada, Level 82, who plays as a Fighter. He is ranked sixty-sixth in the world.” Cheers erupt from the audience. When I look up at the crowds, I can see posters waving enthusiastically, with Rob’s name scrawled on them.

Through my own view, I scroll through some basic data on Rob Gennings.
Full name: Robert Allen Gennings.
Valedictorian of his high school. Last flight: Vancouver to Tokyo, on Japan Airlines.

“Next, we have Alexa Romanovsky, representing Russia, a Level 90 player known for her lightning-fast Thief attacks.” Another round of cheers. The music shifts to a song that she’d
chosen for herself. I study a scrolling list of her info.
Full name: Alexandra Romanovsky.
Birthplace: St. Petersburg. A former competitor in the Paralympics.
She was disqualified for picking a fight with a fellow teammate, so she switched her obsession to Warcross after that. She lifts her head high now and nods at the dome’s crowd.

The announcer continues down the row at a rapid pace. The spotlight inches around the opposite end of the arena, the music changing with every player. All of these players are well-known and highly ranked. I’m only at Level 28, because usually I’m logged in as an encrypted, anonymous account, and none of my activity or wins get properly recorded.

“Renoir Thomas, from France, is better known as DJ Ren—”

The audience bursts into a deafening round of cheers. I search for him—but the spotlight lands on an empty seat. The music playing for him is one of his own tracks: “Deep Blue Apocalypse,” a song with a soul-shaking bass and addictive beat. There’s no question that he’s the most popular.

“—is currently busy preparing to host the first Warcross party of the year. But rest assured, you’ll see him soon!”

The introductions go on. There are a couple of other wild cards dressed up in gray-and-white outfits—Demon Brigade fans, probably hoping their clothes will warm them up to the official team. Others are wearing shirts declaring their favorite professional players. Still others look nervous and out of place, lower-ranking players or players that will probably be drafted last. I fly through the reams of data for each of them, downloading and storing, organizing them into folders.
Be careful of those nervous ones,
I remind myself. It could be a disguise to hide a hacker—

“Emika Chen, Level 28, hails from the United States of America!” the announcer shouts. I jump as the spotlight swings to me, and suddenly everything is blindingly bright. A burst of cheers
comes from the stadium. “She plays as an Architect. You may remember seeing her in the opening ceremony game—although you probably didn’t expect to! In fact, she was so popular that our viewers wrote her in as a
wild-card
nominee!”

I wave hesitantly. When I do, the cheering turns louder.
Look genuine,
I remind myself. I widen my smile, trying to show some teeth, but from the giant projection of me in the dome, I look like I ate a bad batch of oysters. I wonder if it’d be noticeable if I crawled under my chair right now.

When the announcer finishes introducing the wild cards, the spotlights sweep to the area of the stadium where the official teams are sitting. Screams go up as the announcer introduces each of the teams. My eyes stay fixed on them. I recognize the Demon Brigade’s distinct, white-and-gray outfits. Far from them sit the Phoenix Riders already chosen for this year’s team, led by Asher Wing, their flaming red hoods and jackets prominent. They utter a bunch of howls and whoops when the announcer says their name. Then come Team Andromeda, in hues of green and gold, and Team Winter Dragons, in ice-colored blue. Team Stormchasers, in black and yellow. Team Titans (purple), Team Cloud Knights (sapphire and silver). Even as I continue downloading information, I find myself distracted as the spotlights sweep over each team, hardly able to believe that I’m in the same space as them.

Finally, the announcer finishes. The stadium turns hushed as an assistant hands him a sealed envelope. “This year, the team who gets first pick of the wild cards is . . .” He pauses while he tears open the envelope in as dramatic a fashion as he can. His microphone picks up the sound, magnifying it until the entire dome sounds like it’s tearing apart. He pulls out a silver card, holds it up, and smiles. The holograms shift to show what the card says. “Team Phoenix Riders!”

In the official team section, the Phoenix Riders let out another round of whoops. Sitting in the middle of them, Asher Wing is looking down at our arc of wild-card seats with quiet concentration. My heart is hammering so hard now that I’m afraid it’s going to break my ribs.

The announcer waits for a moment as the Phoenix Riders exchange a few words between each other. The silence seems to stretch on forever. I catch myself leaning forward in my seat, eager to hear who they pick. Finally, Asher waves a hand once in front of him and submits his team’s pick to the announcer.

The announcer stares at their pick in his view, blinks a few times in surprise, and then waves his own hand once. The selection appears in enormous letters over his head, rotating slowly. Every hologram broadcasts it at the same time.

It’s my name.

10

“Emika Chen!

A chorus of surprised gasps echoes around the arena. There are people cheering around me, someone’s shaking my shoulders, and someone else is shouting enthusiastic words in my face. I just stare in shock. I know Hideo wanted to hide me in plain sight—but I didn’t think he would make me the
number one
draft pick. This has to be some sort of mistake.

“This is no mistake!” the announcer calls out, as if answering the thoughts in my head. He turns in a circle with his arms outstretched. “It seems this year’s number one draft pick will be an untested, untried, un
ranked
wild card”—he pronounces each word slowly, with huge emphasis—“who nevertheless impressed us all with her disruption of the opening ceremony game!” He rambles on, joking that perhaps Asher Wing of the Phoenix Riders—well-known for unconventional draft picks—has figured out something that the rest of us haven’t.

I just find myself staring blankly in the Phoenix Riders’ direction. Asher has his eyes trained on me, a smug grin spreading across his face. He’s one of the most intuitive captains out of anyone—he would have selected someone he could count on, experienced players who are ranked high. He wouldn’t pick me just for the spectacle. Would he? Did Hideo force his hand?

Is
he
Zero?

My gaze shifts up to the private box, where Hideo is still standing, looking straight toward me. Maybe he’d given the Phoenix Riders a command to choose me as the first pick. Maybe it really
is
for ratings. Maybe it’s to throw the hacker Zero off my scent, because I’m so publicly exposed. Or maybe it’s to throw off the other bounty hunters. Whatever the reason, I find myself wondering when I’ll get to talk to him again, to ask him the reasoning behind this.

Someone’s shaking my shoulders so hard that I can almost feel my brain sloshing around. It’s Ziggy.

“Do you understand how big this is?” she shrieks in my face. I'm unsure of how to respond. “It means you will get used to being followed everywhere for the next few months and being on every news outlet.
Heilige Scheiße!
” She shrieks the phrase so wildly that the translation doesn’t even try to interpret it. “Some people have all the luck.”

I finally manage to give her a faint smile, then settle in to try to watch the rest of the draft. My thoughts whirl as the announcer pulls a second set of cards and reads them out. The Demon Brigade chooses Ziggy, while the Phoenix Riders nab DJ Ren. The Titans get Alexa Romanovsky. The show continues, but I feel as if the spotlight is still on me. The flashes of light going off in the audience make me dizzy, and I wonder how many people have their
glasses trained on my profile, hunting and digging for anything they can find out about me.

“Hey.” Yuebin nudges me. “Look, up there.” He nods toward the private box. I follow his gaze, ready to see Hideo.

But Hideo is gone now. Only the rest of his company heads are there, chattering among themselves. Hideo’s bodyguards have left, too.

“It’s like he came here just to see where you would land,” Yuebin murmurs, clapping absently as another draft pick happens.

Just to see me drafted, the way he wanted me to be.
My thudding heart sinks a little, and I feel a strange sense of disappointment without his presence in the arena. I’m about to look back down—but something shifts in the corner of my vision. My eyes dart up to the ceiling.

I freeze.

There, crouched high in the ceiling’s maze of beams, is a dark, virtual figure.

I can’t see anything else about him except static. The silhouette of his head is turned down, watching the draft take place. No name floats over his head. Everything about his posture looks tense, alert.

Like he’s not supposed to be here.

A chill runs down my spine, turning my hands ice-cold. At the same time, my bounty hunter instincts kick in—
screenshot, record a screenshot.
I blink, right as the figure vanishes from sight.

“Hey,” I blurt out, looking over at Ziggy, who is cheering on a wild card drafted by the Stormchasers.

“Hmm?” Ziggy replies without looking at me.

“Did you see that?”

“See what?”

But it’s too late now. The figure is gone. I scan the ceiling again and again—perhaps the lights have blinded me so much that I can no longer see him—but he’s nowhere to be seen now. The lattices of metal and lights are empty.

He wasn’t actually here. He was a part of the virtual reality, a simulation. And only I could see him because of my hack.
Either that, or I just experienced an insane hallucination.

Ziggy frowns, squinting skyward. “See what?” she repeats with a shrug.

“I—” I stop myself, unsure what to say next without sounding crazy. I force a laugh. “Ah, never mind.”

Ziggy’s attention has already strayed back to the draft. But I keep my eyes on the ceiling, as if he might reappear if I look long enough. Did I catch him? As the others applaud another wild card, I bring up a small, secret panel of my screenshot.

Sure enough, there he is. I didn’t hallucinate it.


 

 

 

 

T
HE REMAINDER OF
the draft passes in a whirlwind. When it ends and the rest of the stadium starts filing out, guards come to usher the wild cards and the professional teams out through special exits. I walk in numbed silence, even as everyone I pass watches me and as some of the other wild cards occasionally come up to congratulate me. I smile back at them, unsure what to say. In the back of my mind, I still keep thinking about the figure.

Maybe it was one of the other bounty hunters. Or . . . maybe it was Zero. My target.

“Miss Chen,” one of the ushers calls to me, holding his hand out in my direction and waving. “This way, please.”

I follow him automatically. Behind me, Ziggy and Yuebin wave
farewell as they hurry off toward another usher who is rounding up the new Demon Brigade and Stormchaser drafts. “
Bye!
See you in a game!” Yuebin calls to me. I wave back.

I’m taken to a waiting car, one of a dozen sleek black vehicles in a line outside a private side exit. A cluster of fans have figured out where to wait, though, and as several of us step outside, they raise their posters and scream at us, holding out pens and booklets. Behind me, Asher Wing emerges from the exit with two handlers at his side. In virtual reality, Asher looks like a standing avatar; in real life, he is paralyzed from the waist down and sits in what must be the world’s most expensive wheelchair. Now that I’m close enough to him, I can take in the details of the chair’s solid gold rims and customized engraved leather.

I look back at his face, wondering whether I should go up to him and say a proper hello, but stop myself from interrupting as he winks at a blushing fan and scoots his chair back into the crowd for a bunch of photos. The crowd nearly swallows him up before his handlers push everyone off. Then I’m ushered into a car, and my moment passes. I’ll have to catch him later, when our team convenes.

The cars take off one at a time, each heading in the same direction down the same road. I know where we’re going—I’ve watched it play out on TV a dozen times. In the heart of Tokyo is the secure neighborhood of Mejiro, where a gated estate of luxury quarters house Warcross teams for the duration of the tournament. It doesn’t take us long to get there. As we pull up to the gate, reporters and fans cluster on the sidewalks, flying little drones in the sky to take as much video as they can. Several of the drones hover too close to the gates—when they try to cross over, they hit an invisible shield that disables them, sending them clattering to the ground.

“No cameras, no drones,” the guard at the gate repeats over and over in a bored tone.

We enter the campus. Patches of green lawn dot the space, and sprinkled between them are individual buildings surrounded by trees. Through my contacts, a virtual layer of bright colors adorns the buildings, painting each one in the colors of their respective team. Team names and logos hover helpfully over each dormitory, along with a cheery
Welcome!
message that rotates in different languages. Approved delivery drones fly in and out of each dorm, busily dropping off packages.

The car pulls to a stop at a dead end. Someone is waiting for me on the curb as my door swings open.

I find myself looking at Asher’s grinning face. I hadn’t even noticed that his car was ahead of mine. Over his head floats his name, level, and
Phoenix Riders Captain
. “Hey,” he greets, holding a hand out to me. Behind him, clusters of other players are already making their way down the paths toward their buildings. “I’m Asher, repping Los Angeles. Call me Ash.”

I shake his hand. “Yeah, I know,” I reply, trying not to think about the fact that this is someone I’ve watched in Warcross games for years. “I’m a fan of your brother’s movies. Didn’t think I’d get to talk to you today.”

His expression flickers cold for an instant at the mention of his brother, but then he’s back to normal, giving me a little laugh. “Sorry,” he replies. “I wanted to greet you when we were heading to our cars, but you know—fans first.”

I smile. “Well, thanks for picking me.”

“Wasn’t doing it out of charity.” Asher shakes his head. “The Phoenix Riders have been struggling for years. We need some good fresh blood. There’s nothing generous about wanting the best for my team.” His wheelchair turns away, and he tilts his head
at me to follow him. “This is where you’ll be staying for the next few months,” he says as we turn a corner. I look ahead to see a stunning building painted virtually with swirls of red, gold, and white. “I heard Hideo himself approved your nomination into the draft. After the stunt you pulled in the opening ceremony, it’s a pretty interesting move.”

I smile again, a little more hesitantly this time. “I guess I’m good for the ratings,” I reply.

“I guess you are.”

Careful,
I remind myself as I hear the curiosity in Asher’s voice. So, Hideo hadn’t forced him to draft me. Or, perhaps he knew that the intrigue he’d create over putting me in the draft would be enough to interest any captain. Whatever the real reason, at least Asher doesn’t sound like he suspects Hideo’s plans, and I intend to keep it that way. The less everyone here knows about what Hideo hired me for, the better chance I’ll have at catching our guy.

“And it looks like it’s good for
your
ratings, too,” I say, shifting the topic. “The Phoenix Riders are trending online over every other team. I bet the Demon Brigade’s unhappy about that.”

At the mention of a rival team, Asher rests his head back against his wheelchair and taps his right hand against his armrest. He smiles in a way that flashes one of his canines, turning the grin vicious. “The Demon Brigade’s always unhappy about something. Glad it’s because of us this time.”

We reach our building. Asher rolls up the access ramp and spins his chair once in a flourish at the top. He stops at the towering main entrance, a sheer glass door painted with stripes in our team colors, and pulls aside as the panels slide open. “Wild cards first,” he says.

I step inside, into an open space three floors high.
Into a dream.
The sun pours into this central atrium from a pyramid-shaped glass ceiling, flooding the place with light. Directly beneath the glass ceiling is a heated turquoise pool, perfectly square and ready to be jumped into. Brightly colored couches—all red, gold, and white—and thick white rugs dot the living room space. The walls are made out of screens from floor to ceiling. Even as I take in the luxurious interior, I scan the corners of the building, already searching for how the dorm gets online. I’ll need to find my way into the system and into everyone’s accounts.

Something nudges me hesitantly on my calf. I look down. Standing there, blinking up at me, is a boxy little robot as tall as my knee. Its eyes are bright blue and the shape of half-moons, its body painted a cheerful yellow, and its belly is covered with a clear glass panel, through which I can see a tray of sodas being chilled inside. When it sees me staring, it sticks its belly out, pops open the glass door, and pulls out the soda tray for me.

“His name is Wikki,” Asher says. “Our team drone. Go ahead, take a soda.”

I don’t know what to say to that, really, so I pick a can. “He’s still staring at me,” I murmur to Asher.

“He wants to see if you like the drink.”

I take a sip of the soda. It’s delicious, a fizzy strawberry flavor that tickles my insides. I make an exaggerated sound of joy. Wikki seems to take note of this, and over his head, a virtual set of info pops up:

Emika Chen | Strawberry Soda | +1

“He’ll record your food and drink preferences throughout your stay,” Asher adds.

A robot that tracks everyone’s info. I smile at Asher, but not
for the reason he thinks.
This is my ticket in.
I make a mental note to figure out how to break into Wikki’s system later.

Wikki offers a soda to Asher, too, then pops its belly shut and rolls off to where a boy is sitting on the couches. As I look on, the boy moves his hands in midair as if turning a steering wheel, and every now and then he makes a flinging motion. On the wall is a track winding through candy-colored hills, populated by giant mushrooms. He whips down the path, outpacing other players easily.

“Mario Kart: Link Edition, as you can see,” Asher says. “It’s a tradition around here.”

“A tradition?”

“We play for an hour every night during training to improve our speed reflexes. It gets pretty competitive.” Then he claps his hands together loudly and raises his voice so that it fills the dorm. “Riders! Who’s here?”

The boy hears Asher first, pauses the game, pops his earphones off, and turns around on the couch to look at his captain. I recognize him right away: the world-famous Roshan Ahmadi, with his brown skin and head of thick, dark curls, representing Great Britain.

“Guess who I’ve got with me?” Asher says, pointing to my hair.

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