I can’t help 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 head to the fold-out 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.
I still remember the exact moment when Hideo Tanaka changed my life.
I was eleven, and my father had been dead for only a few months. Rain pounded against the window of the bedroom I shared with four others at the foster home. I was lying in bed, unable, yet again, to force myself to get up and head to school. Unfinished homework lay strewn on my blankets, still there from the night before, when I’d fallen asleep staring at the blank pages. I’d dreamed of home, of Dad making us fried eggs and pancakes drowning in syrup, his hair still shining with glitter and glue, his loud, familiar laugh filling the kitchen and drifting outside through our open window. Bon appètit, mademoiselle! he’d exclaimed, with his dreamer’s face. And I’d screamed in delight as he threw his arms around me and messed up my hair.
Then I’d woken up, and the scene had vanished, leaving me in a strange, dark, quiet house.
I didn’t move in bed. I didn’t cry. I hadn’t cried once since Dad’s death, not even at the funeral. Any tears I might have shed were instead replaced with shock when I learned how much debt Dad had accumulated. When I learned that he had been sneaking onto online gambling forums for years. That he hadn’t been getting treatment at the hospital because he’d been trying to pay off his debt.
So I spent the morning the way I’d spent every day for the past few months, lost in a haze of silence and stillness. Emotions had long vanished behind a cavity of fog in my chest. I used my every waking moment to stare off into space—at the bedroom wall, at the class whiteboard, at the interior of my locker, at plates of tasteless food. My report cards were a sea of red ink. Constant nausea stole my appetite. My bones jutted sharply at my wrists and elbows. Dark circles rimmed my eyes, something everyone noticed except me.
What did I care, anyway? My father was gone and I was so tired. Maybe the fog in my chest could grow, denser and denser, until someday it’d swallow me, and I could be gone, too. So I lay curled in a tiny ball, watching the rain lash at the window, the wind tug at the silhouettes of tree branches, wondering how long it would take for the school to notice I wasn’t there again.
The clock radio in the room—the only thing in the room, other than our beds—was on, a piece of hand-me-down technology donated to the home from a Goodwill center. One of the other girls hadn’t bothered turning it off when the alarm sounded. I listened halfheartedly as the news droned on about the state of the economy, the protests in the cities and countryside, the overworked police trying to keep up with crime, the evacuations in Miami and New Orleans.
Then it switched. Some hour-long special began, talking about a boy named Hideo Tanaka. He was fourteen years old then, still brand-new to the spotlight. As the program went on, I started to pay attention.
“Remember the world right before smartphones?” the announcer was saying. “When we were teetering on the brink of a huge shift, when the technology was almost but not quite there, and it took one revolutionary device to push us all over the edge? Well, last year, a thirteen-year-old boy named Hideo Tanaka pushed us over a new edge.
“He did it by inventing a thin, wireless pair of glasses with metal arms and retractable earphones. Make no mistake. They’re nothing like the goggles we’ve seen before, the ones that looked like giant bricks strapped to your face. No, these ultra-slim glasses are called the NeuroLink, and you wear them as easily as any pair of regular glasses. We have the latest pair in the studio here”—he paused to put them on—“and we promise, it’s the most sensational thing we’ve ever tried.”
The NeuroLink. I’d heard it mentioned in the news before. Now I listened as the radio program laid it out for me.
For a long time, in order to create a realistic virtual reality environment, you had to render as detailed a world as possible. This required a lot of money and effort. But no matter how good the effects became, you could still tell—if you looked hard enough—that it wasn’t real. There are a thousand little movements on a human face every second, a thousand different quivers of a leaf on a tree, a million tiny things the real world has that the virtual world doesn’t. Your mind knows this unconsciously—so something will look off, even if you can’t quite put your finger on it.
So Hideo Tanaka thought of an easier solution. In order to create a flawlessly real world, you don’t need to draw the most detailed, most realistic 3-D scene ever.
You just need to fool the audience into thinking it’s real.
And guess what can do that the best? Your own brain.
When you have a dream, no matter how crazy it is, you believe it’s real. Like, full-on surround sound, high definition, 360-degree special effects. And none of it is anything you’re actually seeing. Your brain is creating an entire reality for you, without needing any piece of technology.
So Hideo created the best brain–computer interface ever built. A pair of sleek glasses. The NeuroLink.
When you wore it, it helped your brain render virtual worlds that looked and sounded indistinguishable from reality. Imagine walking around in that world—interacting, playing, talking. Imagine wandering through the most realistic virtual Paris ever, or lounging in a full simulation of Hawaii’s beaches. Imagine flying through a fantasy world of dragons and elves. Anything.