We are happy to present a chapter from Warcross, an upcoming book from Marie Lu, a New York Times’ bestselling author behind The Young Elites and Legend series. Before becoming a full-time author, Marie Lu spent time as an artist for video games, and this is her first book influenced by both games and virtual reality.
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 will release on September 12, 2017 and is currently available for pre-order.
I still remember the exact moment when Hideo Tanaka changed my life.
I was eleven, and my father had been dead for only a few months. Rain pounded against the window of the bedroom I shared with four others at the foster home. I was lying in bed, unable, yet again, to force myself to get up and head to school. Unfinished homework lay strewn on my blankets, still there from the night before, when I’d fallen asleep staring at the blank pages. I’d dreamed of home, of Dad making us fried eggs and pancakes drowning in syrup, his hair still shining with glitter and glue, his loud, familiar laugh filling the kitchen and drifting outside through our open window. Bon appètit, mademoiselle! he’d exclaimed, with his dreamer’s face. And I’d screamed in delight as he threw his arms around me and messed up my hair.
Then I’d woken up, and the scene had vanished, leaving me in a strange, dark, quiet house. I didn’t move in bed. I didn’t cry. I hadn’t cried once since Dad’s death, not even at the funeral. Any tears I might have shed were instead replaced with shock when I learned how much debt Dad had accumulated. When I learned that he had been sneaking onto online gambling forums for years. That he hadn’t been getting treatment at the hospital because he’d been trying to pay off his debt.
So I spent the morning the way I’d spent every day for the past few months, lost in a haze of silence and stillness. Emotions had long vanished behind a cavity of fog in my chest. I used my every waking moment to stare off into space—at the bedroom wall, at the class whiteboard, at the interior of my locker, at plates of tasteless food. My report cards were a sea of red ink. Constant nausea stole my appetite. My bones jutted sharply at my wrists and elbows. Dark circles rimmed my eyes, something everyone noticed except me.
What did I care, anyway? My father was gone and I was so tired. Maybe the fog in my chest could grow, denser and denser, until someday it’d swallow me, and I could be gone, too. So I lay curled in a tiny ball, watching the rain lash at the window, the wind tug at the silhouettes of tree branches, wondering how long it would take for the school to notice I wasn’t there again.
The clock radio in the room—the only thing in the room, other than our beds—was on, a piece of hand-me- down technology donated to the home from a Goodwill center. One of the other girls hadn’t bothered turning it off when the alarm sounded. I listened halfheartedly as the news droned on about the state of the economy, the protests in the cities and countryside, the inability of the police to keep up with crime, the evacuations in Miami and New Orleans.
Then it switched. Some hour-long special began, talking about a boy named Hideo Tanaka. He was fourteen years old then, still brand-new to the spotlight. As the program went on, I started to pay attention.
“Remember the world right before smartphones?” the announcer was saying. “When we were teetering on the brink of a huge shift, when the technology was almost but not quite there, and it took one revolutionary device to push us all over the edge? Well, last year, a thirteen-year- old boy named Hideo Tanaka pushed us over a new edge.
“He did it by inventing a thin, wireless pair of glasses with metal arms and retractable earphones. Make no mistake. They’re nothing like the goggles we’ve seen before, the ones that looked like giant bricks strapped to your face. No, these ultra-slim glasses are called the NeuroLink, and you wear them as easily as any pair of regular glasses. We have the latest pair in the studio here”—he paused to put them on—“and we promise, it’s the most sensational thing we’ve ever tried.”
The NeuroLink. I’d heard it mentioned in the news before. Now I listened as the radio program laid it out for me.
For a long time, in order to create a realistic virtual reality environment, you had to render as detailed a world as possible. This required a lot of money and effort. But no matter how good the effects became, you could still tell—if you looked hard enough—that it wasn’t real. There are a thousand little movements on a human face every second, a thousand different quivers of a leaf on a tree, a million tiny things the real world has that the virtual world doesn’t. Your mind knows this unconsciously—so something will look off, even if you can’t quite put your finger on it.
So Hideo Tanaka thought of an easier solution. In order to create a flawlessly real world, you don’t need to draw the most detailed, most realistic 3-D scene ever.
You just need to fool the audience into thinking it’s real.
And guess what can do that the best? Your own brain.
When you have a dream, no matter how crazy it is, you believe it’s real. Like, full-on surround sound, high definition, 360-degree special effects. And none of it is anything you’re actually seeing. Your brain is creating an entire reality for you, without needing any piece of technology.
So Hideo created the best brain–computer interface ever built. A pair of sleek glasses. The NeuroLink.
When you wore it, it helped your brain render virtual worlds that looked and sounded indistinguishable from reality. Imagine walking around in that world—interacting, playing, talking. Imagine wandering through the most realistic virtual Paris ever, or lounging in a full simulation of Hawaii’s beaches. Imagine flying through a fantasy world of dragons and elves. Anything.
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 homework sheets.
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, 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 homework sheet, 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.