“The YA debut we’re most excited for this year.”
Warcross meets Black Panther in this dynamite debut novel that follows a fierce teen game developer as she battles a real-life troll intent on ruining the Black Panther–inspired video game she created and the safe community it represents for Black gamers.
By day, seventeen-year-old Kiera Johnson is an honors student, a math tutor, and one of the only Black kids at Jefferson Academy. But at home, she joins hundreds of thousands of Black gamers who duel worldwide as Nubian personas in the secret multiplayer online role-playing card game, SLAY. No one knows Kiera is the game developer, not her friends, her family, not even her boyfriend, Malcolm, who believes video games are partially responsible for the “downfall of the Black man.”
But when a teen in Kansas City is murdered over a dispute in the SLAY world, SLAY is labeled a racist, exclusionist, violent hub for thugs and criminals, and an anonymous troll infiltrates the game, threatening to sue Kiera for “anti-white discrimination.” Kiera must preserve her secret identity and harness what it means to be unapologetically Black in a world intimidated by Blackness. But can she protect her game without losing herself in the process?Add Slay on Goodreads
When I get to my room, I lock the door and run to my computer chair. When I log in, there are 641 new DMs in my SLAY in-box. That’s the name of the game—SLAY. It’s not an acronym, although that’s always the first question of anyone who joins, and people have been offering suggestions for acronyms ever since its launch. It’s a double entendre, meaning both “to greatly impress” and “to annihilate.” I thought the name was more than appropriate for a turn-based VR card game where players go head-to-head in card duels using elements of black culture. Steph would love it if she ever knew about it. Or if she knew I was the developer. But for all the confidence I have in my sister, one thing she absolutely can’t do is keep a secret. And on top of that, her constant jabs at Malcolm make me wonder if she’d get the game. There are players from all over the world, all walks of life, many who grew up poor like Malcolm, regularly “decolonize” like Malcolm, and surround themselves with specific kinds of black influences like Malcolm. I don’t know if I can share SLAY with her, because I don’t know if she’ll accept it—all of it. Not without overthinking it. So I won’t. Probably not ever.
I scan the messages for anything important, like major game glitches. I don’t want people to miss the semifinals because of technical problems. Most of them are asking what time the duel begins, even though I put a section clearly marked Duel Calendar in the navigation panel on the left side of the screen, the panel that you have to look at whenever you’re configuring your character.
I roll my eyes at the willful ignorance and glance at the clock. Five minutes till duel. I’ll read the rest of the messages later. I unlock the bottom drawer of my desk and pull out my headphones, and the the gray VR socks, gloves, and goggles my family doesn’t know I bought.
My heart pounds as I slip them on. I can’t wait until I go off to Spelman so I can play with a noise-canceling headset. For now, I have to listen for my mom yelling through the door that it’s dinnertime, so I can say five more minutes and deflect suspicion.
I log in and my pulse races as I watch my logo appear in brilliant green all caps against a black background. SLAY, it says on the screen inside my goggles.
I get up and stand in the middle of my room so I don’t knock anything over. All I keep in my room are my bunk bed with the sofa on the bottom, my bookcase, my dresser, my desk in the corner by the door. When it comes to VR, the less furniture around me, the safer. Come on, come on, I urge as the map fills the screen. It’s nighttime in this region—the Tundra—so the navy skybox is up, almost black, peppered with shimmering stars. I look up and around at them all, and suddenly I miss all those summer nights Malcolm and I used to lie in my backyard in SoDo and watch what little of the night sky the city smog would leave us. Nights when we got to shut out the rest of the world and just be ourselves, swapping music suggestions, talking about which black genius’s opinions he was reading that day. I captured several of his favorites in SLAY—Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, and Langston Hughes.
I’m in the Tundra region where I left my character, Emerald, so it would be easy to get to the duel. The snowy mountains contrast nicely against the sky, spiking upward in a basin all around me. I raise my hand to slide the virtual keyboard from the right side of the screen, type Fairbanks Arena using the holographic keys, point my left hand to the north, and pull my trigger finger, allowing me to teleport at light speed. New players might think I named the arena after Fairbanks, Alaska, but the information panel would tell them I actually named it after Mabel Fairbanks, one of the first professional black figure skaters.
Mountains zoom past me. I smile, impressed at how good they look up close. I was having a fantastic day when I created the Tundra. The textures are flawless—smooth and realistic. The snow looks fluffy up close. Every mountain looks like I hand-painted it. I built the arena itself entirely of diamonds, because I could, and because a diamond arena in an icy region is hella dope. It’s one of the biggest, too. It can hold three million people, since I hope one day the game gets that big.
For now, chat reads over a hundred thousand logged-in people out of the five hundred thousand people with SLAY accounts, which is still a lot for a single duel, even if it’s the semifinal round of a tournament, but I guess it’s prime time for people my age to be online, at least here on the West Coast. I’m close enough to see the people forming a line into the arena now. I slow my pace and I’m flying smoothly over all the attendees. Most players choose to be either royalty or characters with special powers or weapons. I descend to the ground and join them, walking in place in my room to make Emerald move.
A few people recognize me and step aside.
“It’s Queen Emerald!” says the text over the head of an especially tall woman in a bloodred strapless gown with a fifty-foot train flowing behind her. Her wrists have golden bracelets up to her elbows, and her neck has similar ones. Her hair is twisted up into an enormous bulb on top of her head, with a huge golden crown encircling it, a giant ruby as wide as her torso set right in the middle.
At first I tried to make the dresses realistic and material, but it was causing problems when people would step on the trains, veils, and robes, and keep characters from walking smoothly. So she’s wearing a dress that’s immaterial, meaning the fabric will go right through other players and objects without obstruction, a weird concept—based on collision physics—to think about when you’re talking to her face-to-face.
A woman in bone armor notices me and takes a fighting stance. Her unnaturally large boobs and red headband around her enormous Afro make her look like a Mortal Kombat character.
Text appears above her head. “I hope you got my message, Emerald. We meet at dawn.”
Everyone says, “We meet at dawn.” It’s how we say, “I challenge you to a duel at a later time.” In fact, it’s become an identifier in the real world. About a year ago, kids in the grocery store started coming up to me and asking, “Did you thaw the meat?” or “Did you get the meat?” or “Do you eat meat?” and after some perusing in chat, I realized it’s a coded question. They ask pretty much any question involving meat, to which I’m supposed to reply, “We meet at dawn” if I want them to know I SLAY.
When Reddit first launched, it was so secretive that Redditors in real life used to ask the highly conspicuous question “Does the narwhal bacon?” but I like our version better. It’s more covert. “Did you thaw the meat?” is a totally normal question to ask. “Does the narwhal bacon?” will make people ask, “WTF are you Internet kids up to?” which is exactly what I don’t want to happen. I know there are SLAYers who are just like me—who live one way during the day at work or school, and would rather their nonblack classmates or coworkers not know they live completely differently online. Completely authentically.
I walk past the woman in bone armor and spot a character in a dark gray hooded robe that extends about thirty feet behind him. He’s wielding a katana in each hand and has the words JUSTICE FOR TRAYVON written across the back of his robe in bloodred. Not going to lie, his outfit is pretty legit. When text on clothing was enabled, I just wrote EMERALD down the leg of a lime-green jumpsuit I had stuffed in the back of my inventory. The text was impossible to line up with various articles of clothing, so I ended up giving up on the function, and now I’m wishing I’d written something meaningful instead of my name, because it’ll be awhile before I’ll have time to sort that feature out.
The entrance to Fairbanks Arena is everything I’d imagined a Hollywood movie premiere to be. Neon-blue and purple strobe lights are creating a faux aurora borealis across the night sky and across all sides of the building. At least I hope people recognize it’s the aurora. It looks a little like a sloppy watercolor potion, which I guess is okay since this region is full of witches and magicians. It’s much easier to mix potions when you live right next to the mines, where the crystals are—in yellow, blue, and pink.
The purple carpet leading up to the front steps only appears thirty minutes before a tournament duel, mostly to alert players in the area who don’t check the schedule that a tournament duel is about to happen. Players can initiate a regular duel at any time, anywhere, by sending a request to any character they wish. But the tournament duels are where the real athletes come to play. Those are the duels that get spectators. I hike up my dress out of habit, since it’s immaterial and poses no risk of tripping, and race up the steps. My green gown flies behind me, and I pound the + button on my virtual screen, allowing my character to grow to ten times her size so people know I’ve arrived.
The minute I step through the front door, having to duck just to fit into the arena, the people in the stands roar to life. I look up and around the arena in awe. The stands reach so high into the rafters that I can’t see the top on account of the light from the moon, which is directly above us in the night sky. Characters jump and scream, waving veils and scarves and jangling bracelets and jewelry. Anything to attract my attention. I can’t stop looking around. Everyone’s configured their characters to be different shades, from Zendaya to Lupita, and I am living for it. There’s forehead jewelry and face paint, flowers, feathers, beads, glitter, Afros the size of small vehicles and braids as long and thick as pythons. I spot dashikis, Mursi lip plates, otjize clay, Ulwaluko blankets, Marley twists, Michael Jackson’s glove, and a man in a purple cape twice as tall as me in the front row who’s trying a little too hard to be Prince. And this splendor, this orchestra of black magnificence, extends all the way up to the ceiling, beyond my vision.
Steph would cry tears of joy if she could see this.
I march my VR-socked feet against my rug to make my way up the steps to the middle of the arena—the rug I asked for last Christmas to cover up the sound of me dueling. In the middle of my bedroom, I raise my gloved hand and Emerald’s hand shoots up in the air. The conversations of over a hundred thousand people dissipate into immediate silence. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of that satisfaction.
I raise my index finger and see the virtual white-gloved hand slide my virtual keyboard from the right side of my screen.
“Welcome, kings and queens,” the text above my head reads. I wish I could use a mic, but there’s no way I’d be able to keep up the whole “secret identity” thing in a house with walls this thin. The crowds roar to life again, and I keep typing.
“Tonight, we await a fierce match between two of the greatest magicians in the Tundra. Our very own civil war.”
The applause doesn’t stop. So many people so excited to be here. I can’t even.
“In one corner of the ring—some call her a Voodoo queen, some call her a dark witch, and others just call her the Shadow. Please welcome . . . Zama!”
I extend my hand toward the Western Gate as a cacophony of cheers and boos melds into an uproar. Zama speeds from the gate under a bear-size wolf pelt with her head tucked down low and bare arms extended like airplane wings. Her tail extends twenty feet behind her as she glides across the arena floor and around the ring. She runs as gracefully as a bird flies, so fast that the whole pelt stays off the ground. Her fans—mostly from the front rows—erupt into soulful howls that echo all the way up to the invisible ceiling. Zama finally turns and races up the steps to the ring where I am, and raises her hands to her worshippers, who continue to howl their respect.
I’ve seen Zama duel before. She must be a professional martial artist in real life, with access to an entire gymnasium of space, because she can flip across the whole arena and roundhouse-kick her opponents clean out of the ring. Once, in the Rain Forest region, I saw her leap into the air, grab a vine that was hanging in a loop above the arena, and ninja-kick her opponent hard enough to knock six hundred points off the board in a single blow. Her agility and mastery of the cards earned her immediate popularity in SLAY, and now that she’s climbed the ranks to the top of the Tundra warriors roster, her fans have crossed over from a fan base to a cult following.
“And in the other corner,” I type, “we have a wild card of a warrior. They’re mighty, they’re unpredictable, and they have a whole book of tricks up their sleeve. Please welcome PrestoBox!”
More applause and booing as I gesture to the Eastern Gate, where a black disk emerges and slides across the floor. It’s like a shadow, but with nothing creating it. It slides right up the steps, headed straight for me. Just as I think it’s going to stop, it slides underneath me. I glance over my shoulder as it emerges from under my sparkly green train and stops beside me. The cheering hasn’t stopped, and it hums louder as a mountain of black lumps rise slowly from the disc, which is shrinking. The lumps slowly take shape into shoulders and a head. Then a face forms—one with a Guy Fawkes mask and a black Zorro hat—they look a bit like No Face from Spirited Away. The body is just a nondescript black cloak, concealing whatever tricks lay underneath. I’ve never seen Presto duel before, but I know rumors have been circulating about them since they joined six months ago. Presto has been accused of hacking because they’ve discovered spells so rare that Cicada was convinced nobody would ever figure them out. To create a spell in SLAY, you have to find specific ingredients, combine them in your inventory in a specific order to make a spell base, and enter codes to add certain qualities to the spell so you can actually use it. Presto managed to unlock a spell that allows you to fly—or more accurately, hover—and everyone flipped out and assumed that since no one had seen it before, it couldn’t be real. But it’s very real. To get it, you have to combine a Pink Crystal from the Tundra region, an Ostrich Feather from the Savanna region, and a rare Foxblood Flower from the Forest region. Then you have to find four numbers on the back of a framed photo in one of the pyramids in the Desert region and enter them into the spell code box backward. Cicada’s idea. She wanted the coolest spells—the ones that let you teleport, see through walls, become invisible, levitate objects, and summon thunder—to be almost impossible to figure out. But they’re very real, just waiting for players to discover them, and of all the spellmasters I’ve seen duel, Presto has the most potential to find them first. PrestoBox is silent and makes no movement, so I begin typing again.
Before I can enter my next sentence, a loud thunderclap explodes through the arena and a shadow appears over the ring, startling even me. I gasp and suddenly hope my mom didn’t hear me from the hall. PrestoBox has raised their arms and thrown their cape fifty feet in all directions above my head and Zama’s, consuming us in darkness. I look over at PrestoBox, who has revealed their body underneath the cape. They’re wearing the standard black stretchy shorts that every character gets by default, since we can’t have characters walking around naked, and they have gorgeous skin, the color of raw umber, with white body paint made to look like a skeleton from neck to toes.
The crowd can’t get enough. If PrestoBox had fans before walking in here, they have at least double that now.
As quickly as they’d flung the cloak over the whole ring, they retract it, sucking it into their body like a Shop-Vac sucking up motor oil. PrestoBox takes a bow and raises a black lump to the crowd in a wave. I grin at their style, which has turned out to be as magnificent as their reputation.
I click enter.
“Kings and queens, you know the drill. We are here first and foremost to celebrate black excellence in all its forms, from all parts of the globe. We are different ages, genders, tribes, tongues, and traditions. But tonight, we are all black. And tonight, we all SLAY.”
I raise my right arm for dramatic effect, and the audience members jump up and down in their seats. A shrill voice in the front screams, “I love you, Zama!”
“The rules of duel engagement are simple,” I type. “Each dueler will draw six cards—two Battle cards, two Hex cards, and two Defense cards. Once the cards are drawn, duelers will have ten seconds to determine the order in which they want to use their cards. Duelers will fight using two cards each per round, in any combination they choose. In regular duels, Dueler One will launch attacks at the same time as Dueler Two. But because this is the Tundra Semifinals, and because luck makes everything more interesting, for this match, the dueler who draws the higher initial card will be allowed to use their first two cards five seconds before their opponent in round one. Defense cards beat Battle cards. Battle cards beat Hex cards. In rounds two and three, duelers will launch attacks at the same time, as per normal duel rules. The scores will appear on the Megaboard as the game progresses, and the drums will signal the beginning and end of each round. Is everybody ready?”
More cheering and hollering from the crowd. Everyone is so hyped for this online world. I wonder how many of these people ran home from school just to log on and watch.
“Duelers,” I type, “face your opponent.”
Zama and PrestoBox turn to stare each other down as I navigate to my inventory and pull out the deck of gold-plated cards. They come in three colors—Hex are purple, Battle are red, and Defense are blue. For the initial draw—the one that determines which dueler will go first—I keep them scrambled. I hold my arms out on either side of me, right here in my room, and watch the virtual cards shuffle theatrically through the air over my head in a shimmering arch. I look up, spinning them in all directions until they fall like a stack of leaves neatly into my hand. The crowd has gone silent as I whip my arm in front of me, casting the cards across the ring until they’re sucked up into two piles, one at the feet of Zama, and one at the feet of PrestoBox.
“Duelers, draw your initial card to determine who will go first.”
PrestoBox levitates their card into the air and flips it over so I can see it.
“It’s the Innovation card!” I announce. I look at the Megaboard behind me, a TV screen the size of a football field floating in midair. PrestoBox’s Innovation card appears enormously, in great detail, on the screen. The lightbulb pictured in the middle of the card is actually a painting I commissioned from an amateur artist online. It’s a Hex card, the lowest ranking of the three categories. Zama draws a card from the top of her deck, glances at it, and then hands it to me.
“It’s the Representation card!” I declare, watching the card appear on the Megaboard with the image of three identical silhouettes, since it duplicates the dueler times three. “A Defense card! Zama goes first.”
An eruption of howls from Zama’s fans drowns out the applause and booing. Zama and PrestoBox continue to stare at each other. I point to the ceiling and pull my trigger finger lightly, pulling me up into the air like I have an invisible grappling gun. I watch the ring grow smaller below me as I type with my free hand.
“On my count, the duelers will have ten seconds to study their six cards—two Battle cards, two Hex cards, and two Defense cards.”
I arrive at my seat, which is high above the Megaboard where I can see a hundred more rows of stands. I programmed a holographic projection of the stage a hundred rows high so people too high up to see the floor can still see the match clearly. I prefer to watch from up here because it’s much quieter, and I can watch the match under the stars. It’s a game of strategy and timing. Zama and PrestoBox stare each other down like cats about to rip each other apart. Each has three stacks of cards at their feet—one red, one blue, and one purple, all with that iconic SLAY golden trim.
“Ready?” I type as I gather my gown around my feet and sink into my thronelike chair, which would fit two of me. “Go!”
Zama kneels, snatches up her deck, and flings cards one by one onto the ground in a two-by-three formation, faceup. PrestoBox’s cards move on their own, six arranging themselves in the same way.
The Megaboard counts down from 10 . . . 9 . . . 8 . . .
Zama studies her cards and slides all six of them around on the ground in front of her. Presto calmly moves just two of theirs to different positions. Both duelers can see their own cards clearly—the titles, the stats, and the artwork. But Cicada and I figured out pretty fast that characters in the front rows could see some of the cards with more striking artwork, ruining the surprise. So to those of us who aren’t dueling, including me, the cards look like solid gold rectangles. No text, no art, nothing. Not until Zama or Presto decide to use them.
The voices of a hundred thousand characters chant along with the Megaboard: “Three! . . . Two! . . . One!” And then those drums thunder through the whole place, signaling the end of Zama’s and Presto’s chance to study them. All twelve cards on the floor between them flip over, facedown. It’s up to the duelers to remember the order they chose and be prepared to fight with them, two cards at a time.
“Duelers,” I type, “have you studied your cards?”
Zama raises her fist and releases a mighty roar among the howls of her fans. PrestoBox lifts an amorphous lump from under their cloak and waves it up at me. I’ll take that as a yes.
“Excellent,” I type. I have the next part memorized now, but it took me forever to write at first, jotting down the words in notebooks, on napkins, and in my phone until the words clicked perfectly. “These are the rules of tournament engagement: Using the unique powers indicated on each card, duelers will battle each other until their powers run out and they return to the state in which you see them now. Then we will progress to round two. The dueler left with the most points at the end of round three wins the match. Attacks in rapid succession are permitted—duelers may deal as many strikes as they want before the timer runs out and their powers disappear. Duelers may use items and spells during game play. The restrictions are few: in-game betting on opponents, hacking, lag mechanisms, and unapproved mods to characters, skills, and environments are strictly prohibited. In general, no—”
The audience yells it as my next text appears:
I grin as I type the next part:
“And finally, remember that little queens and kings are watching. Opponents, respect each other in words and in actions. No trash talk. Let your skills speak for themselves. Now, are you ALL READY?!”
The crowd roars to life and Zama begins hopping up and down to loosen up. PrestoBox widens their stance under their robe.
“Duelers! On my count, flip your first pair of cards! Ready? Three . . . two . . . one . . . Flip!”
Zama flips the two cards closest to her. Two cards flip on their own in front of PrestoBox. The four cards appear on the Megaboard, and I hurry to read their names so I can type.
“Zama has chosen the Gabby Douglas card and the Twist-Out card for a deadly combination. Very nice, but will it withstand PrestoBox’s selections, the Jimi Hendrix card and the Swerve card? We’ll find out in three! Two! One! And begin!”
Those drums thunder away through the arena.
Zama taps the Twist-Out card first, and her hair grows into two monstrous ropes as thick in diameter as Thanksgiving dinner plates, ropes that deal no damage but can render the opponent immobile if they catch them. They fly straight for PrestoBox, who ducks and rolls out of the way, just barely escaping their grasp in time as the two ropes untwist into four. Presto reaches their hand out from under the inky black cloak and touches the Jimi Hendrix card, and an electric purple haze falls over the ring, descending from the sky like a tropical rain. I debated between calling this one the Jimi Hendrix card after his song “Purple Haze” or the Prince card in honor of “Purple Rain,” but in the end, it looked more like a “Purple Haze” to me, and since it clouds the opponent’s vision by 75 percent, the name stuck.
Zama begins to stumble amid the violet fog. The crowd is loving this, and I’m loving it along with them. Even though I have all the cards’ stats memorized, since I wrote most of them, I never know for sure how a match will end. The outcome depends on so many factors besides luck of the draw—aggressiveness, patience, reverse psychology, game theory, character strength, and frankly, how skilled the person behind the character is at using VR equipment. It’s impossible to tell who has the upper hand, and I realize I’m holding my breath.
Zama’s hair splits into a flailing spiral of fifty locks of hair. The crowd gasps as all tendrils zoom straight at PrestoBox, who can’t escape them this time. Presto is sucked up into a jet-black bouquet of gorgeous natural hair that I’m envious of. My twist-outs have been stuck at my shoulders since junior high. Presto squirms fruitlessly as Zama leaps forward into a handspring with one of her hands on the Gabby Douglas card, and her feet follow effortlessly. She tumbles and flips across the ring with such speed and strength that people are rising out of their chairs in awe. A swift roundhouse to the face sends PrestoBox flying mask-first into the ground.
I gasp and realize I’m clenching my fists, and then I take a deep breath and remind myself that none of this is real, and that Presto isn’t really hurt, and that my animations are just that realistic. I steal a glance at the Megaboard. That blow gave Zama a whopping twelve-hundred-point lead.
“Come on, Presto,” I urge. My heart skips as I realize I’ve said it in real life, and I lift one headphone to listen to the quiet of my room, just to make sure Mom hasn’t heard me.
PrestoBox is off the ground, tapping their second, and last, round one card—the Swerve card, one of my favorites, marked by a black steering wheel as the artwork, since it comes from the expression “swerve,” which means “step off” or “stay in your lane.” It blocks 80 percent of opponent damage. To use this as a round three card usually means the player has given up and they want to block as much damage as possible in a last-ditch effort to stay in the game. Using the Swerve card in round one means Presto knows they’re at a major point deficit and are giving themselves time to catch up. The crowd erupts in boos, and Zama shrugs, circling the ring with a raised hand to calm her supporters down. Her twist-out is still billowing behind her. With Zama’s back to the ring, PrestoBox glides across the floor in her direction. I smirk at Zama’s carelessness. We’re only two minutes into round one, with sixty seconds left. There’s no way she should be this confident yet. If there’s one thing that’ll get you flattened in the ring, it’s pride.
Presto leaps through Zama’s hair tentacles and engulfs her in that inky black cloak until both duelers are a tangle of hair, wolf pelt, and shadowy blackness under a purple haze. I can barely make out anything through all that, so I watch the Megaboard as Presto’s points tick up and up and up. Three hundred, four hundred, five fifty, six fifty. It’s thirteen hundred to eight hundred as Zama breaks free and sics her hair on PrestoBox again. Presto reverts to shadow form, sinking into the floor until they’re a pool of black zipping all over the ring. Zama’s eyes can’t keep up, and she looks ridiculous tap dancing around in her regal wolf cloak to keep her feet away from the shadow.
I can’t help it—I burst into laughter.
My mom’s voice comes instantly.
“Honey, I hope you’re studying in there,” she calls.
“Yeah,” I holler, probably a little too fast. “I’m just taking a quick break.”
“Well, dinner’s almost ready anyway. You can take a break with us.”
“Is Dad home already?” I exclaim. It can’t be. It’s only—
I glance at the clock in the corner of my navigation panel. 3:30. What in the world is Dad doing home so early on a random Thursday?! Why, of all days, did both my parents decide to show up early from work today? I’m only halfway through round one of the Tundra Semifinals. I can’t just leave!
PrestoBox is flipping Zama over their shoulder now and slamming her flat on the ground. It’s time for me to chime in again. I begin typing and talking at the same time, which is always dangerous. I type: “A spectacular move by PrestoBox! What a show!” at the same time as I say, “Fine, just let me finish this show,” instead of what I meant to say: Fine, just let me finish this assignment. I scramble to correct myself. “I’m writing a report on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and its impact on black culture in the nineties. I’m kind of in the middle of a train of thought here.”
“Yes, well, you won’t be able to think if you don’t get some nourishment,” calls Mom.
“Yes, ma’am,” I say begrudgingly, knowing a fight with my mom over dinner will not end in my favor. I listen to the ensuing silence until I’m sure she’s gone, and then I focus back in on the match. Zama is swinging her staff, knocking away sickle-shaped darts flying out from under PrestoBox’s cloak. We’re nearing the end of round one, and the Megaboard reads 1500−1300, with Zama in the lead. It’s so close, but there’s no way I’ll make it through to the end of round three without Mom pounding angrily at my door with the news that dinner is getting cold.
I call in the only reinforcements I can count on: Cicada.
I slide my chat panel out on my VR screen and open a private convo with her, relieved to find her name lit up in green.
Me: Please tell me you’re watching this.
Cicada: Zama and Presto? It’s past midnight here and I have a final exam tomorrow. In other words, wouldn’t miss it. :)
I smile. I don’t know where Cicada lives, but I’ve narrowed it down to somewhere in the Central European Time Zone, putting her somewhere south of Norway and north of Nigeria, which doesn’t narrow it down much. I don’t know much about her, really, since most of our conversations are strictly business—related to game updates, new cards, landscape artwork, or server maintenance—but I know that I can trust her. She’s been on this SLAY train since the beginning, faithfully moderating matches when I can’t, and it works, since she’s somewhere on the other side of the world. She’s awake when I’m not.
I type a reply into our private chat box.
Me: Thank God. Listen, it’s dinnertime and if I don’t get out there soon, my mom is going to have a liter of kittens.
Cicada: (crying laughing emoji) Spell-check? Or did your mom take “Kittens in a Blender” too literally?
I manage to contain a laugh and send a crying laughing emoji right back, and a grateful IOU a major one.
Then I navigate back to my announcement panel and type to the masses just as Zama reciprocates PrestoBox’s earlier body slam.
“Attention, lovely kings and queens, I leave you in the capable hands of Cicada. Be conscious, and be well.”
I don’t want to log off. The score is tied 1700−1700, and Zama’s hair is weakening its grip from around Presto’s amorphous form. The purple haze is fading. Round one is ending in a tie. The crowd is roaring as the imminence of round two sinks in. I see Cicada’s name light up in the stands on the opposite side of the arena, and freestanding, glowing white text appears above her bald head in a floating holographic speech bubble. It says “What a maneuver! Moves like that only come from the Tundra, am I right, kings and queens?”
I love her gown. It’s all white, off shoulder with white fur lining the neckline. A single strip of black fur lines the hood, which is pulled elegantly over her head. Her face is actually devoid of makeup. She just has the base-model face. But sometimes, if she’s feeling spunky, she’ll don the Princess Mononoke mask—the red and white one with the brown eyes. So badass. She’s sitting in the stands, so I can only see her from the torso up, but I’ve seen the gown in all its glory before. She looks like an ice princess. I wonder if she’s bald in real life too.
The yell makes me jump, and I scramble to log out, kill the power, yank off my headphones, headset, and gloves, hop across my carpet as I pull off one sock at a time, and get all my equipment back into the drawer before the knocking starts.
“Hold on!” I holler. I try to keep my keys as quiet as possible while I lock the bottom drawer.
“Dinner is getting cold!”
“I know, just—” I’m trying to catch my breath after being startled, so I don’t emerge from my room a raging ball of nerves. I’m already sweaty from the excitement of the match. I don’t want to look like I’ve just run a marathon while I’m supposed to be watching Fresh Prince.
“Just, get started without me. I’ll be out in five.”
“If you think you’re going to leave your father and me to listen to this rant about African American Vernacular English by ourselves, you’ve got another think coming.”
I smile and shake my head, wiping the sweat from my forehead and turning off my computer. As I open my door and head for the dining room behind Mom, I wonder which cards Zama and Presto will be using in round two.