Read Warcross Online

Authors: Marie Lu

Tags: #YA, #Carly

Warcross (12 page)

“You’re so subtle, Ash,” Roshan replies in a dry British accent that sounds more casual than Hideo’s. He nods once at me. “Hello, Emika. I’m Roshan.”

“He’s returning as our Shield this year,” Asher adds. “And he’s also the world’s top-ranked Mario Kart player, in case you’re curious.”

“Hey.” I take one hand out of my pocket and give him a single wave. “An honor to meet you in person.”

Roshan seems pleased by that. He offers me a brief smile. “Likewise, love.”

“We’ve all claimed our rooms already,” Asher says, nodding toward the hall that branches away from the main atrium. “Roshan wanted the one with the largest windows. I got the far end, which has some custom upgrades detailed specifically for me. Captain’s privileges. Ren’s back at the end of the hall. And as for you—”

“Hey!”

A voice calls down at us from one of the floors overhead. I look up to see a girl leaning her elbows over the balcony, loudly chewing gum. Her hair is a jumble of beautiful black curls that frames her round face, and she’s dressed in an oversize, white sports jersey that contrasts with her brown skin. On second look, her shirt isn’t a sports jersey at all—it’s a T-shirt that says
QUIDDITCH TRYOUTS
in giant sports lettering.

I like her immediately.

“That’s Hamilton Jiménez,” Asher tells me, loudly enough so that she can hear him. “Or just Hammie. She’s our Thief.” He winks at her. “And my right-hand girl.”

She grins back at him. “Feeling sentimental today, Captain?”

He looks at me. “Fair warning: don’t let her talk you into playing chess.”

“Don’t hate just because you can’t win.” She blows an enormous bubble and then sucks it back in. Her gaze jumps to me. “Your room’s up here. Second floor. I took the larger bedroom, since you’re a wild card and I’m not. Hope you don’t mind.”

I wait to see a fourth player show his face, but the house falls into a moment of silence. “Where’s DJ Ren?” I ask.

“Won’t see him until later,” Asher replies. “Ren’s prepping for the party tonight. It’s the only free pass he’ll get from me,
especially since I’m counting on him to be our new Fighter. And let that be a lesson for you, too, Emi. We’re here to win.”

“Of course,” I say.

“Good.” He nods, considering me. “Hope you’re as good an Architect as I think you are.”

Hearing this from him sends a jolt of excitement and anxiety through me. An Architect’s job is to manipulate the world of the level in favor of her team. If there’s an obstacle, like a bridge, I would collapse it to let us through. If there are floating rocks, I’d push them together to create a bigger platform. An Architect is a designer of the level, dedicated to changing the world on the spot in favor of her team. It’s one of the most important jobs on a team. Last year, the Phoenix Riders lost their Architect because he’d been caught gambling away millions on Warcross games. The entire team was punished heavily, too—knocked down to the bottom of the rankings and stripped of their top two players.

“I’ll do my best,” I say.

“Tomorrow,” Asher continues as I follow him into an elevator leading up to the second floor, “we’ll catch you and Ren up on how things work in the championship games. I’ll walk you both through an official game. Although you”—he pauses to spin around and give me a calculating look—“may already know more than you let on.”

I hold my hands up. “It was an accident,” I say, feeling like I’ve repeated this forever. “I didn’t know what I was doing.”

“You
did
know,” Asher counters without hesitation. “In fact, you’re a much better Warcross player than your level suggests. Aren’t you?” He nods up at the numbers above my head. “After your name went viral, I looked up your Warcross account. I studied the few games that you did play. Those are
not
the skills of an
Architect who is only on Level 28. Why are you so much better than your level suggests?”

“What makes you say that? I just play against other beginners.”

“You think I can’t see through that?”

He
has
been paying attention to me. It’s true—I stream my plays live, when I’m actually linked in under my public Warcross account. But my encrypted, anonymous self is the account I use more often. All the hours I rack up under it don’t count into my leveling. Still, I’m not about to tell Asher that.

“I just haven’t had the money or time to play as often as I want,” I say. “But I’m a pretty fast learner.”

Asher doesn’t seem to buy this at all, but he lets it slide. “Every other team is going to underestimate you. They’ll say I’ve lost my touch, that I picked you just for the news coverage it’ll get the Riders. But we know better than that, don’t we? I don’t waste my time on players with no potential. You’re a weapon in disguise—and I intend to keep it that way until our first game.”

It seems I’m becoming the weapon in disguise for more people than I’d like.

We reach the second floor. Asher spins to face me, leans his head against the back of his chair, and exchanges a look with Hammie. She just nods at him, bunches up her curls on her head, and lets them go again. “Hammie will show you the rest,” Asher says. “We’re heading out in a few hours to the opening party.” He starts rolling back toward the elevator. “All the players will be out in force. If you’ve never seen an opening party before, brace yourself. It’s a wild one.”

Hammie looks me over the instant Asher leaves. She’s the same height as me, but somehow, the jut of her chin makes her look taller than she is. She motions me forward and heads to the
door closest to us. “This is your room,” she says over her shoulder at me.

I half expect the door to swing open like a regular door, but instead it slides to one side. The room is enormous—even larger than the penthouse hotel suite that I had. One entire glass wall opens up to my own private patio, half of which is taken up by a shimmering blue infinity pool that goes all the way to the edge of the balcony. A waterfall cascades into the pool from somewhere on the roof. The rest of the walls are virtually painted by my lenses with ivory and shimmering gold. When I reach out to touch the colors, they ripple under my fingers, sending waves across my room. At the same time, three small buttons right above my hand hover against the wall. One says
Off,
another says
Switch Scene,
while a third says
Customize
. I decide to turn off the colors for now, then press the first button. The walls are replaced by blank space. I look around. My bed is huge, piled high with furry cushions and blankets, and my rugs match the ones downstairs. A work area dominates the rest of the space—chairs, a clean desk.

Hammie grins at my expression. “And yours is the smallest room,” she says.

I turn back to the space. “This place is ridiculous.”

“Everything in the dorm is gameified,” she explains. “Like the rest of Tokyo. You’ll earn three notes every time you customize your walls, and one note for switching the scenery. The room’s preprogrammed to your Warcross account. If you’re logged in, then the house system knows you’re the one who’s coming inside.”

“How does this work?” I ask.

She walks over and nods at an
On
button hovering near the surface of the desk, but doesn’t try to touch it. “You’re the only one who can turn on your work area,” she says. “Press that.”

I touch it. The instant I do, the previously blank desk lights up soft stripes in our team colors, with a welcome message for me over it in white text. A second later, a holographic screen rises up from the desk. It’s a standard desktop display—except it’s floating in midair. These types of desktops have only recently started shipping in the States, and they’re, of course, way out of my price range.

Hammie smiles at my expression. “Swipe the screen toward your walls,” she says.

I touch the screen with two fingers, then make a swiping motion toward the wall we’re facing. The display on the screen follows my fingers, flying from the screen onto the wall, where it fills up the entire space, fully magnified.

“The downstairs living room has the best work area, of course,” Hammie adds. “But this is in all of our rooms. Good for any impromptu team meetings.”

If the same system is installed downstairs, then each room’s desktop isn’t nearly as secure as she thinks it is. I can work my way into the main system, and then I’ll be able to get into each of their individual systems, too, regardless of who the work area is tailored for. I smile at the gorgeous, wall-size display. “Thanks.”

“I was starting to think no American would ever be the number one pick.” Hammie tucks a curl behind her ear. “Nice to have you on the team. Maybe I’ll stop teasing Ash and target you for a change.” She winks and turns away before I can respond.

I stay where I am until she steps out of my room and the door slides shut behind her. Then I put my hands on my hips and admire the room. My space. In the
Phoenix Riders’
official house. I walk over to where my few belongings have been delivered and placed by my bed, then take out my Christmas ornament and Dad’s painting. I prop them carefully up on the shelf. They look
small there, too simple for this luxurious room. I imagine Dad standing beside me.

Well, Emi,
he’d say, pushing his glasses up.
Well, well.

At the thought of my father, my attention goes to my closet. With a tap of my finger against the door, it slides open, revealing a space as large as the studio where Keira and I lived.

Holy hell.

The closet is already filled with an assortment of clothes, every single one of them a high-end brand. I stare in disbelief before I walk inside, running my hands along the hangers. Each item is easily worth thousands—shirts, jeans, dresses, coats, shoes, purses and clutches, belts and jewelry. My hand stops at the shoe rack, where I pick up an exquisite pair of white, red, and green kicks that smell like new leather, the heels decorated with gold studs. Like everything else in the closet, the shoes still have a tag hanging on them, accompanied by a small greeting card.

GUCCI

Official Sponsor of
Warcross Championships VIII

Sponsored gifts. No wonder every professional player always looks like they just stepped off a runway. I slip off my well-worn boots, tuck them carefully in one corner, and then try on the new shoes. They fit like a glove.

An hour flies by while I feverishly try on everything in my closet. There’s even a shelf dedicated to face masks in all colors and patterns, an accessory I’ve seen worn all over Tokyo. I try a few of them on, pulling their straps over each of my ears so that the mask covers my mouth and nose. Might be a good thing to have if I need to go around the city unrecognized.

When I’m done, I stand there, still decked out in lavish items, breathless and uneasy. Each thing in here costs more than my entire debt before Hideo erased it.

Hideo.

I shake my head, put everything back, and step out of my closet. There’ll be plenty of time later to admire all of this—for now, back to work. Hideo had made sure that I would be drafted onto a team, but now it would be up to me to make sure my team won each round. The longer the Phoenix Riders stay in the championship tournaments, the more time I have to investigate the players.

At this very moment, other hunters are probably hot on Zero's trail, reporting their findings to Hideo while I gape at my new wardrobe. They would have been at the Wardraft, too. What if they also saw the dark silhouette perched in the ceiling’s scaffolding? Right now, somebody else might be earning ten million dollars; I might already be doomed to return to New York. And here I am, playing around in my new closet.

I jerk into motion.

First, I bring up my shields and switch to the anonymous, invisible version of my account. Then I sit down on the edge of my bed and pull up the screenshot I’d taken earlier of the dome’s scaffolding. The image is a 3-D capture, one that I can rotate from its point of origin. In addition, it’s caught all of the data and code running in the dome at the moment of capture.

I squint at the static silhouette in my 3-D screenshot. Zooming in on it only makes it blurrier. I can see the code running the virtual simulations around the dome—but I can’t see any code or data on this shape. I type in a few commands and strip away the visuals of the screenshot, so that I’m now immersed inside reams of code. Where his silhouette is, I can only see a patch of static.

I sit back, pondering. He is hidden from me, in every single way—except that I could
see
him. He probably didn’t expect that. If this is Zero, then he’s not disguising himself as well as he should be. But the Tokyo Dome is on its own network of connections for the Wardraft. The easiest way for this person to have hacked his way up there is if he was already approved to enter the arena, and had already physically cleared security. Someone in the audience, then. Or a player, like Hideo suspects. Or a wild card.

I lean forward again and switch back to the visuals, then zoom in to break down the code that generated the image of him. A stripped-down view of the code pops up. I read through it as I chew absently on the inside of my cheek.

Then I see something that makes me pause. It’s just a line. Not even a line—a pair of letters and a zero, lost in the code. A clue.

WC0

In most of the Warcross code, players are referred to by their Warcross IDs, written as
WPN
.
WP
stands for Warcross Player.
N
is a randomized, scrambled number. So, if I’m looking at code about my own avatar, I’d probably see myself referred to as WP39302824 or something like that.

The
only
time a different ID is used for Warcross players is at the Wardraft. During the draft, players aren’t referred to in the code by their regular IDs. They don’t use
WP
. Instead, they are
WC
—Wild Cards. My ID in the Wardraft was WC40, because I was the last entry added into the draft.

WC0.
Whoever the silhouette was, it was someone physically cleared to be there in the Tokyo Dome. A wild card in the Wardraft. Hideo’s suspicions were pretty close.

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