Warcross (Warcross #1)(8)

by Marie Lu

The crowd lets out a roar of cheers and boos. I follow suit. But my attention keeps going back to the Sudden Death power-up.

Don’t do it.

“Sharp effort from Beta! Penn’s been working on his defense!” an analyst shouts over the noise. As he speaks, the storm’s clouds finally reach us, and the sun disappears overhead. “We lost track of Kento for a while, but it looks like he’s now hunting after Jena. Both are going for the Sudden Death power-up!”

Wind blasts us. It makes the floating isles wobble in the air. Fat drops of rain start to fall, making each isle slippery and harder to stand on.

I turn my attention to Jena and Kento, who look like two small, bright figures fast approaching the power-up hovering over the rock. Then I swoop down from the isles and fly in their direction. Soon, I am hovering near the bloodred Sudden Death, watching as Jena and Kento dash for it.

I focus on the power-up. In theory, if Jena or Kento get their hands on Sudden Death, I might be able to hack into their player accounts. I might be able to steal Sudden Death right out of their account. And then I could sell it.

Fifteen thousand dollars.

In spite of myself, my head spins with excitement. Could this work? Hacking into a regular Warcross game has never been done—but an official championship tournament game? Unheard of. I don’t even know if I can access their accounts the same way I can in regular Warcross. My hack might not work at all.

If they catch me and I’m arrested, I’ll be charged as an adult.

Breaking the law had only quickened my father’s death. It certainly hadn’t made my life any easier.

I stay where I am, torn, my throat dry.

What if I do successfully steal it? It’s just a power-up in a game; I’m not hurting anyone. I’ve never tested this Warcross hack in an arena like this—but what if it works? I could resell it for thousands. I could get that money immediately and give it to Mr. Alsole, pay off my debts. It could save me. And I’d never do it again.

The temptation nips at me, and I wonder if this is how my father felt every time he’d logged online to place just one more bet.

Just one bet. Just this once.

Jena reaches the power-up first. She only has time to swipe it off the top of the cliff before Kento tackles her.

If I don’t make a decision now, it’ll be too late.

Instinctively, I move. My fingers tap madly against my tabletop. I bring up a player directory, then hunt for Jena’s profile. As I go, Jena kicks Kento off her and then dives in a perfect arc down toward the lagoon. A deafening thunderclap sounds out overhead.

Jena’s name finally pops up. I have only a few seconds to act. Don’t do it. But I’m already moving. A complete inventory of her virtual belongings appears. I scroll until I see the brand-new Sudden Death item in her account, shiny and scarlet.

The only weakness I’ve ever found in Warcross’s security is a tiny glitch when a user is about to use an item. When the item passes from an account into the game and is used, there’s a split second when it is vulnerable.

My fingers tremble. Before me, Jena reaches for her new Sudden Death power-up. In her inventory, I see it flash a quick gold. Now’s my only chance. I suck in my breath, wait—don’t do it—and then type a single command just as Jena’s item leaves her hand.

A tingle shoots through my body. I freeze. In fact, everyone in the game seems to freeze.

Then I notice that Asher is looking right at me. Like he can see me.

I blink. That’s impossible. I’m in the audience. But Jena is staring at me, too. Their eyes are wide. That’s when I realize that the Sudden Death power-up is now officially in my account. I see it in my inventory at the bottom of my vision.

I did it. My hack worked.

But, somehow, successfully capturing the power-up has glitched me into the tournament.

A referee’s whistle echoes around us. The audience’s cheers turn into whispers of shock. I stay where I am, suddenly unsure of what to do. Frantically, I type in another command, trying to go back to being part of the audience again. But it’s no use.

Everyone—the players, the announcers, the millions in the audience—can see me.

“Who the hell are you?” Asher says to me.

I just stare back, numb.

A flash of red light engulfs the scene, and the omniscient voice echoes all around us. “Time-out,” it booms. “System glitch.”

Then, my screen goes dark. I’m kicked out of the game and back into my starting room, looking out at a virtual view of Tokyo. The doors in the room are gone now. The Sudden Death power-up is still glowing in my inventory.

But when I reach for it, it vanishes. They’ve deleted it from my directory.

I rip my glasses off. Then I sit back in my chair, looking wildly around our apartment. My eyes settle on Keira, seated across from me. She’s taken off her glasses, too, and is staring at me with the same shocked expression I’d seen on Jena’s face.

“Em,” Keira whispers. “What did you do?”

“I—” I stutter, then stop. Something about reaching into Jena’s account had erased my anonymity. I’ve been exposed. I stare down at the table. My heart thuds.

Keira leans forward. “I could see you in the game,” she says. “Em—Asher spoke to you. He could see you. They could all see you.” She throws her hands up in astonishment. “You glitched the game!”

She has absolutely no idea how much trouble I’ve just gotten myself into; she thinks this was an honest mistake. Below my rising panic lies an ocean of regret. I don’t know what Henka Games does when they catch a hacker, but they’ll ban me from the game for sure. I’ll go to court for this. “I’m sorry,” I reply in a daze. “Maybe they—they won’t make a big deal out of it . . .”

My voice trails off. Keira lets out a long breath and leans back in her chair. We don’t speak for a while. After being so immersed in Warcross, the silence in the apartment feels overwhelming.

“You’re smart, Em,” Keira finally says, her eyes meeting mine. “But I have a feeling you’re dead wrong on that one.”

And as if on cue, my phone rings.

5

We both jump at the sound. When I peer at the phone, the caller ID says: Unknown Number.

“Aren’t you going to answer it?” Keira says to me, her eyes as wide as mine now. I just shake my head repeatedly at the phone. I don’t move from my spot until, after what seems like an eternity, it finally stops ringing.

Immediately, it rings again. Unknown Number.

The hairs rise on the back of my neck. I turn the phone’s sound off, then throw it onto the couch so I can’t see it. In the silence, I stay hunched in my chair and try not to meet Keira’s bewildered stare.

The caller had to be the police. Would they come to arrest me now if I didn’t pick up? Would Henka Games sue me? It occurs to me that I’ve just interrupted a game watched by half a billion people, a game that accepts millions in sponsor money. Would the game studio itself put out a bounty on my head, for other hunters to track me down? In fact, they could be sending out a text alert right now, and all across the city, hunters would be swinging onto their motorcycles or hopping in cabs, eager to catch me. I press my shaking hands tightly together in my lap.

I could run. I had to. I’d grab the first train and make my way out of the city until everything dies down. But I grimace immediately at the impossible thought. If I ran, where would I go? How far could I get with only thirteen dollars? And if—no, when—they caught me, it would just make my crime worse. It might be safer for me to stay put right here.

Keira wanders over to the couch. “It’s still ringing, Em.”

“Then stop looking at it,” I shoot back, harsher than I’d meant to sound.

She throws her hands up. “Fine, whatever. Suit yourself.” Without another word, she turns away from me and heads for her mattress. I close my eyes, put my head in my hands, and lean against the table. The silence in the room is overwhelming, and even though I can’t hear my phone, I can feel it, can somehow tell that it’s still ringing. At any moment, there’ll be a fist pounding on our door.

Every locked door has a key. But this time, I’ve reached the end.

I don’t know how long I sit like that at the table, spinning thoughts and plans until they all jumble together or when, in my utter exhaustion, I start to nod off. I don’t realize that I’ve fallen asleep until, somewhere through the darkness, a sound stirs me.

Ding.

Ding.

Ding.

I open one eye groggily. Is that my alarm going off? Sunshine streams in through the blinds of our windows. For an instant, I admire how pretty the bright light looks. In fact, it’s the kind of bright light that tells me I’m late for something. A sinking feeling hits my stomach. I’d fallen asleep right at the dining table.

I jerk my head up. My entire body is sore, and my arms are cramped and tingly from being slept on all night. I look around in a daze. What happened last night comes back in a rush. While Keira went to bed, I’d stayed here at the table, my head in my hands, wondering how I could have been stupid enough to reveal myself to five hundred million people. I must have had nightmares last night—even though I can’t remember any of them, I’m dead tired, and my heart is pounding furiously.

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