I smile, then take a deep breath and spread my arms out. I leap off my floating isle. And I fly.
My stomach drops as my brain believes I’m actually thousands of feet in the air. I let out a whoop as I soar over the plain, the music egging me on. There are restrictions on the official competing players—some worlds allow players to fly around or swim underwater, while others must obey virtual gravity. But audience members are always free to wander around the landscape however they wish. We’re barred from altering it in any way or interfering with the players. The players won’t see us, either. They can only hear the roar of our cheers or boos, as well as the referee’s calls.
I fly straight through the floating isles like a ghost, angling up to go as high as I can until I can’t get any farther from land. Then I turn around and dive back down like a meteor. I finally stop on one of the floating isles, right as the cheers of the audience mix with the voices of the game analysts coming from my earphones, as if I were listening to them on a radio.
“It’s time for the annual Opening Ceremony Game!” one of them exclaims. “We’ve gathered here tonight to watch this all-star performance before the real tournament season begins. At the far end, we have Team Alpha, led by Asher Wing! At the near end, we have Team Beta, led by Penn Wachowski!”
The players finally appear, scattered at opposite ends of the mass of floating islands. I fly away from Keira and head over to see them more closely.
The avatar rule for official, professional Warcross players is that their virtual selves must look like their real selves, without any of the crazy customizations typical users can have, and that each team’s members must wear the same color. Team Alpha’s color is blue. There’s Jena, all blond hair and lanky limbs in her blue, fitted Warcross armor, its dragon scale texture tailored to match the level. She’s one of the younger players—only eighteen, same as me—and is from Ireland. As I watch her, she tosses her hair over her shoulders and places her hands on her hips. Her silver armguards gleam in the sun, as do the identical knives strapped to her thighs. The audience screams their approval.
Standing on a floating island nearby is Max. Max, the son of millionaires, is a Harvard grad. His Warcross position is a Fighter, for sheer brawn and power, with the goal of taking others down instead of hunting for the Artifact. At twenty-eight, he’s the oldest player in this year’s tournaments. His shoulder armor is enormous and hulking, so shiny that it reflects the sky and contrasts sharply against his dark skin.
Then there’s Asher, the team’s captain, who is the farthest from where I’m floating. Originally known only as the younger brother of Daniel Batu Wing, an actor and stuntman, Asher’s now famous in his own right because of Warcross. He has thick brown hair so light that it’s almost blond, and his eyes are a playful blue, the same color as the virtual lagoon below him. His deep sapphire armor is finished with steel shoulder plates and leather straps along his arms and waist.
He grins cheekily, crosses his arms against his chest, and calls out a challenge to the other team at the opposite end of the game world, which makes the audience go wild. When I toggle my view to show the audience in the Tokyo Dome, they are shrieking his name and waving glowing batons frantically. MARRY ME, ASHER!!! scream the fan posters. Asher says something through his secure line, words only his teammates can hear. Over his head floats a shimmering blue gem. This is his team’s Artifact.
The game announcer has started the official pregame ritual, reading off something about good sportsmanship and honorable gameplay. As she goes on, my attention shifts to Team Beta. They’re decked out in red armor, of course—the annual opening game always color-codes the teams red versus blue. Penn, the Beta captain, has a sparkling red Artifact hovering over his head. He and Asher smirk at each other, and the shouts from the audience go up an octave.
Over my earphones, the announcer finishes her speech with a now-standard reminder of what the objective is, for the benefit of any new audience members who are watching. “Remember, teams, you have only one goal—take your enemy team’s Artifact before they can take yours!”
The players each raise their right fist. They hit them twice against their chests, the standard response to acknowledging the rules. There is a brief pause, as if everything in the level had suddenly frozen.
“Game!” the announcer shouts. The crowd chants along: “Set! Fight!”
The world trembles from the roar of the invisible audience, and the clouds in the sky start to move rapidly. The storm that blackens the horizon is sweeping toward us at a frightening pace, its lightning forking closer with each passing second. As with every Warcross world, the game gets harder the longer it goes on.
At the same time, brightly colored marbles appear, hovering over many of the isles. These items are power-ups—temporary bursts of super speed, wings to help you fly for short periods, shields of defense that can stop an enemy attack, and so on. There are dozens of different power-ups that can potentially appear in a game, and new ones are added all the time. Low-level power-ups (like something that helps you jump a little higher) are plentiful. I see three hovering over isles close to me right now. But high-level power-ups (like the ability to fly for the entire game) are very rare and hard to reach. Some power-ups are so valuable that a team might send one of their players after them for the entire game.
Power-ups can be worth a lot of money in the Warcross community. In regular games, unused power-ups that you collect can be stored in your player inventory. You can then sell or trade them to other players. Valuable power-ups can sell for thousands of notes.
Warcross is so well programmed that I’ve never tried to steal a power-up—but I recently found a security bug that might let me grab an item from a user’s account right as she’s about to use it.
I find myself looking around us now, wondering how much I could get if I nabbed some of these items for resale. But none of the ones I can see are valuable enough. Fifty notes here, another thirty there. Not worth risking a hack of the biggest opening game ever. Definitely not worth risking another strike on my record.
“Asher is making the first move of the game!” an analyst’s voice echoes in my ears. “He’s giving Jena some instructions. A power-up grab.”
Sure enough, Asher has spotted something before anyone else has. He looks first at Jena, then makes an arm gesture toward a distant marble hovering over a rock jutting high out of the far end of the lagoon. She doesn’t hesitate. Immediately she hops off her floating isle and onto another one, making her way toward the rock. Behind her, the isle she was originally standing on now crumbles into pieces.
“Something’s caught Asher’s eye!” another analyst chimes in. “It takes a lot for him to send away one of his teammates.”
At the same time, Asher and his Fighter, Max, lunge forward. The other team is already on the hunt, hurtling toward them. Every time a player leaps from one isle to another, the isle left behind crumbles away. They must all choose their steps wisely. Asher and Max move as one, their attention focused on Penn. They’re going to attack him on both sides.
I crane my neck in the direction where the distant object is hovering, in an attempt to see what power-up had caught Asher’s eye. My world zooms in. The power-up is a marbled sphere, so red it looks like it was dipped in blood.
“Sudden Death!” an analyst exclaims, right as I gasp.
A rare power-up, indeed. Sudden Death can render a player of your choice frozen for the rest of the game, useless to his or her teammates. I’ve never seen this power-up in play during a regular Warcross match, and only a handful of times in an official tournament game.
It must be worth at least five thousand—maybe fifteen thousand dollars.
Max, for all his size, is faster than Asher. He reaches Penn first, then lunges for the red Artifact over his head. Penn ducks out of the way in time. The isle they’re both standing on starts to crack, unable to support them both for long, and Penn makes a leap for the next closest isle. But Max’s hand closes around his arm before he can do it—Max lets out a roar and flings Penn backward. Penn goes flying. He manages to seize the edge of an isle before he plummets to the lagoon below. There he dangles, momentarily helpless and dazed. The audience roars as Penn’s life bar drops from Max’s blow.
Penn Wachowski | Team Beta
Now Asher joins the action. He leaps off his own isle as it crumbles, landing in a perfect crouch on the isle Penn is clinging to. The isle shudders from the impact. He leans down, seizes Penn by his neck before he has recovered from his last hit, and pummels him into the isle’s dirt, cracking the ground. A burst of blue light radiates out from Asher in a ring at his attack.
Penn Wachowski | Team Beta
Life: -92% | WARNING
The invisible audience screams, while an analyst shouts, “Penn’s going to go down! If he doesn’t protect his team’s Artifact, Asher is going to end this game early—”
Penn frees one hand and unleashes a Lightning power-up on Asher before he can make a fatal blow. A blinding flash of light engulfs Asher for an instant. He throws his hands up in vain, but too late—the power-up has blinded him for five solid seconds. His own life bar drops by 20 percent. Penn lunges for Asher’s Artifact. At the last instant, Max saves their Artifact by grabbing it first, so that it now hovers over his head.