With the press of a tiny button on its side, the glasses could also switch back and forth like polarized lenses between the virtual world and the real world. And when you looked at the real world through it, you could see virtual things hovering over real-life objects and places. Dragons flying above your street. The names of stores, restaurants, and people.
To demonstrate how cool the glasses were, Hideo made a video game that came with each pair. This game was called Warcross.
Warcross was pretty simple: two teams battled each other, one trying to take the other team’s Artifact (a shiny gem) without losing their own. What made it spectacular were the virtual worlds the battles were set in, each one so realistic that putting on your glasses was like dropping you right into that place.
As the radio program went on, I learned that Hideo, born in London and raised in Tokyo, had taught himself how to code when he was eleven. My age. Not long afterward, he built his first pair of NeuroLink glasses at his father’s computer repair shop, with his neuroscientist mother’s input. His parents helped fund a set of one thousand glasses for him, and he started shipping them to people. A thousand orders turned overnight into a hundred thousand. Then, a million, ten million, a hundred million. Investors called with staggering offers. Lawsuits flew over the patents. Critics argued about how the NeuroLink engine would change everyday life, travel, medicine, the military, education. “Link Up” was the name of a popular Frankie Dena pop song, last summer’s big hit.
And everyone—everyone—played Warcross. Some played it intensely, forming teams and battling for hours. Others played by simply lounging on a virtual beach or enjoying a virtual safari. Still others played by wearing their glasses while walking around the real world, showing off their virtual pet tigers or populating the streets with their favorite celebrities.
However people played, it became a way of life.
My gaze shifted from the radio to the homework pages lying on my blankets. Hideo’s story stirred something in my chest, cutting through the fog. How did a boy only three years older than me take the world by storm? I stayed where I was until the program ended and music started to play. I lay there for another long hour. Then, gradually, I uncurled and reached for one of my assignments.
It was from my Introduction to Computer Science class. The first problem on it was to spot the error in a simple, three-line piece of code. I studied it, imagining an eleven-year old Hideo in the same position as me. He wouldn’t be lying here, staring off into nothing. He would have solved this problem, and the next, and the next.
The thought conjured an old memory of my father sitting on my bed and showing me the back of a magazine, where two drawings were printed that looked identical. It was asking the reader to figure out the difference between them.
This is a trick question, I’d remembered declaring to him with crossed arms. My eyes squinted closely at every corner of both images. The two drawings are exactly the same.
Dad just gave me a crooked smile and adjusted his glasses. There was still paint and glue stuck in his hair from when he was experimenting with fabrics earlier in the day. I’d need to help him cut the sticky strands out later. Look closer, he’d replied. He’d grabbed the pencil tucked behind his ear and made a sweeping motion across the image. Think about a painting hanging on a wall. Without using any tools, you can still tell if it’s crooked—even by a tiny bit. It just feels off. Right?
I’d shrugged. Yeah, I guess so.
Humans are surprisingly sensitive like that. Dad had gestured at the two drawings again with his paint-stained fingers. You have to learn to look at the whole of something, not just the parts. Relax your eyes. Take in the entire image at once.
I’d listened, sitting back and softening my gaze. That had been when I’d finally spotted the difference, the tiny mark on one of the drawings. There! I’d exclaimed, pointing excitedly at it.
Dad had smiled at me. See? he’d said. Every locked door has a key, Emi.
I stared down at the assignment, my father’s words turning over and over in my mind. Then I did as he said—I leaned back and took in the code all at once. Like it was a painting. Like I was searching for the point of interest.
And almost immediately, I saw the error. I reached for my school laptop, opened it, and typed out the corrected code.
It worked. Hello, World! said my laptop’s program.
To this day, I can’t properly describe how I felt in that moment. To see my solution working, functioning, on the screen. To realize that, with three little lines of text, I had the power to command a machine to do exactly what I wanted.
The gears in my head, creaky from grief, suddenly began to turn again. Begging for another problem. I finished the second one. Then a third. I kept going, faster and faster, until I finished not only that homework sheet but every problem in my textbook. The fog in my chest eased, revealing a warm, beating heart beneath it.
If I could solve these problems, then I could control something. And if I could control something, I could forgive myself for the one problem that I could never have solved, the one person I could never have saved. Everyone has a different way of escaping the dark stillness of their mind. This, I learned, was mine.
I finished my dinner that night for the first time in months. The next day and the day after that and every day since, I channeled every bit of my energy into learning everything about code and Warcross and the NeuroLink that I could get my brains on.
As for Hideo Tanaka . . . from that day on, along with the rest of the world, I was obsessed. I watched him as if I were afraid to blink, incapable of looking away, like he might start another revolution at any moment.
My glasses are old and used, several generations behind, but they work fine. I put them on and the earphones fit snugly, sealing out the sound of outside traffic and footsteps from upstairs. Our humble apartment—and, with it, all my worries—is replaced by blackness and silence. I exhale, relieved to leave the real world behind for a while. My view soon fills with a neon-blue light, and I find myself standing on the top of a hill, looking down at the city lights of a virtual Tokyo that could pass for the real thing. The only reminder that I’m inside a simulation is a clear box hovering in the center of my vision.
Welcome back, [null]
Level 24 | N430
Those two lines then vanish. [null], of course, isn’t actually my name. In my hacked account, I’m able to wander around as an anonymous player. Other players crossing my path will see me as a randomly generated username.)
When I look behind me, I see my customized room decked out in variations of the Warcross logo. Normally, this room has two doors: play a round, or watch other people play. Today, though, there is a third door, above which some text hovers:
Warcross Opening Ceremony Game
In real life, I tap my fingers against the tabletop. As I do, the glasses sense my finger movements, and a virtual keyboard slides out. I search for Keira in the player directory. I find her in no time, connect with her, and a few seconds later, she accepts my invite and appears at my side. Like me (and most other players), she’s designed her avatar to look like an idealized version of her real self, adorned with a few cool game items—a gleaming breastplate, a pair of horns—she’d bought.
“Let’s head in,” she says.
I move forward, then reach my hand out and open the third door. Light washes over me. I squint and my heart gives a familiar leap as the invisible roar of viewers drowns out everything. A soundtrack swells over my earphones. I find myself standing on one of what seems like a million floating islands, staring down into the most beautiful valley I’ve ever seen.
A wide expanse of lush plains turns into a crystal-blue lagoon, surrounded by towering cliffs and smooth, steep rocks, their tops covered with vegetation. Waterfalls thunder down their sides. When I look closer, I realize that the rocks are actually enormous sculptures, each of them carved to look like past tournament winners. Rays of sun dance through the valley, painting light on the plains even as the floating isles cast patches of shadows; flocks of white birds cry out in formation below us. The towers of a castle on the cliffs peek through the distant mist. Farther, to the horizon, majestic ocean ray–like creatures glide in the air. There, the sky is black, and lightning forks between the clouds. I shiver as if I could sense the electricity in the air.
Even the soundtrack chosen for this level is off-the-charts epic, full of orchestral strings and deep drums, sending my heart soaring.
Above it all, a grand voice echoes across the world. “Welcome to the Warcross Opening Ceremony Game.”
A soft ding sounds, and a transparent bubble pops up in the middle of my view:
Logged into Opening Ceremony!
150 Pts. Daily Score: +150
Level 24 | N580
Then it fades away. My reward for watching the opening game is 150 points, which will go toward my leveling . . . except it won’t, since I’ve hacked this version of Warcross. Too bad. If I played like a normal person, I’d probably be at Level 90 or so by now. But I’m still at Level 24.
“They always do it up, don’t they?” Keira’s voice makes me blink. She has a look of wonder on her face.