“Hi, Mr. Tanaka,” I reply, unsure of what else to say.
“Hideo, please.” There’s that smooth, subtle British accent of his. He encloses his hand around mine and shakes it once, then looks at the others. “Our lead producer for the championships, Miss Leanna Samuels.” He lets go of me to hold his hand out toward the woman in the blouse and skirt.
She gives me a smile and adjusts her glasses. “Pleased to meet you, Miss Chen.”
Hideo nods at the woman in the tee and blazer. “My second-in-command, Miss Mari Nakamura, our chief operating officer.”
Now I recognize her—I’ve seen her give plenty of Warcross-related announcements. She gives me a little bow of her head. “Nice to meet you, Miss Chen,” she says with a grin. I return the bow as well as I can.
“And you’ve already been introduced to our creative director,” Hideo finishes, tilting his head in Kenn’s direction. “One of my former Oxford schoolmates.”
“Not in person.” Kenn hops out of his chair and is in front of me in a couple of strides. He shakes my hand vigorously. Unlike Hideo’s, his expression is warm enough to heat a room in winter. “Welcome to Tokyo. You’ve made quite an impression on us.” He glances once at Hideo, and his grin tilts higher. “It’s not every day that he flies someone halfway across the world for an interview.”
Hideo raises an eyebrow at his friend. “I flew you halfway across the world to join the company.”
Kenn laughs. “That was years ago. Like I said—not every day.” His smile returns to me.
“Thanks,” I decide to say, my head whirling from greeting four legendary creators in ten seconds.
The COO, Mari, turns to Hideo and asks him something in Japanese.
“Go ahead without me,” Hideo replies in English. His eyes settle on me again. I realize that he hasn’t smiled since I walked in. Maybe I really am too underdressed for him. “Miss Chen and I are going to indulge in a chat.”
A chat. A one-on-one. I feel the heat rising in my cheeks. Hideo doesn’t seem to notice, though, and instead nods for me to follow him out of the room. Behind us, the others return to their conversation. Only Kenn meets my gaze as I look over my shoulder at them.
“He doesn’t mean to be intimidating,” he calls out cheerfully as the doors close.
“So,” Hideo says as we head down the hall to the main atrium, “your first time in Japan, isn’t it?”
I nod. “It’s nice.” Why does everything I say suddenly sound stupid?
More and more employees are slowing down to watch us as we pass. “Thank you for coming all this way,” he says.
“Thank you,” I answer. “I’ve been watching your career ever since the beginning, when you first hit it big. This is a huge honor.”
Hideo gives me a half-interested nod, and I realize he must be tired of hearing that from everyone he meets. “I apologize for interrupting your week, but I hope your trip went well enough.”
Is he serious? “That’s kind of an understatement,” I reply. “Thank you, Mr. Tanaka—Hideo—for paying off my debts. You didn’t have to do that.”
Hideo waves a nonchalant hand. “Don’t thank me. Consider it a small advance payment. Frankly, I’m surprised you were in debt at all. Surely some tech company has noticed your skills by now.”
A needle of irritation pricks me at Hideo’s easy dismissal of my debt. I guess six thousand dollars—to me, an unconquerable mountain—isn’t even worth a second thought when you’re a billionaire. “I have a couple of things on my record,” I reply, trying to keep the annoyance out of my voice. “My criminal record, I mean. They’re nothing that serious, but I wasn’t allowed to touch a computer for two years.” I decide to not mention my father’s death and my time in foster care.
To my surprise, Hideo doesn’t press me further. “I’ve employed enough hackers to know a good one when I see one. You would’ve been discovered sooner or later.” He gives me a sidelong look. “And, well, here you are.”
He leads us around a corner and toward another set of sliding doors. We enter an empty office. Windows go from ceiling to floor. A bright mural is painted along one corner, a colorful swirl of stylized game levels. Sleek couches are in another corner. The doors slide closed behind us, and we’re alone.
Hideo turns to me. “I know you’ve seen yourself mentioned everywhere online,” he says. “But can you guess why you’re here?”
By mistake? But instead I respond, “On the flight, Mr. Edon said that I was going to be entered into the Wardraft.”
Hideo nods. “You are, unless you don’t want to be.”
“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 accidentally 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 almost 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 Henka Games. 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 power them? It’s not like you can plug them into a wall.”