• • • • •
THE SUN HAS already begun to set by the time we finish training. The instant I head back to my room and close my door, I bring up all of my downloaded info on the players and display it on my wall. A long list of data appears—birth date, home address, phone number, credit card information, calendar. I scroll through it, searching.
Hammie’s info appears first, detailing some of the plane tickets she’d recently purchased and hotels she’d booked. I catch a glimpse of bits of Memories she’s stored away. In one, she’s laughing with people who look like her mom and sister as they try to pose for a good shot in front of the Grand Canyon. In another, she’s at a chess tournament, staring down at the board. It’s speed chess—each player’s taking a fraction of a second to make a move. I pause in spite of myself, awed as her fingers fly across the board. I’m barely able to track her moves, let alone keep up with why she’s making them. In sixty seconds flat, she checkmates her opponent’s king. A roar comes from the audience, and her opponent shakes her hand grudgingly.
In her final Memory, she’s looking on behind a barricade as a man in uniform walks to a waiting helicopter. Nothing unusual; lots of people record Memories of greeting loved ones or sending them off. The man glances over his shoulder at her and waves. She waves back, recording in his direction long after the helicopter has taken off.
I switch to Asher. There’s nothing incriminating or interesting in any of his data either, other than a few texts about flight arrival and departure times. His most recent Memory, aside from the draft and the party, is of him at the airport’s private jet strip, waiting beside an older boy in sunglasses who I recognize immediately as his brother Daniel. Bodyguards stand near them both, but Daniel carries bags labeled with Asher’s name instead of letting the handlers do it. The brothers don’t utter a word to each other. And when the time comes for Daniel to finally hand over Asher’s bags to an attendant, Asher heads for the jet’s stairs without saying good-bye.
I try to shrug off the familiar note of guilt I always feel when combing through others’ private data. It’s your job, I remind myself. No room for feeling bad. Still, I delete the Memories of both Hammie and Asher from my records so that I can’t watch them again.
A few of Roshan’s messages are to his parents, one is to his sister, and one is a delivery receipt for some sort of gift. There are no recorded Memories, but to my surprise, the gift receipt tells me that it was sent from Tremaine, with a single line written on the card. Did you get my letter? T. I search the rest of his data, but there’s no indication of the letter in question, or that Roshan has responded to Tremaine’s gift yet. Nothing terribly suspicious, but I flag the data anyway for future reference.
Finally, I arrive at what little I have of Ren’s information. Most of it is of no consequence—plans for setting up equipment for the opening-night party; mail from fans. There’s one Memory of him, recorded at a party from last year, where he’s kissing a girl backstage as someone onstage is announcing his name. I clear my throat and turn my eyes away. Thankfully, the Memory shifts to Ren heading to his instruments in the center of the stage.
Everything else in Ren’s files is encrypted, including a few emails I’d managed to retrieve from his trash. I swipe through each one. No matter what I run on them, each one looks like a cube of gibberish floating in my view, locked tight behind a shield.
That’s when I finally run across something that makes me pause.
It’s a deleted email hidden behind his menagerie of shields, hovering in my view as a locked cube. I turn it in midair. When I do, I notice a tiny, recurring marker at the edge of each side of the cube.
“Well, well,” I whisper, sitting up taller. Any feelings of guilt I’d had now fly right out of my head. “What’s this?”
The marker is a red dot, barely noticeable, part of the message’s encryption. And right beside it, in the tiniest letters, is the inscription WC0.
So Ren was the silhouette in the Wardraft. Based on the red dot, this message was sent to him from inside the Dark World.
I sit back on my bed and furrow my brow. This means that not only was Ren the one I’d been tracking at the Wardraft, not only was he inside the Dark World recently, but he is talking to others there.
And no one goes into the Dark World unless they’re doing something illegal.
The first time I’d set foot in the Dark World was during my first bounty hunt.
I was sixteen, and on my own. The boss of a local New York street gang had put out a $2,500 bounty on one of his members, and I’d seen it as a brief mention in some online forum.
I’d read about other young people like me trying their luck in the competitive bounty hunter world. They seemed to have no special skill that I didn’t have, and it looked like a way—if you were good—to make a comfortable income. The best bounty hunters could rake in six figures a year.
I had another reason to go after this bounty. My father owed $2,000 in gambling debt. After he died, I’d made a promise to myself to not fall into working for anyone in the criminal world—but in order to do that, I had to free myself from this debt. Otherwise, the people Dad owed the money to would come looking for me the instant I turned eighteen.
So I did as much research as I could about how to get into the Dark World. I honestly thought that by following a few online guides, I would somehow be able to waltz into this den of crime unscathed.
The Dark World operates by no rule except one: Stay anonymous. Your safety is only as good as your disguise. I learned this the hard way after I made my way into the world, found my target, and tracked him down in real life. Only then did I realize that I’d accidentally exposed a part of my identity while in the Dark World. In no time, my personal information—age, history, location—was broadcast to the entire Dark World, and my equipment was compromised.
I got the money, paid off my father’s gambling debt. But over the next few months, I completely gutted my laptop and phone, stayed off-line and out of sight, kept the lowest profile I could. Even then, I’d get weird phone calls in the middle of the night, strange letters delivered in the mail. The occasional threat left on my physical doorstep. Eventually, I had to move.
I never worked for a gang again. It would be months more before I gathered the courage to return online.
That’s the thing about the Dark World: You can prepare for it all you want, but the only way to truly understand it is to head in.
• • • • •
“MISS CHEN,” HIDEO says as our call connects. “Good to hear from you.”
It’s the next morning, before training begins again in earnest, and Hideo’s virtual image is in my room, leaning forward in his office chair and resting his elbows on his desk. The single streak of silver in his hair catches some of the light filtering in from his windows. Beside him, Kenn is standing close to the desk with his hands in his pockets in a way that tells me I’d interrupted a conversation they were having. He glances at me over his shoulder. Two bodyguards stand at attention behind them.
“Calling so soon with an update?” Kenn remarks. He glances back at Hideo. “Maybe you really did find your perfect bounty hunter.”
I try to feel professional in my bare feet and shredded black jeans. “You must’ve been busy since the opening ceremony party,” I say to Hideo. My eyes dart briefly to Kenn. “Am I interrupting some business?”
“You are the business,” Kenn replies. “We were just talking about you.”
“Oh.” I clear my throat. “Good things, I hope.”
Kenn grins. “I’d say so.” He pushes away from Hideo’s desk without explaining his words further. “I’ll leave you both to it, then. Have fun.”
Hideo exchanges a glance with Kenn. “We’ll pick up again in a bit.”
Kenn steps out of sight. Hideo watches him go, then gestures briefly at the door with one hand. Without a word, his two bodyguards bow their heads and head out of the room, leaving Hideo alone.
When they’re gone, he turns back to me. “I hope life has been pleasant since you took all the attention at the Wardraft.”
“I just figured that you’d instructed the Phoenix Riders to draft me first.”
“I didn’t tell anyone to make you the number one pick. Asher Wing did that on his own. You’re quite the commodity.”
So, Hideo hadn’t been involved in that, after all. “Well,” I say, “the Wardraft was interesting in more ways than one. Look what I found.” I bring up my screenshot from the Wardraft and hover it between us. It rotates slowly, giving us a full view of the dome. The unmistakable shadow of the figure’s silhouette is perched prominently in the dome’s tangle of metal. Over his head is the word [null]. “On the day of the Wardraft, I saw someone watching from the Tokyo Dome’s rafters.”
This catches Hideo’s interest. He studies the screenshot, his eyes narrowing on the dark silhouette perched in the dome’s maze of beams. “How do you know it’s a he?”