We are all wearing our lenses. Through them, silver and gold sparks fly on either side of the club’s glass doors, while a Warcross logo hovers over the top of the building. The sidewalk’s pavement is aglow with a kaleidoscope of bright, swirling colors. The club’s name, Sound Museum Vision, hangs over the glass doors as a giant, glowing logo. Even from out here, I can hear pounding music from inside—the deep beats of a DJ Ren track.
The only people allowed inside the club tonight are the official Warcross players, the employees of Henka Games, and a smattering of Warcross fans who were picked by a lottery system to attend. Now they’re clustered outside in a haphazard line, waiting for the security to let them in. As our team approaches the entrance, the fans let out a chorus of screams.
The four of us are wearing matching black face masks tonight. Hammie is first, her curls loose, long, and full, her outfit a yellow-and-white dress paired with black heels. Asher comes behind her, looking sleek in a bold red suit, while Roshan is dressed from head to toe in black.
My hands fiddle constantly with the hem of one of my new dresses. It’s layered in soft white chiffon, which contrasts nicely with my tattoos and rainbow hair, but it rides up higher than I thought it would. I’ve never been inside an upscale club like this one, and as we walk past the crowd of fans, I wonder if maybe I should’ve picked a different outfit. Hideo will be here tonight, after all. The last thing I want to look like in front of him is uncomfortable.
A commotion farther down the fans’ line makes me look over my shoulder. Sure enough, Hideo is there, flanked by a bevy of bodyguards. They’re giving him some space tonight, though, and when I look closer, I realize that he’s kneeling to sign a poster for a little girl. She says something to him excitedly. Even though I can’t make the words out, I hear him laugh in return. The sound surprises me—it’s genuine and boyish, so unlike his distant demeanor from our meeting. I find myself lingering there for a moment before I finally turn back around and follow my team into the club’s main lobby.
The club is underground. As we step out of the elevator, the music suddenly turns deafening, the beat shaking my body through the floor. Hammie sidles up beside me as we go, taking off her face mask and folding it away in her purse. I follow her lead. “Sound Museum Vision’s got the best sound system in the city!” she shouts. “All custom-made. They revamped the space a few years ago, too—it’s double the size it used to be.”
We reach the bottom of the stairs, where another group of security guards lets us in. I step into a yawning cavern of darkness, flashing lights, and a pounding bass that shakes me deep in my chest.
Even without my lenses, this space would be impressive. The ceiling is at least three floors high, and lights of neon blue, green, and gold strobe the room, blinding us with color. A sea of people fills the room, their arms thrown up, their hair tossing wildly. A faint mist hugs the air, giving everything a surreal haze. Enormous screens stretching from floor to ceiling line the walls, as well as the backdrop of the main stage, rotating through an animatic of each Warcross team.
But with my lenses on, the space transforms into something magical. The ceiling looks like a night sky covered by a sheet of stars, with green and red streaks of what look like Northern Lights dancing from one end to the other. Some of the stars move toward us, showering us with sparks, as if stardust is raining over us. Every time a deep bass drops, the ground glows in a symphony of light. Official players on the floor shine in the dark, their outfits lit up in neon, their names, team affiliation, and level hovering over their heads like golden trophies. Around them cluster heavy crowds. Everyone’s trying to get a moment of their time on the dance floor.
Maybe Zero is here, watching, I remind myself. Maybe the other bounty hunters, too.
My eyes dart to the stage itself. The space is enormous, as big as a concert hall, and a live orchestra is sitting in the pit right below. Against the stage’s backdrop is a towering screen with an ice-blue dragon’s head breaking out through it. Fire appears to shoot out from its mouth in a spectacular display. It takes me another second to remember that the dragon itself is also virtual—it moves as if it were real, twisting and turning its head at every dropped beat, its growl echoing from somewhere deep in the sound system.
Standing in front of the dragon’s mouth is a singer with short, artificially blond curls and clothes in neon shades of blue. Frankie Dena! She’s singing the chorus to one of her collaborations with DJ Ren: “Hey Ninja / Gangsta / Dragon Lady / Hey, where you from, no, where you really from, baby / Hey, how ’bout / you cut all that shit out / Yeah!” Dancers pump their arms to the rhythm.
Then she sees us and pauses.
“The Phoenix Riders are in the house!” she shouts. The strobe lights shoot toward us, and suddenly we are drenched in a red glow. Cheers erupt around us, loud enough to shake the floors. Frankie grins and points up to a figure standing high at the top of the dragon wall. “Show your team some love, Ren!”
The figure at the top looks up only briefly from behind a cage of ornate gold bars. He is decked out in his classic DJ attire—a black, well-tailored suit, gold shades, a gold face mask and a state-of-the-art set of headphones with gold metal wings embellishing both sides, as if he were the messenger god Hermes wearing something designed by Hermès. The track shifts in one smooth measure—the sound of electric violins, cellos, and a deep, reverberating beat fills the space. At the same time, the room around us bursts into flames, and the dragon head on the wall morphs into a red-and-gold phoenix. I gasp as the floor seems to move. When I look down, I see bits of it crumbling away to reveal molten lava beneath our feet. The audience screams in delight as each of them remains standing only on islands of rock floating in the lava.
DJ Ren bows his head over his instruments. He raises one arm up high as the music’s tempo increases to a fever pitch, until I can hardly bear it. Then he brings a punishing bass down on our heads. The room trembles, and the crowd bursts into a mass of jumping limbs. Music fills me to the brim.
For a moment, I close my eyes and let the beat carry me away. I’m tearing through the streets of New York City on my electric board, my rainbow hair streaming behind me. I’m standing at the top of a wind-whipped skyscraper, arms outstretched. I’m flying through the skies of Warcross, the outer reaches of space. I’m free.
Asher already looks distracted, his attention fixated on the players of the Demon Brigade, who have stepped into the club. Frankie announces their presence, and DJ Ren’s wall changes from our phoenix to a horde of skeletal beasts in hooded cloaks riding on horseback, charging through the audience with swords drawn.
“Go talk to the Demons tonight,” he mutters to me. “You’re our new recruit, so they’re going to do everything they can to intimidate you. They want you to go into your first game feeling unsure about yourself.”
“They don’t scare me.”
“I should hope not.” Asher blinks at me. “But I want you to look like it. Make them underestimate you. I want them to think they’ve got you cornered and fearful, and that we made a huge mistake choosing you as the number one pick. Let them feel smug. Then we’ll destroy them in the games, and leave them shocked.”
Roshan gives Asher a sidelong look. “A little early to be sending our wild card into the line of fire?” he says.
“She can handle it.” Asher grins at me. “You’ve got line-of-fire written all over your face.”
I decide to smile back, hoping things aren’t written so clearly on my face that Asher figures out what I’m really doing here. My attention turns back to the Demons. They’re gathered close to the stage where DJ Ren is performing. It’s a good-enough excuse for me to go gather data on all of them. “Will do, Captain,” I say.
As we begin to cut through the mass of elbows and shoulders, Roshan hands me a drink. “You’ll need it,” he mutters. “Ash always feels like needling our rivals a little before the games. But if you don’t want to talk to the Demons, you don’t have to.”
Almost everywhere I look, I see official players that I recognize. They’re looking back at me, too, noticing me, talking to one another without taking their eyes off me. What are they saying? What do they know? Are any of them bounty hunters, too? For someone used to being off the grid, the attention on me feels a little unnerving. But I just grin back each time.
“Let’s go,” I say to Roshan. “People are going to be talking about me anyway. I might as well get used to confrontation.”
Roshan leans over to me and nods in the direction of the Demon Brigade’s Max Martin and Tremaine Blackbourne chatting in a corner. “Well, if we ever play the Demons,” he says into my ear in a low voice, “you’ll need to deal with that pair. Max is their Fighter, Tremaine’s the Architect. And Tremaine is going to gun for you in the game because you’re the number one pick. Come on.” He puts a hand on my back and leads us forward.
Beside Max, Tremaine looks thin and pale, almost ghostly, in his black-and-white suit. He and Roshan exchange a cold stare as we approach him. Then he raises a skeptical eyebrow at me.