My hands shake now as the car pulls into the streets near the dome. My eyes stay transfixed on the scenery outside. If Times Square had seemed crazy about Warcross, it’s nothing compared to Tokyo. Through my contact lenses, the entire main intersection of Shibuya is alight with hovering screens, rotating through each wild card’s photo and showing clips from past drafts. Thousands of screaming fans cluster in the streets below. The car drives through a special, blocked-off section where a squadron of police guides us through. As we pass by, people on the sidewalks wave at each of our cars, their faces lit with excitement. They can’t see through our tinted windows, but they know that this is the only route taken to escort the players to the dome.
Overhead, my photo appears, covering the entire side of a skyscraper. It’s an old picture of me as a high school sophomore, the last year I spent in school before I was expelled. I look grave in it, my hair pin-straight and at least a dozen different bright colors, my skin so pale it looks ashen. Headlines about me are sprinkled everywhere.
Emika Chen Nominated for Wardraft
From Penniless Glitch to Wild-Card Star!
Details in This Week’s Issue
HENKA GAMES STOCK JUMPS WITH EMIKA CHEN ADDITION
Seeing my face cover eighty stories is enough to make me nauseous. I force myself to look away from the madness outside and instead press my trembling hands together firmly in my lap.
Think of the ten million, I repeat to myself. I glance outside again to see another billboard rotate onto a photo of DJ Ren, who’s wearing his giant headphones and hunched over his DJ equipment. Suddenly, it occurs to me that the other two bounty hunters, whoever they are, will probably be watching me at the Wardraft. Investigating me. Are they wild cards, too?
By the time we pull into the roped-off section of the Tokyo Dome’s side entrance, I’ve almost calmed the butterflies wreaking havoc in my stomach. In a blur, I look on as men in suits open my door, help me out of the car, and usher me down a red carpet that leads into the cool, dark recesses of the stadium’s rear. Think badass thoughts, I tell myself. My guides lead me into a narrow corridor with a ceiling that gradually slopes higher and higher. The sound of fifty thousand screams grows near. Then, as I enter the main space, the roar turns deafening.
The stadium is bathed in dim blue light. Dozens of colored spotlights sweep back and forth across the space. The aisles are jam-packed with viewers, waving homemade posters of their favorite wild-card players, all gathered here to see us in the flesh. With my contacts on, I can see enormous holographic screens lining the edge of the central arena. On each of these screens, footage plays of the wild cards in action during some of their most popular in-game moves. The players look like they are lunging right out of the screen as giant, three-dimensional figures, and each time they make a good move, the crowd screams at the top of their lungs.
A bubble pops up in my view. My level jumps by two.
Official Wardraft Participant! Congratulations!
20,000 Points. Daily Score: +20,000
You leveled up! You’re on fire!
Level 28 | N30,180
You earned a treasure chest!
The front rows of the stadium are half full of wild-card players. As the guides usher me into a row, I scan the crowd around me and try to match up some of these people with their Warcross personas. My eyes register a few faces. Abeni Lea, representing Kenya. She’s ranked in the top fifty worldwide. Then there’s Ivo Erikkson, representing Sweden. Hazan Demir, a girl from Turkey. I swallow, wondering if it’d be silly to ask for their autographs.
Time to work, I remind myself. Quietly, I make an up-swipe gesture with two fingers and bring up my shields, then hunt for the security that blankets the dome. Hideo gave me a special ID to get past it all, offering me access to the basic information that Henka Games stores about each user, but using the ID will also allow Hideo to track me more easily, something that might leave me vulnerable to hacking from Zero or another bounty hunter. So instead, I’ve edited my access to keep me off the grid. It’ll help me work better. If Hideo has a problem with that, he’ll just have to take it up with me later.
Soon, numbers and letters appear in random places around the dome, highlighting the areas where the code is generating bits of virtual reality over the actual scene. An overlay of the stadium’s blueprint hovers faintly over everything. Most importantly, basic data appears about every person in the arena, in tiny blue digits over each of their heads, so many that the data seems to blur into streaks.
Finally, I get to my seat. Behind us, the stadium lets out another piercing round of shrieks as the giant screens show a montage of Team Phoenix Riders’ best plays from last year.
“Hallo.” I turn as a girl nudges my side. She has reddish-blond hair tied back in a low, messy tail, and a smattering of freckles across her pale skin. She gives me a lopsided grin. When she speaks again, I see the transparent English translation in my view. “Are you Emika?” Her eyes wander up to my rainbow hair, then down to my arm of tattoos. “The one who broke into the opening ceremony?”
I nod. “Hi.”
The girl nods back. “I’m Ziggy Frost, from Bamberg, Germany.”
My eyes widen. “Right! I know you! You’re one of the best Thieves out there. I’ve watched so many of your games.”
I can tell she’s rapidly reading the German translation of my words that’s showing up in her view. Then she brightens until I think she might pop. She reaches forward and shoves someone sitting in the row in front of us. “Yuebin!” she exclaims. “Look. I have a fan.”
The guy she shoved gives an annoyed grunt and turns around in his seat. He smells faintly of cigarette smoke. “Good for you,” he mutters in Chinese as I read my translation of his words. His eyes shift to me. “Hey—aren’t you the girl who glitched into the opening game?”
Is this how I’m going to be known forever? The girl who glitched? “Hi,” I say, stretching a hand out. “I’m Emika Chen.”
“Ah! The American,” he replies, shaking my hand once. “You speak Mandarin?”
I shake my head. My dad knew exactly five Chinese phrases, and four of them were swears.
He shrugs at my response. “Ah, well. I’m Yuebin, from Beijing.”
I smile. “The top Fighter in the rankings?”
His grin widens. “Yes.” He reaches over and nudges Ziggy once. “See? You are not the only one with a fan.” Then he looks back at me. “So, you are a wild card now? I mean, congratulations, that is really great—but I don’t remember seeing you in the top rankings this year.”
“That’s because everyone wrote her in at the last minute,” Ziggy pipes up. “Hideo himself approved the nomination.” Yuebin lets out a whistle. “You must have really impressed him.”
So, the rumors about me have spread. This is not how I want everyone in Warcross to know me—the girl who glitched into a game out of sheer stupidity, then got into the Wardraft as a wild card because my stunt got me written in. What if Yuebin suspects that I’m in this draft for another reason?
Don’t be so obvious. To him, you’re just here to play Warcross, I remind myself. I force a smile back at Ziggy and shrug. “It probably doesn’t matter. I bet I’ll be the last one picked.”
Ziggy just gives me a good-hearted laugh and pats my shoulder. “What is that saying? Never say never?” she replies. “Besides. Do you remember one year when that player—Leeroy something—actually got drafted into the Stormchasers, even though he always just charged in and messed up his entire team’s play? My God, he was terrible.” Too late, she realizes she’s accidentally insulted me again. “I mean, not that you are as bad as Leeroy! My point is that you never know. I mean—well, you know what I mean.”
Yuebin gives her a wry look before smiling at me. “You will have to forgive Ziggy,” he says. “She never says the right thing at the right time.”
“You’re never the right thing at the right time.”
As they forget about me and fall into bickering, I quietly review what data I can see about each of them. Their full names and addresses, their travel schedules, anything that could help me notice something suspicious about their behavior—I download all of this and store it away for later analysis. But even from a quick glance, neither of their profiles seems odd. No basic shields of any sort to protect their data. Yuebin even has a virus installed on his Link that’s slowing it down.
Then again, maybe they’re both hiding behind this façade. It’s hard to tell without breaking into all of their info—personal emails, private messages, stored Memories—encrypted things even Henka Games isn’t allowed to have access to. I need a way in, a weakness, like how I’d stolen the power-up during the opening ceremony game. I need another break in the pattern.
The stadium’s main lights dim, and the sweeping lights change color. All of the seats are filled now. The audience’s cheers grow louder. I look down the line of seats and follow it around the edge of the central arena, trying to recognize some of the other wild cards and match them up with the top-ranking players I know. Beside me, Ziggy and Yuebin finally stop arguing and sit up straighter in anticipation.
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