By Mari Mancusi
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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around April 11, 2023. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
A thrilling and heart-pounding journey through a high-stakes video game world. Now in paperback!
Now safely back at home, Ian and Lilli are free to return to normal life. Except there’s a major problem: Ian keeps seeing the big bad boss dragon Atreus everywhere, and he can’t tell whether it’s real or in his imagination. So the internet is no longer an option. That’s right. Ian, king of online gaming, is out on the soccer court instead. When Atreus shows up . . . everywhere, he knows he needs his sister. But he’s legally obligated to never say Dra-er, the name of the game, so how is he supposed to ask for help?
When Ian and Lilli finally sign back online, it’s clear that Atreus has truly been released on the open web—and even worse, Ikumi has been kidnapped and imprisoned in a video game. It’s back into virtual reality, but this time it’s to Mech Ops, a futuristic world of zombies and evil robots—and the game’s not even finished.
Will Ian and Lilli have what it takes to jump through unfinished levels undetected? Or will they get booted . . . and even worse, are there do-overs in VR that isn’t even built yet?
The goalie was bigger than I remembered.
That was my first thought as I approached the net, dribbling the soccer ball between my feet. He stood there blocking my shot, looking fierce and mean and taller than any twelve-year-old kid had any right to be. His face was twisted into an ugly scowl, and his beady eyes locked on me. As if to say, Just try to get past me, dork!
But I had to. I had no choice. The clock was ticking away. We were down three to four. No one was close enough to pass to. And the other team’s defenders were bearing down.
One wrong move, and it would be game over. And it would be all my fault.
“Go, Ian! You can do it!”
My eyes shot to my left—just for the briefest second. Lilli was in the stands, whooping and cheering in the loudest voice ever. Geez. Could she be any more embarrassing? Of course, my athletic sister was the one who dragged me into this whole soccer thing in the first place. The one who said it’d be “good for me” to try something new.
Easy for her to say.
I turned my attention back to the goal, now definitely within kicking reach. This was it. There was no turning back now. Should I shoot it straight or try to cross it? My heart thudded in my chest. I drew back my foot as the defenders barreled toward me. Only seconds to make the decision…
Do you want to play again?
Suddenly, my vision blurred. My whole body went numb, ice trickling down my spine. When I looked up, the goalie was gone. And in his place stood a huge red dragon with massive jaws and diamond-sharp teeth. He leered at me, sparks dancing on his tongue. Fire warming in his belly. Smoke rose around him, obscuring the goal completely.
Do you want to play again? his deep, growling voice whispered in my ear. Do you want to play again?
“No,” I begged. “Not now. Please not now!”
“Ian! Shoot!” Lilli’s voice sounded a million miles away. “What are you waiting for?”
I shook my head, trying to force myself back to reality. Soccer. Game. Real life. Come on, Ian. Snap out of it!
But it was too late. The defenders reached me, trampling me, easily stealing the ball away. I hit the ground hard, breath knocked from my lungs. For a moment, I saw stars.
Then the buzzer rang. The clock ticked to zero. Cheerleaders screamed and cartwheeled across the field. The other team’s parents cheered from the bleachers.
I looked up blearily. The dragon, of course, had disappeared. Replaced by the not-actually-all-that-giant goalie who was dancing with glee. “Nice try, nerd!” he jeered. “Maybe next time you won’t choke.”
I dropped my head back into the grass. Maybe I would sink right through.
No such luck. “Rivera! What were you thinking?” a voice demanded from above. “You totally had that!”
I lifted my head. Josh, the team’s captain, was standing over me, his blond mop of curly hair falling into his eyes. His arms were crossed over his chest, and his lips set into a scowl. Which was pretty much his default expression when looking at me.
I considered sticking my head back into the grass, pretending I’d died or something. Maybe he’d give up and go away.
“If you weren’t going to shoot, you could have passed it to me,” he added, his voice thick with exasperation. “I was totally open.”
Uh yeah. I was pretty sure he hadn’t been. No team ever let Josh the Jock run around the field without at least two defenders trailing close behind. It was too dangerous. He was too good.
But I didn’t have the energy to argue. And hey, I probably should have passed it to him, even if half the team had been up in his grill at the time. People like Josh didn’t choke under pressure.
Unlike, say, people like me.
I forced myself to my feet. I could feel the cold stares of the other players, not to mention their parents, as I trudged off the field trying desperately not to cry. They wouldn’t say anything to me—they weren’t those kind of parents. But I knew what they were thinking. Eight-Bit Ian, hopeless nerd. Go back to your video games.
Yeah. Believe me, I would if I could…
Ugh. I should have never listened to Lilli.
Just think of it as a real-life video game, she’d said. You’ll have so much fun. Meet new people.
She hadn’t mentioned they’d be people like Josh. Who were about as fun as mandatory standardized testing a week before Christmas. Josh lived, breathed, and probably ate soccer ball cereal for breakfast. He cared for nothing but the game. Well, besides winning the game, that was. And let’s just say he didn’t appreciate noobs like me messing up his chances.
“Ian!” Lilli cried now, rushing in my direction. She threw her arms around me, hugging me as if I was the hero of the game instead of the guy who caused everyone to lose. I shrugged her off, annoyed. I didn’t need her brand of rah-rah-believe-in-yourself in my life right now. Not when I’d just made a fool of myself in front of everyone.
“Are you okay?” she asked, peering at me worriedly. “You just kind of froze out there. Like… you’d seen a ghost or something.”
I winced, untangling myself from her hug. If only she knew how close she was. And yet totally off base at the same time. In fact, I only wished it were a ghost taunting me from the goal. Because ghosts weren’t real.
Unlike AI dragons escaped from a certain video game…
Do you want to play again? Do you want to play AGAIN?
“I’m fine,” I muttered. “Just… a brain fart or whatever.”
She gave me a pitying look. “It was a tough shot,” she assured me. “I bet I couldn’t have gotten it in, either.”
“Of course you could have,” I groaned. Lilli was as soccer crazy as Josh these days. She practiced in the backyard every chance she got. “You probably could have done it with your eyes closed.”
“Maybe one eye,” she teased. Then she caught my look and sighed. “Come on, Ian. You just started playing. You’re going to get better. You just need practice. I’ll practice with you if you want. Just the two of us. It’ll be fun.”
“Yeah. As much fun as the stomach flu at a spelling bee.”
Her face sank, and I immediately felt bad. She had been nothing but supportive of me through this whole thing. Teaching me the rules, helping me practice. Coming along to every game. None of this was her fault.
“Look, Lilli, it just isn’t my thing,” I tried to plead. “I tried it. I’m no good.”
“Only because you haven’t played enough. I mean, it’s like a video game. How awful were we in Dragon Ops when we first started playing?”
I froze, my stomach suddenly swimming with nausea. Lilli caught my look and snapped her mouth shut, her face pinkening as she realized she’d just said the D-O words—something we were never ever supposed to do. Especially not in public. In fact, the game company’s legal team had made us and our parents sign a bazillion forms that threatened all sorts of bad legal stuff if we ever went public with our story. Even mentioning the game’s name was strictly off-limits. Never mind talking about all the crazy stuff that had happened to us there.
Stuff that had almost cost us our lives.
They’d tried to make up for it, of course. Threw a ton of money at us for our “pain and suffering” until our college funds were stuffed to the brim. I’d gotten a brand-new laptop out of the deal, too. Which at the time had seemed really awesome. But since then, well, the gag order was getting to me.
And the pain and suffering? That seemed to be just getting started.
At least for me. Lilli seemed fine. Totally back to normal. She played soccer daily, won tons of meets with her gymnastics team. Had made a bunch of new friends. Life was good for Lilli. It was like she’d moved on. No big deal.
So why was I still stuck in this nightmare? Why couldn’t I move on, too? It seemed almost every night I’d wake in a cold sweat, shaking like a leaf. Visions of killer dragons haunting my dreams. Even during the day I’d sometimes find myself completely paralyzed with fear—like today on the soccer field. My mind replaying the scenes from Dragon Ops over and over and over again. Until I wanted to scream or run or hide or puke.
I tried to tell myself I was being ridiculous. That it was all just in my head, my brain trying to work through all we’d gone through in the game.
But deep down, I knew it was more than that. Derek had told us Atreus had escaped the game shortly after we’d gotten back home. Which would have been creepy enough. But then I’d gotten this weird message on my computer, scrolling down the screen. A message that, no matter what anyone said, I knew could only have come from him.
Do you want to play again?
Do you want to play again?
Yes. Atreus was out there. Somewhere. Watching, waiting. And I had no clue what he was planning next.
After the soccer game we headed to Uncle Jack’s house down the street, where we were staying for the night. Our parents had gone away to Vegas, Dad tagging along with Mom to her programmer’s conference. Mom hadn’t wanted to leave us; she was still being super overprotective after what had happened at Dragon Ops. Also, I was pretty sure she still didn’t completely trust her brother, Uncle Jack, since he was the one who had brought us there to begin with. But in the end, Dad had talked her into it, saying we all needed some time to chill. And so they went, leaving us six different phone numbers to call if anything went even remotely wrong while they were away.
“Hey, guys!” Uncle Jack greeted us as he opened his front door. “How was the game?”
“Ian did great!” Lilli said cheerfully.
“I literally caused the team to lose,” I reminded her, walking into the house and slumping down at the kitchen table. My mood had not changed on the walk home. If anything, I felt more depressed. What was wrong with me? Seeing dragons on the soccer field? If anyone had any idea of why I really missed that shot, I’d be the laughingstock of school.
“I doubt that,” Uncle Jack said, slapping me on the back. He reached into the freezer and pulled out a half gallon of cookies-and-cream ice cream—my favorite flavor—and set it on the table. “Dessert for dinner?” he asked, waggling his eyebrows. “That always made me feel better after a sports game gone bad.” He chuckled. “Which… let’s just say… happened quite a bit back in the day.”
I gave a half laugh, knowing he was trying to make me feel better. Uncle Jack was awesome like that. And I knew I was his favorite relative. When I was younger, we used to spend hours playing video games together. He worked in games, so he always had beta versions of all the new ones that hadn’t even come out yet. And since his own son, Derek, didn’t care about gaming? I was the one he called to test them out.
But not anymore. I hadn’t played a video game in three months. Not since that fateful day I’d gotten the mysterious message while playing Fields of Fantasy. The message I was sure had come from him. Even now, if I closed my eyes, I could still picture that white star spinning across my screen. The terrifying words scrolling below.
Do you want to play again?
Do you want to play again?
Do you want to play again?
At first, Lilli had been freaked out, too. Especially after I told her how Atreus had escaped the game and no one knew where he went. But, in the end, she rationalized it all away. Even if he was out there, she reminded me, he couldn’t hurt us anymore. We were no longer in a game. In real life, we were safe.
Which I knew, in my head anyway, was probably true. But it didn’t make me feel any better when I turned on my computer the next day and saw the message again, scrolling endlessly down the screen. His message. He was out there. And what if he could someday figure out a way to get to me? He was a state-of-the-art AI, after all. Which meant he was always learning. And he had a whole world of information at his disposal now that he was out of his game. What if he was mining the web even now, looking for ways to get at me—in real life?
I closed my laptop that day. And I hadn’t opened it since.
“Ice cream for dinner sounds great to me!” Lilli cried, grabbing the container and yanking off the lid. “The only question is, do I bother with a bowl or just scoop it straight from the tub?”
“Let’s stick with bowls,” Aunt Robin said, coming into the kitchen. She reached into the cabinet and pulled out a stack of blue plastic bowls. “We’re sugar freaks here, not savages.”
“Also,” Uncle Jack added, “please don’t tell your mother. She would kill me dead if she found out I made you a meal without a single leafy green involved.”
I couldn’t help but smile, feeling a little better at their joking. The humiliation of the soccer game was starting to fade as I grabbed a bowl and wrestled the ice cream tub away from Lilli, who had already helped herself to a gigantic scoop. After I scooped out a few oversized scoops of my own, Uncle Jack tossed me the chocolate syrup, which I generously applied, topping it all off with a mountain of whipped cream.
Ice cream made everything better.
Uncle Jack looked around, frowning. “Where’s number one son?” he asked his wife, suddenly realizing Derek wasn’t with us.
She rolled her eyes. “In his bedroom, of course. Sucking in the last few milliseconds of screen time before we cut him off for the night.” She turned to me. “Do you mind going and getting him? Let him know about the ice cream?”
“Sure. No problem.” I pushed away from my chair and rose to my feet. As I did, Uncle Jack’s phone started to ring.
He glanced at the caller ID, frowning. “I’ve got to take this,” he said. Then he shot us a scolding look. “Don’t even think about finishing that off before I get back!”
We laughed, and he disappeared out of the kitchen, heading to his office down the hall. I took one more heaping bite of ice cream, then followed him down the same hall, toward my cousin’s bedroom. Derek had his door shut, and music with a heavy bass sound was blaring from the speakers.
I banged on the door. “Hey!” I cried. “Your mom says to come eat.”
There was no answer. I tried again. “It’s ice cream for dinner night,” I added, then tried the handle. The door was locked. Of course.
“I’ll get some later,” he called back. “I’m working on my music.”
“Cool,” I said. “Can’t wait to hear.”
After his adventures as a bard in Dragon Ops, Derek had learned to embrace his love for music and now spent most of his time in his room, playing his bass guitar. He was good, too. And sometimes he’d even ask me to jam with him. (I sorta, kinda could play drums, though not very well.) We still weren’t besties or anything, but at least we weren’t outright enemies like before Dragon Ops. One thing good that had come out of the game, I guess.
Sometimes I wondered if Derek still had nightmares, too. Probably not. He was way too cool.
I sighed, feeling depressed all over again. If only I could just talk to someone about all this. It was killing me, keeping it inside. Like there was this powder keg in my stomach waiting to blow. So bad, it literally hurt sometimes.
I left Derek’s room and headed back down the hall, pausing at Uncle Jack’s door, my hand instinctively reaching for the knob. Maybe I could talk to him about it. I mean, we’d always been close, bonding over video games. And he did work for Dragon Ops—so he already knew everything that had happened. He might think I was crazy, but at least I was pretty sure he wouldn’t laugh at me.
My hand wrapped around the door handle. I swallowed hard, daring myself to push it open. To step inside. To confess all.
“Are you freaking kidding me right now?”
Uncle Jack’s sudden exclamation startled me, and I leapt back from the door, jerking my hand away.
“Since when?” he barked. “Why didn’t anyone contact me sooner?”
I frowned. His voice sounded anxious, tense—panicked even. Much different from the friendly teasing voice he’d been using in the kitchen only minutes before. Was something wrong?
I leaned back in, pressing my ear to the door. Yes, I knew I shouldn’t eavesdrop. Especially since a lot of what my uncle discussed was supersecret, video-game-related, and totally off-limits to normal people. Though, to be honest, that was one of the best reasons to listen at his door. Once, he had revealed this amazing exploit for Fields of Fantasy that ended up giving me unlimited gold to spend with the merchants. The code worked for months before they installed a patch that shut it off, and by then I had pretty much bought out the game.
But this didn’t sound like a video game hack. This sounded way more serious.
“Let me get this straight,” I heard Uncle Jack say. “Dragon Ops is set to open next month, and you’re telling me you can’t find its game maker?”
I stared at the closed door, my mind racing as his words sank in. Was he talking about Hiro? Hiro Takanama—the Dragon Ops creator? He was missing?
We’d met Hiro when we first arrived at the Dragon Ops theme park. He’d taken over the company from his father, Atsuo Takanama, who had started the Fields of Fantasy franchise back in the 1990s. Hiro was a computer genius, an expert in artificial intelligence and game design. A rising video game legend.
Also, a father.
We’d met Hiro’s daughter, Mirai, who went by the name Ikumi when we were in the game. At first we assumed she was playing virtually from back in her home in California. It wasn’t until much later that we learned the real Mirai had died at the age of twelve from an autoimmune disease. And her father, in his grief, had made a digital copy of her brain and uploaded it to the game. Which left her alive—in a sense—but also trapped alone in a simulation she wasn’t allowed to leave. When we found her, she was desperate to escape the prison her father had put her in.
Not that Hiro had meant to be cruel. He loved his daughter. He wanted to protect her. But in the end, we convinced him to let her go. She needed her freedom, too. Just like the rest of us. And so he’d let her out of the game, allowing her to roam the cloud, free.
I thought back to the last time I’d seen her. I was still playing games at the time, and she’d found me in Fields of Fantasy, thanks to our old AI guide, the little dragon Yano, who was now her full-time companion. She’d looked so happy. So content. It made me happy, too. To know at least something good had come out of the nightmare we’d lived through. At least she had found her happily-ever-after.
Now, if I could just find my own. Or at least a new normal I could live with.
I shook my head, trying to return to the present. Pressing my ear to the door, I strained to listen to my uncle. “Has he used his credit cards? Checked into any hotels?” Uncle Jack was asking. He paused, then added, “Have there been any ransom notes?”
I froze, a shiver tingling down my spine. Ransom notes? But that would mean…
Had Hiro been kidnapped? But that was crazy!
Or was it? After all, his company owned a lot of technology that other companies would kill to obtain—literally. Something we’d found out firsthand when the company who made Camelot’s Honor sabotaged Dragon Ops and trapped us inside. They had wanted to make the park seem unsafe and delay its opening so they could catch up with their own augmented reality theme park. And they didn’t care that they almost killed us in the process.
Was Hiro’s life now in danger—as ours had once been?
I pushed away from the door, dashing down the hall. I had to find Lilli. Now.
“What’s going on?” Lilli demanded as I dragged her outside into the backyard. “Is it really so important you had to interrupt me mid-dessert dinner? I’d just found a whole Oreo in my ice cream, I’ll have you know. With the cream still in the middle and everything!”
I shot her a warning look. “Just pretend you’re teaching me soccer, okay?”
“Um, okay.” She looked around. “Though we don’t have a soccer ball, so kinda tough.”
“Football, then. Karate. Whatever. Just act casual!”
“You mean like the opposite of the way you’re acting right now?”
I glanced back at the house, half expecting weird men in black with dark sunglasses to be peering out the window, ready to take us away because we knew too much. But, of course, there was no one there. Aunt Robin was still in the kitchen. Derek was still in his bedroom. Uncle Jack was still in his office, likely still discussing the disappearance of the most important person in the video game industry. No one was concerned with us.
“How’s this? Hi-yah!”
Lilli struck what I assumed was meant to be a karate pose, though truthfully it looked more like the start of a TikTok dance. I rolled my eyes and grabbed her hand, dragging her to the back of the yard. Once there, I sat down on one of the swings from Derek’s old weather-beaten playscape. Lilli joined me, plopping into the next one over.
“So…?” she asked, turning to me. “You going to spill or what?”
“It’s about Hiro,” I said, keeping my voice low, just in case. “Hiro Takanama.”
She frowned, looking from left to right, as if afraid we’d be overheard. Talking about Hiro was just as forbidden as talking about Dragon Ops, after all. But in this case, it couldn’t be helped.
“He’s disappeared,” I whispered. “I heard Uncle Jack talking about it on the phone.”
Lilli’s eyebrows rose. Now I had her full attention. “Are you serious?”
I quickly related what I’d overheard. She listened attentively, her brow creasing more and more until I’d finished. “That’s awful,” she said. “Do you really think someone kidnapped him?”
“I don’t know.” I shrugged. “I mean, it’s possible, right? He’s kind of a big deal. Maybe they want his Dragon Ops secrets. You know, like more sabotage.”
“Do you think Ikumi knows?” Lilli asked after a pause. “That her father is missing, I mean. Do you think someone would think to tell her?”
I frowned. I hadn’t thought of that.
“Probably not,” I said. “Especially since most people assume she’s dead. After all, that’s why Hiro kept her in the game in the first place, right? He was worried that if people knew about her digital life, it could put her in danger.”
I trailed off, a horrible thought coming to me. What if that was the real reason someone had kidnapped Hiro? Not for Dragon Ops. But for his brain emulation tech—the process through which he gave his dying daughter eternal life online. How valuable would something like that be? It had to be worth billions. Maybe trillions. Basically we were talking immortality here. Priceless.
My stomach squirmed. This could be worse than we thought.
Lilli jumped off her swing. “She needs to know,” she said, clearly following my line of thought. “I mean, she could be in danger, too. Even if not, it’s her dad, after all. And maybe she can even help track him down. She has the entire internet at her disposal, right? She could hack security cameras, access facial recognition software. Data mine from his online profile. If anyone can help find him, it would be her.”
I lay down on the slide, looking up at the sky. Heavy clouds had rolled in, darkening the horizon. It looked as if it was going to storm soon. “Yeah,” I said. “Maybe we should talk to Uncle Jack?”
“I was thinking more of doing it ourselves.”
“Oh.” My heart flipped. I tried to keep my expression neutral. “I don’t know…”
“Why not?” Lilli demanded. “I mean, she gave you her Fields of Fantasy contact info, right? In case you needed to get in touch with her? We could send her an in-game message. Let her know what’s going on.” She put her hands on her hips. “We can’t rely on Uncle Jack. What if he doesn’t think it’s a good idea? What if he tells us not to get involved?”
“Then… maybe we shouldn’t get involved?” I squeaked, knowing this was a losing battle. When Lilli got an idea like this, there was no talking her down. “Also, I don’t know if she still checks those messages or even logs in to the game anymore. I mean, she’s not exactly a video game superfan these days, after being trapped in one for two years.”
Even as I said the words, I knew I was just making excuses. The truth was, I was afraid of going back online. Especially into the very game where Atreus had first tracked me down. What if he was still in there, still waiting for me to log back in?
On the other hand, what if Ikumi really was in danger? What if we were the only ones who could warn her before it was too late?
And what if I was too much of a wimp to do it—and something terrible happened because of it?
“Come on, Ian,” Lilli pleaded. “It’s not like we’re going back into you-know-where. We’re just logging on to a regular video game. Sending a message. No big deal.”
I almost said no. I really did. But then my mind flashed back to the final fight in our Dragon Ops game. The moment where we had all but lost. We’d tried, we’d dared, and we’d been defeated. And we were about to become dragon dinner. Game over, forever.
Except not. Because Ikumi had grabbed my sword. Leapt in front of the dragon. Eyes blazing. Mouth set in a determined frown.
You will leave my friends alone! she’d shouted.
She’d been so brave. Now it was time for me to be brave, too. For her.
“Okay,” I said, swallowing down my fear. “Let’s go send the message.”
Praise for Dragon Ops: Dragons Vs. Robots
"Fast pacing and one dangerous situation after another build an exciting genre introduction for fans of sci-fi VR games."—School Library Journal
Praise for Dragon Ops:
"Even reluctant readers are likely to find something to keep them engaged. . . . A fun, fast-paced read for video game fans, adventurers, and fantasy readers. Highly recommended."—School Library Journal
"With this adventure, Mancusi (Geeks and the Holy Grail) employs common gaming tropes, interweaving fantasy and mundane elements to create a world that feels familiar and yet enjoyably dangerous. The concepts--rogue AIs, theme parks gone haywire--may be well visited, but Mancusi successfully delivers a sense of urgency to her entertaining tale."—Publishers Weekly
Praise for The Once and Future Geek:
"A highly imaginative twist on the legend of King Arthur, complete with time travel, programming, and fierce friendships, The Camelot Code is the perfect pick for tweens who love medieval lore and geek culture in equal measure!"—Christina Soontornvat, author of The Changelings series
"Parents of gamers, Austin author Mari Mancusi's newest may just lure your screenager away from the headset...It's a twisty, fast-paced adventure that melds the real-life consequences of Jumanji with a mashup of the best medieval and high-tech details."—The Austin American-Statesman
- On Sale
- Apr 11, 2023
- Page Count
- 400 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers