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Authors: Marie Lu

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Warcross (31 page)

BOOK: Warcross
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Her mech freezes in its motions. All around us, the Andromedans freeze, too. Through Brennar’s comm, Asher’s voice comes on. “Go!” he shouts.

But I have no time to explain. I jump up from my seat inside my mech and grab hold of the cover over my head. I push it up. Rain lashes me, dotting my view, and I realize that the storm on the horizon has now reached us, one thing I hadn’t changed during my control of the surroundings. I haul myself out of my mech. The other Phoenix Riders are circled around me, the backs of their mechs turned to protect me.

I crouch on top of my mech and turn my attention to Shahira’s frozen one. Through its eyes, I can see her staring back at me, eyes wide, unable to move. I hop down onto the shoulder of my mech and break into a run along its extended arm. Overhead, the announcer’s voice echoes above the storm. “Brennar has broken
from the pack and used a second power-up! We are trying to figure out—”

They are going to stop the game at any moment now. I’m surprised they haven’t stopped it already. What is Hideo doing?
Just concentrate.
I reach my mech’s hand and take a flying leap onto Shahira’s mech arm. The rain has turned the metal into a slippery slope—and I almost slide off during my landing. My arms grapple for support. I manage to scramble to my feet and continue sprinting up her arm. I climb up the side of the mech’s head. As the audience breaks into a rumble of confusion and bewilderment, I yank open the hangar right as the Team Freeze runs out.

I look down through the opening at Shahira, who has just unfrozen enough to turn her head up at me. Her Artifact shines right over her head, scarlet red. I take out my third power-up. Artifact King.

I move to activate it.

But I can’t. I blink, shocked. My limbs are frozen, head to toe, and I stand there with my power-up in my hand, unable to budge an inch. Below me, Shahira narrows her eyes and jumps up to pull herself out of the mech. She comes to stand in front of me. I realize through a haze that she has used a power-up on me, too, something that has rendered me frozen.

“I warned you, Emika,” she says.

And, even though the words are in Shahira’s voice,
I know
. I know that it is not her who is really talking to me.

It is Zero, inhabiting her body.

I struggle in vain as Shahira approaches me, her gait now having the same predatory grace as Zero’s. Her ruby Artifact shines brightly above her head.
So close.
She circles me once, just as Zero had done in the Pirate’s Den, and then she reaches out and takes my power-up.

No!
I want to shout, but I can’t. Shahira holds out the power-up to me as if we were clinking glasses. “Two can play at this,” she says. She turns her back and starts running toward Asher’s mech.

Why isn’t Hideo stopping the game?
Surely by now everyone can see that the game has gone wrong. As the audience roars with a cacophony of confusion, cheers, boos, and incredulous shouts, the power-up finally wears off on me. I stumble forward, gasping, then start sprinting after Shahira. Whatever happens,
I can’t let her use the power-up on Asher.
I can’t let Zero’s Artifacts activate. My hands grapple for the rope at my waist.

“Hey!”

All of our heads turn to see Hammie’s mech hurtling toward us. She brings her legs down hard into the water, sending waves pummeling over the bridges. The hangar on her mech’s head flies open, and out shoots Hammie in a blur of motion, suspended in the rain in a flying leap. She holds up a bright-green power-up she’d grabbed earlier. Then she flings it at Shahira.

An explosion lights up the end of my mech’s arm, just shy of where Shahira is running. She skids to a halt, but the blast still throws Shahira off her feet and sends her flying through the air. On our other side, Franco’s mech comes charging through the water, bent against the strengthening winds. “Hammie!” I shout, but it’s too late. Franco grabs Hammie with one mech arm, closes the fist, and throws her. She goes flying through the air, landing with a splash in the churning open ocean beyond the wall. With his other hand, Franco catches Shahira and saves her from her fall.

Asher’s mech is moving fast now, fist raised at Franco. I stop running for a second to duck down. I see Asher soar high over me, his mech’s eye a distant scarlet dot high in the sky. He smashes
hard into Franco’s side—the impact knocks me to my knees. Water slams into me as the waves from Asher’s landing pour over the ruined arm of my mech. I wipe water from my eyes and look up. Franco strikes back against Asher, each blow a deafening crunch of metal. In the midst of everything, I find Shahira. She is racing up Franco’s arm toward Asher’s mech. I run in her direction.

“Need a lift?” Roshan’s voice comes on in my comms. I turn just long enough to see his fist come from nowhere, scooping me up and closing around me. His mech is flying, his metal blade wings beating so hard that they form a whirlpool in the lake’s water. I soar through the air to where Franco and Asher are locked in a death grip.

Nearby, Ivo’s mech comes hurtling toward us, aiming straight for Roshan. We’re almost there. “Let me go!” I call to Roshan, banging my fist against the inside of his palm.

He does as I say and drops me. I fall toward Asher’s shoulders. At the same time, Shahira reaches his opposite shoulder. We both climb. Rain lashes against me, threatening to hurl me into the water. I hang on as tightly as I can and try to climb faster. Franco lands another hit hard against Asher’s chest, sending me careening wildly to one side, hanging on by only my arm. I force myself to swing back.
Keep going.

I reach the top of the mech’s head right as Shahira gets to her feet. She runs toward the head’s cover. If she gets it open and sees Asher’s Artifact, she can use the power-up on him, and we’ll lose. I clench my jaw and force myself onto my feet. Then I sprint toward her. Everything seems to happen in slow motion.

Shahira pulls the head’s cover open.

She raises her hand to use the power-up.

I reach her, throwing myself at her with every ounce of strength I have.

My hands close on the power-up. I yank it out of her—Zero’s—grasp right as she is about to use it.
Do it, now.
I turn my view’s focus on Shahira’s Artifact. Before she can stop me, I aim the power-up at her and throw. Her eyes widen.

The power-up bursts into a ball of black smoke, engulfing both of us. Through the darkness, Shahira’s ruby Artifact appears in my hand. My fingers close around it at the same time I run my deactivation hack. It sparks wildly, streaks of electricity whipping out from it in every direction. Then, a split second later, it turns black.

Mine. Game over.

The audience explodes into chaotic noise all around us. The sound is deafening, drowning out anything and everything. “It’s
all
done!” the announcer’s voice shouts over the noise, mired in confusion. “But hang on, folks, what happened in the arena today? This is an
unprecedented
hack of the final tournament! We are standing by for more—”

It’s all done.
I clench the Artifact like my life depends on it.
That’s it. Is that it?
A choked laugh breaks out of me, and all the energy rushes out of my chest. Asher’s voice has come on through my earpiece, and he’s shouting something ecstatically, but I can’t understand what he’s saying. I can’t concentrate on anything except the fact that the game is over.

Then, something strange happens.

A jolt of electricity sparks through me. Like a static shock. I jump. A unified gasp ripples through the audience, too, as if everyone had felt it at the exact same time. Numbers and data flicker over each of the players, in and out, then gone.

What was that?
I stand there, blinking for an instant, unsure of what just happened. A feeling of dread hits me.

In front of me, Shahira’s avatar vanishes, replaced by Zero, his dark armor and opaque helmet black under the stormy sky. He stares at me. “You triggered it,” he says. His voice is low, furious.

“Triggered what? You’re done!” I shout at him. “And so is your plan.”

Something about my words seems to surprise Zero. “You don’t know.”

Don’t know? Know what?

He straightens. “My plan,” he says, “was to stop
Hideo
.”

30

What?

I shake my head, not understanding. But before I can reply, Zero vanishes as the Silver Circle world around us freezes and fades into black. When I blink again, I’m back in my hotel room, and the games are done. I sit for a moment, startled by the silence. It’s all over so suddenly. I’d done it—and even though I still haven’t figured out who Zero is, I know that I’ve stopped his plans, whatever they happened to be.

You don’t know. My plan was to stop
Hideo
.

What the hell is that supposed to mean? What don’t I know? Something tugs at the back of my mind, a nagging little worry.

As if on cue, a message pops up in my view. It’s Asher. I accept it, and his familiar face appears as if he’s in the room with me, his expression elated. “Emi!” he exclaims. “You did it! We won!”

I manage a smile at him and mutter something back, but Zero’s words run through my head.

Where are you?

It’s a message from Hideo.

“I’ll call you back, Ash,” I say, then end the call and type back to Hideo in a fog. If I can just see him in person, he’ll be able to explain away what Zero had said. I’ll tell him all about it, and he’ll know what Zero was referring to.

Barely a half hour later, my door opens, and I look up to see Hideo walk into my room, flanked by his bodyguards. He shakes his head once at them, and they stop immediately in unison, obeying so quickly that it is as if they were programmed to do it. Then they turn and go outside, leaving us alone. I haven’t seen Hideo in several days, not in person, and my heart leaps immediately in response to his presence. I hop to my feet.
He can explain what’s going on.

Hideo stops a foot away from me and gives me a strange, solemn frown. “I told you to leave.”

Something in his gaze makes me pause. Zero’s words come back to me, suspended in the air between us. “Zero was in the game,” I say. “He’d rigged the Artifacts with a virus. He said something to me before he disappeared, that he was here to stop
your
plans.” I frown. “I don’t understand what he means.”

Hideo stays silent.

“I mean,” I go on, now afraid to stop talking, “I thought his plans were to trigger a destruction of the NeuroLink, maybe hurt everyone connected to it, but I didn’t know
why
he wanted that.” I stare at Hideo, suddenly dreading his answer. “Do you know?”

Hideo bows his head. His brows are furrowed, and everything about his posture screams of his reluctance to reply.

Zero can’t be right, can he? What do I not know?

“What is he talking about?” I say, my voice soft now.

Hideo finally looks at me again. It is a haunted expression, the boy of curiosity and playfulness hidden now beneath a veil. It’s the same seriousness I always see on his face, but this is the first time I feel a sense of foreboding from it, like it’s more than just the expression of a quiet creator. After a while, he sighs and runs his hand through his hair. A familiar screen appears between us.

Link with Hideo?

“Let me show you,” he says.

I hesitate. Then I tap to accept the invite.

A trickle of Hideo’s emotions opens to me as our Link establishes. He’s wary, weighed down by something. But he’s optimistic, too. Optimistic about what?

“We are always searching for a way to improve our lives with machines,” Hideo says. “With data. For a while now, I’ve been working on developing the perfect artificial intelligence, an algorithm that, when implemented through the NeuroLink, can fix our flaws better than any human police force.”

I frown at him. “‘Fix our flaws’? What are you talking about?”

Hideo brings up a new screen between us with a subtle wave of his hand. It looks like an oval of colors, greens and blues, yellows and purples, all constantly shifting. “You’re looking inside the mind of a NeuroLink user,” he explains. Then he swipes again. The oval is replaced with another one, with its own shifting colors. “And another user.” He swipes yet again. “And another.”

I stare, incredulous. “These are all the minds of your users? You can see into their thoughts? Their
brains
?”

“I can do more than just
see
. The NeuroLink has always interfaced with the human brain,” Hideo continues. “That is what
makes its virtual reality so efficient and so realistic. That’s what made the glasses special. You knew this. Until now, I used that interface as a one-way information system—the code simply created and displayed what your brain wished. You move your arm; the code moves your virtual arm. Your brain is the one in control.” He gives me a pointed look. “But information travels both ways.”

I struggle to comprehend the truth of what he’s saying.
Hideo’s invention uses the world’s best 3-D effects generator—your own brain—to create for you the most incredible illusion of reality ever.

The world’s best brain–computer interface.

I shake my head, not wanting to believe his words. “What are you trying to say?”

Hideo looks at me for a long moment before he answers. “The end of the game,” he says, “activated the NeuroLink’s ability to control its users’ minds.”

The NeuroLink can control its users.

The realization hits me so hard and fast that I can barely breathe. Users are supposed to be able to control the NeuroLink with their minds. But that can also be used the other way—type in a command and use that to tell the brain what to do. Type in enough commands, and the brain can be permanently controlled. And Hideo has created an entire algorithm to do this.

I take a step back, steadying myself against the side table. “You are controlling how people think,” I say, “. . . with
code
?”

“Those Warcross lenses were free,” Hideo reminds me. “They have been shipped to nearly every person in the world, in almost every corner of the globe.”

The news stories of long lines, of shipments of stolen lenses. Now I understand why Hideo wasn’t worried about stolen shipments. The more given out, the better.

Hideo brings up another image of the inside of a user’s mind. This time, the oval’s colors look deep red and purple. “The NeuroLink can tell when a user’s emotions shift to anger,” he says. “It can tell when they are plotting something violent, and it knows this with incredible accuracy.” He shifts our view to the actual person behind this specific mind. It’s a person struggling to pull a handgun out of his coat, his forehead matted with sweat as he prepares to hold up a convenience store.

“Is this happening right now?” I manage to say.

Hideo nods once. “Downtown Los Angeles.”

Right as the person reaches the convenience store entrance, the dark red oval representing his mind suddenly flares, flashing bright. As I look on, the NeuroLink’s new algorithm resets the colors. The deep scarlet turns into a mild mix of blues, greens, and yellow. On the live view, the man freezes. He stops pulling out his gun. There is a strange blankness on his face that sends a shiver through me. Then, as his face calms, he blinks out of it, exits, and moves on down the street, the convenience store forgotten.

Hideo shows me other videos, of events all happening simultaneously around the world. The color maps of billions of minds, all controlled by an algorithm.

“As time goes on,” Hideo says, “the code will adapt to each person’s mind. It will fine-tune itself,
improve
itself, adding to its automated responses every specific detail about what a person might do. It will turn itself into a perfect security system.”

Judging from the footage, people don’t even know what had hit them—and even if they had, the code will stop them from thinking about it now. “What if people don’t want this? What if they just stop using the NeuroLink and their lenses?”

“Remember what I told you when I first gave you a set of them?”

I recall his words at the same time he says this.
The lenses leave behind a harmless film on the eye’s surface that is only one atom thick. This film acts as a conduit between the lenses and your body.

That lingering film on the eyes will keep someone connected to the NeuroLink, even when they take the lenses out.

I’d understood Zero’s plans all wrong. He had wanted to destroy this with the virus in those rigged Artifacts. He had wanted to assassinate Hideo to stop him from moving forward. He had bombed our dorms in an attempt to keep me out of the games and from carrying out Hideo’s final goal. And maybe
this
is why Hideo had not stopped the final game when he saw that things were going wrong. He’d wanted me to stop Zero so that I could trigger
his
plans.

He’s doing this because of Sasuke.
He created all of this so that no one would ever have to suffer the same fate as his brother, that no family would ever go through what his did. Our conversation comes back to me in a flash.
You created Warcross for him,
I’d said. And he’d responded,
Everything I do is for him.

Does Kenn know about this plan? Was everyone always in on it?

“You can’t,” I finally say, hoarse.

My question doesn’t stir him. “Why not?” Hideo asks.

“You can’t be serious.” I let out a single, desperate, humorless laugh. “You want to be a . . .
dictator
? You want to control everyone in the world?”

“Not me.” Hideo gives me the same piercing stare that I remember from our first meeting. “What if the dictator is an algorithm? A code? What if that code can force the world to be a better
place, can stop wars with a single breath of text, can save lives with an automated system? The algorithm doesn’t have an ego. It doesn’t lust after power. It is programmed solely to do right, to be fair. It is the same as the laws that govern our society—except it can also enforce that law immediately, everywhere, all the time.”

“But you control the algorithm.”

His eyes narrow slightly. “I do.”

“No one chose you,” I snap.

“And have people been so great at choosing their leaders?” he snaps back.

“But you can’t do that! You’re taking away something that makes us fundamentally human!”

Hideo steps closer. “And
what
is it that makes us human, exactly? The choice to kill and rape? To war and bomb and destroy? To kidnap children? To gun down the innocent? Is
that
the part of humanity that shouldn’t be taken away? Has
democracy
been able to stop any of this? We already try to fight back with laws—but law enforcers cannot be everywhere at once. They cannot see everything. What if
I
can? I could have stopped the person who stole Sasuke—the NeuroLink can stop anyone who might do the same now to another child. I can make ninety percent of the population crime-free, allowing our law enforcement to focus only on the remaining ten percent.”

“You mean you’ll
control
ninety percent of the population.”

“People can still live their lives, pursue their dreams, enjoy their fantasy worlds, do everything they’ve ever wished to do. I’m not standing in the way of any of that. They can do anything they want, as long as it is not a crime. Nothing in their lives changes except for this. So
why not
?”

Everything about Hideo’s words seems contradictory, and
I find myself standing in the middle, not sure what to believe. I think of my own city, how I have a job as a bounty hunter because the police can no longer keep up with the rising crime in New York. I think of how the same has been happening everywhere.
They can do anything they want, as long as it is not a crime. Nothing in their lives changes except for this.

Except for giving up their freedom. Except the thing that changes everything.

“It’s an essential part of everyday life, the NeuroLink,” Hideo says. “People work inside it and build businesses on top of it and are engulfed in the entertainment it offers. They
want
to use it.”

And I realize that, of course, he’s right. Why would anyone give up the perfect fantasy reality just because they have to give up their freedom? What’s the point of freedom if you’re just living in a miserable reality? It would be like telling everyone to quit using the internet. And even as my skin crawls at the knowledge that I’ve worn the NeuroLink lenses—
am
still wearing them—I still feel a sharp pang at the thought of never logging back into the Link, a reluctance to abandon them.

Even without the film against the eyes, people would never stop using it. They probably won’t even believe that it’s doing this to them. And even if they did start arguing with each other about the implications of the NeuroLink’s manipulation, their lives now revolve around it. Anyone not logged in to the NeuroLink right now will use it before long, triggering this new algorithm the instant they do. Eventually, everyone will have this installed in their minds. And that will give Hideo control over each of them.

Maybe no one would even care.

“What about protestors?” I press. “What about fighting for what’s right or making mistakes or even just respecting people
who disagree with you? Is it going to stop people from passing laws that are unjust? What laws is it going to enforce, exactly?” I clench my fists. “How is your artificial intelligence capable of judging everyone in the world, or understanding
why
they do what they do? How do you know you won’t go too far? You aren’t going to bring about world peace all by yourself.”

“Everyone pays lip service to world peace,” Hideo says. “They use it as a pretty answer to pointless questions, to make themselves sound good.” His eyes sear me to the core. “I’m tired of the horror in the world. So I will
force
it to end.”

I think of the times, after my father’s death, when I’d picked fights in school or shouted things I later regretted. I think of what I’d done to defend Annie Pattridge. Hideo’s code would have stopped me. Would that have been good? Why does it feel like a knife twisting in my chest, to know that
this
is the reason why he flew me to Tokyo?
All those warnings from him for me to leave.

“You lied to me,” I say in a firm voice.

BOOK: Warcross
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