“Matchups are in,” she replies, then stumbles off in the general direction of her bathroom.
Matchups. Today we find out which teams are playing each other. The thought quickly wakes me up. I brush my teeth, splash some water on my face, and put in a new pair of my Warcross contacts. Then I head down to the atrium. Asher’s already there, talking in a low voice to Roshan on the couches. Dark circles ring our captain’s eyes this morning, but otherwise he looks alert and ready. I glance down at the coffee table. The magazine on the top of the stack features a photo of Hideo at a banquet, seated beside a completely smitten blond woman who is whispering something intimately into his ear. HAS PRINCESS ADELE FOUND HER PRINCE? screams the caption.
Hammie files in moments later, followed shortly by DJ Ren. Ren looks the most frazzled out of us all, with his short brown hair sticking out in every direction and his eyes hidden behind a pair of white sunglasses. His winged gold headphones are still on his head, one side in place and the other shifted slightly off his ear, so that he can hear what’s going on. He sits down on the farthest couch from me, leans back, and waves a lazy greeting to everyone. The only one who wasn’t in his place during the Wardraft. Maybe because he was hiding somewhere, perched virtually in the rafters to spy on everything.
Maybe he’s actually Zero.
No. Zero should be better at hiding himself than this. And surely Zero isn’t tacky enough to wear sunglasses indoors.
Hammie reaches an arm out in front of Ren’s face and snaps her fingers twice. “Hey,” she says. “Rock star. You’re not at the club anymore.”
Ren just bats her away. “I’m sensitive to light in the morning,” he says in French, while I read his translation.
Roshan raises one brow at that, while Hammie rolls her eyes. “Yeah, I’m allergic to mornings, too, wild card,” she replies.
As Hammie talks, I quietly begin to sort through my teammates’ data. It looks like Roshan sent a bunch of emails last night, while Hammie’s amount of notes has gone down by a significant amount since the night before, indicating she had made some huge purchase. I turn to Ren. Just like yesterday, he has a wall of shields on over his data, set up so that anyone trying to break in would automatically be redirected to a shield instead of to his data. I start to run a program to bypass them.
Roshan sighs. “Ash, tell him to take his headphones off,” he says in his patient manner.
Asher crosses his arms. “Lose ’em, wild card. I’m not in the mood for it this morning.”
Ren lounges for a moment longer. Finally, he pulls his headphones down and loops them around his neck, then reaches up to take off his sunglasses. His eyes are such a light brown that they look gold.
When we’re ready, Asher says, “Wikki, turn on the announcement.”
Our team drone blinks in one corner, and when it does, a live broadcast appears across one of the atrium walls. Hideo is standing before a podium and facing a barrage of flashing lights.
“Matchups are in,” Asher says, confirming what Hammie had told me. “And we’re going to play the first round of the championships.”
Hideo had wasted no time making sure I will be in the first game. “Who are we playing?” I say.
Asher brings up a pair of virtual images for us to see. It’s our team crest—our red-and-gold phoenix—hovering in midair next to a black-and-silver image of hooded skeletal figures on horseback. Above our crests are the words:
PHOENIX RIDERS vs DEMON BRIGADE
Hammie lets out a whoop, and Asher claps loudly. “We lost to them last year,” Asher says, looking between me and Ren, “and then we got punished in our rankings. Everyone’s going to think that the Demons will slaughter us. But we’re gonna prove them wrong, aren’t we?” He grins his canine grin. “Now we just have to predict what the first level will be like.”
“Whenever the committee pairs us with the Demons,” Hammie says, “it’s usually in a level that involves speed. Like Eight-Bit World, from two years ago.” She nudges Asher. “You remember Eight-Bit World, right?”
Asher grunts. “Ugh. So many stairs.”
“Or space,” Hammie adds. “They have a knack for handling 3-D space. So if our level involves being in midair a lot, they might have an advantage. But we train for speed. The Demons like to train for strength and defense.”
“In fact, every single one of their teammates trains to defend—not just their Fighter and Shield,” Asher finishes. “You watch any game where they do coordinated eight-dives, especially when double-armed, and you’ll see how they switch off roles as smooth as glass.”
“Dragonfire World, for instance,” Hammie says. Everyone nods except me. “Just think about how they eight-dive in formation by the cliffs. I hate their guts, but their guts can also be a work of art.”
I have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about.
But a chorus of agreement answers Hammie, and more high-level worlds are brought up in rapid succession. More chatter about nicknamed moves that I’ve never heard of. I stay quiet, trying to take as much of it in as I can, but for the first time since the Wardraft, it occurs to me how out of place I am in this championship. Ren is a wild card, but also a seasoned player who has unlocked and played all of these high-level worlds. I’ve played none of them. I’m here for the hunt, sure, but I’m also here for the game—and right now, I feel like Hideo has entered me to set me up for certain humiliation.
“It doesn’t mean there aren’t drawbacks, of course,” Asher says, turning his eyes to me. “The Demons are competent at everything and incredible at nothing. You concentrate on being a great Architect, Emi, and you’ll win us the game. We’ll make sure you’re up there in no time.”
I smile at him, grateful that he’s looped me back in to the conversation. “Any advice for me that’s specific to playing the Demons?”
“Plenty. They’re going to target you early. Whatever the level turns out to be, you’d better be able to cut out in front of them and get to clear ground.”
I think of Tremaine’s sneer and Max’s insults, then of Roshan’s first warning to me. “Will do,” I reply.
Asher looks at Ren. “I’ve never seen any Fighter attack as fast as you, but Max Martin’s offense is incredibly strong. You have your work cut out for you.”
Ren salutes him with two fingers at his temple. “Yes, Captain.”
Across from me, Roshan is the only one who looks solemn at the matchup announcement. Asher glances at him warily, then nods once. “Got any advice for Emi on how to deal with Tremaine in a game?” he asks.
“Ash,” Hammie warns.
Roshan shoots him a glare. “He was your Rider before he became a Demon. You tell her.”
Asher just shrugs. “Not my fault that you hooked up with him,” he says. “You know Tremaine better than any of us. So keep your personal grievances out of it and help our wild card out, yeah?”
Roshan stares at Asher for another long moment. Then he sighs and looks at me. “Tremaine is an Architect who has trained in every position. He’s the best of the Demons at switching roles, and he’s actually a very good Thief and Fighter. So sometimes, in games, his teammates will toss him their own power-ups or weapons, so that he can use them even though he’s technically the Architect. When you fight him, remember that he can wear many faces, and that he’s fluid enough to pull an uncharacteristic move on you. I’ll show you in training.”
Asher looks satisfied enough at this, and when Roshan leans back and crosses his arms, he leaves him alone.
“What are the other matchups?” asks Ren.
Asher continues to scroll the midair display to the left. Our two crests swipe out of view and are replaced by two more.
WINTER DRAGONS vs TITANS
He keeps scrolling. ROYAL BASTARDS vs STORMCHASERS. CASTLE RAIDERS vs WINDWALKERS. GYRFALCONS vs PHANTOMS. CLOUD KNIGHTS vs SORCERERS. ZOMBIE VIKINGS vs SHARPSHOOTERS. It keeps going until we’ve reached the last of the sixteen matchups: ANDROMEDA vs BLOODHOUNDS.
My attention has gone back to where Hideo is still standing in front of a podium, flanked on one side by Kenn and on the other by Mari, answering a series of questions. “Can you put on what he’s saying?” I ask Asher.
He turns up the sound on the live feed. The rumble of a noisy conference room fills the atrium. Hideo looks into the crowd at a reporter shouting a question to him above the din. “Mr. Tanaka,” the reporter says, “you are also releasing the newest Warcross glasses—lenses, excuse me—to the public today?”
Hideo nods. “Yes. They are being shipped around the world as we speak.”
“Mr. Tanaka,” another reporter chimes in, “we’ve already seen footage of long lines and heard rumors of shipments being stolen off trucks. Are you concerned that Henka Games will see its profits decrease because you are giving these new lenses away for free?”
Hideo gives the reporter a cool look. “The benefits of alternate reality deserve to be given to all. The bulk of our profit comes from the worlds themselves, not the hardware.”