This year, I’ll be a wild card.
It makes no sense. I’m a good Warcross player, but I’ve never had the time or money to get enough experience or levels to hit the world leaderboards. In fact, I’ll be the only wild card in this year’s draft who isn’t internationally ranked. And who has a criminal record.
I try to sleep on the plane. But even though the luxurious, full-length bed feels better than any mattress I’ve ever been on, I just end up tossing and turning. Finally, I give up and pull out my phone, load up my mod of Sonic the Hedgehog 2, and start a new game. The familiar, tinny music of Emerald Hill Zone pops up. As I run down a path I’ve long ago memorized, I can feel my nerves calming, my heartbeat steadying a bit as I forget about the day and instead worry about when I need to jump-attack a sixteen-bit robot.
I have a job offer for you. That’s what Hideo had said, an offer he’d tell me more about in person. That doesn’t sound like something he’d do for every other wild-card player in the games.
My thoughts go to the stories I’ve heard about Hideo. Most have never seen him without a proper collar shirt and dress pants, or a formal tuxedo suit. His smiles are rare and reserved. An employee had said in a magazine interview that you were qualified to work at Henka Games only if you could withstand the scrutiny of his piercing stare while giving him a presentation. I’ve seen live broadcasts of reporters stumbling over their questions in his presence while he waited patiently and politely.
I imagine what our meeting will be like. It’s possible he’ll take one look at me and send me back to New York without a word.
The time hovering over the ceiling of my bed tells me that it’s four a.m. in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Maybe I’ll never be able to sleep again. My thoughts whirl. We’ll land in Tokyo in a few hours, and then I’m going to talk to Hideo. I might play in the official Warcross games. The thought turns over and over in my head. How is this even possible? Last night, I’d hacked into the Warcross opening ceremony in a desperate attempt to make some fast money. Today, I’m headed to Tokyo on a private jet, on a trip that might change my life forever. What would Dad think?
I access my account and bring up a scrolling menu, the words a transparent white in my view. I reach out to tap on one hovering menu item.
When I select this, the menu brings up a scrolling subset of options. Each one I look at for longer than a second starts to play a preview of a Memory that I had stored. There are Memories of Keira and me celebrating our first night in the little studio we’d rented, and of me holding out my first check after my first successful bounty hunt. Then there are my Shared Favorites, Memories created by others that anyone can enjoy—like being in Frankie Dena’s shoes as she performs at the Super Bowl, or standing in the place of a little boy being swarmed by a pile of puppies, a Memory that has been shared over a billion times.
Finally, I go to my most treasured subset—my oldest Memories, stored in a separate Favorites category. These are old videos that I recorded on a phone before the NeuroLink even came out, videos that I later downloaded into my account. They are of my father. I scroll through them until I settle on one. It’s my tenth birthday, and Dad’s hands are covering my eyes. Even though it’s an old, grainy phone video, it fills my view through my glasses like a giant screen. I feel the same anticipation that I’d felt that day, get the same surge of joy as Dad’s hands opened to reveal a painting he’d made of us, walking through a world of colorful paint strokes that looks like Central Park at twilight. I jump up and down, twirl the painting around, and get up on a chair to hold it aloft. My father smiles up at me, then reaches his arms out to help me hop down. It plays until it runs out and automatically goes to the next Memory in my storage. Dad in a black peacoat and bright red scarf, guiding me down the halls of the Museum of Modern Art. Dad teaching me how to paint. Dad and me picking out peonies in the Flower District while rain pours down outside. Dad shouting Happy New Year! with me on a rooftop overlooking Times Square.
The Memories play over and over, until I can’t tell whether or not they’ve started again from the beginning, and gradually, I drift off into sleep, surrounded by ghosts.
• • • • •
IN MY DREAMS, I’m back in high school, revisiting what led to my criminal record.
Annie Pattridge was an awkward, shy girl in my high school, a kid with gentle eyes who kept to herself and ate her lunches in a corner of the school’s little library. Sometimes I ran across her in there. I wasn’t her friend, exactly, but we were friendly—we’d chatted a couple of times about our shared love of Harry Potter and Warcross and League of Legends and computers. Other times, I’d see her picking her books off the ground after someone had knocked them out of her arms, or catch her backed up against the lockers while a bunch of kids stuck gum in her hair, or glimpse her stumbling out of the girls’ bathroom with a crack in her glasses.
But then, one day, a boy working on a group project with Annie managed to snap a photo of her showering in the privacy of her own home. The next morning, Annie’s naked photo had been sent to every student in school, shared on the school’s homework forums, and posted online. Then came the taunts. The printouts of the photo, all cruelly drawn on. The death threats.
Annie dropped out a week later.
On the day she did, I got the data of every student (and a few teachers) who’d shared the photo. School admin systems? As much a joke to break as a PC with the password Password. From there, I hacked into every single one of their phones. I downloaded all of their personal info—their parents’ credit card data, Social Security numbers, phone numbers, all the hateful emails and texts they’d sent anonymously to Annie, and, of course, most incriminating, their private photos. I took extra care to get everything from the boy who had taken the original picture. Then I posted all of it online, titling it: “Trolls in the Dungeon.”
Imagine the uproar the next day. Crying students, furious parents, school-wide assembly, snippets in the local papers. Then, the police. Then, me expelled. Then, me sitting in court.
Accessing computer systems without authorization. Intentional release of sensitive data. Reckless conduct. Four months in juvenile hall. Banned from touching a computer for two years. A permanent red mark on my record, age be damned, because of the nature of the crime.
Maybe I was wrong, and maybe someday I’ll look back and regret lashing out like that. I’m still not entirely sure why I threw myself into the fire over this specific incident. But sometimes, people kick you to the ground at recess because they think the shape of your eyes is funny. They lunge at you because they see a vulnerable body. Or a different skin color. Or a difficult name. They think that you won’t hit back—that you’ll just lower your eyes and hide. And sometimes, to protect yourself, to make it go away, you do.
But sometimes, you find yourself standing in exactly the right position, wielding exactly the right weapon to hit back. So I hit. I hit fast and hard and furious. I hit with nothing but the language whispered between circuits and wire, the language that can bring people to their knees.
And in spite of everything, I’d do it all over again.
• • • • •
WHEN WE FINALLY touch down, I’m an exhausted mess. I pull on my crumpled shirt, then grab my backpack holding my few belongings and follow the flight attendant down the ramp. My eyes go to the Japanese text printed over the entrance into the airport’s terminals. I can’t understand any of it—but I don’t have to, because an English translation appears above them in my virtual view. WELCOME TO HANEDA AIRPORT! it says. BAGGAGE CLAIM. INTERNATIONAL CONNECTING FLIGHTS.
A man in a black suit is waiting for me at the bottom of the ramp. Unlike in New York, here I can see his name floating over his head, telling me that his name is Jiro Yamada. He smiles through his shades, bows to me, and then looks behind me as if expecting more suitcases. When he sees none, he takes my backpack and skateboard, then welcomes me.
It takes me a second to register that Jiro is speaking to me in Japanese—and that it doesn’t matter, because I can see transparent white text appearing right below his face, English subtitles translating what he’s saying. “Welcome, Miss Chen,” the text says. “You are precleared through customs. Come.”
As I follow him to a waiting car, I scan the tarmac. No journalists waiting for me here. I relax at that. I get into the car—identical to the one that had taken me to the airport in New York—and it rolls me to the exit. Just like before, it puts on a tranquil scene (this time of a cool, quiet forest) to play on the car’s windows.
Here’s where the crowd is. As we approach the exit gate, a cluster of people rush forward near the ticket booth and flash cameras at us. I only see them through the front window. Even then, I find myself shrinking into my chair.
Jiro lowers his window a sliver to yell at the journalists to move out of the way. When they finally do, the car zooms forward, the tires screeching a little as we swerve onto the street that leads to the freeway.
“Can we take the scenery off the windows?” I ask Jiro. “I’ve never seen Tokyo before.”