Authors: Marie Lu
Tags: #YA, #Carly
A few seconds pass before Hideo lets out a sigh and starts trudging over to his brother’s end of the park. “Come on. We don’t have all day,” he says. “Sasuke! Hurry up!” I look on as we follow him through the trees and into the overgrown grasses, slowing occasionally whenever the foliage turns too thick.
“Sasuke?” Hideo calls again. His voice sounds different now—the exasperation gone, replaced with a twinge of confusion. He stops in the middle of the trees, looking all around him as if unable to believe that there was another person who had just been here. Long minutes drag by as he does an exhaustive hunt of the small thicket. He calls again. Now there is a note of concern. Then, fear. No sign of another boy. It’s as if he had simply ceased to exist.
“Sasuke?” Hideo’s voice becomes urgent, frantic. His steps quicken into a run. He hurries out of the thicket and back into the clearing, hoping that his brother had somehow wandered back there without hearing him. But the rest of the park stays empty, the boys’ blue and red plastic eggs still scattered all over the grass, waiting for the game to start.
Hideo halts in the middle of the clearing. The Memory turns
panicked now, the world blurring around us as Hideo spins in place, looking one way, then the other, then running to another section of the park. The view shakes wildly as he goes. His breaths come in short gasps, sending clouds of mist up in the chilly air. When I catch a glimpse of his face reflected against the metal of a parked car, his eyes are wide and dark, the pupils dilated with terror. “Sasuke!
” Each shout sounds more like a scream than the last. Hideo calls and calls until his voice begins to crack.
He stops abruptly, gasping for air, and clutches his head with his hands. “Calm down. Sasuke went home,” he whispers. He nods to himself, believing it. “He went home early without telling me. That’s where he is.” Without another hesitation, he starts running home, scanning the sidewalks wildly, looking for the back of a small boy wearing a bright blue scarf. “Please, please,” I realize he’s whispering to himself as he goes. The word trails out in a repeated line, thin as a ghost.
He doesn’t stop running until he reaches his home, a house I now recognize. He pounds on the door until his father opens it, his face bewildered. “Hideo—what are you doing here?” He cranes his neck and looks behind Hideo at the sidewalk. “Where’s your brother?”
At the question, Hideo seems to waver in place, and I can see that, in this instant, he knows his brother never came home, he
something terrible has happened. Behind him, the sun has already started to set, washing the landscape from gold into pink.
All I can think is that it is far too beautiful of a day.
The Memory ends. I’m startled as the
reappears around me and Hideo, the peaceful fog of hot water and the glisten of early lamplight on the rocks. I look at him. He doesn’t say anything; he doesn’t look at me. He doesn’t even seem to be here anymore, for the look on his face is distant and grim. Afraid. After
a pause, he brings up another Memory. It is the same sequence we just watched—except he has altered the park’s landscape, shifting the stream a little this way, a little that. He brings up a third Memory. Same sequence, but with the brothers in slightly different positions.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone over this scene in my head,” he finally says to me in a soft voice. He flips to another, and yet another, each with subtle details changed. This time, the scene shows Hideo turning around a few seconds sooner and calling Sasuke back before he can go into the trees. Another one shows Hideo steering Sasuke out of the park and back home before they can start playing their game. Yet another shows Hideo going with Sasuke to retrieve the plastic egg instead of leaving him to do it himself. My heart cracks a little with each new variation. This is his endless hell. “I can remember every single detail about that day . . . except the details that matter. Where he went. When I stopped hearing his footsteps in the leaves. Who took him. I think about what might have happened if I’d done this. Or that. If things had shifted even a little.” He shakes his head. His jaw is so tight that I’m afraid he might break it. “I don’t know. So I keep building.”
He’s torturing himself. I watch with a lump in my throat as he brings up another constructed Memory—this time of the same night, with flashlights dancing through the park. His mother’s and father’s voices are high and frantic, breaking. Then the scene switches to a young Hideo on his knees before his parents, sobbing, begging forgiveness, hysterical, inconsolable, even as they try to make him get up. The scene switches yet again to Hideo lying in bed, curled up, silent, listening to the faint crying of his mother coming from his parents’ bedroom. It switches to him waking every morning and looking in the mirror . . . and seeing
a thin, silver streak grow steadily into his black hair. I wince. The trauma was what had slashed him in white. And even though I am not him, I understand, and even without the Link connecting our emotions right now, I can feel the vicious, unending shame that clouds his heart.
I try to imagine my father disappearing one day and never coming back, what it must be like to grieve with no closure at all, to live with an open-ended mystery twisting a knife forever in my heart. I think of the porch light at the entrance of his parents’ home, turned on even in the afternoon. I imagine that pain and, even in my imagination, I can feel my heart bleed.
A long moment passes after the Memories end, filled with nothing but the sound of water rippling against the rock. When Hideo speaks again, his voice is low, weighed down with a haunting, all-consuming guilt. “They never talked about Sasuke again after his disappearance. They blamed themselves, put the shame on their own shoulders, and bore it silently. Our neighbors and the police stopped talking about Sasuke, too, out of respect for my parents. They can’t look at photos of him; I could only save what I had. He exists now solely in their sculptures. My mother aged overnight. She used to remember
; she led her neurology team. Now she misplaces things and forgets what she was doing. My father developed a cough that never went away. He gets sick frequently.” Hideo’s eyes follow the path of the Gemini constellation, the stars that form the shape of twins. “As for me . . . well, Sasuke loved games. We played every day, made up all kinds of games together. He was cleverer than me—had aced every exam he ever took, tested effortlessly into every elite academy you could think of.”
I understand now. “You invented the NeuroLink because of
your brother. Warcross was inspired by that game Sasuke played in the park. You created Warcross for him.”
He pauses, and the water ripples as he turns to me. “
I do is for him.”
I brush his arm with my hand. Nothing I say can possibly be right in this moment, so instead, I say nothing at all. I only listen.
“I don’t talk about him, Emika,” Hideo says after another silence. He looks away again. “I haven’t talked about him in years.”
This is Hideo stripped of his fortune and fame and genius. This is him as a boy, waiting every day for his brother to come back, falling asleep every night to the same nightmare, trapped forever wondering if he had only done
one thing, anything,
differently. It is hard to describe loss to someone who has never experienced it, impossible to explain all the ways it changes you. But for those who have, not a single word is needed.
Hideo pushes away from the edge of the spring and nods toward the steps leading back up to the bathhouse. He offers me his hand. I take it, my eyes flickering as always to the scars on his knuckles. “It’s getting late,” he says gently.
We have dinner
that night with Hideo’s parents. I look on at how carefully Hideo fries meat, chops vegetables, and sets rice in the steamer. While he does, his mother fusses over my complexion. “This tiny child,” she scolds gently, beaming up at me. “Hideo, why haven’t you been feeding her? Make sure you give her a big bowl. It will add some pink to her cheeks.”
” he says with a sigh. “Please.”
She shrugs. “I am telling you, she needs nutrition if her mind is to perform at its best. You remember what I told you about how neurons use the energy delivered by your blood?” I exchange a wry smile with Hideo as she launches into an explanation about blood.
Hideo is the one who sets the table, who lays the food out for us, and who pours everyone tea. Dinner is so delicious that I wish it could last forever—juicy, tender cuts of chicken fried to perfection; gleaming rice topped with a fried egg; lightly pickled
vegetables for garnish; soft mochi cakes made of sticky rice flour for dessert, each stuffed with strawberry and sweet red bean; soothing cups of hot green tea. As we eat, Hideo’s parents speak Japanese to each other in low voices, sneaking occasional smiles at me as if they think their movements are too stealthy for me to notice.
I nudge Hideo sitting beside me. “What are they saying?” I whisper.
“Nothing,” he replies, even though I see a faint blush on his cheeks. “I don’t usually have time to cook, that’s all. So they’re commenting on it.”
I grin. “But you cooked dinner for me?”
The smile I get in return from the creator of Warcross is, of all things,
. “Well,” he says, “I wanted to do something for you, for a change.” He looks expectantly at me. “Do you like it?”
Suede gift boxes holding fifteen-thousand-dollar electric skateboards. Flights on private jets. Closets full of expensive clothes. Dinners at restaurants he owns. And yet, none of that has made my heart skip like this earnest, hopeful look on his face as he waits to hear if I enjoyed the food he made for me.
I lean my shoulder into him as I hold my bowl. “Decent,” I reply. He blinks in surprise, then seems to remember what he’d once said to me during our first meeting. A laugh escapes him.
“I’ll take it,” he says, leaning back.
Still. Even as he talks easily with both his mother and father, I can’t help thinking about his words from earlier, that Sasuke is a topic never discussed with them, that their grief and shame run so deep that they can’t even bear to have their second son’s portrait in the house. No wonder I never heard about this in all the documentaries I watched about Hideo. No wonder he has such a strict company policy of not talking about his family.
“They don’t want to move,” Hideo tells me on our ride back into Tokyo. “I’ve tried convincing them a thousand times, but they don’t want to leave our old home. So I do my best to keep them safe here.”
“Safe?” I ask.
“There are bodyguards watching their home at all times.”
Of course there would be. I hadn’t even noticed them, but now I think about the random passerby on the sidewalk, the gardener working on the hedge.
By the time his car pulls up in the back of the Phoenix Riders’ dorm, it’s nearly midnight. I stare at the overlays on the tinted windows, currently showing an empty car interior so that no one will be able to see us both inside.
“I’ll see you soon,” I whisper to him, reluctant to leave.
He draws closer, touches my chin with one hand, and guides me into a kiss. I close my eyes and lean into it.
Finally, too soon, he pulls away. “Good night,” he murmurs.
I have to force myself not to look back as I get out of the car and head toward the dorm. But even long after his car has pulled away and left me alone, his presence lingers. There was a new expression in his eyes tonight, the kind open only to a few . . . but there are still secrets behind it. I wonder what it will take to uncover another of them.
HE REST OF
the week flies by. On Friday morning, the familiar sound of Asher ramming his wheelchair into my door stirs me out of my restless sleep in my dorm room. “Game three!” he shouts, the excitement obvious in his voice as it fades down the hall. “Let’s go! We’re gonna knock out the Cloud Knights in record time!”
I rub a hand across my face. I feel groggy today, my mind
stifled and my heart still pounding from another round of nightmares, and my limbs are weighed down as I drag myself out of bed. While I dress, a message pops into my view from Hideo.
Good luck today.
I’ll be watching from the balconies.
I shake my head. Now he’s just thumbing his nose at his attackers.
I thought you were going to stay away from the upper decks.
We’ve redone the security cams, rewired the stadium, and security detail has been doubled. They’d be fools to attack in the same place again. I’ll be fine.
I already know there’s nothing I can do to talk him out of it.
Well, be careful, ok?
Keep your eyes peeled.
My eyes will be on you, I’m afraid.
A nagging worry lingers in my mind, but his words still pull a smile out of me. I head downstairs.
The other Phoenix Riders chat animatedly on our way to the stadium this morning. I feel strangely disconnected from it all. Ren doesn’t seem to act any differently toward me, but his nonchalance bothers me even more. Maybe I should have told Hideo about him after all. Maybe he would have been disqualified from
today’s game. I narrow my eyes as I watch Ren crack a joke with Asher. No. Hell if he’s going to force me out of my element. I’m going to keep using him to get to the bottom of this.
The stadium feels like a blur today, and as we enter the arena and go to our individual terminals, I feel like I’m walking in a fog. The announcer sounds far away, and the cheers from the audience turn into a mess of background noise. I keep my head turned up to the balcony seats. Sure enough, Hideo is there, surrounded by bodyguards.
Then the world goes dark, and I find myself transported into another realm.
“Welcome to the Lost City Level!”
The echo of the announcer’s voice fades away as the virtual world materializes around us. Dim light filters down from the ocean’s surface far above. I find myself floating above a spectacular, ruined city surrounded on all sides by walls of colorful coral. Stone pillars tower up toward the surface. Piles of rock are everywhere, looking like once-grand theaters and bathhouses. Turquoise light shines from within some of their crevices, forming glowing lines that seem to point out pathways to take. The ruins stretch as far as I can see, dappled sunlight dancing against their surfaces, and drifting over them are a field of shining, jewel-like power-ups. The only thing keeping us from feeling completely immersed is the sound of the crowd’s cheers all around us.
I look to either side. My teammates are all here, dressed in outfits of bright white with flippers on our feet and fins on our arms. I look down at my hands. They are equipped with buttons in my palms. When I experiment with pressing them, my avatar jerks forward a bit. This will be how we get around.
Far on the other side of the ruins appear our rivals. The Cloud Knights. They are dressed in outfits of bright yellow, standing out against the blue tint of this place. All of our eyes are turned toward them—all except Ren’s. I glance at him to see him staring down at the ruins already, as if searching for something. My jaw tightens.
The game starts. Asher barks orders at us through our comms, and we split immediately. On the other side of the ruins, the Cloud Knights dive down for the ruins, no doubt ready to lose themselves inside the maze of crumbled structures. We dive, too. I clench my fists down on the buttons on my palms, and I jerk forward through the water in a blur of motion, slicing a trail behind me. A bar appears in the center of my view, showing how much oxygen I have left.
As we get to the point where we start splitting up, my teammates reappear as tiny dots on a small map in my view. But the only person I’m paying attention to is Ren. He swims away from the others and toward a series of collapsed columns that form a cave. Considering what had happened after our first round, I change course from where Asher tells me to go and instead trail after Ren.
“Emi,” Asher calls through our comms. He sighs. “Can you follow my lead for once? I said go
toward that collapsed amphitheater.”
“I see a better route,” I lie, continuing in my direction. “Don’t worry.”
Asher makes a sound as if to argue, but then he stops, as if he’d remembered my successful moves from our last game. “Your only solo move,” he says. “Hear me?”
He flickers out. The light grows dim around us, with only faint rays of blue and silver dancing against the stone formations. I keep my gaze on Ren. He’s moving at a good pace in front of me and has just rounded a corner. Where is he going?
“And it looks like the Cloud Knights have secured the first rare power-up of the game!” the announcer’s voice comes on all around us. “The silver-and-gold Invisibility!”
I should be concentrating on the game right now.
But I find myself continuing on my hunt. My oxygen level starts to deplete.
Warning: 25% left
flashes in my view. Up ahead, I see a spot between the rocks where bubbles of air are coming out in a steady stream—but if I stop now, I might never catch up to Ren. So I skip it, then propel myself onward. I’m so close.
Then—suddenly—everything around me shifts. The underwater ruins vanish.
I’m no longer floating in an ocean, but standing in a cavern encircling me, trapping me in. Dim, scarlet light illuminates the space. The sounds of the audience’s cheers abruptly go silent. I blink. What had happened? In real life, I reach up to adjust my earphones. Did they glitch? It’s as if I’d suddenly been taken out of the game. I can’t even see my teammates on a map anymore.
“Hello?” I say, shifting around. My voice echoes.
If my game has glitched, then I should take off my lenses right now and alert the authorities. The game would be paused as they fix it. But instead I continue looking around, my heart beating faster now. No. This is not an accident. The red hue of this space looks too similar to the Dark World.
When I blink again, a tall figure is standing in front of me. He’s clad in the fitted black armor I’ve become so used to seeing now, and his face is completely hidden behind a dark, opaque
helmet. His head is turned directly toward me. For a moment, we just stare at each other in silence.
Zero’s proxy. Or his follower.
Or, maybe, himself.
I find my voice. “You’re who Hideo is after,” I say, taking a step forward.
“And you’re the one who's been trailing me. Hideo’s little lackey.” His voice sounds deep and distorted in this cavern.
This is really him. He knows who I am. He knows what I’m doing. Instantly, I think of the moment when I’d seen him appear in the last game. Had he set that to test whether or not I could see him? And now he has sabotaged this game in order to speak directly to me.
“My teammates will see that I’m trapped,” I say to him. My words come out forceful and frustrated as memories of Hideo’s near-assassination flash back at me. “You can’t keep disrupting every world.”
Zero walks closer to me, his muscles shifting underneath the black armor, until we are separated by a mere foot. He stares down at me. “Here’s what your teammates currently see.”
A window pops up in the center of my view, and I see the underwater ruins. I see myself, ignoring Asher’s repeated commands and idling in an area away from the others, collecting simple power-ups. I see myself getting trapped in an obvious airless pocket.
“Right now, as far as they’re concerned, you’ve managed to seal yourself in an underwater cave in the ruins. And you’re running out of air fast.”
“Why are you here?” I say. “What do you want?”
“I’m here to give you a fair offer,” he replies. His voice echoes around me.
“How else should I say it? A deal. A proposal. A suggestion. Take your pick.”
My temper flares. “I’ve been causing problems for you, haven’t I? You were forced to speak to me directly? What’s this—are you angry that someone has finally managed to get close to bringing you in?”
“Do I sound angry?” My words make him laugh once. It’s a low, quiet sound. “You’re too good to be working for him. How much does Hideo pay you to keep you so loyally at his side? To come when he whistles? Or is something else drawing you to him?”
“Your charm overwhelms me,” I say in my driest voice.
“And what if I overwhelm his number?”
I narrow my eyes. “Are you honestly offering to hire me?”
“Everyone has a price. Name yours.”
Zero shakes his head at me. “Choose carefully.”
“Are you?” He looks down at me so that I can see my own avatar’s face reflected in his helmet. “Because, as far as I can tell, you’ve been living a risky life in New York City. Because you’ve been risky in choosing your . . .
A shiver runs through me. Has he been researching my past? Has he been watching me? Does he know about Hideo and me? “And
are messing with the wrong person,” I say through gritted teeth.
“I was giving you a compliment.”
“This is your idea of a compliment?”
“I’m not known for making offers, Emika. Interpret that however you’d like.”
My hands clench into fists. “Well, you can take that generous
offer,” I say in a low voice as I move toward him, “and shove it up your virtual ass.”
He leans close to me. “Everyone always thinks they’re so brave.”
And when I look down, I notice with horror that the arm of my suit, originally bright white like my teammates’, is turning black. Plates of dark armor clip into place around my wrist, then cover my forearms, then creep up to my shoulders. They line my chest and neck, my waist and legs. I choke out a gasp and step away from him, as if this will stop it. But in this moment, I no longer look like an Architect. I look like his hunter, dressed entirely in black.