Authors: Marie Lu
Tags: #YA, #Carly
He glances over his shoulder. “She’s on. Want a word?”
He’s talking to Hideo,
I realize, and my heart leaps into my throat in panic at the thought that he might see me right now.
Hideo’s unmistakable voice answers from somewhere behind Kenn that I can’t see. “Not now,” he replies. “Give her my best.”
My moment of panic turns into a stab of disappointment. I shouldn’t be surprised—he must be busy. Kenn turns back to give
me an apologetic nod. “You’ll have to excuse him,” he says. “If he seems a bit distant, I assure you it has little to do with his enthusiasm for you. Nothing can pull him away when he’s in the middle of working on something. He wants to thank you for coming here on such short notice.”
Kenn sounds like he’s used to apologizing for his boss.
What is Hideo working on?
Already, I’m trying to figure out what kind of new virtual reality they have installed in their headquarters. Kenn’s not wearing any glasses, for one. The fact that I can hear Hideo reply even though he’s not logged in or wearing glasses, or that I can see Kenn talking to me live like this, is definitely new tech. “Believe me,” I reply, glancing pointedly around the plane. “I’m not bothered.”
Kenn’s grin widens. “I can’t give you many details yet about why you’re coming here. That will be up to Hideo. He’s looking forward to meeting you.” Another wave of warmth washes over me. “But he has asked me to tell you a couple of things, to prepare you.”
I lean forward in my chair. “Yes?”
“We’ll have a team ready to take you to your hotel once you arrive.” He holds both hands up. “A few of your new fans may be gathered at the airport to greet you. But don’t worry. Your safety is our priority.”
I blink. I’d seen the list of articles that had popped up this morning, and there had been the crowd of journalists in front of our apartment. But in
too? “Thanks,” I decide to say.
Kenn drums his fingers once on the table. I hear it. “After you arrive, you’ll have the night to rest. The following morning, you’ll come here to the Henka Games headquarters to meet Hideo. He’ll tell you everything you need to know about the draft.”
Kenn’s last words make me freeze. It’s such a crazy thought
that at first I don’t know how to react. “Wait,” I say. “Hang on. Did you just say . . . the
“The draft to determine this year’s players in the official Warcross championships?” He winks, as if he’d been waiting for me to catch on. “Well, well, I guess I did. Congratulations.”
Every year, a
month before the official games actually begin, there is the Wardraft—an event watched by pretty much anyone and everyone interested in Warcross. This is where the official Warcross teams select the players who will be on their teams for this year’s games. Everyone knows, of course, that the seasoned players will probably be selected again. Players like Asher and Jena, for example. But there are always a handful of wild cards thrown into the draft, amateur players nominated because they are so good at the game. Some of the wild cards then rise to become the regularly chosen players.
be a wild card.
It makes no sense. I’m a good Warcross player, but I’ve never had the time or money to get enough experience or levels to hit the world leaderboards. In fact, I’ll be the only wild card in this year’s draft who
internationally ranked. And who has a criminal record.
I try to sleep on the plane. But even though the luxurious, full-length bed feels better than any mattress I’ve ever been on, I just end up tossing and turning. Finally, I give up and pull out my phone, load up my mod of
Sonic the Hedgehog 2,
and start a new game. The familiar, tinny music of Emerald Hill Zone pops up. As I run down a path I’ve long ago memorized, I can feel my nerves calming, my heartbeat steadying a bit as I forget about the day and instead worry about when I need to jump-attack a sixteen-bit robot.
I have a job offer for you.
That’s what Hideo had said, an offer he’d tell me more about in person. That doesn’t sound like something he’d do for every other wild-card player in the games.
My thoughts go to the stories I’ve heard about Hideo. Most have never seen him without a proper collar shirt and dress pants, or a formal tuxedo suit. His smiles are rare and reserved. An employee had said in a magazine interview that you were qualified to work at Henka Games only if you could withstand the scrutiny of his piercing stare while giving him a presentation. I’ve seen live broadcasts of reporters stumbling over their questions in his presence while he waited patiently and politely.
I imagine what our meeting will be like. It’s possible he’ll take one look at me and send me back to New York without a word.
The time hovering over the ceiling of my bed tells me that it’s four a.m. in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Maybe I’ll never be able to sleep again. My thoughts whirl. We’ll land in Tokyo in a few hours, and then I’m going to talk to Hideo.
I might play in the official Warcross games.
The thought turns over and over in my head. How is this even possible? Last night, I’d hacked into the Warcross opening ceremony in a desperate attempt to make some fast money. Today, I’m headed to Tokyo on a private jet, on a trip that might change my life forever. What would Dad think?
I access my account and bring up a scrolling menu, the words a transparent white in my view. I reach out to tap on one hovering menu item.
When I select this, the menu brings up a scrolling subset of options. Each one I look at for longer than a second starts to play a preview of a Memory that I had stored. There are Memories of Keira and me celebrating our first night in the little studio we’d rented, and of me holding out my first check after my first successful bounty hunt. Then there are my Shared Favorites, Memories created by others that anyone can enjoy—like being in Frankie Dena’s shoes as she performs at the Super Bowl, or standing in the place of a little boy being swarmed by a pile of puppies, a Memory that has been shared over a billion times.
Finally, I go to my most treasured subset—my oldest Memories, stored in a separate Favorites category. These are old videos that I recorded on a phone before the NeuroLink even came out, videos that I later downloaded into my account. They are of my father. I scroll through them until I settle on one. It’s my tenth birthday, and Dad’s hands are covering my eyes. Even though it’s an old, grainy phone video, it fills my view through my glasses like a giant screen. I feel the same anticipation that I’d felt that day, get the same surge of joy as Dad’s hands opened to reveal a painting he’d made of us, walking through a world of colorful paint strokes that looks like Central Park at twilight. I jump up and down, twirl the painting around, and get up on a chair to hold it aloft. My father smiles up at me, then reaches his arms out to help me hop down. It plays until it runs out and automatically
goes to the next Memory in my storage. Dad in a black peacoat and bright red scarf, guiding me down the halls of the Museum of Modern Art. Dad teaching me how to paint. Dad and me picking out peonies in the Flower District while rain pours down outside. Dad shouting
Happy New Year!
with me on a rooftop overlooking Times Square.
The Memories play over and over, until I can’t tell whether or not they’ve started again from the beginning, and gradually, I drift off into sleep, surrounded by ghosts.
N MY DREAMS,
I’m back in high school, revisiting what led to my criminal record.
Annie Pattridge was an awkward, shy girl in my high school, a kid with gentle eyes who kept to herself and ate her lunches in a corner of the school’s little library. Sometimes I ran across her in there. I wasn’t her friend, exactly, but we were
—we’d chatted a couple of times about our shared love of Harry Potter and Warcross and
League of Legends
and computers. Other times, I’d see her picking her books off the ground after someone had knocked them out of her arms, or catch her backed up against the lockers while a bunch of kids stuck gum in her hair, or glimpse her stumbling out of the girls’ bathroom with a crack in her glasses.
But then, one day, a boy working on a group project with Annie managed to snap a photo of her showering in the privacy of her own home. The next morning, Annie’s naked photo had been sent to every student in school, shared on the school’s homework forums, and posted online. Then came the taunts. The printouts of the photo, all cruelly drawn on. The death threats.
Annie dropped out a week later.
On the day she did, I got the data of every student (and a few teachers) who’d shared the photo. School admin systems? As much a joke to break as a PC with the password
. From there, I hacked into every single one of their phones. I downloaded all of their personal info—their parents’ credit card data, Social Security numbers, phone numbers, all the hateful emails and texts they’d sent anonymously to Annie, and, of course, most incriminating, their private photos. I took extra care to get everything from the boy who had taken the original picture. Then I posted all of it online, titling it: “Trolls in the Dungeon.”
Imagine the uproar the next day. Crying students, furious parents, school-wide assembly, snippets in the local papers. Then, the police. Then, me expelled. Then, me sitting in court.
Accessing computer systems without authorization. Intentional release of sensitive data. Reckless conduct. Four months in juvenile hall. Banned from touching a computer for two years. A permanent red mark on my record, age be damned, because of the nature of the crime.
Maybe I was wrong, and maybe someday I’ll look back and regret lashing out like that. I’m still not entirely sure why I threw myself into the fire over this specific incident. But sometimes, people kick you to the ground at recess because they think the shape of your eyes is funny. They lunge at you because they see a vulnerable body. Or a different skin color. Or a difficult name. They think that you won’t hit back—that you’ll just lower your eyes and hide. And sometimes, to protect yourself, to make it go away, you do.
you find yourself standing in exactly the right position, wielding exactly the right weapon to hit back. So I hit. I
hit fast and hard and furious. I hit with nothing but the language whispered between circuits and wire, the language that can bring people to their knees.
And in spite of everything, I’d do it all over again.
HEN WE FINALLY
touch down, I’m an exhausted mess. I pull on my crumpled shirt, then grab my backpack holding my few belongings and follow the flight attendant down the ramp. My eyes go to the Japanese text printed over the entrance into the airport’s terminals. I can’t understand any of it—but I don’t have to, because an English translation appears above them in my virtual view.
TO HANEDA AIRPORT!
L CONNECTING FLIGHTS
A man in a black suit is waiting for me at the bottom of the ramp. Unlike in New York, here I can see his name floating over his head, telling me that his name is Jiro Yamada. He smiles through his shades, bows to me, and then looks behind me as if expecting more suitcases. When he sees none, he takes my backpack and skateboard, then welcomes me.
It takes me a second to register that Jiro is speaking to me in Japanese—and that it doesn’t matter, because I can see transparent white text appearing right below his face, English subtitles translating what he’s saying. “Welcome, Miss Chen,” the text says. “You are precleared through customs. Come.”
As I follow him to a waiting car, I scan the tarmac. No journalists waiting for me here. I relax at that. I get into the car—identical to the one that had taken me to the airport in New York—and it rolls me to the exit. Just like before, it puts on a tranquil scene (this time of a cool, quiet forest) to play on the car’s windows.
Here’s where the crowd is. As we approach the exit gate, a cluster of people rush forward near the ticket booth and flash cameras at us. I only see them through the front window. Even then, I find myself shrinking into my chair.
Jiro lowers his window a sliver to yell at the journalists to move out of the way. When they finally do, the car zooms forward, the tires screeching a little as we swerve onto the street that leads to the freeway.
“Can we take the scenery off the windows?” I ask Jiro. “I’ve never seen Tokyo before.”
Instead of Jiro answering me, the car does. “Of course, Miss Chen,” it says.
Of course, Miss Chen.
I don’t think I’ll ever get used to that. The windows’ forest scene fades away, leaving the glass clear. I stare in awe at the city we’re approaching.
I’ve seen Tokyo on TV, online, and inside Warcross’s Tokyo Night level. I’ve fantasized about being here so much, I’ve seen it in my dreams.
But now I’m actually
. And it’s even better than any of that.
Skyscrapers that disappear into the evening clouds. Highways stacked on top of one another, drenched in the red and gold lights of cars racing by. High-speed rails running in the sky and disappearing underground. Commercials playing on screens eighty stories tall. Kaleidoscopes of color and sound, everywhere I look. I don’t know what to take in first. As we near the heart of Tokyo, the streets turn crowded, until the sea of people jamming the sidewalks makes Times Square look empty by comparison. I don’t realize my mouth is hanging open until Jiro looks back at me and chuckles.
“I see that expression a lot,” he says (or rather, my English subtitle tells me he’s saying).
I swallow, embarrassed that he caught me gaping, and close my mouth. “Is this downtown Tokyo?”
“Tokyo is too large to have a single downtown district. There are two dozen wards, each with their own characteristics. We’re entering Shibuya now.” He pauses to smile. “I’d recommend putting on your glasses.”
I put the glasses back on, tap their side to put them on clear mode, and when I do, I gasp.
Unlike New York, or the rest of America, Tokyo seems completely redone for virtual reality. Names of buildings hover in neon colors over each of the skyscrapers, and bright, animated advertisements play across entire sides of buildings. Virtual models stand outside clothing shops, each twirling to show off a variety of outfits. I recognize one of the virtual models as a character from the latest
game, a girl with bright blue hair, now greeting me by name and showing off her Louis Vuitton purse. A
button hovers right over it, waiting to be tapped.
The sky is filled with virtual flying ships and colorful orbs, some displaying news, others displaying commercials, still others just there seemingly because they look pretty. As we drive, I can see faint, translucent text in the center of my vision telling us how many kilometers we are from the center of the Shibuya district, as well as the current temperature and weather forecast.
The streets are crowded with young people in elaborate getups—giant lace skirts, elaborate umbrellas, ten-inch-tall boots, eyelashes that seem miles long, face masks that glow in the dark. Some of them have their Warcross level floating over their heads, along with hearts and stars and trophies. Others have virtual pets
trotting alongside them, bright purple virtual dogs or sparkling silver virtual tigers. Still others wear all kinds of avatar items, virtual cat ears or antlers on their heads, enormous angel wings on their backs, hair and eyes in every color.
“Since it is officially game season now,” Jiro explains, “you will see this quite often.” He nods toward a person on the street with
over her head, smiling as several people give her high fives and congratulate her on her high rank. A virtual pet falcon swoops in circles around her head, its tail blazing with fire. “Here, almost everything you do will earn you points toward your level in the Link. Going to school. Going to work. Cooking dinner. And so on. Your level can earn you rewards in the real world, anything from popularity with your classmates to better service at restaurants, to an edge over others for a job interview.”