3 … 2 … The countdown board lit up. Next to her Ming was leaning back on her heels in anticipation. Ty turned and grinned at Avery. “Ready, Fuller?” he asked with a wink. Avery ignored it. She’d made out with Ty once at Jess’s parents’ holiday party, and he kept acting as though it would happen again.
1. The doors opened to reveal a spaceship on red alert, emergency lights blinking the length of the abandoned hallways. If she took off her headset Avery would see just an empty, industrial-looking space, filled with steam vents and shifting carbon-foam walls. Somewhere, the other team was walking out of another exit pod into a different part of the spaceship arena.
Avery pressed a button on her wristband to comm the others. “Ming and I will take the left,” she whispered, pushing a silver door that led to a side hall. Ming, dressed as a pink fairy princess—there really were no avatar restrictions, though she looked ridiculous in the middle of a space game—nodded and followed.
Something exploded to their left. Avery crouched next to a heavy pipe, then jumped up and launched into a sprint, no longer worrying about Ming. She fired her radar pistol into the opaque mist at the corners of the room. A ladder was suspended before her in midair, reminding Avery of nothing so much as her own ladder up to the hidden roof-deck. Why not? she thought, jumping up and starting to climb. It felt good, moving like this through the dark anonymity of the arena, her blood pumping hot and fast through her veins. If she moved quickly enough she could forget about Atlas and Leda, about everything except the game itself.
At the end of the ladder she swung herself onto the higher level and began shooting at two figures up ahead, illuminated with glowing arrows that marked them as members of the opposite team. They ducked behind a stack of boxes marked with radiation signs, one of them tripping forward over her feet. That had to be Leda, in her stupid espadrilles.
Avery moved slowly, creeping around from the opposite side so they wouldn’t see her—and froze.
Crouched next to Leda was Atlas. She knew from the tattoos on the inside of his wrist; it was his tell, the matching yin and yang tattoos that he’d never get in real life, but always put on his avatar in ARena games. Avery watched as Leda put her hand lightly on his shoulder. Atlas didn’t pull away.
Avery held her breath, willing herself to stop watching, but she couldn’t look away. Leda’s gesture seemed saturated with meaning: possessive, somehow. It was the kind of touch you gave someone you’d already touched in other ways, or who you really wanted to. The kind of touch Avery could never, ever give Atlas.
“Disengage,” she whispered, pulling the red tab on her wristband. Immediately Avery’s weapons were rendered inactive and she became invisible to everyone in the game, able to do nothing except walk back to the staging room until she reactivated. It was like she wasn’t even there, like she’d suddenly erased herself. Which was exactly how she felt.
SO MUCH FOR easy money, Watt thought as he walked into the 623rd floor ARena. It had only been a few days, and already Leda Cole was proving a complete pain in the ass.
When he’d taken this job, he hadn’t realized just how difficult she would be. She was constantly flickering him for updates on Atlas—on his movements, his messages, what holo shows he was watching and whether he thought they were funny. Watt had answered all the queries he could, but he still hadn’t managed to hack the Fullers’ home network, so he didn’t know anything that happened within their walls unless Atlas flickered someone about it.
Now he was dealing with her latest demand, for help on this Augmented Reality group date. Watt had stupidly agreed to break into the ARena’s system and manipulate the game, to force Leda and Atlas together—but he’d said that before he and Nadia had actually looked at the system’s architecture. Turned out the ARena handled such a high volume of data that even Nadia couldn’t get through their heavy firewall. Watt had finally realized that the only way to do what Leda wanted, what he’d so foolishly promised, was to infiltrate the system from within.
How did we get ourselves involved in such a dumb hack, Nadia?
As I seem to recall, I’m not the one who signed on for this job, she replied.
He stepped up to the 3-D ticket printer and studied the options, getting excited in spite of himself. There were fantasy games and an Aztec jungle adventure and even something called Dragon Riders. Watt wondered how on earth they simulated that. Well, if he had to buy a ticket to get in, he might as well play, right? If only Derrick were here. He would lose it over this place.
Just as he selected a wizarding game and started to print his ticket, Watt looked up at the staging area—and caught his breath. Walking across the room was unquestionably the most beautiful girl he had ever seen.
Nadia, who is that? he asked. Nadia pulled up the girl’s feed, and Watt almost laughed aloud.
She was Avery Fuller—the sister of the guy he was supposed to be spying on, and Leda’s best friend.
Watt stared, transfixed, as Avery reached up to pull out her ponytail, letting her blond hair fall loose down her back and giving it an impatient toss. He thought he saw tears in her sky-blue eyes.
What do I say to her?
Buy a pack of grapefruit M&M’s from the vending machine, take the seat next to her, and start eating them, Nadia prompted.
Really? It was weird advice, even for Nadia, who often suggested the strangest and most oblique solutions to problems.