The practice match was supposed to be a showdown between the top players from 2S and BOOM, but lo and behold, a mysterious player had showed up out of the blue. The audience was ecstatic. Chatter popped up on different online discussion groups.
"Judging from the way he drifted during his turns, he must be a professional racer."
"Looks like Fiery Bird might not have been completely forthcoming on the entry list."
"That might not be the case. It might be a really skilled amateur. Doesn't the saying go: 'The masters hide among the masses'?"
There was all sorts of speculation online—and the folks at the Yanzhou branch of Fiery Bird were also at a loss.
They had a crystal-clear picture of the race. They had been tracking the mystery player since he'd surged forward, but they hadn't expected him to sideline two professional gamers as soon as he caught up with the top 10.
"We screened the premium VIP customers who won entry passes. There was no one with professional racing credentials. If there was, we wouldn't have missed him or her," said a Fiery Bird staffer stationed in the live broadcast hall.
"Then it must be an amateur professional." A so-called "amateur professional" was a highly-skilled amateur who was as competent as a professional racer or gamer but not properly credentialed.
"Is it possible it's a bench player from one of the clubs? Not all of their reserve players are credentialed."
"That's a possibility. In any case, let's keep watching closely. This is an unexpected surprise."
For Fiery Bird, the outcome of the practice match wasn't that important. What they cared about most were the viewership figures and whether they could use the appearance of the mystery player to advertise their spin-off brands. The company's technicians would also use the opportunity to test the game. The unexpected development happened to meet everyone's needs, much to their delight.
Meanwhile, the virtual projects department at Silver Wing was also abuzz with excitement. Zu Wen and company were tuned into the game but had missed the latest development. They had been focused on the duel between Ke Zimo and Olaf among the front runners. They switched views when they read about the mystery player in a discussion group. They switched just in time to catch the mystery player who caught up with the top 10 pass two more bikers.
"I wonder if Boss saw this. Let me give him a heads up. He better not miss an exciting development like this."
Zu Wen dialed Fang Zhao's bracelet, but no one answered. He kept getting a busy tone.
"Maybe Boss is busy. Forget it, I'll leave him a message."
The number of viewers tuning in to the second camera grew significantly because of the mystery player who'd broken into the top 10, even dwarfing the viewership of the first camera, which was focused on Ke Zimo and Olaf.
"He's No. 7 now! Looks like he can still pass a few more racers."
"Remember the screen capture! Don't freeze this time."
The folks at Entertainment Workshop and other journalists monitoring the match started zooming in on the mystery player.
The loud rumbling of the mystery player's high-frequency motor kept viewers stimulated. The two marquee racers dueling on behalf of their two clubs also noticed the unfamiliar shadow catching up. They didn't know how to lose him. He kept on creeping closer and closer. After entering the city, the roads were clear of pedestrians and other vehicles, but they were narrower than in the suburbs and varied in width.
To make way for the practice match, many elements had been removed from this particular layout. Even though the road was dotted with the occasional parked vehicle, which made it slightly crowded, there were no other speeding cars or pedestrians. The players kept zipping along. All a bystander could see was a flurry of shadows dash by.
After another turn, the mystery player advanced to fifth place.
"He's so calm. He's barely made any mistakes," Yi Yun, captain of Big Dipper Club's first team, said while glued to the monitor.
"This one's a force to be reckoned with. The two players ahead may not be able to stop him," one of his teammates said.
Yi Yun thought of something and let out a knowing laugh. "We'll see. Let's see which two players are ahead of him."
"Judging from the lettering on their uniforms, in third place should be Ewski, the vice captain of BOOM e-Sports Club, and in fourth is Jabbar from 2S. Hey, those two sly bastards are setting up an ambush. Was this planned? So they could stave off surprises like this?"
"Looks like that's the case. This practice match was never a duel between two teams, but rather a performance by the two professional racers Ke Zimo and Olaf. The others are there to cheer them on and to prevent accidents. And now we have a situation."
While 2S and BOOM feuded fiercely in public—they were trash talking ahead of the practice match—if a third party threatened them, they would present a united front. The same rule applied to all of Yanzhou's top five e-sports clubs. Regardless of which of the Big Five were competing, if someone other than the Big Five showed up, then they would join hands and deal with the outsider first.
At this point, Big Dipper's team leader cut in. He was completely serious. "Stay on Jabbar and Ewski. The two of them are about to make their move."
The big screen showed the mystery player approaching, on the verge of taking fourth place, but he slowed down suddenly and veered off-path. At the same time, Jabbar seemed to make a mistake and flipped. If the mystery rider had stayed where he had been, he would have smashed right into Jabbar or his bike, even if he made a last-minute correction, but the mystery man looked like he had anticipated the move and avoided the obstacle.
Watching the scene unfold, Jess, the captain of HWR e-Sports Club, winced.
"A real pro! Great anticipation. No wonder Jabbar couldn't stop him. Jabbar will be able to say he did his job when he gets offline. He did his best."
Jean, the vice captain of HWR e-Sports Club, nodded in agreement. "We've lost another player. Let's see if Ewski can take him down. If not, it's going to be a race between the top three."
Just as Jean finished his sentence, the screen showed Ewski appearing to lose his concentration during a turn and crashing, ramming into a lamppost by the road. The crash sent the lamp post tumbling. A car was parked on the other side of the road. The top of the lamp post landed on the car, which created a low trapezoid-shaped barricade on the less-than-wide road.
Even though the lamppost didn't collapse onto the road entirely, the resulting barricade was enough to halt any forthcoming vehicles.
"What a dirty move by Ewski. Who knows how many times he practiced that ahead of time?"
"That's the kind of boldness a vice captain should display. He was much more decisive than Jabbar, crashing himself out of the game. Looks like he should accomplish his mission and stop the threat. Wait... he's not going to stop?"
The screen showed the silhouette charging forward.
The gap between the fallen lamp post and the ground wasn't big enough to fit a person or a car. A car would definitely hit the lamp post. The mystery person would have to stop and figure out a way through or take a detour or different route. Either way would mean a delay. In a high-speed race like this, a delay of one second would translate into a bigger cushion for the two professional racers in the lead.
"He's gonna hit the lamp post if it doesn't stop now."
"He's going to crash. F*ck!" Jess, the captain of HWR Club, who was glued to the screen, blurted out an expletive.
The silhouette on the screen flew off his motorbike, which turned sideways as he approached the lamp post. The motorbike threaded the gap beneath the lamp post, the sound of screeching tires creating a piercing noise that suggested burning.
Just when everyone thought the motorbike was about to collapse, it bolted upright again after clearing the gap between the road and the lamp post. The engine of the erect vehicle roared as it pressed forward.
"How is that possible? How did he do that?"
"If the motorbike had a little less clearance, he would have been knocked out of the race. But he... actually cleared the gap?"
"How did it not collapse at that angle?"
"I feel like he gave gravity the finger."
"No, I feel like I've been given the finger. I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes."
"This was not a lucky coincidence."
Viewers watching the live webcast were equally blown away. What they considered impossible happened before their own eyes. The game was a simulation of reality, which meant the player could manage the same move in real life.
Ewski, who was forced offline when his avatar died after knocking down the lamp post, scrambled out of the gaming cabin.
"Did I shut him down?" he blurted at his teammates.
His teammates wore a weird expression on their faces and stayed silent. When the sound of the mystery rider's engine from the live broadcast drew Ewski's attention, he knew he had failed.
Ewski went pale, as if something horrible had happened.
"What's the lowdown on that fellow?" Ewski asked his teammates.
"We asked around. He's not from the Big Five. We don't know anything about his background. All we know is that he's scary. He may pose a major threat to us."
"A professional racer? No, if it were a professional racer, he'd be credentialed. Fiery Bird wouldn't miss that piece of information."
"Too bad the guy has remained anonymous. All his personal information is blocked. We tried asking Fiery Bird, but they won't look up his profile just because we're curious."
Staffers watching the live broadcast at the Yanzhou branch of Fiery Bird were also curious about the identity of the mystery player, but the player's premium VIP status made them think twice. Even if he were a regular customer, unmasking his profile would be a violation of professional ethics. Fiery Bird had strict internal protocols in place.
"If we can't look up his profile, then let's check when he registered," one staffer suggested.
Out of respect for client privacy, they couldn't dig deeper just because they were company staff, especially if the client had chosen to hide his profile, but they could look up his date of registration.
"He registered from his console on Sept. 1. He only has one account, no others. It's his first time playing one of our games. A newcomer? Or someone who just met the age requirement?"
All Fiery Bird games could be accessed through a single user ID. Even though "Battle of the Century" had released a few practice platforms this year, Fiery Bird counted many other titles among its library. Folks who met the age requirement would definitely practice with other games before the official release of "Battle of the Century."
"Not necessarily. Maybe it's the first time he's playing one of our games and he registered with us for the first time on Sept. 1."
A premium VIP customer who'd registered on Sept. 1 and could deliver blows to two of the Big Five.
"Who on earth is this guy?"
The player might not have been physically healthy—he could have been disabled or infirm. As long as you had a nimble mind and superior hand motor skills, the world was your oyster if you had a gaming console. One of Fiery Bird's former CEOs once said, "Gaming is a window into a person's soul."
The mystery man was a shadowy monster lurking in the dark, preparing to bare its sharp claws.
"I have a hunch something is about to go down."