Authors: Marie Lu
Tags: #YA, #Carly
“Get away from me,” I snarl. “Before I kill you.”
“It is you,” he replies, “who came to me.”
His words just make me angrier. “I’m going to give you one more chance to turn yourself in. It’ll make life easier for everyone.”
He just watches me, his silent calm unnerving. Finally, he starts to turn away. “You’re going to regret this,” he says. Then, before I can shout anything else at him, he vanishes. So does the scarlet cavern.
Suddenly, I’m thrust back into the game. The roar of the audience abruptly returns, followed by the announcer’s shocked voice and the jumble of my teammates’ voices all ringing in my ears. I look frantically down, expecting to see myself still encased in black armor that resembles Zero’s—but it’s gone, as if it were all a hallucination. My white game suit is intact again.
“Emi? Ems!” Asher shouts. “What the
are you doing?”
“Forget her—” comes Hammie’s voice, frantic. “She’s out. I’m going for the Artifact
I realize I am floating, frozen, trapped inside a set of ruins with only a small eyehole through which I can see the rest of the game unfolding. Asher is trying in vain to fend off three
Cloud Knights. He’s going to lose his Artifact. I try to ram myself through my underwater cage, but I can’t—and then I realize it’s because I have no more oxygen left. My reserves are red. That’s what Hammie had meant. I’m dead, struck out of the round until I can regenerate. What had happened?
“I don’t believe it!” the announcer is shouting now. “After their incredible first win, the Phoenix Riders may be disqualified early this year if they don’t do something soon—”
Hammie appears at the last second, flickering into view like a phantom in the water. She lunges for the Cloud Knights’ Artifact before they can register her presence, right at the same time as the Knights lunge for Asher’s. Both teams seize the other’s Artifact at almost the exact same time. The crowd screams.
A few seconds pass before the final score appears in our views.
“The Phoenix Riders manage to hang on to victory by a
!” the announcer shouts.
As the world vanishes around me and the real world—the arena and the screaming crowds—comes back into view, I see Asher roll out of his station in a furious mood. His face is twisted in anger. He’s glaring at me. So are my other teammates. I look up at the enormous holograms in the stadium that are replaying segments of the game, only to see myself, ignoring the others and sabotaging their moves. Boos are mixed in with the cheers in the crowd. Some are shouting for a replay, that we hadn’t won this round at all.
happened?” Asher demands as he approaches me. “That was the most embarrassing, shameful display I’ve ever seen from a pro player. You tried to throw that game on purpose.”
What can I say? Zero’s figure is still hovering in my mind, ominous and silent. “I’m sorry,” I start to say, “I—”
Asher turns his head in disgust. “We’ll talk back at the
dorms.” From the corner of my eye, I see Roshan shake his head at me in confusion, while Hammie looks away in disappointment. We had won, but it didn’t look like it at all. My gaze goes to Ren, who’s watching me. The edge of his lips tilts ever so slightly. My jaw tightens.
Suddenly, the holograms in the arena change. The crowd goes still for a moment.
go still. My teammates all pause in unison.
Then, everyone bursts into gasps and shouts. As they do, I can only find enough strength to stare in stunned silence at the grainy screenshot that is now publicly broadcast to everyone in the arena, and probably to everyone watching this game. Everyone in the
. I don’t know who had taken it, or how. But somehow, I know Zero is involved. This is the beginning of his attack on me.
The holograms display a giant photo of me stepping out of Hideo’s home at night, of him leaning in to kiss me, of his hand still holding on to mine. It’s unmistakable.
The news is out.
PHOENIX RIDER SNAGS HEARTTHROB BILLIONAIRE!
HIDEO TANAKA PLAYS HIS WILD CARD
WILD CARD GETS BILLIONAIRE BOYFRIEND
EXCLUSIVE: 1ST LEAKED PHOTOS OF HIDEO AND EMIKA
When we arrive
at the dorms, I go straight to my room without saying a word to anyone. I’m too afraid to look at my phone. I’ve already turned off my messages. Even so, it was impossible not to catch a glimpse of the headlines screaming by on marquees near the Tokyo Dome, broadcasting the news to the public. Now I curl up on my bed, my heart pounding from the onslaught. From how grainy the shot looked, it must have been taken with some insanely high-powered camera lens, from some remote hill.
After a few moments, I hesitantly turn on my messages
and enable ones from Hideo. A message from him pops up immediately.
I’m sending extra security to the team quarters.
I’m about to respond when a knock sounds at my door. Hammie’s voice drifts through to me.
“Are you staying in there forever?” she demands. “Or are you going to offer us any kind of explanation?”
I hang back for a while on my bed, my head down, gathering my strength. Then I sigh and stand up. “I’m coming,” I reply as I walk to the door. When I open it, I find myself staring into Hammie’s narrowed eyes. She brings up a tabloid cover to hover between us. This one has published the grainy photo of Hideo and me, along with the headline:
LOVE OR CHE
“Downstairs,” she says, waving her fingers once and erasing the cover from view. She turns away toward the stairs before I can respond. I hesitate, then follow her.
Down in the atrium, Roshan is activating blackout shields on the floor-to-ceiling windows in an attempt to keep journalists out—but I can still hear the photographers clicking madly away, the flashes of their cameras reflecting off the glass. Before the windows go completely dark, I catch a glimpse of the main courtyard leading out to the security gate. A mob of paparazzi have crowded there, some of them pushing past the security. Two guards chase down a reporter and cameraman sprinting toward our dorms. It’s a feeding frenzy.
Roshan temporarily looks away from the outside crowds to focus on me. His usually gentle expression has been replaced with
one of suspicion. Asher regards me with a scowl. I sit down on the couches with Hammie, trying to avoid Ren’s stare—but even then, I can feel his smugness directed at me.
“When were you going to tell us?” Roshan finally begins.
“I . . .” I shake my head. “It’s complicated.”
“Is it?” Hammie replies, glancing in disdain at the darkened windows. “All those times you didn’t want to hang out with the rest of us, was it because you were off seeing Hideo Tanaka? We’re supposed to be a team, Emi. But obviously you didn’t think we could handle your fancy relationship.”
I scowl at her. “What’s going on between Hideo and me has nothing to do with how I feel about you and the team.”
Asher shoots me a hard look. “It has everything to do with us. We just got into the final championship round, but now people think we won unfairly—they think Hideo’s favoritism for you made the judges hand the win over to the Phoenix Riders.”
“No, it was clear that we won,” Roshan interjects. He’s watching me, telling me silently to defend myself. “And it must be hard to talk about such a high-profile relationship. Right? We’re listening, Em, but you have to give us something.”
If only you knew the half of it.
“How was I supposed to bring everything up? This was something in my personal life. I didn’t think I had to bring it into our team practices.”
“Except you did,” Hammie says. “You were always ready to skip out on time with us or leave early from training. And what was that pitiful display today?”
Asher nods at Hammie’s words as he continues looking at me. “You ignored everything I said. You told me you knew better. I gave you the benefit of the doubt because I had faith in you, because you’ve proven yourself before, but—” He pauses in frustration. “I am your
. I chose you as the number one draft
pick. I’ve worked hard to build a team of this caliber. Even if we go on to win the championships this year, who’s going to believe that we earned it? I can already see the headlines.
Phoenix Riders cheat their way to the top.
“Oh, come on,” I reply, my voice rising now in frustration. “It’s just a game. I—”
?” Hammie interrupts. Everyone around me tenses, and I know I’ve said the wrong thing. It is precisely the thing I have always hated hearing from others. I start to correct myself, but she leans forward and glares at me. “Then why are you even here? Why are you even competing in Warcross if it’s so beneath you? Weren’t you living in New York’s gutters before you came here?”
“You know I didn’t mean it like that.”
“Then you should get out of the habit of saying things you don’t mean. I’m damn good at Warcross.
good at Warcross allowed me to buy my ma her own house, send my sis to a good university.” She pauses to stretch her hands out at the dorm. “That’s why everyone loves Warcross, isn’t it? Why we’re all obsessed with the NeuroLink—why
use it? Because it makes things possible?”
“It’s not what I meant,” I repeat. “There’s too much that you don’t understand. When there’s a lot more at stake than a championship, then, yes—it
just a game.”
I hadn’t planned my outburst correctly, and I regret some of it right away. Hammie looks incredulous. Then, skeptical. Nearby, Ren regards me curiously. He’s daring me to say more.
“Wait,” Roshan says, making a twirling motion with one finger. “So, this isn’t just a fling. What do you mean, when there’s a lot more at stake?”
I take a deep breath. Everything is on the tip of my tongue
now, ready to tumble out—but I stop just short of saying too much. Ren is still here, sitting with us. Zero has threatened me. It’s not worth putting the others at risk. I mutter a curse under my breath and stand up. “I’m sorry.”
Hammie leans her elbows on her knees. “There’s more you’re keeping from us. And I can’t understand why.”
“What aren’t you telling us, Em?” Asher asks, his voice very quiet now.
“I have my reasons.”
Something sympathetic flickers in Roshan’s gaze. The edge of Ren’s lip quirks up again, so subtle that no one else notices, and his eyes harden at me. I stare levelly back, refusing to give him the satisfaction of intimidating me. Then I turn around and head back to my room. Asher calls my name, but I don’t respond.
The voice echoes in my ears. I freeze in my steps.
There, through my virtual view, is Zero, standing at the end of the hallway leading up to the second floor, his silhouette encased in dark armor and his opaque helmet turned toward me. My mouth turns dry at the sight of him.
I warned you,
“What are you doing here?” I say in a hoarse croak.
Behind me, I hear Hammie’s voice as she walks toward me. “Emi,” she says, “who are you talking to?”
He just stares calmly at me.
Check your Memories.
My Memory Worlds.
Suddenly, my heart seizes. I type a quick command and bring up a window to search for my Memory Worlds, all the carefully compartmentalized pieces of my father that I spend so much time revisiting.
When they come up, I freeze.
The files are blank. The option
New Memory World
hovers over them.
I tremble. Impossible. I put up all sorts of security shells on them, buried them deep in my accounts so that nothing could ever happen to them, secured them in the cloud, cloned them multiple times out of an abundance of caution. I search frantically for my cloned versions now. But they are gone, too. Dad, humming cheerfully at our dining table as he cuts fabrics. Dad, crafting handmade Christmas ornaments with me. Dad, showing me how he mixes paints. Dad, sharing roasted peanuts with me in Central Park; wandering the halls of museums; celebrating my birthday.
Zero has deleted them all.
I’m stunned, reeling from the wound.
Stay out of my way, and I might return them to you. Continue, and this will only be the beginning.
My fingers curl tightly into fists at my side. My anger sharpens like a blade toward the armored silhouette before me. It takes me a second to realize that tears are blurring my vision. Behind me, Hammie finally approaches. “Emi, what’s going on with you?” she says.
Zero’s head tilts ever so slightly. Like he’s mocking me.
And just then, an explosion rips through our dorm.
A faulty gas
line. That’s the public explanation given for the blast.
I don’t get a better sense of what happened until I see it broadcast on the small TV in my hospital room. From the outside, it looks horrendous—one moment, the Phoenix Riders’ dorm still standing; the next, a deafening explosion and an orange ball of fire erupting from the roof of our atrium. Windows shatter, spraying glass everywhere. As the fire billows out of control, pouring black smoke into the air, nearby dorms’ lights turn on and the players from the other teams come running over. Some are screaming. Others stand with their hands on their heads, at a loss for words. But most come rushing to our windows, shouting our names. Even Tremaine—bullying, obnoxious Tremaine—is there, helping Roshan pull Asher out through a window.
Then the fire trucks come, along with the ambulances.
Flashing lights fill up the TV screen. There’s a news announcer talking in front of our dorm, then interviewing Hammie, who looks awake and dazed as she clutches a blanket around herself. Asher suffered some cuts and bruises from broken glass, as did Roshan, but miraculously, all of us came out of it alive.
It doesn’t mean we’re not all shaken up, though.
“Miss Chen,” a nurse says as she peeks in through my door, bobbing her head once. “You have a visitor.”
I sit up with my arms wrapped around my legs, then nod quietly at her. My limbs feel numb. “Okay,” I reply. She leaves, and a moment later, returns with two others.
It’s Roshan, clutching a box, followed by Hammie. They look like they haven’t slept in days. I open my mouth to greet them, but Hammie just shakes her head and reaches out to pull me into a hug. I wince—my arm still burns from the scratches I’d gotten, while my back aches from when the blast had tossed me off my feet. “Ow,” I groan, but the hug feels nicer than the pain, and I lean into her.
“Ash sends his love,” she says against my shoulder. “His brother and parents are with him in his hospital room.”
“I’m sorry,” I whisper to her, tears welling in my eyes. The blast has thrown me all off. “I’m so sorry. Ham—”
“You don’t remember anything, do you?” she says, pulling away a bit to look at me. “You half carried me to the back door before you collapsed. Stop apologizing.”
The explosion, the fire, the smoke, the faintest recollection of me shouting Hammie’s name as we lean against each other. I shake my head repeatedly.
Roshan holds out the box with a grim face. “We salvaged what we could,” he says.
When I open the box, I see broken shards of my Christmas ornament, along with burned scraps of what must be my father’s painting. I run one hand across the remains. The lump in my throat grows until I can’t swallow it anymore.
I wipe my eyes with one hand. “Thank you,” I reply as I place the box carefully beside me.
Roshan leans close. “Based on what little we know, Ren’s being questioned by the police right now. I don’t buy the gas leak story.”
“But you know more about this than we do, don’t you, Emi?” Hammie adds, searching my gaze. “You have to tell us what’s going on. We deserve to know.”
Your lives were threatened, too.
But still, I hesitate. If I tell them everything, it might only endanger them more. They might fall on Zero’s radar. They never asked to be involved in any of this, never entered the championships to hunt down a criminal, were never getting paid to put themselves at risk.
Hammie studies me like I’m a chessboard. “You remind me of myself from several years ago,” she says. “I always offered help—but I refused to accept any. My mother scolded me about that. Do you know what she told me? When you refuse to ask for help, it tells others that they also shouldn’t ask for help from you. That you look down on them for needing your help. That you like feeling superior to them. It’s an insult, Emi, to your friends and peers. So don’t be like that. Let us in.”
Hammie’s words strike me clean in the chest. Even though I’ve lied with the best before, I know that both of them can see the truth on my face—that I’m involved in something beyond my capabilities.
Something that could have killed them.
I’m used to working alone. Even if I told them everything,
what good would that really do? Am I really going to drag them into this hunt with me?
But this is no ordinary hunt, and Hideo is no ordinary client. If our lives are all in danger, then we have bigger problems to deal with than whether or not I put my faith in my teammates.
The mention of my name on the TV makes us turn toward the screen in unison. The news anchor is talking beside a photo of me, taken when I was celebrating our first win with the other Riders.
“—that this morning, Hideo Tanaka announced that he is officially pulling two players from the Phoenix Riders, currently one of the top-ranked Warcross teams: their Fighter, Renoir Thomas, and Architect, Emika Chen. No word yet on the reasons behind either decision, although speculation—”
Pulled from the team
. All the air rushes out of my lungs.
Roshan and Hammie whirl to face me. “Pulled?” Hammie whispers sharply.
Roshan is quieter, searching my gaze. He seems ready to say something, then decides against it.
I only hesitate one more time. Then I pull Roshan and Hammie in for another hug. “Tonight,” I whisper in their ears. “I promise. I can’t talk about it out loud right now.” Then I break away and say, “The fact that you’ve brought me this box is help enough.”
Roshan frowns, but Hammie gives me an imperceptible nod. She tries to smile. “Will do,” she replies. It sounds like the right answer to what I said, but I know it also means she understood what I meant.
“Miss Chen,” the nurse says as she steps back in. “You have another visitor.”
Roshan and Hammie exchange another pointed look with me.
Then they get up and head out of the room. A moment later, the nurse opens the door wider to usher in my new visitor.
Hideo comes striding in, his face a mask of anger and worry. His eyes lock on mine, and some of his expression dissolves into relief.
“You’re awake,” he says as he sits down on the side of my bed.
“You can’t,” I reply, pointing at the TV. My mind is still spinning. “Pulled? Really? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Would you have me keep you both in and risk everyone’s lives?” Hideo replies. “We didn’t know how long it would take for you to wake up. I had to make a decision.” His eyes are dark with fury, although it seems to be directed inward; his expression reminds me of how he looked as he spoke about his brother.
“What about not caving to intimidation?”
“That was before Zero threatened you and other players.”
“How will taking me out of the tournaments stop whatever Zero’s planning to do during the final game?”
“It won’t.” Hideo’s jaw tightens. “But I’d rather not see you involved in it. The whole reason for entering you in the games was for you to have better access to information, but I think you may have collected everything you possibly can from being an official team member.” He sighs. “It’s my fault. I should have taken you off the team a long time ago.”
The thought of abandoning my team and sabotaging their chances at a win . . . I close my eyes and lower my head.
“I heard Ren’s talking to the police.”
“He’s in custody, yes, and being interrogated.”
I start shaking my head. “You’re not going to get anything out of him that way. His arrest will only alert Zero that you’re on to him, and he’ll move his operations further underground.
. The next time I go to a game sponsored in the Dark World, I’ll have no—”
“You won’t be,” Hideo interrupts. His eyes search mine, dark and resolute. “I’m letting you off the job.”
I blink. “You’re firing me?”
“I’m still paying you the bounty,” he replies. Why does he sound so distant? His tension makes him cold, even hostile.
My head is spinning.
But—every locked door has a key.
I haven’t found the key yet—I can’t leave now. “It’s not about the bounty,” I say.
“You’ve earned it. The money is sitting in your account now.”
The ten million.
I start shaking my head in disgust. “You have to
stop doing that
. Why do you always think you can just throw money at people and get them to do what you want?”
“Because it was the whole reason why you came here in the first place,” Hideo says, his tone clipped. “I’m giving you what you wanted.”
“What the hell do
know about what I wanted?” My voice rises. I can feel the burn of my cheeks. Flashes of my father appear in my thoughts—then, myself curled in a ball on my foster-home bed, struggling to find a reason to live.
All of my Memory Worlds are now gone, deleted, taken by Zero.
I can’t look back on my memories of my father if I wanted to. “You think I’m just here for the money? You think you can fix everything by writing a check?”
Hideo’s eyes seem to shutter. “Then we understand each other less than I thought.”
“Or maybe you’re not understanding
.” I narrow my eyes at him. “I saw Zero standing in our dorms before the bomb went off. Listen—he didn’t show up there to threaten me just on a whim, or just because he now knows who I am. We tracked down Ren and
have proof that he’s connected to Zero’s mission. You even have him in custody now. That means Zero feels
. He thinks we’re closing in, and that’s why he’s lashing out. Planting a bomb means that he’s risking alerting the authorities in an attempt to keep me off his trail. We’ve backed him into a corner.
of the momentum is on our side.”
“And that means he’s at his most unpredictable,” Hideo finishes. “This is someone we still know nothing about, and I am not going to see another bomb go off just because I want you to catch him for us.”
“Just because you take me off the job doesn’t mean he won’t attack again.”
“I know. That’s why I’ve cancelled every dome event.”
“Every dome event? Around the world?”
“I will not have people physically gathering by the thousands in stadiums across the world, not if it poses a risk for them. They can enjoy the rest of the tournaments from the comfort of their homes.”
No, I can’t give up now.
My old, familiar panic is rising up again, the terror of seeing the wall go up between the problem and the solution. Of standing helplessly by while danger circles someone I love. There’s something missing here, as if a new development had suddenly changed Hideo’s mind about everything. “You always knew this job involved some risks. Why are you pulling me out now? You’re too afraid of seeing me hurt?”
“I’m too afraid of involving you in something far bigger than yourself, that you didn’t even choose.”
“This is what I
” I insist. “And I
“I’m not questioning your talent,” Hideo responds, sounding annoyed now. He looks like he wants to say something more, but stops short and just shakes his head. “Right now, all I want to do is
minimize any risks, to make sure no one will be harmed.” He looks at me. “You’ve already done your job, Emika. You gave us enough information to know when his operations will happen, and you tracked down someone involved with his plans. It’s enough for us to keep the audience safe. I’ve dismissed the other hunters, too. Let the police take it from here.”
“But you still haven’t
Zero. That’s not called finishing my job. So if you have a better explanation than that, I’d like to hear it.”
“I’ve already given it to you.”
No, you haven’t.
“You want a better explanation?”
“Yes,” I reply, my voice rising. “I think I deserve one.”
Anger flashes hot in Hideo’s eyes now. “I’m telling you to
“I don’t take orders from an ex-boss,” I snap.
Hideo narrows his eyes. Suddenly, he leans forward, puts his hand on the back of my neck, and pulls me forward. He kisses me hard. My slew of words comes to a screeching stop. A knife cuts through my rising anger.
He pulls away, his breath short. I’m too startled to do anything except gasp for air. He leans his forehead against mine, then closes his eyes. “Leave.” His voice is raspy, desperate, angry. “
“What aren’t you telling me?” I murmur.
“I cannot, in good conscience, keep you on this job.” His voice turns quieter. “If you don’t believe any of my other reasons, at least believe this one.”
Before all this, I used to sit on my bed and flip through article after article about Hideo, wondering what it might be like to meet him someday, to become as successful as him, to work with him and talk with him and
like him. But now Hideo is before me,
exposing some fragile, inner working of his heart, and I’m sitting here and staring back, flustered and confused.
Something is missing. Something he’s not telling me.
Had Zero threatened him in some way, too? Had he threatened
in front of Hideo and prompted Hideo to pull me out of everything? I shake my head and hug my knees tighter. My mind spins.
He studies me for a moment. “You and your teammates will be moved somewhere safe. I’ll see you after the tournaments are over.” Then he stands up and leaves my bedside.