Read Warcross Online

Authors: Marie Lu

Tags: #YA, #Carly

Warcross (8 page)

I nod as I look on in awe. I’ve heard many parts of the world are tricked out like this. As if on cue, a transparent bubble appears in my center view with a pleasant

First Time in Tokyo!

+350 Points. Daily Score: +350

You leveled up!

My level jumps from 24 to 25. I feel a rush of exhilaration at the sight.

Half an hour later, we turn onto a quiet street sloping up a hill and stop in front of a hotel near the top. The name—Crystal Tower Hotel—and address float over the roof. I may have never been to Tokyo before, but even I can tell that this is in an upper-class neighborhood, with perfectly clean sidewalks and neat rows of cherry trees not yet in bloom. The hotel itself is at least twenty
stories tall, sleekly designed, with a virtual image of floating koi swimming across its entire side.

Jiro holds my backpack as I scoot out of the car. The edges of the sliding glass doors light up as we approach it, and when we step inside, two attendants bow at us from either side of the entrance. I bow my head awkwardly back.

“Welcome to Tokyo, Miss Chen,” the hotel’s registration attendee says to me as we reach the front desk. Over her head is her name—
Sakura Morimoto
, followed by
Front Desk
Level 39
. She bows her head at me.

“Hi,” I reply. “Thanks.”

“Mr. Tanaka has requested our best suite for you. Please,” she says, holding out an arm toward the elevators. “This way.”

We follow her into an elevator, where she pushes the button for the top floor. My heart starts to hammer again. Hideo had personally requested my room. I can’t even remember the last time I stayed in a real hotel—it must have been back when Dad had managed to get an invite to New York Fashion Week, and the two of us got to stay in a tiny little boutique hotel because I’d caught the eye of some modeling scout. But it was nothing even close to this.

When we reach the top floor, the attendant guides us to the only door along the hall. She hands me a keycard. “Please enjoy,” she says with a smile. Then she swipes the door open and guides me in.

It’s a penthouse suite. We walk into a space that is several times larger than anywhere I’ve ever lived. A basket of fresh fruit and green tea–flavored snacks sits on the glass coffee table. There’s a bedroom and a living room with a curved glass window stretching from floor to ceiling that overlooks a glittering Tokyo. From here, with my new glasses on, I can see the virtual names
of streets and buildings blinking in and out as I move around the room. Icons—hearts, stars, thumbs-ups—cluster over various parts of the city, emphasizing areas where the most people have bookmarked favorite spots, shops, or meet-ups with friends. I walk toward the windows until my shoes bump up against the glass, then look out at the city in wonder. Warcross’s virtual Tokyo is a sight to behold—but this is
and the knowledge of it
real makes me light-headed.

A transparent bubble pops up again:

Checked into Crystal Tower Hotel Penthouse Suite 1

+150 Pts. Daily Score: +500

Level 25 |

“It’s even better than I imagined,” I say.

The attendant smiles, even though it must be a pretty silly thing for her to hear. “Thank you
Miss Chen,” she says with another bow. “If you need anything during your stay, just let me know, and I will see to it.”

As she closes the door behind her, I do one more full turn around the room. My stomach growls as if in response, reminding me that I could use a proper meal.

I walk over to the coffee table, where an option called in-room dining is floating over it. I tap the virtual words and I’m suddenly surrounded by dishes hovering in midair. There must be hundreds of options: enormous burgers dripping with melted cheese, plates of spaghetti thick with sauce and meatballs, assorted platters of sushi, steaming bowls of noodle soups in rich broth, crispy fried chicken with rice, fluffy pork buns and pan-fried dumplings, stews thick with meat and vegetables, silky soft dessert mochi with sweet red bean filling . . . the dishes go on and on.

My head spins as I finally settle on fried chicken and dumplings. While I wait, I spend a full ten minutes trying to figure out how to use the toilet and another ten minutes turning the lights on and off just by waving my hands before me. And when my order arrives, everything tastes even better than it looks. I’ve never had a meal as fancy as this—I can’t even remember the last time I ate something that didn’t come out of a box.

When I can’t eat another bite, I wander to the bed and flop on it with a contented sigh. The bed is ridiculously comfortable, firm enough that I can just sink slowly into it until it feels like I’m lying on a cloud. My mattress back in our tiny studio had been salvaged for free off the sidewalk, a ratty old spring pad that squeaked like hell every time I moved on it. Now, here I am, staying in this vast penthouse suite that Hideo himself had requested for me.

My contented mood wavers, and abruptly I have a sensation of
. A girl like me simply shouldn’t be touching these luxury linens, eating this expensive food, sleeping in this room larger than any home I’ve ever been in. My gaze wanders to the corner of the suite, searching for the mattresses lying on the floor, Keira’s figure huddled under a blanket on the couch. She would have looked at me with that wide-eyed stare.
Can you believe this?
she’d say.

I want to reply to her, to someone. But she’s not here. Nothing familiar is here, except for myself.

Tomorrow morning, ten o’clock.
It occurs to me that I don’t even have appropriate clothes to wear—no interview suits, no proper slacks or blouses. I’m going to walk into Henka Games tomorrow looking like a kid literally plucked from the streets. This is how I’m going to meet the most famous young man in the world.

What if Hideo realizes he’s made a huge mistake?


A pair of
torn jeans, with both of my knees showing through. My favorite old T-shirt with a vintage print of
on it. The same beat-up pair of boots I wear almost every day. A red plaid flannel shirt, faded from too many washes.

Dad would be horrified.

Despite how comfortable the bed is, I’d tossed and turned all night. I’d woken up at the crack of dawn, bleary-eyed and disoriented, my head crowded with thoughts. Now I have bags under my eyes, and my skin has seen better days.

I’d ironed my poor plaid flannel as well as I could,
but the collar still looks crumpled and worn. I roll the sleeves up neatly to my elbows, then tug the shirt as straight as I can. In the mirror, I try to pretend it’s a sharp blazer. The only thing I like this morning is my hair, which seems to be cooperating with me. It’s thick and straight, and the rainbow of colors in it shines in the morning light. But I don’t have any makeup to cover the dark circles under
my eyes—and with exactly thirteen dollars to my name, I’m not about to go out and blow it on face creams and concealer. Both my T-shirt and the flannel look hopelessly old and worn when contrasted with everything bright and new in this penthouse suite. The sole of my left boot is noticeably peeling off. The holes in my jeans look even bigger than I remember.

Game studios aren’t exactly known for strict dress codes, but even
must have some sort of etiquette for meeting the top bosses.

For meeting
top boss in the entire industry.

A pleasant
echoes around the suite, and a light near my bed’s headrest alerts me to an incoming call. I tap to accept it, and a moment later, Sakura Morimoto’s voice comes on through speakers hidden throughout my room. “Good morning, Miss Chen.” Over the speakers, with no virtual overlays, she switches to speaking English. “Your car is waiting outside for you, whenever you are ready.”

“I’m ready,” I reply, not believing my own words.

“See you soon,” she says.

Jiro and the same car from last night are waiting outside. I half expect him to make some sort of remark about my clothes, or at least raise an eyebrow. But instead, he greets me warmly when I approach, then helps me in. We ride along with a scene of sunflowers and sunrise playing on the windows. Jiro’s suit is flawlessly sharp, a perfect black outfit with a crisp white shirt that must be some high-end brand. If this is how Hideo’s bodyguards look, then what should
be wearing? I keep tugging at my sleeves, trying to magically change my clothes into something nice by straightening them repeatedly.

I imagine Dad’s face if he were to see me right now. He’d suck
in his breath and wince.
Absolutely not,
he’d say. He’d grab my hand and start dragging me immediately to the nearest boutique, credit card debt be damned.

The thought makes me tug harder on my sleeves. I push the thought away.

The car finally stops before a white gate. I listen curiously as the bodyguard says something to what looks like an automated machine attendant. From the corner of my eye, I notice a small logo on the side of the gate.
Henka Games
. Then the car moves forward, and we continue inside, parking at a spot near the front sidewalk. Jiro comes around to let me out. “Here we are,” he says with a smile and a bow.

He leads me through a large set of sliding glass doors. We step into the largest lobby I’ve ever seen.

Light pours in from a glass ceiling atrium and down to where we stand, in the middle of an open space decorated with towering indoor vines. Water trickles from several fountains along these walls. Stacks of clean white balconies curve along the building’s insides. A faint carving of the Henka Games logo covers one of the white walls. Hanging down from the ceiling in drapes are colorful banners of the competing Warcross teams, each one displaying a team’s symbol in celebration of the current championship season. I pause for an instant to admire the sight. If I were wearing NeuroLink glasses right now, I bet these banners would be animated.

Welcome to Henka Games!

+2,500 Pts. Daily Score: +2,500

You leveled up!

Level 26 |

“This way,” my bodyguard says, guiding me forward.

We walk toward a series of clear glass cylinders, where a smiling woman is waiting for us. She has a gold pin on her perfectly ironed blazer, in honor of the current tournament season, and a clipboard tucked under one arm. Her smile widens at the sight of me, although I notice her eyes flicker briefly to my clothing. She doesn’t say anything about it, but I blush.

“Welcome, Miss Chen,” she says, bowing her head in a calm gesture. My bodyguard bids me farewell as I’m handed off to her. “Mr. Tanaka is looking forward to meeting you.”

I swallow hard as I return the bow.
He won’t be, once he gets a look at the mess that I am.
“Me too,” I mumble.

“There are a few rules you’ll need to follow,” she continues. “First: No photos are allowed during this meeting. Second: You will need to sign an agreement stating that you won’t publicly discuss what you’re told here.” She hands me the form on the clipboard.

No photos. No public discussions. Not a surprise. “Okay,” I reply, reading the clipboard’s paper thoroughly and then signing it at the bottom.

“And third: I must request that you never ask Mr. Tanaka any questions about his family or their private affairs. This is a company-wide policy, and one that Mr. Tanaka is very strict about maintaining.”

I look at her. This one is a weirder request than the first two—but I decide to nod anyway. “No family questions. Got it.”

The elevator doors open for us. The lady waves me inside, then folds her arms in front of her as we start to head up. I look out at the expanse of the studio, my eyes lingering on the giant team banners as we rise past them. This building is a beautiful work of architecture. Dad would have been impressed.

We keep going until we reach the top floor. A few employees pass us by, each of them sporting Warcross T-shirts and jeans. The sight is reassuring. One of the employees glances my way with a hint of recognition in his eyes. He looks like he wants to stop me, then reddens and decides against it. I realize that everyone working here must have been watching the opening ceremony—and seen me glitch into the game. As I’m thinking this, I catch sight of a few other employees down in the lobby below, their necks craned curiously up in our direction.

She guides us down an open hallway until we reach a smaller lobby, where another set of sliding glass doors stands. The glass is completely clear, so that I can see part of a room beyond it, along with large paintings of Warcross worlds on the walls and a long meeting table. My legs start to feel numb, and fear shoots up my spine. Now that I’m moments away from my meeting, I’m suddenly gripped with the feeling that maybe I don’t want to be here after all.

“Wait one moment, please,” the lady says as we reach the doors. She presses a finger gently against a pad on the wall, then walks inside as they slide open. From where I am, I see her bow low and ask something in Japanese. All I can understand are

A quiet voice answers her from somewhere on the far side of the room.

The lady returns and opens the sliding door. “Come in.” She nods at me as I pass. “Have a good meeting.” Then she’s gone, heading back down the hall from where we came.

I find myself standing in the middle of a room with a stunning view of Tokyo. At one end of the room, several people lounge in chairs around a meeting table—two women, one dressed in a blouse and skirt, another in a Warcross tee, blazer, and jeans. A
young, golden-haired man sits between them, making gestures in the air with his hands. I recognize him as Kenn, who had spoken to me on the private jet. The women argue back, scrutinizing something about one of the worlds for the Warcross championships.

My eyes wander from them to the last person in the room.

He’s sitting on a sleek gray couch right next to the meeting table, his elbows perched on his knees. The other three people are unconsciously turned in his direction, clearly waiting for him to give the final say. He’s dressed in a perfectly tailored white collar shirt rolled up to his elbows and with two of the top buttons casually undone, a pair of lean, dark trousers, and deep scarlet oxford shoes. The only game-related item he’s wearing is a pair of simple, silver cuff links glinting in the sunlight, both cut in the shape of the Warcross logo. His eyes are very dark and framed by long lashes. His hair is thick and midnight black, except for a curious, thin silver streak on one side.

Hideo Tanaka, in the flesh.

After years of admiring him from afar, I’m not sure what I expected. It somehow startles me to see him without a monitor or a magazine cover obstructing the view, like he’s in focus for the first time.

He looks up at me.

“Miss Chen,” he says, pushing himself off the couch in one graceful move. Then he approaches me, bows his head once, and stretches out a hand. He’s tall, his gestures easy and effortless, his expression serious. The only imperfection on him is his knuckles—they’re bruised, newly scarred, and surprising on his otherwise elegant hands, as if he had been in a fight. I catch myself gaping curiously and manage to stop just in time to extend my
hand, too. My movements feel like those of a lumbering ox. Even though my clothes aren’t that different from everyone else’s, I feel dirty and underdressed compared to his flawless style.

“Hi, Mr. Tanaka,” I reply, unsure of what else to say.

“Hideo, please.” There’s that smooth, subtle British accent of his. He encloses his hand around mine and shakes it once, then looks at the others. “Our lead producer for the championships, Miss Leanna Samuels.” He lets go of me to hold his hand out toward the woman in the blouse and skirt.

She gives me a smile and adjusts her glasses. “Pleased to meet you, Miss Chen.”

Hideo nods at the woman in the tee and blazer. “My second-in-command, Miss Mari Nakamura, our chief operating officer.”

Now I recognize her—I’ve seen her give plenty of Warcross-related announcements. She gives me a little bow of her head. “Nice to meet you, Miss Chen,” she says with a grin. I return the bow as well as I can.

“And you’ve already been introduced to our creative director,” Hideo finishes, tilting his head in Kenn’s direction. “One of my former Oxford schoolmates.”

“Not in person.” Kenn hops out of his chair and is in front of me in a couple of strides. He shakes my hand vigorously. Unlike Hideo’s, his expression is warm enough to heat a room in winter. “Welcome to Tokyo. You’ve made quite an impression on us.” He glances once at Hideo, and his grin tilts higher. “It’s not every day that he flies someone halfway across the world for an interview.”

Hideo raises an eyebrow at his friend. “I flew
halfway across the world to join the company.”

Kenn laughs. “That was years ago. Like I said—not every day.” His smile returns to me.

“Thanks,” I decide to say, my head whirling from greeting four legendary creators in ten seconds.

The COO, Mari, turns to Hideo and asks him something in Japanese.

“Go ahead without me,” Hideo replies in English. His eyes settle on me again. I realize that he hasn’t smiled since I walked in. Maybe I really am too underdressed for him. “Miss Chen and I are going to indulge in a chat.”

A chat. A one-on-one.
I feel the heat rising in my cheeks. Hideo doesn’t seem to notice, though, and instead nods for me to follow him out of the room. Behind us, the others return to their conversation. Only Kenn meets my gaze as I look over my shoulder at them.

“He doesn’t mean to be intimidating,” he calls out cheerfully as the doors close.

“So,” Hideo says as we head down the hall to the main atrium, “your first time in Japan, isn’t it?”

I nod. “It’s nice.” Why does everything I say suddenly sound stupid?

More and more employees are slowing down to watch us as we pass. “Thank you for coming all this way,” he says.

” I answer. “I’ve been watching your career ever since the beginning, when you first hit it big. This is a huge honor.”

Hideo gives me a half-interested nod, and I realize he must be tired of hearing that from everyone he meets. “I apologize for interrupting your week, but I hope your trip went well enough.”

Is he serious? “That’s kind of an understatement,” I reply. “Thank you, Mr. Tanaka—Hideo—for paying off my debts. You didn’t have to do that.”

Hideo waves a nonchalant hand. “Don’t thank me. Consider
it a small advance payment. Frankly, I’m surprised you were in debt at all. Surely some tech company has noticed your skills by now.”

A needle of irritation pricks me at Hideo’s easy dismissal of my debt. I guess six thousand dollars—to me, an unconquerable mountain—isn’t even worth a second thought when you’re a billionaire. “I have a couple of things on my record,” I reply, trying to keep the annoyance out of my voice. “My
record, I mean. They’re nothing that serious, but I wasn’t allowed to touch a computer for two years.” I decide to not mention my father’s death and my time in foster care.

To my surprise, Hideo doesn’t press me further. “I’ve employed enough hackers to know a good one when I see one. You would’ve been discovered sooner or later.” He gives me a sidelong look. “And, well, here you are.”

He leads us around a corner and toward another set of sliding doors. We enter an empty office. Windows go from ceiling to floor. A bright mural is painted along one corner, a colorful swirl of stylized game levels. Sleek couches are in another corner. The doors slide closed behind us, and we’re alone.

Hideo turns to me. “I know you’ve seen yourself mentioned everywhere online,” he says. “But can you guess why you’re here?”

By mistake?
But instead I respond, “On the flight, Mr. Edon said that I was going to be entered into the Wardraft.”

Hideo nods. “You are, unless you don’t want to be.”

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