STELLAR: Chapters 1-5

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I am knee-deep in bloody corpses when my best friend, Betsy, starts blowing up my phone. I take aim with my custom-equipped, high-energy laser gun and obliterate four more aliens. Body parts splay everywhere as I pause the game. I type out a quick direct message to Noah, the guy I'm playing with.

stellar_gunner: Phone call. Back in 5.

noahitall: I gotta go eat dinner anyway. Around later?

stellar_gunner: I'll be here.

By this time Betsy has hung up and sent a text. I grab my phone and check my messages.

Betsy: I know you are not ignoring me to explore baby planets with your Project Survival husband. Call me immediately.

Before I can reply, another text comes through.

Betsy: Stellaaaaaaaaa. Where are yooooou?

Me: Jeez, could you be more needy? Don't answer that.

Me: Also, he's not my husband, and we were exploring Gamma II, a toddler planet at least.

My phone screen lights up. It's Betsy calling back. I let it ring three times just for fun before answering. "What?" I say finally.

"What?" Betsy repeats. "Stella Ann MacInnis, did you just what me?"

"Sure did. As in what is so important that you can't send it in a text, like a normal person?"

"How about the fact that we just got invited to participate in the 2020 Project Survival 2 USA Championships in Seattle?"

"What?" I shriek. "Are you serious?"

Betsy and I have been playing Project Survival 2: New Worlds together for the past two and a half years. We started out doing it just for fun, but then we kept beating everyone we challenged online so we decided to enter some tournaments. So far we've only competed in internet competitions because there's no way my mom would let me travel to some other city with Betsy to play video games.

But Seattle! That's right by where Noah lives. I bet he could figure out a way to get downtown. And I would do anything to meet him in person.

"I'm as serious as a seizure," Betsy says. "February 14th and 15th, which gives us a little under six weeks to prepare. And did I mention the cash prize Jeonsa is awarding to the championship team? Fifty Gs each."

"Whoa." I suck in a breath so quickly I almost swallow my gum. Betsy and I have won money before, but only like a few hundred dollars or gift cards to GameStop. Fifty grand would be life-changing. I could buy a car, get a new computer, and still have a ton left over to help pay for college. "I don't understand," I say. "I thought we had to have more tournament experience in order to make the finals. When my mom wouldn't let me go to Chicago, didn't you say that meant we had no chance of getting invited?"

"Apparently this year Jeonsa decided to double the number of slots. One fourth of the teams invited are wildcards like us who weren't able to play in the regional qualifiers."

"Did they call you or something? How did you find out we were selected?"

"I got an email. I'm guessing you got one too."

"Hold on." I flop down on my quilted bedspread and open another tab on my phone. Sure enough, I've got an email from Jeonsa, the multimillion dollar software company that created the Project Survival games. I skim it quickly and then switch back to Betsy. "I can't freaking believe this. Oh my God. How am I going to convince my mom to let me go?"

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