The phone calls. The unknown caller ID. My heart seizes, and my eyes go to my phone, still lying on the couch. I’d slept for a few hours, and no one had come to our door.
Some of my panic from the night before eases, and the shock of standing in the middle of the opening game dulls. Maybe nothing will actually happen. The events even feel like a dream.
I turn toward the sound again. It came from my phone. Suddenly I remember that it’s Wednesday. I’m late for my shift at the diner. That must be my boss texting me, and my text messages still make a sound on my phone. In a heartbeat, my worries shift from my glitch to the danger of losing the only moneymaking gig that I have.
I leap out of my chair. Keira stirs in her corner, partially hidden from view behind the cardboard divider. I rush into the bathroom and jam a toothbrush into my mouth, running a quick comb through my tangle of rainbow hair as I go. I’m wearing the same clothes I wore last night. They’ll have to do. No time to change. I curse silently at myself as I finish brushing my teeth. I’m going to get fired for missing my shift. My head bows as I lean against the sink, struggling under the weight of the world.
“Oh, for the love of—” I snap under my breath. When my phone lets out two more dings, I give up ignoring it and hurry out of the bathroom. “I’m on my way,” I mutter, as if my boss could hear me.
I grab my phone and stare down at the long list of texts.
Eighty-four messages, from a blocked number. They all say the same thing.
Ms. Emika Chen, please call
An uneasy feeling settles in my stomach.
I turn to see Keira out of bed and peering through the blinds. Only now do I hear the sound of voices coming from the street below.
“Emi,” Keira says. “Come look.”
I walk to her on quiet feet. Thin slants of light cut through the blinds, painting yellow stripes against my arms. Keira’s lips are folded into a puzzled frown. I pull two blinds apart, and look outside.
A cluster of people jams the steps leading up to our apartment complex. They have huge cameras with them. I see call letters printed on the sides of their microphones—it’s the local news stations.
My stomach drops. “What’s going on?”
Keira turns to face me, then fumbles in her pockets for her phone. She quickly types something. I hold my breath, listening to the buzz of voices outside.
Keira reads the search results on her phone. The color has drained from her face, and her eyes are wide.
“Emi,” she says. “You’re everywhere.”
I find myself looking at a list of news articles, each one displaying the same photo: a screenshot of me, with my rainbow-colored hair, standing inside the Warcross opening game, with Asher turned toward me in shock. Keira scrolls down for me. The articles go on and on, their headlines melding together.
Audience Member Glitches into Warcross Opening Game
HACKER TEMPORARILY DISRUPTS WARCROSS OPENING
Who Is Emika Chen?
My mouth goes dry at the sight of my name. I’m a fool for thinking that my little stunt last night would have attracted anything less than a spotlight. My identity’s been blown. Not only blown, but with those blown bits plastered all over the internet like stickers. It’s too late to run. I stay frozen as Keira continues to search, her expression turning more stunned as she goes.
“They can’t possibly be talking about me,” I stammer. “They can’t. I must still be asleep.”
“You’re not asleep.” Keira holds up her phone again. I read a feed littered with my name. “You’re the world’s top trending topic.”
Over by the dining table, my phone dings again. We look at it in unison.
“Keira,” I say, “do me a favor and look up a number for me.” She follows me to the dining table, where I pick up the phone and scan the endless string of identical texts. “212-555-0156.”
Keira types it into a search. A second later, she swallows and looks at me. “It’s the number for Henka Games’ Manhattan headquarters.”
A prickling sensation of dread travels down my spine and along my arms. Henka Games has sent me over eighty text messages. Keira and I look at each other for a moment longer, letting the commotion outside fill the silence in our room. “It’s probably their lawyers,” I whisper. A rush of light-headedness makes me sway in place. A flurry of thoughts flash by: police sirens; handcuffs; courtrooms; interrogation chambers. Familiar experiences for me. “Keira—they’re going to sue me.”
“You better call them,” Keira replied. “It won’t be any better for you if you wait.”
She’s right. I hesitate for a second before finally grabbing my phone. My hands are shaking so badly that I can barely dial the numbers. Keira crosses her arms, pacing in front of me.
“Put it on speaker,” she adds. I do, then hold the phone between us.
I’d expected some general thank-you-for-calling-Henka-Games-for-English-press-1 automated message—the typical greeting from a corporate number. But instead, the phone rings only once before a woman answers.
“Miss Emika Chen?” she says.
I’m so startled by her personal greeting that I fumble all over my answer. “Hi. Here. I mean, me. I mean, that’s me.” I wince. Why am I even surprised? Obviously, they know my phone number, judging by the text message avalanche—they must’ve forwarded me straight to a live operator the instant I dialed them. They’ve been waiting.
“Excellent,” the woman says. “I have Mr. Hideo Tanaka on the line for you. Please hold.”
Keira sucks in her breath and stops pacing. She looks at me with wide eyes. I stare back, paying attention to nothing but the hold music now playing on the phone. I’ve lost my mind. “Did she just say . . . ?”
We both jump when the music abruptly cuts off. A man’s voice comes on the line. It’s a voice I’d recognize anywhere, one I’ve heard in countless documentaries and interviews, one that belongs to the last person I thought I’d ever talk to.
“Miss Chen?” says Hideo Tanaka.
His accent is British. Attended a British international school, I remind myself feverishly. Studied at Oxford. His voice, easy and refined, carries in it the authority of someone who runs a huge corporation. I can only stand there, phone in hand, staring at Keira as if I could see straight through her.
Keira wheels her arms frantically at me, reminding me that I’m supposed to respond. “Uh,” I manage. “Hey.”
“A pleasure,” Hideo says, and my phone trembles in my grip. Keira takes pity on me and holds it for me. I expect Hideo’s next words to have something to do with my hacking incident, so I immediately start to stammer some sort of apology, as if that might help my case.
“Mr. Tanaka, about yesterday—look, I am really, really sorry for what happened—it was a total accident, I swear—I mean, my glasses are pretty old and they glitch a lot”—I wince again—“I mean—not that your stuff is badly made or anything—which it’s not!—er, that is—”
“Yes. Are you busy right now?”
Am I busy right now? Hideo Tanaka is on the phone, asking me if I am busy right now? Keira’s eyes look like they’re going to pop right out of their sockets. Don’t sound stupid, Emika. Be cool. “Well,” I reply, “I’m actually late for my waitressing shift . . .”
Keira slaps her forehead with the palm of her hand. I hold both hands out at her in a panic.
“I apologize for interrupting your schedule,” Hideo says, as if my answer were the most natural thing in the world, “but are you willing to skip work today and come to Tokyo?”
My ears start to ring. “What? Tokyo—Japan?”
I cringe, glad he can’t see my face turning red. What did I expect him to say—Tokyo, New Jersey? “Like . . . right now?”
A note of amusement enters his voice. “Yes, like, right now.”
“I—um—” My head spins. “I’d love to, but my roommate and I are actually about to get evicted from our apartment tomorrow, so . . .”
“Your debts have been taken care of.”
Keira and I exchange a blank look. “I’m sorry—what?” I murmur. “They’re . . . taken care of?”
The calculations that run constantly through my head. Rent, bills, debt. $1,150. $3,450. $6,000. Your debts have been taken care of. Just like that, they scatter, replaced by nothing except white noise. How can this be? If I went to Mr. Alsole’s apartment right now, would he wave us away and tell us that we’re good to go? Why would Hideo Tanaka do this? I suddenly feel light-headed, like I might float right out of my body. Don’t faint. “They can’t just be taken care of,” I hear myself say. “That’s a lot of money.”
“I assure you, it was very simple. Miss Chen?”
“Yes. Sorry—yes, I’m still here.”