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I glance warily at the stalls I pass. Some sell virtual Warcross items laid neatly out on tables, everything from gold rings to glittering capes, leather boots and platinum armor, healing elixirs and treasure chests. Others sell illegal, real-world items. One offers outlawed guns and bullets, promising overnight delivery for cases of thirty and up. Another sells drugs—the stall is set up as professionally as any online shopping site, where you add grams of cocaine and meth to your shopping cart, get the packages delivered to your doorstep two days later, and leave customer reviews for the vendor without ever endangering your identity. A third stall hawks diet pills not approved by health departments, while another offers discounts to watch a famous Dark World girl’s R-rated livestream. I grimace and look away. There are stalls for stolen artwork, poached ivory, currency exchange between virtual notes and bitcoins and Japanese yen, and, of course, gambling on both Warcross and Darkcross games.

I see bets being cast right now for the final tournament—and the amounts are astronomical. A number hovers over each stall, telling me how many people are currently considering purchases at that vendor. The number over the betting stall says 10,254. Ten thousand people making bets at this one little gambling stall alone. I can only imagine how many bets people are casting right now in larger gambling shops like the Pirate’s Den. It’s another reminder of how many people will be on the NeuroLink during the final game, and it makes me move faster.

I stop at a currency stall to exchange a huge chunk of my money for notes. Even now, converting this much money physically hurts—what I wouldn’t have given just a few months ago to hang on to this much for the rest of my life. But I trade it anyway, looking on as the numbers in my view change from one type to another. Then I continue on. Finally, I reach the intersection of the Silk Road and Big Top Alley. When I look down the alley, I see the vendor I’m looking for: the Emerald Emporium, home to expensive, valuable, and very, very rare power-ups.

The outside looks like an enormous circus tent, painted with broad black-and-gold stripes that glitter under the strings of lights. The flaps of the tent’s entrance curve to both sides, revealing a yawning, pitch-black hole into which a velvet carpet extends. An immediate, instinctive fear hits the back of my stomach at the sight. Dad and I had once gone hiking in the woods at midnight, and when we had to walk through the black space of a gnarled tree trunk, I’d nearly had a panic attack. Everything in darkness looks like fragments of monsters. The entrance to this circus triggers the same sort of fear—stepping into the black unknown, beyond which is something dangerous. In fact, this intimidating entrance is all part of the vendor’s security shell, to deter window-shoppers. If you’re too scared to enter, then you’re probably too scared to make purchases.

A pair of twins on stilts stand on either side of the entrance. They lean down toward me as I approach, their faces painted white and their eyes completely black. “Password,” they say in unison, their frowns identical. At the same time, a transparent, hovering box appears in the center of my vision.

I type in the password for today, a string of thirty-five jumbled letters, numbers, and symbols. The twins consider for a moment—and then move aside, silently holding out their long arms for me to enter the Emporium. I take a deep breath and step forward.

Inside is completely black. I continue walking, counting my steps out carefully. When I finish taking ten steps, I stop and turn to my right. I take eight more. Stop, turn left. Fifteen steps. I continue walking in a long, elaborate combination like this until I finally take twenty steps forward and stop completely. For users who don’t know how to get past this second security shell, they’ll get trapped entirely in the darkness. It’ll then take them weeks to reclaim their lost avatar and account.

I reach out and knock. To my relief, a rap-rap-rap sounds out as I do so, as if I were knocking on wood. A gate slides up, and I enter the enormous belly of a circus, the space lit up with hundreds of dangling bulbs.

Shelves and pedestals are everywhere, displaying glass jars inside which are power-ups of all kinds—scarlet gems and white marbles, rainbow-hued balls of fuzz and blue-striped cubes, black-and-white-checkered spheres, and clear, soap-like bubbles. Some of these power-ups have only been seen once in games, never to be offered again, while others are prototypes, still in development at Henka Games but yet somehow now in the hands of hackers who are selling them here. Over each one hovers its name in gold letters, along with its starting bid price. Sudden Death: N46,550. Alien Attack: N150,000.

Clusters of anonymous avatars gather in front of the rare ones, chattering excitedly. Security bots glide around the floor, looking like ladies with mechanical jaws and long-nosed masks and black parasols. I study their movements. There is always a pattern to the way they move, however randomly. A shopping cart icon floats in my view now, as well as a field that I can type an amount into. I look around, admiring each of the glass jars on display, before I finally find one on a pedestal, inside which is a marble that looks like a frozen crystal ball, its surface adorned with beautiful feathers of frost.

Team Freeze: N201,000. This will, according to the accompanying description above it, immobilize the entire enemy team for five full seconds.

The people gathered around this glass jar all have auction paddles, and I realize that an auction is happening for it right now. I join in, accepting a paddle from a nearby security-bot lady. There are five bots patrolling this auction now, two of them drifting over from an auction that had finished moments earlier. Standing next to the glass jar is a little girl, the auctioneer, wearing a top hat nearly as tall as herself. “Two hundred and fifty-one thousand notes!” she says at a loud, rapid clip. “Do I hear two fifty-two?” Someone raises their paddle. “Two fifty-two! Do I hear two fifty-three?”

The bidding goes on and on, until it narrows down to a battle between two users. I watch them carefully. The highest bid is now 295,000 notes, and the second user is hesitating on raising the bid to 300,000. The little girl continues to shout out the number, waiting for someone to take it. No one does. The highest-bidding avatar straightens, puffing his chest out in excitement.

“No one for three hundred thousand?” the little girl says, looking around. “Two ninety-five going once, going twice—”

I raise my paddle and call out, “Four hundred.”

All eyes whirl to me in shock. Murmurs ripple through the crowd. The little girl points at me and smiles. “Four hundred!” she exclaims. “Now we’re flying! Do I hear four hundred and one?” She looks around the tent, but no one budges. The other avatar glares at me with a look of murder, but I’m careful not to stare back.

“Sold!” The little girl claps in my direction. My shopping cart icon suddenly updates, the number 1 now showing, and my number of notes drops by 400,000. At the same time, the Team Freeze power-up vanishes from the glass jar on the pedestal, and the other avatars start to wander off, muttering. The losing bidder lingers, though, his eyes still on me—as are the eyes of the security bots.

I thank the auctioneer, then go to look at the rest of the jars. I can still afford to spend another million notes, and I need to gather as much help as I can get.

I join a second auction happening for a power-up that looks like a round, growling, fuzzy black creature with two large paws. Artifact King. If your enemy’s Artifact is within your line of sight, then using this power-up will automatically teleport that Artifact straight into your hands, instantly winning your team the game.

This time, the starting bid is 500,000 notes.

Again, the auctioneer calls out the rapidly rising bids. Again, it boils down to a few active bidders. I’m one of them. The bid rises to 720,000 as I face off against one other opponent, and yet still, he won’t back down. Finally, in frustration, I throw down an amount that I know is much more than the power-up is worth.

“Sold—for eight eighty!” the auctioneer exclaims. 880,000 notes.

I wince at the dent this makes in my funds, then check my backpack to make sure both items are properly stored. In real life, I run a scan to see if anyone is trying to break into my inventory. Rich users will sometimes come in here and clear out several big items. Other users will then lie in wait until the rich user has turned his back, then hack into his inventory and steal those power-ups. A couple of avatars have already turned their attention to me after my two purchases, and their interest makes the hairs rise on the back of my neck.

I have less than 200,000 notes left, which won’t buy me anything big enough to be worth using in the final game. So instead I look around, wondering who I might be able to target in order to steal myself one more valuable power-up. Finally, I settle on an auction happening for an item that makes me light up. I’ve never even heard of this one before—leading me to believe it has to be a prototype or even an illegal, user-created item.

Play God: N751,000. 14 Bids.

This power-up gives you the temporary power to manipulate anything and everything in a Warcross level. Perfect.

The auction is almost done, having narrowed to two users, but this time I stand by as an onlooker, watching behind the security bots as the price continues to climb. Eventually, it tapers off, stuck on nearly a million notes as one of the users hesitates.