Read Warcross Online

Authors: Marie Lu

Tags: #YA, #Carly

Warcross (5 page)

The invisible audience screams, while an analyst shouts, “
Penn’s going to go down!
If he doesn’t protect his team’s Artifact, Asher is going to end this game early—”

Penn frees one hand and unleashes a Lightning power-up on Asher before he can make a fatal blow. A blinding flash of light engulfs Asher for an instant. He throws his hands up in vain, but too late—the power-up has blinded him for five solid seconds. His own life bar drops by 20 percent. Penn lunges for Asher’s Artifact. At the last instant, Max saves their Artifact by grabbing it first, so that it now hovers over his head.

The crowd lets out a roar of cheers and boos. I follow suit. But my attention keeps going back to the Sudden Death power-up.

Don’t do it.

“Sharp effort from Beta! Penn’s been working on his defense!” an analyst shouts over the noise. As he speaks, the storm’s clouds finally reach us, and the sun disappears overhead. “We lost track of Kento for a while, but it looks like he’s now hunting after Jena. Both are going for the Sudden Death power-up!”

Wind blasts us. It makes the floating isles wobble in the air. Fat drops of rain start to fall, making each isle slippery and harder to stand on.

I turn my attention to Jena and Kento, who look like two
small, bright figures fast approaching the power-up hovering over the rock. Then I swoop down from the isles and fly in their direction. Soon, I am hovering near the bloodred Sudden Death, watching as Jena and Kento dash for it.

I focus on the power-up. In theory, if Jena or Kento get their hands on Sudden Death, I might be able to hack into their player accounts. I might be able to steal Sudden Death right out of their account. And then I could sell it.

Fifteen thousand dollars.

In spite of myself, my head spins with excitement. Could this work? Hacking into a regular Warcross game has never been done—but an official championship tournament game? Unheard of. I don’t even know if I can access their accounts the same way I can in regular Warcross. My hack might not work at all.

If they catch me and I’m arrested, I’ll be charged as an adult.

Breaking the law had only quickened my father’s death. It certainly hadn’t made my life any easier.

I stay where I am, torn, my throat dry.

What if I
do
successfully steal it? It’s just a power-up in a game; I’m not hurting anyone. I’ve never tested this Warcross hack in an arena like this—but what if it works? I could resell it for thousands. I could get that money immediately and give it to Mr. Alsole, pay off my debts. It could save me. And I’d never do it again.

The temptation nips at me, and I wonder if this is how my father felt every time he’d logged online to place
just one more bet
.

Just one bet.
Just this once.

Jena reaches the power-up first. She only has time to swipe it off the top of the cliff before Kento tackles her.

If I don’t make a decision now, it’ll be too late.

Instinctively, I move. My fingers tap madly against my tabletop. I bring up a player directory, then hunt for Jena’s profile. As I go, Jena kicks Kento off her and then dives in a perfect arc down toward the lagoon. A deafening thunderclap sounds out overhead.

Jena’s name finally pops up. I have only a few seconds to act.
Don’t do it.
But I’m already moving. A complete inventory of her virtual belongings appears. I scroll until I see the brand-new Sudden Death item in her account, shiny and scarlet.

The only weakness I’ve ever found in Warcross’s security is a tiny glitch when a user is about to use an item. When the item passes from an account into the game and is used, there’s a split second when it is vulnerable.

My fingers tremble. Before me, Jena reaches for her new Sudden Death power-up. In her inventory, I see it flash a quick gold. Now’s my only chance. I suck in my breath, wait—
don’t do it—
and then type a single command just as Jena’s item leaves her hand.

A tingle shoots through my body. I freeze. In fact, everyone in the game seems to freeze.

Then I notice that Asher is looking right at me. Like he can
see me
.

I blink.
That’s impossible. I’m in the audience.
But Jena is staring at me, too. Their eyes are wide. That’s when I realize that the Sudden Death power-up is now officially in my account. I see it in my inventory at the bottom of my vision.

I did it. My hack worked.

But, somehow, successfully capturing the power-up has glitched me into the tournament.

A referee’s whistle echoes around us. The audience’s cheers turn into whispers of shock. I stay where I am, suddenly unsure of
what to do. Frantically, I type in another command, trying to go back to being part of the audience again. But it’s no use.

Everyone—the players, the announcers, the millions in the audience—can see me.

“Who the hell are
you
?” Asher says to me.

I just stare back, numb.

A flash of red light engulfs the scene, and the omniscient voice echoes all around us. “Time-out,” it booms. “System glitch.”

Then, my screen goes dark. I’m kicked out of the game and back into my starting room, looking out at a virtual view of Tokyo. The doors in the room are gone now. The Sudden Death power-up is still glowing in my inventory.

But when I reach for it, it vanishes. They’ve deleted it from my directory.

I rip my glasses off. Then I sit back in my chair, looking wildly around our apartment. My eyes settle on Keira, seated across from me. She’s taken off her glasses, too, and is staring at me with the same shocked expression I’d seen on Jena’s face.

“Em,” Keira whispers. “What did you do?”

“I—” I stutter, then stop. Something about reaching into Jena’s account had erased my anonymity. I’ve been exposed. I stare down at the table. My heart thuds.

Keira leans forward. “I could see you in the game,” she says. “Em—Asher
spoke
to you. He could see you. They could
all
see you.” She throws her hands up in astonishment. “You glitched the game!”

She has absolutely no idea how much trouble I’ve just gotten myself into; she thinks this was an honest mistake. Below my rising panic lies an ocean of regret. I don’t know what Henka Games does when they catch a hacker, but they’ll ban me from the game
for sure. I’ll go to court for this. “I’m sorry,” I reply in a daze. “Maybe they—they won’t make a big deal out of it . . .”

My voice trails off. Keira lets out a long breath and leans back in her chair. We don’t speak for a while. After being so immersed in Warcross, the silence in the apartment feels overwhelming.

“You’re smart, Em,” Keira finally says, her eyes meeting mine. “But I have a feeling you’re dead wrong on that one.”

And as if on cue, my phone rings.

5

We both jump
at the sound. When I peer at the phone, the caller ID says:
Unknown Number.

“Aren’t you going to answer it?” Keira says to me, her eyes as wide as mine now. I just shake my head repeatedly at the phone. I don’t move from my spot until, after what seems like an eternity, it finally stops ringing.

Immediately, it rings again.
Unknown Number.

The hairs rise on the back of my neck. I turn the phone’s sound off, then throw it onto the couch so I can’t see it. In the silence, I stay hunched in my chair and try not to meet Keira’s bewildered stare.

The caller had to be the police. Would they come to arrest me now if I didn’t pick up? Would Henka Games sue me? It occurs to me that I’ve just interrupted a game watched by half a billion people, a game that accepts millions in sponsor money. Would the
game studio itself put out a bounty on my head, for other hunters to track me down? In fact, they could be sending out a text alert right now, and all across the city, hunters would be swinging onto their motorcycles or hopping in cabs, eager to catch me. I press my shaking hands tightly together in my lap.

I could run. I had to. I’d grab the first train and make my way out of the city until everything dies down. But I grimace immediately at the impossible thought. If I ran, where would I go? How far could I get with only thirteen dollars? And if—no,
when—
they caught me, it would just make my crime worse. It might be safer for me to stay put right here.

Keira wanders over to the couch. “It’s still ringing, Em.”

“Then stop looking at it,” I shoot back, harsher than I’d meant to sound.

She throws her hands up. “Fine, whatever. Suit yourself.” Without another word, she turns away from me and heads for her mattress. I close my eyes, put my head in my hands, and lean against the table. The silence in the room is overwhelming, and even though I can’t hear my phone, I can
feel
it, can somehow tell that it’s still ringing. At any moment, there’ll be a fist pounding on our door.

Every locked door has a key.
But this time, I’ve reached the end.

I don’t know how long I sit like that at the table, spinning thoughts and plans until they all jumble together or when, in my utter exhaustion, I start to nod off. I don’t realize that I’ve fallen asleep until, somewhere through the darkness, a sound stirs me.

Ding.

Ding.

Ding.

I open one eye groggily. Is that my alarm going off? Sunshine
streams in through the blinds of our windows. For an instant, I admire how pretty the bright light looks. In fact, it’s the kind of bright light that tells me I’m late for something. A sinking feeling hits my stomach. I’d fallen asleep right at the dining table.

I jerk my head up. My entire body is sore, and my arms are cramped and tingly from being slept on all night. I look around in a daze. What happened last night comes back in a rush. While Keira went to bed, I’d stayed here at the table, my head in my hands, wondering how I could have been stupid enough to reveal myself to five hundred million people. I must have had nightmares last night—even though I can’t remember any of them, I’m dead tired, and my heart is pounding furiously.

The phone calls. The unknown caller ID.
My heart seizes, and my eyes go to my phone, still lying on the couch. I’d slept for a few hours, and no one had come to our door.

Some of my panic from the night before eases, and the shock of standing in the middle of the opening game dulls. Maybe nothing will actually happen. The events even feel like a dream.

Ding.

I turn toward the sound again. It came from my phone. Suddenly I remember that it’s Wednesday. I’m late for my shift at the diner. That must be my boss texting me, and my text messages still make a sound on my phone. In a heartbeat, my worries shift from my glitch to the danger of losing the only moneymaking gig that I have.

I leap out of my chair. Keira stirs in her corner, partially hidden from view behind the cardboard divider. I rush into the bathroom and jam a toothbrush into my mouth, running a quick comb through my tangle of rainbow hair as I go. I’m wearing the same clothes I wore last night. They’ll have to do. No time to change. I
curse silently at myself as I finish brushing my teeth. I’m going to get fired for missing my shift. My head bows as I lean against the sink, struggling under the weight of the world.

Ding.

Ding! Ding!

“Oh, for the love of—” I snap under my breath. When my phone lets out two more
dings,
I give up ignoring it and hurry out of the bathroom. “I’m on my way,” I mutter, as if my boss could hear me.

I grab my phone and stare down at the long list of texts.

Eighty-four messages, from a blocked number. They all say the same thing.

Ms. Emika Chen, please call
212-555-0156 immediately.

An uneasy feeling settles in my stomach.

“Em.”

I turn to see Keira out of bed and peering through the blinds. Only now do I hear the sound of voices coming from the street below.

“Emi,” Keira says. “Come look.”

I walk to her on quiet feet. Thin slants of light cut through the blinds, painting yellow stripes against my arms. Keira’s lips are folded into a puzzled frown. I pull two blinds apart, and look outside.

A cluster of people jams the steps leading up to our apartment complex. They have huge cameras with them. I see call letters printed on the sides of their microphones—it’s the local news stations.

My stomach drops. “What’s going on?”

Keira turns to face me, then fumbles in her pockets for her phone. She quickly types something. I hold my breath, listening to the buzz of voices outside.

Keira reads the search results on her phone. The color has drained from her face, and her eyes are wide.

“Emi,” she says. “You’re everywhere.”

I find myself looking at a list of news articles, each one displaying the same photo: a screenshot of
me,
with my rainbow-colored hair, standing inside the Warcross opening game, with Asher turned toward me in shock. Keira scrolls down for me. The articles go on and on, their headlines melding together.

Audience Member Glitches into Warcross Opening Game

W
ARCROSS
H
ACKED
!

HACKER TEMPORARILY DISRUPTS WARCROSS OPENING

Who Is Emika Chen?

My mouth goes dry at the sight of my name. I’m a fool for thinking that my little stunt last night would have attracted anything less than a spotlight. My identity’s been blown. Not only blown, but with those blown bits plastered all over the internet like stickers.
It’s too late to run.
I stay frozen as Keira continues to search, her expression turning more stunned as she goes.

“They can’t possibly be talking about me,” I stammer. “They can’t. I must still be asleep.”

“You’re not asleep.” Keira holds up her phone again. I read a feed littered with my name. “You’re the world’s
top
trending topic.”

Over by the dining table, my phone dings again. We look at it in unison.

“Keira,” I say, “do me a favor and look up a number for me.” She follows me to the dining table, where I pick up the phone and scan the endless string of identical texts. “212-555-0156.”

Keira types it into a search. A second later, she swallows and looks at me. “It’s the number for Henka Games’ Manhattan headquarters.”

A prickling sensation of dread travels down my spine and along my arms. Henka Games has sent me over eighty text messages. Keira and I look at each other for a moment longer, letting the commotion outside fill the silence in our room. “It’s probably their lawyers,” I whisper. A rush of light-headedness makes me sway in place. A flurry of thoughts flash by: police sirens; handcuffs; courtrooms; interrogation chambers. Familiar experiences for me. “Keira—they’re going to sue me.”

“You better call them,” Keira replied. “It won’t be any better for you if you wait.”

She’s right. I hesitate for a second before finally grabbing my phone. My hands are shaking so badly that I can barely dial the numbers. Keira crosses her arms, pacing in front of me.

“Put it on speaker,” she adds. I do, then hold the phone between us.

I’d expected some general thank-you-for-calling-Henka-Games-for-English-press-1 automated message—the typical greeting from a corporate number. But instead, the phone rings only once before a woman answers.

“Miss Emika Chen?” she says.

I’m so startled by her personal greeting that I fumble all over
my answer. “Hi. Here. I mean, me. I mean, that’s me.” I wince. Why am I even surprised? Obviously, they know my phone number, judging by the text message avalanche—they must’ve forwarded me straight to a live operator the instant I dialed them.
They’ve been waiting.

“Excellent,” the woman says. “I have Mr. Hideo Tanaka on the line for you. Please hold.”

Keira sucks in her breath and stops pacing. She looks at me with wide eyes. I stare back, paying attention to nothing but the hold music now playing on the phone. I’ve lost my mind. “Did she just say . . . ?”

We both jump when the music abruptly cuts off. A man’s voice comes on the line. It’s a voice I’d recognize anywhere, one I’ve heard in countless documentaries and interviews, one that belongs to the last person I thought I’d ever talk to.

“Miss Chen?” says Hideo Tanaka.

His accent is British.
Attended a British international school,
I remind myself feverishly.
Studied at Oxford.
His voice, easy and refined, carries in it the authority of someone who runs a huge corporation. I can only stand there, phone in hand, staring at Keira as if I could see straight through her.

Keira wheels her arms frantically at me, reminding me that I’m supposed to respond. “Uh,” I manage. “Hey.”

“A pleasure,” Hideo says, and my phone trembles in my grip. Keira takes pity on me and holds it for me. I expect Hideo’s next words to have something to do with my hacking incident, so I immediately start to stammer some sort of apology, as if that might help my case.

“Mr. Tanaka, about yesterday—look, I am really, really sorry for what happened—it was a total accident, I swear—I mean, my
glasses are pretty old and they glitch a lot”—I wince again—“
I mean—
not that your stuff is badly made or anything—which it’s not!—er, that is—”

“Yes. Are you busy right now?”

Am I busy right now? Hideo Tanaka is on the phone, asking me if
I am busy right now?
Keira’s eyes look like they’re going to pop right out of their sockets.
Don’t sound stupid, Emika.
Be cool.
“Well,” I reply, “I’m actually late for my waitressing shift . . .”

Keira slaps her forehead with the palm of her hand. I hold both hands out at her in a panic.

“I apologize for interrupting your schedule,” Hideo says, as if my answer were the most natural thing in the world, “but are you willing to skip work today and come to Tokyo?”

My ears start to ring. “What? Tokyo—Japan?”

“Yes.”

I cringe, glad he can’t see my face turning red. What did I expect him to say—Tokyo, New Jersey? “Like . . . right now?”

A note of amusement enters his voice. “Yes, like, right now.”

“I—um—” My head spins. “I’d love to, but my roommate and I are actually about to get evicted from our apartment tomorrow, so . . .”

“Your debts have been taken care of.”

Keira and I exchange a blank look. “I’m sorry—what?” I murmur. “They’re . . . taken care of?”

“Yes.”

The calculations that run constantly through my head. Rent, bills, debt. $1,150. $3,450. $6,000.
Your debts have been taken care of.
Just like that, they scatter, replaced by nothing except white noise. How can this be? If I went to Mr. Alsole’s apartment right now, would he wave us away and tell us that we’re good to go?
Why
would Hideo Tanaka do this? I suddenly feel light-headed, like I might float right out of my body.
Don’t faint.
“They can’t just be taken care of,” I hear myself say. “That’s a lot of money.”

“I assure you, it was very simple. Miss Chen?”

“Yes. Sorry—yes, I’m still here.”

“Great. There is a car waiting outside your apartment, ready to take you to John F. Kennedy International Airport. Pack whatever you like. The car is ready when you are.”

“A car? But—wait—when’s the flight? What airline? How much time do I have to . . .”

“It’s my private jet,” he says, unconcerned. “It will take off whenever you are in it.”

His private jet.

“Wait, but—all of my stuff. How long will I be there?” My eyes shift back to Keira. She looks pale, still processing the fact that our debts have been erased in the blink of an eye.

“If you’d like any belongings packed up and shipped to Tokyo with you,” he replies, “just say the word and it’ll be done today. In the meanwhile, you will have everything you need here.”


Hang on.
” I start to shake my head. Shipping my belongings over? Just how long does he want me to stay there? My brow furrows. “What I
need
is a sec to think. I don’t understand.” My emotions finally spill out, unleashing a torrent of thoughts. “What’s this all about? The car, my debts, the plane—
Tokyo?
” I sputter. “Yesterday, I disrupted the biggest game of the year. Someone should be angry with me.
You
should be. What am I going to Tokyo for?” I take a deep breath. “What do you want from me?”

There’s a pause on the other end. Suddenly, I realize that I’m mouthing off to one of the world’s most powerful people—to my
idol,
someone I’ve watched and read about and obsessed over for
years, someone who had changed my life. Across from me, Keira watches the phone intently as if she could see what Hideo’s expression looks like. I swallow in the silence, afraid for a moment.

“I have a job offer for you,” Hideo replies. “Would you like to hear more?”

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