Authors: Marie Lu
Tags: #YA, #Carly
“Does that mean you want me to compete in this year’s Warcross championships?”
I suck in my breath. Hearing this from Hideo himself, from the creator of Warcross, finally makes it real. “Why?” I say. “I mean, I’m a pretty good player, but I’m not ranked in the international
lists or anything. Are you putting me in for the ratings? As some marketing ploy?”
“Do you have any idea what you actually did when you hopped into the opening game?”
“I ruined the biggest game of the year?” I venture a guess.
“You managed to hack through a shield that has almost never been breached.”
“Sorry. I’d never tried that hack before.”
“I thought you said it was an accident.”
I meet his penetrating stare. Now he’s taunting me for my stuttering apology during our first phone call. “I’d never
tried that hack before,” I rephrase.
“I’m not telling you this because I’m upset that you broke in.” He lifts an eyebrow at me. “Although I’d prefer that you not do it again. I’m telling you this because I need your help.”
Something in his earlier words triggers my interest. “You said that security shield had
never been breached. Who else got in?”
Hideo walks over to the couches, sits down, and leans back. He gestures for me to take a seat across from him. “That’s why I need your help.”
In a flash, I understand. “You’re trying to catch someone. And the best way to do it is for you to enter me in this year’s games.”
Hideo tilts his head at me. “I heard that you’re a bounty hunter.”
“Yes,” I reply. “I catch Warcross players who owe large gambling debts, and anyone else the police don’t have time to get.”
“So you must be familiar with the underworld that has popped up since my glasses first came on the market.”
I nod. “Of course.”
A thriving underworld has always existed underneath the
regular internet. It’s the part of the online world you don’t see, that no search engine will ever show you. That you cannot even enter unless you know what you’re doing. The dark web is where hackers congregate, drugs are trafficked, sex is sold, and assassins are hired. That has only increased with the popularity of Warcross and the NeuroLink glasses. The same underworld exists now in virtual reality, except it’s called the Dark World—a dangerous virtual place where I frequently wander, searching for the criminals who like to hang out there.
“And you’re comfortable there?” Hideo asks, regarding me.
I bristle at his condescension. “If I weren’t, I wouldn’t be much use in catching a hacker, now would I?”
Hideo doesn’t react to my sarcasm. “You’ll be one of several bounty hunters I’m hiring for this job.” He reaches toward the coffee table separating us and picks up a small black box resting on top of a stack of game magazines. He holds it out to me. “This is for you. The others will be receiving them, too.”
Other bounty hunters.
Like my past hunts, I’ll be competing against others. I hesitate, then take the box from him. It’s light as air. I glance at Hideo before opening the box. Inside is a small, plastic container with two round compartments. I twist one of them open.
“Contact lenses,” I say, staring down at a clear disc floating in liquid.
“Beta versions. We’re releasing them to the public later this week.”
I look back up at Hideo in anticipation. “The next generation of NeuroLink glasses?”
His lips tilt up into the smallest hint of a smile, the first I’ve seen. “Yes.”
My eyes turn down again. They look like any contact lenses
would, except that on the rims, in tiny, translucent, repeated lettering, are the words
. All that’s needed to identify them as different from a regular pair of lenses. When I shift a little, the lenses glitter in the light, suggesting that their surface is probably coated with a fine web of microscopic circuits. For a second, I forget about my annoyance with Hideo’s replies. Instead I feel like I’m back in my group foster home, listening to the radio, hearing about his earthshaking invention for the first time. “How . . . ,” I start to say, my fascination coming out as a hoarse croak. “How did you do this? How do you even
them? It’s not like you can plug them into a wall.”
“The human body produces at least one hundred watts of electricity a day,” Hideo replies. “The average smartphone only uses two to seven watts to fully charge. These lenses need less than one watt.”
I look sharply at him. “Are you saying that it can be charged just by the electricity in my body?”
He nods. “The lenses leave behind a harmless film against the eye surface that is only one atom thick. This film acts as a conduit between the lenses and your body.”
“Using the body as a charger,” I say. There’d been plenty of movies made about that, and yet here I am, staring down at it right in my hands. “I thought that was just some science fiction myth.”
“Everything’s science fiction until someone makes it science fact,” Hideo says. There’s a specific intensity in his gaze now, a glow that brightens his entire expression. I remember seeing it the first time I caught him on TV, and I recognize it now.
is the Hideo that draws me in.
He gestures toward a door at the far end of the office. “Give it a try.”
I take the lenses and head over to the door, which opens into
a private bathroom. There, I wash my hands and hold up one of the lenses. It takes me at least a dozen tries, but finally I manage to put both of them in, blinking away a few tears as I do. They feel ice-cold.
As I return to the couch, I study the room. At first glance, everything seems the same. But then I notice that the brightly colored mural behind Hideo is moving, as if the painting were alive, the colors swirling and shifting in a spectacular display.
My gaze continues to wander. I notice more and more things. Layers of virtual reality, freed from the boundaries of glasses. An old Warcross game plays across another white wall in the room, covering it from top to bottom. The ceiling isn’t a ceiling anymore. Instead, I can see a dark blue night and the glittering sheet of the Milky Way. Planets—Mars and Jupiter and Saturn—are magnified and exaggerated in color, hanging orb-like in the sky. Around the room, objects have labels hovering over them.
floats above a green plant, along with the words,
Water | +1
, hinting that I would earn a point if I watered it.
floats above our couches, and
Hideo Tanaka | Level ∞
hovers above Hideo himself. I probably have
Emika Chen | Level 26
hanging over my own head.
A few translucent words appear in the center of my view.
Hideo gets up and walks over to sit beside me. Now I notice that he’s wearing contacts, too—with mine on, I can see a faint, glittering sheet of colors against his pupils. “Join a session of Warcross with me,” he says. A hovering button appears between us. “And I’ll show you who I’m after.”
I take a deep breath and stare at the button before me for a few seconds. The contacts detect my lingering look, and the real
world around us—the office, the couches, the walls—darkens and disappears.
When the world reappears again, we are both standing in a sterile, white space with white walls that stretch to infinity. I recognize it as one of the beginner worlds in Warcross: Paintbrush Level. If you reach out your hands and run them along the white walls, streaks of rainbow paint sweep across the surfaces. I curl my toes slightly and imagine walking—and with those double cues, my avatar moves forward. As we walk, I absently run a hand along one of the walls, watching as the colors streak behind my fingers.
Hideo leads us to a corner of the world, where he finally stops. I relax my toes and stop, too. He looks at me. “This is the first world where we noticed something was off,” he says. He runs a hand along the wall, leaving trails of bright green and gold. Then, he digs his fingers against the surface and
The wall opens, obeying his touch.
Behind the wall is a world of dark lines and streaks of light, sequenced into detailed patterns.
The code that runs this world.
This is a glimpse of the API at work in the game. Hideo steps inside the wall, then gestures for me to join him. I hesitate only for a second before leaving the paint-smeared world of white walls and entering the dark mess of lines.
In here, the lines of light cast a faint blue hue against our skin. A jolt of excitement runs through me at the sight, and I scan the columns, analyzing and absorbing as much as I can. Hideo walks a little, then pauses before a segment of code.
My instincts kick in, and my eyes relax, taking in the whole display of code before me. Immediately, I see what the problem is. It’s subtle—easily overlooked by someone not experienced with analyzing the NeuroLink’s framework—but there it is, a section
that looks mangled, the lines tangled in a way that doesn’t match the pattern around it, a section out of place with the rest of the organized chaos around us.
Hideo nods approvingly when he realizes that I’ve noticed it. He steps closer to the tangled part. “Do you see what he did?”
He’s not just showing me what had happened. He’s testing my skills. “It was rewired,” I answer automatically, my eyes darting across the code. “To report data.”
Hideo nods, then reaches out to the mangled portion and taps it once. It flickers before snapping back into place, clean and orderly, the way it’s supposed to be. “We patched it up. I’m just showing you a memory of how it looked when we first found it. But the person left behind no trace of himself, and he’s gotten better at hiding his tracks since then. We’ve taken to calling him Zero, as that is the default in the access record. It’s the only marker he leaves behind.” He looks at me. “I’m impressed you caught it.”
Does he think
Zero? I look sharply at him. Has he brought me all the way here, asked me his questions—
Is this your first time in Japan? Do you have any idea what you did?
—just to see if I’m the suspect he’s looking for?
I scowl at him. “If you want to know whether or not I’m Zero, you could just ask me.”
Hideo gives me a skeptical look. “And would you admit it?”
“I would’ve appreciated your directness, instead of this roundabout game you’re playing with me.”
Hideo’s stare seems capable of piercing straight through my soul. “You hacked into the opening ceremony game. Should I apologize for suspecting you?”
I open my mouth, then close it. “Fair enough,” I admit. “But I didn’t do
He looks coolly away. “I know. I didn’t bring you here to force a confession.”
I fume in silence.
The world around us suddenly shifts. We’ve zoomed out of both the code and the Paintbrush Level. Now we’re standing on a hovering isle, surrounded by a hundred other floating isles, overlooking a beautiful lagoon. This was the world used in the opening ceremony that I’d hacked into.
Hideo pulls the world as if he were spinning it under his fingers, and it rushes by beneath our feet. I swallow hard. The version that his account is hooked up to is obviously different from mine, giving him in-game abilities that I don’t have. It’s strange to be inside this game with its own creator and see him play with it as its god. Hideo finally stops us at one portion of the cliffs. He reaches out and pushes. Again, we enter a space of lines and light.
This time, the tangled section is much harder to find. I let my focus turn fuzzy and my subconscious emerge, searching for the break in the pattern. It takes me a few minutes to get my head around it all, but finally, I catch the portion of the code that’s off. “Here,” I say, pointing. “Same story. Whoever this Zero person is, he set up this level to report stats to him about every single audience member watching the game.” The realization sends an ominous shiver through me. I look closer. “Wait—there’s more here. He almost disabled the level, didn’t he? This spot—he realized that the code was weak here.”
When Hideo doesn’t reply immediately, I glance away from the code to see him studying me. “What?” I say.
“How did you find that?” he asks.
“Find what? The mangled code?” I shrug. “I just . . . noticed it.”
“I don’t think you understand.” He puts his hands in his pockets. “It took my best engineers a week to do what you just did.”
“Then maybe you need better engineers.”
I can’t seem to control my retorts around Hideo. His chilly demeanor must be rubbing off on me. But he just faces me with a thoughtful look. “And how would you fix this?”
My attention goes to the compromised code. “My father taught me how to take in everything at once,” I murmur as I sweep a hand across the text. “You don’t have to break down
detail. You just need to see the overall pattern to catch the weakness in it.” I reach out to grab the code, pull forward an enormous block of it, and swipe it away. Then I replace it with a single, efficient line. The rest clicks into place around it.
“There,” I say, resting my hands on my hips. “That’s better.”
When I look back at him, he’s analyzing my change without saying a word. Maybe I’ve passed his test.
“Decent,” he says after a moment.
My scowl deepens. “Why would someone be interested in collecting this data and messing with the games?”
“Your guess is as good as mine.”
“You’re worried he’s going to sabotage the games again.”
“I’m worried he’s doing something far worse than that. I refuse to halt the games just to bow to a hacker’s threat—but the safety of our audience isn’t something I want to compromise.” Hideo looks to his side. The world rushes away again, and suddenly we are sitting back in his office. I startle at the sudden shift. These contact lenses are going to take some getting used to. “With your current celebrity status, I thought it best if we hid you in plain sight, put you on one of the teams. It will allow you to be physically closer to the other players.”