The Game Has Begun
For the millions who log in every day, Warcross isn’t just a game—it’s a way of life. The obsession started ten years ago and its fan base now spans the globe, some eager to escape from reality and others hoping to make a profit. Struggling to make ends meet, teenage hacker Emika Chen works as a bounty hunter, tracking down Warcross players who bet on the game illegally. But the bounty-hunting world is a competitive one, and survival has not been easy. To make some quick cash, Emika takes a risk and hacks into the opening game of the international Warcross Championships—only to accidentally glitch herself into the action and become an overnight sensation.
Convinced she’s going to be arrested, Emika is shocked when instead she gets a call from the game’s creator, the elusive young billionaire Hideo Tanaka, with an irresistible offer. He needs a spy on the inside of this year’s tournament in order to uncover a security problem . . . and he wants Emika for the job. With no time to lose, Emika’s whisked off to Tokyo and thrust into a world of fame and fortune that she’s only dreamed of. But soon her investigation uncovers a sinister plot, with major consequences for the entire Warcross empire.
In this sci-fi thriller, #1 New York Times bestselling author Marie Lu conjures an immersive, exhilarating world where choosing who to trust may be the biggest gamble of all.
It’s too damn cold of a day to be out on a hunt.
I shiver, tug my scarf up higher over my mouth, and wipe a few snowflakes from my lashes. Then I slam my boot down on my electric skateboard. The board is old and used, like everything else I own, its blue paint almost entirely scraped off to reveal cheap silver plastic underneath—but it’s not dead yet, and when I push my heel down harder, it finally responds, jerking me forward as I squeeze between two rows of cars. My bright, rainbow-dyed hair whips across my face.
“Hey!” a driver yells as I maneuver past his car. I glance over my shoulder to see him waving a fist at me through his open window. “You almost clipped me!”
I just turn back around and ignore him. Usually, I’m a nicer person than this—or, at least, I would have shouted an apology back. But this morning, I’d woken up to a yellow paper taped to the door of my apartment, its words printed in the largest font you can imagine.
72 HOURS TO PAY OR VACATE
Translation: I’m almost three months behind on my rent. So, unless I can get my hands on $3,450, I’ll be homeless and in the streets by the end of the week.
That’d put a damper on anyone’s day.
My cheeks sting from the wind. The sky beyond the cut of skyscrapers is gray, turning grayer, and in a few hours, this flurry of snow will become a steady fall. Cars jam the streets, a nonstop trail of brake lights and honking from here all the way to Times Square. The occasional scream of a traffic controller’s whistle cuts above the chaos. The air is thick with the smell of exhaust, and steam billows from an open vent nearby. People swarm up and down the sidewalks. Students coming home from school are easy to spot, their backpacks and fat headphones dotting the crowds.
Technically, I should be one of them. This should have been my first year of college. But I started skipping classes after Dad died and dropped out entirely several years ago. (Okay, fine— technically, I was expelled. But I swear I would’ve quit anyway. More on that later.)
I look down at my phone again, my mind returning to the hunt. Two days ago, I had gotten the following text message:
New York Police Department ALERT!
Arrest warrant out for Marin Hamer.
The police are so busy these days with the increasing crime in the streets that they don’t have time to hunt for petty criminals on their own—petty criminals like Martin Hamer, who’s wanted for gambling on Warcross, stealing money, and allegedly selling drugs to fund his bets. So, about once a week, the cops send out a message like this, a promise to pay anyone who can catch the criminal in question.
That’s where I come in. I’m a bounty hunter, one of many in Manhattan, and I’m fighting to capture Martin Hamer before another hunter can.
Anyone who’s ever fallen on hard times will understand the nearly constant stream of numbers that run through my mind. A month’s rent in the worst apartment in New York: $1,150. A month’s food: $180. Electricity and internet: $150. Boxes of macaroni, ramen, and Spam left in my pantry: 4. And so on. On top of that, I owe $3,450 in unpaid rent, and $6,000 in credit card debt.
The number of dollars left in my bank account: $13.
Not the normal things a girl my age worries about. I should be freaking out over exams. Turning in papers. Waking up on time.
But I haven’t exactly had a normal adolescence.
Five thousand dollars is easily the largest bounty in months. For me, it might as well be all the money in the world. So, for the last two days, I’ve done nothing but track this guy. I’ve lost four bounties in a row this month. If I lose this one, too, I’m going to be in real trouble.
Tourists always clogging up the streets, I think as a detour forces me down a path right into Times Square, where I get stuck behind a cluster of auto-taxis jammed at a pedestrian walkway. I lean back on my board, pull myself to a halt, and start inching back- ward. As I go, I glance down at my phone again.
A couple of months ago, I’d succeeded in hacking into the main directory of Warcross players in New York and synced it all up to my phone’s maps. It’s not hard, not if you remember that everyone in the world is connected in some way to everyone else. It’s just time-consuming. You worm your way into one account, then branch out to their friends, then their friends, and eventually, you’re able to track the location of any player in New York City. Now I’ve finally managed to place my target’s physical location, but my phone’s a cracked, beat-up old thing, with an antique battery that’s on its last legs. It keeps trying to sleep in order to save energy, and the screen is so dark I can barely see anything.
“Wake up,” I mutter, squinting at the pixels.
Finally, the poor phone lets out a pitiful buzz, and the red location marker updates on my map.
I make my way out of the taxi jam and push my heel down on my board. It protests for a moment, but then it speeds me forward, a dot in a sea of moving humanity.
Once I reach Times Square, screens tower above me, surrounding me in a world of neon and sound. Every spring, the official Warcross Championships kick off with a huge ceremony, and two teams of top-ranking players compete in an all-stars opening round of Warcross. This year’s opening ceremony happens tonight in Tokyo—so all the screens are Warcross-related today, showing a frenzied rotation of famous players, commercials, and footage of highlights from last year. Frankie Dena’s latest, craziest music video plays on the side of one building. She’s dressed like her Warcross avatar—in a limited-edition suit and webbed glitter cape—and dancing with a bunch of businessmen in bright pink suits. Underneath the screen, a group of excited tourists stop to pose for photos with some guy dressed in fake Warcross gear.
Another screen features five of the superstar players competing in tonight’s opening ceremony. Asher Wing. Kento Park. Jena MacNeil. Max Martin. Penn Wachowski. I crane my neck to admire them. Each one is dressed from head to toe in the hottest fashion of the season. They smile down at me, their mouths big enough to swallow the city, and as I look on, they all hold up cans of soda, declaring Coca-Cola their drink of choice during game season. A marquee of text scrolls below them:
TOP WARCROSS PLAYERS ARRIVE IN TOKYO, POISED FOR WORLD DOMINATION
Then I’m through the intersection and cut onto a smaller road. My target’s little red dot on my phone shifts again. It looks like he’s turned onto Thirty-Eighth Street.
I squeeze my way through another few blocks of traffic before I finally arrive, pulling over along the curb beside a newsstand. The red location dot now hovers over the building in front of me, right above a café’s door. I tug my scarf down and let out a sigh of relief. My breath fogs in the icy air. “Caught you,” I whisper, allowing myself a smile as I think of the five-thousand-dollar bounty. I hop off my electric skateboard, pull out its straps, and swing it over my shoulder so that it bumps against my backpack. It’s still warm from use, the heat of it seeping through my hoodie, and I arch my back to savor it.
As I pass the newsstand, I glimpse the magazine covers. I have a habit of checking them out, searching for coverage of my favorite person. There’s always something. Sure enough, one of the magazines features him prominently: a tall young man lounging in an office, dressed in dark trousers and a crisp collar shirt, sleeves casually rolled up to his elbows, his face obscured by shadows.
Below him is the logo for Henka Games, Warcross’s parent studio. I stop to read the headline.
HIDEO TANAKA TURNS 21
INSIDE THE PRIVATE LIFE OF THE WARCROSS CREATOR
My heart skips a familiar beat at my idol’s name. Too bad there’s no time to stop and flip through the magazine. Maybe later. I reluctantly turn away, adjust my backpack and board higher on my shoulders, and pull my hood up to cover my head. The glass windows I pass reflect a distorted vision of myself— face elongated, dark jeans stretched too long, black gloves, beat-up boots, faded red scarf wrapped around my black hoodie. My rainbow-colored hair spills out from underneath my hood. I try to imagine this reflected girl printed on the cover of a magazine.
Don’t be stupid. I push the ridiculous thought away as I head toward the café’s entrance, shifting my thoughts instead to the running checklist of tools in my backpack.
On one of my first hunts, my target threw up all over me after I used my stun gun (#6) on him. I started bringing a change of clothes (#5) after that. Two targets have managed to bite me, so after a few tetanus shots, I added the gloves (#3). The cable launcher (#2) is for getting to hard-to-reach places and catching hard-to-reach people. My phone (#4) is my portable hacking assistant. Handcuffs (#1) are because, well, obviously.
And the book (#7) is for whenever the hunt involves a lot of waiting around. Entertainment that won’t eat up my batteries is always worth bringing.
Now I step into the café, soak in the warmth, and check my phone again. Customers are lined up along a counter displaying pastries, waiting for one of the four auto-cashiers to open. Decorative bookshelves line the walls. A smattering of students and tourists sit at the tables. When I point my phone’s camera at them, I can see their names hovering over their heads, meaning none of them have set themselves on Private. Maybe my target isn’t on this floor.
I wander past the shelves, my attention shifting from table to table. Most people never really observe their surroundings; ask anyone what the person sitting at a nearby table was wearing, and chances are good that they can’t tell you. But I can. I can recite to you the outfits and demeanor of every person in that coffee line, can tell you exactly how many people are sitting at each table, the precise way someone’s shoulders hunch just a little too much, the two people sitting side by side who never say a word, the guy who is careful not to make eye contact with anyone else. I can take in a scene like a photographer might take in a landscape—relax my eyes, analyze the full view all at once, search for the point of interest, and take a mental snapshot to remember the whole thing.
I look for the break in the pattern, the nail that protrudes.
My gaze pauses on a cluster of four boys reading on the couches. I watch them for a while, waiting for signs of conversation or the hint of notes being passed by hand or phone. Nothing.
My attention goes to the stairs leading up to the second floor. No doubt other hunters are closing in on this target, too—I have to get to him before anyone else does. My steps quicken as I climb the stairs.
No one is up here, or so it seems. But then I notice the faint sound of two voices at a table in a far corner, tucked behind a pair of bookshelves that make them almost impossible to see from the stairs. I move in closer on silent feet, then peek through the shelves.
A woman is seated at the table, her nose buried in a book. A man stands over her, nervously shuffling his feet. I hold up my phone. Sure enough, both of them are set to Private.
I slip to the side of the wall so that they can’t see me, and listen closely.
“I don’t have until tomorrow night,” the man is saying. “Sorry,” the woman replies. “But there’s not much I can do.
My boss won’t release that kind of money to you without taking extra security measures, not when the police have an arrest warrant for you.”
“You promised me.”
“And I’m sorry, sir.” The woman’s voice is calm and cynical, like she’s had to say this countless times before. “It’s game season. The authorities are on high alert.”
“I have three hundred thousand notes with you. Do you have any idea what that’s exchanging for?”
“Yes. It’s my job to know,” the woman answers in the driest voice I’ve ever heard.
Three hundred thousand notes. That’s about two hundred thousand dollars, at the current exchange rate. High roller, this one. Gambling on Warcross is illegal in the United States; it’s one of the many laws the government has recently passed in a desperate attempt to keep up with technology and cybercrime. If you win a bet on a Warcross match, you win game credits called notes. But here’s the thing—you can either take those notes online or to a physical place, where you meet a teller like this lady. You trade your notes to her. She gives you real cash in return, while taking a cut for her boss.
“It’s my money,” the guy is insisting now.
“We have to protect ourselves. Extra security measures take time. You can come back tomorrow night, and we can exchange half of your notes.”
“I told you, I don’t have until tomorrow night. I need to leave the city.”
The conversation repeats itself all over again. I hold my breath as I listen. The woman has all but confirmed his identity.
My eyes narrow, and my lips turn up into a hungry little smirk. This, right here, is the moment I live for during a hunt—when the bits and pieces I’ve exposed of a trail all converge into a fine point, when I see my target standing physically before me, ripe for the picking. When I’ve solved the puzzle.
As their conversation turns more urgent, I tap my phone twice and send out a text message to the police:
Suspect in physical custody.
I get a reply almost immediately.
I pull the stun gun out of my backpack. It catches for an instant against the edge of the zipper, making the faintest scraping sound.
The conversation halts. Through the bookshelves, both the man and woman jerk their heads toward me like deer in headlights. The man sees my expression. His face is covered in a sheen of sweat, and his hair is plastered against his forehead. A fraction of a second passes.
He bolts—I miss him by a hair. Good reflexes. The woman darts up from her table, too, but I could care less about her. I rush after him. He hops down the stairs three at a time, nearly falling in his rush, scattering his phone and a bunch of pens behind him. He sprints for the entrance as I reach the first floor. I burst through the revolving glass door right behind him.
We emerge onto the street. People let out startled shouts as the man shoves them aside—he knocks a camera-clicking tourist flat on her back. In one movement, I swing my electric board off my shoulder, drop it, jump on, and slam my heel down as hard as I can. It makes a high-pitched whoosh—I lunge forward, speeding down the sidewalk. The man glances back to see me gaining fast on him. He darts left down the street at a full, panicked run.
I veer in his direction at such a sharp angle that the edge of my board protests against the pavement, leaving a long, black line. I aim my stun gun at the man’s back and shoot.
He shrieks and stumbles. Instantly, he starts struggling up again, but I catch up to him. He grabs my ankle. I stumble, kicking at him. His eyes are wild, his teeth clenched and jaw tight. Out flashes a blade. I see its glint in the light just in time. I kick him off me and roll away right before he can stab at my leg. My hands get a grip on his jacket. I fire the stun gun again, this time at close range. It hits true. His body goes rigid, and he collapses on the pavement, trembling.
I jump on him. My knee presses hard into his back as the man sobs on the ground. The sound of police sirens rounds the bend. A circle of people have gathered around us now, their phones and glasses all out and recording away.
“I didn’t do anything,” the man whimpers over and over through a clenched jaw. His voice comes out garbled by how hard I’m pushing him into the ground. “The lady inside—I can give you her name—”
“Shut it,” I cut him off as I slide handcuffs onto his wrist.
To my surprise, he does. They don’t always listen like that. I don’t relent until a police car pulls up, until I see red and blue lights flashing against the wall. Only then do I get up and back away from him, making sure to hold out my hands so that the cops can see them clearly. My skin tingles from the rush of a successful hunt as I watch the two policemen yank the man onto his feet.
Five thousand dollars! When was the last time I had even half that much money at once? Never. I’ll get to be less desperate for a while—I’ll pay off the rent that I owe, which should calm my landlord down for now. Then I’ll have $1,550 left. It’s a fortune. My mind flips through my other bills. Maybe I can eat something other than instant noodles tonight.
I want to do a victory jump in the air. I’ll be okay. Until the next hunt.
It takes me a moment to realize that the police are walking away with their new captive without even looking in my direction. My smile falters.
“Hey, Officer!” I shout, hurrying after the closer one. “Are you giving me a ride to the station for my payment, or what? Should I just meet you there?”
The officer gives me a look that doesn’t seem to jive with the fact that I just caught them a criminal. She looks exasperated, and dark circles under her eyes tell me she hasn’t gotten much rest. “You weren’t first,” she says.
I startle, blinking. “What?” I say.
“Another hunter phoned in the alert before you.” For an instant, all I can do is stare at her.
Then I spit out a swear. “What a load of bull. You saw the whole thing go down. You all confirmed my alert!” I hold up my phone so the officer can see the text message I received. Sure enough, that’s when my phone’s battery finally dies.
Not that the proof would’ve made a difference. The officer doesn’t even glance at the phone. “It was just an auto-reply. According to my messages, I received the first call-in from another hunter on location. Bounty goes to the first, no exceptions.” She offers me a sympathetic shrug.
This is the dumbest technicality I’ve ever heard. “The hell it does!” I argue. “Who’s the other hunter? Sam? Jamie? They’re the only other ones canvassing this turf.” I throw my hands up. “You know what—you’re lying, there is no other hunter. You just don’t want to pay out.” I follow her as she turns away. “I saved you from a dirty job—that’s the deal, that’s why any bounty hunter goes after the people you’re too lazy to catch. You owe me this one and you—”
The cop’s partner grabs my arm and shoves me so hard that I nearly fall. “Get back,” he says with a snarl. “Emika Chen, isn’t it?” His other hand is wrapped tightly around the handle of his sheathed gun. “Yeah, I remember you.”
I’m not about to argue with a loaded weapon. “Fine, fine.” I force myself to take a step back and raise my hands in the air. “I’m going, okay? Leaving now.”
“I know you already got some jail time, kid.” He glares at me, his eyes hard and glittering, before joining his partner. “Don’t make me give you another strike.”
I hear the police radio calling them away to another crime scene. The noise around me muffles, and the image in my mind of the five thousand dollars starts to waver until it finally blurs into something I no longer recognize. In the span of thirty seconds, my victory has been tossed into someone else’s hands.
I ride out of Manhattan in silence. It’s getting colder, and the flurries have turned into steady snow, but the sting of the wind against my face suits my mood just fine. Here and there, parties have started to break out in the streets, and people decked out in red-and-blue jerseys count down the time at the top of their lungs. I watch as their celebrations blur by. In the distance, every side of the Empire State Building is lit up and displaying rotations of enormous Warcross images.
Back when I was still living at the foster group home, I could see the Empire State Building if I climbed up onto the roof. I’d sit there and stare for hours as Warcross images rotated on its side, my skinny legs swinging, until dawn came and the sunlight would outline me in gold. If I stared long enough, I could picture myself displayed up there. Even now, I feel that old twinge of excitement at the sight of the building.
My electric skateboard beeps once, snapping me out of my reverie. I look down. The battery is down to its final bar. I sigh, slow to a stop, and swing my board over my shoulder. Then I dig for some change in my pocket and head down into the first subway stop I can find.
Twilight has faded to a blue-gray evening by the time I arrive in front of the crumbling Hunts Point, Bronx apartment complex I call home. This is the other side of the glittering city. Graffiti covers one side of the building. Rusted iron bars cage the first-floor windows. Trash is heaped near the main entrance steps— plastic cups, fast food wrappers, broken beer bottles—all partially hidden underneath a thin dusting of snow. There are no lit-up screens here, no fancy auto-cars driving through the cracked streets. My shoulders droop, and my feet feel like lead. I haven’t even eaten dinner yet, but at this point, I can’t decide if I want food or sleep more.
Farther down the street, a group of homeless people are settling in, spreading their blankets and pitching their tents in the entrance of a shuttered store. Plastic bags line the insides of their threadbare clothes. I look away, heartsick. Once upon a time, they too were kids, maybe had families who loved them. What had brought them to this point? What would I look like, in their place? Finally, I will myself up the steps through the main entrance and down the hall to my front door. The hall reeks, as always, of cat pee and moldy carpets, and through the thin walls, I can hear neighbors shouting at each other, a TV’s volume cranked high, a wailing baby. I relax a little. If I’m lucky enough, I won’t bump into my landlord, with his tank and sweats and red face. Maybe I can at least get an uneventful night’s sleep before I have to deal with him in the morning.
A new eviction notice has gone up on my door, right where I’d torn the old one off. I stare at it for a second, exhausted, rereading.
NEW YORK EVICTION NOTICE TENANT NAME: EMIKA CHEN 72 HOURS TO PAY, OR VACATE
Was it really necessary for him to come back and put up a new sign, as if he wants to make sure everyone else in the building knows? To humiliate me further? I tear the notice off the door, crumple it in my fist, and stand still for a moment, staring at the blank space where the paper once hung. There is a familiar desperation in me, a rising panic that beats loudly in my chest, pounding out each thing I owe. The numbers in my head start all over again. Rent, food, bills, debt.
Where am I going to get the money in three days?
I jump at the voice. Mr. Alsole, my landlord, has emerged from his apartment and is stalking toward me, his frown resembling a fish’s, his thin orange hair sticking out in every direction. One look at his bloodshot eyes tells me that he’s high on something. Great. Another argument. I can’t deal with another fight today. I fumble around for my keys, but it’s too late—so instead, I straighten my shoulders and lift my chin.
“Hey, Mr. Alsole.” I have a way of pronouncing the name like it’s Mr. Asshole.
He scowls at me. “You been avoidin’ me all week.”
“Not on purpose,” I insist. “I got a gig as a waitress in the mornings now, down at the diner, and—”
“Nobody needs waitresses anymore.” He squints at me suspiciously.
“Well, this place does. And it’s the only job around. There’s nothing else.”
“You said you’d pay today.”
“I know what I said.” I take a deep breath. “I can come by later to talk—”
“Did I say later? I want it now. And you’re gonna need to add another hundred bucks to what you owe.”
“Rent’s going up this month. On the whole block. You think this ain’t hot property?”
“That’s not fair,” I say, my temper rising. “You can’t do that— you just raised it!”
“You know what’s not fair, little girl?” Mr. Alsole narrows his eyes at me and folds his arms. The gesture stretches out the freckles on his arms. “The fact that you’re living for free in my building.”
I hold both hands up. The blood is rushing to my cheeks. I can feel its fire. “I know—I just—”
“What about notes? You got more than five thousand of those?”
“If I did, I’d be giving them to you.”
“Then offer something else,” he spits. He shoves a sausage-like finger at my skateboard. “I see that again, I’ll smash it with a hammer. You sell that thing and give me the money.”
“It’s only worth fifty bucks!” I take a step forward. “Look, I’ll do whatever it takes, I swear, I promise.” The words stream out of me in a jumbled mess. “Just give me a few more days.”
“Listen, kid.” He holds up three fingers, reminding me exactly how many months I owe him. “I’m done with pity checks.” Then he looks me up and down. “You’re what, eighteen now?”
I stiffen. “Yeah.”
He nods down the hall. “Go get a job at the Rockstar Club. Their girls earn four hundred a night just for dancing on some tables. You could probably pull five hundred. And they won’t even care about the red on your record.”
I narrow my eyes. “You think I haven’t checked? I have to be twenty-one.”
“I don’t care what you do. Thursday. Got it?” Mr. Alsole’s talking forcefully enough now for his spit to fly onto my face. “And I want this apartment cleared out. Spotless.”
“It wasn’t spotless in the first place!” I shout back. But he’s already turned his back and is stalking down the hall.
I let out a slow breath as he slams his door shut. My heart pounds against my ribs. My hands shake.
My thoughts return to the homeless, with their hollow eyes and sloped shoulders, and then to the working girls I’ve occasionally seen leaving the Rockstar Club, reeking of smoke and sweat and heavy perfume, their makeup smeared. Mr. Alsole’s threat is a reminder of where I might end up if I don’t get lucky soon. If I don’t start making some hard choices.
I’ll find a way to work some pity into him. Soften him up. Just give me one more week, I swear, and I’ll get half the money to you. I promise. I play these words in my head as I shove the key in the lock and open the door.
It’s dark inside. Neon-blue light shines from outside the window. I flip on the lights, toss my keys on the kitchen counter, and throw the crumpled eviction notice in the trash. Then I pause to look around the apartment.
It’s a tiny studio, crammed full of belongings. Cracks in the painted plaster run along the walls. One of the bulbs in the room’s only ceiling light has burned out, while the second bulb is fading, waiting for someone to replace it before it dies, too. My Warcross glasses are lying on the fold-out dining table. I’d rented them for cheap because they’re an older model. Two cardboard boxes of stuff are stacked by the kitchen, two mattresses lie on the ground by the window, and an ancient TV and old, mustard yellow couch take up the rest of the space.
A muffled voice comes from underneath a blanket on the couch. My roommate sits up, rubs her face, and runs a hand through her nest of blond hair. Keira. She’d fallen asleep with her Warcross glasses on, and a faint crease runs across her cheeks and forehead. She wrinkles her nose at me. “You got some guy with you again?”
I shake my head. “No, just me tonight,” I reply. “Did you give Mr. Alsole your half of the money today, like you said you would?”
“Oh.” She avoids my stare, swings her legs over the side of the couch, and reaches for a half-eaten bag of chips. “I’ll get it to him by this weekend.”
“You realize he’s throwing us out on Thursday, right?”
“No one told me.”
My hand tightens against the back of the dining room chair. She hasn’t left the apartment all day, so she never even saw the eviction notice on the door. I take a deep breath, reminding myself that Keira hasn’t been able to find any work, either. After almost a year of trying, she’s just given up and curled inward, spending her days idling away in Warcross instead.
It’s a feeling I know all too well, but I’m too exhausted tonight to spare much patience for her. I wonder whether the realization of living on the streets will hit her when we finally end up standing on the sidewalk with a bag of our belongings.
I strip off my scarf and hoodie down to my favorite tank top, go into the kitchen, and start a pot of water to boil. Then I head over to the two mattresses lying against the wall.
Keira and I keep our beds separated with a makeshift divider duct-taped together out of old cardboard boxes. I’d made my side as cozy and neat as I could, decorating the space with trails of golden fairy lights. A map of Manhattan, covered in my scribbles, is pinned on my wall, along with magazine covers featuring Hideo Tanaka, a written list of the current Warcross amateur leaderboards, and a Christmas ornament from when I was a kid. My final possession is one of my dad’s old paintings, the only one I have left, propped carefully beside the mattress. The canvas is exploding with color, the paint thick and textured as if still wet. I used to have more of his work, but I had to sell them off every time things got too desperate, chipping away at his memory in order to survive his absence.
I flop on my mattress and it lets out a loud squeak. The ceiling and walls are awash in neon blue from the liquor mart across the street. I lie still, listening to the constant, distant wail of sirens coming from somewhere outside, my eyes fixed on an old water stain on the ceiling.
If Dad were here, he would be fussing about in his fashion professor mode, mixing paints and washing brushes in jars. Perhaps mulling over his spring class syllabus, or his plans for New York Fashion Week.
I turn my head toward the rest of the apartment and pretend that he’s here, the healthy, un-sickly version of him, his tall, slender silhouette outlined in light near the doorway, his forest of dyed blue hair shining silver in the darkness, facial scruff neatly trimmed, black-rimmed glasses framing his eyes, dreamer’s face on. He would be wearing a black shirt that exposed the colorful tattoos winding up and down his right arm, and his appearance would be impeccably neat, shoes polished and trousers flawlessly ironed, except for flecks of paint staining his hands and hair.
I smile to myself at the memory of sitting in a chair, swinging my legs and staring at the bandages on my knees while my father put temporary streaks of color into my hair. Tears still stained my cheeks from when I’d run home from school, sobbing, because someone had pushed me down at recess and I’d scraped holes in my favorite jeans. Dad hummed while he worked. When he finished, he held a mirror up to me, and I gasped in delight. Very Givenchy, very on trend, he said, tapping my nose lightly. I giggled. Especially when we tie it up like this. See? He gathered my hair up into a high tail. Don’t get too used to it—it’ll wash out in a few days. Now, let’s go get some pizza.
Dad used to say that my old school’s uniform was a pimple on the face of New York. He used to say that I dressed like the world’s a better place than it actually is. He would buy flowers every time it rained and fill our home with them. He would forget to wipe his hands during his painting sessions and end up leaving colorful fingerprints all over the place. He poured his meager salary into presents for me and art supplies and charities and clothes and wine. He laughed too often and fell in love too quickly and drank too freely.
Then one afternoon, when I was eleven, he came home, sat down on the couch, and stared blankly into space. He’d just returned from a doctor’s appointment. Six months later, he was gone.
Death has a terrible habit of cutting straight through all of the careful lines you’ve drawn between your present and your future. The line that leads to your dad filling your dorm room with flowers on your graduation day. To him designing your wedding dress. To him coming over for dinner at your future house every Sunday, where his off-key singing would make you laugh so hard you’d cry. I had a hundred thousand of these lines, and in one day they were severed, leaving me with nothing but a stack of his medical bills and gambling debt. Death didn’t even give me somewhere to direct my anger. All I could do was search the sky.
After he died, I started copying his look—wild, unnaturally colorful hair (boxes of hair dye being the only thing I’m willing to waste money on) and a sleeve of tattoos (done for free out of pity from Dad’s former tattoo artist).
I turn my head slightly and glance at the tattoos winding along my left arm, then run a hand lightly across the images. They start at my wrist and go up my shoulder, bright hues of blue and turquoise, gold and pink—peony flowers (my father’s favorite), Escher-style buildings rising out of ocean waves, music notes, and planets against a backdrop of outer space, a reminder of nights when Dad would drive us out to the countryside to see the stars. Finally, they end with a slender line of words that run along my left collarbone, a mantra Dad used to repeat to me all the time, a mantra I recite to myself whenever things get too grim.
Every locked door has a key.
Every problem has a solution.
Every problem, that is, except the one that took him. Except the one I’m in now. And the thought is almost enough to make me curl up and close my eyes, to let myself sink back into a familiar dark place.
The sound of boiling water shakes me from my thoughts just in time. Get up, Emi, I say to myself.
I drag myself up 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 parties 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 all 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 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.
I’d certainly been with my share of boys, had plenty of nights where I’d caught a handsome thing at the diner or a coffee shop and then led him back home to distract me from my problems. Boys came and went without consequence. But Hideo’s image lingered in my mind constantly.
“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 all of 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 helping 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 glance at the dining room 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.