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“Nice!” Roshan shouts in approval.

I’m too focused to glance toward them. All my energy now hones in on my task. I hop onto the pole, then take a deep breath and start sprinting up it toward the building. The time I’ve lost from setting up the dynamite is now made up as I rapidly get higher and higher, until I reach the wall of the building. Hammie is still climbing, a good dozen feet below where I am. Two stories above us, the power-up hovers along the bridge.

I press my hands against the wall, then reach for the rope at my waist. If I can fling it and loop it around one of the spotlights along the bridge, I can pull myself up fast enough to get there first.

Suddenly, something tugs sharply against my waist. I nearly lose my balance and fall off. I look down.

The loop of rope at my waist is gone. Below me, Hammie shoots me a grin as she holds it up. How did she get it so quickly? How did she know I’d use it?

“You’re not the only one with tools, wild card,” she calls up at me. She flashes her stun gun at me, its edges gleaming in the light, and then flings my rope up to the protruding corner of the next story up. She pulls herself higher.

Hammie had shot my rope straight off my waist and caught it. No time to fume at her. I turn my attention back to my task and lunge upward along the wall, grabbing for each brick. The two of us climb at a feverish pace.

Hammie’s faster than I am. She quickly outpaces me, and seconds later, I’m behind her by at least six feet. I force myself to climb faster.

Right as Hammie reaches the edge of the bridge, colors flash around us. Other spheres and cubes suddenly appear, scattered over the bridge and against the walls. Asher must have turned the rest of the power-ups back on. My eyes dart to a power-up within reach.

It’s a bright yellow sphere, hovering against the wall where I am. Speed Burst. I seize it, then give it a squeeze in my hand.

The sphere vanishes, covering me in a neon-yellow glow. The world around me seems to slow, and Hammie along with it. I surge upward, climbing twice as fast as I had been only moments earlier.

I pass Hammie and jump onto the bridge right as my power-up runs out. The world snaps back to its regular pace.

The timer above the Morph power-up continues to count down. Thirty seconds left.

Instead of inching along the bridge as fast as I can, I give up several precious seconds and set a quick trap for Hammie. I yank my hammer from my belt and smash each of the hand- and footholds I’m using as I make my way along the bridge’s edge. Hammie won’t be able to use them to follow right behind me. Then I turn back around and keep going. I’m so close to the power-up now.

When I look behind me, Hammie is gone again.

I blink. What?

“Up here,” her voice calls from above.

I peer up to see her hovering right over me, as if she knew exactly what I would do to slow her down. She was able to reach a power-up—Wings (temporary flight), from the orange glow around her. She grins, then dives for the Morph power-up.

I launch off the edge of the bridge and lunge at her. My hands grab for her legs. I throw her off balance before she can reach the Morph power-up. She lets out a startled, angry yell. For an instant, with her power of flight still working, we tumble in place as she tries to shake me off. Then, to my shock, she comes at me with her fists up.

I barely manage to dodge her first blow. Her second hits me in my chin, and I lose my grip on her. To my surprise again, she doesn’t release me. A normal Thief would—but instead, Hammie tightens her grip and continues fighting me in midair.

“Watch her hands!” Roshan shouts out, right as I see something glint in Hammie’s fist. It’s a dagger. A dagger? Thieves aren’t supposed to have daggers. In a flash, I realize that this must have been planned by Roshan. Tremaine probably plays like this, switching easily from one role to another. So Roshan must have given her the dagger to test me on how I’d react in a situation like this.

Hammie strikes out at me with blinding speed.

Most players wouldn’t have been able to dodge it. But my reflexes have been honed on the streets as a bounty hunter. The memory of me running through New York, catching the gambler, flashes back to me. He had attacked me with a knife, a real knife. As Hammie’s virtual knife comes at me, I find myself moving on pure instinct—I release her completely with a shove, fall a little, and then shoot out my hands at the last second to grab her ankles.

Her eyes widen. Then her flight power-up runs out.

I use her last bit of momentum in midair to swing myself up. As she starts to fall, I let go of her. The momentum is just enough. I reach up as high as I can. My fingertips brush against the Morph power-up. It’s in my hand. A tingle rushes up my arm at the acquisition. I let out a shout of triumph.

Then I tumble back down toward the ground. I land hard on my back, knocking my avatar out of commission for several long seconds. There I lie, gasping and laughing. When my avatar recovers, I roll over and check my inventory, eager to see the Morph power-up in my account.

It’s not there.

Hammie strides over to me as I manage to sit up. She holds out the Morph power-up in her hand and smiles. “Took it from you right as you landed on the ground,” she says.

“How—?” I hesitate, shaking my head. She’d done it so quickly that I hadn’t even felt her snatch it from my hands as I’d lain on the ground. I glance over to where Asher and the others are walking toward us. “But—didn’t I win the exercise? I got it first.”

“You’ve got a lot of strengths, Emi,” Asher says. Hammie offers me a hand and pulls me to my feet. “Very resourceful. The way you play as an Architect—those aren’t the plays of an amateur player. Fast on your feet. Accurate. You’re much more talented than your Level 28 would suggest. Just like I thought.” He nods at Hammie. “But you’ve got some classic wild-card weaknesses. One.” He holds up a finger. “You get tunnel vision. Hammie is a world-class Thief. She’s probably faster and nimbler than any Thief you’ve ever played against. I had to help you out by turning the other power-ups on.”

I rest a hand on my hip and look at Hammie. “How did you always know what I’d do next?”

She taps her temple once. “Don’t let me talk you into playing chess,” she quips, repeating Asher’s warning he’d given me when I’d first met her.

“Hammie can structure out your moves a dozen steps ahead,” Asher explains. “Like any master chess player. She can sort your potential paths in her head and, judging by your body language, figure out what you’re the most likely to do, all while she’s on the move. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

“I didn’t know you’d throw yourself at me during those final moments, though,” Hammie adds. “That’s the fun of playing a wild card, isn’t it? You never know what kind of player you’ll get.”

A dozen steps ahead. She had probably guessed my moves from the instant we began, maybe the moment I started running toward the streetlight. I sigh. “Well? What other classic weaknesses do I have?”

Asher holds up two fingers now. “You didn’t listen to my instructions.”

“I got the Morph power-up.”

“Your instructions were to retrieve the Morph power-up for me,” Roshan interrupts me. “Your team captain. The exercise didn’t end when you grabbed the power-up first. It ends when you hand it over to me. This isn’t a solo game, Emika, and you can’t play as if you alone want to win.” As he says this, Hammie walks over to Asher and tosses the power-up to him. He catches it without looking.

“Nicely done,” Asher says.

She beams. “Thanks, Captain.”

I’m glad I’m inside Warcross, so that the others can’t tell that my cheeks are turning red from embarrassment. Hackers and bounty hunters aren’t exactly known for being great team players. I don’t do well with instructions. But I swallow these thoughts and nod at Roshan. “Sorry,” I say.

He shakes his head. “Don’t sweat it, love. Thieves aren’t supposed to have daggers in their possession—Fighters are. But this is how Tremaine can act during a game, and you just successfully fought him off. I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone react that quickly to a surprise attack. A brilliant first exercise, really, especially from a wild card.”

“Yeah.” Hammie nods at me, too. “Not bad. You put up a hell of a fight, Emi. You’re just going to have to fight a little bit harder to beat me.” She winks. “Don’t worry—you’re still better than Roshan was when he was a wild card.”

Roshan gives her an exasperated look that makes her laugh. And in spite of myself, I smile, too.

“Next!” Asher says. “Roshan and Ren. Get up there.” The power-ups reset, and this time the Morph power-up is inside one of the buildings. I look on as the others move away. My attention stays focused on Ren. The progress bar in the bottom of my vision has finished and my program is now running on my other teammates, but with the pitiful number of Ren’s encrypted files I’ve managed to grab, I might as well not have run my hack on him at all.