ALSO BY MARIE LU
The Young Elites
The Rose Society
The Midnight Star
G. P. PUTNAM’S SONS
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Copyright © 2018 by Xiwei Lu.
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Lu, Marie, 1984– author.
Title: Wildcard / Marie Lu.
Description: New York, NY : G. P. Putnam’s Sons,  | Series: A Warcross novel ; 2
Summary: “Teenage hacker Emika Chen embarks on a mission to unravel a sinister plot and is forced to join forces with a shadowy organization known as the Blackcoats” —Provided by publisher.
Identifiers: LCCN 2018011748 | ISBN 9780399547997 (hardback) | ISBN 9780399548017 (ebook)
Subjects: | CYAC: Internet games—Fiction. | Computer crimes—Fiction. | Hackers—Fiction. | Spies—Fiction. | Bounty hunters—Fiction.
Classification: LCC PZ7.L96768 Wil 2018 | DDC [Fic]—dc23
LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2018011748
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
For Primo, who always pulls me up
Also by Marie Lu
About the Author
In other top headlines, police headquarters around the world are entering a third day of overwhelming crowds outside their doors. Notorious crime boss Jacob “Ace” Kagan walked into a police station in Paris’s 8th arrondissement this morning and surrendered himself to authorities in a startling move that has left many scratching their heads. In the United States, two fugitives on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list have been found dead—both incidents have been ruled suicides. This has been your morning roundup.
—THE TOKYO SUN NEWSCAST, MORNING ROUNDUP
In my dream, I’m with Hideo.
I know it’s a dream because we are in a white bed at the top of a skyscraper I’ve never seen before, in a room made entirely of glass. If I stare down at the floor, I can see through it to the dozens and dozens of levels beneath us, ceiling–floor, ceiling–floor, until they vanish to a point somewhere far below, stretching deep into the earth.
Maybe there’s no solid ground at all.
Even though the soft rays of dawn are streaking in, chasing away the dim blue of night to illuminate our skin with a buttery glow, an impossible blanket of stars can still be seen clearly against the sky, coating it in a film of gold-and-white glitter. Beyond the bedroom sprawls the landscape of a never-ending city, the lights a mirror of the stars above, continuing until it disappears into the cloud cover at the horizon.
It’s too much. There is infinity in every direction. I don’t know which way to fall.
Then Hideo’s lips touch my collarbone, and my disorientation evaporates into warmth. He’s here. I tilt my head back, my mouth parted, my hair rippling behind me, and turn my eyes toward the glass ceiling and the constellations up above.
I’m sorry, he’s whispering, his voice echoing inside my mind.
I shake my head at him and frown. What he’s apologizing for, I can’t recall, and his eyes are so sad that I don’t want to remember. Something’s not right. But what is it? There’s a nagging feeling in me that says I’m not supposed to be here.
Hideo pulls me closer. The feeling intensifies. I peer out at the city through the glass, wondering if maybe this dreamscape doesn’t look as it should, or if it’s the stars overhead that are giving me pause. Something’s not right . . .
I stiffen against Hideo. His brow furrows, and he cups my face with a hand. I want to lean back into our kiss, but a stirring at the other end of the room distracts me.
Someone is standing there. It’s a figure armored entirely in black, his features hidden behind a dark helmet.
I look at him. And everything made of glass shatters.
Eight Days until the Warcross Closing Ceremony
Someone is watching me.
I can feel it—the eerie sensation of being followed, an invisible gaze locked on my back. It prickles my skin, and as I make my way through Tokyo’s rain-soaked streets to meet up with the Phoenix Riders, I keep looking over my shoulder. People hurry by in a steady stream of colorful umbrellas and business suits, heels and oversize coats. I can’t stop imagining their downcast faces all turned in my direction, no matter which way I go.
Maybe it’s the paranoia that comes with years of being a bounty hunter. You’re on a crowded street, I tell myself. No one’s following you.
It’s been three days since Hideo’s algorithm was triggered. Technically, the world should now be the safest it’s ever been. Every single person who has used the new Henka Games contact lenses—even just once—should now be completely under Hideo’s control, rendered unable to break the law or harm another person.
Only the few who still use the beta lenses, like me, are unaffected.
So, in theory, I shouldn’t be worried about someone following me. The algorithm won’t let them do anything to hurt me.
But even as I think this, I slow down to stare at the long line wrapping around a local police station. There must be hundreds of people. They’re all
turning themselves in to the authorities for anything and everything unlawful they’ve ever done, from unpaid parking tickets to petty theft—even murder. It’s been like this for the past three days.
My attention shifts to a police barricade at the end of the street. They’re directing us to detour down a different block. Ambulance lights flash against the walls, illuminating a covered gurney being lifted into the vehicle. I only need to catch a glimpse of officers pointing up at the roof of a nearby building before I figure out what occurred here. Another criminal must have jumped to their death. Suicides like this have been peppering the news.
And I helped make all of this happen.
I swallow my unease and turn away. There’s a subtle but significant blankness in everyone’s eyes. They don’t know an artificial hand is inside their minds, bending their free will.
The reminder is enough to make me pause in the middle of the street and close my eyes. My fists clench and unclench, even as my heart lurches at his name. I’m such an idiot.
How can the thought of him fill me with disgust and desire at the same time? How can I stare in horror at this line of people waiting in the rain outside a police station—but still blush at my dream of being in Hideo’s bed, running my hands along his back?
We’re over. Forget him. I open my eyes again and continue on, trying to contain the anger beating in my chest.
By the time I duck into the heated halls of a Shinjuku shopping center, rain is coming down in wavy sheets, smearing the reflections of neon lights against the slick pavement.
Not that the storm is stopping preparations for the upcoming Warcross closing ceremony, which will mark the end of this year’s games. With my beta lenses on, I can see the roads and sidewalks color-coded in hues of scarlet and gold. Each Tokyo district is highlighted like this right now, the streets shaded the colors of the most popular team in that neighborhood. Overhead, a lavish display of virtual fireworks is going off, piercing the dark sky with bursts of colored light. Shinjuku district’s favorite team is the Phoenix Riders, so the fireworks here are currently forming the shape of a rising phoenix, arching its flaming neck in a cry of victory.
Every day over the next week or so, the top ten players of this year’s championships will be announced worldwide after a vote by all Warcross fans. Those ten players will compete in a final all-star tournament during the closing ceremony, and then spend a year as the biggest celebrities in the world before they play again next spring, in the opening ceremony’s game. Like the one I once hacked into and disrupted, that upended my entire life and landed me here.
People on the streets are proudly dressed up as their top-ten vote this year. I see a few Asher lookalikes sporting his outfit from our championship game in the White World; someone’s decked out as Jena, another as Roshan. Still others are arguing heatedly about the Final. There had obviously been a cheat—power-ups that shouldn’t have been in play.
Of course, I had done that.
I adjust my face mask, letting my rainbow hair tumble out from underneath my red raincoat’s hood. My rain boots squelch against the sidewalk. I have a randomized virtual face laid over my own, so at least people who are wearing their NeuroLink glasses or contacts will look at me and see a complete stranger. For the rare person who isn’t, the face mask should cover enough to make me blend in with everyone else wearing masks on the street.
“Sugoi!” someone passing me exclaims, and when I turn, I see a pair of wide-eyed girls grinning at my hair. Their Japanese words translate into English in my view. “Wow! Good Emika Chen costume!”
They make a gesture like they want to take a photo of me, and I play along, putting up my hands in V-for-victory signs. Are you both under Hideo’s control, too? I wonder.
The girls bob their heads in thanks and move along. I adjust my electric skateboard strapped over my shoulder. It’s a good temporary disguise, pretending to be myself, but for someone used to stalking others, I still feel weirdly exposed.
Emi! Almost here?
Hammie’s message appears before me as translucent white text, cutting through my tension. I smile instinctively and quicken my steps.
It would’ve been easier, you know, if you’d just come with us.
I cast a glance over my shoulder again. It would’ve definitely been easier—but the last time I stayed in the same space as my teammates, Zero nearly killed us in an explosion.
I’m not an official Rider anymore. People would ask questions if they saw us heading out as a group tonight.
But you’d be safer if you did.
It’s safer if I didn’t.
I can practically hear her sigh. She sends the address of the bar again.
See you soon.
I pass through the mall and out the other side. Here, the colorful blocks of Shinjuku shift into the seedy streets of Kabukichō, Tokyo’s red-light district. I tense my shoulders. It’s not an unsafe area—certainly not compared to where I came from in New York—but the walls are covered with glowing screens featuring the services of beautiful girls and handsome, spiky-haired boys, along with shadier banners I don’t want to understand.
Virtual models dressed in scanty outfits stand outside bars, beckoning visitors to enter. They ignore me when they realize my profile marks me as a foreigner and turn their attention to the more lucrative Japanese locals navigating the streets.
Still, I pick up my pace. No red-light district in the world is safe.
I duck into a narrow street on the border of Kabukichō. Piss Alley, so this cluster of little walkways is called. The Riders picked it for tonight because it’s closed to tourists during the Warcross championship season. Scowling bodyguards in suits stand at the entrances and exits of the alleys, shooing away curious passersby.
I take down my disguise for a second so they can see my real identity. One bodyguard bows his head and lets me in.
Both sides of the alleys are lined with tiny sake bars and yakitori stands. Through each of their fogged glass doors, I can see the backs of other teams huddled in front of smoking grills, arguing loudly at virtual projections on the walls showing interviews with players. The scent of fresh rain mixes with aromas of garlic, miso, and fried meat.
I pull off my raincoat, shake it out, and fold it inside out into my backpack. Then I head to the last stall. This bar is a little bigger than the others, facing a quiet alley blocked off on either side. Its doorway is lit by a row of cheery red lanterns, and men in suits stand in strategic positions around it. One of them notices me and moves aside, ushering me forward.
I walk under the lanterns and enter through the sliding glass door. A curtain of warm air envelops me.
Checked into Midnight Sense Bar!
500 Points. Daily Score: +950
Level 36 | 120,064
I find myself standing in a cozy room with a handful of filled seats arranged around a bar, where a chef is busy putting out bowls of ramen. He pauses to call out my arrival.
A round of greetings hits me as everyone turns in my direction.
There’s Hammie, our Thief, and Roshan, our Shield. Asher, our Captain, is sitting on one of the stools with his stylish wheelchair folded behind him. Even Tremaine, who technically plays for the Demon Brigade, is here. He keeps his elbows propped up on the bar as he nods at me through the steam rising from his bowl. He’s sitting away from Roshan, who’s fiddling with a bracelet of prayer beads on his wrist and making a point of ignoring his former boyfriend.
My team. My friends. The eerie feeling of being watched subsides as I take in their faces.
Hammie waves me over. I slide gratefully into the empty stool beside her. The chef puts down a bowl of ramen before me and steps out to give us privacy. “The whole city’s celebrating,” I mutter. “People have no idea what Hideo’s done.”
starts pulling her curls tight into a thick pouf high on her head. Then she juts her chin at a virtual screen playing footage from the Final against the wall. “You’re just in time,” she replies. “Hideo’s about to make his announcement.”
We stare at the screen as Hammie pours me a cup of tea. It now shows a room of reporters with their faces turned toward a massive stage, all waiting impatiently for Hideo to arrive. Kenn, the Warcross creative director, and Mari Nakamura, Henka Games’ chief operating officer, are already there, whispering to each other.
The room on the screen suddenly bursts into commotion as Hideo walks onstage. He straightens the lapels of his suit jacket once as he strides over to join his companions, shaking hands as he goes with his usual cool, careful grace.
Even the sight of him onscreen feels as overwhelming as if he’d walked right into this bar. All I see is the same boy I’ve watched my whole life, the face I’d stop to look for at newsstands and take in on TV. I dig my nails into the counter, trying not to show how embarrassingly weak it makes me feel.
Hammie notices. She casts me a sympathetic glance. “No one expects you to be over him already,” she says. “I know he’s trying to take over the world and all, but he still rocks a suit harder than a Balmain catwalk.”
Asher scowls. “I’m right here.”
“I didn’t say I wanted to date him,” Hammie replies, reaching over to pat Asher’s cheek once.
I look on as Hideo and Kenn talk in low voices and wonder how much Kenn and Mari know about Hideo’s plans. Has the entire company been in on this all along? Is it possible to keep such a thing secret? Would that many people take part in something so awful?
“As you all know,” Hideo begins, “a cheat was activated during the Final of this year’s championship that benefited one team—the Phoenix Riders—over the other—Team Andromeda. After reviewing the matter with our creative team”—he pauses to glance at Kenn—“it seems the cheat was activated not by one of the players, but by an outside party. We’ve decided the best way to resolve this, then, is to hold an official rematch between Team Andromeda and the Phoenix Riders, four days from today. This will be followed by the closing ceremony four days later.”