Authors: Marie Lu
Tags: #YA, #Carly
“I was not the one who attacked you.” Hideo’s eyes are soft and steady. “I was not the one who destroyed what was precious to you. There is real evil in the world, and I am not it.”
Zero had destroyed the things that mattered most to me—my pieces of the past, my ornament and my father’s painting.
Hideo is the one who gave me a way to even store those memories, who saved me from being thrown into the streets, who mourns his brother and loves his family and creates beautiful things.
Zero uses violence to further his cause. Hideo furthers his by preventing violence. Some part of me, some crazy, calm part, sees sense in his plan, even as I recoil in disgust.
Hideo sighs and looks away. “When I first hired you, all I wanted to do was stop a hacker whom I knew was trying to stop
. I didn’t know that . . .” He hesitates, then abandons the sentence. “I didn’t want you to continue working for me without truly understanding the weight of what you were doing.”
“Yeah, well, I did keep working for you. And you let me, without telling me why.”
The times he had hesitated in my presence, reluctant to take us further. The moment when he’d decided to let me go. My removal from the Phoenix Riders’ team. He had been trying, in his own way, to go about his plans alone. The lenses I’m wearing feel cold, as if they were something foreign and hostile. I think about the hacked version of Warcross that I use. Am I safe?
Hideo leans close enough for our lips to touch. The part of me that is made of raw instinct stirs, wanting desperately to close that distance between us. His eyes are so dark now, almost black, his expression haunted.
Every problem has a solution, doesn’t it? I want to prove to you the sense in my plans.
His brows furrow.
I can show you the good in this, if you’ll let me. Please.
And through the Link, I can sense his earnestness, his burning ambition to do right, his desire to prove it to me. When I search his gaze, I recognize that curious, passionate, intelligent man I’d first seen in his office, showing me his newest creation. This is the same person.
can this be the same person? His expression remains uncertain, unsure.
Don’t leave, Emika,
I swallow hard. When I respond, I respond with my real voice. It is calm now, even cold. “I can’t support you in this.”
I can almost feel his heart crack, stabbed right where he had risked opening it up to me, where he had let me see the beating wound inside. He had confided in me, thinking that perhaps I would be the one person who would side with him. Why wouldn’t I, he must have thought—I understood his loss, and he had understood
mine. We’d understood each other . . . or so we thought. He looks suddenly alone, vulnerable even in his determination.
“Emika,” he says, in one last attempt to convince me.
I take a deep breath, then sever the Link between us. The subtle stream of his emotions cuts off abruptly. “I’m going to stop you, Hideo.”
His eyes turn distant, those familiar walls going up until he’s looking at me in the same way he had during our first meeting. He leans away from me. He studies my face, as if taking it in for the last time. “I don’t want to be your enemy,” he says quietly. “But I’m going to do this, with or without you.”
I can feel my own heart breaking, but I stand firm. He does not give, and neither do I, so we continue to stand on opposite sides of a ravine. “Then you’re going to have to do it alone.”
The streets of
Tokyo are still emptier than I’ve ever seen them. I tear down the road on my board, my hair streaming out behind me, the wind making my eyes water.
How complicated everything has become. Not long ago, I had been gliding through the crowded center of New York City, wanting nothing more than to make enough money to keep myself off the streets. Hideo had been a magazine cover then—a glimpse in a news article, a photo in a televised broadcast, a headline in a tabloid. Now he is someone I am struggling to understand, someone with a thousand different versions of himself that I am trying to piece together.
All around me, the only screaming headlines seem to be accusations that the final championship results were unfair, that the game was compromised by illegal power-ups. Fans are calling for a redo of the match. Conspiracy theories have already sprung up all over fan communities, claiming that some employee had
planted the power-ups as a joke, or that Henka Games had wanted to raise their ratings, or that the players had somehow stumbled upon secrets hidden in the final world. If the truth were thrown in there, no one would be able to tell the difference.
Everyone else goes about their business without even realizing the subtle, significant shift in the NeuroLink that can now control their lives. And is anything different, really? Haven’t we all been plugged in for years now, completely addicted to this world beyond reality? Are we this willing to give up? I force myself to look away as I pass a police car. Can Hideo come after me now, by simply telling the police to arrest me? Would he do that to me? When will his patience run out? When will he turn on me completely?
I have to find a way to stop him first. Before he stops me.
I have my old cracked phone out, my hack allowing me to track down the other Phoenix Riders without being subjected to the new NeuroLink algorithm. They have holed up in an apartment that I can only assume belongs to Asher, on the outskirts of the city.
An incoming message appears on my phone. It’s from some encrypted, unknown source. Hideo, most likely. I force myself to ignore it, blinking moisture from my eyes as I push my board to its highest speeds along an empty stretch of highway.
As the sun starts to set, washing the city in shades of gold, I pull to a stop at a quiet intersection on the outskirts of Tokyo, where the city gives way to hills and sparse streets. I find myself staring at a gated, three-story townhome, simply decorated in dark and white wood.
Asher greets me at the door. He ushers me quickly inside, then leads me to his living room, where Hammie and Roshan have already gathered. They stand up at the sight of me. Hammie
hugs me. A second later, I glimpse others on the couch, too, from some of the other teams. Ziggy Frost. Abeni Lea, from the Cloud Knights. Tremaine is here, as well, sitting noticeably apart from Roshan—but the two are turned toward each other, as if they were talking a moment ago. The tension between them that I’d always felt seems lessened now, if not completely gone.
“What do we do from here?” Hammie asks as we all settle. She’s greeted by a long silence.
I sit down, too. “I run a hacked version of Warcross,” I reply. “I don’t think I’m affected in the same way. Maybe I can figure out a way for you guys to have it, too.”
I tell them about what happened from the beginning, of Hideo hiring me after my first glitch, of my frequent meetings with him, of then realizing what had really happened when Zero appeared in the final game. I talk until the streetlamps are lit, and Asher has to turn on the living room’s lights.
“I saw him glitch into view,” I finish, “during the final moment when we all felt that static shock. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen any data about him.”
Tremaine looks at me. “You saw Zero, too? It wasn’t just me?”
The others chime in. “I saw him,” Asher adds. “He had an opaque helmet on and a [null] name over his head. Black body armor.”
Hammie repeats the same, as does Roshan.
Everyone had seen Zero in that instant. That means that he had been exposed outside of my hack, that in that instant, all of his data had been exposed.
All of his data had been exposed.
Suddenly, I straighten and begin to type. I bring up my Warcross account, then my Memory Worlds. There is one memory in there now, my Memory of the final game. “I need to see something,” I mutter as the others gather around. I access the Memory, sharing it
with the others so that they can see what I see. The world momentarily vanishes, putting me back into what I had recorded. I see the start of the game, and then the bridges, the robots emerging from their hangars, the battle that ensued. I fast-forward through all of it, all the way until the end. Then I let it play until the instant the electric shock had happened, when Zero suddenly stood in front of me. I pause it.
His data. I’ve recorded it.
I can see his actual account.
“Ems,” Asher says beside me as he watches the Memory. “Can you actually find out who he is now?”
With trembling fingers, I scroll through Zero’s personal account.
And sure enough, there it is. The trigger had exposed him, if only for a fraction of a second, but it’s all the time I needed. I stare numbly at the account info that now displays before us, hovering in the center of the living room.
There is a name, a
name, floating alongside a photo of the real-life user who is Zero. I don’t even need to read the name to know who it is. Staring back at me is someone who looks like a younger version of Hideo, a boy who resembles how Hideo looked several years ago. A boy my age. My eyes go back to the name, unable to believe what I’m seeing.
ATER THAT NIGHT,
I leave the apartment to stand outside in the front yard. I need some air. The streetlamps outside of Asher’s
home cast a lattice of light on the sidewalks, and I decide to concentrate on that, forcing myself to clear my mind and find a moment of peace. Then I look up, searching for stars. There are only a few to be seen from here, scattered dots representing the rest of the Milky Way, invisible without a virtual overlay. I don’t care. For once, it’s comforting to be seeing the real world for what it is, instead of the enhanced version through the NeuroLink.
Endless questions swirl in my mind. There is no way that Hideo knows about this. He would have mentioned it, if he did—he might even have stopped his plans. But how is this possible? Sasuke had vanished so many years ago, taken by a nameless kidnapper. Why has he reappeared as a hacker, trying to stop Hideo? Why hasn’t he appeared to Hideo
to reveal who he really is? Does he even remember his past life—does he know that Hideo is his brother? Who controls him? Who does he work for? And why keep his identity a secret?
Is he even real?
I sit down on the curb and pull my knees up to my chin. What will this do to Hideo, once he finds out?
Would he stop, if he knew?
Do I even want him to stop? What is worse—a world where Hideo fights
violence, or a world where Zero fights
I wonder what thoughts are going through Hideo’s mind right now, and it takes all my willpower not to reach out and Link with him, to feel what he’s feeling, to send him a message so that I can hear his voice.
A message. I look back down at my phone, remembering the encrypted note I’d received earlier in the afternoon. A small voice in the back of my head still urges me not to open it, not to indulge whatever it is that Hideo might be trying to convince me of. But
my finger still hovers over the message, and after a long moment, I finally decide to open it.
It’s not from Hideo. It’s from Zero.
My offer to you still stands.
rings out, alerting me that I’ve just downloaded something into my account. My hand freezes over the new files.
They’re my Memories.
My Memory Worlds.
I let out a small gasp as I see one after another, the Memories of my father that Zero had originally stolen, now blinking back into existence as if they had never gone missing in the first place.
He returned them.
My hand starts to tremble. Then I close my eyes and wrap my arms tightly around my legs, hugging them as if my life had been restored. When I open my eyes again, they are wet.
My offer to you still stands.
His offer. Why is he giving me back what he’d originally taken? How dare he pretend he’s returning them as a gift, as if he’s doing me some kind of favor? I picture his dark figure in that red cavern, his low, quiet voice. I picture the sheets of black armor encasing my arms and body and legs, turning me into someone else.
My thoughts scatter at the greeting. I hurriedly wipe my eyes and turn my head enough to see that Tremaine has come to stand beside me. “Hey,” I mutter back, hiding my phone away. Tremaine notices my movement, but even though he casts me a brief, sidelong glance, he doesn’t comment on it. Enough secrets have been revealed today.
“I was contacted by another bounty hunter,” he finally says,
stretching his arms over his head. The streetlamps cast their light against his pale skin.
I meet his eyes. “One of Hideo’s?”
He nods. “I think I crossed paths with him when I was down under. He was sitting up with the avatars watching the assassination lottery. If we work together, we can probably track our way to him, and he can help us. We’re some of the only people in the world who both understand the inner workings of Warcross and also worked for Hideo at the same time.”
Zero’s message echoes in my thoughts. I turn away again and nod. “Then we’ll go into the Dark World. We’ll find a way to contact him. We can figure out a solution to this.”
“To stop Hideo?” Tremaine asks. “Or Zero?”
I think of Hideo’s intense gaze, his single-minded genius. I think of how he’d leaned his head weakly against me and whispered my name. I think of the way he looked up to the stars, searching for a way to move forward from his past. I think of the final words we’d exchanged. Then I think of Zero’s surprised voice, his anger as he faced me in the final game, the way he’d stolen my Memories. The way he’d returned them.
Everyone has a price,
Tremaine offers me his hand, and after a while, I take it, letting him help me up. Then we continue to stand there, unmoving, looking out at the electric glitter of Tokyo, my boots pointed away from the house and toward the city, my heart suspended somewhere between one choice and another, unsure where to go