Authors: Marie Lu
Tags: #YA, #Carly
Confession: I’ve been
on an airplane a grand total of one time. It was after Mom left, and Dad decided to move us from San Francisco to New York. What I remember of that flight is the following: a tiny TV monitor to watch cartoons on; a little window through which I could see the clouds; a Tetris-like meal tray holding something questionably called chicken; and a mod of the original
Sonic the Hedgehog 2
video game loaded onto my phone, my go-to game whenever I was feeling stressed out.
Somehow, I think my second flight will be very different from my first.
After the call with Hideo ended, the first thing I did was rush down the hall and knock on Mr. Alsole’s door. One glance at his dumbstruck face was all I needed to know that I didn’t just hallucinate everything.
Our rent is paid through the end of next year.
I pack in a daze. I don’t own a suitcase, so I end up stuffing as
much clothing into my backpack as it can fit. My thoughts jumble together, every one of them about Hideo. What does he want me for? It must be huge, if it means flying me like this to Tokyo. Hideo has indeed hired a few hackers in the past—to help him work out bugs inside Warcross—but they were way more experienced, and probably with no criminal records. What if he’s actually angry with me, and is waiting to dole out punishment once I’m in Japan? It’s a ridiculous idea, sure . . . but so is being asked to pack up everything and go to Tokyo.
Asked by Hideo Tanaka.
The thought warms my insides again, and I tingle at the mystery of what this job offer might be.
Keira’s eyes trail me as I dart around the apartment. “When are you going to come back?” she asks, even though she’d heard the same conversation that I had.
I cram another T-shirt into my backpack. “Don’t know,” I reply. “Probably soon.” Secretly, I hope I’m wrong.
“How do you know this isn’t just some huge prank?” she says. A note of confusion in her voice. “I mean—it
broadcast everywhere across the internet.”
I pause to look at her. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, what’s to stop someone from dialing your number a million times and then playing the biggest hoax of all time on you?”
That must be it.
It has to be. Some hacker out there thought it would be funny. Somebody broke into my phone’s weak security, faked Hideo’s voice, set me up—he’s probably laughing his head off right now.
But our rent is paid off. What prankster would waste his money like that?
All I can do is shrug. “Well, I’m going to see how far I can push it. Not like I have much to lose.”
As I finish with the last of my things, I hurry over to the little menagerie of objects by my bed. My Christmas ornament. Dad’s painting. I pick up both, taking extra care with the painting. It’s an explosion of blue, green, and gold streaks that, when you step back, somehow look like him holding my hand and walking me through a warm, tree-lined evening in Central Park. I stare at it for a moment longer, then pack it carefully into my bag. I could use a bit of good luck traveling with me.
An hour later, I’m as ready as I’ll ever be. I hoist my backpack and skateboard over my shoulders and step out of the apartment, then glance back, my eyes settling on Keira. I have a strange feeling I’m studying a life that I won’t be returning to. That this will be the last time I ever see her. And I find myself softening toward her, quietly wishing her well. She’ll have a rent-free apartment until the end of next year; maybe that’ll help her get back on her feet.
“Hey,” I say, feeling unsure of how to say good-bye. “The corner diner is going to need someone now. If you’re looking.”
“Yeah.” She smiles. “Thanks.”
She gives me a single, solemn nod. Like she also knows this may be permanent. “You too,” she replies.
Then I close the door behind me and don’t look back.
When I push open the building’s main entrance doors, an explosion of flashing lights blinds me. I squint and throw a hand over my face. A roar of voices go up. “Miss Chen. Miss Chen! Emika!” I wonder for an instant how the hell these people recognize me, before I remember that, with the rainbow of colors in my hair, it’s pretty obvious that I’m the same girl from the published screenshots.
An enormous figure bounds up the steps, pushing journalists
aside in the process. “Allow me, ma’am,” he says in a friendly tone as he takes my backpack and board. He holds an arm out in front of me and starts making a path down the steps. When one journalist gets pushy, he shoves him back with a growl. I follow my new bodyguard dutifully, ignoring the questions thrown at me from all sides.
We finally push our way over to a car—the most beautifully sleek auto-car I’ve ever seen. I bet it’s the first time one has ever been spotted on our street. The bodyguard puts my stuff in the trunk. One of the car doors opens automatically, waits for me to shuffle inside, and then closes. The sudden silence, and the separation from the din outside, is a relief. Everything in it looks so luxurious that I feel like I’m ruining it just by sitting here. The clean scent of a new car hangs in the space. Bottles of champagne sit in a molded block of ice. Through the windows, I can see an overlay of virtual markers over the streets and buildings.
reads a string of white letters overlaid across the street we’re on. Colorful little text bubbles pop up over each of the buildings.
Green Hills Apartment Complex. Laundr-O-Matic. Chinese Food.
This car has the NeuroLink fully integrated into it.
The car’s interior lights up. A voice comes on. “Hello, Miss Chen,” it says. I startle.
“Hi,” I say back, unsure where I should be looking.
“A preference for the car mood?” the voice continues. “Something serene, perhaps?”
I glance out at the mob of journalists still shouting at the car’s shaded windows. “Serene would be nice, Mr. . . . Car.”
“Fred,” the car says.
“Fred,” I reply, trying not to feel weird about talking to a bottle of champagne in an ice block. “Hi.”
All of the windows suddenly shift, and the journalists outside
are replaced with a view of a stunning landscape—long grasses blowing in the wind, white cliffs out along the horizon, clear ocean and white foam, and a sunset tinting the clouds orange and pink. Even the chaos outside now sounds muffled, covered by calling seagulls and the crash of the virtual ocean.
“I’m George,” the bodyguard says as the car starts to drive us forward. “You must have had quite a morning.”
“Yeah,” I reply. “So . . . do you know why we’re heading for the airport?”
“My instructions from Mr. Tanaka were only to escort you safely to the jet.”
I go back to staring at the virtual seascape passing us.
Instructions from Hideo.
Maybe it’s not an elaborate prank after all.
Half an hour later, the serene views on the windows fade away, and the real world comes back into view. We’ve arrived at the airport. Instead of pulling into the usual circle where all the other vehicles go, though, ours turns into a small looping road that takes us toward the expanse of tarmac behind the airport. Here, the car pulls into a private garage that is situated next to a small row of jets.
I scoot out of the car’s dark interior, then squint in the light. One jet has Henka Games written on its side. It’s enormous, nearly the size of a commercial liner—except thin and sleek, with an elegant, sharp-nosed design that distinguishes it from the other jets. The panels along the sides of the plane look strange, almost translucent. The main door is open, and a set of stairs leads down to the tarmac, where a plush red rug lies. This is the plane that Hideo himself uses whenever he travels.
“This way, Miss Chen,” George says to me with a slight bow of his head. I’m about to go around to the back of the car to grab my backpack, but he stops me. “You won’t need to lift anything on
this trip,” he adds with a smile. I stand there awkwardly, empty-handed, as George grabs my stuff and leads me in the direction of the jet.
I make my way up the steps. At the top, two flight attendants dressed in impeccable uniforms give me dazzling smiles and a bow of their heads. “Mr. Tanaka welcomes you on board,” one of them says to me. I nod back, unsure what to say to that. Is Hideo being kept up-to-date on where I am right now? Does he know I’m boarding his plane at this very moment? My thoughts linger on the flight attendant’s words—until I turn to look at the inside of the jet.
Now I understand why the outside panels of the plane looked so translucent. The interior appears lined with glass panels, through which I can see the airport, runway, and sky. On second glance, the panels have the Henka Games logo carved subtly into the surface. Sleek lines of light rim the panels. I’ve only ever seen the inside of planes crammed with seats—but this one has a full-length leather couch at the far end, an actual bed embedded against each side, a full bathroom and shower, and a set of soft lounge chairs near the front. A glass of champagne and a plate of fresh fruit sit on the table separating the lounge chairs. I’m frozen for a moment, suddenly uneasy in the midst of this extravagance.
George sets my backpack in a back closet of the plane. Then he gives me a tip of his hat and a smile. “Have a lovely trip,” he says. “Enjoy the flight.” Before I can ask him what he means, he turns away and heads down the stairs to his car.
As the attendants seal the door, one of them invites me to make myself at home. I wander over to one of the lounge chairs, sink cautiously onto the soft leather, and inspect the armrests. Do these glass panels change, like the windows in the car I just rode in? I’m about to ask the attendant approaching me, but I’m
interrupted when he hands me a pair of glasses. I recognize it instantly as the current generation of Warcross glasses that are being sold in stores—much more powerful than the old rentals I’ve been using up until now.
“For your enjoyment,” the attendant says, smiling at me. “And for a full flight experience.”
“Thanks.” I turn the glasses in my hands, admiring the solid-gold metal of the arms. My fingers stop above an elegant logo that says:
Alexander McQueen for Henka Games
. These are the luxury, limited-edition version of the glasses. Dad would have held his breath in delight.
I’m about to put them on when the plane starts to move forward. My eyes go to the glass panels on the sides and top of the aircraft. I can see straight through them to the tarmac, and I can even see the front landing gear. If I stare hard enough, it seems as if the seats were simply floating over the ground, with nothing separating us from the outside. The ground rushes by faster and faster. Above me is clear blue sky and it feels as if we’re going to be launched to our certain death.
Then the plane leaves the runway, and my body crushes slightly into the seat. Through the glass panels, the world below us falls away, and just like that—we’re airborne.
I don’t realize how hard I’m gripping my seat until the flight attendant taps me. I look up to see his relaxed smile. “No need to worry, miss,” he says over the hum of the engines. “This is one of the most advanced planes in the world. It’s supersonic. From here, we’ll travel to Tokyo in less than ten hours.” He nods down at my armrest, and when I follow his gaze, I see that my knuckles have turned completely white from my grip. I carefully let out a breath and loosen my fingers.
“Right,” I reply.
As we start to level out in altitude, the world disappears altogether into a blanket of clouds. The panels now change to opaque, leaving only two horizontal stripes of glass transparent to the outside.
The flight attendant tells me to put my glasses on. I do as he says. Immediately, I notice several differences between these and my old rental pair. The new glasses are lighter, for one, and fit more comfortably on my face. When I put them on, shading the world around me a tint darker, and plug their earphones into my ears, a female voice comes on.
“Welcome,” the voice says. The glasses turn completely black, blocking my surroundings out. “Please look to your left.”
When I do as it says, I see a red sphere materialize in the left field of my vision, hovering in the black space. A pleasant
“Confirmed. Please look to your right.”
The red sphere vanishes. I obey, and when I look to my right, there is a floating blue sphere. Another
“Confirmed. Please look up.”
The blue sphere disappears, too. I look up and see a floating yellow sphere.
“Confirmed. Please look forward.”
In the darkness, a gray sphere appears, followed by a cube, a pyramid, and a cylinder. Again, the
sounds, followed by a brief tingle along my temples.
“Please touch your forefinger and thumb together on both hands.”
I obey, and it runs through a quick series of tests for my movements.
“Thank you,” the voice says. “You are now calibrated.”
These new glasses have such a better system than the old
ones. With this simple calibration, the glasses should now be able to know my brain’s preferences and variations enough to sync up everything in Warcross to me. I wonder idly whether my hacks will still work now.
The glasses lighten and turn clear, so that I can see the inside of the plane again. This time, a layer of virtual reality lies over my view, so that the flight attendants’ names hover over their heads. As I look on, transparent white text appears in the center of my vision.
Welcome on board Henka Games Private Jet
+1,000 Pts. Daily Score: +1,000
Level 24 | N1,580
Then the text fades out, and a virtual video feed appears, displaying a young man sitting at a long table.
He turns to me and smiles. I’ve seen this man’s face enough times in interviews to recognize him right away—Kenn Edon, the creative director of Warcross and Hideo’s closest confidant. He sits on the official Warcross Committee, those who choose the teams and worlds that will appear in each year’s championship tournaments. Now he leans back, runs a hand through his golden hair, and offers me a smile. “Miss Chen!” he exclaims. I offer a weak wave of my hand in response.