Page 26

The reporters start talking over each other again. Hideo turns his head toward another question. “Mr. Tanaka,” this one says, “any reason for your interest in Emika Chen?”

My teammates look at me in unison, right as my face bursts into shades of red. I clear my throat and cough. On the screen, though, Hideo doesn’t bat an eye. “Please specify?” he replies.

The reporter, eager to get a reaction, barrels on. “Unranked wild card?” he asks. “Number one draft pick? The Phoenix Riders—her team—playing in the first game of the season?”

I can feel my teammates’ eyes boring holes into me. Only Asher lets out an annoyed snort and mutters, “Her team? I’m the captain!”

Hideo’s expression remains perfectly calm, even disinterested. Nothing new, I remind myself forcefully. Reporters question his every interaction with a girl. He’s being paired with the princess of Norway on our coffee table’s magazine, for crying out loud. The only reaction of any kind that I see, in fact, comes not from Hideo but from Kenn, who’s hiding the faintest of smiles on his face. “I do not control the draft picks,” Hideo replies. “And the order of the games was chosen by a committee months in advance.” Then he looks away to call on another reporter.

Hammie whistles at the screen. “How about that, Emi?” she says to me with an eyebrow raised. “Now the tabloids are going to be pairing you with Hideo on their covers next week.”

The thought sends my heart racing. It’s only the first morning of our first training day, but already my wild-card and bounty-hunter roles are butting heads. If I don’t end up giving myself away after a week, it’ll be a miracle.

Finally, Hideo steps off the podium, and the broadcast ends. Asher asks Wikki to turn off the feed. Then he looks at all of us. “Well,” he says, “we’ve got one month to get two wild cards up to speed.”

I glance at the program I’m running to bypass Ren’s shields. Sure enough, I’m almost in.

“Lenses on?” Asher asks. We nod in unison. “All right, then, Riders. Training time starts now.”


Asher leans forward, then presses something on his own display in midair. All of us see a Warcross menu pop up in our view. If Asher can show us all the same thing, then we are linked on the same network during training. Ren had been walled behind his shields during the party, but maybe now, if we’re all linked on the same network, I can find a way to get into some of Ren’s data. Of everyone’s personal data.

As I ponder this, Asher taps the option that says Training Grounds. The world around us fades into black, as if I’d closed my eyes. I blink several times. Then, a new world materializes around us.

This is a Warcross world I’ve never seen before. It must be exclusive to the professional teams. It looks like a whitewashed world, like it’s a virtual world only half finished, its surfaces unpainted and without texture. We are standing in the middle of a white sidewalk, next to a white street crowded with white cars, with white columned buildings towering all around us. When I look farther down the street, I can see a glimpse of a whitewashed jungle, the trees and their trunks the color of ivory, the grass white as it grows at the edge of the city streets. The only color in this world comes from the sky above us, which is bright blue.

For a moment, I allow myself to forget about my hunt. I’m standing inside a level that few will ever get to see, with some of the most famous players in the world.

“Welcome to the training grounds,” Asher says beside me. He, like the rest of us, is now dressed in a standard, formfitting suit of red body armor that starkly contrasts with the world around us. It makes it incredibly easy for us to spot each other. “This is a whitewashed simulation containing miniature worlds all condensed into one.” He nods down the street toward the jungle. “There are forests here, along with the city block we’re currently in. A few blocks east, the city ends and an ocean starts. To the west, there are narrow stairways that lead into the sky. The potholes in the city streets will drop you into an underground network of caves. There are examples here of most of the obstacles we might encounter in this year’s levels.”

I look more closely at each of our outfits. Even though we’re all wearing red body armor, there are subtle differences between the suits. Ren’s Fighter suit is streamlined, full of smooth plates reinforced by an outer set of warrior armor. His armguards are spiked. Hammie’s Thief suit is full of pockets, nooks, and crannies, where she can stash items away. Asher looks like the captain that he is, while Roshan, our Shield, has armguards larger than any of ours, his belt equipped with potions and elixirs he can use to protect the rest of us.

Then there’s mine, the Architect’s armor. Around my waist is a utility belt, equipped with a myriad of tools I’m all too familiar with. Hammer. Screwdriver. A box of nails. Two rolls of duct tape. A small chain saw. A coil of rope. Tools are tucked along the tops of my boots, too—sticks of dynamite, lock picks—and an assortment of knives are strapped to my right thigh.

“Hammie,” Asher says. “You’re with me.” He nods in my direction. “Emika, Ren, and Roshan. You’re a team. Roshan will be your captain.” He taps something in midair, and a glittering gem appears over Roshan’s head. “Remember—your goal is always to aim for the gem. However you accomplish that is up to you. Let’s work out our weaknesses.” He glances between our two teams. Then he pushes something in midair.

Jewel-toned power-ups appear all around us, their bright colors electric against the white. Some are on display in store windows. Others are at the tops of the streetlights, while a bunch hang above the buildings.

My eyes follow the power-ups as they dot the training level, noting the easy grabs and the hard ones. I’ve only ever played beginners or practiced alone in worlds accessible to everyone. What will it be like to have an official team scrutinizing my plays?

“Power-ups in the championship tournaments are different from the ones in regular games,” Asher says to me and Ren. “Every year, the Warcross Committee will vote in a dozen new power-ups exclusive only to the championships, and then retire them at the end of the game season. Today, I want us to practice going after these power-ups.”

He pushes another button in midair. All of the power-ups vanish—except for one, perched over the edge of a bridge that links two buildings. It’s fuzzy, covered with bright blue fur striped with bits of gold and silver, and buzzing slightly.

“Specifically, I want us to be going after that one,” Asher adds.

“What does it do?” Ren asks.

“Morph,” Asher replies. “It gives the user the power to change one thing into something else.”

As Ren nods, his attention turned on the power-up, I watch him and quietly tap my fingers against my leg. A little progress bar blinks in the corner of my vision while I run one of my hacks on him. After a few minutes, the only data that I’m able to access is his full name—Renoir Thomas—alongside his photo. I frown a little. My hack manages to access some of his more public information and even a few of his messages—but everything else is still secured behind a wall of shields that I’ve never seen before.

“Emi,” Roshan says, snapping me out of my thoughts. “Step up.”

I do as he says.

“This power-up was put into this year’s championships for the Architects, since you’ll probably use it best. I want you to retrieve it for your temporary captain, Roshan.” Asher looks to his side. “You’ll be facing off against Hamilton, who will do everything in her power to get it for me first.”

Roshan steps over to her and murmurs something in her ear. He’s probably telling her to pull some of Tremaine’s signature moves, I think, recalling what Roshan had said moments earlier. Hammie nods a few times, her gaze flickering to me as she listens. When Roshan’s done, she offers me a dark grin. I try to smile casually in return.

A timer, glowing scarlet, appears over the power-up. Asher taps his wrist. “Phoenix Riders are known for speed,” he adds. “So I time every single one of our training sessions, no matter how small or trivial it might seem. Got that, wild card?”

I nod. “Got it.”

“You both have five minutes.” He looks up. “Go!”

A surge of adrenaline hits me. I don’t think; I just bolt. Hammie does the same. She rushes toward the building itself, but I decide to run across the street. As Hammie starts to scale the side of the building, grabbing one brick after another and winding her way around the walls, I sprint toward one of the tall streetlights lining the block across from the building. I pull one of the sticks of dynamite from my boot. Then I plant it at the base of the pole, careful to position it so that the explosion will break the pole in the right direction. I ignite the dynamite. Then I take several steps away so that I’m safe from the blast zone.


The ground rumbles as the base of the streetlight explodes. The pole careens sharply forward, toppling at an angle against the wall of the building.