Read Warcross Online

Authors: Marie Lu

Tags: #YA, #Carly

Warcross (28 page)

BOOK: Warcross
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27

That night, I
sleep poorly. The hospital bed doesn’t fold quite right, and no matter what I do, I can’t get comfortable on it. When I finally do drift off, old memories seep into my dreams, scenes from when I was eight years old, when my life was back in New York City.

I came home from school one day with my yearbook clutched in my arms. “Dad, it’s here!” I shouted as I shut the door behind me. The school had let my third-grade class decorate the book’s front cover that year, and I’d spent the entire past week painstakingly drawing in the elaborate swirls on the cover’s corners.

It took me a second to realize that our home was in complete disarray—strips of watercolor paper everywhere, cut-up clothes in small piles on the floor, paintbrushes and buckets strewn across the dining room table. In one corner of the room was a haphazard dress Dad was working on, pinned to a bust in a dozen
places. I threw down my backpack at the front door and looked on as Dad bustled past me, holding a few pins between his lips.

“Dad?” I said. When he didn’t answer, I raised my voice. “Dad!”

“You’re late.” He flashed me a quick scowl as he settled back into his rhythm of work. “Help me get the snow peas out of the freezer to defrost.”

“Sorry—I was finishing up my homework in the library. But look!” I held up the yearbook with a grin. “They’re here.”

I’d thought for sure that his eyes would jump immediately to the swirls on the cover, that he’d break into his familiar smile and hurry over to have a closer look.
Oh, Emi,
he’d say.
Look at your line work!

Instead, he ignored me as he started pinning up another section of the dress. He was humming to himself, some melody I knew but couldn’t quite place, and his hands trembled slightly as he worked. Was I in trouble? I ran through a list of possible things I could’ve done wrong, but came up empty.

“What are you making for dinner?” I asked, trying to coax him into a conversation as I placed the yearbook down on the kitchen counter. He didn’t respond. I gathered up his paintbrushes scattered on the dining table and dropped them back into the brush jar with a clatter then wiped the table clean with a damp cloth. His laptop was open on the table, and I caught a glimpse of a site with numbers in bold red, along with images of dice and cards and a symbol I didn’t yet know was a gang’s sign.

It read,
-$3,290
.

“Dad?” I asked. “What’s this?”

“It’s nothing,” he replied without turning around.

I didn’t understand yet that it was a gambling site belonging to a criminal ring, but I did know what a minus sign in front of red
numbers meant. I sighed loudly. “
Dad.
You said you’re not supposed to be spending money like that.”

“I know what I said.”

“You said you’d stop.”

“Emika.”

I didn’t catch the warning in his voice. “You promised,” I insisted, louder now. “Now you’re not going to have money again.
You said
—”


Stop
talking.”

His voice cracked like a whip. I froze, my words withering on my tongue, my face turned up in shock at my father’s expression. His eyes had finally found mine, and the light in them shone feverish with fury, red from crying. In a flash, I knew what had happened. There was only one thing that could turn my father from a gentle, lighthearted man into someone angry and cruel.

He’d heard from my mother.

Already, the furious light had started to ebb from his face. “I didn’t mean that,” he said, shaking his head as if confused. “Emi—”

But my own anger had risen now. Before Dad could say anything else, I took a step away and tightened my lips. “She messaged you, didn’t she? What’d she say to you this time? That she misses you?”


Emika.
” He reached for my arm, but I’d already twisted away and was hurrying toward my room. A high-pitched ringing echoed in my ears. The last thing I saw before I slammed my door was the sight of my father standing there before his half creation, alone, shoulders sloped, his figure turned in my direction. Then I crawled onto my bed and began to cry.

Hours passed. Later that night, my door creaked open an inch
and I saw my father peek in, holding a plate piled high with pizza. “May I?” he said quietly.

I glared at him from under my blankets as he came in and shut the door behind him. Dark circles rimmed his eyes. For the first time, I realized how exhausted he looked, that he must not have slept well for days. He sat down on the edge of my bed and held the plate out at me. I wanted to be stubborn, to stay mad, but my stomach growled at the smell of tomato and melted cheese, and I dragged myself into a sitting position and reached for a slice.

“Your yearbook looks stunning, Emi,” he said after I’d wolfed down a slice. He gave me a weary smile. “I can tell how hard you worked on it.”

I shrugged, still not ready to let him off the hook, and grabbed a second slice of pizza. “So what happened to you today?” I grumbled.

He stayed silent for a long moment.

“What did she want this time?” I asked. But I already knew. Every six months or so, my mother would contact him because she missed him, only to disappear again. She never mentioned me. Not once.

When I asked again, Dad finally took out his phone. He held it out to me without saying anything. I peered down at it.

My mother had sent him a photo of her hand. On her finger was a large diamond ring, cut into a brilliant square.

I looked back up at my father’s tired eyes.

She was so beautiful.
But beauty can make people forgive a thousand cruelties.

We sat for a while without saying a word. Then I touched Dad’s hand quietly with my own. He looked down, away from
me, ashamed to meet my eyes. “I’m sorry, Emi,” he said in a small voice. “I’m so sorry. I’m a fool.”

I just shook my head. And when I wrapped my arms around his neck, he held me tight, trying to piece back together the lives she’d left behind.


 

 

 

 

I
STIR FROM
my dream, my hands clenched into fists. The time on my phone reads 3:34 a.m., and the TV in my room is still on, cycling through the news.

I lie still in the silence. It takes a long time before I finally relax my hands and let myself sink back against the bed. I watch the news without paying much attention to it. The reporter has already started discussing the Wardraft runners-up wild cards who will replace me and Ren.

“—Brennar Lyons, Level 72, a wild card from Scotland who will now represent the Phoenix Riders as their new Architect. And Jackie Nguyen, a Fighter—”

The reporter’s voice fades into indecipherable noise as my thoughts turn to my teammates. What are they thinking now? The public explanation for Ren leaving was that he had been caught gambling. The explanation for me was that I’d received death threats for news about my relationship with Hideo going public.

Hideo.
His declaration replays in my mind, as surely and sharply as if I had recorded it as a Memory.

My eyes wander to the box Roshan and Hammie had given me before they left, and I reach for it again, opening it to run my fingers against the broken ornament shards and scraps of canvas. My heart rate still feels elevated; my chest, still pained.

I punch my fist down against the bed. Zero is going to get
away with everything. My thoughts run through all that we’d managed to uncover so far. Coordinates of all the major cities where Warcross tournaments were going to be held. Disrupted patches inside each Warcross world in the championships. A file that had self-destructed; an assassination attempt. And a soundtrack Ren had created, potentially to be played during the final Warcross game.

So many pieces. I repeat them in my head until the news cycle on the TV has finished and starts all over again.

Then, a new message appears in my view.

My thoughts scatter for a moment, and I glance at the note to read it. How did this message get through? It’s not from someone I’ve approved. In fact, there’s no tag on it at all. I hesitate—and then I reach out to tap it.

For you, from one hunter to another.

That’s all it says. I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding.
From another hunter?
Somehow, one of the other bounty hunters had found a way to hack through my own shields. They know who I am.

My head jerks up to the security cam in one corner of my room’s ceiling, wondering if they are hacking it to watch me, and then my attention goes back to the message. It has an A
CCEPT
I
NVITE?
button attached to it. I sit up straighter. Then, with trembling fingers, I decide to accept.

A virtual figure materializes a few feet away, his hands and arms hidden behind armguards and gloves. His blue eyes are stunningly bright. A jolt hits me as I see his face.

It’s Tremaine.

He raises an eyebrow when he sees my shocked expression.
“Hello, Peach,” he says, a sneer spreading on his face. “What an honor.”

“I—” I start, then stutter to a halt. “You’re one of Hideo’s other hunters?”

He offers me a mock bow. “I looked just as surprised when I found out about
you
.”

“How did you get a message through my shields?”

“You’re not the only one with a few tricks up your sleeve.”

“Why are you contacting me? Why are you showing your face?”

“Relax, Emika. I found something that you might be interested in.” Before I can ask him what it is, he reaches up and makes a swiping motion with his hand. A file materializes between us, hovering in the air like a glowing blue cube.

“You have the other piece of this file,” he says.

I frown at the glowing cube for a second before I realize that I’m looking at another piece of
proj_ice_HT1.0.
The same file that I grabbed from Ren before Hideo’s attempted assassination. “How do I know you’re not just trying to give me a virus?”

He actually looks offended at my question. “You don’t think I could find a subtler way of doing that? I’m trying to help you, you idiot.”

I scowl, my teeth clenching. “Why? We’re supposed to be rivals.”

He smiles again, touches two fingers casually to his brow, and salutes me. “Not if Hideo already dropped both of us from the job. I’ve received a compensation payment already, so there’s not much incentive for me to stay on this hunt. I have bigger hired jobs to concentrate on right now.” He tilts his head at me. “But I bet
you’re
still keen on protecting Hideo, aren’t you?”

I blush, annoyed.

He nods at the hovering file. “Thought I might as well pass along what I’ve collected. A gift from one hunter to another. That way, if you find Zero, you’ll know who’s responsible for your win.”

I shake my head, still unwilling to touch the file. “I don’t trust you.”

“And I don’t like you either. But we don’t have time for that right now, do we?”

We eye each other for another beat before I finally reach out and accept the file. For a moment, I expect something in my view to go horribly wrong, like I’ve just downloaded a virus. But nothing happens. The file seems clean.

Maybe he’s being genuine, after all.

I look back at Tremaine. “You helped Roshan get Ash out of our building.”

At that, his expression wavers. I wonder if his change of heart had anything to do with that moment—if he, as another hunter, also understands what had really happened.

Tremaine shrugs and turns away. “Just tell Roshan I stopped by,” he mutters. Before I can say anything else to him, he vanishes, leaving me alone again in the room, staring numbly at the spot where his virtual form had just been.

How is this possible? I think back to the opening ceremony party, when I’d confronted him and Max Martin, when he’d sneered at me. His data had looked perfectly normal, disguised to be indistinguishable from an average player’s—I hadn’t even seen any shields installed to protect his info. He had probably set up an entire, elaborate system of false info to throw off anyone who tried to get to him. He’d likely been studying me, too. He’d been right in front of me, and I’d missed him entirely.
You tricky bastard,
I think.

I squint at the file, trying to make sense of it. It’s clearly garbled, just like the piece that I have.

My eyes dart back to the contents in my box.

My Christmas ornament and Dad’s painting had been destroyed, but just because they were destroyed doesn’t mean some traces of them, however small and broken, weren’t left behind. And if there are enough pieces, you can see what the original object was supposed to be.

I bring up a main menu and tap my fingers rapidly against my thighs. A scrolling list appears. I sift through it backward until I finally reach the day of our first Warcross tournament.

Then I pause.

proj_ice_HT1.0.

I tap on it. Sure enough, an error message pops up, telling me that the file no longer exists. But this time, I run a hack that forces the file to open, regardless. The hospital room around me disappears, and I am immersed in a field of mangled ghost code.

It is all nonsense, partially corrupted—just like the file Tremaine had sent. I pull up what he sent me, and then I run both files together, splicing them into one. Suddenly, there is just enough info for the file to open.

It is a Memory.

I am standing in someone else’s recorded Memory, inside a massive, dimly lit space. A train station? Wherever it is, it’s a real, physical location. Cobwebs adorn the air between archways, while thin shafts of light slice through the darkness to dot the floor below. People are gathered here in a loose circle, but they remain silent, their faces hidden in shadows. Others appear as virtual figures, as if they’d logged in from distant places to be here.

“The track’s done,” someone says. I startle, realizing that the words are coming from the person I’m watching this through. It’s Ren’s voice.
This is one of Ren’s Memories.

One of the figures in the darkness nods so slightly that I barely notice it. “Hooked up?” he says. His words come out as a whisper, but from the way the tunnel’s archways curve at the ceiling, I can hear his words as clearly as if he stood right beside me.

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