Warcross (Warcross #1)(17)

by Marie Lu

“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.”

“Why do you want me close?”

“The nature of the attacks makes me suspect that Zero is one of them.”

One of the professional players. Their names rush through my mind. “And what will I and the other hunters be competing for? What’s your bounty prize?”

“Each of you will see the prize amount as a pending number in your bank accounts.” Hideo leans forward and rests his elbows on his knees. He gives me a pointed look. “If you decide you want to turn this down, that this is more than you want to deal with, I’ll have you on a private flight back to New York. You can just treat this as a holiday before returning to your life. I’ll pay you a sum for participating, regardless, for catching a major security flaw in the game. Take your time to think it over.”

A sum for participating. It’s as if Hideo were offering me pity money, an easy out if I don’t feel up to the challenge of his bounty. I imagine getting on a flight back to New York, returning to my old life while some other hunter catches Zero. A tingle runs through me at the chance to crack this problem, possibly the biggest puzzle I’ve ever been given the chance to solve. I’m going to win this time.

“I’ve already thought it over,” I say. “I’m in.”

Hideo nods. “Instructions for the Wardraft will come your way shortly, as well as an invite to an opening game party. Meanwhile, make a list of anything you think you’ll need from me. Access codes, accounts, and so on.” He stands up. “Hold out your hand.”

I eye him warily, then put my hand forward. He takes it, turning it over so that my palm faces up.

He holds his own hand an inch above my palm, until a black rectangle resembling a credit card appears against my skin. Then he presses a finger lightly to my palm and signs his name against it. The feel of his skin moving against mine makes my breath catch. The virtual credit card flashes blue for a moment, authorizing his signature, and then disappears.

“This is for you to buy whatever you need during your stay,” he says. “No limit, no questions asked. Just use your palm whenever you need to make a purchase, and the charge will go directly to this. Cancel it by signing your own name against your palm.” His eyes lock on mine. “And keep this discreet. I’d rather not broadcast our hunt to the public.”

What I wouldn’t have given, during my most difficult weeks, for a card like this. I take my hand back, the feeling of his signature still burning against my palm. “Of course.”

Hideo offers me his hand. His expression has turned serious again. “I look forward to our next meeting, then,” he says, with absolutely no indication in his tone that this is true. My eyes flicker again to his bruised knuckles before I shake his hand.

The last moments are a blur. Hideo returns to his meeting room without looking back at me. I’m escorted down to the lobby of the studio, where I sign some more papers before heading out to where my car is waiting. As I settle inside, I let out a long breath that I didn’t realize I was holding. My heart is still hammering in my chest, my hands shaky from our encounter. Not until we’ve left the studio behind do I reach into my pocket, grab my phone, and log in to my bank account. This morning, I had thirteen dollars. What sort of money is Hideo tempting me with?

Finally, the account page loads on my screen. I stare at it in stunned silence.

Pending deposit: $10,000,000.00 USD

9

I have to load the screen a few more times before I can trust the number there. Sure enough, it doesn’t change. Ten million.

A ten-million-dollar bounty.

Hideo’s insane.

The highest bounty I’ve ever seen is five hundred thousand dollars. This number is off the charts. There must be more to this job than Hideo is letting on—it can’t possibly be as simple as catching a hacker who’s just trying to mess up the games, even if the games are the world championships.

What if it’s a more dangerous job than I think it is?

I shake my head. Warcross is Hideo’s life’s work. His main passion. I think back to the glint of intensity that I saw in Hideo’s eyes when he showed me the contact lenses. I do have a specific set of skills that appeals to him—I hunt criminals, I hack, I’m a Warcross fan who is very familiar with the game’s inner workings. Maybe it’s been really hard for him to find hunters suitable for this job.

My thoughts return to our meeting. The perfect Hideo I’d pieced together from years of documentaries and articles doesn’t seem like the one I’d just met—condescending, unsmiling, cold, the reality of a mythical figure I’d built up in my head. He doesn’t mean to be intimidating, Kenn had insisted. But Hideo’s walls are nevertheless there, making his politeness seem insulting and his intentions vague. Maybe it’s all part of being so disgustingly wealthy that he doesn’t need to open himself up to anyone.

Or maybe he just doesn’t like me very much. I bristle at the thought. Fine. I don’t like him all that much, either.

Besides, I don’t need to like a client in order to work for him. I certainly don’t like the police who I’ve worked for. All I have to do is my job, keep him updated on my progress, and catch Zero before anyone else does. All I have to do is get the bounty.

Ten million dollars. I think of Dad, sitting up late at night after he thought I’d gone to bed, resting his head wearily in his hands, staring at a never-ending stack of overdue bills. I think of him staring blearily at a glowing screen, placing yet another bet with money he didn’t have, hoping that this time, this time, he’d win it big.

Ten million dollars. I could win it big. I’d never have to worry about debt again. I could be safe for life. If I win this bounty, everything changes. Forever.

A message dings in my view as we pull up to my hotel. It’s from Kenn.

Miss Chen! I don’t know what you said to him in there, but . . . well done.

Well done? For what?

You should know that Hideo has never hired someone that quickly. Ever.

Really? I thought I annoyed him.

Everyone thinks that. Don’t mind him. Look for a gift at your front door. Hideo had it sent for you the instant you left his office.

After that meeting, it’s hard to believe what Kenn is saying.

Thanks.

Welcome to the team.

By the time Jiro drops me off and I make my way up to my suite, the gift—a beautiful box made of black suede—is already sitting on my desk. Next to it is a glossy envelope emblazoned with a gold stamp of the Warcross logo. I stare at it for a long moment, then bend down and open the box.

It’s a brand-new, limited-edition electric skateboard, sleek and light, painted in elegant black and white. I test the weight of it in my hands, disbelieving, and then toss it down and hop on it. It responds to me like a dream.

Hideo’s bodyguards must have told him about my old, beat-up skateboard. This board is easily worth fifteen thousand dollars. I’d eyed it in catalogues before, fantasized about how it might ride.

I read the card included in the box.

For you. See you at the Wardraft.

H.T.

One second, he’s interrogating me. The next, he’s sending gifts. My eyes go from the note to the envelope next to the box. Just a couple of days ago, I’d been standing in front of my apartment, looking in despair at a bright yellow eviction notice. Now I reach out for the envelope, tear it open, and pull out a thick, heavy black note with gold print.

Miss Emika Chen

is officially invited to participate

in the Wardraft as a Wild Card

on March 3rd

• • • • •

I’VE WATCHED THE Wardraft every single year. It always takes place in the Tokyo Dome a week after the all-star opening ceremony, with a packed stadium of fifty thousand screaming fans and all eyes trained on the wild-card players sitting in the stadium’s front rows, circling the central arena. One by one, the sixteen official Warcross teams choose their top picks from the wild cards.

Warcross fans know most of the wild cards by heart, because the wild cards tend to be some of the highest-scoring players in the game, those who are constantly on the leaderboards and have millions of followers. Last year, the number one draft pick was Ana Carolina Santos, representing Brazil. The year before that, Poland’s Penn Wachowski, who now plays for Team Stormchasers, was picked first. And the year before that, it was South Korea’s Ki-woon “Kento” Park, who currently is on Team Andromeda.

But I’m used to watching this madness unfold from home, with my glasses on. This time, I’m going to be sitting in the front row of the Tokyo Dome.

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