Read Warcross Online

Authors: Marie Lu

Tags: #YA, #Carly

Warcross (3 page)

The sound of boiling water shakes me from my thoughts just in time.
Get up, Emi,
I say to myself.

I drag myself from the bed, head to the kitchen, and hunt for a pack of instant noodles. (Cost of dinner tonight: $1.) My food stash has gone down by a box of macaroni. I glare at Keira, who’s still sitting on the couch and glued to the TV (used TV: $75). With a sigh, I rip open the pack of noodles and drop them into the water.

The thud of music and partying comes from elsewhere in the
building. Every local channel is broadcasting something related to the opening ceremony. Keira pauses the TV on one channel showing a reel of last year’s highlights. Then it cuts to five game analysts sitting around in the top tier of the Tokyo Dome, in a heated debate over which team would win and why. Below them is a dimmed arena of fifty thousand screaming fans, illuminated by sweeping spotlights of red and blue. Gold confetti rains from the ceiling.

“One thing we can all agree on is that we have never seen a wild-card lineup like this year’s!” one analyst says, a finger plugged deep in her ear so she can hear above the noise. “One of them is already a celebrity in his own right.”

“Yes!” a second analyst exclaims, while the others nod. A video showing a boy pops up behind them. “DJ Ren first made headlines as one of the hottest names in France’s
underground
music scene. Now, Warcross will make him an
aboveground
name!”

As the analysts fall back into arguing about this year’s newest players, I swallow a wave of jealousy. Every year, fifty amateur players, or wild cards, are nominated by secret committee to be placed into the team selection process. Luckiest people in the world, as far as I’m concerned. My criminal record automatically disqualifies me from the nominations.

“And let’s talk about how much
buzz
the games are getting this year. Do you think we’ll break some records?” says the first analyst.

“It looks like we already have,” a third replies. “Last year, the final tournament saw a total of three hundred million viewers. Three hundred
million
! Mr. Tanaka must be proud.” As he speaks, the backdrop changes again to the logo of Henka Games, followed by a video of Warcross creator Hideo Tanaka.

It’s a clip of him dressed in a flawless tuxedo, leaving a charity
ball with a young woman on his arm, his coat draped around her shoulders. He’s far too graceful for a twenty-one-year-old, and as lights flash around him, I can’t help leaning forward a little. Over the past few years, Hideo has transformed from a lanky teenage genius into an elegant young man with piercing eyes.
Polite
is what most say when describing his personality. No one can really be sure of anything else unless they are within his inner circle. But not a week goes by now without him being featured on some tabloid cover, dating this celebrity or that one, putting him at the top of every list they can think of. Youngest. Most Beautiful. Wealthiest. Most Eligible.

“Let’s take a look at our audience for tonight’s opening game!” the analyst continues. A number pops up and they all burst into applause.
Five hundred and twenty million.
That’s just for the opening ceremony. Warcross is officially the biggest event in the world.

I take my pot of noodles over to the couch and eat on autopilot while we watch more footage. There are interviews with squealing fans entering the Tokyo Dome, their faces painted and their hands clutching homemade posters. There are shots of workers double-checking the tech hookups. There are Olympic-style documentaries showing photos and videos of each of tonight’s players. After that comes gameplay footage—two teams battling it out in Warcross’s endless virtual worlds. The camera pans to cheering crowds, then to the professional players waiting in a private room backstage. Their smiles are wide tonight, their eyes alive with anticipation as they wave at the camera.

I can’t help feeling bitter. I could be there, too, be just as good as them, if I had the time and money to play all day. I know it. Instead, I’m here, eating instant noodles out of a pot, wondering how I’m going to survive until the police announce another
bounty. What must it be like to have a perfect life? To be a superstar beloved by all? To be able to pay your bills on time and buy whatever you want?

“What are we going to do, Em?” Keira says, breaking our silence. Her voice sounds hollowed out. She asks me this question every time we dip into dangerous territory, as if I were the only one responsible for saving us, but tonight I just keep staring at the TV, unwilling to answer her. Considering that I have exactly thirteen dollars to my name right now, I’m at the most dire point I’ve ever been.

I lean back, letting ideas run through my head. I’m a good—great—hacker, but I can’t get a job. I’m either too young or too criminal. Who wants to hire a convicted identity thief? Who wants you to fix their gadgets when they think you might steal their info? That’s what happens when you have four months of juvenile detention on your record that can’t be erased, along with a two-year ban on touching any computers. It doesn’t stop me from sneaking in some use of my hacked phone and glasses, of course—but it has kept me from applying for any real job I can do well. We were barely even allowed to rent this apartment. All I’ve found so far is an occasional bounty hunt and a part-time waitress job—a job that’ll also vanish the instant the diner buys an automated waitress. Anything else would probably involve me working for a gang or stealing something.

It might come to that.

I take a deep breath. “I don’t know. I’ll sell Dad’s last painting.”

“Em . . . ,” Keira says, but lets her words trail off. She knows it’s a meaningless offer from me, anyway. Even if we sold everything in our apartment, we’d probably only scrape together five hundred dollars. It’s not nearly enough to keep Mr. Alsole from kicking us out into the streets.

A familiar nausea settles into my stomach, and I reach up to rub at the tattoo running along my collarbone.
Every locked door has a key.
But what if this one doesn’t? What if I can’t get out of this? There’s no way I’ll be able to get my hands on enough money in time. I’m out of options. I fight off the panic, trying to keep my mind from spiraling downward, and force myself to even my breathing. My eyes wander away from the TV and toward the window.

No matter where I am in the city, I always know exactly which direction my old group foster home sits. And if I let myself, I can imagine our apartment fading away into the home’s dark, cramped halls and peeling yellow wallpaper. I can see the bigger kids chasing me down the corridor and hitting me until I bleed. I can remember the bites from bedbugs. I can feel the sting on my face from Mrs. Devitt slapping me. I can hear myself crying quietly in my bunk as I imagined my father rescuing me from that place. I can feel the wire of the chain-link fences against my fingers as I climbed over them and ran away.

Think. You can solve this.
A little voice in my head flares up, stubborn.
This will not be your life. You are not destined to stay here forever. You are not your father.

On the TV, the lights in the Tokyo Dome finally dim. The cheering rises to a deafening roar.

“And that wraps up our pregame coverage of tonight’s Warcross opening ceremony!” one analyst exclaims, his voice hoarse. He and the others hold up V-for-victory signs with their hands. “For those of you watching from home, time to put on your glasses and join us in the
event—of—the—year!

Keira has already popped on her glasses. I head to the fold-out table, where my own glasses lie.

Some people still say that Warcross is just a stupid game. Others say it’s a revolution. But for me and millions of others, it’s the only foolproof way to forget our troubles. I lost my bounty, my landlord is going to come screaming for his money again tomorrow morning, I’m going to drag myself to my waitressing job, and I’m going to be homeless in a couple of days, with nowhere to go . . . but tonight, I can join in with everyone else, put on my glasses, and watch magic happen.

3

I still remember
the exact moment when Hideo Tanaka changed my life.

I was eleven, and my father had been dead for only a few months. Rain pounded against the window of the bedroom I shared with four others at the foster home. I was lying in bed, unable, yet again, to force myself to get up and head to school. Unfinished homework lay strewn on my blankets, still there from the night before, when I’d fallen asleep staring at the blank pages. I’d dreamed of home, of Dad making us fried eggs and pancakes drowning in syrup, his hair still shining with glitter and glue, his loud, familiar laugh filling the kitchen and drifting outside through our open window.
Bon appètit, mademoiselle!
he’d exclaimed, with his dreamer’s face. And I’d screamed in delight as he threw his arms around me and messed up my hair.

Then I’d woken up, and the scene had vanished, leaving me in a strange, dark, quiet house.

I didn’t move in bed. I didn’t cry. I hadn’t cried once since Dad’s death, not even at the funeral. Any tears I might have shed were instead replaced with shock when I learned how much debt Dad had accumulated. When I learned that he had been sneaking onto online gambling forums for years. That he hadn’t been getting treatment at the hospital because he’d been trying to pay off his debt.

So I spent the morning the way I’d spent every day for the past few months, lost in a haze of silence and stillness. Emotions had long vanished behind a cavity of fog in my chest. I used my every waking moment to stare off into space—at the bedroom wall, at the class whiteboard, at the interior of my locker, at plates of tasteless food. My report cards were a sea of red ink. Constant nausea stole my appetite. My bones jutted sharply at my wrists and elbows. Dark circles rimmed my eyes, something everyone noticed except me.

What did I care, anyway? My father was gone and I was
so tired
. Maybe the fog in my chest could grow, denser and denser, until someday it’d swallow
me,
and I could be gone, too. So I lay curled in a tiny ball, watching the rain lash at the window, the wind tug at the silhouettes of tree branches, wondering how long it would take for the school to notice I wasn’t there again.

The clock radio in the room—the
only
thing in the room, other than our beds—was on, a piece of hand-me-down technology donated to the home from a Goodwill center. One of the other girls hadn’t bothered turning it off when the alarm sounded. I listened halfheartedly as the news droned on about the state of the economy, the protests in the cities and countryside, the overworked police trying to keep up with crime, the evacuations in Miami and New Orleans.

Then it switched. Some hour-long special began, talking about
a boy named Hideo Tanaka. He was fourteen years old then, still brand-new to the spotlight. As the program went on, I started to pay attention.

“Remember the world right before smartphones?” the announcer was saying. “When we were teetering on the brink of a huge shift, when the technology was
almost but not quite
there, and it took one revolutionary device to push us all over the edge? Well, last year, a thirteen-year-old boy named Hideo Tanaka pushed us over a new edge.

“He did it by inventing a thin, wireless pair of glasses with metal arms and retractable earphones. Make no mistake. They’re nothing like the goggles we’ve seen before, the ones that looked like giant bricks strapped to your face. No, these ultra-slim glasses are called the NeuroLink, and you wear them as easily as any pair of regular glasses. We have the latest pair in the studio here”—he paused to put them on—“and we promise, it’s the most
sensational
thing we’ve ever tried.”

The NeuroLink. I’d heard it mentioned in the news before. Now I listened as the radio program laid it out for me.

For a long time, in order to create a realistic virtual reality environment, you had to render as detailed a world as possible. This required a lot of money and effort. But no matter how good the effects became, you could still tell—if you looked hard enough—that it wasn’t real. There are a thousand little movements on a human face every second, a thousand different quivers of a leaf on a tree, a million tiny things the real world has that the virtual world doesn’t. Your mind knows this unconsciously—so something will look
off,
even if you can’t quite put your finger on it.

So Hideo Tanaka thought of an easier solution. In order to
create a flawlessly real world, you don’t need to draw the most detailed, most realistic 3-D scene ever.

You just need to
fool the audience into thinking it’s real
.

And guess what can do that the best? Your own brain.

When you have a dream, no matter how crazy it is, you believe it’s real. Like, full-on surround sound, high definition, 360-degree special effects. And none of it is anything you’re actually seeing. Your brain is creating an entire reality for you, without needing any piece of technology.

So Hideo created the best brain–computer interface ever built. A pair of sleek glasses. The NeuroLink.

When you wore it, it helped your brain render virtual worlds that looked and sounded
indistinguishable
from reality. Imagine walking around in that world—interacting, playing, talking. Imagine wandering through the most realistic virtual Paris ever, or lounging in a full simulation of Hawaii’s beaches. Imagine flying through a fantasy world of dragons and elves.
Anything.

With the press of a tiny button on its side, the glasses could also switch back and forth like polarized lenses between the virtual world and the real world. And when you looked at the real world through it, you could see virtual things hovering over real-life objects and places. Dragons flying above your street. The names of stores, restaurants, and people.

To demonstrate how cool the glasses were, Hideo made a video game that came with each pair. This game was called Warcross.

Warcross was pretty simple: two teams battled each other, one trying to take the other team’s Artifact (a shiny gem) without losing their own. What made it spectacular were the virtual worlds the battles were set in, each one so realistic that putting on your glasses was like dropping you right into that place.

As the radio program went on, I learned that Hideo, born in London and raised in Tokyo, had taught himself how to code when he was eleven.
My age.
Not long afterward, he built his first pair of NeuroLink glasses at his father’s computer repair shop, with his neuroscientist mother’s input. His parents helped fund a set of one thousand glasses for him, and he started shipping them to people. A thousand orders turned overnight into a hundred thousand. Then, a million, ten million, a hundred million. Investors called with staggering offers. Lawsuits flew over the patents. Critics argued about how the NeuroLink engine would change everyday life, travel, medicine, the military, education. “Link Up” was the name of a popular Frankie Dena pop song, last summer’s big hit.

And everyone—
everyone—
played Warcross. Some played it intensely, forming teams and battling for hours. Others played by simply lounging on a virtual beach or enjoying a virtual safari. Still others played by wearing their glasses while walking around the real world, showing off their virtual pet tigers or populating the streets with their favorite celebrities.

However people played, it became a way of life.

My gaze shifted from the radio to the homework pages lying on my blankets. Hideo’s story stirred something in my chest, cutting through the fog. How did a boy only three years older than me take the world by storm? I stayed where I was until the program ended and music started to play. I lay there for another long hour. Then, gradually, I uncurled and reached for one of my assignments.

It was from my Introduction to Computer Science class. The first problem on it was to spot the error in a simple, three-line piece of code. I studied it, imagining an eleven-year old Hideo in
the same position as me. He wouldn’t be lying here, staring off into nothing. He would have solved this problem, and the next, and the next.

The thought conjured an old memory of my father sitting on my bed and showing me the back of a magazine, where two drawings were printed that looked identical. It was asking the reader to figure out the difference between them.

This is a trick question,
I’d remembered declaring to him with crossed arms. My eyes squinted closely at every corner of both images.
The two drawings are exactly the same.

Dad just gave me a crooked smile and adjusted his glasses. There was still paint and glue stuck in his hair from when he was experimenting with fabrics earlier in the day. I’d need to help him cut the sticky strands out later.
Look closer,
he’d replied. He’d grabbed the pencil tucked behind his ear and made a sweeping motion across the image.
Think about a painting hanging on a wall. Without using any tools, you can still tell if it’s crooked—even by a tiny bit. It just feels
off
. Right?

I’d shrugged.
Yeah, I guess so.

Humans are surprisingly sensitive like that.
Dad had gestured at the two drawings again with his paint-stained fingers.
You have to learn to look at the
whole
of something, not just the parts. Relax your eyes. Take in the entire image at once.

I’d listened, sitting back and softening my gaze. That had been when I’d finally spotted the difference, the tiny mark on one of the drawings.
There!
I’d exclaimed, pointing excitedly at it.

Dad had smiled at me.
See?
he’d said.
Every locked door has a key, Emi.

I stared down at the assignment, my father’s words turning over and over in my mind. Then I did as he said—I leaned back
and took in the code all at once. Like it was a painting. Like I was searching for the point of interest.

And almost immediately, I saw the error. I reached for my school laptop, opened it, and typed out the corrected code.

It worked.
Hello, World!
said my laptop’s program.

To this day, I can’t properly describe how I felt in that moment. To see my solution working,
functioning,
on the screen. To realize that, with three little lines of text, I had the power to command a machine to do
exactly
what I wanted.

The gears in my head, creaky from grief, suddenly began to turn again. Begging for another problem. I finished the second one. Then a third. I kept going, faster and faster, until I finished not only that homework sheet but every problem in my textbook. The fog in my chest eased, revealing a warm, beating heart beneath it.

If I could solve these problems, then I could control something. And if I could control something, I could forgive myself for the one problem that I could never have solved, the one person I could never have saved. Everyone has a different way of escaping the dark stillness of their mind. This, I learned, was mine.

I finished my dinner that night for the first time in months. The next day and the day after that and every day since, I channeled every bit of my energy into learning everything about code and Warcross and the NeuroLink that I could get my brains on.

As for Hideo Tanaka . . . from that day on, along with the rest of the world, I was obsessed. I watched him as if I were afraid to blink, incapable of looking away, like he might start another revolution at any moment.

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