Read Chapter 8 Of Marie Lu’s Warcross, A Novel About A VR Massively-Multiplayer Video Game

by Tal Blevins • September 13th, 2017

Earlier this summer we published chapter 3 of Marie Lu’s Warcross, her first book influenced by both games and virtual reality. Warcross was released this week, and we’re happy to present another chapter of the book for your enjoyment.

About Warcross: For the millions who log in every day, Warcross isn’t just a game — it’s a way of life. The obsession started ten years ago and its fan base now spans the globe, some eager to escape from reality and others hoping to make a profit. Struggling to make ends meet, teenage hacker Emika Chen works as a bounty hunter, tracking down players who bet on the game illegally. But the bounty-hunting world is a competitive one, and survival has not been easy. Needing to make some quick cash, Emika takes a risk and hacks into the opening game of the international Warcross Championships– only to accidentally glitch herself into the action and become an overnight sensation. Convinced she’s going to be arrested, Emika is shocked when instead she gets a call from the game’s creator, the elusive young billionaire Hideo Tanaka, with an irresistible offer. He needs a spy on the inside of this year’s tournament in order to uncover a security problem…and he wants Emika for the job. With no time to lose, Emika’s whisked off to Tokyo and thrust into a world of fame and fortune that she’s only dreamed of. But soon her investigation uncovers a sinister plot, with major consequences for the entire Warcross empire.

Warcross is available now.

Chapter 8

A pair of torn jeans, with both of my knees showing through. My favorite old T-shirt with a vintage print of SEGA on it. The same beat-up pair of boots I wear almost every day. A red plaid flannel shirt, faded from too many washes.

Dad would be horrified.

Despite how comfortable the bed is, I’d tossed and turned all night. I’d woken up at the crack of dawn, bleary-eyed and disoriented, my head crowded with thoughts. Now I have bags under my eyes, and my skin has seen better days.

I’d ironed my poor plaid flannel as well as I could, twice, but the collar still looks crumpled and worn. I roll the sleeves up neatly to my elbows, then tug the shirt as straight as I can. In the mirror, I try to pretend it’s a sharp blazer. The only thing I like this morning is my hair, which seems to be cooperating with me. It’s thick and straight, and the rainbow of colors in it shines in the morning light. But I don’t have any makeup to cover the dark circles under my eyes—and with exactly thirteen dollars to my name, I’m not about to go out and blow it on face creams and concealer. Both my T-shirt and the flannel look hopelessly old and faded when contrasted with everything bright and new in this penthouse suite. The sole of my left boot is noticeably peeling off. The holes in my jeans look even bigger than I remember.

Game studios aren’t exactly known for strict dress codes, but even they must have some sort of etiquette for meeting the top bosses.

For meeting the top boss in the entire industry.

A pleasant ding echoes around the suite, and a light near my bed’s headrest alerts me to an incoming call. I tap to accept it, and a moment later, Sakura Morimoto’s voice comes on through speakers hidden throughout my room. “Good morning, Miss Chen.” Over the speakers, with no virtual overlays, she switches to speaking English. “Your car is waiting outside for you, whenever you are ready.”

“I’m ready,” I reply, not believing my own words.

“See you soon,” she says.

Jiro and the same car from last night are waiting outside. I half expect him to make some sort of remark about my clothes, or at least raise an eyebrow. But instead, he greets me warmly when I approach, then helps me in. We ride along with a scene of sunflowers and sunrise playing on the windows. Jiro’s suit is flawlessly sharp, a perfect black outfit with a crisp white shirt that must be some high-end brand. If this is how Hideo’s bodyguards look, then what should I be wearing? I keep tugging at my sleeves, trying to magically change my clothes into something nice by straightening them repeatedly.

I imagine Dad’s face if he were to see me right now. He’d suck in his breath and wince. Absolutely not, he’d say. He’d grab my hand and start dragging me immediately to the nearest boutique, credit card debt be damned.

The thought makes me tug harder on my sleeves. I push the thought away.

The car finally stops before a white gate. I listen curiously as the bodyguard says something to what looks like an automated machine attendant. From the corner of my eyes, I notice a small logo on the side of the gate. Henka Games. Then the car moves forward, and we continue inside, parking at a spot near the front sidewalk. Jiro comes around to let me out. “Here we are,” he says with a smile and a bow.

He leads me through a large set of sliding glass doors. We step into the largest lobby I’ve ever seen.

Light pours in from a glass ceiling atrium and down to where we stand, in the middle of an open space decorated with towering indoor vines. Water trickles from several fountains along these walls. Stacks of clean white balconies curve along the building’s insides. A faint carving of the Henka Games logo covers one of the white walls. Hanging down from the ceiling in drapes are colorful banners of the competing Warcross teams, each one displaying a team’s symbol in celebration of the current championship season. I pause for an instant to admire the sight.

“This way,” my bodyguard says, guiding me forward.

We walk toward a series of clear glass cylinders, where a smiling woman is waiting for us. She has a gold pin on her perfectly ironed blazer, in honor of the current tournament season, and a clipboard tucked under one arm. Her smile widens at the sight of me, although I notice her eyes flicker briefly to my clothing. She doesn’t say anything about it, but I blush.

“Welcome, Miss Chen,” she says, bowing her head in a calm gesture. My bodyguard bids me farewell as I’m handed off to her. “Mr. Tanaka is looking forward to meeting you.”

I swallow hard as I return the bow. He won’t be, once he gets a look at the mess that I am. “Me too,” I mumble.

“There are a few rules you’ll need to follow,” she continues. “First: No photos are allowed during this meeting. Second: You will need to sign an agreement stating that you won’t publicly discuss what you’re told here.” She hands me the form on the clipboard.

No photos. No public discussions. Not a surprise. “Okay,” I reply, reading the clipboard’s paper thoroughly and then signing it at the bottom.

“And third: I must request that you never ask Mr. Tanaka any questions about his family or their private affairs. This is a company-wide policy, and one that Mr. Tanaka is very strict about maintaining.”

I look at her. This one is a weirder request than the first two—but I decide to nod anyway. “No family questions. Got it.”

The elevator doors open for us. The lady waves me inside, then folds her arms in front of her as we start to rise. I look out at the expanse of the studio, my eyes lingering on the giant team banners as we rise past them. This building is a beautiful work of architecture. Dad would have been impressed.

We keep going until we reach the top floor. A few employees pass us by, each of them sporting Warcross T-shirts and jeans. The sight relaxes me a little. One of the employees glances at me with a hint of recognition in his eyes. He looks like he wants to stop me, then blushes and decides against it. I realize that everyone working here must have been watching the opening ceremony—and seen me glitch into the game. As I’m thinking this, I catch sight of a few other employees down in the lobby below, their necks craned curiously up in our direction.

She guides us down an open hallway until we reach a smaller lobby, where another set of sliding glass doors stand. The glass is completely clear, so that I can see part of a room beyond it, along with large paintings of Warcross worlds on the walls and a long meeting table. My legs start to feel numb, and fear shoots up my spine. Now that I’m moments away from my meeting, I’m suddenly gripped with the feeling that maybe I don’t want to be here after all.

“Wait one moment, please,” the lady says as we reach the door. She presses a finger gently against a pad at the side of the doors, then walks inside as they slide open. From where I am, I see her bow low and ask something in Japanese. The only words I can understand are Tanaka-sama and Chen-san.

A quiet voice answers her from somewhere on the far side of the room.

The lady returns and opens the sliding door. “Come in.” She nods at me as I pass. “Have a good meeting.” Then she’s gone, heading back down the hall from where we came.

I find myself standing in the middle of a room with a stunning view of Tokyo. At one end of the room, several people lounge in chairs around a meeting table—two women, one dressed in a blouse and skirt, another in a Warcross tee, blazer, and jeans. A young, golden-haired man sits between them, making gestures in the air with his hands. I recognize him as Kenn, who had spoken to me on the private jet. The women argue back, scrutinizing something about one of the worlds for the Warcross championships.

My eyes wander from them to the last person in the room.

He’s sitting on a sleek gray couch right next to the meeting table, his elbows perched on his knees. The other three people are unconsciously turned in his direction, clearly waiting for him to give the final say. He’s dressed in a perfectly tailored white collar shirt rolled up to his elbows and with two of the top buttons casually undone, a pair of lean, dark trousers, and deep scarlet oxford shoes. The only game-related item he’s wearing is a pair of simple, silver cuff links glinting in the sunlight, both cut in the shape of the Warcross logo. His eyes are very dark and framed by long lashes. His hair is thick and midnight black, except for a curious, thin silver streak on one side.

Hideo Tanaka, in the flesh.

After years of admiring him from afar, I’m not sure what I expected. It somehow startles me to see him without a monitor or a magazine cover obstructing the view, like he’s in focus for the first time.

He looks up at me.

“Miss Chen,” he says, pushing himself off the couch in one graceful move. Then he approaches me, bows his head once, and stretches out a hand. He’s tall, his gestures easy and effortless, his expression serious. The only imperfection on him is his knuckles—they’re bruised, newly scarred, and surprising on his otherwise elegant hands, as if he had been in a fight. I catch myself gaping curiously and manage to stop just in time to extend my hand, too. My movements feel like those of a lumbering ox. Even though my clothes aren’t that different from everyone else’s, I feel dirty and underdressed compared to his flawless style.

“Hi, Mr. Tanaka,” I reply, unsure of what else to say.

“Hideo, please.” There’s that smooth, subtle British accent of his. He encloses his hand around mine and shakes it once, then looks at the others. “Our lead producer for the championships, Miss Leanna Samuels.” He lets go of me to hold his hand out toward the woman in the blouse and skirt.

She gives me a smile and adjusts her glasses. “Pleased to meet you, Miss Chen.” Hideo nods at the woman in the tee and blazer. “My second-in- command, Miss Mari Nakamura, our chief operating officer.”

Now I recognize her—I’ve seen her give plenty of Warcross-related announcements. She gives me a little bow of her head. “Nice to meet you, Miss Chen,” she says with a grin. I return the bow as well as I can.

“And you’ve already been introduced to our creative director,” Hideo finishes, tilting his head in Kenn’s direction. “One of my former Oxford schoolmates.”

“Not in person.” Kenn hops out of his chair and is in front of me in a couple of strides. He shakes my hand vigorously. Unlike Hideo’s, his expression is warm enough to heat a room in winter. “Welcome to Tokyo. You’ve made quite an impression on us.” He glances once at Hideo, and his grin tilts higher. “It’s not every day that he flies someone halfway across the world for an interview.”

Hideo raises an eyebrow at his friend. “I flew you halfway across the world to join the company.”

Kenn laughs. “That was years ago. Like I said—not every day.” His smile returns to me.

“Thanks,” I decide to say, my head whirling from greeting four legendary creators in ten seconds.

The COO, Mari, turns to Hideo and asks him something in Japanese.

“Go ahead without me,” Hideo replies in English. His eyes settle on me again. I realize that he hasn’t smiled since I walked in. Maybe I really am too underdressed for him. “Miss Chen and I are going to indulge in a chat.”

A chat. A one-on- one. I feel the heat rising in my cheeks. Hideo doesn’t seem to notice, though, and instead nods for me to follow him out of the room. Behind us, the others return to their conversation. Only Kenn meets my gaze as I look over my shoulder at them.

“He doesn’t mean to be intimidating,” he calls out cheerfully as the doors close.

“So,” Hideo says as we head down the hall to the main atrium, “your first time in Japan, isn’t it?”

I nod. “It’s nice.” Why does everything I say suddenly sound stupid?

More and more employees are slowing down to take notice of us as we pass. “Thank you for coming all this way,” he says.

“Thank you,” I answer. “I’ve been watching your career ever since the beginning, when you first hit it big. This is a huge honor.”

Hideo gives me a half-interested nod, and I realize he must be tired of hearing that from everyone he meets. “I apologize for interrupting your week, but I hope your trip went well enough.”

Is he serious? “That’s kind of an understatement,” I reply. “Thank you, Mr. Tanaka—Hideo—for paying off my debts. You didn’t have to do that.”

Hideo waves a nonchalant hand. “Don’t thank me. Consider it a small advance payment. Frankly, I’m surprised you were in debt at all. Surely some tech company has noticed your skills by now.”

A needle of irritation pricks me at Hideo’s easy dismissal of my debt. I guess six thousand dollars—to me, an unconquerable mountain—isn’t even worth a second thought when you’re a billionaire. “I have a couple of things on my record,” I reply, trying to keep the annoyance out of my voice. “My criminal record, I mean. They’re nothing that serious, but I wasn’t allowed to touch a computer for two years.” I decide to not mention my father’s death and my time in foster care.

To my surprise, Hideo doesn’t press me further. “I’ve employed enough hackers to know a good one when I see one. You would’ve been discovered sooner or later.” He gives me a sidelong look. “And, well, here you are.”

He leads us around a corner and toward another set of sliding doors. We enter an empty office. Windows go from ceiling to floor. A bright mural is painted along one corner, a colorful swirl of stylized game levels. Sleek couches are in another corner. The doors slide closed behind us, and we’re alone.

Hideo turns to me. “I know you’ve seen yourself mentioned everywhere online,” he says. “But can you guess why you’re here?”

By mistake? But instead, I respond with, “On the flight, Mr. Edon said that I was going to be entered into the Wardraft.”

Hideo nods. “You are, unless you don’t want to be.”

“Does that mean you want me to compete in this year’s Warcross championships?”

“Yes.”

I suck in my breath. Hearing this from Hideo himself, from the creator of Warcross, finally makes it real. “Why?” I say. “I mean, I’m a pretty good player, but I’m not ranked in the international lists or anything. Are you putting me in for the ratings? As some marketing ploy?”

“Do you have any idea what you actually did when you hopped into the opening game?”

“I ruined the biggest game of the year?” I venture a guess.

“You managed to hack through a shield that has almost never been breached.”

“Sorry. I’d never tried that hack before.”

“I thought you said it was an accident.”

I meet his penetrating stare. Now he’s taunting me for my stuttering apology during our first phone call. “I’d never accidentally tried that hack before,” I rephrase.

“I’m not telling you this because I’m upset that you broke in.” He lifts an eyebrow at me. “Although I’d prefer that you not do it again. I’m telling you this because I need your help.”

Something in his earlier words triggers my interest. “You said that security shield had almost never been breached. Who else got in?”

Hideo walks over to the couches, sits down, and leans back. He gestures for me to take a seat across from him. “That’s why I need your help.”

In a flash, I understand. “You’re trying to catch someone. And the best way to do it is for you to enter me in this year’s games.”

Hideo tilts his head at me. “I heard that you’re a bounty hunter.”

“Yes,” I reply. “I catch Warcross players who owe large gambling debts, and anyone else the police don’t have time to get.”

“So you must be familiar with the underworld that has popped up since my glasses first came on the market.”

I nod. “Of course.”

A thriving underworld has always existed underneath the regular internet. It’s the part of the online world you don’t see, that no search engine will ever show you. That you cannot even enter unless you know what you’re doing. The dark web is where hackers congregate, drugs are trafficked, sex is sold, and assassins are hired. That has only increased with the popularity of Warcross and the NeuroLink glasses. The same underworld exists now in virtual reality, except it’s called the Dark World—a dangerous virtual place where I frequently wander, searching for the criminals who like to hang out there.

“And you’re comfortable there?” Hideo asks, regarding me.

I bristle at his condescension. “If I weren’t, I wouldn’t be much use in catching a hacker, now would I?”

Hideo doesn’t react to my sarcasm. “You’ll be one of several bounty hunters I’m hiring for this job.” He reaches toward the coffee table separating us and picks up a small black box resting on top of a stack of game magazines. He holds it out to me. “This is for you. The others will be receiving them, too.”

Other bounty hunters. Like my past hunts, I’ll be competing against others. I hesitate, then take the box from him. It’s light as air. I glance at Hideo before opening the box. Inside is a small, plastic container with two round compartments. I twist one of them open.

“Contact lenses,” I say, staring down at a clear disc floating in liquid.

“Beta versions. We’re releasing them to the public later this week.”

I look back up at Hideo in anticipation. “The next generation of NeuroLink glasses?”

His lips tilt up into the smallest hint of a smile, the first I’ve seen. “Yes.”

My eyes turn down again. They look like any contact lenses would, except that on the rims, in tiny, translucent, repeated lettering, are the words Henka Games. All that’s needed to identify it as different from a regular pair of lenses. When I shift a little, the lenses glitter in the light, suggesting that their surface is probably coated with a fine web of microscopic circuits. For a second, I forget about my annoyance with Hideo’s replies. Instead I feel like I’m back in my group foster home, listening to the radio, hearing about his earthshaking invention for the first time. “How . . . ,” I start to say, my fascination coming out as a hoarse croak. “How did you do this? How do you even power them? It’s not like you can plug them into a wall.”

“The human body produces at least one hundred watts of electricity a day,” Hideo replies. “The average smartphone only uses two to seven watts to fully charge. These lenses need less than one watt.”

I look sharply at him. “Are you saying that it can be charged just by the electricity in my body?”

He nods. “The lenses leave behind a harmless film against the eye surface that is only one atom thick. This film acts as a conduit between the lenses and your body.”

“Using the body as a charger,” I say. There’d been plenty of movies made about that, and yet here I am, staring down at it right in my hands. “I thought that was just some science fiction myth.”

“Everything’s science fiction until someone makes it science fact,” Hideo says. There’s a specific intensity in his gaze now, a glow that brightens his entire expression. I remember seeing it the first time I caught him on TV, and I recognize it now. This is the Hideo that draws me in.

He gestures toward a door at the far end of the office. “Give it a try.”

I hold the case and head over to the door, which opens into a private bathroom. There, I wash my hands and hold up one of the lenses. It takes me at least a dozen tries, but finally I manage to put both of them in, blinking away a few tears as I do. They feel ice-cold.

As I return to the couch, I survey the room. At first glance, everything seems the same. But then I notice that the brightly colored mural behind Hideo is moving, as if the painting were alive, the colors swirling and shifting in a spectacular display.

My gaze continues to wander. I notice more and more things. Layers of virtual reality, freed from the boundaries of glasses. An old Warcross game plays across another white wall in the room, covering it from top to bottom. The ceiling isn’t a ceiling anymore. Instead, I can see a dark blue sky and the glittering sheet of the Milky Way. Planets—Mars and Jupiter and Saturn—are magnified and exaggerated in color, hanging orb-like in the sky. Around the room, objects have labels hovering over them. Potted Ficus floats above a green plant, along with the words, Water | +1, hinting that I would earn a point if I watered it. Couch floats above our couches, and Hideo Tanaka | Level ∞ hovers above Hideo himself. I probably have Emika Chen | Level 26 hanging over my own head.

A few translucent words appear in the center of my view.

Play Warcross

Hideo gets up and walks over to sit beside me. Now I notice that he’s wearing contacts, too—with mine on, I can see a faint, glittering sheet of colors against his pupils. “Join a session of Warcross with me,” he says. A hovering button appears between us. “And I’ll show you who I’m after.”

I take a deep breath and stare at the button before me for a few seconds. The contacts detect my lingering look, and the real world around us—the office, the couches, the walls—darkens and disappears.

When the world reappears again, we are both standing in a sterile, white space with white walls that stretch to infinity. I recognize it as one of the beginner worlds in Warcross: Paintbrush Level. If you reach out your hands and run them along the white walls, streaks of rainbow paint sweep across the surfaces. I curl my toes slightly and imagine walking—and with those double cues, my avatar moves forward. As we walk, I absently run a hand along one of the walls, watching as the colors streak behind my fingers.

Hideo leads us to a corner of the world, where he finally stops. I relax my toes and stop, too. He looks at me. “This is the first world where we noticed something was off,” he says. He runs a hand along the wall, leaving trails of bright green and gold. Then, he digs his fingers against the surface and pushes.

The wall opens, obeying his touch.

Behind the wall is a world of dark lines and streaks of light, sequenced into detailed patterns. The code that runs this world. This is a glimpse of the API at work in the game. Hideo steps inside the wall, then gestures for me to join him. I hesitate only for a second before leaving the paint-smeared world of white walls and entering the dark mess of lines.

In here, the lines of light cast a faint blue hue against our skin. A jolt of excitement runs through me at the sight, and I scan the columns, analyzing and absorbing as much as I can. Hideo walks a little, then pauses before a segment of code.

My instincts kick in, and my eyes relax, taking in the whole display of code before me. Immediately, I see what the problem is. It’s subtle—easily overlooked by someone not experienced with analyzing the NeuroLink’s framework—but there it is, a section that looks mangled, the lines tangled in a way that doesn’t match the pattern around it, a section out of place with the rest of the organized chaos around us.

Hideo nods approvingly when he realizes that I’ve noticed it. He steps closer to the tangled part. “Do you see what he did?”

He’s not just showing me what had happened. He’s testing my skills. “It was rewired,” I answer automatically, my eyes darting across the code. “To report data.”

Hideo nods, then reaches out to the mangled portion and taps it once. It flickers before snapping back into place, clean and orderly, the way it’s supposed to be. “We patched it up. I’m just showing you a memory of how it looked when we first found it. But the person left behind no trace of himself, and he’s gotten better at hiding his tracks since then. We’ve taken to calling him Zero, as that is the default in the access record. It’s the only marker he leaves behind.” He looks at me. “I’m impressed you caught it.”

Does he think I’m Zero? I look sharply at him. Has he brought me all the way here, asked me his questions—Is this your first time in Japan? Do you have any idea what you did?—just to see if I’m the suspect he’s looking for?

I scowl at him. “If you want to know whether or not I’m Zero, you could just ask me.”

Hideo gives me a skeptical look. “And would you admit it?”

“I would’ve appreciated your directness, instead of this roundabout game you’re playing with me.”

Hideo’s stare seems capable of piercing straight through my soul. “You hacked into the opening ceremony game. Should I apologize for suspecting you?”

I open my mouth, then close it. “Fair enough,” I admit. “But I didn’t do this.”

He looks coolly away. “I know. I didn’t bring you here to force a confession.”

The world around us suddenly shifts. We’ve zoomed out of both the code and the Paintbrush Level. Now we’re standing on a hovering isle, surrounded by a hundred other floating isles, overlooking a beautiful lagoon. This was the world used in the opening ceremony that I’d hacked into.

Hideo pulls the world as if he were spinning it under his fingers, and it rushes by beneath our feet. I swallow hard. The version that his account is hooked up to is obviously different from mine, giving him in-game abilities that I don’t have. It’s strange to be inside this game with its own creator and see him play with it as its god. Hideo finally stops us at one portion of the cliffs. He reaches out and pushes. Again, we enter a space of lines and light.

This time, the tangled section is much harder to find. I let my focus turn fuzzy and my subconscious emerge, searching for the break in the pattern. It takes me a few minutes to get my head around it all, but finally, I catch the portion of the code that’s off. “Here,” I say, pointing. “Same story. Whoever this Zero person is, he set up this level to report stats to him about every single audience member watching the game.” The realization sends an ominous shiver through me. I look closer. “Wait—there’s more here. He almost disabled the level, didn’t he? This spot—he realized that the code was weak here.”

When Hideo doesn’t reply right away, I glance away from the code to see him studying me. “What?” I say.

“How did you find that?” he asks.

“Find what? The mangled code?” I shrug. “I just . . . noticed it.”

“I don’t think you understand.” He puts his hands in his pockets. “It took my best engineers a week to do what you just did.”

“Then maybe you need better engineers.”

I can’t seem to control my retorts around Hideo. His chilly demeanor must be rubbing off on me. But he just faces me with a thoughtful look. “And how would you fix this?”

My attention goes to the compromised code. “My father taught me how to take in everything at once,” I murmur as I sweep a hand across the text. “You don’t have to break down every detail. You just need to see the overall pattern to catch the weakness in it.” I reach out to grab the code, pull forward an enormous block of it, and swipe it away. Then I replace it with a single, efficient line. The rest clicks into place around it.

“There,” I say, resting my hands on my hips. “That’s better.”

When I look back at him, he’s analyzing my change without saying a word. Maybe I’ve passed his test.

“Decent,” he says after a moment.

Decent. Decent? My scowl deepens. “Why would someone be interested in collecting this data and messing with the games?”

“Your guess is as good as mine.”

“You’re worried he’s going to sabotage the games again.”

“I’m worried he’s doing something far worse than that. I refuse to halt the games just to bow to a hacker’s threat—but the safety of our audience isn’t something I want to compromise.” Hideo looks to his side. The world rushes away again, and suddenly we are sitting back in his office. I startle at the sudden shift. These contact lenses are going to take some getting used to. “With your current celebrity status, I thought it best if we hid you in plain sight, put you on one of the teams. It will allow you to be physically closer to the other players.”

“Why do you want me close?”

“The nature of the attacks makes me suspect that Zero is one of them.”

One of the professional players. Their names rush through my mind. “And what will I and the other hunters be competing for? What’s your bounty prize?”

“Each of you will see the prize amount as a pending number in your bank accounts.” Hideo leans forward and rests his elbows on his knees. He gives me a pointed look. “If you decide you want to turn this down, that this is more than you want to deal with, I’ll have you on a private flight back to New York. You can just treat this as a holiday before returning to your life. I’ll pay you a sum for participating, regardless, for catching a major security flaw in the game. Take your time to think it over.”

A sum for participating. It’s as if Hideo were offering me pity money, an easy out if I don’t feel up to the challenge of his bounty. I imagine getting on a flight back to New York, returning to my old life while some other hunter catches Zero. A tingle runs through me at the chance to crack this problem, possibly the biggest puzzle I’ve ever been given the chance to solve. I’m going to win this time.

“I’ve already thought it over,” I say. “I’m in.”

Hideo nods. “Instructions for the Wardraft will come your way shortly, as well as an invite to an opening game party. Meanwhile, make a list of anything you think you’ll need from me. Access codes, accounts, and so on.” He stands up. “Hold out your hand.”

I eye him warily, then put my hand forward. He takes it, turning it over so that my palm faces up.

He holds his own hand an inch above my palm, until a black rectangle resembling a credit card appears against my skin. Then he presses a finger lightly to my palm and signs his name against it. The feel of his skin moving against mine makes my breath catch. The virtual credit card flashes blue for a moment, authorizing his signature, and then disappears.

“This is for you to buy whatever you need during your stay,” he says. “No limit, no questions asked. Just use your palm whenever you need to make a purchase, and the charge will go directly to this. Cancel it by signing your own name against your palm.” His eyes lock on mine. “And keep this discreet. I’d rather not broadcast our hunt to the public.”

What I wouldn’t have given, during my most difficult weeks, for a card like this. I take my hand back, the feeling of his signature still burning against my palm. “Of course.”

Hideo offers me his hand. His expression has turned serious again. “I look forward to our next meeting, then,” he says, with absolutely no indication in his tone that this is true. My eyes flicker again to his bruised knuckles before I shake his hand.

The last moments are a blur. Hideo returns to his meeting room without looking back at me. I’m escorted down to the lobby of the studio, where I sign some more papers before heading out to where my car is waiting. As I settle inside, I let out a long breath that I didn’t realize I was holding. My heart is still hammering in my chest, my hands shaky from our encounter. Not until we’ve left the studio behind do I reach into my pocket, grab my phone, and log in to my bank account. This morning, I had thirteen dollars. What sort of money is Hideo tempting me with?

Finally, the account page loads on my screen. I stare at it in stunned silence.

Pending deposit: $10,000,000.00 USD

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